A Conversation with Lady Bird Writer and Director Greta Gerwig at the New York Film Festival

Greta Gerwig discusses her solo directorial debut, Lady Bird, a portrait of an artistically inclined young woman trying to define herself in the shadow of her mother and searching for an escape route.


Award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker, Susan Kouguell is a screenwriting professor at Purchase College, SUNY, and presents international seminars. Author of SAVVY CHARACTERS SELL SCREENPLAYS! and THE SAVVY SCREENWRITER, she is chairperson of Su-City Pictures East, LLC, a consulting company founded in 1991 where she works with writers, filmmakers, and executives worldwide. Twitter: @SKouguell

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“Someone’s coming of age is someone else’s letting go, and I was just as interested in the letting go as I was in the coming of age.”

– Greta Gerwig

About ‘Lady Bird’

Greta Gerwig’s solo directorial debut is a portrait of an artistically inclined young woman (Saoirse Ronan) trying to define herself in the shadow of her mother (Laurie Metcalf) and searching for an escape route from her hometown of Sacramento.

The Script

Gerwig: I had a very long draft of Lady Bird at the end of 2015 – it was 350 pages. Some of the scenes didn’t go anywhere, and then I figured out what was essential and the core of the story. I don’t decide on the core of the story before I write, I write to figure out what the story is. I think the characters tell you what they are doing and what is important to them, and in some ways it’s your job to listen to them and not just to write. To listen what they’re telling you.

On Directing

This is Gerwig’s first solo in directing. When Gerwig started production on Lady Bird, she had already been working on films for 10 years.

Gerwig: I apprenticed myself in many areas. I’ve been lucky enough to work as an actress with wonderful directors, but I’ve also co-written and co-directed, and held the boom, and costumed and had done makeup, was a production assistant, basically everything you can do on a film set. Even though it’s my first writing and directing venture, it’s also an accumulation of all I have learned over the last 10 years. I went to a liberal arts college, Barnard, and I learned by doing.

No, This is not an Autobiographical Film

Gerwig: Nothing in my life is in the movie. It has a core of truth that resonates with what I know. I wanted to make a movie that was a reflection on home, about what home means, and what leaving home means. What it means for someone who wants to get out and then realize they loved it. It was a movie framed around this family and following them, but secretly it’s the mother’s movie as much as it is a film about Lady Bird. I wanted that catch. It’s also the mother’s story; I wanted that reversal to happen. Someone’s coming-of-age is someone else’s letting go, and I was just as interested in the letting go as I was in the coming-of-age.

Greta Gerwig’s solo directorial debut is a portrait of an artistically inclined young woman trying to define herself in the shadow of her mother and searching for an escape route.

Saoirse Ronan (L) Laurie Metcalf (R)

Family Relationships

The family dynamics and the conflicts that arise between Lady Bird and her parents, brother and his girlfriend are relatable and avoid cliché sugar-coating. Lady Bird, a name she has chosen for herself (her given name is Christine), is just one of the defiant steps she has taken to show her independence from her family and the strict rules of the Catholic school she attends.

While the story follows Lady Bird’s journey in her senior year as she discovers first love and dealing with social and class conflicts, what distinguishes this high school coming-of-age story is the poignant mother and daughter relationship.

The characters are distinct and who they are and the choices they make are empathetic but not necessarily sympathetic.

(I wrote about family relationships in an earlier article for this publication.)

The center of the story is the mother and daughter relationship; Marion is often demeaning and overly critical to her daughter, Lady Bird, but this behavior is complex as we come to learn more about her own backstory, and see her navigating her current life and work. Her fear of losing her daughter to a college on the east coast pushes her daughter even further away; a realistic and layered character choice.

The Era and Setting

The film opens with a Joan Didion quote about the director’s hometown, where the plot takes place: “Anybody who talks about California hedonism has never spent a Christmas in Sacramento.”

Gerwig: I felt the story was a love letter to Sacramento.

The choice of setting in the story in 2002-2003, in a post 9/11 world was deliberate.

Gerwig: We were ushered into a new age of global politics. It was the beginning of not just a geopolitical movement but the Internet, cell phones, and the glib answer – to make a film now, it’s not very cinematic to show teenagers on their cell phones and I thought this was the last generation you could make a film about without doing that.

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