The lead character in Greta Gerwig's new movie, "Lady Bird," is not trying to land the affection of that one cool guy at the school. Gerwig tells The Frame: "I love 'Say Anything.' I love 'Pretty in Pink.' I love 'Sixteen Candles.' And I love the modern versions of them too. But I feel like that's not what life is like."
Instead, Lady Bird (played by Saorsie Ronan) is an independent-minded high school senior who is desperate to break out of her ordinary life in Sacramento. Sure, she wants to fall in love and have sex, but she also wants to attend college in New York or, as Lady Bird says, "at least Connecticut or New Hampshire where writers live in the woods." Gerwig goes on:
It's like, this girl grew up on those movies. Man, she had "Titanic." That'll screw you for life. That will make you believe that something's going to happen that's not going to happen. And so I felt like I wanted to be both inside that psychology and also the movie wasn't in it. That was something I wanted to play with.
When "Lady Bird" premiered recently at the Telluride Film Festival, The Frame's John Horn caught up with Gerwig. They began by talking about these name tags he saw her wearing in photos from the set of "Lady Bird." It turns out that they came from an idea she borrowed from Mike Mills, who directed her in "20th Century Women." "I've learned countless things from people," Gerwig says. "I've had good fortune to talk to a lot of them more directly before I started shooting."
What Gerwig learned about directing from other directors:
As an actor, you're always brought in when everything's ready and the lights are set and we're all ready to go. And it's a difficult thing to know everybody's name — and especially when people switch out. And I thought it was such a kind, beautiful thing that Mike had everybody wear name tags everyday. So that if it was a different boom operator, you didn't say, Hey, you. You could say, Oh, Joe, could you...? So I stole that from him and that is one of the benefits of being an actress — you get to see a lot of different sets and what works and what doesn't.
I think from Mike Mills I learned a lot about creating a perimeter around the actors so they feel safe with each other — that the actors should have their own magic relationship with each other.
Spike gave me great advice. One of his pieces of advice is, if you feel bad about a shot, just start turning off lights. And it was really smart. But also it just gives you a second to think about what's wrong. And it was a very smart thing.
From Noah, who I've worked with as an actor three times ["Greenberg," "Frances Ha" and "Mistress America"] and I've written with, he runs an incredibly calm set. He also forbids cellphones, which I did. It's a bummer to look over and see someone texting and it breaks the actor's concentration.
Whit ["Damsels in Distress"] does speed throughs on lines. Because if you can do it 10 times faster than we need you to, it can sink into your muscle memory differently.
How Gerwig created a vibe on the set of "Lady Bird":
I'm a big believer in that films are mysterious. I think a lot of energy gets into them that was the ambience on the set. I definitely would play music a lot. That was something that I've always liked when a director sets the mood by music. So I had a tiny boombox and ... I would know what we were shooting everyday and I'd have songs that I was specifically gunning for. It wasn't like I was picking them at the moment. I actually made playlists for every single day of shooting. And I just felt like it brought everybody into the same space.
This [set] was one of the special ones, I will say. And everybody felt it. And when it ended, my first [assistant director] said, Just so you know — they're not all like this. And I said, Oh, I know they're not. But it was a very warm, loving, supportive group. And, really, when you make independent films — small films — the only reason anyone's there is because they want to be there. So that kind of does some of the work for you.
Why she set the film in 2002-2003:
The glib answer is I didn't want to shoot smartphones because so much of teenage life now happens on smartphones. And I don't think they're that interesting to look at. So that's one reason. I had already graduated by the time the Iraq War started. I was in college. But I felt like there was this period of time after 9/11 happened, and then 18 months later we had invaded Iraq. And it felt like, in an instant, an entirely new age had been ushered into geopolitical movements and what was happening internationally and [with] the U.S.' position. And what is interesting to me is how those things happen simultaneously with your life — that the world is not divided up into history over there and your personal life over here. It all happens together. I felt like to set it after 9/11 and right during the invasion of Iraq, it's what we're now living through. I mean, we still have troops there. So that was a way of introducing what I see is now our modern time.
What Gerwig does and does not have in common with the character of Lady Bird:
She has a line: I wish I could live through something, which, I don't know, my particular generation, I think it felt like everything had happened. Like the '60s were done. What are we doing now? ... It felt like, What are we defined by? And I think this is general to all teenagers — you're so certain that life is happening somewhere else and that it's not happening to you. So that feeling of, I just have to go get where the life is. And you get to the place where you think the life is, then you realize it's not there and it had already happened. It's the loneliness of getting what you want and getting to the place and realizing it's not what you thought. But that definitely I related to ... I think Lady Bird was a far more confident, cocky, strange person than I was. She is not how I was. She's from some other part of my brain, but that part I connected to.
To hear John Horn's full interview with Greta Gerwig, click on the player above. To get more content like this, subscribe to The Frame podcast on iTunes.