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A big stage for Concord in ‘Little Women’

Actress Laura Dern (left) and Greta Gerwig, director of the new film adaptation of the Concord-set classic novel "Little Women," photographed at Louisa May Alcott's Orchard House.
Actress Laura Dern (left) and Greta Gerwig, director of the new film adaptation of the Concord-set classic novel "Little Women," photographed at Louisa May Alcott's Orchard House.Lane Turner/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

CONCORD — Laura Dern is a very good tour guide.

Asked about the historic sites that spoke to her while she filmed “Little Women” last year, she has a quick list of favorites — and she gives directions.

“Walden Pond, for sure,” the actress said during a visit to Orchard House, the childhood home of writer Louisa May Alcott. “And the North Bridge . . . you have a car? At the end of this block is the Colonial Inn, where they sat on that porch and watched the British coming down the street.”

Dern, her cast mates, and their “Little Women” writer-director, Greta Gerwig, have become ambassadors for the town where Alcott grew up and set her famous coming-of-age book about four sisters: Jo, Meg, Beth, and Amy March. Much of the cast and crew lived around Concord from September through December of 2018 during production.

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The movie opens Christmas Day.

Gerwig, whose 2017 directorial project was “Lady Bird,” came to Massachusetts first to do extensive research on the Alcott family and the community that inspired the story. Her research extended to calling on the services of historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, for many years a Concord resident before her recent move to Boston.

The result of Gerwig’s work — and the cast’s shared interest in learning about the real history of the Alcotts and Concord — is a film that’s part adaptation, part biopic. The movie’s heroine, Jo, portrayed by Saoirse Ronan, speaks lines from Alcott’s journals. Dern, who plays family matriarch Marmee, wove her research on the real Marmee, Abigail Alcott, into her performance.

“It’s Greta’s interpretation of literally lifting word-for-word what was there, but infusing it with the research and with the people we learned they were,” Dern said. “It really changes this story in a kind of revolutionary way.”

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The March sisters of "Little Women," played by (from left) Emma Watson (Meg), Florence Pugh (Amy), Saoirse Ronan (Jo), and Eliza Scanlen (Beth).
The March sisters of "Little Women," played by (from left) Emma Watson (Meg), Florence Pugh (Amy), Saoirse Ronan (Jo), and Eliza Scanlen (Beth). Wilson Webb/Sony Pictures Entertainment

It also makes this new “Little Women,” which the Boston Society of Film Critics recently named best film of 2019, a piece of local history. Not only is it more biographical than other interpretations of the text, it’s also more Massachusetts. Of the eight film adaptations of “Little Women” (there have also been plays, cartoons, musicals, and an opera), Gerwig’s is the first to base production around Concord. The 1994 film directed by Gillian Armstrong and starring Winona Ryder was mostly filmed in Canada. A picture of Katharine Hepburn playing in the snow in Concord hangs in a back room of the Orchard House basement, but it’s just a publicity shot; the 1933 film by George Cukor, which featured Hepburn as Jo, was not filmed here.

Gerwig used the actual sites for education and inspiration and sometimes for filming. The Fruitlands Museum, in Harvard, serves as Meg’s home in the film. Orchard House property provides the school room. Other scenes take place around downtown Concord, at the Old Manse, and at Minute Man National Historical Park.

“To shoot in Concord, in Massachusetts, in this area, in this environment, was really essential in how I wanted to build this movie,” Gerwig said, when earlier this month she and the cast returned to Orchard House to promote the film. “It’s significant. The place matters as much as anything. The same way it was meaningful to shoot ‘Dunkirk’ at Dunkirk, it was meaningful to shoot this movie here.”

Gerwig said she arrived in town in summer 2018. The cast — which also includes Emma Watson as Meg, Florence Pugh as Amy, Eliza Scanlen as Beth, and Timothée Chalamet as Laurie — joined her over the following months.

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Gerwig said the seasons inspired her work; her hometown, Sacramento, doesn’t have a fall and winter like Concord.

“I was here for months and months, and I have to say I think there’s a reason there’s so many wonderful writers that came out of this area. I think there’s something in the air,” Gerwig said. “It connected me also to the transcendentalist movement of the land as being holy, and God and nature.”

But also, as Gerwig adapted the classic, the real-life story of Alcott became an essential part of the narrative. There’s a line in the film where Jo says she’d rather “be a free spinster and paddle her own canoe.” That’s not from “Little Women” — it’s from Alcott’s journal entries. Gerwig placed it in a scene where Jo laments one of her sisters getting married.

“It really sent her over the edge, which I very much related to,” Gerwig said, then laughed. “I think every time one of my friends gets married, part of me feels really betrayed. And I recognize that’s not a normal or appropriate feeling. But I think that that’s why I loved Jo so much, Jo’s intonation of maybe ‘I’ll just marry Meg and keep her in the family.’ ”

The blending of the novel and biography also set Gerwig’s story apart for the cast. Dern said she’d long been drawn to Marmee as a character, and she noted that role has been played by a list of well-known actresses (including Susan Sarandon in the 1994 film), but she said the March matriarch has long been portrayed as the mother who takes care of a home while her husband helps the Union Army in the Civil War.

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Clockwise from top left: Saoirse Ronan, Laura Dern, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, and Eliza Scanlen in Greta Gerwig's "Little Women."
Clockwise from top left: Saoirse Ronan, Laura Dern, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, and Eliza Scanlen in Greta Gerwig's "Little Women." Wilson Webb/Associated Press

“But the real Marmee was assisting [journalist and women’s rights advocate] Margaret Fuller,” Dern said. “Marmee is noted in American history as America’s first social worker. . . . She was hiding slaves. She was a deep abolitionist. She fought so intensely for social justice. So, I mean, it’s like — of course that would be Jo’s mother. Like, you don’t get one without the other.”

Through producer Amy Pascal, they also became friendly with Goodwin. Pascal and Goodwin connected through Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” an adaptation of Goodwin’s book “Team of Rivals.” Dern’s daughter soon enrolled in Rivers and Revolutions, a program at Concord-Carlisle High School run by Michael Goodwin, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s son.

“They cared about the history of the town so much, the whole actors group did. It was amazing,” Goodwin said. “They lived here . . . and that’s the great thing about Concord. You really can feel the past and on every street.”

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