How Greta Gerwig Turned the Personal 'Lady Bird' Into a Perfect Movie

The actor-turned-filmmaker on turning a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story into one of 2017's best movies

Greta Gerwig and Saorise Ronan on how they turned the semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story 'Lady Bird' into one of 2017's best movies. Credit: Merie Wallace/A24

Greta Gerwig remembers the "Eureka!" moment.

The 34-year-old actor, an indie-cinema fixture and a co-writer for films like Frances Ha and Mistress America, had been struggling with a screenplay she'd been working on for a while, a story about a young woman coming of age in Northern California. For some reason, she "felt I kept hitting some sort of wall with the movie that I couldn't break through." Then, out of the blue, two lines of dialogue popped into her head.

"I just put everything aside," Gerwig says, "and I wrote at the top of the page – I don't know where it came from – 'Why won't you call me Lady Bird? You promised that you would.' And I looked at the sentence and I thought, 'Who is this person?'"

Who is the person that gives Lady Bird, Gerwig's solo directorial debut that knocked New York and Los Angeles moviegoers for a loop this weekend (and will beginning opening in other cities starting this Friday), its title? She's Christine McPherson, a rebellious and underachieving teen who goes to a Catholic high school in Sacramento, longs to attend a New York college and demands people call her by the nickname of LBJ's wife. As played by Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn), she's the type of young female character that’s an odd combination of wildly confident and ridiculously insecure, the kind of person who would trash her teacher's grade book and eat communion wafers as a snack.

And despite the fact that she shares the same capital-of-California hometown and teenage-years era (the early 2000s) as her creator, Lady Bird is not a replica of what Gerwig was like at that age. "I really colored within the lines," Gerwig says about her formative years. "Writing this character was an exploration of all these things I didn't have access to or I couldn't be. In that way, it almost felt like this fairy-tale invention of a deeply flawed heroine, but one who I admire. I think she shows courage and a lot of character even when she's flailing."

When embarking on Lady Bird, most of which she wrote in 2013 and 2014, Gerwig set out to pen a "love letter" to Sacramento; she also wanted to examine the concept of home and how it "only really comes into focus as it's receding." Titling the initial draft Mothers and Daughters, she centered the story on an angst-ridden adolescent and the source of her frustrations – namely her mom, Marion (played by Laurie Metcalf), a psych-hospital nurse concerned that her daughter doesn't have the grades, drive or finances to achieve her dreams. "The core of that relationship is very close to me," Gerwig admits. "And it's not because that was how my mom and I were, because Laurie's character is nothing like my mother. But the core of it felt like this deep love and sense of conflict that comes out of the fact that you’re essentially the same person.” (After seeing a screening, Gerwig's own mother apparently told her, "Greta, you wish I'd give you the silent treatment.")

As for her Lady Bird, the twice Oscar-nominated Ronan was taken with the "richness" of the material and the complexity of the role. She reached out to her agent and scheduled a Skype session with Gerwig. "We were ridiculously giddy with each other instantly, sort of like two best mates who have just come back after their summer holidays," Ronan says. The two then met up during the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival, pushing through Ronan's jet lag and diving headfirst into the script. It was love at first read-through. "It was both exactly what I had heard in my head and nothing like what I had heard in my head, which is always the paradox that you are looking for from an actor," Gerwig says.

Once on set, the filmmaker – who had co-directed the 2008 mumblecore drama Nights and Weekends with Joe Swanberg – relied on a well-curated mixtape/soundtrack to keep things moving. If the songs had an association with past teen-movie classics, all the better.The playwright and actor Tracy Letts, who plays Lady Bird’s depressed out-of-work dad, remembers at one point hearing Peter Gabriel’s "In Your Eyes" (think John Cusack and a boom box); Ronan recalls "If You Were Here" by the Thompson Twins, which Gerwig used to evoke the ending of Sixteen Candles before scenes. "We just both felt like we were Molly Ringwald," Ronan says. "Things like that just made it really sort of nostalgic and lovely to play with."

And while Lady Bird is a period piece, Gerwig was careful not to make her teens’ pop-culture interests and musical obsessions too jaded or mature; she just imagined what they might absorb from Top 40 and alternative-rock radio. Justin Timberlake’s "Cry Me a River" plays at a party, and Dave Matthews' "Crash Into Me" becomes something of a recurring anthem signifying friendship and heartbreak. 

"I felt like the truth of growing up in Sacramento in the 1990s and early 2000s," she says, "it was, unless you knew the guy at the record store who had the offbeat taste and the cool record collection, you wouldn't know some of the things that I think everybody takes for granted today." For her, going back to the not-so-distant past wasn't about mining a vein of nostalgia so much as it was a way to tell a modern story without too many technological trappings. Cellphones are not yet ubiquitous. No one is posing for Instagram selfies.

Indeed, for all of its early-2000s markers, Lady Bird isn't about a specific age so much as the universal feeling of coming of age – that moment when you're just beginning to figure out who you are, who you want to be and which path you want to choose. For many years, that genre was dominated by young men, and while this extraordinary story was never intended to be an answer film and/or straight-up corrective, Gerwig says she definitely sought to offer a female counterpart to tales like The 400 Blows and Boyhood.

"I just don't feel like I’ve seen very many movies about 17-year-old girls where the question is not, 'Will she find the right guy' or 'Will he find her?'" Gerwig says. "The question should be: 'Is she going to occupy her personhood?' Because I think we're very unused to seeing female characters, particularly young female characters, as people."

Then, as an afterthought, Gerwig adds: "And that is something that really annoys the shit out of me." You can picture Lady Bird hearing Gerwig say that and nodding, laughingly giving the filmmaker a high-five before the two of them launch into a Dave Matthews singalong.