How 'Lady Bird' Director Greta Gerwig's Love Letter to Her Childhood Became an Oscars Frontrunner (Exclusive)
By John Boone
"Oh, is that a Coke?!" Greta Gerwig exclaims. A tinkering tray carrying -- yup -- a glass of Coca-Cola has just arrived to her hotel suite. I'm having a side conversation with the actress Saoirse Ronan about their new film, Lady Bird, as Gerwig gleefully intercepts the Coke and takes a sip. "Oh god. That tastes so good."
"She don't give a sh*t about the movie right now," Ronan throws a thumb in Gerwig's direction, drawing her attention. "He was saying lovely things about the film and you're like, 'Mmm, fizzy! Bubbly!'"
Lady Bird, which Gerwig wrote and with which she makes her directorial debut, centers on high school senior Christine McPherson, self-nicknamed Lady Bird, as she navigates Catholic school boys, college applications and mother-daughter drama in circa 2003 Sacramento. The irony is Gerwig gives such a sh*t about the film that it's the first thing anyone mentions about working with her. Beanie Feldstein, who co-stars as Lady Bird's best friend, Julie, tells me, "She just cared about it so much, and so we all cared about it so much."
Listening to Gerwig's cast describe her directing style is like, well, listening to Gerwig describe a soda. Bubbly. Fizzy. Magical. "There was such a natural sense of support and love. [She] made it such a safe space," Feldstein says. "It was like this little bubble." Lucas Hedges, who plays Lady Bird's boyfriend, Danny, says, "The most unique thing about working with Greta is that it didn't feel like I was working with a director...It was never technical, it felt much more fluid and colorful and, like, it was a special relationship we had that was, like, meeting up with my friend after school to work on a movie."
"I've always wanted to direct," Gerwig herself explains. "I kind of felt like I used my time on sets and doing different jobs as, like, my film school."
In addition to her myriad onscreen credits, wide-ranging roles in mumblecore indies and studio rom-coms and prestige period pieces, Gerwig had written screenplays for the Noah Baumbach-directed Frances Ha and Mistress America, among others. With Lady Bird, she knew she had to take the leap, despite any early hesitations. "It's like having a child, where you're like, Someone else could probably raise them better, but they will be raised in my home," Gerwig laughs. "And even if I get weird cereal, it's going to be fine."
"And give them Coca-Cola at 9:00 a.m.," Ronan chimes in.
"Yeah," Gerwig grins. "But it felt like if I didn't do it now, I was never going to do it."
Like Lady Bird, Gerwig was born and raised in the Sacramento suburbs, where she attended an all-girls Catholic high school, listened to Dave Matthews Band and dreamed of studying theater in New York. (She eventually majored in English and philosophy at Barnard College.) Gerwig did indeed mine her adolescence to write her semi -- semi -- autobiographical script, but Lady Bird is not Greta Gerwig. And Gerwig was no Lady Bird.
"The truth is I wasn't like Lady Bird," she recalls. "Like, I was a very rule-following kind of gold star-getting kid. I colored inside the lines. I mean, I never made anyone call me by a different name or dyed my hair bright red when I was in high school."
Sitting across from Gerwig and Ronan at The London West Hollywood, though, they bear more than a passing resemblance, especially with both dressed in high-collars -- Gerwig's a polka dot dress, Ronan's a rust-colored turtleneck -- and Ronan's blonde hair bundled atop her head, nearly matching the length of Gerwig's cropped cut. Physically, at least, they could absolutely be sisters. When casting Saoirse, I ask Gerwig, were there aspects of yourself that you saw in her?
"I felt like I didn't understand the character until she started saying the lines," she says. "I think writing it was like, creating this flawed but amazing heroine [and] when she started reading, it was so funny and it was heartfelt and it was just so sincere. I was like, That's her! That's who it is! That's our heroine! That's our Lara Croft: Tomb Raider!"
"I'll never be Lara Croft," Ronan deadpans.
"I don't know why I brought that up," Gerwig giggles.
Ronan admits she did find inspiration in Gerwig as she brought Lady Bird to life. "The one thing that I wanted to incorporate from you," she says, "just 'cause I love it so much and I did think it as totally right for Lady Bird is the way you move, the way you do this--" Ronan poses, her arms akimbo and elbows pointed outward, creating a hunched sort of physical awkwardness. "I do it a bit, anyway," she adds. "Like, we lead with our elbows and we're both quite gangly."
"We've got some legs and arms," Gerwig agrees.
Lady Bird may be the star of this story -- a star in general, she would tell you -- but the movie is more than simply the coming-of-age of a discontented creative type. Lady Bird is equally about her rigid but devoted mom, Marion McPherson (Laurie Metcalf), and their alternatingly prickly, sweet relationship. "It's a mother-daughter love story," Gerwig puts it.
"We talked about it a lot, like, this is the worst moment of their relationship," she says. "And there's so much love underneath. There's a base of love, and they got on so well, Saoirse and Laurie, so it was underneath it, even if what you were seeing was conflict."
"Laurie makes you feel quite safe, as a person," Ronan jumps in. "I feel very calm and protected when she's around, so I think when you have that relationship with someone, it allows you to go to the darker places and scream and shout at them, because you know it will be fine. Actually, I think that's what Lady Bird and her mom have. They know it will be OK."
Gerwig's own mother, Christine, a nurse like Marion, was one of the first people to see the film. "They, like, loved it. They were crying and called me on speaker phone and were just, you know, very, very emotional," she recalls of showing the movie to her family. "The heart of it is real, but then they know what I made up and how much of it isn't real." When Lady Bird had its premiere at the Telluride Film Festival, Gerwig's mom was sitting next to her in the theater.
"There's this moment where [Lady Bird's father] Larry says to Lady Bird, 'You both have such strong personalities,'" Gerwig recalls. "And my mom goes, 'That's right! Yes!'"
Ronan's mam, Monica, who lives in Dublin where Ronan grew up, hadn't seen the movie yet at the time. "She's desperate to see it and I was going to try to get her to go see it in Ireland, but I want to see it with her," Ronan says. "Because she's going to bawl her eyes out. She's going to sob. She's going to love it."
"Oh, and also, she's bringing over a present for you," she suddenly turns to Gerwig.
"Ah! Is it cookies?"
"No," Ronan laughs. "The first time she met her, Greta was coming over because I was getting my hair done and mam had just arrived and she was like, 'I'm just going to pop out to the shops and get the guys some bits.' She comes back and she's got, like, boxes of biscuits and pub cakes and a huuuge cake. She just wants to feed everyone."
"And I ate it," Gerwig shrugs.
With Lady Bird now playing in theaters, it's clear many people love it. The movie officially beat out Toy Story 2 to become Rotten Tomato's best-reviewed film and is already collecting awards season accolades: Four nominations at the Gotham Awards, including the Audience Award and Bingham Ray Breakthrough Director Award. (Ronan won Best Actress.) Four Independent Spirit Award nominations, including Best Feature. The National Board of Review named it one of the Top Films of the Year and awarded Gerwig Best Director.
Lady Bird is no longer an Oscar hopeful, but a confirmed Best Picture contender for next year's Academy Awards, with Ronan and Metcalf practically guaranteed slots for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress and increasingly optimistic buzz for Gerwig for Best Original Screenplay and Best Director, all of which has her cast downright giddy.
"It's in-sane," Feldstein giggles. "It felt magical when we were making it, but the fact that that magic transcends to the audience is just all you could ask for really."
Hedges agrees, but always knew it would work out this way. "If it didn't, I'd be really confused," he says. "It makes so much sense that this movie is being received in the way that it is, because when we were on set, it really felt like everyone that came in, the second they came in contact with Greta, it was, like, glowing. It was magical." Just like a glass of regular Coca-Cola.