Film & TV

Greta Gerwig on Lady Bird, Sondheim, and Loving Her Characters Too Much

Saoirse Ronan and Greta Gerwig on the set of Lady Bird.
Saoirse Ronan and Greta Gerwig on the set of Lady Bird. A24
Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird is a specific, personal story: one of a young woman, Christine McPherson, who has given herself the name “Lady Bird” and is at odds with the world around her. Her identity is in flux, she has ambitions, and she feels trapped. But as small-scale as this story seems, writer/director Gerwig knows that “the more specific something is, the more universal it will be.”

“As a film fan, and someone who goes to the movies all the time, I’m always amazed by how I can be brought into a world that I’ve never seen, and I will never get to see, and how it all resonates so much," Gerwig elaborates. "I think that’s what cinema can really do: bring something to people that they don’t know they’ll connect with, and they do.”

The 34-year-old filmmaker is thrilled that Lady Bird, coming nearly a decade after she codirected Nights and Weekends with Joe Swanberg, has connected with others the same way she looks to connect with films.

Gerwig admits to always wanting to take care of those around her, from her mother and father to her best friend and first boyfriend, as well as the characters she writes. “It’s a very deep impulse, and I cry when I’m writing because sometimes they go through stuff that’s hard, and I can’t stop that from happening.

“I want to hold their hand and treat them with respect even when they’re jerks,” she laughs. “And, you know, there are no bad people in my films. If people are jerky, they’re doing it out of fear.”
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Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf in Lady Bird
Lady Bird and her mother, Marion, played by Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf, respectively, are two such characters who both pointedly and unintentionally hurt each other at times. Writing characters as fleshed-out as them is something that, for Gerwig, takes a long time and isn’t done lightly.

“People say ‘acting is listening,’ but for me, writing is really listening to my characters, talking to each other, and letting them tell me who they are,” she explains. “Once I had Saoirse and Laurie, who are such tremendous actors, something we talked about was meeting these women at this particular moment, which is probably the hardest moment of their relationship.”

We meet Lady Bird and Marion while the former is in her senior year of high school, wishing she could get away from a town that feels horribly frustrating. Gerwig considers this stage of their relationship “the height of conflict, the height of vivid emotion, of what it means to let go.” It was important for her that the audience be aware “that even though you’re looking at this moment that is difficult, underneath it all there’s a tremendous amount of love between characters.”

The friction between Lady Bird and her mother is brought on by their similarities, as other characters point out. ”They’re flip sides of the same coin,” Gerwig explains. While shooting, she was pleasantly surprised to discover that Ronan and Metcalf were almost the same height. “When they turn in profile, they look alike, in this way which made you feel that they belong with each other. They love hard and they fight hard because they’re the same.

“So many moments in the film break my heart because they keep missing each other, but you ultimately know they’re going to be OK,” she adds. And as humorous as Lady Bird is, the film has its share of heartbreak.
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Saoirse Ronan and Lucas Hedges in Lady Bird.
Gerwig painfully and familiarly captures what it’s like being in high school, extending her scope to the teenagers in Lady Bird’s life, one of whom is her first love. Three scenes between actress Ronan and actor Lucas Hedges stand out most, each similar in staging but profoundly different in emotion: a dance, a kiss, and a hug.

“I saw them all in my mind," Gerwig says of the scenes. "They are really beautiful, and it’s so interesting to me because it’s three different moments of them coming together and it means something different each time. When he kisses her, it’s this romantic ideal of what it is. And when he falls into her and cries and she hugs him, it’s her realizing that she wasn’t wrong to love him, but it was just that the love was different than what she thought it was going to be. And that is so incredibly moving. That moment when you see it just flash across her face, she really sees him for the first time.

“Every time I watch that scene, it gets me,” she admits, crediting Hedges’ “tremendous talent and incredible vulnerability... You really feel everything that kid is feeling and understand him completely. And it’s so important.

“You just want to hug them. You want to be like, ‘Kid, you’re OK,’” she says about all of her characters, laughing a bit. This sentiment also extends to the adults, even those outside of Lady Bird’s family, all of whom have their own crisis of identity and understanding to deal with.

Stephen McKinley Henderson, who plays a priest at the school that leads the kids in their musical production of Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, is a perfect example. “Even a man of extreme faith can have something that feels like despair,” she explains. “He’s in the middle of his own opera. Every single person is.”

The decision to include the musical in the film speaks to how art and life go hand in hand. “There was a quality in Merrily We Roll Along that I wanted my film to have, which was this sense of time tumbling forward (and, in the musical’s case, backward) but flying by faster than we can hold onto it. It felt like it was a good mirror, in a way, for the movie that I was making. Merrily crosses from childhood to adulthood, and it felt like I was telling the story of adults and teenagers equally," Gerwig notes.

“Stephen Sondheim is one of my favorite artists, period, of all time,” she says, laughing while discussing songs from Company, Anyone Can Whistle, and Into the Woods that are included in an audition scene. “As a person who has made things that have touched me, Sondheim is at the top of the list.

“Sondheim is so witty and so hilarious and can write A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and then he can also write “Losing My Mind” [from Follies],” Gerwig adds. “I think that balance of joy and ache is something that Sondheim is so good at capturing and something that I wanted Lady Bird to have. I hope it feels hilarious and heartbreaking in that same way.”

Lady Bird. Starring Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, and Lucas Hedges. Written and directed by Greta Gerwig. 93 minutes. Rated R. Opens Friday, November 17, at Coral Gables Art Cinema, O Cinema Miami Beach, and the Classic Gateway Theatre.
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Juan Antonio Barquin is a Miami-based writer who programs the queer film series Flaming Classics and serves as co-editor of Dim the House Lights. Barquin aspires to be Bridget Jones.