Greta Gerwig on ‘Lady Bird’ and What Made Saoirse Ronan Perfect for the Title Role
From writer/director Greta Gerwig, the heartfelt and humorous Lady Bird is a beautifully human story that explores what life is like for Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (played to perfection by Saoirse Ronan), as she fights to figure out who she really is and what she wants. As the audience, we get to know and love the perfectly imperfect Lady Bird through her relationships with her loving but deeply opinionated mother (Laurie Metcalf), her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein), and the young men who come into and out of her life.
At the film’s L.A. press day, Collider got the opportunity to sit down with Gerwig to chat 1-on-1 about her directorial debut, the incredible reaction she’s already received for it, how excited she is to try her hand at directing again, what made Saoirse Ronan her Lady Bird, what she’s going to do next, as an actress, and what it was like to be directed by Wes Anderson while she voiced a character for his stop-motion feature Isle of Dogs.
Collider: I loved this movie and thought it was so beautifully done!
GRETA GERWIG: Thank you! I really loved making it, so sharing it with people and talking to them has been great. It was a very loved movie when we made it.
Since seeing it, I’ve checked out reactions on Twitter and there are people who have seen the film multiple times, people who talked about how much they laughed and cried, and there was even someone who said they wanted a Lady Bird cinematic universe that included a movie for each of the characters. Were you, at all, prepared for just how much love this movie is getting?
GERWIG: No! It really has been so extraordinary. It did feel very special while we were making it, and it was really the people who made it. It was everyone from my P.A., Dana [Nelson], who was so wonderful and did the job of 10 people, to my favorite gaffer to Saoirse [Ronan] to my DP, Sam Levy, to Eli Bush, who is a producer. Every single person was really a storyteller and every single person really put not only their art into it, but their whole heart. So, it felt special while we were making it, but you just never know if people will connect with it or not. You try to make it as honestly as you can, and then you cross your fingers. Never, in my wildest dreams, did I think that this would be the response, but I am so grateful that it is because it felt like this thing that we made together and the last step of that is giving it to the audience. They’re the last collaborator that you have because they put themselves in a place of vulnerability and trust you to take them on a journey. It’s so meaningful, but it’s completely mind-blowing. I love movies, so getting to be in the conversation and meet some of my heroes has been so fun. It’s just the most fun thing, ever. I get nerdy and nervous around not only great actors, but great directors and DPs I love. Every time I see Ed Lachman, I think I jump out of my skin and I’m like, “Ed! Oh, my god, Ed!” It’s amazing!
Has it all made you more nervous or more excited about making your next film?
GERWIG: It will make it easier to make the next one. You think, “Will someone let me do this again?!” I loved doing it so much that for me, I’m like, “Okay, I think they’ll let us do another one. We’re allowed to try again.” That’s the thing that’s nice. Although the truth is, I would have done it again and just figured out how to do it. I’ve been making movies, in different capacities – acting, writing, co-writing, producing and doing all kinds of things – for 10 years. I don’t think there’s ever a version where I wouldn’t make another movie, but it’s nice to know that it will probably be a little easier to put together.
Were you more nervous about directing this movie and being the one in charge on set that everyone looked to for all of the answers, or were you most nervous about actually showing the finished film to audiences?
GERWIG: I think the second one. They’re both scary, but the thing about writing and directing is that you keep giving the film away. When you write it, it’s just you and your imagination. The very first person I brought on was Sam Levy, who was the DP, and we had about a year to work on it before we went into pre-production. We’d had a relationship before, from other movies, and he lives in New York and I live in New York, so we could just get together and watch movies, look at photographs and paintings, and talk about how we wanted it to be. No one was getting paid, but he was happy to spend his free time with me and really build a shared language. But then, you give it to the production designer, the costume designer, your actors and your editor, and it feels like this ever-widening circle of people that you give it to. And then, the final step really is giving it to the audience. By the time the audience gets it, you’ve had to give it to so many people, and you have to trust them with it and let them tell the story. I’m a big believer in over preparing, anyway, because film is one of the very few timed arts. When you’re on set and that clock is going, every second you spend doing something is a second you spend not doing something else. That’s true of all of life, but it’s very vivid on a film set because you’re always managing that. I feel like any moment before you’re on that clock, that you can work with people and talk about it and spend rehearsal time and spend time with your cast and crew, is really important to me. I think I even did it more because I knew this was my first time doing it, but I was really ready.
Because you’d clearly spent so much time with the story and characters and thinking about it all, what was it like to hand this over to Saoirse Ronan and watch what she did with it?
GERWIG: I met Saoirse at the Toronto Film Festival in 2015. She was there with Brooklyn and I was there with a film called Maggie’s Plan. I had given her the script to read and she really loved it, and then we sat in her hotel room and read the whole thing out loud. She read all of Lady Bird’s lines and I read everybody else’s lines.
Did you read the characters in different voices?
GERWIG: No, I didn’t do voices. When she started doing it, I started getting so many ideas, right away. Suddenly, it was embodied in front of me. It felt like she was this person and that it was exactly right. I couldn’t have even told you that this was what I wanted, but as soon as I heard it, I knew right away. She was promoting Brooklyn, and then she was on Broadway in The Crucible. I was going to shoot in the spring, and I moved it to the fall for her. By the time I saw her that fall, it was a year later that we started shooting, so I had all this time to feed her little bits of information and give her things to read and songs to listen to. It’s not like we were rehearsing the entire time, but I was engaging with her and thinking about her, and she was thinking about the character. I feel like the character of Lady Bird was really something that we made together. It feels like a real creative act that we both did. I wasn’t like Lady Bird. I was a much more rule-following, straight-laced, freaked out kid. I never made anyone call me by a different name and I didn’t dye my hair bright red. I just wasn’t like that. So, the character on the page was a way for me to explore things that weren’t really accessible to me, as a person. I was creating a heroine that I had not been able to be, even though she’s a flawed heroine who can be a jerk sometimes. But then, when Saoirse started reading the lines, there was a complete commitment with total sincerity, and it was funny because she was never playing the humor. She was playing the honesty, and that was uproariously funny.
So, you never wanted to rename yourself, at any point?
GERWIG: No, I’ve always been Greta Gerwig. Greta Gerwig always seemed like a name that was mine. My mother did a good job. It’s kind of a rock star move to pick a new name for yourself and be like, “I will now be going as David Bowie.” It’s a supreme act of confidence to be like, “This is who I think I am,” but it also shows insecurity because it means who you are, on your own, is not enough.
Do you know what you’re going to do next, as an actress, and has directing changed the way you want to approach acting, at all?
GERWIG: I love acting, and who I am as a director and a writer has so much to do with my experiences as an actor. I don’t think I’ll ever stop acting, but I think I’ll continue to act the way I’ve always done, which is that I try to work with people that I admire and think are great. I’ve always picked things by who the director is. I never look at the size of the part, or anything like that. I just go with whether I think that person is an artist, and I think I’ll just keep doing that. I’m meant to do a film (called Bergman Island) in the summer with Mia Hansen-Løve, who’s a French writer/director. She’s the real deal. She’s one of my very favorites. I did a tiny part for her, a few years ago, and then she came to me and said, “I have a thing in English,” which was very exciting. I love so many international directors, and you think, “Are you ever going to work on an English language film?” I had that experience with Pablo Larraín, who directed Jackie, which I had a small part in. I loved his movies, but he always made movies that took place in South and Central America and my Spanish isn’t really up to snuff. I didn’t think I was ever going to work with him, but I was just thrilled that he was working in English. So, I think I’m just going to keep doing that. I’m writing my own work and directing it, but I am so a person for whom everything helps everything else. I become a better actor because of writing and now directing.
You also did a voice for Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs.
GERWIG: I did!
What was it like to be directed by Wes Anderson for a voice performance?
GERWIG: He’s such a wonderful writer and an obviously great director, and there’s nothing more fun than working with great writing that’s very specific and has a very specific rhythm. I loved watching Wes direct, and I loved being directed by him. I’ve known him socially, and getting to see him as a director, even just in a voice booth, was so exciting. It was like, “Oh, this is who you really are! I’ve never known you this way!” I love him, as a friend, but it’s a very exciting thing to see this other side of someone come out. You’re like, “Oh, wow, this is who you are!” And the stop-motion stuff is so beautiful. He showed me sketches of my character and I thought, “I wish I had that hair!” I wish I looked like the stop-motion character. It will be great!
Lady Bird is now playing in select theaters, and opens nationwide throughout November.