Greta Gerwig talks Sacramento, Saoirse Ronan, and directing her first feature, “Lady Bird”
Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird” is heralded as one of the best films of the past year—for no arbitrary reason. The film is a searingly joyous and heart-rending portrait of a young woman’s coming-of-age. It has earned a handful Oscar nominations, including Best Director with Gerwig herself, and Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress with leads Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf, respectively. “Lady Bird” is having a nationwide release starting tomorrow, February 28th, 2018.
We’ve gotten our hands on the production notes for Gerwig’s debut film, which details her filmmaking process. Read the abridged transcript below.
WAS THIS FILM INSPIRED BY YOUR OWN LIFE?
I grew up in Sacramento and I love Sacramento, so the initial impulse to make the film was a desire to write a love letter to a place that only came into focus after I left. It is difficult to register the depths of your love when you are sixteen and quite sure that “life” is happening somewhere else.
None of the events in the film literally happened, but there is a core of truth that is connected to a feeling of home and childhood and departure.
CERTAINLY, THE SETTING, SACRAMENTO, HAS SPECIAL RESONANCE FOR YOU. WHAT MAKES SACRAMENTO A SPECIAL PLACE?
Joan Didion is from Sacramento and when I discovered her writing as a young teenager, it was spiritually seismic. It was as shattering as if I’d grown up in Dublin and then suddenly read James Joyce. She was my personal poet laureate. It was the first time I experienced an artist’s eye looking at my home. I had always thought art and writing had to be about things that were “important,” and I was certain that my life was not at all important. But her writing, so beautiful and clear and specific, was about my world. All the women she wrote about, I knew exactly who they were. The way they organized their closets, the things that they valued, the agrarian middle-class worldview that shaped this corner of the country.
When people think about California, they tend to think about San Francisco or Los Angeles, but there is the massive central agricultural valley running down the middle of the state. Sacramento is located at the northern edge of it, and although it is the state capital, there is farmland in its bones. It is not a show-offy city. It does not brand itself or tries to sell itself. There are modesty and integrity to the place and the people.
WHAT DOES THE NAME “LADY BIRD” SIGNIFY?
Re-naming is both a creative act and a religious act, it is one of authorship and a way of finding your true identity through creating a new one. It is a lie in service of the truth. In the Catholic tradition, you are given a confirmation name, to name yourself after a saint that you hope to emulate. In rock and roll, you give yourself a new name (David Bowie, Madonna, etc.) in order to occupy this bigger mythical space.
Early in the writing process, I kept coming up against something that I couldn’t break through. I put everything aside and wrote at the top of a blank page:
“Why won’t you call me Lady Bird? You promised you would.” I wanted to get to know this girl who makes everybody call her by this odd name. The name came out of something mysterious. I had not thought of it before I wrote it. I love the way it sounds. It’s jaunty. It’s old-fashioned. Writing the script was getting to the heart of that girl.
AS YOU WROTE THE SCRIPT, DID YOU ALWAYS INTEND TO DIRECT IT?
Writing for me takes a very long time. I don’t even really know how long. Maybe years, because it isn’t linear. It’s a character or a scene here and there. I tend to overwrite, hundreds of pages worth of dross. Eventually, I’ll pare it down and find the essence. While I’m writing, though, it seems impossible that it will ever be a movie. So the idea of directing wasn’t consciously something I was considering.
However, once I had the script finished, I knew I would direct it. And I knew that it was what I had been intending all along. I just couldn’t let myself know it because it would have frightened me. I’ve wanted to direct for as long as I can remember, but courage is not something that grows overnight.
AND WHAT WAS THE PROCESS OF DIRECTING IT LIKE? WHAT DID YOU LEARN THROUGH THAT PROCESS?
I am still learning about directing, and hopefully, I will never stop, even when I am in my eighties and just repeating myself. To catalog everything I’ve learned would be both boring and impossible.
One thing I can say for certain is “always hire people who are smarter than you are.” That quote came from the late, great cinematographer Harris Savides, by way of my director of photography, Sam Levy. This is true for everyone from actors to set decorators to poster designers. I had the great luck of being surrounded by people who were, indeed, smarter than me.
The other thing is that the title “director” isn’t quite right. It implies that everything is there in front of you, only needing to be “directed.” I think the French have it expressed more accurately, as the “réalisateur.” The director is the person who “realizes” the film. As in they cause it to happen, give it actualized form, make it exist. No one will ever know the films you don’t make, and they have no earthly reason for existence, other than that you realize them.
HOW DID YOU COME TO CAST SAOIRSE, AND WHAT MADE HER SO PERFECT FOR THE ROLE OF LADY BIRD?
I met with Saoirse Ronan at the Toronto Film Festival in 2015 when she was there for Brooklyn. I sat in her hotel room and read the entire script out loud with her. As soon as I heard her say the words, I knew beyond a doubt that she was Lady Bird. It was so different and so much better than I had imagined. She was willful and funny and heartbreaking, both universal and specific. She was going into rehearsals for The Crucible on Broadway, so it meant pushing the film for six months, but there was no other person who could have done it, it was hers two minutes into the read.
WHAT WAS THE PROCESS LIKE OF DEVELOPING THE CHARACTER WITH HER, AND HOW DID THAT CHARACTER EVOLVE THROUGH THE FILMING PROCESS?
The scripts I’ve written barely change at all during filming. Every single line is said the way it was written. Film is not primarily a medium of words, but I come to it from a love of theatre, so for me, the language is paramount.
However, the process of creating a character is a collage art. Saoirse was acting on Broadway, and I would feed her little pieces bit by bit. I would give her a novel or a poem or a song or a photograph. As we cast more people, I would gather them for mini-rehearsals. I wanted the actors to start creating a magical bubble of make-believe with each other.