About The Production (Con'd)
THE MEN OF LITTLE WOMEN
Louisa May Alcott wrote about the lives of American girls as few had before.
But she also populated her book with men-fathers, husbands, neighbors, teachers
and friends-as extraordinary as the women they love and support. This became
another core feature of Gerwig's adaptation. "One of the great things Greta took
from the book is how Alcott's men respect women as individuals. Her men are
partners, something we're still working towards in our times," says Pascal.
For the main cast of women, it was fantastic to see the men taking the
supporting roles. Says Eliza Scanlen: "Greta depicts the men as observers of
this magical connection the sisters share, wanting to be a part of it. The makes
for a really interesting dynamic we don't usually see."
"One of the great things about Little Women is that the men are secondary,"
adds Bob Odenkirk, who plays Father March. "They're not meaningless, they're
just secondary, because the movie is centered on the women's stories."
When the March girls discover they have a dashing young neighbor, Theodore
"Laurie" Laurence, he becomes both an honorary member of their circle and a
disruptor who will ultimately fall in love with two of the sisters. Taking the
role is Timothee Chalamet, who caught the global spotlight with his
Oscar-nominated role in Call Me By Your Name, as well as Gerwig's Lady Bird.
For Gerwig, Laurie and Jo are mirror images. "Jo is a girl with a boy's name
and Laurie is a boy with a girl's name," she notes. "He is the gender-flipped
twin of Jo. And what Timothee did with him was magical. As female viewers, we
all have had this experience of imagining ourselves as boys, because so many
main characters are boy, and we project ourselves into a boy's journey. But
through Timothee we see a boy projecting himself into a female world, which
makes for something really special."
Chalamet's chemistry with Ronan reignited. "Timothee matches Saoirse in
gorgeousness, talent and emotion, which was so necessary because Jo and Laurie
are doppelgangers," says Pascal.
For Chalamet, Laurie only comes into his own through meeting the March
sisters. "Laurie didn't have the most idyllic childhood," he explains.
"Financial holdings he does have but he never had friends as he was
home-schooled and essentially locked up with his tutor Mr. Brooke. So, when he
discovers such tantalizing and root-like relationships with these girls, it
allows him to grow."
As he grows, he also gets his heart shattered by Jo. She always seemed to be
his unquestionable soulmate, but their friendship existed outside the
rules-something Jo knows the formality of marriage would alter. Chalamet thinks
perhaps Jo and Laurie might have worked out in a more perfect world. "There's a
case to be made that their friendship could have led into a great married life,"
he says. "But an argument can equally be made that they're so similar they might
have torn each other apart."
However, these rules of society do shape Laurie and Jo's relationship, and
later, Laurie and Amy's. As they grow into adults, Laurie and Amy accept many of
the constrictions imposed by society, but underlying these is a very real love.
This is the fitting conclusion: where Laurie's love for Jo was intense but
ephemeral, the love he finds for Amy is abiding and deep.
Ronan loved reuniting with Chalamet in a whole other space and time from Lady
Bird. "Having gotten to know each other on Lady Bird really helped us to settle
straight into that brother-sister relationship," she says. "There's a level of
security you get from working with the same actor. He's also very brave as an
actor, willing to take risk after risk, which made him so right for Laurie."
When Jo leaves home to teach in New York she meets a man she'd like to think
of as a colleague: Professor Friedrich Bhaer who impresses with his expansive
knowledge of literature and confounds Jo with his critiques of her work. Taking
the role is French actor and filmmaker Louis Garrel, known for playing the lead
in Bertolucci's The Dreamers, who brings out Friedrich's complicated appeal to
For Garrel, the oft-villainized Friedrich is not Jo's biggest mistake, but
someone who lives in a heady realm Jo wants to be part of and has a very real
pull on Jo's emotions. "He represents the world that she desires and the world
that she dreams about: the world of books and intellectuals. But also, when two
people meet and suddenly something happens, sometimes there is no explanation
for it," he observes.
The scene in which Jo takes Friedrich's criticism like a gut punch is a
favorite for Ronan. She sees Friedrich as not so much dismissing Jo as preparing
her for the brutal subjective criticism and rejection that all young writers
must overcome. "When Jo storms from the room, it was one of the most
exhilarating scenes I've ever been part of," says Ronan. "I just loved doing it
with Louis. He brought a humility to Friedrich. He took lines that could be so
harsh and cold and instead made them very honest. You fall in love with his
honesty, an honesty no one's ever given to Jo before. No one's ever pulled her
down a peg or two and I think she's humbled by him in a way that affects her."
Mr. Laurence/Chris Cooper:
The March's enigmatic and affluent neighbor, Mr. Laurence-Laurie's
grandfather-might seem intimidating to the girls at first, but he reveals a
delicate, wounded heart, especially to Beth. Taking the role is Oscar winner
Chris Cooper also seen this year in A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood.
"Working with Chris was incredible," says Eliza Scanlen. "He has a gentle
soul that becomes so palpable in this character. He and Beth seem like
opposites, but they unite in their quietude. What I learned from watching him
work is that you are in control of yourself and your environment. As a person,
Chris has this quiet strength that really helped me be calm and to feel
everything in these scenes. He is one of those very special people who only says
something when they really feel the need, and you don't see that often. I feel
very honored to have him influence me in such a way."
Jayne Houdyshell, who appeared on Broadway with Cooper in A Doll's House Part
2, says: "I don't think I've ever seen Chris play a character like Mr. Laurence.
It was really fun to see him as this rather buttoned-up, shutdown gentleman who
finds his heart through the charm of the March women."
Robert March/Bob Odenkirk:
When the March sisters' father returns from the Civil War, his presence is a
quietly philosophical one in the often-boisterous home, but he is definitely not
the head of the household. Bob Odenkirk, known for his keen contemporary
portraits in Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul and Nebraska, enjoyed taking on this
period role so outside expectation.
Odenkirk notes that Alcott braided a lot of her own father, or at least her
favorite parts, into Robert March's persona. Though Bronson Alcott never went to
war, he was a teacher, Transcendental philosopher, abolitionist, reformer,
friend of Ralph Waldo Emerson and radical thinker often engaged in grand
projects. But he could also be a rash experimentalist , as when he whisked the
Alcott family to a utopian vegan commune known as Fruitlands, where they barely
had enough to eat.
After reading all he could about Bronson, Odenkirk brought in shadings of the
historical man. "Bronson was an interesting guy, a very enlightened person and
fighter for women and minorities. He was just on fire with new ways of looking
at the world. But he could also be lost in his head," he says.
Some scholars have surmised that Robert was the father Louisa May Alcott
wished for, a less erratic version of her own. "Robert has all the most
admirable qualities of Bronson Alcott," observes Odenkirk. "He believes in women
and believes they should be allowed to become what they want to be."
Playing father to such an incredible group of personalities was especially
gratifying. "My daughters in the film are some of the best actresses on earth
right now and it was a joy just to be around them. I was inspired daily by their
energy and their camaraderie," Odenkirk says.
John Brooke/James Norton:
First known to the March sisters as Laurie's tutor, John Brooke becomes a
pillar of support for the March family-and falls in love with Meg, though he
knows she must sacrifice a lot to be with him.
"I always saw Mr. Brooke as a kind of quintessential self- made person, a man
from the plains who came from nothing, a man who is brilliant enough to become
self-educated but doesn't have anything to fall back on," says Gerwig.
Taking the role is James Norton, the English actor known for his
award-winning work in British television. Norton describes John as "spiritual,
serious and a deep romantic." But rather than approach this scholarly man as
stiff and reserved, Norton homes in on how Brooke is utterly overwhelmed by the
sheer energy of the March sisters. "John is somewhat baffled when women arrive
in his life, as many men were at that time," Norton muses. "It's an endearing
kind of reaction that I found fun to play with."
Norton also enjoyed playing second fiddle to the female cast. "I couldn't
have been more in awe of the women who drove this project forward and it was a
privilege to be one of the men standing on the side-lines," he says. "I remember
one day the camera was tracking the four sisters while Louis, Timmy and I were
in the background doing our thing and we just loved being there to facilitate
THE MARCHES & THE WORLD: THE PHOTOGRAPHY & DESIGN
From the start, Gerwig always knew she wanted to bring audiences directly
into the lived-in world of the March sisters in all its chaotic beauty. It was
vital to her that their private home life crackle with kinetic energy. Equally,
as Jo and Amy venture into New York and Paris, she to immerse viewers in an era
rife with radical thinkers, modern art movements, the birth of photography, the
wages of war and changing fashions and social ideas.
Gerwig envisioned a look for the film the draws from paintings from the
era-from the European Impressionists to American master Winslow Homer-- but then
those paintings burst open into the raw, textured and unpredictable feelings of
To achieve this, Gerwig recruited a crack team. "Greta surrounded herself with
great department heads like our DP, Yorick Le Saux, who has done such beautiful
work with Luca Guadagnino, production designer Jess Gonchor and costume designer
Jacqueline Durran," says Pascal. "She wanted to work with people who were going
to elevate and challenge her, and then she also elevated and challenged them."
Collaborating with Le Saux to turn her strong internal vision into imagery
was a deep pleasure for Gerwig. "I knew I wanted it to feel kind of kinetic, and
light on its feet, and I wanted it to be beautiful," Gerwig recalls. "I wanted
it to feel like it had this energy of youth, and the camera to be very swirly. I
wanted it to feel like we're responding to the sisters in real time, and I knew
from Yorick's previous work that he had this energy, and he operates the camera
himself which makes it very personal."
They agreed they had to shoot on celluloid. "I wanted that connection to the
photochemical process of 1861," Gerwig explains. "Yorick lit the film with a
tenderness and shot it with an excitement that was exactly what I wanted. It
felt like a painting, but one we were being completely irreverent with, that
we're not treating as if everything's so precious, that we allow the characters
to rip through."
Gonchor, renowned for his highly detailed work for the Coen Brothers in such
films as No Country For Old Men, True Grit (for which he was Oscar nominated),
Inside Llewyn Davis and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, let the modernity of the
characters be his guiding force. "Greta's approach felt current, timely and
relatable. I felt like you could take these characters into a 2019 setting and
they would be as intriguing, but it just happens to be that they live in a house
from the 1860s," he explains.
The March home was the linchpin of his design. "The idea for the March house is
that it's run down on the outside but when you go inside, it's like opening a
velvet jewel box," describes Gonchor. "Inside it is colorful and warm and the
ambiance just makes you feel really good. We wanted everybody leaving the
theatre to want to live in that house."
Alcott never named the town where the family lives, but all signs point to
her having loosely utilized her own hometown of Concord, Massachusetts, a place
where past and future twined, home at once to Revolutionary War sites and to
Thoreau's Walden Pond. Gonchor did the same, using the entirety of Concord to
give the film a dynamic life beyond the house.
"Greta and I wanted a feeling of scale you rarely have seen. We asked lots of
questions: what was the geography, how close were the March's neighbors, where
was the train station? These things were important to us. Early on, I put
together an entire map of that became our foundation," he explains.
Ultimately, Gonchor's team would build the exteriors of the March and
Laurence houses side-by-side on the same property in Concord. (The property even
included a pond for the much-anticipated moment when Jo and Laurie go skating
and jealous Amy falls through the ice.) "I think this is the first time on
screen that you actually can see the geography between the two houses and how
these two families became friends," notes Gonchor.
It took 12 weeks for Gonchor's team to build the March house by hand. They
used nearby Orchard House-Louisa May Alcott's preserved historical home, which
is now a popular museum-as a constant reference. "You can see the original
Alcott house in the siding, the paint and simplicity of our March house,"
Gonchor explains. "I wanted it to be like a mushroom growing out of the land,
almost camouflaged so it doesn't stand out. Since we couldn't bring in huge
machines to level the land and put up the walls, it had to be done old style,
like they would have built a house in the past. Luckily, for three weeks before
production began, the house got to just sit in the rain and wind, acclimating
itself to the environment. The grounds even got overgrown a little bit, which
added to the feeling of life," he muses.
Recalls the executive director of Orchard House, Jan Turnquist: "Jess spent a
lot of time here carefully measuring and learning about every aspect of this
house. I was so impressed by the film's
concern for starting with authenticity, because I think when you start there and
then bring your own stamp into it, you can end up with something spectacular."
The interiors of the March home-the warm and inviting downstairs, the girls'
bedrooms and the attic that becomes such fertile ground for the girls'
imaginations-came to life in a warehouse in Franklin, Massachusetts. Meanwhile,
the more cavernous interiors of the fancier, if hauntingly quiet, Laurence house
were found within a sprawling mansion in Lancaster, MA. "We found a gigantic,
50-room house with just two people living in it as caretakers, and that was just
the right feeling," recalls Gonchor. "That's how I imagined Mr. Laurence and
Laurie, in this vast and lonely space like a void."
Though the Orchard House was too small to film inside, Gerwig did film on the
premises, turning the structure Bronson Alcott built as the groundbreaking
School of Philosophy and Literature (one of the first adult education programs
in the country) into Amy's childhood classroom.
To recreate downtown Concord, Gonchor used portions of the town of Harvard,
about fifteen miles west of Concord. "There was already a church and a big
general store from the late 1700s there and we built four additional buildings,"
he explains. "Then we brought in 60 tons of snow for Christmas."
Lawrence, Massachusetts, a former textile center and the home of poet Robert
Frost, stands in for New York City, circa 1868. "That was a massive
undertaking," says Gonchor. "There were no buildings over 11 stories in New York
at that time, so we were able to work with this small industrial city over a
six-week build. It was exciting to have it come alive as New York in the 1860s."
The New York boarding house where Jo comes to work as a governess was shot
inside and outside Boston's Gibson House Museum, a well-preserved 1860 rowhouse.
Other historic Boston locations include Emerson Colonial Theater, which becomes
the theater where Jo watches Friedrich watching a performance of Twelfth Night;
the Romanesque-style Park Plaza Castle, which plays the German Beer Hall to
which Jo follows Friedrich, and the 1896 Beaux Arts-style Steinert Building on
"piano row" across from Boston Common, which portrays Mr. Dashwood's publishing
To replicate the 19th Century Paris that Amy explores, the filmmakers
utilized The Crane Estate in coastal Ipswich, Massachusetts. "We couldn't go to
Europe," says Gonchor, "so we found this opulent castle in Massachusetts where
the gardens are rich, it's on the ocean and the scale is amazing. It has a
completely different palette, vibe, architecture and space from the Concord
For Aunt March and Amy's carriage ride along the Parisian promenade, a major
coup came when the production secured the permissions to shoot in the
never-before-filmed gardens at the Arnold Arboretum, Designed by Frederick Law
Olmsted, and now owned and operated by Harvard University, the Arboretum is
celebrated as one of Boston's greatest natural treasures.
"It was challenging trying to find 1860s Paris in Boston," admits supervising
location manager Douglas Dresser. "Once we saw the Arnold Arboretum, we knew
immediately that this was the place."
But it was not a slam dunk. At first the Arboretum was hesitant. They have
denied filming requests for their entire existence. But it was the legacy of
Alcott herself that made this request different.
"My initial reaction was how disruptive this might be and how it might alter
a day in the life of the Arboretum," says William Friedman, director of the
Arnold Arboretum. "But I started to think about Little Women and how it's part
of a period of New England history that we share. At this moment to celebrate a
story that's so deeply embedded in New England and has affected so many made it
feel like the right thing to do. We also saw a chance to spark a broader
discussion of what it means to have nature in the background, and how this
institution was born along a European model of great public spaces."
Gerwig is grateful to Gonchor for his intensive attention to detail, right
down to leaving scorch marks on the walls of all the candle-lit rooms. "Jess
understood that what I wanted to do was build a world you can live inside of
because it's that real," she says. "He understood that having a layer of dirt
and grime settling over things would make the movie breathe. And he also
understood how the house had to transform. There's this fire-lit warmth in
childhood that in adulthood becomes just a little colder, a little dimmer."
CREATING THE COSTUMES
Few stories hold out so much potential for costumes to unite character,
persona and period as Little Women. That's why Gerwig brought aboard costume
designer Jacqueline Durran, whose work has included both transporting costume
dramas such as Pride and Prejudice and Anna Karenina, for which she won the
Academy Award, and paradoxically, the intimate, contemporary films of Mike
Leigh. That combination was exactly what Gerwig was seeking for Little Women.
"Jacqueline completely understood that what I wanted was something strongly
designed and authentic and tactile but also just to feel like the everyday
clothing and not costumes, because that's part of what makes it feel modern,"
Gerwig says. "I wanted every piece of it to be researched and able to be
footnoted as based in fact, but also to feel part of the March family's world."
Durran had read, and adored, the book as a child but she had never seen any
previous adaptations. She decided to keep it that way. "My starting point really
was Greta's script and Greta's vision," says Durran. "She had done so much
research had completely absorbed the world of the Alcotts, this household of
artists, free thinkers and radicals, so we had a very strong place from which to
Soon, Durran was joining Gerwig in even deeper research for what would become
one of her most costume-intensive projects to date. Together, they perused vast
collections of Victorian photography, including the work of Julia Margaret
Cameron, the 19th century master photographer who brought her deep love for
literature to her work, and focused the camera on children and families,
allowing both to be seen in new ways. "The 1860s was the very beginning of
photography so you had a lot of art photographers doing exciting work," notes
Meanwhile Durran was also soaking in the painters of the era. "Of course,
Impressionism, both European and American Impressionism which came a bit later,
is a big influence on the film. But for me, Winslow Homer was a particular
revelation," Durran says of the enduring American painter known for his
expressive portraits of seascapes, farmlands, and the primal relationship
between humans and nature. "I felt his work was so appropriate to what we were
trying to create. In fact, that unusual floppy hat that Jo wears on the beach is
an ode to Winslow Homer's High Tide."
Durran began with some central principals. She divided the film into two
contrasting arenas: one inside the March house in the bohemian atmosphere of
freedom and creativity Marmee cultivates; and the other in the world-at-large
with its bigger possibilities but more rigid rules and high costs. She also set
out to constantly weave in bits of clothing passed from one sister to another,
and one time period to another, to reflect a hand-me-down economy.
She delineated a very clear color palette for each of the sisters: Jo
displays flashes of fiery red, Meg is in romantic shades of lilac and green,
Beth in tender pinks, and Amy in fresh tones of light blue. Similarly, Meg and
Amy are typically seen in "the crinoline cage" that defined women's clothing of
the era, whereas Jo eschews corsets and sickly Beth remains in the more
easy-going dresses of childhood.
The most important thing to Durran was allowing each sister to be fully
herself. "I felt it was important that each of their looks is a statement of
something. They each have a different but equally valid position in the way they
see the world," she says.
Durran continues: "Jo is a tomboy. She wants the freedom of being a boy and she
identifies so strongly with Laurie that they exchange clothing back and forth.
She's always in strong colors, if not red then she's wearing a deep indigo blue
or something that stands out."
"Meg, who is romantic and loves theatre, dresses with a bit of fairy tale
Medievalism, in the styles of the Gothic Revival that was very current at that
time. Beth, on the other hand, is the most homebound and child-like of the
sisters. She never really had the chance to grow up and see the outside world,
so she remains in soft and gentle pinks."
As for Amy, "She is absolutely the most fashionable of the sisters and even
before she goes to Europe, there is always something youthful about her,
something determined and smart."
Marmee was in some ways the greatest of Durran's challenges. "She has such
different sides to her. On the one hand, she is so maternal and on the other,
she is a radical. But I hope what comes across in her way of dressing is
practicality: she dresses so can jump into action when she is needed at home and
also go out into the world and help. The other thing was that we wanted there to
be a subtle sense of Marmee's influence on all of the girls, so that you see her
style echoed in theirs."
Meryl Streep's Aunt March sports the most historical look. "She has very
accurate Victorian costumes without the leaps of imagination the sisters have,"
Durran notes. "She represents the more straight-ahead world that surrounds the
March sisters and it works so well with Meryl's performance."
To her great pleasure, Durran had the chance to work with two legends of
British costuming in creating the film's sprawling wardrobe: filmmaker Christine
Edzard (Little Dorrit), who gave Durran access to the veritable time machine in
her Sands Films Costumes wardrobe warehouse; and Jon Bright, an Academy Award
winner for Room With A View who also maintains a costume house full of original
"I was very inspired by Christine, who created the costumes for Little Dorrit
without a single machine--that's what she's about in her approach. She has
extraordinary knowledge about 19th Century fabrics and fashions and she worked
on costumes for Jo, Beth and Laurie. John has a very different approach, but he
is equally a passionate expert-and he made Aunt March's costumes. Having them
both giving me advice was a great reminder that there isn't any one answer to
making a period costume."
As production drew closer, Durran began adding the next layer: collaborating
with the powerhouse cast. "Each costume emerged out of a mixture of references,
imagination and then the character interpretation that each actor brings. That's
how it comes alive," Durran observes.
The actors in turn were deeply grateful for how she helped spur and enhance
their performances. "Jacqueline understands how an actor finds her character
through what you put on," observes Watson. "Literally, the layers that you put
on in the morning help you go deeper into who the person is, starting with the
socks right through to the final piece of jewelry. She's an actor's costume
When principal photography wrapped, Gerwig's work was just beginning. Much of
the narrative structuring took place after, in the editing room, where she
collaborated closely with Nick Houy who also edited Lady Bird with her. At the
same time, she was convening with two-time Academy Award winner Alexandre
Desplat on the score.
"I wanted the music to feel classical, yet fresh in its classicism," says
Gerwig. "Alexandre and I talked about being bold with melody, and not being
scared of something lush. The music is more stripped down in their adulthood, so
it's almost like a music box starting up, and then just the faint strains of it
continue into adulthood. Alexandre knows how to use music to really create a
To "create a world" is perhaps an apt summation of what Gerwig set out to do
with this Little Women. It is a world that reflects on what Alcott experienced
in her own time, but that simultaneously taps into themes as rich and affecting
for people right now as they've ever been. "I had this movie burning inside of
me to make," Gerwig concludes. "I wanted to tell the story of women making art,
women making money, women making choices and about the way you can bring the
bravery of girlhood into adulthood. Sometimes when you follow a hunch about a
story, then it feels like the world bears you out. This story speaks to us still
because it's such a humanist work. It's a story of family and of human
connection that's not gendered, which has allowed it to transcend place and
Sums up Amy Pascal: "I think part of what feels so right about Little Women
right now is that it's about the wish that women can be strong the way we want
to be strong and at the same time be loved and respected. It's about striving
for that world where the power and art of women can come to the fore and all
people can be OK with who they are."
So much of what Alcott wrote in Little Women still stands in 2019, not least
of all these hopeful words from the novel: "I want to do something
splendid...something heroic or wonderful that won't be forgotten after I'm dead.
I don't know what, but I'm on the watch for it and mean to astonish you all
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