The 33rd Santa Barbara International Film Festival celebrated the five Academy Award-nominated directors – Christopher Nolan (Dunkirk), Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird), Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water), Jordan Peele (Get Out), and Paul Thomas Anderson (Phantom Thread) – and honored them with the Outstanding Directors of the Year Award for 2018, at the Arlington Theatre on February 6th. With Lady Bird, Gerwig paints a painfully beautiful family portrait that showcases an artistically inclined 17-year-old girl (Saoirse Ronan) coming of age in Sacramento, Calif. in 2002.
During individual panels and a group chat, these directors discussed pushing boundaries in their storytelling and how they are inspired by the work of their colleagues. Gerwig talked about how Lady Bird evolved into what it is now, whether she ever considered acting in the film, that she’s not Lady Bird, putting together such a terrific cast, and whether acting or directing is her priority. She also talked about meeting her fellow nominees and seeing their films. Here are the highlights of what she had to say during the Q&A.
Question: How long did you know this was a story that you wanted to tell and did you always know that you wanted to direct it?
GRETA GERWIG: It’s hard to know exactly when I started writing it, but I had a draft of it, at the end of 2013, which was very long and it’s sitting on my computer. It’s 350 pages, it’s called Mothers and Daughters, and it’s extremely boring. I tend to write into hunches. I don’t know what the thing is gonna be until it’s actually completed. Part of that mystery keeps me interested in what it is. I knew I wanted to make something about Sacramento and I knew I wanted to make something about a mother and a daughter, but that was all I knew. I worked until I had a draft that was a reasonable length of 120 pages. I’ve always wanted to direct, but because I didn’t go to film school, I spent a lot of time doing anything I could to be around film sets. I wrote, I acted and I produced, and then I had this moment where I was like, “I don’t think you’re gonna learn any more by not doing it. I think now is the time. You either jump or you don’t.” When the fear of not having tried becomes greater than the fear of failure, that’s when you decide to do it.
Did you ever think about playing a role in the film?
GERWIG: Oh, no, I have no interest, actually, in directing myself. I’m amazed at the people who can do it. I’m not the kind of actor that I think would be able to accomplish that. I would be bad at both things, at once. One of the greatest pleasures I have ever had is watching great actors make my words come alive when they had been words on a page and now they’re people living in front of me. Even selfishly, I wouldn’t want to rob myself of that experience.
You were born and raised in Sacramento, educated in Catholic school, dated boys who turned out to be gay, and went to a top east coast college, which are also all true of Lady Bird. Are you Lady Bird?
GERWIG: No. I’m from Sacramento and all those things are correct. I don’t know how you know they were gay, and I’ll say it didn’t end in high school, but that’s neither here nor there. In a way, I was the opposite of Lady Bird. The circumstances are similar, but I was a really rule-following, people-pleasing kid. I never made anyone call me by a different name and I never dyed my hair bright red. I wanted a gold star, and I worked for it. In some ways, writing this character of Lady Bird was creating a heroine who’s incredibly flawed, but also incredibly courageous and who did things that I had absolutely no ability to do. I imagined her, and then it wasn’t until I saw Saoirse Ronan do it that it was like I was getting to meet this person that I’d been hoping to meet.
Aside from having a great cast who are all top-notch in your film, they’re all New York theater actors. How did that happen?
GERWIG: I really drained Broadway for a few months. No. I live in New York and I go to the theater, all the time. It’s such a luxury to be able to go and it’s something that I love to do. It’s one of my favorite ways to see actors because there’s nothing between me and them. I can just watch them work. I’m a theater nerd, so I was like, “Let’s call all of my heroes.” And then, they all said yes.
Where do you go from here? Are you going to continue to act, or are you going to solely focus on directing?
GERWIG: I love acting. Acting was such a big part of how I came to understand filmmaking, as a whole, and I’ll never stop. For me, it’s always important to know what you’ll drop everything else for, and at this point, writing and directing my own work is the priority. I would like to make a lot of movies, hopefully.
You’ve been making the rounds, as a nominated director, this awards season, along with Guillermo del Toro, Paul Thomas Anderson, Jordan Peele and Christopher Nolan. When did you guys first meet?