Realizing ‘Lady Bird:’ An Interview with writer-director Greta Gerwig

Xinyu Li/Senior Staff

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“People go by the names their parents give them, but they don’t believe in God.”

Lady Bird introduces herself by slurring her biting philosophy at an unassuming college boy.

The scene is reminiscent of how writer-director Greta Gerwig first met Lady Bird. “I had written a bunch of scenes, but I was struggling with it, and one day I wrote at the top of a page … ‘Why won’t you call me Lady Bird, you promised that you would,’ ” Gerwig explained in an interview with The Daily Californian. “And I thought, who is this person who makes people call her by another name — what’s that?” Gerwig said, of creating the precocious teen who gives the name to herself.

“It’s given to me — by me,” Lady Bird explains matter of factly.

What is given to us in life and what we chose to accept as our own is one of many themes that permeates every quip, declaration and fraught moment led by actress Saoirse Ronan, who plays Lady Bird up against Marion, her on-screen mother played by Laurie Metcalf. According to Gerwig, the draft title was “Mothers and Daughters,” but it was later changed when Lady Bird the character made herself known.

Structured around the hits of high school — dances, school plays, falling for the wrong friends —  “Lady Bird” is swaddled by a contentious relationship between mother and daughter.

The film opens on a fight. Mother and daughter have just shared a cathartic moment in the car, crying to the last lines of a book on tape. With tears not fully dried, something goes awry and they are off. “It’s almost invisible to anyone else … that tipping point,” Gerwig said. “For each fight, the tipping point was important.”

Lady Bird launches herself out of the moving car into the dry Sacramento Central Valley fields zooming by — ”the midwest of California” — a landscape she loathes. “You never fight with anyone like you fight in a car, because you’re trapped,” Gerwig explained. “Her launching out of the car was — it’s not quite literal, it’s heightened, but it is what you feel like you want to do. Either shove them out of the car or roll out of the car yourself.”

“I see it from the perspective of the parent too,” Gerwig said. “They’re trying to raise human beings who are going to be in the world in no time at all, and, oh my god, have they done their job?’”  

“Each scene you could always know how the daughter felt and how the mother felt, and not feel like either one was wrong, but they’re missing each other,” she explained.

It plays like the two have had this fight before, each rearing for the others counterpoint. Gerwig felt like this is a pattern of familial relationships, enacting the same fight over and over again, it becomes a dance. So, likewise, when writing the film’s many arguments, picking which fight to have came out in natural repetition.

“I had, at one point, a 350-page script which had all different kinds of fights in it. … Because I had written a bunch of different fights, that repetition was embedded even in the fights that you saw,” Gerwig said.

Her previous screenplays, 2012’s “Frances Ha” and 2015’s “Mistress America,” both starring Gerwig and co-written with Noah Baumbach, intentionally negate a component made to seem necessary in other films. “I deliberately try to make movies where the central emotional story is never about a guy,” Gerwig explained.

“So often in movies, women are reduced to their value in a romantic situation, and that’s just not how I see women in the world,” she said.

In a line almost verbatim out of the script of “Frances Ha,” Gerwig again quoted author Virginia Woolf for conclusive wisdom: “As Virginia Woolf said, ‘Men don’t know what women do when they’re not there.’ ”

Throughout the film, Lady Bird sings along to a soundtrack of her own optimistic melodrama, mostly radio hits from the early 2000s, Somber folk songs hint of her western home’s roots and the concern of her mother, divulging the minor key of leaving home behind.

“Now it’s too late, it’s over, childhood is over. Whatever it was, it’s gone now,” Gerwig said. “That feeling of you literally cannot go back in time, I think that that’s the thing.”

The movie shows the final run-down of childhood: Lady Bird’s senior year at a Catholic high school in Sacramento. And though Gerwig was a teen in the same city during the same period, the film is not autobiographical.

“I was much more of a rule follower and a people pleaser — I was a gold star getter. It was very important to me that I get the gold star,” Gerwig said.

Lady Bird is unconcerned with gold stars — she is looking for experience. In one scene she has found love, in another she has conquered sex — neither go according to plan. “I just had a whole experience that was wrong,” she worries to her first sexual partner. He replies coolly,  “You’re going to have a lot of unspecial sex.”

“You know how, in yogurt commercials, someone is always sinking into a couch eating yogurt and they’re so happy, and you’ve never seen a person that happy in your entire life?” Gerwig posited. “I think it gives you an idea that you could have the yogurt moment. Nobody ever has the yogurt moment — it’s not real.”

With unwavering instinct, Gerwig’s creation introduces herself. “Lady Bird” shows a girl sure of who she is now — not that it is the best version of herself, she’s figuring that out as she goes along.

“For me, writing is a process of learning things you didn’t know you knew,” Gerwig said. “I had to write my way into discovering who Lady Bird was.”

Contact Audrey McNamara at [email protected].