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Lady Bird
Images courtesy of Universal Pictures

Greta Gerwig on memory, teenage angst, and pre-internet culture

Talking to the actor-writer-director – now nominated for Best Director at the Oscars – about her critically acclaimed coming-of-age drama Lady Bird

It finally feels like popular culture is celebrating women who are a little too much. Rose McGowan’s patriarchy-shattering loudness. Cardi B’s porous sexuality. Pop singer Lorde is also someone who has made art out of too-muchness, describing her emotional track “Liability” as an ode to “that high school feeling of walking into a room and being a giant, (of being) way, way too much”. Too-much girls are incredibly cool, but not always in a way you immediately understand. Too-much girls are so present.

Greta Gerwig is one of these women. Moving from Mumblecore beginnings to writing and starring in sleeper hits like Greenberg and Frances Ha, the indie darling’s iconic on-screen moments include inventing a dance craze (Damsels in Distress), pratfalling in black-and-white (Frances Ha), and performing live at the VMAs for Arcade Fire. Now turning director for her latest project, Gerwig has channeled that “high school feeling” that Lorde holds so close: conjuring a teenager called Lady Bird who might best be described as too much and then some.

When we meet, Gerwig is almost too little, perched on a sofa in the far corner of a gargantuan hotel room in a pink dress. In December in London, she’s pre-Best Director announcement, but is still in the enviable position of coming to the end of a press tour for a perfect movie entirely of her own making (you’ll have read by now that Lady Bird achieved a historic 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, before a bedroom reviewer ruined everything). Loosely based on Gerwig’s own teenage years growing up in Sacramento, the film details a year in the life of Lady Bird, as played by Saoirse Ronan. Self-assured and rebellious, Lady Bird (real name Christine) experiences all the identifiers of coming-of-age films through the film’s runtime, from first boyfriends (musical-loving Lucas Hedges; later, bad boy Timothée Chalamet) to applications for colleges – much to her family’s chagrin – on the opposite coast. What makes the film such a revelation is the exquisite humanity to the depiction of those somewhat hackneyed high school tropes. The alternately aggressive and loving interactions between Lady Bird and her mother (played by Laurie Metcalf), are pitch perfect in a way that all daughters of mothers, and all daughters who have become mothers, will understand.

Besides, how often do we actually see a supremely confident teen girl character on screen? When the end credits roll on Lady Bird, especially but not exclusively if you’re a young woman, you’ll feel refreshed, or rather reset, a feeling only possible when you see scenes this resonant to how you’ve broken up and made up with your own family members, to how you’ve moved through the world as a young woman. This rushing feeling is one that Gerwig’s projects tend to engender, something that one online commenter on a recent article described, upon watching Frances Ha, as: “thinking this is real, this is not a movie, this is real, and feeling this extraordinary huge joy like a huge breeze going through me.”

In the genesis of Lady Bird as a project, was there a particular moment where you realised you simply had to direct this one?

Greta Gerwig: The process I’ve always had as a writer (is that) the script is the reason for making the film. I don’t do any improvisation on set. Until I had a piece of writing and it felt worthy of it, it was kind of a hypothetical thing anyway. Once I had the script, that was the moment that I said, “OK. I’ve learned about as much as I’m going to learn by sitting on the sidelines and I certainly have a lot more to learn but it’s going to be by doing it – not by not doing it.” I’ve always wanted to direct.

One of the most fun things about watching the film was this experience of spotting all those stylistic markers of 2002, especially as the current moment leans more towards 70s and 80s-set movies. Everything from the backpacks to the shell necklaces are so perfect. How did you go about achieving those details?

Greta Gerwig: The costume designer April Napier and I spent a lot of time looking at old Seventeen magazines. And, there was a catalogue called Delia’s which was something everyone in the United States bought. You always wanted to look like one of the girls from Delia’s! I think it’s hard to imagine now because of the internet and how much everything is accessible all the time, but in 2002, it was still pre the rise of what the internet became and what it is still becoming. There was still a sense, especially in a place from Sacramento, that you got your culture from magazines, or music from the radio. So there was less of a niche culture at that moment. At the same time, it was about creating something that had traces of the 90s, because nothing is ever static. Sometimes, if (a film) takes place in 1979, every single car on the street is from 1979 and everybody is listening to songs from that year. And the truth is you would be pulling from the previous decades, you’re not just in the decade that you’re in. So, it was about incorporating a lot of stuff from the 90s as well because those things wouldn’t leave. For example, we had Justin Timberlake’s “Cry me a River” that came out that year but also Dave Matthews that came out in 1996. And both were on the radio. The car (Lady Bird’s) family drives is from 1997, but Jenna’s Range Rover is from 2002. That kind of stuff made it feel real. It didn’t make it feel like the movie version.

Nostalgia is also built in to the movie in an interesting way. Unlike a lot of ‘teen’ movies, it’s not simply about having nostalgia for that early 2000s era, or being nostalgic for youth generally.

Greta Gerwig: I wanted the whole movie to feel like a memory. But I didn’t want it to be cute. I remember talking to (cinematographer) Sam Levy and my colorist Alex Bickel about how I wanted it to feel like a memory almost in an imperceptible way. I am interested in the way memory works in terms of not being accurate. I mean, I’ve always been a notebook keeper and a journal keeper but I actually didn’t look at any of my notebooks or journals while I was writing. Because, first of all I wasn’t recreating my experience, but also I wanted to get into the vividness of the memory rather than the reality of what it was. On the ground. If that makes sense.

We basically never see this kind of protagonist: a young woman who really thinks she’s special. And actually, when you’re a teenager, you do basically think you’re special. You believe that you’re gonna go far and do all these things. And you have that self-belief I think, even if you’re insecure at the same time.

Greta Gerwig: You’re both! That’s what I liked about the double quality of her giving herself her own name. It’s both wildly ambitious and self-confident and also it means that you think who you are on your own is not enough.

“I never think about female characters as being likeable or unlikeable. With all my characters – not just with female characters – but with every single character in this film. There are no villains” – Greta Gerwig

Watching Saoirse as Lady Bird, I was reminded of the uber-confident Violet in Damsels in Distress...

Greta Gerwig: You’re the very first one to bring that up to me. They’re not dissimilar! Whit is such a specific writer, and has such a weird amazing twisted vision of the world. I mean, even when you’re talking to him you do feel like you’re talking to one of his characters. I remember I was in an interview with him and he said something about how much he loved the character of Violet and how she was quite admirable. And somebody said “well, she is a pathological liar”. And Whit said, “Well I don’t see what’s so particularly great about the truth. Any person can say the truth!” And I thought “You… you are this character!”

It’s important that these female characters centre these films, and they’re young and they don’t have to be likeable in a simple way.

Greta Gerwig: I remember in early screenings somebody said “(Lady Bird's) not very likeable”. And I thought “Ah, I don’t agree, I think she’s very likeable.” But, I guess I never think about it in that way. I never think about female characters as being likeable or unlikeable. With all my characters – not just with female characters – but with every single character in this film. There are no villains. I think everybody is genuinely doing the best they can with what they’ve got. Even with someone like Kyle. Who is a bit of a douche, but he’s not without his own struggles and his own pain. And also, there’s something about the fact that he doesn’t know how ridiculous he sounds that makes him endearing. It’s like “Oh brother, you can’t even begin to know how silly this is.”

You can really see the kind of adult bro he’s gonna become.

Greta Gerwig: What he’s spouting, and his lack of awareness – it’s actually vulnerable. There are no perfect people. I mean, I was actually told by someone when I was in a script meeting for something, “Well, can we show her with children at the beginning of the movie so people know she’s nice”.

As in, she doesn’t hate children?

Greta Gerwig: That’s how we know she’s nice? Because she’s with children? Are you kidding me? I mean, first of all why wouldn’t you be nice to children, and second of all, do we need to see that to believe in her? You know Saoirse and Laurie Metcalf are so great but they can be harsh and real with each other. My belief always was that if the fighting wasn’t real then the love wouldn’t seem real.

“The costume designer April Napier and I spent a lot of time looking at old Seventeen magazines. And, there was a catalogue called Delia’s which was something everyone in the United States bought. You always wanted to look like one of the girls from Delia’s!” – Greta Gerwig

Laurie Metcalf’s character is secretly centering the movie. I was quite interested in the process of casting her. She’s a very notable actress but is known to the public for starring in sitcoms. Was there something in casting her against type?

Greta Gerwig: When I was trying to cast the character of the mother I so didn’t want a Hollywood mom. I wanted somebody who seemed like a real person. And a real mother. And Tracy (Letts, who plays Christine’s dad) is from the Midwest, and Laurie Metcalf is also from the Midwest, and they’ve known each other for 30 years because they both did theatre in Chicago at the Steppenwolf theatre company which Laurie started with Gary Sinise and John Malkovitch. So, they have this long history. I had seen (Laurie) do this incredible stage work. I knew I needed somebody who was just as strong as Saoirse, (so) they could really take each other, but that you never felt like either one of them could crush the other one. But they were both powerful. Laurie said (to me) “Sometimes movies come into your life or a project comes into your life for a reason, and I currently have a 17-year-old who is trying to kill me so, I think this is it.” And literally by the end of the shooting, they (had) gotten through this terrible time… Her and her 17 year-old.

Like Lady Bird, you came from quite a normal family, which is in itself encouraging. You never had film world connections, or some kind of Hollywood clan behind you. What would be your advice for those trying to break into the industry?

Greta Gerwig: That’s true. I didn’t even know who made films when I was growing up. I used to think that films were sort of handed down from gods. I would say that for me, I found my group. I found a group of artists that took my work seriously, and I took their work seriously. And nobody was making a living doing it, but we all held each other to a standard of seriousness, which I think is almost more valuable than being accepted by the powers. It can be very hard to get in the front doors, so building these sort of side-communities of film-makers or writers or actors is important. I mean, I met Josh and Bennie Safdie, who are still some of my best friends, in 2006; Ry Russo-Young, Ty West, the Duplass brothers, Andrew Bujalski, Amy Seimetz, Barry Jenkins. Those were all people I met in weird little film festivals, not Sundance. None of us got our films into Sundance! If you get into the queue (for) the front door, it’s a nightmare. Because it’s so long, and it feels like there’s so many people in front of you. So if you sort of just set a basecamp somewhere else, I think that’s the better way.

So were there ever any other names on the table? Or was it always Lady Bird?

Greta Gerwig: No, it was always Lady Bird. I was writing all these scenes, and I put everything aside and I wrote at the top of the page “Why won’t you call me Lady Bird, you promised that you would.” And I have no idea where that came from…

Lady Bird comes out in UK cinemas this Friday, 23rd February