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Inspiration Takes Flight: An Interview with Writer/Director Greta Gerwig About the Making of 'Lady Bird'

November 8, 2017Britany Murphy

Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut is upon us in the form of Lady Bird. Having had its international premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, it is a movie that is focused around a rebellious teen by the name of Christine "Lady Bird" McPherson, who longs to leave Sacramento, California behind and make something of herself. With its title character charismatically portrayed by Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird showcases all the struggles that coming of age brings, and it will no doubt leave viewers feeling a little bit of everything while they take in its magic.

I was able to catch up with Gerwig during a recent roundtable interview in Toronto, where she spent some time discussing the film's themes and its amazing cast with a small group of journalists. The following is a moderately edited version of the discussion in its entirety.

Where did the name come from — why does she call herself "Lady Bird?"

Gerwig: Lady Bird. You know, it's not from me. I never made anyone call me by a different name — I actually don't know anyone who made anyone call them by a different name. I'd been working on the script and I had all these different scenes, but I felt like we kept hitting up against some kind of block. And I put everything aside, and then I wrote at the top of the page: "Why won’t you call me Lady Bird? You promised that you would." And I don't know where that came from, and I want to know who this character is. Who is this girl who makes people call her by a name that she doesn't have?

And I think, in retrospect, there's a double thing going on with calling yourself by another name. One could be religious, like when you pick a saint's name for yourself during confirmation and what you aspire to be. And it could also be secular, if you want to be a rock star and you choose "David Bowie" (that's not his name). So it's like growing into this bigness.

And then also, it kind of means that you have crazy amounts of confidence and also that you think you're not good enough as yourself. And I think that those two things are really interesting side-by-side. But the name of Lady Bird in particular, goodness knows. I think it's from Mother Goose; there's a Mother Goose rhyme: "Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home." And I think that's probably lodged in my brain and I used it.

How did you go about choosing each song for each person?

Gerwig: Oh, well I love Sondheim. He's my favorite composer and lyricist, and Merrily [We Roll Along] is my favorite of the musicals. And I'd written Merrily into the script and had no idea [if] I was going to get permission, but luckily my producer is a big Broadway producer, and he'd worked with him. So he got him a letter and Sondheim said yes. But in terms of choosing the songs that the characters sing for the audition, I mean "Being Alive" is such a beautiful song — but to have a teenager sing it, it just seems like it's too much to ask when you're a seventeen-year-old boy.

And then Lady Bird's "Everybody Says Don't" felt like it just reflected where she was at that moment that she felt like everyone was telling her no, but Saoirse was also just so funny singing it. She was listening to a recording of Barbra Streisand singing it a bunch, so she was a little bit imitating the Barbra Streisand recording. And on Danny's "Giants in the Sky," it’s just such a beautiful, big, romantic song.

Then, [with] the musical Merrily, I just felt there was a central ache to that musical — this real heartbreak in the middle of it — that I felt like I hoped my movie had the same quality of being heartbreaking, in a way. That there was a real ache there.

Saoirse, Laurie, Tracy... you have this phenomenal cast. Can you talk to us a little about casting the film and how that came about?

Gerwig: Sure! Well, actually I met Saoirse here, in Toronto at TIFF in 2015. She was here with Brooklyn and I was here with a film called Maggie's Plan. And she'd read the script and really responded to it. She had this instinct about it. And she said, "I know I'm from this tiny town in Ireland and it's all the way across the world, but I just know this. I know this character, I know this story, and I feel it in my heart." And so we met up and we read the whole script out loud, and she read all of Lady Bird's lines and I read everybody else's lines, and I just knew instantly that she was the right person for the part. But then I made her read the whole script because I'm selfish, and I wanted to hear it out loud, because that's just what directors do!

So I cast her and moved the movie for her because she's my Lady Bird. And then, being a giant theater nerd, I felt like it really filled out — Stephen McKinley Henderson I'd seen on Broadway; Lois Smith I'd seen off-Broadway; Laurie I'd seen at Steppenwolf and on Broadway; Tracy, I love all of his plays that he's written and I'd also seen him on Broadway! [laughs] I feel like it's really just a collection of people I think are incredible. And then the young cast — there's Timothée Chalamet, who plays Kyle; I saw him on-stage in a John Patrick Shanley play in New York called Prodigal Son, and he was incredible. And Beanie Feldstein just walked in and auditioned, and I fell in love with her.

You know, there was a combination of ways that we got that team together, but everyone was so great and I was so blessed with this cast that was just really in it and able to make a family with each other.

You also wrote Lady Bird, so I was wondering how did you balance giving the actors creative freedom with characters you created and have already envisioned in your head?

Gerwig: Well, you know, in a funny way, the characters on the page became their own characters. They're not people I knew, they're pieces of people I knew combined with other things, and then some things were made up. And for me, the process of writing, they always say acting is listening. But I think for me, writing is also listening, because you're paying attention to what characters are saying that they are.

And I think by the time I have a completed script, each character is really their own person. And for me, a part of my process as a director — I think the most important thing — is giving the candle, the little lit match of the character to the actor and saying, "It's yours now. I don't own it. I don't know who this person is. It's you. So you tell me who they are because I can't know what you know about this person." And I feel like it's that passing on of a character that's vital to me.

Were you at all impacted by high school coming-of-age films growing up, or were there any other factors in wanting to make a film like this?

Gerwig: Yeah, you know there were a lot of films that I loved and a lot of films that I looked at when I was preparing for this movie. But I often found most movies about a girl's coming of age is about a guy, and it's usually about one guy. I mean, it's always about one guy [laughs]. And it could be a reward at the end of a journey, or it could be the goal the entire time, but I felt like most coming-of-age stories that are really about a person — [or coming into] your "personhood" — were about boys.

So the movies that I really loved, like The 400 Blows or Amarcord — these movies about childhood or about growing up — are about guys. I mean, even more recently, Boyhood, [which] is about a boy! And I think a young woman's personhood is just as important and just as interesting. So in a way I started out with this idea about [wanting] to tell this story [where] I don't want there to be one guy, I want there to be two guys. And I want them both to be wrong, and I want the core of the love story to really be between her and her mother.

I think that that was something I was very deliberate about because I think too often, female characters are reduced to their relationships with a guy. Not that there's anything wrong with guys!

Lady Bird opens in Toronto November 10th and in other major cities nationwide November 17th.

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