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Greta Gerwig pauses to consider how to describe what directing feels like. “It’s like you’re running a marathon and people jump in to run a few miles with you, and then they leave and you’re running alone before someone else comes in,” she says. “But the person who has to push it forward at every step is you.” She shakes her head and laughs. “I say this, by the way, as someone who has run one marathon.” It’s not such a surprise to discover that Gerwig — previously not a runner — finished that one New York City Marathon with an impressive time of 4:36. Her solo directorial debut, Lady Bird, has been enchanting fall festival audiences and reducing jaded film writers to weepy puddles searching for the right superlatives to describe it.
Here goes our attempt: This vivid, funny, and poignant coming-of-age tale stars Saoirse Ronan as the titular teen, who is aching to break out of her sedate Sacramento suburbia and away from her parents (Laurie Metcalf and Tracy Letts) for something bigger and better — though what that is exactly, she’s not sure. Gerwig’s screenplay is sharp and witty, and Ronan, Metcalf, and Letts, as well as young superstars-in-the-making Beanie Feldstein, Timothée Chalamet, and Lucas Hedges, give precise, lived-in performances that deliver one authentic moment after another. It’s not just audiences who are swooning over Gerwig. “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, 34, first made a name for herself a decade ago with Hannah Takes the Stairs, the mumblecore trailblazer she starred in and co-wrote. Since then she’s carved out a place as the slightly screwball heroine in films such as Greenberg, 20th Century Women, Frances Ha, and Mistress America, the last two of which she penned with her longtime partner, the writer and director Noah Baumbach. But she’s had directing aspirations since the age of 5. “I was always trying to direct musicals in kindergarten; I wanted everyone to do my production of Starlight Express,” she says. “But I remember realizing that there was going to be a problem because the playground was gravel, and I couldn’t figure out how to get the skates to work.”
She co-directed Nights and Weekends with Joe Swanberg in 2008 but found the best education for her solo outing was the 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-Love, 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 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.”
Gerwig 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.” For the look of the film — “our watchwords were plain and luscious” — they drew inspiration from painters such as Wayne Thiebaud to capture the specific kind of California light she knew from her own Sacramento childhood. Lady Bird has been described as semiautobiographical, and “there’s a core of emotional reality,” she says. “Nothing in the movie literally happened in my life, but it all rhymed with the truth.” Her parents, brother, and childhood best friend watched it together in Sacramento and called her in happy tears afterward. (“I’m nervous about my parents watching everything — but I’d say I was probably not as nervous as having them watch Ben Stiller go down on me in Greenberg.”)
Tears were shed while shooting, too. “It was the most weepy set I’ve ever encountered,” Gerwig says with a laugh. “I’d weep after takes. Mike Mills would cry [on the set of 20th Century Women], so I figure if he can, then I can. Part of your job is to be emotionally present for your actors.” Wardrobe-wise, too. “I did put on a prom dress to direct the prom scenes,” she says. “I know some directors like to run their sets based on fear, but I wanted to create an environment where people can come and talk to you and not try to hide or throw someone else under the bus. All the time spent in between the camera rolling is still going into the film somehow. It counts — it all counts. Every time I talk about writing and art it sounds so hippie-dippy. But the truth is, it is hippie-dippy. It’s art!” She smiles. “If people love this movie, it’s because of the love that went into it.”