For the actress turned writer-director, previously best known for her work in such films as “Frances Ha” and “20th Century Women,” the thought of screening “Lady Bird” in front of an audience of die-hard cinephiles and awards-season tastemakers — in the same opening-night slot that launched “Moonlight” last year, no less — was both thrilling and utterly frightening. On the flight to the festival, she’d read through the program and felt a shudder of fear at the caliber of filmmakers she would find herself among.
As it turned out, Gerwig had nothing to worry about. In its first outing, warmly introduced by “Moonlight” director Barry Jenkins, “Lady Bird” soared. The Telluride crowd gave a rousing response to the semi-autobiographical film about a fiercely independent high school senior (Saoirse Ronan) who yearns to go to college in New York to escape what she sees as her drab hometown of Sacramento and a stormy relationship with her mother (Laurie Metcalf). Within minutes after the lights went up, speculations about awards prospects for the film, which opens Nov. 10, were bouncing across social media.
On Saturday morning, The Times sat down with Gerwig as she was still processing the events of the previous night to talk about making the shift behind the camera with a highly personal story.
I’m sure you’d gone through the best-case and worst-case scenarios for that screening in your head. How did the reality feel?
I think I only imagine worst-case scenarios. [laughs] It was the largest audience I’d ever seen it with, so it was terrifying but also incredibly gratifying. It is such a generous audience here. They’re all-in for whatever the ride is, and it feels so welcoming.
It was so meaningful when Barry Jenkins introduced the movie, I just started weeping. Barry and I met years ago on the festival circuit — he was with [his 2008 directorial debut] “Medicine for Melancholy” and I was with “Nights and Weekends.” So it kind of brought everything full circle for me.
One of my favorite things about Telluride is because it’s so small the directors are really there for each other. You look at another director and they feel the same thing you feel. I saw [“Darkest Hour” director] Joe Wright last night and it’s his seventh film, and I said, “Does it get easier?” And he said, “It never gets easier.” And I thought, “Oh, well, I guess I know what I’m in for.”
How long had you been thinking about directing?
I think I’ve always wanted to direct, but I didn’t go to film school. I was lucky enough to work in movies, and I think those became my film school in terms of acting and watching directors work and also writing and co-writing and producing.
When I finished the draft of this film, I had a moment of not being sure I should be the person to direct it because, however much you prepare, being a first-time director there are just things that you can’t know ahead of time. But I had to take the plunge. I had to start somewhere.
You grew up in Sacramento and you went to New York for college, so everyone is assuming this movie is autobiographical.
It’s funny when people say it’s autobiographical — I think, “Oh, did you grow up with me?” [laughs]
I definitely wanted to make a movie about Sacramento, and the first germ of the movie was how I would go about telling that story. None of the things that happen in the movie literally happened to me, but they all rhyme with the truth. I think I always have to start from some emotional truth and build out from there. Most of it is not real, but certainly there is a core that is.
Did you grow up with that feeling of wanting to be somewhere else?
I think it’s true of a lot of teenagers that you’re convinced that life is happening somewhere else. In the film, New York is a mythical goal in a way. New York is like the green light in “The Great Gatsby.” It’s the thing on the other shore that, you’ll get there and you’ll realize, “Oh, it didn’t instantly imbue me with the sense of meaning that I thought it would.” But I think that’s just everybody’s journey in life.
I certainly had that feeling of, where is the real thing happening? And then you realize, no, the real thing happened to you.
We’ve seen plenty of coming-of-age movies that deal with high school angst, teenage infatuations, difficult relationships with parents, yearning to be somewhere else. Were you conscious of trying to avoid cliches we’ve seen before?
I feel like a lot of movies about teenage girls center around one guy — that’s the driving thrust of the story. And I love those movies. I love John Hughes. I adore being sucked into that kind of story. But the reality of it is there’s never just one guy — if there’s a guy at all — and they’re all wrong but they’re all right in a different way, too. And I felt like I’d never seen something that captured that.
I also feel like your primary relationship is with your parents, and relationships with friends and boyfriends are a way that you express your understanding of love based on what your family is. So it’s like a kaleidoscope in a way. I don’t consciously think about cliches but I do think I like to subvert them, particularly with romantic tropes.
Saoirse Ronan’s performance in this movie is extraordinary but I’m guessing, as an Irish actress, she wasn’t the first person you had in mind to play a teenager from Sacramento.
Her performance is mind-boggling — I can’t speak about her without becoming emotional. She transformed herself so fully that you don’t see the transformation because you can’t see the seams. All you see is this girl. In a way, it almost feels like the quality of finding an unknown. Even though she’s Saoirse and she’s been nominated for an Oscar twice, there’s that same sense of discovery, like, “Holy …, she can do this too?”
I don’t consciously think about cliches but I do think I like to subvert them, particularly with romantic tropes.
— Greta Gerwig
How did you end up casting her?
At the Toronto Film Festival in 2015, she was there for “Brooklyn” and I was there for “Maggie’s Plan.” She’d been given the script and had a strong reaction to it and really wanted to do it. I wanted to meet with her because I think she’s amazing, but it’s called “Lady Bird” and she would be Lady Bird and it was this incredible undertaking.
I came to her hotel room with the script and we sat on her couch and drank Cokes and read the entire script out loud. I read every other part and she read Lady Bird, and I knew by Page 2 that she was right. She just had this intensity of emotion and purpose and her intelligence was so in focus that it was instantly funny and heartbreaking. She played it differently than I’d always heard it in my head but so much better, which is always what you hope an actor does.
You’ve still got a couple of months to go until this movie comes out. But have you thought yet about what you might want to direct next?
I definitely want to keep directing. I loved it. In a way, I felt like it was the most comfortable I’ve felt and the most uncomfortable at the same time. It takes a long time to write but I’m writing a lot of things. I’m interested in long careers where you take detours. You have to keep at it. It’s a tremendous amount of work but I can’t imagine anything I’d like to do more.