How the Barbie Movie Was Made

by STEVE POND and KRISTEN LOPEZ

It made no sense to hire an indie director to make a movie about a doll, but Greta Gerwig and her crew provided $1.5 billion reasons why “Barbie” was a very good idea.

Greta Gerwig didn’t always think that “Barbie” was going to be made, and maybe that’s why the movie turned out to be so weird, so subversive and so successful. Long before the film’s grosses neared $1.5 billion, it was just an idea that didn’t make a lot of sense to the onetime indie actress whose directorial career was on a hot streak with “Lady Bird” and “Little Women.” And maybe the fact that it didn’t make a lot of sense and that star Margot Robbie had brought her the idea at a time when the movie business was reeling was a reason to take a shot at turning Mattel’s toy franchise into a film.  

“It’s an object,” Gerwig said. “It’s a doll. There’s no character, no story. The very nature of Barbie is that it’s a toy to be projected onto. We would have to invent a character and a story that felt somehow part of it but had to go beyond it. It felt terrifying in that way. Also, she’s been around since 1959 and people love her, people loathe her and everything in between. It just felt like the exact kind of idea I like, which is just on the edge of ‘how is this even possible?’”

She laughed. “And then I roped Noah (Baumbach, her partner and co-writer) into it, and his reaction was basically, ‘Why are you making us do this?’ But then, as we got going, he said, ‘Oh, this is really fun.’”

But for a while, it was fun that seemed unlikely to be made. “We were in the middle of lockdown, the spring/summer of 2020,” she said. “In that moment, nobody was going to the movies. So there was this feeling that the world that we love of moviegoing and being together doesn’t even exist.” And that, in a way, freed them up to write a seriously wacky script that could find room for nods to everybody from Stanley Kubrick to Marcel Proust. “We thought, well, nobody’s ever gonna let us make this. So then it became, ‘Let’s (write) the greatest script nobody ever makes!’”

Warner Bros., though, wanted to be in the Gerwig and Robbie business, and Mattel was actually OK, more or less, with a script that acknowledged the divisiveness of their signature doll and made fun of their executives. So Gerwig assembled what she calls a “dream team” of collaborators and made a movie whose shooting she summed up this way: “It felt like going to a great party that you don’t really know how the night’s gonna go, but just when you think it’s over — nope, it’s fireworks!”

But “Barbie” was always meant to be more than just fireworks. Like Gerwig’s last movie, “Little Women,” it simultaneously tells a story and interrogates the way that story has been told in the past. “That’s true,” Gerwig said. “In ‘Lady Bird,’ too, there’s a way in which I was using the framework of a high school movie. With ‘Little Women,’ we had the framework that was not only from the past, it was fiction, and there’s a loss and loneliness embedded in that. With this one, it was going in all directions. And part of that was asking, ‘How has Barbie functioned in culture? What does this object mean? What do dolls mean?’ I kept coming back to the fact that our relationship with dolls is so strange. We’re so advanced — we have 5G, whatever that means, and yet we still take inanimate objects and have feelings about them and arguments about them. That seems almost mystical. We think of ourselves collectively as being beyond that kind of magical thinking, and yet we engage in it every single day.”

To slip those ideas into a major-studio movie is sneaky, and to have that movie turn into an historic blockbuster was, to Gerwig, thrilling. “It feels very connected to my childhood dreams,” she said. “I grew up in Sacramento, where it gets really hot in the summer. So you’d go to a dark, cold theater in the middle of summer and have a movie overwhelm you. I have a sense memory of being at a big movie theater with a lot of people in the summer. So not only do I get to make a movie about a doll that’s so intimately connected with childhood, to see audiences dressed in pink is like getting to enact a version of the excitement I felt going to movies in childhood.” —STEVE POND

“Barbie” (Warner Bros.)

Cinematography

When Rodrigo Prieto started working on “Barbie,” it gave him a serious case of creative whiplash. From the start, the Mexican-born cinematographer had loved the way he could hear Greta Gerwig’s voice in the script, and how she left things open-ended and peppered the screenplay with notes that things would change. But he was already doing prep on one of 2023’s other big movies, Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon” — and while it was fun to do something else on weekends during the COVID lockdown in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, where “Killers” would be shooting, it was also confusing.

BY STEVE POND

Music

It started as a song and turned into a whole movie. Greta Gerwig originally asked Mark Ronson to help out with a song as rehearsals were about to begin for the big dance sequence that takes place early in “Barbie” — but before his work on the film was done, he’d recruited his friend and colleague Andrew Wyatt, and they’d written a couple of songs, helped compile a couple of soundtrack albums and cowritten the film’s score.

BY STEVE POND

“Barbie” (Warner Bros.)

Production Design

Production designer Sarah Greenwood and set decorator Katie Spencer lived the ultimate Barbie fan’s dream when they designed the world in which Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie) and her friends live. To make Barbie Land as epic as it was, Spencer and Greenwood went to the source: buying their own Barbie Dream House and analyzing it for ideas. 

BY KRISTEN LOPEZ

Makeup and Hairstyling

With several decades of Barbies to pull references from and a story focused on the unlimited potential of individuality, hair and makeup designer Ivana Primorac assumed everything would be a piece of cake. But even finding the right shade of blonde for Margot Robbie’s Stereotypical Barbie was difficult. Early in the process of making Barbie, Primorac decided to go with a standard yellow hair coloring on Robbie. “The very first ever Barbie made, the one in a striped costume, she’s got very yellow hair,” Primorac said. “So we started with that, thinking that would be so cool (to) make Margot look like a doll because she’ll have that corn-yellow hair.”

BY KRISTEN LOPEZ

“Barbie” (Warner Bros.)

Sound

Greta Gerwig had a phrase for what she wanted from the “Barbie” sound team: authentically artificial. “Nothing is alive, but Greta wanted it to feel pleasant and inviting,” said re-recording mixer, sound designer and supervising sound editor Ai-Ling Lee. “We used non-literal sounds, like from commercials where the audience hears it and wants to have it. For example, Barbie would open the fridge, and we wanted it to feel like a refreshing cold air came out. So we’d add a woman exhaling, like the sound someone would make after they’d drunk a refreshing glass of cola. It’s almost like imagining the sounds a human would make if they were playing with these Barbies and Kens.”

BY STEVE POND

Costume Design

Costume designer Jacqueline Durran has given audiences looks from all manner of eras, and she won an Oscar working with Greta Gerwig on the 2019 adaptation of “Little Women.” But her reteaming with Gerwig on “Barbie” is easily her most epic, with the costumes ranging from the outlandish to the relatable, from gingham to fauxjo mojo mink. 

BY KRISTEN LOPEZ

“Barbie” (Warner Bros.)

Editing

For “Barbie” editor Nick Houy, his work went beyond telling a narrative and veered into the inner workings of humanity, from what makes a man a man to how we celebrate the finite nature of our existence. Huoy felt that the script set up the beats of feeling for the characters — where they laugh, where they cry — but to tell something as nuanced as what Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach put in their screenplay required a delicate balance between when a moment needed to be personal and when it needed to be parody. 

BY KRISTEN LOPEZ

Photo Gallery

Read more from the Below-the-Line issue here.

Greta Gerwig and Barbie below-the-line team
Photo by Jeff Vespa for TheWrap
Creative Director & Photographer: Jeff Vespa
Photo Editor: Tatiana Leiva
Design Director: Shannon Watkins
Video Director: Thadd Williams 
Director of Social: Carmen Rivera
Digital Layout Design: Christopher Smith
Creative Team: Breanne Terrazas, Aaron Jarboe
Makeup: Marylin Lee Spiegel & Michael Shepherd
Hair: Joannel Clemente
Hair & Makeup: Andrew Zepeda
Mr. Ronson’s Groomer: Candice Birns
Ms. Gerwig’s Stylist: Kate Young
Ms. Gerwig’s Hair: John D
Ms. Gerwig’s Makeup: Sabrina Bedrani for Dior Beauty