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LADY BIRD

Q & A With Writer/Director Greta Gerwig (Cont'd)
LET'S TALK ABOUT KYLE. HOW DID YOU COME TO CAST TIMOTHEE IN THE ROLE?

Timothee auditioned for me, and he was just a tremendous actor, so young and talented and intelligent. He went to Columbia University, he's a pianist, he speaks French and Italian and he's honestly quite intimidating. There was something about his supreme intellect that I thought would work really well for Kyle. Kyle is a frustrating character, but he's very sharp. It's easy to laugh at his ideas, but they are grounded in real capacity for deep thought. Timothee could do it in a way that felt authentic.

I gave him a lot of literature to read about socialism, economic theory, and mathematics, and also academic writing about the internet. There is a book of essays called The Internet Does Not Exist, which I loved, and gave my copy to Timmy. He read it, as well as the notes I had taken in the margins. He was slightly shocked that I shared so much of Kyle's worldview. He said to me, "Everyone will think that you're Lady Bird, but actually, you're Kyle." I had him watch My Night At Maud's, the Eric Rohmer fi lm, so he could absorb the rhythms of a young man who is certain he is right talking at a woman, not to her.

WHAT IS IT THAT LADY BIRD FINDS ATTRACTIVE SPECIFICALLY ABOUT KYLE?

Through Kyle, Lady Bird experiences that knock-you-over sexual attraction for the first time. The stage directions read "She understands all R&B songs in one second." It is true lust. She constructs a narrative about him that doesn't exist, because that's what teenage girls do.

I would play a lot of songs from John Hughes movies on the set, from Pretty in Pink and Sixteen Candles. Movies that I love. Women are raised on these romances, and they are very hard to shake as ideals. Even when it is incredibly clear that the object of your a ection is not behaving like a movie-star heartthrob. I wanted the fi lm to both be inside of the fantasy and outside of it: to feel the intensity of the emotions while acknowledging that they are a house built on sand.

HOW DID YOU FIND BEANIE FELDSTEIN FOR THE PART OF JULIE?

Beanie Feldstein walked in and auditioned for Julie, and she did exactly the performance you see in the movie. It was just right there, right away. It was very emotional, very open, funny but not arch, and never self-pitying. There was a resilience in it. After she walked out of the audition room, I had a full-on Hollywood moment of turning to the casting directors and saying, "That is our Julie."

WHAT DOES THAT FRIENDSHIP MEAN TO THE CHARACTER OF LADY BIRD?

It is the pure friendship-love of her youth. There is a quality, when you fall in friendship-love with someone in high school- and usually I think it happens in high school because it is the first time you have any real autonomy-where you literally could spend every waking hour with them and still want more. The minute you are dropped off at your house, you call them and say, "What are you doing now?"

I like appropriating movie tropes from girl-boy romances for other relationships, like a mother running through the airport to find her daughter, not a man looking for a woman. Similarly, the moment when Lady Bird goes and gets Julie for prom, it has the same feeling of "Go get your girl!" that you get from heterosexual love stories. It's the boom-box-over-the-head moment, but with your best friend.

I COULDN'T HELP BUT NOTICE THAT A LARGE CHUNK OF THE CAST HAS THEATRE BACKGROUNDS.

Yes.

WAS THAT A CONSCIOUS CHOICE WHILE YOU WERE CASTING OR DID IT JUST SORT OF HAPPEN ORGANICALLY?

I love theatre actors. I love theatre. I'm a theatre nerd. My first love was theatre and I've never gotten over it. The veteran actors in this film, Lois Smith, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Laurie Metcalf, and Tracy Letts, are people that I've watched and admired and read about for years. They are these giants of American theatre. Having Scott Rudin's help was key in accessing this caliber of actor. Every time I go to his offce, I see all the posters on the wall, and they represent the very best of fi lm and theatre, some of my favorite things ever made.

LET'S TALK A LITTLE BIT ABOUT THE SPECIFIC YEAR WHEN THE FILM IS SET, 2002.

The glib answer is that I wasn't interested in shooting smartphones. If you make a fi lm about teenagers now, so much of their lives happen online that I don't know how you'd make a movie about them without shooting a lot of screens.

The more honest answer is that I wanted to make a film that took place immediately in the post-9/11 world, what I think of as ushering in an entirely new era which we are only now beginning to understand. My goal was not to comment on global politics or domestic economy, but to present it. We lived through the complete erosion of the middle class. We are still living within that new economic landscape. The invasion of Iraq is a very vivid memory for me, although I was in college, not high school, when it happened. And, of course, we are still there today, we have not pulled out all of the troops. I was interested in the modern televised war, the propaganda of it and the theatre of it. How the horror is both available to you but also completely managed and distant.

There is the terror of war and the uncertainty of the job market, and there are also crushes and friendships. Life doesn't divide itself up into subjects. There's not history over there and personal life over here. It all happens together.

YOU TALKED A LITTLE BIT ABOUT HOW THE ICONOGRAPHY AND THE NARRATIVES OF CATHOLICISM HAVE INFLUENCED YOU AS AN ARTIST AND YOUR POINT OF VIEW. HOW DO YOU THINK THAT CATHOLICISM FIGURES IN LADY BIRD'S LIFE?

Early in the film, during the credit sequence in the church, the first words spoken are: "In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit." This is always said in mass, all the time, constantly. As a teenage girl, you think: "Well, where am I in those people? I'm not a father, son or holy spirit." I guess you could strive to be the Virgin Mary, but that seems to be off to the side, not the main event, somehow. It's a feeling of, "Where do I fit in this patriarchal structure?"

I think religion is storytelling, a way to create meaning in life, and it's diffcult if you don't see yourself reflected in it. Lady Bird is running into this problem, and railing against it.

However, Lois Smith's character, Sister Sarah Joan, presents an alternative side to Catholicism. She is not gushy or saccharine, but she is solid and loving in a matter-of-fact way. She's a bit of a hard-ass, but very invested in the lives of her students. She presents another option, another way of expressing faith.

The idea of grace, theologically, is fascinating to me. It is not something that you can earn, it is given to you. It is not because you're a good person that you get to experience grace. Baptism is a moment of grace. You could see it as saving babies from hell, but you could also see it as experiencing love and grace before you have been able to do anything at all to "deserve" it. A definition of grace that I've heard is that it is generous, free and totally unexpected and undeserved. This kind of grace continually happens to Lady Bird, and her journey is one of accepting it.

Lady Bird is not a specifically religious character, and she doesn't have a mystical experience, but it is the occasion for her transformation. The place that she is from and the tradition she was raised in gave her both roots and wings. She goes back to the church in the end because it is home, but she cannot stay there. She can only move forward and accept the gifts that have been given to her and say "thank you."

WHAT ROLE DO YOU SEE CLASS PLAYING IN THE FILM? LADY BIRD HAS SOME CLEAR SHAME SURROUNDING HER OWN CLASS STATUS. WHY IS THAT IMPORTANT TO THE CHARACTER?

I don't think anyone ever feels like they have enough or are enough. Lady Bird's particular fixation with class is grounded in something real: her family is struggling financially. Also, they are caught in a squeezed middle class, where the majority of resources and money are being shifted to the top. However, one of the themes of the film is recognizing the riches of your life, understanding how much you have, not how little you have. In a hyper-capitalist society where there are have and have-nots, it's difficult to connect with the feeling of "enough," but it is part of her journey.

Also, I think girls have it much rougher than boys when it comes to connecting their self-worth to their family's financial situation. Boys had the same pressure, but there was less status conferred by things, and they always had the escape route of sports. If you were good at sports, you were safe. The culture of girls centered around how much money your shoes cost and how fancy your car was.

Part of being a teenage girl was wearing your money by the brands on your clothes. You wanted people to know how much you spent on what you owned. It is something that Lady Bird both finds incredibly distasteful but also envies.

WHY DID YOU CHOOSE TO END THE MOVIE IN NEW YORK AFTER LADY BIRD WENT OFF TO COLLEGE?

I don't think endings are ever real endings and I don't think beginnings are ever real beginnings. You are always in the process of looking backwards and wrapping up a story that seems to have ostensibly ended. Taking off in the plane: that's a false ending, and a false beginning of a new story. She isn't done with her old life simply because she gets on a plane.

There is a Quaker concept that I thought about while making this fi lm, the idea of "Way Opening" and also "Way Closing." "Way Opening" is the feeling that the next steps are clear to you, that where you have to walk is laid out for you. "Way Closing" is the opposite. It is looking back from where you came and realizing that the doors are closed. The end of the film is a moment of both "Way Opening" and "Way Closing." There is nowhere to go but forward, as you can never run backwards into childhood. You can just express your thanks and put one foot in front of the other into your new life.

OKAY. LET'S TALK A LITTLE BIT ABOUT SOME TECHNICAL ASPECTS OF THE FILM. TELL ME ABOUT YOUR COLLABORATION WITH CINEMATOGRAPHER SAM LEVY AND WHAT YOU GUYS WERE AIMING FOR WITH THE LOOK OF THE FILM.

Sam Levy has shot three movies that I've been in, two of which I co-wrote, and I've been incredibly blessed to have him as a collaborator. I love the way he sees the world. We would spend hours together looking at photographs and films, shot listing and talking about movies. There was a shared language we had that came through years of work together and I trust him completely. He felt like the other half of myself, and we had a shorthand that was invaluable while making the film.

I wanted every shot to be very specifically framed, like a Medieval triptych, quite presentational. Nothing shaky or handheld or documentary. We talked about always having a sense of the proscenium, of the film unfolding in a series of placed scenes like Stations of the Cross presents the story of the Passion. I had always seen the story as a kind of an allegory and I wanted the photography to reflect that.

We also wanted the color to look like a memory of a time, not to be literally exactly how the world looks. At the same time, we didn't want to pretty it up too much. I wanted Sacramento to look beautiful because it was portrayed honestly, the same way I wanted the characters to be beautiful because of their flaws, not in spite of them. We looked at the paintings of Wayne Thiebaud and Gregory Kondos because they captured the color and the flatness and the beauty that is specific to Northern California. The density of the pastels they used always feels like home to me.

So to achieve that Sam Levy and I worked very closely with our colorist, Alex Bickel, who is a real artist. He was with us from the beginning, and helped us to set the look of the film. There were a lot of tests, a lot of trial and error to find our look. I kept saying that I wanted to feel as if the film was "over there." I always wanted to feel the frame and to feel the medium of cinema.

TELL ME ABOUT THE EXPERIENCE OF EDITING THE FILM AND WORKING WITH NICK HOUY.

Nick Houy actually came to me through Jen Lame, who had edited Frances Ha and Mistress America. Editing is like writing the film again, and when Nick initially read the script, he responded with very careful notes that felt like a writer. He understood the tone we were going for, how it was like a pop song that you only realize is sad when someone else covers it at a slower tempo and you really listen to the words.

I like films that catch in the middle, that you don't realize are weaving a story underneath you. Mike Leigh is one of my favorite filmmakers, and his films have that quality. Nick Houy understood the lightness I wanted, the way the film would be frothy and exciting like waves breaking on a beach, but that then suddenly the undertow would become apparent and before you know it, you are in much deeper waters than you expected.

ANYTHING YOU HAD TO REMOVE THAT YOU REALLY LOVED IN THE EDITING? ANYTHING THAT HAD TO GO? Most of what was in the script is in the movie. Because I wrote a few other films and was very involved with the editing process, I had a good sense of what we would want in the final version.

There were some things. A goodbye between Julie and Lady Bird which I had to remove because it felt like they had already said goodbye. There was also a campaign speech when Lady Bird runs for Student Body which just didn't fit.

Mostly, though, the difficulty was recognizing that I couldn't use every single great take that my actors gave me. I had to pick just a single line reading, and they all gave me such incredible material with every take.

EACH SPACE THAT YOU USE IN THE FILM HAS A VERY DISTINCT PERSONALITY. IT COMPLETELY FITS THE TIME PERIOD. IT FITS PERFECTLY INTO THE STORY. HOW DID YOU AND YOUR PRODUCTION DESIGNER, CHRIS JONES, ACCOMPLISH THIS?

I met Chris Jones when I worked on Mike Mills' movie 20th Century Women. That film had such a specific world. It was Santa Barbara in 1979 and he did an incredible job at creating something very particular. He was sensitive and careful. He knows the meaning of one chair versus another chair, if that makes sense. He knows that objects carry story and psychology and personality. Also, Chris is a painter and so he has a very strong sense of color and the emotion of color. He treated every set as a still-life painting, you could photograph it all on its own and it would transmit so much information and feeling.

OKAY. THE COSTUMES. THEY'RE UNASSUMING, BUT EVERY COSTUME IS INCREDIBLY SPECIFIC AND PERFECTLY FITS THE CHARACTER. CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT YOUR COLLABORATION WITH APRIL NAPIER?

April Napier also came as a recommendation from Mike Mills. I sat down to meet her and we were wearing the exact same outfit. That felt like a sign if there ever was one. I gave her yearbooks to look at and we dug up old snapshots and magazines, all of the usual research, but I think what was really magical about her process was how she collaborated with the actors. They would have meetings on their own and then show me what they had discovered. She and Beanie came up with the little clips that Julie wears in her hair and her white Skechers. That kind of attention to detail is always what I'm looking for. I see every department as telling the story through their particular medium, and for her it was clothes.

WHAT ABOUT THE SCORE? WHAT WAS THE PROCESS LIKE OF WORKING WITH JON BRION? WHAT DID YOU WANT TO ACHIEVE WITH THE MUSIC?

Jon Brion is my all time favorite musician/composer/producer, and working with him was a dream come true. It is an old-fashioned movie score with melody, which is exactly what I had hoped for. I didn't want the score to feel like background or ambient, I wanted it to be very present and structured, in the foreground of the storytelling. The very first conversation we had he played a sketch of what would become the theme of the film. Lady Bird's theme, this descending tumbling melody, a falling down and getting back up. He already had an idea of woodwinds, which felt more delicate than strings but just as emotional.

He's nocturnal so I would fly to LA and I'd stay up with him all night. He'd start working on it at around 10 p.m. and stop around 6 a.m. We would talk, watch scenes from the movie, and then he would sit at the piano and write beautiful melodies to picture. Then we would stop and talk some more. About movies and life and everything. Sometimes I would just explain a feeling to him, and then he'd play something on the piano which was literally the musical equivalent to that feeling. Bit by bit, he built our score this way.

THE SONGS YOU SELECTED FOR THE FILM: THEY MANAGE TO UNDERSCORE THE EMOTIONAL BEATS, AND THEY ALSO CAPTURE THE TIME PERIOD. TELL ME ABOUT MAKING THOSE CHOICES AND WHY YOU MADE THEM?

I wanted the songs in the film, the needle drop moments, to be a real reflection of teenage taste at that time and in that place. I didn't want characters to be listening to music that they wouldn't actually know. Music is how teenagers connect to the world "out there," how they find articulation for their lust, their angst, their yearning. Some of the songs that are in the film I wrote into the script, like Alanis Morissette's "Hand in My Pocket" and Dave Matthews' "Crash Into Me." Alanis because she was my Patti Smith, my Kate Bush, my Stevie Nicks. She was a woman who wrote her own music and lyrics and performed the hell out of these very emotional songs that felt like they were written just for me. And I've always thought "Crash" is up there with the most romantic songs ever written. I remember playing it on a loop and feeling like nobody would ever kiss me. I don't know any other song that connects more deeply to teenage longing. Justin Timberlake's "Cry Me a River" owned the 2002-03 bridge and is so snarly and sexy and of that exact moment.

Often with period movies, the music and the design will all be from that exact year. If it takes place in 1955 suddenly every car on the road is from 1955, but that's not how the world works. You also have cars from 1951. Not all the fashion would be exactly up to date. It is the same with music-the hits from the 1990s were still on the radio.

Merrily We Roll Along is my favorite musical. My hope for Lady Bird is that it gives audiences a little bit of the feeling that I got watching Sondheim's Merrily for the first time. That sense of time slipping away, the future charging into the present, the bonds of childhood as only living on in memory. It is aching and beautiful and fleeting and the thing I always look for in art.

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