Stealing from the Best: Director Greta Gerwig on Her Latest, 'Lady Bird'

"I had the opportunity to be on the sets of a lot of the greats in terms of directors," says Gerwig, "So I was able to steal from the best."

This month marked a milestone in the career of actor/writer/director Greta Gerwig. Best known for her roles in Frances Ha and Mistress America, the indie darling's directorial debut, Lady Bird, broke two records in its box office debut: It drew over $375k while only being screened in four theaters (it expands this weekend), making it the biggest release of its scale in 2017 and the biggest per-theater earner for a live-action movie written and directed by a woman, ever.

The film is an intimately personal coming-of-age story that follows Christine "Lady Bird" McPherson (played by the pitch-perfect Saoirse Ronan) as she grapples with her kind but overbearing mother (Laurie Metcalf), struggles to make sense of wishy-washy teenage boys, and prepares to say good riddance to her hometown of Sacramento, California, as high school comes to a close. Both a hilarious, incisive tale of teenage angst and a heartfelt love letter to Gerwig's hometown, the film pulses with personality and boasts the surging Ronan's best, most singular performance to date.

While in Northern California promoting the film just miles away from Sacramento, Gerwig spoke with PopMatters about her first time helming a film, finding joy in all of moviemaking's challenges and complications, and telling an honest story from a female perspective, imperfections and all.

Was directing your first feature film an enjoyable experience?

It was the most fun I've had. It was two solid years of work, but I loved it. I've never had more fun or been more challenged in my life, and I just adored it.

You've been on movie sets for a long time, and some of your close friends are incredibly talented filmmakers, which I imagine prepared you for helming your own movie. But I also imagine there were some unforeseen challenges that arose during production.

When I was in pre-production for this movie, I realized I'd been working in different capacities in movies for ten years. I've been acting, writing, co-directing, co-writing, producing, holding the boom [mic], editing, and everything in between. I had the opportunity to be on the sets of a lot of the greats in terms of directors, so I was able to steal from the best.

One thing I know in my bones because I'm a show-person and a movie person is that there are challenges. So, in a way, going into it, I knew that there would inevitably be something difficult, something will fall through, you'll lose a location, things will take more time than you thought. I didn't have this expectation that it was all going to work like clockwork. My expectation was that you over-prepare and work really, really hard in pre-production with all of your production heads, rehearse with your actors, and make sure everything is set. You know that things will go wrong.

It's not that there weren't challenges... I just didn't experience them as great injustices. I experienced them as... that's just how it goes.

Do you find yourself embracing that friction, that grind to get the work done?

Yeah. I love it. I love being completely absorbed in something, and I love that it's all hands on deck all the time. As the director, you're the person that sees it through from beginning to end. It's almost like running a marathon, and people come in and run with you for a couple of miles, and then they go, and then you run on your own, and then someone else comes in. It's grueling. But in the end, you ran every step of it, from the moment you started writing it until right now, sitting with you.

There's not a piece of this that I didn't touch, which is an amazing feeling. You can feel some sense of satisfaction, of completion. I love the work. The difficulty of it is what makes it satisfying, in a way.

I feel like a lot of filmmakers tend to take a few films to find their "voice" as directors, but it seems you've already found yours with Lady Bird. Your quirks, your odd sense of humor. It's all in there.

I think I had the good fortune of "finding my voice" over this period of ten years. I was working in all of these different styles... improvisation, more tightly scripted things. The work I did with Noah Baumbach -- the scripts we wrote together that he directed and that I was in -- was a huge part of figuring out the kinds of things I wanted to do.

With this movie, I had such a clear picture of it. I knew what it should be, how it should sound, how it should be shot. I didn't have to struggle to find that. I would take a long time to pick the right collaborators and bring them into the dream I had for the movie. But in a way, directing a movie is like hypnotizing a group of people to all have the same dream at the same time. You're trying to get everyone to be a storyteller in their particular department, whether it be lighting, a gaffer, a costume designer, a sound technician. They're all storytellers, and you need them all to see the movie that only you can see in your head. The [final] movie that you see is pretty much the script, exactly as it was written, which is wild. We skewed very closely to what I had intended from the beginning.

The Wonder Woman phenomenon was great, but it's nice to see a movie like this, which is very much about the female experience but isn't necessarily about the most amazing, perfect woman imaginable.

Not everyone can be Wonder Woman. But I loved Wonder Woman. I'm so psyched for Patti Jenkins and Gal Gadot and what they made. It was so meaningful, personally, to me. But there's room for all kinds of stories about women who aren't perfect. I'm very proud of this movie.

When I started writing about movies a few years ago, one of the first films I covered had Saoirse Ronan in it. Some vampire movie, I think. I don't remember a lot about the movie, but I do remember thinking there was something special about her that I couldn't put my finger on. What is it?

It's this incredible combination of technique and consciousness. She has the ability to make a very technical choice. She's doing an accent, she has a look that's not her normal look, she walks a way that's not the way she walks. She becomes a different person in a very technical way. And then, within those choices she has to keep track of, she's able to be completely spontaneous and alive. It's that combination that's very rare. It's what all the greats have, and she's got it.

Sam Levy and Greta Gerwig on the set of Lady Bird (Photo: Merie Wallace, courtesy of A24)

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