Life

Saturday 22 September 2018

Ladybird director Greta Gerwig: 'I'm at peak shock and happiness'

The 'Lady Bird' director talks to Tim Lewis about how it feels to be only the fifth woman to be nominated for a best director Oscar, the #MeToo movement and her longing for the pre-smartphone era

Saoirse Ronan and Greta Gerwig
Saoirse Ronan and Greta Gerwig

This year's Oscar nominations were announced in Los Angeles at the frankly antisocial hour of 5.22am. Greta Gerwig, whose very personal, coming-of-age debut film Lady Bird was hotly tipped, lives in New York but happened to be in LA for work. She woke up first at 3.30am: "And I said, 'No, it's not time' and I forced myself to go back to sleep." When she eventually surfaced just before seven, the nominations were headlines around the world. Gerwig made herself a coffee, had a shower and ever-so-casually checked her phone. There it was - she'd made the cut for best original screenplay. And "achievement in directing". Oh, and Lady Bird was in the running for best picture, too.

"I started crying and laughing and screaming," says 34-year-old Gerwig, who, until now, has been mainly known as an actor, often in comic roles. "And it sunk in… It's still sinking in. It doesn't quite feel real. You're still getting me at peak shock and happiness."

The Oscar selections were a personal triumph for Gerwig and for Lady Bird - its stars Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf, who play a squabbling daughter and mother, are also nominated - but it was an important moment for female filmmakers everywhere. Gerwig, scarcely credibly, is only the fifth woman to be shortlisted in the best director category at the Academy Awards in its 90 years. If she wins next Sunday, she will be only the second, after Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker in 2010, to take the honour.

"I remember very well when Sofia Coppola was nominated for best director and won best screenplay [for Lost in Translation in 2004] and what that meant to me," says Gerwig on the phone from New York. "And I remember when Kathryn Bigelow won for best director and how it seemed as if possibilities were expanded because of it. I genuinely hope that what this means to women of all ages - young women, women who are well into their careers - is that they look at this and they think, 'I want to go make my movie'. Because a diversity of storytellers is incredibly important and also I want to see their movies. I want to know what they have to say! So I hope that's what it does."

These have been a seismic few months for women in the film industry. The allegations against the producer Harvey Weinstein and others, while monstrous in their scope and detail, have led to the most positive kind of backlash: through the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, and the 50/50 by 2020 initiative, which aims to have male-female parity in the business world in two years. There's an optimism that Hollywood has changed for ever.

"I think it's going to shift much more quickly now," says Gerwig. "When studios are looking to hire now, they'll ask themselves - as they rightly should - 'Is there a woman who is qualified for this job?' That's tremendously important. And again, if I were running a studio, I would think that it's just good business. Because I look at the audience response to films made by women about women that have done incredibly well and I'd say, 'Well, that's a reason right off the bat'."

As for whether there are any plans for a co-ordinated style protest at this year's Oscars, in line with the black gowns at the Golden Globes or white roses at the Grammys, both orchestrated by the #TimesUp organisers, Gerwig is unsure. "I am not aware of a dress code," she says. But if there is, she's in: "I'm in awe of the people who are collectively working on this."

Gerwig insists she hasn't dared yet think about how it would feel to win an Oscar. But if the Golden Globes, where Lady Bird took the prize for best film (comedy/musical), is anything to go by, she might well struggle to hold it together. "I had an entire speech prepared but once I got up there, none of it came out," she says with a laugh. "I was looking down and I saw Oprah and Steven Spielberg and I just went into a state of sublime happiness. I think I just said 'thank you' a lot. So my guess would be, I'll prepare and probably I'll not say any of it - if it should happen. Because that's just how those moments seem to go for me."

When I first talk to Gerwig, on an otherwise regulation Friday during the London film festival, there is a surreal, even comic, imbalance in London's Soho hotel. Movie stars, it appears, outnumber the rest of us. Bill Nighy stands at a urinal in the men's room, director Alexander Payne sweeps through the lobby. In the lift up to the suite where Gerwig is doing interviews, who else? The great Christoph Waltz.

"Christoph Waltz is here?" she shrieks. The pair became friends when they were on the jury for the Berlin film festival and catch up every so often for dinner in New York. "He's one of my favourite people; he makes fun of me the entire time," says Gerwig. "On the jury, there was this one time where we had a meeting with Angela Merkel. So I wore something that felt appropriate for a daytime lunch with a head of state. And I showed up and Christoph looked at me and said [she slips into a strident Mitteleuropean accent] 'Greta, are you applying for an internship with Angela?'" Gerwig cracks up. "'Did you bring your resume?' I looked such a nerd."

Payne she knows less well, but is an ardent fan. At the Telluride festival last September, there was a photocall for the film-makers in attendance and Gerwig collected a giant bruise on her leg trying to hurdle a bench to tell Payne how much she liked his latest movie, Downsizing. "I thought, 'I must tell him it's a masterpiece'," she explains. "So as I'm jumping over the bench, it clipped my shin and I went sprawling. Everyone turned to look and I looked up at him and I said, 'It was a masterpiece!' And he said, 'You could have just walked over'."

Right now, there are plenty of people - rightly and properly, albeit metaphorically - tripping over furniture to tell Gerwig that she's made her own masterpiece. Lady Bird is a beautiful, affectionate rumination on the mother-daughter dynamic that could well be this year's Moonlight: an underdog that charms and surprises, and overshadows everything else.

It is not immediately clear how to square these achievements with Gerwig's tendency towards self-deprecation. Physically, she mixes elegance with eccentricity. At 5ft 9in, with credulous sea-green eyes, and today wearing a pink, pleated cocktail dress with buckled black-and-white heels, she presents an image of impossible glamour. But she undercuts the effect by slouching a little, laughing unguardedly and demonstrating odd and endearing mannerisms, such as the stiff handshake of a Victorian industrialist packing his son off to boarding school.

"I arrived on a flight this morning at 6am, so this is all pretend," she explains, smoothing an invisible wrinkle on her frock. "I don't actually feel like this inside. People came to my room and made me look nice. I know, everyone needs it."

In Lady Bird and before, Gerwig is drawn to dreamers: young women who believe they are destined for greatness, even when the audience finds plenty of cause to doubt that. The film follows Saoirse Ronan as 17-year-old Christine McPherson, who'd rather you call her Lady Bird: when asked if it's her given name, she clarifies: "It's given to me, by me." The year is 2002, the place is Sacramento, a mid-size city in California, and both these facts are a cruel disappointment to her: "The only exciting thing about 2002 is that it's a palindrome," Lady Bird sighs. She's in her final year at an all-girls Catholic high school and, after graduating, she wants to move to the east coast to study, "where writers live in the woods". This is one of many, though perhaps the most irreconcilable, points of contention with her mother, Marion (a heart-wrenching Metcalf).

It has been a common assumption that Lady Bird is Gerwig's teenage diaries transcribed. She, too, grew up in Sacramento and attended a Catholic school there, before escaping to the other side of the country, to Barnard College in New York, where she studied English and wanted to become a playwright. But, Gerwig notes, not sniffily, that there are plenty of differences, as well. She didn't dye her hair pink or assume a strange name or even argue that viciously with her mother.

"Even though it isn't literally autobiographical, there's a core of emotional truth that's very resonant," says Gerwig. "Again, it's not what literally happened, but it does rhyme with the truth. It's close in a way. And it doesn't bother me, because it's the assumption people make and in a way, maybe they make that assumption because it feels very real. So it's not dissimilar to when people think a character is you. Which you could be offended by or you could also think, 'Well, then I've done my job. You've believed it. You think that's me'.

"But I don't know," she continues. "I think one thing about doing this for a period of time is that you learn how to live through either misconceptions or correct conceptions and just continue doing the work. Because then you figure, 'Well, in the end, I'll just be an old lady one day and then they'll think, Oh, she's an old lady'. And they'll be right!"

What, then, are some solid, hard facts about Gerwig? She is the eldest child of Gordon and Christine, a loans officer for a credit union and a retired nurse respectively. As a child, she was a diligent student with an obsessive streak: her first passion was dancing; later, she would become skilled in the sport of fencing.

"I loved ballet," says Gerwig. "I always knew I wasn't the most naturally gifted of anyone who was doing ballet. I didn't have quite enough turn out, my feet weren't quite right, but I did work harder than anyone else. And I think that's something I have maintained. There's no substitute for hard work."

Gerwig acted a little at school but became more serious at college. She saw herself as a theatre person, but when she was rejected from graduate programmes in playwriting, she started working on films with her friends. These no-budget projects became notorious in arty, hipster circles and then beyond, where they were, somewhat derisively, called mumblecore; they were sketched out, but not scripted, and the makers were involved in every aspect of production.

"Those became kind of a makeshift film school for me," says Gerwig, referring to LOL (2006), Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007) and Nights and Weekends (2008), which she made with Joe Swanberg. "When I went into pre-production for Lady Bird, I'd been working in films in different capacities for 10 years. Especially on the early little ones because it was an all-hands-on-deck situation. If you weren't doing something on camera, you held the camera."

These early films, too, led in a roundabout way to Gerwig's acting breakthrough. Swanberg knew the director Noah Baumbach and he then cast her in his 2010 film Greenberg, opposite Ben Stiller. The film received mixed notices, but Gerwig's performance caught many eyes. In The New York Times, critic AO Scott described her style as a method without method. "Ms Gerwig," he wrote, "most likely without intending to be anything of the kind, may well be the definitive screen actress of her generation, a judgment I offer with all sincerity and a measure of ambivalence."

Greenberg was a life-changing experience personally as well: after it wrapped, Gerwig and Baumbach began dating, for a while on the down-low, these days more openly, though Gerwig tends to refer to him as "Noah Baumbach" or "Baumbach" in our interview, suggesting they keep their work and private lives quite distinct. They soon began collaborating and their first film as a writing team was 2012's Frances Ha, a warm-hearted, black-and-white comedy about a dancer, Frances (Gerwig), who doesn't seem wholly cut out for the real world. They followed that with Mistress America in 2015, which has a similar vibe: Gerwig plays Brooke, who has a million creative ideas and a very low strike rate.

Gerwig's writing, first with Baumbach and now on her own, has a naturalistic tone that is funny without having jokes, heartbreaking without being schmaltzy, highly specific and yet clearly universal. She is so particular about how the dialogue sounds - the "music" of speech - that there is a not a single line of improvisation in Lady Bird, not even an added "like" or "you know".

"I like language that sounds quotidian but poetic," says Gerwig - the perfect description. "Something that maybe the character doesn't even know is as beautiful as it is. That's something I was working through when I was writing with Noah Baumbach and I just kept moving in that direction. That was always what I liked. That quality of stumbling into beauty and then it's gone."

It is a timely moment for Gerwig to emerge as a director and for her debut to have such an assured, idiosyncratic voice. Despite the success of Lady Bird at the Golden Globes in January, Gerwig was a glaring absentee on the best director shortlist. Natalie Portman, presenting the award, made the point succinctly, announcing: "And here are the all-male nominees." Likewise, the Baftas have a five-man shortlist.

Of course, this is just one facet of the soul searching that the film industry is now going through. In the week that I meet Gerwig, the first allegations of sexual abuse have been made against Harvey Weinstein, and it was clear that Gerwig found the revelations upsetting and deeply shocking. "I felt so badly for all those women," she says, "and I felt so understanding of where they were, especially the young women, the women who were in college, the women who were just excited about movies and film-making and found themselves in a position that they didn't know how to say no, but they didn't know how to leave and that they felt overpowered and then they felt scared to say anything."

There are tears in her eyes; her voice cracks. "I've felt for so long that there just needs to be more women in positions of power," Gerwig goes on. "Not that women are magic or perfect beings, but that they need to have a seat at the table because then I would think that things like this would have far less chance of happening."

When Gerwig realised she was writing about mothers and daughters, she started thinking about movies that covered a similar theme. There were hundreds of films on the father-son relationship, including some excellent ones by Baumbach, but she struggled to think of stories told from the female perspective: James Brooks's Terms of Endearment (1983) and Mike Leigh's Secrets and Lies (1996) were among the rare inspirations. "There are surprisingly few movies about it," says Gerwig, "and I think that speaks to the fact that there are surprisingly few female film-makers."

In preparation for shooting Lady Bird, Gerwig created dossiers for her lead characters. Timothee Chalamet, for example - who plays Lady Bird's crush Kyle and is also Oscar-nominated this year for his role in another coming-of-age drama, Call Me By Your Name - was directed towards the films of Eric Rohmer and a collection of theoretical essays, The Internet Does Not Exist. Kyle is a pretentious mansplainer: he lectures Lady Bird on how mobile phones are tracking devices for the government and that clove cigarettes have fibreglass in them. At one point, he puts down Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States to announce, "I'm trying to live by bartering alone".

Kyle's a pseud, but Gerwig clearly has a soft spot for him. "I am not a fan of phones," she explains. "I talked for a long time with Timothee about his character's beliefs, and he said, 'The funny thing is that everybody is going to think you're Lady Bird, but you're Kyle'." Gerwig laughs, "And I was like, 'I know! I am secretly Kyle'. I have all of the same paranoias as Kyle does."

Gerwig is technically a millennial, but not spiritually so. She grew up pre-internet and has no social media presence: "Sure, I'll lurk. But I don't participate. I'm just a Peeping Tom." Part of the reason for setting Lady Bird in 2002 is that it's not "cinematic" to shoot screens. She longs for the pre-phone era when you couldn't get hold of someone instantly, and the only way to find them would be to drive around to all the locations they might be. We rarely allow ourselves to become properly bored, Gerwig believes, and the internet and smartphones are in part responsible.

On the wall of her bedroom, Lady Bird has the Leo Tolstoy quote, "Boredom: the desire for desires". "Boredom is, I think, pretty useful," says Gerwig. "You need to reach a level of boredom to make anything. Because I don't know if you remember being bored as a kid, just so bored. You were at a grocery store with your mom and you were like, 'It's just excruciating!' But then you get to a point where you start making up a game for yourself or you'll start imagining things or whatever it is. But I worry that we've lost that capacity, which I think maybe erodes some creativity as well.

"I'm just as bad as anyone," she admits. "Because it's like your flitting brain can be completely satisfied by this machine that can give you feedback for all of your passing thoughts. Like, 'Where can you grow avocados?' 'I don't know, let's find out'. And then, 'Oh, how much water does an avocado tree take every year?' Let's look at that. And then, 'Different crops and the water usage for each of them'. You are creating this weird feedback loop for yourself."

This is a very Gerwigian conundrum: hem-hawing about restricting access to the internet because she's worried she'll waste time Googling avocados. But she's not saying it to be cute. It clearly concerns her.

One of the strict directives on the set of the Lady Bird was that it was entirely phone-free. "And not just for the actors, for the crew," she says, "because it's quite depressing for an actor to be doing an emotional scene and look over and see someone checking Instagram. It's a real bummer. But it was quite impressive, because I had a lot of young people in this movie and none of them ever brought their phones to set. Saoirse set the tone: I never saw her on her phone, never once."

Gerwig is effusive about her two stars, Ronan and Metcalf. Everything in the film, she says, comes back to "the central love story" between Marion and Christine, mother and daughter. "For all of time it's probably been the most rich, fraught relationship. Something with Laurie and Saoirse that I loved was that they were the same height and I gave them the same haircuts so that when they were in profile, you say: 'Oh, you're so at odds with each other but actually you're the same. And that's why the fighting is so intense because you guys can both bring it'.

"So I knew I needed actresses who could punch the same weight class," Gerwig adds. "They give extraordinary performances and they should get all the statues and prizes. Work like that should be rewarded."

For her part, whatever happens, Gerwig insists that little will change. She will keep acting - when the project and specifically the director is right - and she wants to collaborate with Baumbach again: "I hope Noah and I will write another movie together because it's really, really fun."

She also wants to start her own production company one day. "It's important that if you have any kind of a platform and it matters to you that you should figure out how to bring other people along," she says.

As for the Oscars, she is not about to pretend that she's not freaking out a little. "I grew up watching all the award shows and I'd put on a fancy dress and watch it with my friends," Gerwig recalls. "It's thrilling and it's also part of what the dream of making films is." Then Gerwig's eyes narrow; these are defining moments both for her personally as a director and also as an inspirational member of the too-small band of female film-makers. "But awards are not important in terms of whether or not I'll make another film," she says. "I'll keep making films, no matter what."

The 90th Academy Awards will take place on March 4 at 1am GMT. Red-carpet coverage will start from 11pm GMT. See Page 20 for review of 'Lady Bird'

DS

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