The parallels are obvious. Multi-hyphenate Greta Gerwig grew up in Sacramento, attended a private Catholic high school, and did her damnedest to bust out and make her way to the bright lights of New York City once she graduated. In her solo directorial debut “Lady Bird,” Gerwig’s eponymous lead character (Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, played by a disarmingly flinty Saoirse Ronan, in one of her most distinct roles yet) goes through the very same growing pains. But don’t call “Lady Bird” an autobiographical film, because as Gerwig is quick to note, Lady Bird’s story is very much its own.
At a New York Film Festival press conference held this morning, Gerwig was open about how a years-long writing process allowed her to craft her story and evolve it out beyond her own experience. Her initial screenplay for “Lady Bird” stretched into the 350 page mark — there were a lot more high school dances in that one, Gerwig joked — and while she admits it wasn’t exactly “narratively cohesive,” it helped her hash out the best bits of the story.
“It was like 350 pages of stuff, that then I kind of looked at and figured out what felt essential and what felt like the core of the story to me,” Gerwig said. “I don’t really decide what the core of a story is before I write, I write to figure out what the story is.”
For Gerwig, finding that core was rooted in letting her characters — mostly Lady Bird — become who and what they wanted to be, right on the page. While the film might be reflective of certain parts of her own coming-of-age, Gerwig was hardly beholden to making it an exact replica of her high school experience, even if the basic framework is recognizable to those familiar with her own youth.
“I think that the characters end up talking to you, and telling you what they want to be doing and what is important to them,” Gerwig said. “In some ways, your job is to listen as much as to write, and to listen to what these characters that are coming through you are telling you.”
What they told Gerwig helped her shape a story that’s rooted in her own experiences, but that can’t be entirely construed as autobiographical. “Nothing in the movie literally happened in my life, but it has a core of truth that resonates with what I know,” Gerwig said.
One thing she and Lady Bird do share: An affection for their hometown, an element that comes through Gerwig’s film in a multitude of ways.
“I really wanted to make a movie that was a reflection on home and what does home mean, and how does leaving home define what it is for you and your love for it,” she said. “I felt like it was a love letter to Sacramento, and I felt like, what better way to make a love letter than through somebody who wants to get out, and then realize that they loved it?”
Written by Gerwig, signed by Lady Bird.
A24 will release “Lady Bird” on November 3.