A version of this interview with Greta Gerwig first appeared in the Down to the Wire issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.
First-time directors typically don’t end up with Oscar nominations, but there’s nothing typical about the journey of Greta Gerwig and “Lady Bird.” The actress and writer, who had co-directed a micro-budgeted 2008 film with Joe Swanberg, wrote and directed the coming-of-age story and found herself as only the fifth woman ever nominated for Best Director (along with a screenplay nomination and three other nods for the film, including Best Picture).
Gerwig now finds her film about a high-school girl striking a chord at a time when it’s becoming clear how lacking Hollywood has been in women’s voices.
Despite the fact that you’d never directed a movie by yourself before, “Lady Bird” feels like a movie made by somebody who really knew what they were doing.
I’m glad. I’m glad. I’ve wanted to direct for a very very long time, and I felt like I needed to apprentice myself, both as a writer and a co-director and a producer. Primarily as an actress, I got to be on a lot of different film sets, and I’m a notebook keeper.
I have my notebooks of all the movies I’m watching, where I’m writing about how it worked and what I didn’t understand or I didn’t know how they got something. Then I would keep a concurrent notebook, which was just things on set. How did they light this? How did they choose to shoot it? How would a director talk to a production designer or interact with an actor?
So when I finished the script for “Lady Bird,” I had compiled about 10 years of watching, and it felt like it was time. It felt like I would not learn more by sitting on the bench, that the time of watching was about up. I still had more to learn, but I could only learn by diving straight in.
Have you been surprised by the reaction to your film this awards season?
It’s unbelievable. It’s beyond my wildest dreams, and I’m so grateful that the film has been embraced not only by audiences, but also by the group of people who make movies. Which is the DGA, the Academy, the Writers Guild, the Producers Guild — that feels to me like such a meaningful affirmation, and something that I find moving every single time I’ve gotten to go to one of those [awards shows] and be in a room of people I admire.
Like Jordan Peele — this is his first movie, too, which is amazing. And then Christopher Nolan and Steven Spielberg and Paul Thomas Anderson and Guillermo del Toro — these are the people who gave me my dreams, and it’s just unbelievably moving to be included.
Have you gotten to the point where you feel as if you belong?
I don’t think anybody ever feels like they belong. If you thought you belonged, you’d be taking it for granted. I don’t think anybody takes it for granted. I was talking to Meryl Streep at the nominees luncheon. I don’t think she takes it for granted. I know she doesn’t.
It does feel to me like a sense of people dedicated to the same thing you’re dedicated to, who care about this art form so deeply. And there’s camaraderie in that.
With everything that has happened this year, “Lady Bird” has taken on a resonance that maybe it wouldn’t have had in another year. Were you aware of the potential statement you were making about female empowerment when you wrote it?
I had a sense of wanting to give the story of a mother and daughter the space that I thought it deserved. And I had a sense of wanting to make a story centered around a young woman that did not include a question of whether she would end up with this boy or that boy as the central question.
It was the question of her coming into her own personhood. I saw that as something that I always look for artistically, and something I’d seen, but not as much as it deserves to be told. I think particularly the mother-daughter relationship is such a rich, complicated relationship, and I don’t see as much about that as I do about father and sons, or that dynamic.
It’s just a feeling of, “I think this should be explored more.”