Writer/Director Greta Gerwig talks about Ladybird

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.

Greta Gerwig reveals herself to be a bold new cinematic voice with her directorial debut Ladybird, excavating both the humor and pathos in the turbulent bond between a mother and her teenage daughter.

In the film 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

Writer-director Greta Gerwig  has rapidly emerged as one of Hollywood’s most  engaging actresses. Greta was last seen in Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women and received a Critics’ Choice Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of the Abbie. She also starred in Pablo Larrain’s Jackie, Todd Solondz’s Wiener-Dog, Rebecca Miller’s Maggie’s Plan, and Mistress America, a comedy that she co-wrote with director Noah Baumbach.

Gerwig’s previous collaboration with Baumbach, Frances Ha, earned her Golden Globe and Broadcast Film Critics Association Award nominations for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Motion Picture. Gerwig first received critical acclaim for her breakout role as Florence in Greenberg, which marked her first collaboration with Baumbach.

 

Q&A with writer/Director Greta Gerwig

Was this film inspired by your own life?

 I grew up in Sacramento and I love Sacramento, so the initial impulse to make the film was a desire to write a love letter to a place that only came into focus after I left. It is different to register the depths of your love when you are sixteen and quite sure that “life” is happening somewhere else.

None of the events in the film literally happened, but there is a core of truth that is connected to a feeling of home and childhood and departure.

The setting, Sacramento, has special resonance for you. What makes Sacramento a special place?

Joan Didion is from Sacramento and when I discovered her writing as a young teenager, it was spiritually seismic. It was as shattering as if I’d grown up in Dublin and then suddenly read James Joyce. She was my personal poet laureate. It was the first time I experienced an artist’s eye looking at my home. I had always thought art and writing had to be about things that were “important,” and I was certain that my life was not all that important. But her writing, so beautiful and clear and specific, was about my world. All the women she wrote about, I knew exactly who they were. The way they organized their closets, the things that they valued, the agrarian middle class worldview that shaped this corner of the country.

When people think about California, they tend to think about San Francisco or Los Angeles, but there is the massive central agricultural valley running down the middle of the state. Sacramento is located at the northern edge of it, and although it is the state capital, there is farmland in its bones. It is not a show-off-y city. It does not brand itself or try to sell itself. There is a modesty and an integrity to the place and the people.

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What was the experience of leaving Sacramento like for you and why was that an important component in this story?

 One of the very first things I wrote for the film was the scene in college where someone asks Lady Bird where she is from and she lies and says,“San Francisco.” That feeling of deep shame that comes from denying who you are was a moment I wanted to work backwards from, to build a movie around it so that when she rejects her home, the audience feels personally betrayed and hurt. As if they, too, were from Sacramento and knew the places and people intimately. Lady Bird sells out her home to look 10% cooler to a stranger she just met.

It is inevitable, perhaps, to deny your roots. I am not a practicing Catholic, but I have always been moved by the story of the Denial of Peter. At the Last Supper, Peter fervently tells Jesus that he will die before he disowns him, but Jesus replies that Peter will deny him three times “before the rooster crows.”

Peter still insists that he will not. Of course, Peter ends up denying that he knows Jesus on three separate occasions. The rooster crows just as he is saying for the third time that he is not a disciple of Jesus. Peter is then filled with despair at his own weakness.

However, after the resurrection, Jesus appears to Peter, and asks Peter three times if he loves him. Peter replies that he does each time. He is given the opportunity to repent through love.

These stories have always informed my writing and my ideas, finding a larger universal truth behind what are so-called “small” lives. Lady Bird denies where she is from, yes, but she also declares her love. We are granted the opportunity for grace, and we need love to accept it.

What does the name “lady bird” signify?

Re-naming is both a creative act and a religious act, it is one of authorship and a way of finding your true identity through creating a new one. It is a lie in service of the truth. In the Catholic tradition, you are given a confirmation name, to name yourself after a saint that you hope to emulate. In rock and roll, you give yourself a new name (David Bowie, Madonna, etc.) in order to occupy this bigger mythical space.

Early in the writing process, I kept coming up against something that I couldn’t break through. I put everything aside and wrote at the top of a blank page: “Why won’t you call me Lady Bird? You promised you would.” I wanted to get to know this girl who makes everybody call her by this odd name. The name came out of something mysterious. I had not thought of it before I wrote it. I love the way it sounds. It’s jaunty. It’s old fashioned. Writing the script was getting to the heart of that girl.

Later, I remembered the Mother Goose rhyme “Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home.” It is about a mother returning home to make sure her children are safe. I do not know how these things lodge themselves in our brains, or why they come out when they do, but it seems to be an essential part of the creative process for me, the unconscious unfolding of something you know without knowing.

So the story’s structured around lady bird’s senior year in high school. Why was that an important moment to set the film around?

 When you are a teenager in America, you organize your life around academic years: Freshman, Sophomore, Junior, Senior. It always made sense to me to tell the story of the whole year. The rituals of the year, the circularity. The way we end where we began. It is a spiraling upwards. Senior year burns brightly and is also disappearing as quickly as it emerges. There is a certain vividness in worlds that are coming to an end. There is a pre-sentiment of loss, of “lasts.” This is true for both parents and children. It is something beautiful that you never appreciated and ends just as you come to understand it. The way time rushes forward is a theme of the film, one scene tumbling into the next. We can never hold onto it.

As you wrote the script, did you always intend to direct it?

 Writing for me takes a very long time. I don’t even really know how long. Maybe years, because it isn’t linear. It’s a character or a scene here and there. I tend to overwrite, hundreds of pages worth of dross. Eventually I’ll pare it down and find the essence. While I’m writing, though, it seems impossible that it will ever be a movie. So the idea of directing wasn’t consciously something I was considering.

However, once I had the script finished, I knew I would direct it. And I knew that it was what I had been intending all along. I just couldn’t let myself know it because it would have frightened me. I’ve wanted to direct for as long as I can remember, but courage is not something that grows overnight.

And what was the process of directing it like? What did you learn through that process?

 I am still learning about directing, and hopefully I will never stop, even when I am in my eighties and just repeating myself. To catalogue everything I’ve learned would be both boring and impossible.

One thing I can say for certain is “always hire people who are smarter than you are.” That quote came from the late, great cinematographer Harris Savides, by way of my director of photography, Sam Levy. This is true for everyone from actors to set decorators to poster designers. I had the great luck of being surrounded by people who were, indeed, smarter than me.

The other thing is that the title “director” isn’t quite right. It implies that everything is there in front of you, only needing to be “directed.” I think the French have it expressed more accurately, as the “réalisateur.” The director is the person who “realizes” the film. As in they cause it to happen, give it actualized form, make it exist. No one will ever know the films you don’t make, and they have no earthly reason for existence, other than that you realize them.

What were some of the biggest surprises you encountered while you were making the film?

 The caliber of collaborators I had is the biggest surprise, and the one I am most grateful for. I just couldn’t believe that these wildly talented people were dedicating their time and their gifts to this film. From Scott Rudin and IAC Films signing on to make it, to Lois Smith showing up to play Sister Sarah Joan, every person involved was far beyond what I could have imagined. That was surprising. It continues to be surprising.

What were some of the biggest challenges and rewards of the process of making the film?

 The most rewarding thing was watching the actors work. I had written these lines alone, and heard them in my head, but suddenly they were being brought to life and embodied in ways that were far better than I could have ever imagined. I think there are some directors who wish they could clone themselves and do every job, but I am not one of those directors. The process of letting other people bring their whole selves to it, their spirit and their creativity, is one of the great joys of the process. The challenges? Every step was a challenge, but all of that falls away in my memory of making it.

How do you think the fact that you come from the world of acting influences your style as a director?

 Having worked as an actor, one thing I am very sensitive about is the audition process. I’ve been in a lot of humiliating audition situations, and I know what it feels like to bring in something you’ve really toiled over and have the people not even look up at you. I couldn’t cast every wonderful actor that I saw, but I could give them respect and consideration while they shared their art with me.

I also have a very strong sense that actors need to have a secret world outside of the director. They need their own connections with each other, and I don’t think the director really needs to be a part of that. I wanted to give them this space to play. I would do things like set up a meeting with the costume designer and one of the actors that I wouldn’t be at, because I wanted them to have their own private language, and the sense that they were creating this character together.

Of course, I would give input and say what I liked and didn’t like, but I didn’t want to intrude too much. Part of being an actor is really having to own the character, and if someone is always telling you, “no, no, no, it’s like this; it’s like that” you never really feel like the part is yours. My job was to create a perimeter so they could take it over from me, because it wasn’t mine anymore.

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How did you come to cast Saoirse, and what made her so perfect for the role of lady bird?

 I met with Saoirse Ronan at the Toronto Film Festival in 2015 when she was there for Brooklyn. I sat in her hotel room and read the entire script out loud with her. As soon as I heard her say the words, I knew beyond a doubt that she was Lady Bird. It was so different and so much better than I had imagined. She was willful and funny and heartbreaking, both universal and specific. She was going into rehearsals for The Crucible on Broadway, so it meant pushing the film for six months, but there was no other person who could have done it, it was hers two minutes into the read.

What was the process like of developing the character with her, and how did that character evolve through the filming process?

 The scripts I’ve written barely change at all during filming. Every single line is said the way it was written. Film is not primarily a medium of words, but I come to it from a love of theatre, so for me the language is paramount.

However, the process of creating a character is a collage art. Saoirse was acting on Broadway, and I would feed her little pieces bit by bit. I would give her a novel or    a poem or a song or a photograph. As we cast more people, I would gather them for mini-rehearsals. I wanted the actors to start creating a magical bubble of make believe with each other.

As we got deeper into rehearsal before filming, Saoirse and I spent hours talking together and hanging out so that by the time we were shooting, she would be the person I’d ask about what Lady Bird would wear in a particular scene or how she would walk or sit. Saoirse developed an entire physicality around the character that informed the way I wanted to photograph her, the rhythm of the shooting and the emotion.

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Why did you choose a mother-daughter relationship in the center of the film?

 The mother-daughter relationship is the love story of the film. For a long time the working title of the movie was Mothers and Daughters.

Generally with films about teenage girls, the story centers around one boy: the prince charming, the answer to all of life’s problems. And I don’t find life to be like that at all.

Most women I know had infinitely beautiful, incredibly complicated relationships with their mothers in their teenage years. I wanted to make a film that put that at the center, where at every moment you feel empathy for both characters. I never wanted one to be “right” and the other to be “wrong.” I wanted each to be painfully failing to reach each other, and I wanted to reward their ultimate love at the end. To me, those are the most moving of love stories. The romance between a mother and daughter is one of the richest I know.