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Greta Gerwig takes flight with directorial debut, ‘Lady Bird’

Merie Wallace, courtesy of A24

Director Greta Gerwig (right) with star Saoirse Ronan on the set of “Lady Bird.”

By Loren King Globe Correspondent 

For a decade, Greta Gerwig has been an important figure in independent film, collaborating as an actress and writer with young directors such as Joe Swanberg (“Nights and Weekends”) and her filmmaking and life partner Noah Baumbach (“Frances Ha,” “Mistress America”). Still, few anticipated the originality and sophistication of her first solo directing effort, the semi-autobiographical “Lady Bird.” Lauded on the festival circuit, the film, which opens here on Friday, is considered a front-runner in many categories this awards season.

Turns out that all this time, Gerwig has been, first and foremost, a student of filmmaking.

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“I didn’t go to a proper film school. I learned by doing every job I could possibly do on set and hanging out and observing. I knew, from the inside out, the work and relentlessness it takes to make a film. So I prepared and I over-prepared,” says Gerwig, who studied English and philosophy at Barnard College. “Hopefully, you would never know that I never made a film before in this capacity. The worst thing is if a crew member, an actor, a department head, doesn’t know the job. That’s a scary feeling. When I finished the script and decided to direct [‘Lady Bird’], I felt like I really knew the job.”

She also really knew the story.

Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), a senior at a Catholic high school in Sacramento circa 2002, christens herself Lady Bird for no reason other than she likes the name. As she grapples with teen travails — she yearns to get out of Sacramento and attend an Eastern college; she clashes with her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), a nurse, and her father, Larry (Tracy Letts), an unemployed computer programmer — “Lady Bird” depicts coming-of-age universality with a singular, fresh perspective that its author insists is not autobiographical.

“I’m from Sacramento and went to Catholic school and the heart of the story is close to mine, but it’s not all the events in my life and the character isn’t all me,” says Gerwig. “I never asked anyone to call me by a different name; I passed my driver’s license test on the first try. I am a people-pleaser and a worker bee and I wanted the gold star and to follow the rules. Lady Bird became this wild, offbeat heroine to me.”

She honed the script, striving to create full characters from top to bottom. “I wanted it to be the mother’s movie as well as the daughter’s, and to be about the place you’re moving from as well as the one you’re moving to,” says Gerwig. “I spent a long time writing and refining the script so I could give [the actors] the richest material I could. I wanted them to feel the freedom so they could run wild because I’ve built them a very safe place to play.”

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It’s not surprising that Gerwig, whose acting resume also includes films as varied as Pablo Larrain’s “Jackie” and Mike Mills’s “20th Century Women,” considers communication with actors the key to directing. “I am always amazed, particularly with young directors who come out of different programs, that a lot of them have never really worked with actors. They can set up shots, they can light, but they don’t know how to speak to an actor about a scene, or character, or motivation,” she says.

Gerwig’s preparation didn’t go unnoticed on the “Lady Bird” set. Letts, a Pulitzer Prize winner for drama (“August: Osage County”) and a Tony Award winner for his role in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, knows a thing or two about writing and acting.

“Sometimes you find actors who’ve gotten bored with acting so they want to try something else, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re engaged with all that’s involved with storytelling in such a profound way that Greta clearly is,” he says. “There was nothing about her on the set that seemed like a first time director. Nothing.

“She knew exactly what she wanted, yet was very open to collaboration. She knew how to work with actors, yet she could also engage in discussions about what kind of material should be on the pillow cushions for the couch — the kind of stuff I could never do.”

Letts had seen “Frances Ha” and “Mistress America,” which Gerwig starred in as well as wrote with director Baumbach. When he read the script for “Lady Bird,” Letts says, “I heard the voice from those movies so clearly that I realized how important Greta’s voice is in those films. She’s the real deal. She’s going to make a lot of good movies, I think.”

Loren King can be reached at loren.king@comcast.net.