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Courage Doesn’t Grow Overnight: Greta Gerwig on “Lady Bird”

The Telluride Film Festival has no shortage of visionary and risk-taking works of cinema in this year’s line-up, but Greta Gerwig’s intricately written, attentively directed solo debut “Lady Bird” (which she also wrote, loosely based on her life) undoubtedly belongs at the top of crop in the festival’s 44th year. Yes, “Lady Bird” is a coming-of-age story of a rebellious, outspoken teen. It looks so familiar on paper you might suspect you have seen this film before. But shortly after settling inside the film’s richly layered world where all side-characters are generously granted a journey around the beautiful central story of a mother-daughter relationship, you realize you are in for something unapologetically fresh. “Lady Bird” moves patiently, celebrates the details of life and lovingly nods to our own personal journeys as we move from the life-defining chapter of youth to adulthood. Gerwig’s accomplished film might look at a specific world, but it finds universality in the footsteps of a senior-year Sacramento high schooler, exquisitely portrayed by Saoirse Ronan with wit, angst and smarts. Plus, it offers the rare treat of a stellar ensemble cast, including Laurie Metcalf and Tracy Letts, with legendary stage roots.

I sat down with Greta Gerwig yesterday, after “Lady Bird” already screened multiple times across the festival and earned unanimous critical praise. She is aware of the love, but she told me she hasn’t really looked at the reviews yet. “I don’t read things while I’m in the middle of it,” she said. “Because it feels like I’m eating an entire cake.”

You attended Telluride before. What does it mean to you to be back here with your own, personal film?

When I came to Telluride the first time was five years ago [with “Frances Ha”], and it was magical. People throw that word around, but it really was magical. I felt it was the moment I more consciously set my course for [directing]; it was something that had been growing in me for a long time and it was something I’d always set my compass towards. When I was here, Sarah Polley had a film called “Stories We Tell”and Sally Potter had" “Ginger and Rosa," Haifaa Al Mansour had “Wadjda” and I went to those films. I watched those women talk and I thought, that’s where you want to go, and I don’t know how you’re going to get there exactly, but that’s where you want to go. I’d co-written “Frances Ha” with Noah Baumbach and it was a big step for me in terms of authorship, and I felt there was a certain fairy dust to this place. So getting in and coming back with this film feels somewhat poetically correct. I’m so grateful to Julie Huntsinger and Tom Luddy for letting the film in and it’s been completely terrifying and also completely thrilling.

I was at the first screening of “Lady Bird” on Friday night. That was a wonderful intro by Barry Jenkins.

Like he was saying, I’ve known Barry for a very long time, and it just meant so much to me, and I loved his film [“Moonlight”] so much, and I’ve watched his career, and I’m so honored that he did that for me. It felt like a real act of generosity that I couldn’t completely process, so obviously I started crying. It was a beautiful thing.

“Lady Bird” has many complex layers: the mother-daughter story at the center, the friendship with her best friend, romantic interests, religion … What was your entry point? How did you balance all these storylines?

Well as I was writing, I really wanted the film to be a kaleidoscope, not a pin hole. One of the very first scenes I wrote was the scene at the end of the film when she’s asked by someone, ‘where are you from?’ and she says, ‘Sacramento’ and he mis-hears her and then she says 'San Francisco.' In a way I wanted to reverse-engineer the film from that moment, and when she says that you feel like ‘oh, you’re selling out all these people we know and you’re selling out your home to look 10% cooler at a party to a stranger.’ I’m always interested in how big life is, especially when you’re growing up: you’re from a place that you really know, the many people you know (neighbors, and teachers and people at stores.) I wanted a feeling that this is a community and this is a whole world. I had a lot more plot lines in the 400-page version of the script. I had to pare back and cut down, because the central story was a love story between a mother and a daughter. It’s the thing you can hang your hat on.

Your film is really like an eco-system of all these personalities around her, but yes ... the center is mother and daughter. So how autobiographical is “Lady Bird”?

None of it literally happened but it all has an essential core of truth that I was going for. It’s hard to go back. I mean, I never made any one call me by another name. My mom would never give me the silent treatment. She says, ‘you wish I would give you the silent treatment,’ She saw it and said, ‘oh honey, you wish I would do that for you.’ But it’s more that it feels true, it matches the feeling, it rhymes with the truth. But breaking down what is real and what is not real, is really an impossible exercise.

What was it about Saoirse Ronan that made you think she was the right person for this role? Or did you write the film with her in mind?

I didn’t write it with her in mind. I don’t tend to write with actors in mind, or I haven’t done that before. When it’s your first film, you don’t generally think you’ll have Saoirse Ronan playing your lead, but she read the script with me. I visited her, she was in Toronto in 2015 for “Brooklyn,” and I was in Toronto for “Maggie’s Plan” and I had the script and she had said that she was interested. But we hadn’t met, and we needed to meet because it was such a big thing. We sat in her hotel room and we read, she read all of Lady Bird’s lines and I read everybody else and we read the entire script. And I think I knew on page one that she was right. She didn’t have to prove it to me, but I think I just got greedy because I loved the way she was saying it so much that suddenly I started getting ideas. She didn’t say it the way I heard it in my head. She brought a completely different thing to it, which was so much better than what I’d heard in my head. As soon as something feels right, you just want more of it because you want to fgure out how you’re going to shoot it, and what it’s going to look like. I mean, there was just no question I knew right away.

It’s funny, I interviewed her for “Brooklyn” that year and at that time, she was able to tell me her next film was going to be with a female director without the details. I was excited when it got announced a couple of days later.

She was about to go into rehearsals for “The Crucible” on Broadway so I was like, well we just have to move the film by eight months. Because once you know, she was the one, there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it. That’s just it.

Lady Bird needed to get away from her roots to realize what those roots really meant to her. And after she moved away, she owned up to her name "Christine." A lot of us go through that about our backgrounds. I certainly went through that when I moved away.

I think it’s a great tragedy of childhood that you only really appreciate it once it’s done, it’s very hard to feel appreciative of the gifts you have until you’re gone. There’s a myth of “Orpheus and Eurydice.” It always haunts me. They’re married, and he’s a musician and something happens, and she dies and she’s sent to the underworld. And Orpheus plays the saddest music of the world and the Gods are like, ‘Stop with the sad music. You can go back to the underworld and talk with Hades and see if you can get her back’. So he goes and Hades says, ‘OK you can have her back but while you’re walking from the underworld back to earth, you can’t look back at her.’ And he says ok, and somewhere on the ascent back up, she slips and falls and he turns around, and as soon as he turns around, he sees her receding, and I feel like that’s the moment Lady Bird is having at the end. It’s the turning around and they’re going away. I think that coming into focus just as it’s leaving is something that I wanted to feel. Jon Brion wrote this beautiful music and that was the last piece to go in, and it was this melody that peaks but then you just miss it. It almost just alludes you [to it]. He has this system where he reverbs the piano, like how Jimmy Hendrix reverbs guitars. It has this tracing effect so the notes continue out, and it emotionally felt just like what I wanted. Maybe it’s at the forefront of my mind because it was the last thing to get done, but that was that feeling, ‘oh, I realize it, but now it’s gone.’

You’re a creative force in American cinema, as an actress, as a writer, as a director, and this is the first time you’re solo directing. What took you so long to get back behind the camera? And do you see yourself directing more now?

Yes, yes, I’m definitely going to direct, I want to continue to direct. It feels very much like a calling. I didn’t go to film school, I went to a Liberal Arts College, and I felt like … I’ve been making films for 11 years now, and I feel like I was working on films as my film school because that was what was available to me and it was such an amazing classroom in a way. I co-directed, and then I was writing, co-writing and then I wrote on my own, and then it was just, there was a moment when I finished this script and it was done, when I felt you just have to jump. You have to do this, or you’ll never do it. And I’d always really wanted to. Courage doesn’t grow overnight. It can be a long process. Now I feel like that first mountain is probably the hardest, but it definitely needs to be crossed.

Tomris Laffly

Tomris Laffly is a freelance film writer and critic based in New York. A member of the New York Film Critics Circle (NYFCC), she regularly contributes to, Variety and Time Out New York, with bylines in Filmmaker Magazine, Film Journal International, Vulture, The Playlist and The Wrap, among other outlets.

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