Taking Flight: Greta Gerwig looks back on adolescence with acclaimed 'Lady Bird'

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In the past few months, Lady Bird has fluttered from film festival to film festival—from Telluride to Toronto to New York to the hometown of an authentic and even presidential Lady Bird (Johnson), Austin, Texas. In every instance, it’s been met with high praise.

First off, there’s actress Greta Gerwig, here conspicuously turning film director and solo screenwriter (heretofore, she has written her own starring-vehicle tickets with director Noah Baumbach: 2012’s Frances Ha and 2015’s Mistress America).

Lady Bird, an A24 release, is her first time out as this particular hyphenate. Here, she leaves the title role (basically, a paste-up of her own high-school self) to wiser, younger hands.

These hands are Brooklyn-born and Irish and belong to Saoirse Ronan, the Oscar-contending actress of Atonement and Brooklyn and a surefire one for Lady Bird.

“I didn’t have her in mind for the part,” Gerwig confesses, “but in 2015 when I was at the Toronto Festival with Maggie’s Plan and she was with Brooklyn, we met, hit it off and read the script. She did Lady Bird, and I did everyone else. I knew two pages in she was Lady Bird, but I didn’t stop her. I felt that she wanted to hear it all out loud.

“Saoirse Ronan is really such an incredible actress I can’t say enough about her. There was something about the way she did it that was instantly different from how I heard it in my head—so much better, so much more neat and specific to her.

“She has that quality of always being emotionally at a ten, which makes it that much funnier because it is all out of a place of sincerity. She never played the joke with quotes around it. She always played it from the inside, and it made everything vivid in a way that I’d always hoped for. But one just never knows if one’s going to find the exact person who’s going to be able to capture that—and she just instantly did.”

Not once did Gerwig consider playing her earlier self. “I very much wanted to be on the other side of the camera,” she admits. “Working as an actor is such good training for directing. Most directors are only on their own set and don’t know how anyone else does it. I’ve been on a lot of sets, and I’ve seen a lot of different ways of working and a lot of different ways of relating to actors and crew and seeing what works and what doesn’t work. I activated all these ideas that I’ve been gathering over the years. They could be little things like having your crew wear nametags every day. That sounds small, but actors actually reach out to the camera operator and they don’t know who that is. I stole that from Mike Mills doing 20th Century Women.

“My greatest joy is working with actors and watching them bring light to things I’ve put on the page that are essentially dead until they bring their spirit and artistry to it. I adore them, and I think they know that. I have a lot of empathy for what I’m asking of them because I’ve been there and it’s hard. I try to bring sensitivity to it.”

Like everybody short of Mother Teresa, what Gerwig really wants to do is direct—only, instead of a proper film school, she went to Barnard College in New York City. But by the time Lady Bird materialized, she had worked in films for a decade and had already done one of everything. “I’ve written, I’ve co-written, I’ve held the boom, I’ve edited, I’ve costumed, I’ve applied powder.” That left directing…

“I was like, ‘You’ve always wanted to do this. You’re not going to get any more information. You’ve just got a job. You’ve got to go do it.’ And I loved doing it. It’s a wonderful experience making the film, and I hope I continue to act in projects that I love with directors that I admire. But now that I’ve torn the Band-Aid off, I’m going to continue writing and directing films. Hopefully, I’ll continue to do all this.”

If Ronan’s a surefire nominee, then Laurie Metcalf is a slam-dunk one. She plays her mother rather combatively but not without sympathy for one contending with a chronically rebellious teenage daughter who knows much less than she does. She scoops out tough love by the carton-ful, making her case as a loving, caring adult.

“I knew I wanted an actor who could hit a home run and make you feel like she’s an exciting discovery—though, to anyone who pays attention, Laurie’s no ‘discovery.’”

Best known for an assortment of television roles (most notably, Roseanne’s sister), Metcalf is a fixture of Chicago theatre and a founding member of the Steppenwolf company there. She fares well in other towns, too, grabbing the Tony last June for Lucas Hnath‘s audacious Broadway update of Nora Helmer in A Doll’s House, Part 2.

“I’ve seen her on stage, I think, more than anyone else,” recalls Gerwig, “and, when I’d leave the theatre, I’d think, ‘I’ve never in my life seen anything like that unfold in front of me.’ So I knew that Laurie had this enormous power and this enormous skill set and empathy—everything that she brings to the characters she plays.

“She’s a bit like a great athlete. You have to see it. She didn’t spend a lot of time going on about the character. She just said, ‘I think that this is something I need to do. Sometimes things come into your life, and at that moment she told me—and she has said it publicly—‘I currently have a 17-year-old child who’s trying to kill me.’

“Working with her was extraordinary. I learned so much. Getting to watch her and Saoirse work together—it was a match of greats. Each had different ways of getting into it, but when they were in scenes together, you’re watching two heavyweights.”

Metcalf came with a dividend—another Steppenwolf stalwart: Tracy Letts, a Tony winner as both actor (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) and as playwright (August: Osage County). “They’ve known each other for 30 years, and they actually never acted together, but they felt there was something about the intimacy they had which gave [their film marriage] a reality and depth which is hard to achieve on the fly.”

As man of the house, Letts is something of a lame-duck candidate—easygoing and out of work. In the family dynamic, he’s a perfect “good cop” to Metcalf’s “bad cop.”

“Also,” adds Gerwig, “I like they’re Midwestern—close to what Sacramento feels like.”

Gerwig used her hometown—Sacramento, or, as Lady Bird dismisses it, “the Midwest of California”—but otherwise she went light on the autobiographical bits. “Nothing in the film happened in my life,” she insists, “but it has a core of truth that resonates with what I know. I wanted to make a movie that reflected home—what home means, how does leaving home define what it is for you and your love for it.

“It’s really a love letter for Sacramento—and what better way to make a love letter than through somebody who wants to get out, then realizes they loved it after all?

“This movie was framed around following this family and their particular world. In a way, it’s secretly the mother’s movie as much as it’s Lady Bird’s. That was the core relationship. I wanted that catch where you realize, ‘Oh, no, this is a love letter to the city, and it’s the mother’s story.’ Someone’s coming-of-age is someone’s letting go. I was just as interested in the letting go as I was in the young people’s stories.”

Gerwig wrote Lady Bird during several years of borrowed time between acting assignments. “It’s a little hard to know how long it takes me to write something, because I’m constantly writing, and then I don’t know what pieces will become something. What I do know is I’ve a long draft of this movie from December 2013.”

How long is a long draft? “Specifically, it was 350 pages of stuff. It wasn’t like 350 pages of narrative. Some scenes didn’t go anywhere. Then I looked at it and figured out what felt essential and what felt like the core of the story for me. I don’t decide what the core of the story is before I write. I write to figure out what the story is.

“The characters end up talking to you, telling you what they want to be doing and what’s important to them. In a way, your job is to listen as much as it is to write.”

Gerwig set the film a few years after her actual graduation—and not for vanity: for a smart reason: “I wanted it to be a post-9/11 world when we were starting our invasion into Iraq. I feel like this huge thing happened then, and we were ushered into a new age of global politics almost instantly. Everything was shifting, and we knew it was shifting, but it was also in a way invisible. There’s a sense sometimes in movies that your personal life happens over here and politics happens over there.

“That is not the way anybody lives. Everything goes together. You’re living through the historical moments the same time you’re dealing with your children or your work or whatever is going on in your life. I thought that the thing that was coming through and coming up was the beginning of not just a geopolitical moment but also the Internet and cellphones and all the stuff which is now defining everything.

“To make a movie about teenagers now, you have to use cellphones. So much of your life happens online, and I don’t think that’s cinematic. It felt like this story, in a weird way, was the last generation you could make a film about without doing that.”