Originally known for her work on the mumblecore scene alongside fellow off beater Noah Baumbach, Greta has gone on to quickly own a distinct body of endearing work. But it hasn’t been easy, from trespassing the Chateau Marmont penniless, to starring in largely unnoticed standout independent flicks such as Greenberg or Frances-Ha.
On and off screen, Greta has a way of making you feel comfortable, letting you know that there are other women out there imperfect and willing to flaunt their flaws. It is those very flaws that led her to document her adolescence in the semi-autobiographical directorial debut Lady Bird which has put her at the top of her career. Now nominated for five Oscars she is certain to walk away a winner come March. Lady Bird is what the big screen was made for, bringing to life those unique characters, relationships & ideas that need urgent telling. But apart from all the newfound prominence, it’s the fact that she’s an authentic all-around talent that has Hollywood wagging its tail, writing, directing and acting in ways that we haven’t really come across. The film world was waiting for a voice like Greta to come forward. It was just a matter of time.
Saoirse Ronan and Beanie Feldstein, Photo by Merie Wallace, courtesy of A24
Let’s start with a quote.
Oh lord. Sometimes it’s so scary when someone reads a quote back to you because you just think, ‘Oh god, what did I say?’
No, don’t worry. You were talking about a time when you were walking around LA when you had just started out, with about $97 in your account and you ended up trespassing Chateau Marmont.
Yes, that did happen.
But there’s a positive spin to this because obviously, things are a lot better now. Do you feel like you have reached a place where you are comfortable in your career now?
Definitely. When I started out, for a long time when I was making films I still had day jobs because I didn’t make enough money to pay the rent. It’s hard to get going in the business of making movies because it’s quite competitive and certainly independent films are not very lucrative.
I’ve been extremely lucky that now I am able to have jobs that balance between writing, acting and now directing. Now I have a balance between being financially stable and also continuing to do work I really care about.
Luckily I’m still not much of a big spender so that does help. Although my best friend is here with me in London, which is really fun, so I took her out for lobster dinner last night. It felt very fancy.
How easy is it to switch roles? Now you have directed on your own, where I imagine you have complete control over how the film turns out but then when you are acting you have to revert to taking orders from someone else.
Yeah. I think the thing I will never do is direct myself. I think it would make me go crazy, I don’t know how people do it. I’m in awe of people who do it because I would just lose my mind. So because of that, my only way to act is to act for other people.
Luckily I’ve worked with some great directors; even in the past couple of years of my career I have gotten to work with Rebecca Miller, Mike Mills, and Pablo Larraín. Those are all some of my favourite directors and so getting to be on set with them and witnessing their process has deepened my own idea of how to direct and what should be done.
Did you get a lot of support on how to direct from people like Mike Mills?
Yes I did talk to them. I really used all the years that I’ve been acting, writing and producing as my film school. So I’ve been quite active in seeking out guidance and mentorship. Right before I started shooting Lady Bird I just called everyone I knew and asked them to tell me the things they wish they had known before they started directing. People were so open and I think it’s really interesting because often people assume that Hollywood is quite a competitive place, but I think the reality is that all directors know how hard it is to direct – there are so many ways to make a bad movie. So I have found that it’s actually a really supportive environment.
What was the best piece of advice someone gave you?
I think it was something Rebecca Miller told me, that Mike Nichols told her. It was about it being my first film and she said, ‘You only get to not know what you are doing once, and it’s very powerful so don’t miss it. You will do things that you will never do again because you didn’t know you were supposed to be scared of them.’ I thought that was good advice.
"I know people who are debilitatingly famous and I think that probably feels terrible."
Greta Gerwig on her rising star
Really? That’s interesting, like what?
I think it was the slight arrogance I had to create an entire musical in the middle of my movie, although you only see a snippet of it in the final cut. When I told people I was doing it they were like, ‘You’re going to do what?’ I told them all we were going to learn all these musical numbers and they said we only needed 30 seconds of it but I was adamant I wanted to shoot the whole thing.
A lot of people have picked up on the similarities between the basis of the film and your own story – Lady Bird grows up in Sacramento, goes to a Catholic all-girls school but dreams of going to New York. Coming from such a personal backdrop, does it surprise you that so many people have been able to relate to the film in lots of different ways?
I guess when I’m writing I just try to make everything as true to the characters as I can. Even though these are not the literal events of my life and it’s not autobiographical, certainly the setting in Sacramento and the school are very real to me. More than that, it’s really about this emotional reality of how you feel about home and how that feeling only comes into focus when you are leaving it. It’s about this idea that one person’s coming of age is another person’s letting go and the complications of that moment between a mother and a daughter.
So I felt like I wanted to make it true, not in the literal sense, but emotionally true. I’m a big believer in the idea that the more specific you make something the more universal it becomes, and I think cinema has the ability to reach across time and space and communicate something to you even if you have never been to that country or been alive in that time. You sense the truth behind it.
I’ve seen a few interviews where people say that they meet you and you are exactly as they would expect you to be from roles you have played because of similarities in your personality.
I don’t know if it’s that people feel they know me but in a very nice way I think that people, particularly young women, feel very intimate with me in a way that really moves me. I live close to NYU and there are a lot of 18-year-old girls around and they make me really happy for the future of film making because a lot of them are first-year film students and sometimes they’ll recognise me and get really excited. I get so excited for them because I can’t wait to see the movies they will make and how they are going to change the industry.
What I hear more than anything else is something like, ‘I am Frances’ [Frances Ha] or ‘Lady Bird and her mother are me and my mother’. People personalise it so they feel close to me but they also feel like they are me, so when they see me and talk to me it’s not just that they recognise me, it’s like they feel that we are friends. It makes me happy.
That’s good because I’m sure a lot of people in the public eye get tired of being recognised.
I know people who are debilitatingly famous and I think that probably feels terrible.
Saoirse Ronan and Greta Gerwig on the set of LADY BIRD, Photo by Merie Wallace, courtesy of A24
So what happens if you win an Oscar for Lady Bird? Do you think that will change things?
I’m still a writer/director. It’s still not the same thing. God, I have no desire for that kind of fame though. It’s lovely occasionally when someone recognises you and says they like your work but I have no desire to be Beyoncé. I’m so glad that she is Beyoncé and that there are women who are willing to occupy that space and can do it in a really profound way because I think visibility is really important but I’m really happy being pretty anonymous.
I read that you are considering starting up a film company to support young women in the industry, is that right?
I would like to. I would like to figure out how to start a production company to produce not just young women but a lot of different women.
I think if you have any kind of privilege or position of power then it’s imperative that you use that to pull up the next generation of people. I think I’ve been led by examples of that because I also went to an all women’s college [Barnard], so I really went all in for a female education. I watched all these alumnae from my college come back to speak with students and help them move forward, so it’s that example that I think is really important to carry on.
In a way, you spend your twenties hustling for everything and all of a sudden I turned 34 and I realised that I’m now in a position where I could help someone. To me, having a diversity of voices is so incredibly important.
Someone said something that I thought was pretty brilliant. They said they don’t think there is a concerted effort to keep women back from making films but the situation is so static that there needs to be a concerted effort to make sure that they do. I think that is right and I would like to be part of that concerted effort and there are some great organisations that really shine a spotlight on female filmmakers. This year I have been able to meet some of the women who have made movies over the past year and they’re extraordinary; Patty Jenkins with Wonder Woman, Dee Rees with Mudbound, Valerie Faris with Battle of the Sexes, Angelina Jolie, Kathryn Bigelow and Sofia Coppola. That’s an extraordinary group of women and also an extraordinary body of work, so to be included in that conversation is a great honour and so it seems like the moment to take that and get past it.
The reason those female filmmakers are so important is creating a more realistic narrative of women’s lives, and I think that’s a thread throughout the films you have written and directed, particularly in your portrayal of relationships between women. In Lady Bird, the mother/daughter relationship is so complex, and probably a lot messier than people want to believe. Do you feel a sense of responsibility to represent a truer female story?
Yes. I think, especially with mothers and daughters. Usually in movies mothers are either portrayed as angels or devils and that’s not what I see in the world.
I don’t think women should only make movies about women but I think I just tend to be interested in these relationships because they feel under-documented to me. They’re such a large part of who I am so I want to put it up on the big screen, writ large.
Also, it’s just so fun to give someone like Laurie Metcalf this role because she’s such an amazing actress and it’s so delicious to me to see people respond so well to her performance because it’s like, ‘No shit, she’s been around. This girl’s been doing it forever.’ That’s very moving to me. I think Meryl Streep actually started an organization to help fund women who are first-time writer/directors at the age of 45 or over. That’s very important too because we need women from all different age groups, socioeconomic backgrounds, cultural groups. They all have something to tell but their voices have been missing from the conversation for so long.
Setting the story of Lady Bird in post 9/11 America was an interesting moment of nostalgia. Why did you pick that particular period of time?
Well, I wanted to set the movie after 9/11 because I think for the United States it was a national trauma and it had repercussions in places as far away as Sacramento. It ushered in a lot of changes that I think we are living in right now that I think we were aware of but some of them felt like they were happening invisibly. I think it’s hard to identify changes as they are taking place.
The Internet was on the rise but it wasn’t really there yet – it wasn’t like everybody had a cell phone, there were no smartphones yet. There was this erosion of the middle class happening in the US, which had already been going on but was sped up in the early 2000s and is certainly very much present in American life right now. We were also getting into two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. So I felt like I could deal with the moment we were going into by going back in time and talking about it.
On a quite superficial level, I don’t know how you make a movie about young people today without really dealing with Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat, all these platforms.
"The intricacies of how people live and die by Instagram…I don’t understand that world for a teenage girl."
On understanding today's youth
It would be so different to make a movie about a girl like Lady Bird coming of age in today’s America, with social media, Trump, identity politics etc.
Yes. It’s a very different moment and the fact that so much of a young person’s social life is lived online now means that I’m not able to speak to that. I can’t figure out how to make that cinematic but I’m sure someone who is 18 right now will be able to figure it out. The intricacies of how people live and die by Instagram…I don’t understand that world for a teenage girl. Teenagers are so enmeshed in that right now that I wouldn’t be able to tackle that in a way that feels realistic.
We spoke to Miranda July recently, who I know is a friend of yours. She was talking about how she is often labelled as ‘quirky’, which isn’t a term she is comfortable with because it doesn’t necessarily deal with the complexity of her work. I think it’s a label people often give to you as well. How do you feel about it?
It’s so funny because I was having a conversation about this with my friend yesterday. It’s not really a compliment. There’s no male equivalent for the word ‘quirky’, just think about that. You could call a man ‘weird’ or ‘offbeat’ but people don’t call men ‘quirky’. I’m very suspicious of terms that are only used to describe women, in the same way, that there is no male version of a slut. I sort of feel like we need to find a better word.
Lady Bird is out on the 23rd of February in the UK in cinemas everywhere.
Feature image: Christina House