Directing: <I>Little Women</I>
Issue: November/December 2019

Directing: Little Women

Writer-director Greta Gerwig may have a slim resume as an auteur, but it’s an impressive one. With her first film, Lady Bird, the acclaimed indie actress stepped behind the camera and made an assured and polished directorial debut with a coming-of-age story which went on to score her two Oscar nominations — for Best Directing and Best Original Screenplay, as well as a Best Actress nomination for star Saoirse Ronan.

Now she’s followed that up with Little Women, her take on both the classic novel and the writings of Louisa May Alcott, which unfolds as the author’s alter ego, Jo March, reflects back and forth on her fictional life. In Gerwig’s film, the beloved story of the March sisters — four young women each determined to live life on her own terms — is both timeless and timely. Portraying Jo, Meg, Amy and Beth March, the film stars Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh and Eliza Scanlen, with Timothée Chalamet as their neighbor Laurie, Laura Dern as Marmee and Meryl Streep as Aunt March.

Here, in an exclusive Post interview, Gerwig talks about making the film, how other directors helped her prepare and why she loves post.

This is the eighth film version of the beloved book. Did you write this thinking, ‘How can I give this well-known period piece a fresh take’?

“First, I’d grown up with this book so completely that it felt like it was part of my life, my story, my sisters — it was part of my DNA. And then when I reread it as an adult, there was so much about it that jumped out at me as completely modern and different, and it felt so pressing. I had to make a film about it, because there’s something so utterly modern. And the book has so much messiness and bigness and ambition and strangeness I was interested in, and certain lines just grabbed me, almost as if they were written in neon, like Amy saying, ‘I want to be great or nothing!’ That’s from the book. Or Marmee saying, ‘I’m angry almost every day of my life.’ And I felt as if I were able to see behind the curtain and what was beneath all that.

Greta Gerwig and Meryl Streep, on set

“Second, I was doing a lot of research about Louisa May Alcott and her life, and I just felt, ‘This is now!’ The very first scene of the film where Jo is trying to sell a story to Dashwood, and him saying, ‘Morals don’t sell nowadays, perhaps mention that to your friend,’ is straight from the book — and it could be me sitting in front of a studio head wondering how much I’ll have to compromise what I want to make with what they’re prepared to finance. And it was that intersection of art, money and women that was so fascinating to me.

“Finally, I felt I had to do it because of how much the book and Jo meant to me, and to so many other women in the 150 years it’s been in print — including Patti Smith, Simone de Beauvoir and J.K. Rowling. None of us loved Jo because she got married to Professor Bhaer. We loved her because she was a writer and owned it and what she was doing. And the fact that Alcott had her get married, have kids and give up writing — that’s not Jo! That’s not our girl. And in the research I did, I could see that Alcott never wanted to end the book that way. She felt she had to. And after 150 years, if we can’t give her the ending she really wanted, then we’ve made no progress at all.”

What sort of film did you want to make?

“A vast, cubist, emotional drama. I kept telling everyone, ‘I want to deliver on what we love about the book — the sisterhood, the coziness, the family, the emotion,’ but then also give it this larger context that’s so present in the book and Alcott’s life. So I wanted to start when they’re all adults with separate lives and narratives, then make them all yearn for what the audience also yearns for — to have them at home in their childhood. I felt it was like exploding the iconography of Little Women and then putting it back together, so it puts in stark relief what I felt was so modern about it.”

This is only your second film. How did you prepare for directing it?

“Well, I always wanted to be a writer/director, but I didn’t go to film school, so all the time I spent on sets as an actress was like my film education, and I did a lot of different things as well as acting, because most of the early films were so low budget. On this I had world-class collaborators, from the actors to my crew, and we did a lot of prep trying to create a world that’s vivid and true, but also serving the story. I always watch a lot of movies and talk to a lot of people, and I had people read the script — people who loved Little Women and people who’d never read it. And having other directors and editors read the script was a big part of my process, as they look at how you put it together and actualize it. And they’d suggest different films and reference points. So I used every possible lead and connection.”

And stole every trick in the book?

(Laughs) “Yes, I think that’s what being a director is. You have to be greedy and take every great idea anyone has. I had so many ideas about how to approach this, and I just kept pulling more and more in from everyone.”

What did Saoirse Ronan bring to the role of Jo?

“She actually told me she’d be playing Jo when she heard I was doing this, which was a very Jo thing to do! She really understood Jo and she’s such a filmmaking partner and had so many great ideas, even down to Jo writing in a military jacket. She came up with that, as Jo wanted to be a boy in the book, and fight with her father in the Civil War. And she said that for her, the way Louisa and Jo write is like a military campaign. They’re taking over space and occupying territory with force, which informed how we shot all that writing stuff. That’s just one small example of what she brought.”

It was quite a coup getting Meryl Streep. I assume you made her audition?

(Laughs) “Yes, it was touch and go there for her, but she won me over. We had lunch and she told me ‘I’d like to play Aunt March, the battle-axe,’ and she also had great insights into the character and the whole position of women back then. She said, ‘You have to make the audience understand that it wasn’t just that women couldn’t vote or have jobs — it’s that they couldn’t legally own anything. Everything belonged to the husband, so who you married was the choice, the only choice. You could leave a marriage but you left with nothing, not even your children.’ And that really struck me.”

Where did you do the post? 

“It was at Harbor in New York, and we were there while we shot, and as we shot on film, we had that one day lag while Kodak processed it. Then for the second half of the edit we moved into a house. We did the sound mix on the Warner’s stage in New York, and then some on the Sony lot, and for the DI we did a Dolby Vision pass here at Dolby in LA and then the rest of the DI at Harbor with colorist Joe Gawler. There’s so many passes now.”

Do you like the post process? 

“I absolutely love it, and especially the editing. I love every part of the filmmaking process, and I do enjoy the euphoria of the set, but editing is so intimate after spending months with a lot of people, and it’s just like writing again, and very satisfying as it’s so slow and thoughtful, and you’re making the film.”

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

“He was on the set a bit and we’d watch dailies on Sunday night and make sure I had all the angles and coverage needed. But I don’t look at assemblies as I find them terrifying. And if I don’t know how it’s built, I don’t know how to fix it, so with Nick, we start at the beginning, with the first shot, and work through it from there.”

What were the main challenges of editing this?

“There were so many. We had to balance so many different characters and storylines and timelines, and little changes we made would have giant ripple effects. And we had to set up right from the start a sense of where the film was going and what we were up to, and layer a lot of stuff in, like when Dashwood says to Jo, ‘Make sure the heroine is either married or dead by the end.’ That broadcasts to the audience, ‘We’re doing a thing here.’ It’s a hint that the movie’s in charge, that the audience is invited to take the journey with the characters. And I love the fact that it’s so twisty and turning and that every scene has so many storylines going on. It’s complicated, and it took a lot of fine tuning. And Nick is always game to keep trying things, to keep working, and while it felt a bit like Whack-a-Mole, we’d continue to refine it and start to feel that the film had its own life and logic.”

Emma Watson and Greta Gerwig during production

Can you talk about the importance of music and sound?

“They’re so important to me, and I’m very involved as so much of who I am as a filmmaker is to do with rhythm, both in the music and dialogue. There’s a lot of music in this, by Alexandre Desplat, who did an amazing score, and I get quite neurotic about all the sound. We did an Atmos mix and also a 5.1, and spent a lot of time making them match.”

Are you going to direct again?

“Yes. I’d act again, but my priority is writing and directing now, as long as people will have me.” 

Check out more Oscar coverage online — including interviews with Little Women DP Yorick Le Saux and editor Nick Houy — at