Greta Gerwig is irresistibly endearing. We can’t help but fall in love with her screen alter egos in Frances HaTo Rome With Love, and last year’s sensational Maggie’s Plan. In person, she’s as delightfully quirky as her characters which are all playful variations on her own mildly anxious, good-natured self. 

Now she takes her existential ruminations to the next level in her solo directorial debut, Lady Bird, a coming-of-age dramatic comedy about a fiercely independent 17-year-old Sacramento girl, Christine (Saoirse Ronan), anxious to escape the confines of small-town life in general and her mother in particular. 

A semi-autobiographical account of her own angst-ridden adolescent experience, Gerwig’s indie film has begun attracting serious Oscar talk as it makes its way through the festival circuit first in Telluride and now in Toronto where virtually every major star, critic and Hollywood power-broker converge. Having previously co-authored Frances Ha and Mistress America with her professional and life partner Noah Baumbach, Lady Bird is a story that has long been simmering inside the 34-year-old Gerwig.

“It feels like I’ve been writing this story forever - at least the last ten years - and it’s about how home becomes most vivid and meaningful when you leave it,” Gerwig says. “It’s about mothers and daughters and how there are no perfect moms or daughters. It’s also about the kind of perspective that teenagers have that there’s a more interesting place to be somewhere else in the world and that’s where real life begins.”

Lady Bird earned standing ovations at its sold-screenings at the Toronto International Film Festival, and both Gerwig and lead actress Ronan were hailed for delivering the kind of reflective, inspiring drama that stands in marked contrast to a sea of insipid summer blockbusters. Variety and other leading film industry publications predicted that the film will be a “leading contender” for awards season nominations for best directing, writing, acting and supporting actress (Laurie Metcalf) categories.

Gerwig Gerwig graduated with a degree in philosophy from Barnard College in New York City where she still lives today with her long-time partner, filmmaker Noah Baumbach, who directed her in Frances
(which they co-wrote) and Mistress America. Gerwig recently appeared in the critically-acclaimed indie drama, 20th Century Women

STRIPLV: Greta, you grew up in Sacramento which has also been home to other top actresses such as Brie Larsen and Jessica Chastain. Is there something about the city which creates pent-up artistic ambition and desire to seek fame and fortune elsewhere?

GERWIG: I’m not sure it’s something specific to Sacramento, but I think all smaller towns have this sleepy feel compared to places like New York or Los Angeles which you think of as much more connected to the world.

STRIPLV: What was the reality of moving to a big city like New York like?

GERWIG: The first few years were hard. I lived a bit everywhere - Chinatown, West Village, Greenwich Village. I first lived with six girls in a tiny loft that was like a closet without heating. In the winter it got so cold that we all slept dressed up, with hats and scarves. I still live there, and I don’t think I could live anywhere else. New York is my favorite city on earth. I love its energy and when I was getting ready to apply to university I knew had to move there which I did in 2002 after I had already fallen in love with every single Woody Allen film.

STRIPLV: You’ve acted in many films about angst-ridden women. But Lady Bird is very different and deals with many different themes about young women, their relationships with their mothers, and wanting a more interesting life.

GERWIG: I wanted the film to deal with a wide range of themes that interested me. But at its core, it’s about the relationship and love between a mother and her daughter. I also wanted to subvert the clichés that you see in most movies revolving around teenage girls where it’s all about meeting this one guy that changes their world. I didn’t want my story to be about that, and I don’t think it’s even true - usually, there are many different guys that you’re going to meet and who are going to influence you or be part of your journey at that age. I think your primary relationship will be that between you and your parents and friends in general. That’s how you relate to the world, and that kind of experience is going to shape so much of how you feel about yourself and your idea of love.

STRIPLV: Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn, The Host) delivers an extraordinary performance in the film. How did you come to cast her?

GERWIG: We met in Toronto during the 2015 film festival when I was here with Maggie’s Plan, and she was here with Brooklyn. I had always wanted to meet her because I’ve always admired her acting and there’s something about her that I find fascinating. I went to her hotel room with the script for Lady Bird knowing that I wanted her to play the part. She had already read the script before, and I thought it would be interesting if we went over the script together. So we sat on the couch and spent the next few hours reading it - she read all of Lady Bird’s lines, and I read the other parts. But by the time we were at page two I knew she was right for the role because she not only brought the kind of emotional intensity and intelligence that the character needed to have, but she also could be very funny and moving at the same time.

STRIPLV: How much of the film is autobiographical?

GERWIG: There aren’t any specific moments in the film that literally happened to me, but the story is very reflective and true to the emotions and experiences I had during that time in my life. I wanted to set the film in Sacramento where I grew up because that city was at the core of my reality and where I could build on the emotional truth of my life there. I also connected to it as the place where I began to imagine a life somewhere else and where New York became this mythical goal in the same way that the green light is in The Great Gatsby

STRIPLV: Was acting something you pointed towards from an early age?

GERWIG: First I wanted to become a nurse. I don’t know why, but I’ve always had this fascination with uniforms and caps. But then I started taking dance classes, and that set me off in the direction of wanting to act in musicals.

STRIPLV: Ever since Frances Ha people have associated you with the way you dance in several of your films (including 20th Century Women and Maggie’s Plan). What kind of dance do you like the most?

GERWIG: I love most forms of dance - classical dance, tap, jazz and modern dance especially because it has a whole aesthetic. Modern dance makes you use different muscles than other styles, and it also teaches you to fall properly in a way that prevents you from hurting yourself. It’s a beautiful metaphor for life: fall, rise, and you transform into a new person. That kind of free-form dance is very liberating and it allows you to express a lot of emotions and thoughts on a different level.

STRIPLV: You’ve long been an admirer of Woody Allen and his films. Like Allen, many people identify you with the characters you play. How close to the truth is that?

GERWIG: My characters all contain pieces of myself but they’re reassembled in different ways each time out. I try to create a space inside myself that reflects the identity of each character I play but then I spin off in another direction where there’s still some part of me there but it’s evolved into something else. It’s like I find a way of playing this variation on the truth of who I am.

STRIPLV: It must have been a thrill for you to get to work with Allen on To Rome With Love?

GERWIG: It was definitely one of my dreams coming true. It was such an honor to get to be in one of his films. I love his work and he’s been a huge influence on me. I appreciate everything about his style of humor, his neurotic intelligence, and also his love of New York.

STRIPLV: What is it about his style of filmmaking that you admire?

GERWIG: It’s his style of humor but also his way of looking at the world. I would like to be able to make films that have that same kind of sensibility and have great dialogue and explore human psychology the way he does.

STRIPLV: You and filmmaker Noah Baumbach have been partners both in real life and in your work for several years now. What is your creative process like when you work together on a film?

GERWIG: We work in our own separate rooms and then we spend several hours together where we often read aloud what we’ve just written or simply discuss some ideas about a particular scene or character. We use that time to exchange criticism and opinions, and then we separate again and we continue to write on our own. Slowly the characters begin to take shape and the story begins to emerge. Reading aloud is important to us and it helps us find the right tone and rhythm to the dialogues. Language is very important in the way it influences the way we talk and move.

STRIPLV: Apparently you always carry a notebook with you in case you find something inspiring that you can write about immediately?

GERWIG: Yes, I like to write down what I hear on the street or in cafés or restaurants. Most of my friends are aware of this and they try to make sure that I don’t have a pad and paper next to me if they’re about to tell me something very personal! (Laughs)

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