Greta Gerwig discusses her directorial debut “Lady Bird” at a New York Film Festival press conference.
Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) fights against but is exactly like her wildly loving, deeply opinionated and strong-willed mom (Laurie Metcalf), a nurse working tirelessly to keep her family afloat after Lady Bird‘s father (Tracy Letts) loses his job. Set in Sacramento, California in 2002, amidst a rapidly shifting American economic landscape, Lady Bird is an affecting look at the relationships that shape us, the beliefs that define us, and the unmatched beauty of a place called home. The film hits theaters November 10.
On her writing process:
Greta Gerwig: Well, it’s always a little hard to know exactly how long it takes me to write something, because I’m constantly writing, and then, I don’t know what pieces will become something, but what I do know is that I have a draft, a very long draft of this movie, from the end of December of 2013. So at least a couple years … That was about 350 pages. There were a lot more dances … Some of the scenes didn’t go anywhere. It wasn’t like 350 of something that was narratively cohesive. It was 350 pages of stuff that then I kind of looked at, and figured out what felt essential, and what felt like the core of the story to me, and I don’t really decide what a core of a story is before I write. I write to figure out what the story is, and I think that the characters end up talking to you, and telling you what they wanna be doing, and what is important to them, and then in some ways, your job is to listen as much as to write, and to listen to what these characters, through you, are telling you.
On casting Saoirse Ronan:
Greta Gerwig: I didn’t have her in mind when I was writing, but in 2015, I met her actually at the Toronto Film Festival. She read the script, and she really responded to it, and I was gonna be there with Maggie’s Plan, and she was gonna be there with Brooklyn, and we met, and we sat in her hotel room, and she read all of Lady Bird’s lines, and I read everybody else’s lines, and I knew within the first two pages that she was Lady Bird, and that she had the part, but then, I just selfishly wanted to hear it all out loud. And she’s such an incredible actress. I really can’t say enough about her, and there was something about the way she did it. It was instantly different than how I had heard it in my head, and so much better. So much more unique and specific to her, and she has a quality of being always emotionally at a 10, which made it that much funnier, because it was all out of a place of sincerity. She never played the joke with quotes around it. She always played it from the inside, and it made everything vivid in way that I’d always hoped for, but you just never know that you’re gonna find the exact person who’s gonna be able to capture that, and she just instantly did.
On casting Laurie Metcalf:
Greta Gerwig: I mean, really, all of the actors in the film … I’m so blessed, and they are so wonderful, and Laurie in particular. I knew I wanted an actor who could hit a home run that felt exciting, and it felt like a discovery, even though she’s, to anyone who’s been paying attention, she’s not a discovery, but it felt like I just knew that she had this enormous power, and this enormous skillset, and empathy, and everything she brings to the character she plays … I’d seen her on stage, I think more than anything else, and I left the theater when I saw her, and I thought I’ve never, in my life, seen anything like that unfold in front of me.
And so, when we were thinking about the part. I’d already written the script, and as soon as her name came up as a possibility, I thought, yeah, I mean, she’s a genius, if she wants to do this, and we talked on the phone, and she’s a bit like a great athlete. You have to see it. Like, she didn’t need to spend a lot of time going on about the character or anything like that. She just said, “I think that this is something I need to do, and sometimes, things come into your life at the right moment.” And at that moment, she told me and she said it publicly. She said, “I currently have a 17 year old child who’s trying to kill me. So this is exactly what I need to be doing right now.”
Working with her was extraordinary, and I learned so much from her, and getting to watch her in Saoirse together, it was like a matchup of two greats, and each one of them had different ways of getting into it, but when they were in scenes together, it was like watching two heavy weights.
On Laurie and Tracy Letts working together:
Greta Gerwig: Well, actually, interestingly Tracy and Laurie both are from the Midwest, and they both … Laurie was a founding member of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company and Tracy worked there as an actor, and also, a lot of his plays have premiered there, and he’s very much a Chicago actor and writer, but they never actually acted together. They’ve known each other for like 30 years, and they’ve never actually acted together, but I felt like there was something about the intimacy that they had, that they knew each other from before, that it gave it a kind of reality and a depth that it’s hard to achieve on the fly, and I like that they’re Midwestern. It felt closer to what I believe Sacramento feels like than something flashy and, you know, like LA.
On finally making her directorial debut:
Greta Gerwig: I mean, what I’ve always wanted to do is direct … I didn’t go to proper film school. I went to Barnard College for women, uptown, and I felt like I worked in film, when I started production on this, I’d been working in film for 10 years, and I’d done sort of every job that I could do, and I was lucky enough to act a lot, and be in a lot of great directors’ sets, and I’d written, I’d co-written, I’d held the boom, I had edited, I had costumed, I had applied powder, and I felt like I was using that in a way to gather my 10,000 hours, or you know, whatever the Malcolm Gladwell requirement is. And when I finished the script, I was like, “You’ve always wanted to do this, you’re not gonna get any more information. You’ve just gotta jump. You’ve gotta go do it.” And I loved doing it. It was a good, wonderful experience of making the film, and I hope I continue to be able to act in projects that I love, with directors that I admire, and now, that I’ve torn the bandaid off, I think I’m gonna keep making movies. I’m gonna keep writing and directing films. So hopefully continue to do all of it.
On the autobiographical elements of the story:
Greta Gerwig: Well, nothing in the movie literally happened in my life, but it has a core of truth that resonates with what I know. I really wanted to make a movie that was a reflection on home, and what does home mean, and how does leaving home define what it is for you, and your love for it, and I felt like, it was a love letter to Sacramento, and I feel like, what better way to make a love letter than through somebody who wants to get out, and then realize that they loved it. And it felt like it was a movie that was framed around — you follow this family, and this world, and these people, and in a way, it’s secretly the mother’s movie, as much as it is Lady Bird’s movie, and that that was the core relationship, and I felt like I wanted that catch, where you realize, “Oh, no. This is a love letter to the place.” And it’s also the mother’s story, and I think that that was the thing, that I wanted that kind of like reversal to happen, because I think that’s the truth of … somebody’s coming of age is somebody else’s letting go, and I was just as interested in the letting go as I was of the young people’s stories.
On classism being a motif in the movie:
Greta Gerwig: Class is a very difficult thing in America. I mean, one of my favorite filmmakers is Mike Lee, and he’s British, in the British class system, it’s very clear of who’s where, and I think, in America it’s something like 95% of people describe themselves as being middle class, and that’s people who fall in that end of the poverty spectrum, and also at the very top. We are uncomfortable with class, and how that works. But I think it’s an invisible force that shapes a lot of people’s lives, and I have always thought of it as … life is not fair, and resources are not divided fairly. Either in talents, or in economics, and I think one thing that I wanted to explore is, Lady Bird’s always looking up at other people, at people she thinks have more, and have it all together, and meanwhile, those people are looking up at other people, and she also doesn’t see how much she has, because in a culture of more, more, more, and I always need to get to the next level, that there’s no way that you can appreciate what you have.
And it’s not explicitly stated, but I would guess that her best friend Julie looks up to her, and thinks, “Well, she’s got it. It’s perfect. She’s got a house. Got two parents. She’s okay” and I think that it’s that disease of always looking up, and never being where you are, combined with the way these things are very real, and they’re very un-talked about. It’s something I wanted to explore, and have a reality to.
On setting the film in a post-9/11 America:
Greta Gerwig: Well, I’d actually graduated a little earlier than I set the film. I did want it to be a post 9/11 world, at the beginning of, when we were starting our invasion into Iraq, and while the Afghanistan war was already going, because I felt like this huge thing happened, and then, we were ushered into a new age of global politics almost instantly. Everything was shifting, and we knew it was shifting, but it was also in a way invisible. And I think that there’s a sense, sometimes, in movies. So it’s like your personal life happens over here, and politics happens over there, but that’s not the way anybody lives. Everything goes together. You’re living through … the historical moment you’re living through at the same time as you’re dealing with your children, or your work, or your house, or whatever is going on in your life.
And I thought that it was this thing that was coming through, and coming up, and it was like the beginning of not just this geopolitical moment, but also the internet, and cellphones, and all of this stuff, which now defines everything, and that glib answer I’ve used is to make a movie about teenagers now, you have to shoot cellphones, and so much of their life happens online, and I don’t think it’s very cinematic, and I felt like this, in a weird way, was kind of like the last generation you could make a film about, without doing that. And the made up Facebook that’s not Facebook. Yeah or like the Google that’s like Giggle, and you’re like, “I know that that’s not real.”