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LADY BIRD

Q & A With Writer/Director Greta Gerwig
WAS THIS FILM INSPIRED BY YOUR OWN LIFE?

I grew up in Sacramento and I love Sacramento, so the initial impulse to make the film was a desire to write a love letter to a place that only came into focus after I left. It is difficult to register the depths of your love when you are sixteen and quite sure that "life" is happening somewhere else.

None of the events in the film literally happened, but there is a core of truth that is connected to a feeling of home and childhood and departure.

CERTAINLY THE SETTING, SACRAMENTO, HAS SPECIAL RESONANCE FOR YOU. WHAT MAKES SACRAMENTO A SPECIAL PLACE?

Joan Didion is from Sacramento and when I discovered her writing as a young teenager, it was spiritually seismic. It was as shattering as if I'd grown up in Dublin and then suddenly read James Joyce. She was my personal poet laureate. It was the first time I experienced an artist's eye looking at my home. I had always thought art and writing had to be about things that were "important," and I was certain that my life was not at all important. But her writing, so beautiful and clear and specific, was about my world. All the women she wrote about, I knew exactly who they were. The way they organized their closets, the things that they valued, the agrarian middle class worldview that shaped this corner of the country.

When people think about California, they tend to think about San Francisco or Los Angeles, but there is the massive central agricultural valley running down the middle of the state. Sacramento is located at the northern edge of it, and although it is the state capital, there is farmland in its bones. It is not a show-o-y city. It does not brand itself or try to sell itself. There is a modesty and an integrity to the place and the people.

WHAT WAS THE EXPERIENCE OF LEAVING SACRAMENTO LIKE FOR YOU AND WHY WAS THAT AN IMPORTANT COMPONENT IN THIS STORY?

One of the very first things I wrote for the film was the scene in college where someone asks Lady Bird where she is from and she lies and says, "San Francisco." That feeling of deep shame that comes from denying who you are was a moment I wanted to work backwards from, to build a movie around it so that when she rejects her home, the audience feels personally betrayed and hurt. As if they, too, were from Sacramento and knew the places and people intimately. Lady Bird sells out her home to look 10% cooler to a stranger she just met.

It is inevitable, perhaps, to deny your roots. I am not a practicing Catholic, but I have always been moved by the story of the Denial of Peter. At the Last Supper, Peter fervently tells Jesus that he will die before he disowns him, but Jesus replies that Peter will deny him three times "before the rooster crows." Peter still insists that he will not. Of course, Peter ends up denying that he knows Jesus on three separate occasions. The rooster crows just as he is saying for the third time that he is not a disciple of Jesus. Peter is then filled with despair at his own weakness.

However, after the resurrection, Jesus appears to Peter, and asks Peter three times if he loves him. Peter replies that he does each time. He is given the opportunity to repent through love.

These stories have always informed my writing and my ideas, finding a larger universal truth behind what are so-called "small" lives. Lady Bird denies where she is from, yes, but she also declares her love. We are granted the opportunity for grace, and we need love to accept it.

SO CHRISTINE HAS ALSO DENIED HER GIVEN NAME.

Yes.

WHY DOES SHE DO THAT? WHAT DOES THE NAME "LADY BIRD" SIGNIFY?

Re-naming is both a creative act and a religious act, it is one of authorship and a way of finding your true identity through creating a new one. It is a lie in service of the truth. In the Catholic tradition, you are given a confirmation name, to name yourself after a saint that you hope to emulate. In rock and roll, you give yourself a new name (David Bowie, Madonna, etc.) in order to occupy this bigger mythical space.

Early in the writing process, I kept coming up against something that I couldn't break through. I put everything aside and wrote at the top of a blank page: "Why won't you call me Lady Bird? You promised you would." I wanted to get to know this girl who makes everybody call her by this odd name. The name came out of something mysterious. I had not thought of it before I wrote it. I love the way it sounds. It's jaunty. It's old fashioned. Writing the script was getting to the heart of that girl.

Later, I remembered the Mother Goose rhyme "Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home." It is about a mother returning home to make sure her children are safe. I do not know how these things lodge themselves in our brains, or why they come out when they do, but it seems to be an essential part of the creative process for me, the unconscious unfolding of something you know without knowing.

SO THE STORY'S STRUCTURED AROUND LADY BIRD'S SENIOR YEAR IN HIGH SCHOOL. WHY WAS THAT AN IMPORTANT MOMENT TO SET THE FILM AROUND?

When you are a teenager in America, you organize your life around academic years: Freshman, Sophomore, Junior, Senior. It always made sense to me to tell the story of the whole year. The rituals of the year, the circularity. The way we end where we began. It is a spiraling upwards. Senior year burns brightly and is also disappearing as quickly as it emerges. There is a certain vividness in worlds that are coming to an end. There is a pre-sentiment of loss, of "lasts." This is true for both parents and children. It is something beautiful that you never appreciated and ends just as you come to understand it. The way time rushes forward is a theme of the film, one scene tumbling into the next. We can never hold onto it.

SO YOU MENTIONED THAT YOU'VE CO-WRITTEN SCREENPLAYS BEFORE, BUT THIS IS THE FIRST TIME THAT YOU'VE DIRECTED?

Yes.

AS YOU WROTE THE SCRIPT, DID YOU ALWAYS INTEND TO DIRECT IT?

Writing for me takes a very long time. I don't even really know how long. Maybe years, because it isn't linear. It's a character or a scene here and there. I tend to overwrite, hundreds of pages worth of dross. Eventually I'll pare it down and find the essence. While I'm writing, though, it seems impossible that it will ever be a movie. So the idea of directing wasn't consciously something I was considering. However, once I had the script finished, I knew I would direct it. And I knew that it was what I had been intending all along. I just couldn't let myself know it because it would have frightened me. I've wanted to direct for as long as I can remember, but courage is not something that grows overnight.

AND WHAT WAS THE PROCESS OF DIRECTING IT LIKE? WHAT DID YOU LEARN THROUGH THAT PROCESS?

I am still learning about directing, and hopefully I will never stop, even when I am in my eighties and just repeating myself. To catalogue everything I've learned would be both boring and impossible.

One thing I can say for certain is "always hire people who are smarter than you are." That quote came from the late, great cinematographer Harris Savides, by way of my director of photography, Sam Levy. This is true for everyone from actors to set decorators to poster designers. I had the great luck of being surrounded by people who were, indeed, smarter than me.

The other thing is that the title "director" isn't quite right. It implies that everything is there in front of you, only needing to be "directed." I think the French have it expressed more accurately, as the "realisateur." The director is the person who "realizes" the fi lm. As in they cause it to happen, give it actualized form, make it exist. No one will ever know the films you don't make, and they have no earthly reason for existence, other than that you realize them.

WHAT WERE SOME OF THE BIGGEST SURPRISES YOU ENCOUNTERED WHILE YOU WERE MAKING THE FILM?

The caliber of collaborators I had is the biggest surprise, and the one I am most grateful for. I just couldn't believe that these wildly talented people were dedicating their time and their gifts to this fi lm. From Scott Rudin and IAC Films signing on to make it, to Lois Smith showing up to play Sister Sarah Joan, every person involved was far beyond what I could have imagined. That was surprising. It continues to be surprising.

WHAT WERE SOME OF THE BIGGEST CHALLENGES AND REWARDS OF THE PROCESS OF MAKING THE FILM?

The most rewarding thing was watching the actors work. I had written these lines alone, and heard them in my head, but suddenly they were being brought to life and embodied in ways that were far better than I could have ever imagined. I think there are some directors who wish they could clone themselves and do every job, but I am not one of those directors. The process of letting other people bring their whole selves to it, their spirit and their creativity, is one of the great joys of the process. The challenges? Every step was a challenge, but all of that falls away in my memory of making it.

HOW DO YOU THINK THE FACT THAT YOU COME FROM THE WORLD OF ACTING INFLUENCES YOUR STYLE AS A DIRECTOR?

Having worked as an actor, one thing I am very sensitive about is the audition process. I've been in a lot of humiliating audition situations, and I know what it feels like to bring in something you've really toiled over and have the people not even look up at you. I couldn't cast every wonderful actor that I saw, but I could give them respect and consideration while they shared their art with me.

I also have a very strong sense that actors need to have a secret world outside of the director. They need their own connections with each other, and I don't think the director really needs to be a part of that. I wanted to give them this space to play. I would do things like set up a meeting with the costume designer and one of the actors that I wouldn't be at, because I wanted them to have their own private language, and the sense that they were creating this character together.

Of course, I would give input and say what I liked and didn't like, but I didn't want to intrude too much. Part of being an actor is really having to own the character, and if someone is always telling you, "no, no, no, it's like this; it's like that" you never really feel like the part is yours. My job was to create a perimeter so they could take it over from me, because it wasn't mine anymore.

ARE YOU PLANNING ON DIRECTING MORE FILMS GOING FORWARD?

Yes, I am. I will.

HOW DID YOU COME TO CAST SAOIRSE, AND WHAT MADE HER SO PERFECT FOR THE ROLE OF LADY BIRD?

I met with Saoirse Ronan at the Toronto Film Festival in 2015 when she was there for Brooklyn. I sat in her hotel room and read the entire script out loud with her. As soon as I heard her say the words, I knew beyond a doubt that she was Lady Bird. It was so different and so much better than I had imagined. She was willful and funny and heartbreaking, both universal and specific. She was going into rehearsals for The Crucible on Broadway, so it meant pushing the film for six months, but there was no other person who could have done it, it was hers two minutes into the read.

WHAT WAS THE PROCESS LIKE OF DEVELOPING THE CHARACTER WITH HER, AND HOW DID THAT CHARACTER EVOLVE THROUGH THE FILMING PROCESS?

The scripts I've written barely change at all during filming. Every single line is said the way it was written. Film is not primarily a medium of words, but I come to it from a love of theatre, so for me the language is paramount.

However, the process of creating a character is a collage art. Saoirse was acting on Broadway, and I would feed her little pieces bit by bit. I would give her a novel or a poem or a song or a photograph. As we cast more people, I would gather them for mini-rehearsals. I wanted the actors to start creating a magical bubble of make believe with each other.

As we got deeper into rehearsal before filming, Saoirse and I spent hours talking together and hanging out so that by the time we were shooting, she would be the person I'd ask about what Lady Bird would wear in a particular scene or how she would walk or sit. Saoirse developed an entire physicality around the character that informed the way I wanted to photograph her, the rhythm of the shooting and the emotion.

THERE ARE A LOT OF RELATIONSHIPS THAT YOU EXPLORE IN THIS MOVIE, BUT IT FEELS LIKE THE HEART OF THE FILM IS A MOTHER-DAUGHTER STORY.

Yes.

WHY DID YOU CHOOSE TO PUT THIS RELATIONSHIP IN THE CENTER OF THE FILM?

The mother-daughter relationship is the love story of the film. For a long time the working title of the movie was Mothers and Daughters.

Generally with films about teenage girls, the story centers around one boy: the prince charming, the answer to all of life's problems. And I don't find life to be like that at all. Most women I know had infinitely beautiful, incredibly complicated relationships with their mothers in their teenage years. I wanted to make a film that put that at the center, where at every moment you feel empathy for both characters. I never wanted one to be "right" and the other to be "wrong." I wanted each to be painfully failing to reach each other, and I wanted to reward their ultimate love at the end. To me, those are the most moving of love stories. The romance between a mother and daughter is one of the richest I know.

SO, LAURIE METCALF.

Oh, Laurie Metcalf.

WHAT MADE YOU FEEL LIKE SHE WAS RIGHT FOR THE PART?

I did not grow up watching television, so I didn't know Laurie from "Roseanne." I knew her as one of the great stage actresses, a person who had shaped modern American theatre. I wanted someone with that much depth and range and power, like a prize-fighter who can level a competitor but also stay light on their feet. That is Laurie. She brings so much humanity and pathos to Marion and still has hairpin comic timing.

Her Midwestern-ness was also an aspect that deeply appealed to me. She and Tracy Letts are both from the Midwest and there is something very grounded about both of them. They are workmanlike, not showy or grandstanding, even though they both have more than enough talent to be that way. It was a good approximation of Sacramento's humility.

Before I had my meeting with her, I was doing press for a movie I had made with Ethan Hawke. I knew they had worked together in the theatre, so I asked him what the experience was like. Ethan stopped the next interviewer from coming in and grabbed me by the shoulders and said: "If you should be so lucky that Laurie Metcalf would want work on your movie, you will see what a true artist is. Everyone else is just pretending to do what she actually does."

You can't really talk about a great athlete, you just have to watch them do it. As soon as we started rehearsing, it was all there. We could have shot it the first day.

IN WHAT WAYS DO YOU SEE LADY BIRD AND MARION BEING SIMILAR TO EACH OTHER? IN WHAT WAYS ARE THEY DIFFERENT, AND HOW DO YOU SEE THE SIMILARITIES AND DIFFERENCES PLAYING INTO THEIR TENSION?

Lady Bird and Marion are two sides of the same coin. Their similarities are what make them so close and also so contentious. I loved that Saoirse and Laurie were almost the exact same height. From the very first shot, I wanted to show them to each be the other's other side. One person and yet separated.

Some of this is generational. Growing up as a woman in America was something completely different for Marion than it was for Lady Bird. As a woman born in the 1980s, Lady Bird is part of the generation where it was suddenly possible to have big, ambitious dreams for yourself. Marion comes out of the post-World War II 1950s culture. Roe v. Wade would have been passed while she was in her twenties. Her parents would have lived through the Depression. Even arguments about "how we treat our things" are deeply rooted in their respective generations. I think we underestimate how much those differences cause tension between mothers and daughters.

THEIR RELATIONSHIP FEELS EXTRAORDINARILY REAL. WHAT WAS THE PROCESS LIKE OF WORKING WITH THEM TO DEVELOP THIS DYNAMIC?

As anyone who has fought with a family member knows, there is never really a new fight. You've had it a million times. It's these well-worn grooves where you could almost recite the other person's lines for them. I wanted to create that sense of repetition, of a lifetime of fighting and making up.

We shot the first scene in the last week, the massive fight in the car. By then, they were completely locked into each other. They knew each other's rhythms and energy. I think that one dysfunctional way people can express intimacy is to fight, because you only fight with people you really know. I wanted that fight to feel intimate. From the very first take, they were on fire. For a long time in the edit, I was using the entire shot from that first take. That was how alive and connected they were.

WHAT ABOUT LADY BIRD AND HER FATHER, LARRY? WHAT IS THAT RELATIONSHIP LIKE, AND HOW DOES IT DIFFER?

Larry is Lady Bird's hero. She adores him completely and cannot bear that she has caused him pain or that he has sadness that she cannot fix.

I love Tracy Letts as an actor and as a writer, but I felt that I had never seen him cast in a very gentle part. He often plays people who are intellectually rigorous and strong but bordering on assholes. And he's great at all of that. However, when I met him at Sundance, and he was so warm and had this real sweetness about him that I had never really seen explored, either on stage or in a film. He was Larry to me. Brilliant and kind and able to bring emotional depth to this character.

WHAT IS LARRY'S ROLE WITHIN THE FAMILY DYNAMIC?

Larry is the person who quietly balances everyone. He is the ballast. He loves his wife and he loves his daughter and he wants them to see each other the way he sees them.

TELL ME ABOUT WORKING WITH TRACY, FLESHING OUT THE CHARACTER.

Tracy is one of my favorite writers of all time, and what I valued most about working with him as an actor was how he would talk to me about my script. He is one of the most intelligent readers of scripts I've ever encountered. He wants to understand it from the inside out. Some of the questions he posed helped me to sharpen my script and hone my instincts for what I was going for. He is economical as an artist and encouraged me to find the essence of the piece.

The things that were the most fruitful were his few well-placed comments and queries. It put us in a dialogue about the character and the film and made my movie richer and more realized.

THERE'S THIS SENSE THAT MARION AND LARRY HAVE THIS INTENSE BACKSTORY. THERE'S A LOT OF HISTORY THAT'S NOT OVERTLY EXPOSED IN THE FILM. DID YOU DISCUSS WITH LAURIE AND TRACY A BACKSTORY FOR THOSE CHARACTERS? HOW DID THAT GET DEVELOPED?

There's a scene early on in the movie where Marion makes a joke, and Larry makes a joke back, and they both laugh. They both really laugh. To me, that says everything. They like each other. They're okay. Of course they have had good things and hard things over the years, and it has not all been easy, but this is not a story of a marriage in trouble. People who can laugh like that are okay. That is all Tracy and Laurie and the skill they have as actors to fi ll out the sense of a life in a minimum of time.

One piece of their backstory that we did discuss was Marion being older when they got married, and she didn't think she could get pregnant. So they adopted, but then she unexpectedly got pregnant. I could have laid it all out in an expositional fashion, but families don't go around explaining themselves. They just exist the way they are, they know what bonds them together and makes them a unit. I've always liked movies that don't over-explain. Sometimes things in movies are explicitly spelled out, whereas in life, we just encounter all different types of families and don't always get a backstory.

WERE THEIR LIVES BASED IN ANY WAY ON YOUR OWN PARENTS?

They are their own characters, and exist in the fictional universe of the film. However, there is a generosity to my parents, their ability to open their home to people who need it, which I have always found very moving. They taught me that genetics isn't what makes family, love does, and that you must always share what you have in any way you can.

CAN YOU TALK ABOUT MIGUEL AND THE ACTOR WHO PLAYS HIM, JORDAN RODRIGUES?

I wanted Miguel's relationship to his parents to be much easier, much less fraught. He never fought his mother the way Lady Bird does. But he and Shelly have fallen into that strange liminal space that so many college graduates find themselves: you have graduated from college, but your adult life has yet to really begin.

They are professionally stalled. Both are very smart (Berkeley) and very conscious (veganism), but they haven't figured out how to translate their ideals into modern work life. The piercings don't help. That caught-in-between thing that they are going through also provides nuance to Lady Bird's idea that college will be her chance to "get out." It is the counterargument to that very straight narrative. I think we often imagine our lives to move in a line when really they are curving and swooping and doubling back.

Jordan was very funny in his audition, but he also has this incredibly sweet and vulnerable side, which was essential for where he had to go in the story. When he shows up at the job interview, you suddenly see his need and his fear. You see the child he was and the man he's still becoming.

It was very important to me that every single character outside of the main orbit of Lady Bird and her mom, whether it was Larry or Miguel and Shelly or Father Leviatch or Julie or Mr. Bruno, was a character that if you focused on any one of them, you could make a whole movie about their lives. That they were real people. That they were not just functions in Lady Bird's life. Everyone is in their own opera. In a big ensemble movie, you don't have a ton of time with every person, so every scene needs to be impactful. To do that, you need actors that can bring that sense of a whole life outside of the moment you're seeing them in. Miguel is an annoyed older brother, but then also just a struggling kid himself.

HOW DID YOU COME TO CAST LUCAS HEDGES IN THE ROLE OF DANNY?

I saw Lucas in Manchester by the Sea at Sundance at one of those 8:00 in the morning screenings and afterwards I couldn't stop crying or thinking about his brilliant performance. We got him the script and I met with him in Los Angeles and told him he could play any part he wanted to. He picked Danny, which was exactly what I was hoping he'd do.

WHAT IS IT THAT LADY BIRD FINDS PARTICULARLY APPEALING OR ATTRACTIVE ABOUT DANNY?

Lady Bird is at that moment where she loves love and is looking for an object to project that onto, and Danny is such a good object. He's nice and he's handsome and he's the kind of boyfriend you dream your daughter brings home. What I always felt about Danny was that Lady Bird isn't wrong to love him, she's just wrong about what form it should take. The thing she feels drawn to is still real. No, he isn't being his true self, and he isn't ultimately interested in her romantically. But he really does like her, and he really does want to be around her, because she is wild and arrogant and free. He just is so crushed by certain expectations of his family and the world of the Catholic community in 2002.

So much progress was made in LGBTQ rights and awareness in the past fifteen years, but 2002 was a distinctly different era, especially in places that weren't big urban centers. When I was in high school, no one was "out." No one. You couldn't be. You would be beaten up or worse. Thank God that's changed. But it is not ancient history. That just happened. Now, it's such an amazing thing to see kids feel more comfortable in their own skin and accepted by their communities. Danny so badly wants to be the person that Lady Bird wants him to be, and although it is a denial of who he is, it is still incredibly loving and endearing. He wishes he could be her perfect boyfriend. But he ends up being her perfect friend.

WHAT IMPACT DOES THAT RELATIONSHIP HAVE ON LADY BIRD?

Initially, Lady Bird sees Danny as being part of the story of her life without seeing his story. Then, when he visits her at the coffee shop, that is the moment when Lady Bird starts her transformation and sees him as a person with his own narrative. I don't think people change in an instant. But in that moment, suddenly the weight of his personhood hits her, and that is when her story starts to turn.

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