Greta Gerwig on Lady Bird and learning the art of direction
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Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut, Lady Bird — starring Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, and Beanie Feldstein — has been charming critics and will surely do the same with audiences now the film is out in theaters. Gerwig has been well known to moviegoers from films such as Hannah Takes the Stairs, Frances Ha, and 20th Century Women, but this time she stayed behind the camera. Not that anyone in her cast could have guessed it was her first solo outing. “Greta is fantastic. There was never a sense that she was a first-time director,” says Letts, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. Metcalf — who’s generating Oscar buzz as Lady Bird’s prickly, disapproving mother — was surprised by just how assured Gerwig was behind the camera. “I would have thought, if I’d just walked on the set, that she’d been doing this for years and years,” Metcalf says. “The vibe she set was supportive and collaborative and calm and easy and funny and stress-free. I can’t think of an easier time that I’ve had working in film.”
Gerwig found that the best education for direction came from her time spent acting. “I didn’t go to film school. I really learned from watching people on sets,” she says. When she was readying Lady Bird, she called a bunch of directors she’s worked with or met along the way — including Rebecca Miller, Mike Mills, Spike Jonze, Mia Hansen-Løve,and Wes Anderson — and took notes. “I’d ask them all: ‘What do you wish you’d known?’ Their answers were both general and specific. Like, ‘Everyone is replaceable if they are hurting the film.’ And, ‘If for some reason you don’t like a shot and you don’t know why, just keep turning off lights.'” She laughs. “This works! First, because you usually have too many lights on. And next, it gives you time to think about why you don’t like that frame. Rebecca told me something hugely helpful that Mike Nichols once told her: You only get to not know what you’re doing once. He told her not to try to skip ahead to the next step because you’ll never be so brave again — because you won’t know what to be scared of.” Having longtime partner Noah Baumbach at home didn’t hurt either: “It’s nice because there are certain things that are just nerdy inside-baseball stuff — like, ‘Do you think this could cut to that? — that really only other directors know.”
She worked closely with her cinematographer, Sam Levy, who would send her a photo of a female director on set at the start of each workweek with an encouraging Here’s a picture for you, boss. “It was almost like he kept reminding me of who I want to be really. Those women, all those women!”