Greta Gerwig comes of age with ‘Lady Bird’

  • Greta Gerwig poses for a portrait in New York to promote her film “Lady Bird.” AP

Associated Press
Published: 11/3/2017 5:23:56 PM

Greta Gerwig has been an actress in 25 films, a co-writer on five and co-director of one. She’s assembled wardrobes, done make-up and – thanks to her 5 foot, 9-inch height – held the boom mic. She has, in a sense, been building up for a long time to her directorial debut: Lady Bird.

“I was accumulating my 10,000 hours,” Gerwig said in a recent interview in a tucked-away room at Lincoln Center. “When I finished this script, I thought: You’re still going to learn things but you’re not going to learn anything more by not doing it. Whatever learning happens now is going to happen by doing it. I just decided to take the leap.”

It’s at this moment while contemplating the culmination of her professional life that a famished Gerwig first spies her lunch. “Oh my goodness it’s a sammy,” she exclaims – a revelation quickly followed by another. “Oh my feet are so dirty from standing outside barefoot.”

For Gerwig, it comes natural that the most earnest inner ambitions can appear, from the outside, a little funny, too.

Gerwig’s Lady Bird, which A24 opened Friday in New York and Los Angeles, is a loosely autobiographical coming-of-age story about a high-schooler named Christine with the self-proclaimed nickname “Lady Bird” (Saoirse Ronan) who aspires beyond her middle-class Sacramento life. From Catholic school, she dreams of New York or at least “Connecticut or New Hampshire, where writers live in the woods.”

The film – richly detailed, shrewdly observed, altogether a beauty – has already found some of the best reviews of the year, placing it among the early awards-season favorites. It boasts numerous revelations – including the performances by Ronan and her fictional mother Laurie Metcalf – but none more so than this one: Gerwig is an exceptional, fully-formed filmmaker, right out of the gate.

“She nailed it in the way that she did because she’s incredibly open to people and characters and places,” said Ronan, speaking by phone from London. “One of the reasons why she’s such a fantastic storyteller is because she’s incredibly sincere. Everything that comes out of her, whether it’s on the page or when she acts or when she directs, it only comes from the most genuine place.”

Why is it that Gerwig, at 34, has made the leap to directing so flawlessly? It could be that she was a writer from the start. Her most recent scripts were Frances Ha (2013) and Mistress America, both co-written with Noah Baumbach, with whom Gerwig has been in a relationship for several years. Even her acting – simultaneously natural and self-aware – has, as Baumbach has said, carried with it something “authorial.”

Gerwig is also a proud cinephile. Claire Denis’s Beau Travail first awakened her to cinema as something more than theater-on-film. “I thought, ‘That is its own country,’ ” she remembered. During production on Lady Bird, her email was overrun with screen grabs she snapped of relevant films. A sampling of inspirations: the low-key naturalism of Mike Leigh, Agnes Varda’s Cleo From 5 to 7, Eric Rohmer’s blocking, Howard Hawks’ dialogue (“I make talkies,” said Gerwig), America Graffiti (shot in nearby Stockton, Calif.), Chantal Akerman’s rendering of a woman doing house work in Jeanne Dielman.

“Plainness with a purpose never gets rewarded the way it should,” she says. “Our catch phrase for the way the film looked was: ‘Plain and luscious.’ ”

A short description of Lady Bird tends to undersell it. While it has the basic framework of a teenage high-school film, Lady Bird’s story – one of the bittersweet thrill of fumbling toward a much-yearned-for future – isn’t told in isolation. Her relationship with her mom, an overworked nurse, is strained. The movie’s working title was “Mothers and Daughters” – a conflict “as old as the hills,” sighs Gerwig. “To me,” she said, “that was always the central love story of the film.”

“The movie is a bit of a Trojan horse, in a way,” said Gerwig. “Around the middle, it catches and you kind of realize there’s something very aching and sad at the core of it even though it’s funny and fast-paced.”

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