Interview by Carla Sanchez Taylor (RiPple PUddlE)
By Carla Sanchez Taylor(RiPple PuDdle)
Greta Gerwig is in front of me, looking fair-faced and elegant in an oddly oversized velvet chair, which she apologizes for immediately upon my entry. We discuss the oddness of the chairs in the room for a few minutes. She fluctuates between resolute calmness and animated (yet dignified) excitement when we begin to discuss her latest project, Lady Bird, which she wrote and directed.
At side-eye glance, it is a story about a quirky Sacramento girl who is forced to attend Catholic school. The year is 2002, before social media shaped our avatars and dating apps complicated falling in love. But this isn’t a story about that.
Instead it is about mothers and daughters, the sweet friendships of our youth, and the halo that surrounds us when we fall in love for the first time, among other things.
It is yesterday and today and tomorrow all at once.
Carla: It is obvious that you have done the brave and difficult work of self-inquiry. This story had so many insightful layers. What most impassioned you to write this movie?
Greta: I wanted to write a realistic story about mothers and daughters. That was actually the original title of the movie. I wanted the mother and the daughter to both be so deeply flawed and deeply beautiful in equal parts. Mothers are portrayed in movies in a very binary way. There aren’t many movies that show mothers as they truly are: people who are generally trying to make the best decision but make mistakes. Nothing saves you from screwing up. I felt that if I didn’t show the hard parts of the relationship, then the love wouldn’t be as true. Their love is potent because it’s real. It’s not based on doing everything right. It is flawed, which translates to an acceptance of the total person. Did they both have better angels than demons? I don’t know.
Carla: The characters were layered in such a beautiful and complex way. I missed them after the movie was over. How did the story and the characters form?
Greta: I had been writing the script for a while and kept hitting a wall that I couldn’t get past. I put everything aside and, I have no idea where it came from, at the top of the page wrote the sentence ‘why won’t you call me Lady Bird? You promised that you would.’ I stared at that sentence and thought, ‘who is that? Who is this person that makes people call her by a different name?’ The idea of renaming yourself was very intriguing to me. It’s supremely confident but also an indicator that who you are is not enough. Writing the character of Lady Bird was an act of creating a flawed heroine, a bit brave and a little crazy, that I didn’t have the ability to be when I was that age. I never dyed my hair fire engine red or changed my name. I was very much a rule follower and people pleaser.
Maybe the Mother Goose nursery rhyme that goes, ‘Lady Bird, Lady Bird, fly away home,’ lodged itself in my brain.
Carla: Did more creative aspects like writing or forming of characters come about after you had decided on your cast?
Greta: Saoirse (Ronan) had been given the script. She read it and really, really responded to it. We had this conversation where she told me, ‘I know this in my bones. I know this girl, I know this story.’ We read the entire script out loud, with her reading all of Lady Bird’s lines and I read the rest. I knew instantly that it was her…and I knew because all of a sudden, I had all these flashes of how I wanted to shoot it. I also knew because she has this incredible ability to be very technical and also, simultaneously so alive. She walks the line. It’s so funny: she means it so much and it’s heartbreaking because she means it so much. She’s never distanced from the material. I can say the same with the rest of the cast. I knew I had to have someone who punched the same weight class to play the role of Lady Bird’s mother and Laurie Metcalf is a heavyweight. That lady is absurdly talented. I’ve never seen anything like it. Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lois Smith and Stephen Henderson were all people I’d see on stage, particularly on Broadway. I just thought they were such great artists and I loved them so much. I was honored that they did the movie with me.
Carla: What gave you the resiliency to follow your vision through from inception to taking on first time solo directing?
Greta: Well, I think what really prepared me for directing was time spent on set gathering information, in any capacity, whether as an actor, co-writer, producer, or boom operator. Basically doing anything I could do. I didn’t come in with an illusion that movies ever work like clockwork. It was useful to know that moviemaking yes, involves creating, but also involves a series of troubleshooting moments. So when things got difficult, it never felt like the whole thing was on the verge of unravel. And knowing that helps you have realistic expectations.
Carla: Writing and then later directing a film seems like a deeply personal and self-reliant process. How did you know you were going in the right direction?
Greta: The original screenplay was 350 pages but it wasn’t 350 pages of narrative cohesiveness. It was 350 pages of junk. I had to take a step back to see what felt most alive and vital but also what could fall away. You follow your hunches and what feels right to you. I definitely had people read my scripts and make notes as I was working, but I’d say that was pretty late in the process. Some of it was to see if certain things made sense or if the narrative was easy to follow. There are moments in the writing of a script where it just starts to sound right. You can start seeing it take shape and almost play it like a movie in your head. I think that helped me prepare, and even over prepare before shooting because movies are one of the very few timed arts. The minute you’re on set, the clock starts going. I spent time preparing with my cinematographer, production designer and costume designer, setting the look and feel. We used all that work when we began to shoot but I also just trusted my gut. That’s the only reason anyone’s there after all. There are a million good decisions but it doesn’t matter because you’re making the decision that are right for your movie. You have to get everyone to dream the same dream that you’re dreaming.
- Final Note:
For those of you, like me, that have found yourselves in a stupor since the film adaptation of the novel “Atonement” as to how to pronounce the name Saoirse Ronan, watch this informative video