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Middleburg Film Festival Interview: Greta Gerwig on Exploring Mother-Daughter Relationship in Lady Bird

Talking to Greta Gerwig was my last exciting engagement at the 5th annual Middleburg Film Festival before taking a shuttle to catch a plane back to Los Angeles. This week Gerwig brought her solo directorial debut Lady Bird to the festival which has had a remarkable number of films by and about about women this year. Sheila Johnson who created and curates the festival said this was gratifying but far from intentional. It just happened that some of the best films that came out this year were made by women.

Appearing in films as varied as Mistress America, Damsels In Distress, Woody Allen’s To Rome with Love, Frances Ha and last year’s 20th Century Women, Gerwig is every bit a leading lady. But this year, Gerwig stepped behind the camera to helm Lady Bird. The film first screened at Telluride where Moonlight’s Barry Jenkins introduced it to enthusiastic response.

Lady Bird is every bit a charming coming of age film, with Saoirse Ronan as a young woman finding her own unique ways of dealing with issues every teenager encounters. She copes with the stress of  her first heartbreak, a high school play, losing a best friend and finding a new one, and struggling with college applications — and Gerwig captures the essence of being a teenager before cell phones became essential accessories. But it’s Lady Bird’s complex relationship with her mother that provides the heart and core of the film, making it one of the best of 2017

What has it been like for you to take Lady Bird to festivals starting in Telluride and now here?

It’s been such a whirlwind since the film premiered. I actually met the directors of the festival at Telluride where the film was first premiering. They invited the film that weekend. It’s been such an extraordinary thing for me to take these films taking the film to all these different cities and states and I was just in London for the film. I’m going back to Toronto.

Seeing how people connect with it from their hearts. What’s so exciting is seeing these mothers and daughters and fathers and sons coming up to me, telling me about their lives because that’s what I always hoped this film would do was to connect people back to their hometowns and their families and what their journeys have been or what their children’s journeys have been. That’s been incredibly gratifying.

To have sat down this morning with Valerie Faris and Maggie Betts and filmmakers, where we are at this moment. I’m such a fan of these filmmakers. My fangirl is truly satisfied right now.

I love the homage you pay to Sacramento. It’s not a city we often see represented and you gave it its due. Talk about setting it there. You made me want to go.

It’s a beautiful city. For me, so much of the impulse of writing the movie was to make a love letter to Sacramento. I’m from there, even though the film isn’t autobiographical and I was nothing like Lady Bird. I felt like I knew the place infinitely and felt I could show it as it is a beautiful and unique and special place. Often bigger cities like LA, San Francisco, Chicago and NY get more airtime and the smaller cities get less documentation. I’m interested in cinema as a way to document place.

For me, I’m always interested in shining a light on areas that feel slightly less explored.

Complex mother-daughter relationships feel vastly unrepresented in the cinematic universe. I think we have a lot of examples of father-son movies and I feel there aren’t just as many about mothers and daughters. If there is, she is either an angel or a monster, but the truth is people exist on the spectrum of doing their best, making mistakes, getting up and starting over, loving hard, and continuing on. I felt in the city of Sacramento and in the subject matter I wanted it to feel like, Why do we spend so much time in cinema looking at things that aren’t the majority of life. This is like Sacramento and mother-daughter relationships, they are a lot of love.

That’s what I loved, the realism in the film where you look at religion, those relationships, friends. What was your entry point to writing the script?

I spent a very long time writing the script. I wish I could write faster but it takes me years. The initial screenplay was a bunch of stuff and not narratively coherent and it was 350 pages long. I think in a way I like to feel like I have an overfull buffet table and I can select off of that. But to still have the Hemingway instruction to write only the tip of the iceberg but have the depth of it underneath is something I take seriously.

Even if I only get a couple of scenes of a character, you sense that everyone is in the middle of their own opera — that you can follow any one character and there would be a whole movie there.

You’ve worked with directors like Stillman, Jonze, and Mills. What was the most valuable lesson you learned?

When I went into pre-production with this, I’d been making films for ten years. I’d always wanted to be a writer-director, but because I didn’t go to film school, I felt that all of my learning and training had to happen on the job. It was invaluable, all of the lessons that I had received, and it was everything from tiny lessons to huge lessons. From how to speak to a crew, to how to set up a shot, and my belief that everyone should wear name tags, right to prohibiting cellphones on set. Overall, it was the absolute relentless work ethic you need to have to finish a film. At the end of the day, it’s at least two solid years of work and work that you are there for every single moment of. It’s enormously satisfying but it requires an indomitable mindset because there is so much that can go wrong.

One of the pleasures of taking this film to festivals is talking to all these different directors who have films and just how supportive everyone is because everyone knows how difficult this is to do.

One thing that I took away as an actor, is most directors are only on their own film set so they only know how they do it. I got to steal from a lot of different people so I consider myself very lucky.

I love that you set the film in 2003 and not 2017. Why that year?

It’s a bit after I was in school. I wanted it to be in a post 9/11 world. I wanted it to be with the rise of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan and this international never-ending war on terror combined with this continuing erosion of the middle class, particularly in America.

There’s a sense often in movies that history happens in one area and personal lives happen in another area, but the personal is political and history is experienced by individuals and America is made up of individuals in places that are both close to the center of the action and far away from the action.

It was a moment of exploring how things are changing and what we were moving into and what we are living through right now. It was a moment where seeds were planted and things were shifting. It was also a moment before the internet was becoming the dominant force but it hadn’t arrived yet. I also didn’t want to shoot smartphones. To make a movie now I don’t know how you wouldn’t shoot a movie about teenagers without smartphones because they all live their lives online. For me, it was a combination of factors but I thought it was a way to talk about what was happening now, without literally setting it now.

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With that, Gerwig was off to her next interview and I headed for the airport.

Lady Bird opens on November 3 and screened as the Saturday Night Centerpiece at the Middleburg Film Festival.