Untold stories: Greta Gerwig on Sacramento and female relationships
“This is me; this is Greta. Ask away.”
For a number of student journalists across the country, these words opened the chance to ask anything of one of the most up-and-coming directors of 2017, Greta Gerwig. Gerwig, writer and director of “Lady Bird,” answered questions about her directorial debut, her inspiration and her process during a student conference call Thursday, Nov. 30.
“Lady Bird” follows a self-named 17-year-old Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) through her senior year of high school. Desperate to escape her hometown, Sacramento, to the East Coast, “where culture is,” Lady Bird experiences the disappointment of first loves, arguments with her controlling mother (Laurie Metcalf) and the challenges of finding and defining oneself.
Not only has “Lady Bird” received critical acclaim, but Gerwig has also made headlines with her status a female director, a rare position the male-dominated Hollywood community.
“I think that this year has been an amazing year for women in film,” Gerwig said, citing recent films directed by women including Patty Jenkins, Angelina Jolie, Maggie Betts and Dee Rees. “It’s just an extraordinary year, and to be part of that conversation is very meaningful to me.”
In the short time since its Nov. 3 release, “Lady Bird” has broken the Rotten Tomatoes record for most “fresh” reviews in a row (164), received a variety awards for Best Film, Best Director, Best Actress (Saoirse Ronan) and Best Supporting Actress (Laurie Metcalf) from the New York Film Critics Circle, National Board of Review and Gotham Awards.
“It’s amazing to have it be received like this,” she said. “Everyone has pulled so hard for the film and put so much into it, and to get that love back is just extraordinary. It’s also completely intimidating, but it’s great. It’s a good intimidation.”
A Sacramento native, Gerwig captures the appreciation and love of one’s hometown. In focusing on Sacramento, she writes a love story to a city “less documented” than New York or Los Angeles or Chicago.
“I’m interested in those cities and those stories and those places. I think there’s a lot of richness there and a lot of things that we don’t get to see, and that’s what I’m always looking for when I go to the movie theater,” Gerwig said. “[I] hope that, in a way, someone will watch this and feel like they can make a film about the place that they’re in and not feel like they have to leave in order to make their artistic statement.”
“Lady Bird” was partially inspired by Gerwig’s own experience living in Sacramento and attending a Catholic high school, and she believes the specificity of the film is what has made it so widely recognizable.
“I’ve always been a believer in the more specific you make something, the more universal it will be. So, I didn’t want to make it any town; I wanted to make it this town and this people and these people,” Gerwig said. “Because I think the truth is that through that specificity, people would have a greater likelihood of connecting to their own life and their own hometown and their own families and where they’re from and where they’re going.”
In addition to spotlighting Sacramento, Gerwig makes a point to showcase complex female relationships. According to her, it’s a personal “goal” as a writer and director to tell stories about women and relationships between women. Before “Lady Bird,” Gerwig wrote and acted in “Frances Ha” and “Mistress America,” which are both also female-centric.
“I think in a way, the story is a story that is so universal. But because there’s been a lack of female creators that it’s one that’s less documented than male coming-of-age. I love male coming-of-age stories, and I have nothing against them. But I’m always interested to see what the female version of that is…And I felt that I had not seen that as much as I wanted to,” she said.
According to Gerwig, she loves romance “just as much as the next person” but didn’t feel that Lady Bird’s story should revolve around it. Instead, Lady Bird’s relationships with her best friend Julie and her mother take center stage.
“I was interested in emotional relationships that were just as deep and vivid and filled with love and complexity, but [that weren’t] a heterosexual romance,” she said. “I like taking things that are cliche in a way from heterosexual romances and putting them in another capacity.”
Gerwig’s twist on the heterosexual romance makes “Lady Bird” all the more pleasantly refreshing. In the film, a girls’ night replaces the stereotypical magic of prom night, and an airport goodbye doesn’t go as well as one would expect. These tropes of iconic romantic scenes might have felt stale if they were centered on romance, but Gerwig’s persistent focus on female relationships makes them feel new.
Much of the praise for “Lady Bird” surrounds the mother-daughter relationship that remains at the core of the film. Both Lady Bird and her mother are complex and stubborn characters, and their relationship is tumultuous and raw. They rotate between argument and understanding, and Gerwig explained that she’s interested in exploring how communication—or the lack thereof—affects our relationships with the people we love.
“I’m always interested in the way words fail us and the way that we use language not to say what we mean…And I think I’m always interested in the language underneath the language,” she said. “So many of the scenes with Lady Bird and her mom…her mom wants to tell her ‘I’m so scared,’ and she can’t say that because it’s hard to say what you’re actually feeling particularly when that feeling is fear. So, you say a lot of other things. You say that your room is not picked up, or you fixate on something else.”
Gerwig’s fascination with language and human connection stems from her own experiences as a writer.
“I think so much of who I am as a writer is a person who likes to listen. And I think one of the things that’s great about New York is that you’re always in this circumstance where it’s very easy to listen to people talk,” Gerwig said. “I think one of the reasons, for me, that the ending is so moving is that Lady Bird is finally able to use her language to say what she means, and she means that thank you and she says thank you.”
Throughout the film, the audience follows Lady Bird as she attempts find herself and define herself. This path of teenage self-discovery, Gerwig says, should be appreciated and embraced.
“I think the vast majority of 17-year-olds are figuring it out. And I don’t think that’s an indication of they’re never going to do anything. I think that’s an indication of being open and curious and looking for what the things will be.”
“Lady Bird” doesn’t have one specific path or passion, and according to Gerwig, this isn’t negative. In her own professional career, she has grown from actor to writer to director, and is still finding herself, too.
“If you follow your curiosity, the worst thing that could happen is you live a life investigating your curiosities,” Gerwig said. “Even if you never find a passion, it doesn’t mean that you haven’t had a very interesting life.”