Greta Gerwig is adamant: Lady Bird is not autobiographical.
It would be easy to assume so: Gerwig’s directorial debut is set in her native Sacramento, roughly around the time (but not exactly) Gerwig herself graduated from high school. As a viewer, it’s hard not to assign the film biographical elements that aren’t there.
“I was so the opposite of Lady Bird,” says Gerwig. “I think, in a way, I was exploring what I wasn’t actually able to possess myself. I never had anyone call me by a different name, I never dyed my hair bright red… I was a rule-follower and a people-pleaser. I just try to write something that feels true and I don’t worry about the rest of it.”
Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) is a high school senior living in Sacramento, a town she feels is an absolute cultural wasteland. Her mother (Laurie Metcalf) is the house’s sole breadwinner after her husband (Tracy Letts) is laid off, and she often butts heads with her headstrong, opinionated daughter. Deciding that she prefers the name Lady Bird, Christine goes through a 1/6th life crisis in her last year of high school, drifting away from her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) and her dorky first boyfriend Danny (Lucas Hedges) and into the orbit of “cool” kids Diana (Laura Marano) and Kyle (Timothée Chalamet).
“When I was a teenager, I don’t think I fully knew that people made movies,” she says. “I watched movies, I went to the movies, but they always seemed like they were handed down from God. I was always interested in theatre because I could tell that theatre was made by people that were right there in front of you. I wasn’t even totally sure where movies came from! (laughs) Of course I knew that people made them, but it was so far away from me, and it wasn’t until I was in college that I started thinking about them as something that I could make.”
I’m only a few years younger than Gerwig, and the film is set a few years after she herself graduated, meaning that Lady Bird is one of the first films to set my own adolescence in the past. Suffice it to say that Lady Bird should hit perilously close to home for many of us in our early 30s, even if we grew up thousands of miles from Sacramento.
“The film is set in 2002 and 2003, which is a little bit after I was in school,” says Gerwig. “It was important to me to set it in a post-9/11 world, because it was a way for me to talk about now and the moment we’re living through now without actually setting it in the present. The glib answer is I didn’t want to shoot smartphones… but there is something to the fact that I felt we were experiencing the beginning of what we are still living through. In that trauma of a post-9/11 world, we were in a war in Afghanistan, we were getting into a war in Iraq, the Internet was arriving but wasn’t quite there yet, the progressive erosion of the middle class was heating up and I felt it was a moment in time where things were just starting to come into focus.
“One thing that was so important to me in terms of establishing the time period was making sure that not everything was from 2002. Sometimes, when you make a movie that’s set in the past, there’s a tendency to… if you make a movie set in 1953, every car on the street is from 1953 and every song on the radio is from 1953. The truth is that you always have a trace of the just-recent past. The music and the cars are from the ’90s and that presence is still very strong in the film. Of course, we have the great Justin Timberlake song ‘Cry Me A River,’ which is from that year, but we also have songs from 1996. It’s not all at once the ‘new’ time. You’ve got to grow into the time you’re in; you don’t just arrive there.”
Gerwig already has a defined authorial voice thanks to the films she wrote (Frances Ha and Mistress America) but it’s her work as an actor that defined her directorial style. “Really, my work as an actor is so much of how I learned to direct,” she says. “I always wanted to be a director, and I did every job I could do. I was a co-writer, I was a producer… on the tiny movies that I did when I started out, I sort of did everything because it was all hands on deck, all the time. Working as an actor was an extraordinary way to be on movie sets with great film directors and watch how they work — not just them but the crew, the cinematographers, the sound mixer, the production designer, the costume designer… So by the time I was making this film, I had been working in films for 10 years, and it largely happened through my work as an actor. (…) One thing that surprised me is that I always used to think that directors have a certain personality type and that’s why they were directors. But I realized that in fact, directing gives you a certain personality.”
When I saw Lady Bird at the Toronto International Film Festival this September, I was shut out of two consecutive press screenings before I finally got to see it. It’s not an uncommon occurrence, but it holds a certain weight; case in point, the last time this happened to me was for a little movie called Moonlight. I asked Gerwig whether this idea of “buzz” concerned her.
“You know, we opened the film in the United States on Friday, in Los Angeles and New York, and we’re expanding next week,” she says. “Really, what I hope happens is that people see the movie. That’s what I want, that’s what I hope and that’s the thing I’m most focused on. It’s wonderful and very flattering and I hope my actresses get all the prizes and all of the trophies that they have, because they deserve them! But really, it’s about getting the movie out there.” ■
Lady Bird opens in theatres on Friday, Nov. 24. Watch the trailer here: