Spring 2018


Greta Gerwig's Search for Truth

The DGA nominee learned from those she worked with, and drew on real life for authenticity


Director Greta Gerwig (Photo: Rich Fury/BAFTA LA/Getty Images)

There was a telling moment at the Meet the Nominees panel on the morning of the DGA Awards in early February when Lady Bird writer-director Greta Gerwig was asked by moderator Jeremy Kagan where she positions herself on the set. "I read a lot of interviews," she said, "and one of the things that I read was that you don't sit down on set, Mr. Nolan."

Gerwig, of course, was referring to co-nominee Christopher Nolan (Dunkirk), with whom she shared the stage, adding, "You've got to model yourself after someone."

The comment elicited a laugh from the audience, but like her storytelling in movies, the humor was grounded in reality. "I've been incredibly lucky to meet [directors] who are generous with their time, feedback, insights and guidance," she tells DGA Quarterly. "Filmmaking is a craft, and apprenticeship is how I learned what I've learned. I am so honored to be included as one of them, and even before I made my films, all of them spoke to me like I was their equal."

The list of filmmakers who have inspired her is long and deep, including Rebecca Miller, Spike Jonze, Mia Hansen-Løve, Wes Anderson, Sally Potter, Miranda July, Whit Stillman, Barry Jenkins and the person for whom she's acted as lead player, muse and co-writer, Noah Baumbach.

She has been an ardent observer of their work, either from a bird's-eye view as a performer or as a curious follower. "The process of wanting to direct was a long one," she told those gathered earlier this year at a Film Independent symposium, part of its Directors Close-Up series. "I fell in love with movies when I was in college. But they were far away from me. Theater I could understand because the people were in front of me. But movies always seemed like they were handed down from the gods."

Dating back to her mumblecore days in the mid-aughts, when she experimented with talents like the Duplass brothers and Joe Swanberg, with whom she co-wrote and co-directed Nights and Weekends (2008), Gerwig would keep notebooks, querying directors and cinematographers about what's working or not, and why. "The great thing about being an actor is very few people will kick you off a set," she told the Film Independent crowd at the Landmark Theater. "They think you're supposed to be there for some reason."

It's important to note that Gerwig—a graduate of Barnard College with a degree in English and philosophy—had theater aspirations, specifically playwriting. She considered acting as "this lark" until Yale's graduate school for playwriting would accept her application. "And then Yale was like, 'Nope.'"

Working with her micro-budget mumblecore peers—who emphasized character over plot, and naturalistic acting that was often improvised—was "a good way to learn how [movies] were built," she recalls, and, as part of the process, "improvising was like getting to write while you're acting."

Even so, she spent a lot of time reading plays when she was growing up, and the work of playwrights like Caryl Churchill, known for her overlapping dialogue, informed Gerwig's approach to Lady Bird, for which she sought actors who were equally versed in theater, such as Laurie Metcalf and actor-playwright Tracy Letts, who play Lady Bird's parents.

Gerwig, right, connected with her leading lady, Saoirse Ronan, when the actress was playing in The Crucible on Broadway. (Photo: A24)

When approached with the notion that actors who perform onstage and need to project are distinctly different from film actors for whom the tiniest of nuances are writ large by the camera, Gerwig offers that "great actors are conduits for truth, and that truth remains the same. If they can access that, they can access it in different sizes for different audiences…Laurie Metcalf told me really early in the rehearsal process she does mostly theater, and she said, 'I'm terrified of the camera.' And Saoirse (Ronan, who plays Lady Bird) is the opposite. She'd just done a play on Broadway (The Crucible) and she said, 'I miss the camera.' [But] I never needed Laurie to be a different actor.

"What I love about theater actors is that they tend to be incredibly hardworking, not afraid of going for it, and have absolute respect for the written lines."

This is not to say Gerwig believes her writing should be treated like scripture, even if veering from the finished blueprint on Lady Bird—a coming-of-age saga whose teenaged title character longs to escape her provincial Sacramento upbringing and attend a prestigious East Coast college—was the exception rather than the norm.

"I never want an actor to feel like they need to hit a target that's in my head," she says. "I want them to feel that what they're doing is trying to create as many possibilities as there are. Because as an actor, I know the feeling when a scene opens up to you; it's like fitting a key in a lock and you didn't know there was this entire world on the other side."

That said, there were only two moments in the final print of Lady Bird that were not in the script, Gerwig informs DGA Quarterly. "One came out of rehearsal—it is Timothée Chalamet's line, 'I haven't lied in two years.' I encourage improvisation during rehearsal, and that was something he said that was too good not to put in. The other one is Tracy Letts' reaction to Laurie Metcalf finding out about the New York college. He just shakes his head and says, 'Oh, fuck.' He did that spontaneously, on the day, and it was perfect. I had him repeat it in every take because it was too good. But he told me something that I took to heart: I was doubting myself one day and he essentially said, 'You have to trust the person you were when you wrote the script, because you aren't that person anymore.' Sometimes you just have to be a director and trust that the 'writer-you' knew what they were doing."

Gerwig spends a lot of time in rehearsal, which she considers a "space of play and safety and investigation, so that it doesn't feel like [her actors] are in front of a firing squad once the camera goes on." She'll create reading, movie-watching and playlists for everyone. For example, she had Chalamet, who plays a brooding, bookish player in a rock band whom Lady Bird falls for, watch Eric Rohmer's My Night at Maud's "because there's a character of a young man talking very confidently to a woman about all of his ideas."

She also does a lot of takes. "I always like to see where actors go after they get bored with their own ideas," she explains. "I think the other side of boredom is where the good stuff is."

Although a Sacramento native like Lady Bird, Gerwig has taken pains to distinguish her iconoclastic, flame-haired invention from her own adolescent self ("I looked like a young Martha Stewart; I wasn't anywhere near that cool. I was, like, starched"). But if cinema is like a mirror to society, Gerwig's story—tinged with pain and regret, but also with wit and the kind of humor rooted in real-life experience—is loaded with universal truths and everyday people. At the core of Lady Bird is a messy, complicated, love-hate mother-daughter relationship; a lower middle-class protagonist who fabricates her social status to be accepted by the cool, rich kids whom she envies; and characters with high ideals and an air of invincibility before life deals a series of blows that would bring them back down to earth.

It's a tall order to incorporate all those elements into one story, but Gerwig managed to get at the core of what's important to her. "I feel like movies are limited real estate," she explains. "You don't have that much space. And you feel like every moment, every character, every way you wear your hair must count…

"I thought about childhood and just all the moments that make up life, and all the moments and places and all the people that you know. I think I had 74 speaking roles, which is a lot. But to me, all of them matter."

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