For her solo directorial debut, Greta Gerwig delves deep into the emotional complications of mother-daughter relationship. Lady Bird has been resonating with audiences everywhere who have fallen in love with the ambitious teenager who is ready to leave her hometown nest of Sacramento for New York, where she can find more culture, art, and opportunity.
Along with Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf, the film stars Tracy Letts as her father who is looking for work and suffering from depression. A renowned author in his own right, Letts has won a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award and received a WGA nomination for August: Osage County. I sat down with him to talk about how he met Gerwig at Sundance. “She realized I was a softie and thought I was great to play the dad.” He said yes to the offer immediately. Letts describes the script as, “Sharp, tight and funny,” and says it ticked all the boxes in what he looks for when reading a script.
Have a read of our chat below:
Tell us the story of how you got involved in Lady Bird.
I did a movie with Greta called Weiner Dog, and it’s shot in vignettes but we actually didn’t work together on the film but we met at the after party in Sundance. As Greta tells it, she had seen me in a bunch of movies playing hard asses, but once she sat with me, she realized I was a softie and thought I was great to play the dad in Lady Bird and I said yes immediately.
What was it like for you to read this script that she had written and to see the way she handled these themes?
It’s just a great script. It was sharp, tight and funny. She’s very clever with her writing and I really admired how tight the structure was and the efficiency with how she colored these characters. I have to say, the movie we made looks very much like the script she wrote. The movie in my head is the movie that we made and that’s always a good sign.
Did you know Laurie and Saorise previously?
Laurie and I are very old friends, we’ve known each other for a very long time and we were very comfortable with each other when we first started the movie. I’d never met Saoirse before. I was a fan of hers from seeing her other films. We had an immediate affinity for each other and I enjoyed her and her company. They were such a pleasure to be around. It’s such a dream job really. If they come rolling up in their van and say, “Hop in,” you should go because they are really talented, great and charismatic people and we had such a great time.
Do you have a set process when you take on a role?
I’m pretty intuitive so I had this picture in my head of how it should be. So many of the characters were on the page and I didn’t need to do anything. When the other characters say, “You’re depressed,” you don’t have to act depressed because it’s the lens with how the audience views you. The truth is there are some jobs where you have to do a lot of extra work to do the gig, and then there are some jobs where blessedly you just have to learn the lines, show up and be available. You have to pretend to be someone else and be emotionally available.
Greta and I had some conversations about what Larry might be like, we talked about her father and my father. Larry is his own guy. I had actually just come back from Melbourne before we started shooting. I had grown a beard out of boredom because my wife was out there shooting a movie and I thought that maybe that beard might be right for the guy. I showed up on set and Greta liked it and so we just kept it.
What was it like on set?
It was very warm, easy and relaxed setting. If there was tension I never knew about it. It was just super free and easy. I think that always starts from the head. Greta created a great working atmosphere. It’s a low budget movie and we had a lot of pages to get through in a day, but all ideas were welcome. Everyone was welcome and it was a great month in my life.
How would you describe Larry’s relationship with his daughter?
When I first read the script, there was this clear distinction between the parents. One parent thinks that his job of raising his child is essentially done and she’s ready for the world. The other one thinks she has more world to do and that was an interesting conflict, one that I’ve not seen play out.
Like you say, we’ve seen many teen movies and many coming of age stories, but something about that dynamic in particular seemed very true to life. I think, I’m not a mother and I’m not a daughter, but I’ve known a lot of both, but my understanding is that the relationship between the two of them is pretty true to life.
In some ways, my job wasn’t as conflict driven as Laurie’s, but he loves his daughter a lot and he’s trying to keep everyone at peace until she can get out of the house.
When you’re reading a script, what strikes you?
The first thing I look for is the quality of writing. There’s a certain care I look for, the way the dialogue is constructed and that the thing is well-written to begin with.
The other thing I look for is a personal connection in that the person who wrote it has a connection to the material and that it’s voicing a point of view. With movies, because there’s so much money involved, there are too many masters to be served and the writer loses that personal connection, and it becomes about serving the corporate interest thereby losing the personal touch. That for me is really important, and what was clear with Lady Bird, Greta had written a very personal story. If I’m going to be involved for a month or more — or even less — I want to make sure that it means a lot to the person who is creating it.
I’ve been that person who created it and wants everyone to buy into my vision of the thing. Those two things are important to me. The role is not the most important thing, if I can be a part of something that is going to be cool and personal and has some warmth and humanity then I want to be part of it.
In terms of your own writing, how’s your play coming along?
I’m in tech at Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago and we open on November 19.
How does your writing process work?
Oh man, I wish I knew. [laughs] Each time, I feel I’m reinventing the process. Usually, I’ll kick around an idea for a good long while before I sit down to do the writing. I’ll draft quickly. I tend to do that in a month or two and then there’s the long process of workshops, rehearsals, readings, and productions. It’s a process that goes on for years before the thing is probably ready. I’m not the most prolific playwright in the world and that’s probably why because I’ve only written nine plays.
If you were friends with Larry, what would you say to him?
I would normally say, “I have no idea.” In this instance I do. Greta and I talked about this because my father was not like Larry. He would not have brooked the conflict. The conflict could have existed but the arguments and the hysterics and the lines drawn in the sand and all of that would not have gone on in my house. People talk about Larry as if he’s the perfect dad, but he abdicates and leaves the room when the conflict stars. If I could say anything to him, I’d say, “You gotta roll up your sleeves and get in there a little bit.”
Lady Bird is on general release.