Director's Chair: Greta Gerwig — <I>Lady Bird</I>
Issue: January 1, 2018

Director's Chair: Greta Gerwig — Lady Bird

Over the past decade, actress Greta Gerwig has appeared in some 40 movies, cementing her growing reputation as one of Hollywood’s brightest and most engaging new stars. Her acclaimed performances include starring roles in Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women alongside Annette Bening and Elle Fanning (see Post’s January 2017 Director’s Chair), for which she received a Critics’ Choice Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress; Pablo Larrain’s Jackie; Todd Solondz’s Wiener-Dog; Rebecca Miller’s Maggie’s Plan and Noah Baumbach’s Mistress America, a comedy that she co-wrote with the director, which premiered to rave reviews at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

Gerwig’s previous collaborations with Baumbach include her breakout and critically-acclaimed role in Greenberg (their first project together) and Frances Ha, which earned her Golden Globe and Broadcast Film Critics Association Award nominations for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Motion Picture.

Now, with Lady Bird, Gerwig has stepped behind the camera and made an assured and polished directorial debut with the coming-of-age story. Lady Bird looks at both the humor and pathos in the turbulent bond between a mother and her teenage daughter. Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) fights against — but is exactly like — her wildly loving, deeply opinionated and strong-willed mom (Laurie Metcalf), a nurse working tirelessly to keep her family afloat after Lady Bird’s father (Tracy Letts) loses his job. Set in Sacramento, CA, in 2002, amidst a rapidly shifting American economic landscape, Lady Bird is an affectionate and affecting look at family relationships, and has been attracting a lot of awards buzz for its writer/director.

Here, in an exclusive Post interview, Gerwig (pictured above, left) talks about making the film, how her partner Noah Baumbach and other directors helped her prepare, and why she loves post.

Did you write this thinking, ‘I want to direct it too’?

“I’ve always wanted to direct and be a writer/director, and I didn’t go to film school, so I knew that all the time I spent on sets was like my film education. I did a lot of different things as well as acting, because most of the early films were so low budget. I’d co-write, hold the boom, operate the camera, edit and so on, and it was all great training. When I finished this script, I realized this was the time to do it and jump in.”

What sort of themes were you interested in exploring through this?

“It’s about family and home and growing up, and it’s set in Sacramento where I grew up. I had a very clear idea of what I wanted to do in the script, and I spent a very long time writing and honing it, and then I didn’t do any improvisation on set. I learned a lot from Noah in that way, as he was so rigorous about the writing and keeping to the script. So the big thing was just bringing my script to life, and it’s such a collaboration. Once you have your DP and production designer and editor, you come up with so much more than you ever could on your own. But the movie you see is the movie that was on the page.”

How did you prepare for directing your first film?

“I talked to a ton of people — directors I’ve worked with and ones I haven’t. I already had a notebook full of things I was going to steal from other people’s sets and how they did it. And I got so much advice — sometimes very specific, sometimes very general. If anything, I think I over-prepared, but I think I’ll always do that. The big thing I learned is that anything you can prepare ahead of the shoot, do it — as you shouldn’t have to think about it on the day. Things will come up you didn’t anticipate, so you always have to deal with unforeseen problems, but you need to maximize your time on the set. And Noah never allows cell phones on his sets, and I did the same, which makes everyone just focus on the scene. And Mike Mills does this great thing where everyone on the set, including himself, wears name-tags, and I borrowed that. It means that everyone, even an actor who’s just there for a day or two, gets to know who they’re working with. It’s a subtle but important thing, I feel.”

Did being an actress affect the way you directed and approached it?

“Definitely. I love actors and I have so much respect for what they do, and how vulnerable they are. So I tried to not make them feel rushed ever, and that there was a chance to do it again if needed. Also, I’m very sensitive about the whole auditioning process. I’ve gone through it so often and been in a lot of humiliating situations, so I know what it feels like for an actor to just be dismissed quickly. It’s very hard and I didn’t want to let that happen here.”

What did Saoirse Ronan bring to the role, and how much of you is in Lady Bird?

“The first time she read it through, I realized, ‘She’s the person!’ She was just perfect as Lady Bird, and I feel we really created her together. The words were on the page, but she totally embodied her — how she walked and talked and dressed and moved through the world. But the character is nothing like me, although it’s set where I grew up, and I went to Catholic school. I was very people pleasing. I never dyed my hair bright red. I was pretty straitlaced. When I wrote her, it was more an exploration of all the things I wasn’t able to do or experience.”

Tell us about working with DP Sam Levy, who shot Mistress America and Frances Ha with you.

“We started working on it and talking about it a year before we even began pre production, as we both live in New York and could easily meet up all the time. He’s wonderful and not only an artist but a good person to have on-set. And when you spend that long working with someone, you want someone like Sam. We discussed the look a lot as I wanted every shot to be very specifically framed — no handheld or documentary-style shooting. I love theater so we also talked about always having a sense of the proscenium. He shot with Arri Alexa Minis and these great old lenses — a mix of Panavision Ultra Speed and Super Speed Prime lenses, and I love the way it looks.”

Where did you do the post? 

“It was mostly all at Technicolor in New York, and we did the sound editing at C5, where Noah did Mistress America and Frances Ha, and on the Warners stage.”

Do you like the post process? 

“I absolutely love it, because it was the part of the whole process that I’d spent the least amount of time on before this, although I’d been in the editing room a lot of Frances Ha and Mistress America, but that’s nothing like doing it on your own. Editing is so intimate after spending months with a lot of people. It’s like writing again, almost a solo act, back to the beginning, and you share a brain with your editor. And I loved every step of it after we had it cut, and then working with colorist Alex Bickel, who’d first come on board during pre production, on the DI, and I loved sound mixing, and seeing how much all that added to it all. And then working with Jon Brion on the music. So it was this big voyage of discovery for me, and realizing how much I enjoyed post and the finishing on everything. Even doing the title design with a friend and designing the font was so much fun.”

The film was edited by Nick Houy. Tell us how it worked?

“He wasn’t on the set. He got all the dailies and started while I shot and then we really started digging into it together after the shoot.”

What were the main challenges of editing this?

“I always wanted it to have this feeling of time tumbling forward, so I wanted to capture that sense of a particular place in someone’s life where time is slipping away and you’re trying to hang onto it. So creating that was very satisfying for me, because even if we didn’t have something, you found you could use another piece and if you juxtaposed it just right, it suddenly all flowed and gave you the feeling I was after. I think finding the right tone was a big challenge and he understood what we were going for, that it should be light on the surface, and suddenly you get a glimpse of what is really going on underneath. And I found it very interesting when we started showing it to people — not big screenings, just a couple of friends — and we’d continue to refine it and start to realize that the film had its own life and logic that was working. Movies have their own will, in a way, and their own resistance outside of you messing it up.”

Can you talk about the importance of music and sound?

“They’re so important to me. I’m a huge fan of Jon Brion’s — he’s one of my all time favorite musicians and composers, so it was a big thrill to work with him. I wanted a structured, sort of old-fashioned score with lots of melodies, which is exactly what he gave me. I didn’t want it to feel just like background or ambient sound, and I loved having the score at the end. I wanted all the songs that are in the film, like Alanis Morissette’s 'Hand in My Pocket,' Justin Timberlake’s 'Cry Me a River' and Dave Matthews’ 'Crash Into Me,' to really feel like songs teenagers would listen to and love, just like I did. And I loved working on the sound design, and seeing it all come together.”

Are you going to direct again?

“Yes! I loved it. I loved every moment of it. I’ll probably direct more now than act, I hope, even though it takes a lot more time. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had.”