Greta Gerwig spoke to Script magazine about creating the compelling mother-daughter tale, Lady Bird.
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Greta Gerwig is a unicorn. Indie gems like Frances Ha and Mistress America have solidified her place as a gifted comedic actress and a finessed screenwriter. Her new film Lady Bird, where actress Saoirse Ronan sheds her Irish brogue to play the titular teen intent on escaping her lower-class Sacramento upbringing, likewise establishes Gerwig as a nuanced and intelligent director.
Consider the subtle ways Gerwig signposts the film’s 2002 setting. When the high school guidance counselor warns Lady Bird that her New York dream colleges are academically out of reach, the headstrong senior counters that 9-11 will likely depress competitive interest and increase her chances. She’s not wrong. Sure, NYC has since bounced back with a vengeance, but Gerwig delicately reminds us how once upon a time, no one knew for sure if it would.
We like Lady Bird, even when she does unlikable things. She shoplifts magazines. She blows off her chubby bestie Julie (Beanie Feldstein) for the popular rich girl. And she steals the gradebook from her math teacher, who invites his students to recall their grades for him – honor code style. Lady Bird swears she was rocking a “B,” even though her teacher thinks it was more like “B-minus.” Lady Bird wins the argument – just another notch in her boundary-pushing belt. Even her self-anointed name (her given name is Christine), underlines her persistent rebellion.
But Lady Bird is kind at heart. When her boyfriend Danny (Lucas Hedges) tearfully comes out as gay and panics that his Catholic parents will disown him, Lady Bird comforts him with touching warmth. And she has a loving relationship with her docile dad Larry (Tracy Letts), who does his best to quell the constant tension between Lady Bird and her hyper-critical mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), whose refusal to use her daughter’s preferred handle triggers many a fight. To Gerwig, this mother-daughter struggle sits at the film’s core.
“Films about teenage girls generally center around a boy – the prince charming, who answers all of life’s problems, but I don’t find life to be like that at all,” Gerwig explains. “Most women I know had infinitely beautiful, incredibly complicated relationships with their mothers during their teenage years. Lady Bird and Marion painfully fail to reach each other, and at the end, I wanted to reward their ultimate love, because the romance between a mother and daughter is the most moving, richest love story I know.”
Gerwig, a Sacramento native herself, spoke to Script magazine about creating this compelling tale.
Tell me about writing the opening scene, where Lady Bird and her mother Marion are preparing to leave their hotel, and Marion is meticulously making up the bed.
In the first line of the script, I wrote: “Marion is making the bed in the hotel room,” because even though it’s such a little moment, it says everything about Marion’s character and who she is. I like to look at behaviors that only a specific type of person would do, and to me, this tells me that Marion is a person who takes care of things. She is a mother. The only person in the world who makes a hotel room bed, is a mother — and one from a particular generation.
The dialogue reveals so much about the characters, like when Lady Bird’s father says “I’m just like Keith Richards — happy to be anywhere!” you know he’s an even-keeled guy who quiets the noise around him. How do you negotiate writing expositional dialogue, versus writing organic expression?
I try to get into a state where I’m allowing the characters to talk to me and talk to each other, because in the beginning of the writing process, I don’t know who they are yet. And this is the most pleasurable part of writing, because they’re telling me who they are and what they want and where they want to go. They’ll often say things I had no idea they were going to say, and so much of the plot is built off of me consciously going through the dialogue that’s jumping out at me. But the actual writing — the gathering of material — is a very mysterious process. You’re sort of shuttling back and forth between something that feels quite unconscious and something that feels very deliberate. The fact that the main character calls herself “Lady Bird” came about when I was struggling to write a scene, so I put everything aside, and I wrote at the top of the page: “Why won’t you call me Lady Bird? You promised you would!” And I just looked at this line and said to myself, “Who is this person that makes people call her by a different name?” I truly have no idea where that came from. It wasn’t me.
The film had many different parallel storylines. Did you perfectly nail the order of things on the page, or did you do a lot of experimentation in the editing room?
One thing I learned from my experience writing scripts with Noah Baumbach for two movies, is that he’s relentless about trying to get it right on the page, because you only answer to yourself during that period of time, so you can really make it as perfect as possible. I don’t do any improvisation, and I don’t change anything once I’m on set. Because I spent so long on the script, I didn’t really have to fine tune the edit, which really serves the document and honors the performances that were given. The final cut is very, very close to the shooting script. Something like 95% of the script is exactly what’s in the cut, and in the same order.
There was a very nice dolly shot of Lady Bird’s classroom, that introduced the high school setting. Did you work closely with your cinematographer Sam Levy, to design all of the shots?
Sam and I have worked together on Mistress America and Frances Ha, and I love his eye. We started talking about the film, probably a year before we started pre-production. Because we both live in New York, we’d get together and look at movies and photographs and paintings, and we spent hours storyboarding and setting the look and creating a shared visual language. I think it’s important to over-prepare. Movies are one of the very few timed arts, and once you’re on that set and the clock is going, having a detailed plan actually allows you to be more spontaneous— not less spontaneous, because that structure underneath you lets you go off in a different direction, but still feel secure that you have all the shots you need for to edit.
I know you never saw Laurie Metcalf playing Jackie Harris on Roseanne, until after you wrapped filming, but that you highly regarded her as a stage actress. Was it intimidating to give Laurie notes on set?
Well, yeah! I have so much admiration for all of the actors, particularly for Laurie and Tracy Letts and Stephen McKinley Henderson and Lois Smith. I mean, they’re all giants to me. But I try to do rehearsals and have as much hangout time as I can. It breaks the ice and allows everybody to get to know each other, and I can watch everyone interact, which helps a lot. But still, you’re always a little nervous to give a great person a note. But the thing is, they’re great at taking notes. That’s why they’re great. They want you to direct them. They want a director.