Special Features

How Greta Gerwig Tackled the Challenge of Directing Lady Bird

Sometimes it’s the projects you don’t do which shape your career more than the ones you do. For example, Greta Gerwig wanted to be a playwright. The MFA program she applied to didn’t see it that way. Later, she wanted to become a sitcom actress, moving to California to star in a How I Met Your Mother spin-off centered around her in 2014. CBS didn’t quite see that as a good fit for her.

If either of those moments had gone differently, she might never have made Lady Bird. If she gets into that MFA program she never pursues acting full time. If she lands that sitcom and it runs for multiple seasons the opportunities available to her completely change as does the industry’s view of the type of projects she’s right for.

Which means she never has the time to make Maggie’s Plan with Rebecca Miller or 20th Century Woman with Mike Mills. Without Maggie’s Plan, she doesn’t meet Saoirse Ronan at the Toronto Film Festival in 2015, where they ran into each other while promoting their movies, Ronan for Brooklyn, Gerwig for Maggie. She doesn’t get to recruit Ronan to Lady Bird right there on the spot and might not have the flexibility to wait for her to finish up The Crucible on Broadway before they start shooting. Without 20th Century Woman, she doesn’t get to watch Mike Mills on set and pick his brain on how to go about directing a movie.

Without all of that, I probably don’t get to say this:

Yesterday, Greta Gerwig became the 8th woman ever nominated for Best Feature Film Director by the Directors Guild of America!

They’ve been giving out this award since 1968, and Gerwig joins Sofia Coppola, Valeria Faris, and Kathryn Bigelow as the only women nominated this century. Does this mean Gerwig is a now slam dunk for an Oscar nomination later this month? No. But it at least makes it a heck of a lot likelier that no presenter with have to throw some “all-male nominees” shade, at least not in the Best Director category.

For Gerwig, this goes back to 2008, when she co-directed the little-seen Nights and Weekends with Noah Baumbach. In the ensuing decade, she amassed enough on-set experiences and made enough contacts to feel ready to direct a movie entirely on her own. The first thing she did, beyond writing the quasi-autobiographical script about her teenage experience in Sacramento, California, was call the best directors she’d worked with and/or happened to know and begged to pick their brains for hours.

She and Spike Jonze, one of the people she called, discussed this back in November on The Director’s Cut, the DGA’s weekly podcast series where established directors (like Jonze) interview the directors of new movies immediately after a screening at the DGA Theater in Los Angeles. “I called Spike and said, ‘Can you please talk to me on the phone for a couple of hours about directing? I’m gonna ask you all my questions and you can give me any nuggets of information,’” Gerwig told the audience. “And I wrote everything down that he said. I referred to it.”

The other directors on the receiving end of such a call from Gerwig: Wes Anderson (Isle of Dogs), Rebecca Miller, Mike Mills, Todd Solondz (Wiener Dog), Whit Stillman (Love & Friendship). Plus, she obviously picked Noah Baumbach’s brain, as the two have been a couple since 2011.

For any aspiring directors out there, female or otherwise, this is a level of access you would probably kill for. We can’t all just pick up the phone to call our highly accomplished friends, some of whom practically defined the indie film movement of the 90s. However, let it also serve as a lesson to utilize whatever resources are available to you (such as the endless podcasts and videos out there which serve as free film school these days) and get over any fear you might have of asking peers for help. Beyond that, Gerwig is more than happy to share the practical advice she received:

Spike Jonze told her: “If you don’t like a shot just start turning off lights. You probably have too many lights on, and it gives you a second to think about why you don’t like the shot.”

Mike Mills said: Have everyone on set wear name tags where they include their name and the answer to a question of the day, like “What’s your go-to karaoke song?” or “What would you be if you were not working in movies?”. Greta’s karaoke song, btw, is “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” Yes, she can do the fast part on cue. No, she won’t do it in the middle of an interview. The point of this name tag exercise is to humanize the entire crew, provide immediate icebreakers, and make everyone feel like they’re part of a team together.

Rebecca Miller said: “You should let your actors meet with their costume designer on their own first. You can always manage and go in there, but let them make that connection so they feel they are building the wardrobe of this character together. It’s important for actors to have a separate life from the director. So, you can observe it and are not constantly constructing it.”

Gerwig used all of that. Plus, she called on her own experiences as an actor to add her own touches to the practical, day-to-day realities of directing. As she told KPCC’s The Frame in a separate interview, “Films are mysterious, and I think a lot of what gets into them is from the ambiance of the set. So, I would definitely play music a lot. That was something I’ve always liked when a director sets a mood to music. I had a tiny little boom box that I would play. I actually made playlists for every day of shooting, with specific songs picked for each scene.”

Moreover, she took some of the advice she was given and ran even further with it. For example, rather than simply allow her actors to meet with the costume designer to mutually arrive at costume choices she actually encouraged them to select an entire wardrobe so that the actor could simply grab something from the character’s closet on any given day and decide that’s what they were wearing.

Gerwig and Sam Levy on set

Beyond that, Gerwig learned a director is only as good as the people she surrounds herself with, which is why she recruited Frances Ha/Mistress America cinematographer Sam Levy before there was ever any funding or even a cast. He took the job because he liked the script, and the full year of lead time they had together allowed them to storyboard and shotlist the entirety of Lady Bird well in advance, which they distributed to the various department heads during pre-production to ensure everyone was on the same page (note: they partially had so much lead time because the production ended up being moved back to wait for Ronan to finish The Crucible).  This level of planning was not lost on critics, with IndieWire accurately arguing, “Lady Bird is every inch as painstakingly planned out and precise in its complexity as Dunkirk, but without an inch of the directorial flex.”

This wasn’t just Gerwig and Levy’s planning though. She also brought aboard a first assistant director, Jonas Spaccarotelli, who proved to be a vital resource for scheduling. As she told Jonze, “[Spaccarotelli] was so sensitive to where each of the actors were going to be emotionally in the day. It was such a gift I didn’t know I was going to get, an I didn’t know how important it was until he was there and walked me through the schedule with literally an emotional arc for each character, which was incredible.”

Appropriately, Spaccarotelli is among the 9 members of Gerwig’s directorial team who share the DGA nomination with her.

With Levy and Spaccarotelli forming a triumvirate with Gerwig, by the time she made it to set she realized all of the work with her team had prepared her for whatever might come. “I was more able to handle what would go wrong, inevitably, because I had such a solid base underneath me, but I think that’s why build a base…things will go awry.”

And beyond “going awry,” sometimes things happen by pure accident, like how Levy settled on the film’s unique visual style, telling THR, “As I was dreaming up what this film should look like, I took my location photos, as well as reference images that Greta and I had been looking at, and made color photocopies of them in our office. We had a rather cheap copy machine, but the prints had an alluring quality. The colors were rich, with a distressed quality that spoke to us. It got Greta and I talking about how the early 2000s were still very much the era of Kinkos and color Xerox machines…We decided we wanted a distressed but dynamic image. An image with ‘a generation removed.'”

So, in tackling the challenge of directing Lady Bird Gerwig first leaned on her own life story and experiences to produce a script she was passionate about. She then sought out advice from mentors and peers, hired hyper-competent collaborators, planned everything out to the very last detail, ensured that her cast’s conflicting times on the film were scheduled in such a way to keep them emotionally present and connected, and just let life happen, such as a random, crappy copy machine showing her exactly what she wanted the film to look like.

After all of that, she is a DGA nominee. Congratulations to Greta Gerwig and her team.

Here’s what she had to say about that team in a Collider interview after the movie came out:

It did feel very special while we were making it, and it was really the people who made it. It was everyone from my P.A., Dana [Nelson], who was so wonderful and did the job of 10 people, to my favorite gaffer to Saoirse [Ronan] to my DP, Sam Levy, to Eli Bush, who is a producer. Every single person was really a storyteller and every single person really put not only their art into it, but their whole heart. So, it felt special while we were making it, but you just never know if people will connect with it or not. You try to make it as honestly as you can, and then you cross your fingers. Never, in my wildest dreams, did I think that this would be the response, but I am so grateful that it is because it felt like this thing that we made together and the last step of that is giving it to the audience.

Source: The Director’s Cut podcast, The Frame

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