Greta Gerwig has been called an indie queen, a muse and the voice of a generation. But as her new movie Lady Bird proves, director is the title that suits her best
Want to hear a pretty depressing stat? In the Oscars’ 89-year history, out of 245 people nominated for the Best Director award, only four have been women. And only one of those four – Kathryn Bigelow – has actually won. Can Greta Gerwig chip her way into the ultimate boys’ club with her directorial debut, Lady Bird?
It’s still too early to say when we meet at a London hotel on a particularly freezing day just before Christmas. Lady Bird arrives in UK cinemas this month and is already a runaway success in the US – officially the best-reviewed movie of 2017*, it won two Golden Globes (though notably not for Best Director, as Natalie Portman pointed out with that ‘all male’ nominees jibe).
Yet, on the prospect of a little gold statue, Gerwig’s not counting any chickens, reaching from the sofa in her hotel suite to touch the nearest piece of wood. Two of the film’s stars, Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf, are also tipped for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress nods.
‘I’m proud that Saoirse and Laurie are getting so much love for the film,’ she says. ‘My heart bursts. They feel like my children, even though that really doesn’t make any sense.’
It would be easy to assume that New York’s indie queen, who starred in and wrote films like Frances Ha and Mistress America, grew up in an artsy Brooklyn brownstone, but Lady Bird is a window of sorts into Gerwig’s upbringing.
It’s a story of dissident teenager Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson (Ronan) in her final year at an all-girls Catholic school in early noughties Sacramento, ‘the mid-west of California’. It’s not so much an autobiography, as a chance for Gerwig to relive a portion of her own Sacramento youth through this recalcitrant 17-year-old, who jumps out of moving cars during rows with her mother and gets suspended for insulting a pro-life speaker at school. ‘In a lot of ways, writing her was a means of exploring something that I couldn’t be and didn’t occupy as a teenager,’ says Gerwig.
Though there are romantic sub-storylines (including Timothée Chalamet as the brooding, mansplaining nonconformist every girl has fallen for at some point), Lady Bird largely sidelines the classic girl-meets-boy tale for the more complex mother-daughter one.
‘I love movies about young women,’ says Gerwig. ‘[But] I think too often we’ve tied that story to what the woman’s value is as a romantic partner, or the story is fixated on one boy. So, even if the character’s engaging, it’s all riding on this one guy, or lack of a guy. And I don’t think that is the most interesting question for a young woman.’
Lady Bird’s soundtrack is a winsomely nostalgic early noughties mix of Dave Matthews Band, Alanis Morissette and Justin Timberlake, who Gerwig wrote heartfelt letters to begging for the rights (‘Dear Mr Timberlake, I mean what can I say? You’re Justin Timberlake. You were the soundtrack to my adolescence,’ she wrote).
Has she had feedback from JT since the film came out? ‘I got to meet him!’ she cries. ‘Well, actually, when I say that, it sounds like he asked to meet me. I was at the same event as him, and I launched across the room and said, “I want to thank you so much for letting me use your song”. He was very generous and gracious, and said he really enjoyed it. But I’m yet to meet Dave Matthews or Alanis Morissette.’ Perhaps she should do a tour? ‘I should do a tour or just a big jam session, bring my tambourine.’
Gerwig’s previous experience on the set of low-budget movies (often ones with tiny crews where everyone, even the actors, have to chip in) might have worked like an unofficial directing masterclass, but she still felt immense pressure taking charge of Lady Bird – both as a rookie director and a woman. The fact that between 2007 and 2016 just four per cent of Hollywood movies were directed by women, and 80 per cent of those women only directed one movie, proves exactly how few shots female directors get.
‘Too often we’ve tied a woman’s story to her value is as a romantic partner. I don’t think that is the most interesting question for a young woman’
‘I had a sense of wanting to be as prepared and as good as I possibly could be, because I didn’t want anyone to walk away and say, “Ugh, working for women is the worst,”’ explains Gerwig. ‘I wanted them to think, “She was a good captain of that ship”, so if they were in a position of working for or hiring a woman, they would look back on that experience and think, “Oh, that was well done and a good job.” I felt a sense of, “I have to make it easier on whoever comes after me.”’
On set, everyone wore name tags and there was a ban on mobile phones. ‘That actually came from my partner [director and writer] Noah Baumbach. He doesn’t allow any cell phones on set. You would think people would grumble about it, but actually everybody’s quite relieved to give them up.’
Gerwig and Baumbach’s relationship, which began in 2011, is both romantic and creative. After moving to New York from Sacramento to study English and philosophy at Barnard College, Gerwig cut her teeth in a subgenre of independent movies, nicknamed ‘mumblecore’ for their naturalistic style and focus on dialogue over plot, like Hannah Takes The Stairs and Baghead. Her first mainstream project came in 2010 with Baumbach’s Greenberg, opposite Ben Stiller.
The pair went on to collaborate – and fall in love – making black and white indie hit Frances Ha. Perhaps owing to her work with Baumbach, Gerwig has been described in the past as a ‘muse’. Did she find that irritating? ‘It didn’t feel reflective of my actual contributions to the films because I was often co-writing or producing them, in addition to acting in them,’ she says. ‘It felt like, “Well, is that what a muse does?” But I kind of allowed it to roll off of me in a way, as I thought, “Well, I’ll get there.”’
Now 34, Gerwig lives with Baumbach in Greenwich Village close to New York University, where a whole new generation of auteurs are preparing to tell their own stories, running around Washington Square Park with their cameras and booms. ‘There are a lot of girls, boys too, but a lot of girls – a wide diversity of people,’ she says. ‘I look at them and think, “Well, they’re the future. I hope that it’s better by the time they get there.”’ Is she tempted to walk over and say hi? ‘Oh god, no. I don’t want to be like, “Hey kids, how’s it going?” That would be just the most awkward thing ever.’
Wherever she happens to be on Oscars night, Gerwig promises to be an enthusiastic participant. Since her teenage years, she’s thrown an annual Academy Awards viewing party with cider at her house. Last year, she texted Lady Bird actor Lucas Hedges a picture of herself standing next to the television when he came on screen after being nominated for Manchester By The Sea.
‘He was like, “This is… nice.” I mean, they don’t need to see a picture of me with them, but it makes me laugh,’ she smiles.
Something tells me the shoe will likely be on the other foot this year. Her cider party friends probably shouldn’t hold out for an invite.
Lady Bird is in selected cinemas from 16 February and opens nationwide on 23rd February