A long-celebrated creative force on the indie-side of Hollywood system, Greta Gerwig steps behind the camera for her solo writing/directing debut, Lady Bird. A deeply moving coming of age story, Saoirse Ronan plays Christine McPherson, a high school senior whose aim is to go away to college, far away from her family and what she perceives as her dead-end life. She’s both spiteful and idealistic, and the type who goes out of her way to differentiate herself from those around, even insisting that her friends and family call her by her chosen name, Lady Bird.
The opening film of this year’s Austin Film Festival, she talked about the process of making of bringing her story to the big screen.
“I spent a really long time working on the script. A really long time,” said Gerwig. “I wish I could write faster because it would make my life a lot easier, but it just takes me a long time to marinate all the different ideas and kind of let the characters tell me who they are. The characters, if you’re paying attention, know more than you do, which doesn’t make sense because it’s all coming from you anyway, but for some reason I find that to be true.”
“I think I just wanted every single character to feel like if you followed them they could have their own whole movie that would be rich and interesting and complex,” she mused about her creative process. “That’s something Robert Altman said. He was very fixated on the extras. He said, ‘Because if they’re on screen they’re the lead. I need them to look right.'”
When came to finding her army of lead characters, she called it the “combination of a long time writing, and then being so fortunate that the actors who are so incredibly gifted that they just bring this level of depth and complexity to each of the characters.”
For Gerwig, the heart of Lady Bird is the “about home and what home means, and how home is something that only really comes into focus when you’re leaving it, or that you think it’s beautiful or that you loved it. It’s hard to understand it while you’re there.”
While meditating on the concept of home, the film’s central relationship is the one between Lady Bird and her mother, Marion, played by Laurie Metcalf. “That was the anchor for the rest of it. Even in scenes where the mother and the daughter aren’t in the scene together, how does this tell this story? You learn how to love from the people who loved you first.”
“I wanted the mother and the daughter to both be deeply flawed and deeply beautiful and in equal parts,” she goes on, talking about building the complex of emotions between her two main characters. “You felt like at every moment that you could understand where they were both coming from, and also feel like, ‘Oh, god, why did you do that?‘ about each of them. Marion can say the wrong thing and Lady Bird can be a jerk, but then Marion can also do exactly the right thing, and then Lady Bird can be incredibly compassionate. They both have better angels and some devils.”
“I think the truth is, particularly for mothers in movies, mothers tend to be shown as either monsters or angels. I think there’s not a ton of movies that show mothers as just mothers. Not perfect people, people who are trying to make the right decisions. Sometimes makes mistakes, sometimes say the wrong things, sometimes do the wrong thing, but have their heart in the right place, but that doesn’t save them from screwing up. Sometimes they have adorable quirks, but rarely do they have, like, ‘You really messed that one up. That was not a good one,’ and still that’s not the whole story of who that person is.”
It was an idea Gerwig had wrestled with from the beginning, and even the first draft of her script was titled Mothers and Daughters. “That screenplay was, like, 350 pages. It was so long. I tend to write too much. It wasn’t like 350 pages of narrative cohesiveness. It was 350 pages of junk, and then I kind of look at it and see what feels alive and vital, and what feels like it can fall away.”
It wasn’t until she found the film’s title before the story started to take focus. “I put everything inside. Then I wrote at the top of the page, I have no idea where it came from, ‘Why won’t you call me Lady Bird? You promised that you would.’ I stared at the sentence. I was like, ‘Who’s that? Who is a person who makes people call her by a different name?'”
“I just kept pulling at that thread, and behind it was this character. It’s a totally mysterious process. I’ve always loved the name. I think it’s a beautiful name. I think two things I remembered, or one thing I remembered about the name was there’s there Mother Goose nursery rhyme, ‘Lady Bird, Lady Bird, fly away home,’ which must’ve lodged itself in my brain.”
“Then the idea of renaming yourself as being… it’s either religious or it’s secular. You can have renaming be something for your confirmation. You pick your saint name. That’s a saint you aspire to be like, or if you want to be a rock star or movie star you call yourself David Bowie or Prince. It does do things. It’s supremely confident. Like, wow, I’m going to occupy this thing that’s so big. It also means that you’re very insecure because you think that who you are is not enough. In a way that thing that just came out of me was really the key to the movie.”
As the film has moved through the festival circuit, there’s been a kind of inherit assumption to the autobiographical tinge to the character. “It’s funny because a lot of people think, ‘Oh, you must’ve been like Lady Bird,’ [but] in many ways I was the opposite. I never dyed my hair fire engine red. I never made anyone call me by a different name. I was very much like a rule follower and a people pleaser. I really colored inside the lines.”
“Being in Texas having her name be Lady Bird is a different thing than anywhere else,” she added with a smile.
Knowing the character on the page, Gerwig said that Ronan was given the script and “really, really responded to it. We met and we had this conversation. She said, ‘I’m from Ireland. It’s halfway around the world and I know it’s so different, but I’m telling you I know this in my bones. I know this girl. I know this story.’ We read the entire script out loud. She read all of Lady Bird’s lines and I read everybody else’s lines. It was just one of those things that I knew instantly. I knew instantly it was her. All of a sudden I just had all of these flashes of how I wanted to shoot it.”
When casting Metcalf as Lady Bird’s mother, Gerwig said she “knew I had to have someone who they punched the same weight class, and those two ladies do. I feel like I keep using boxing metaphors, but she really is like a heavyweight. I’ve never seen anything like it. She’s absurdly talented.”
Having co-directed Nights and Weekends with co-star (and co-writer) Joe Swanburg back in 2008, and though this was Gerwig’s first time behind the camera calling the shots, her experience readied her for what to expect on set. “I think in a way one thing that really well prepared me for directing [was] all this time I spent on set gathering information, both as an actor but also as a co-writer and a producer and a boom operator and sort of anything I could do, is that I didn’t come in with an illusion that movies are ever work like clockwork. This is what movie making is. It’s just one problem after another.”
“Knowing that it just makes you not have any sort of expectation that it’s supposed to be going differently.”
Lady Bird hits theaters in limited release Friday, November 3rd. Click here to see if it’s playing near you.