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Sundance: How Greta Gerwig Learned What Kind of Director She Wants to Be From Rebecca Miller and Todd Solondz

Sundance: How Greta Gerwig Learned What Kind of Director She Wants to Be From Rebecca Miller and Todd Solondz

READ MORE: The 2016 Indiewire Sundance Bible: All the Reviews, Interviews and News Posted During The Festival

Greta Gerwig knows her way around a film festival. Over her decade-long career, Gerwig’s films have popped up at Sundance, TIFF, NYFF, SXSW and plenty of other places in between, but this Sundance just might be her busiest yet, as she’s in Park City to support both Rebecca Miller’s “Maggie’s Plan” (which debuted at TIFF in September and is here as part of the Spotlight section) and Todd Solondz’s “Wiener-Dog,” which premiered last night at the Eccles Theatre.

And it’s not just those recent roles that are keeping Gerwig on her toes, it’s also the news that her long-gestating solo directorial offering, “Lady Bird,” is finally coming together, complete with a just-announced leading lady. As Deadline reported yesterday, “Lady Bird” will be led by Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan, who has been cast as “a high school senior, spending her last year at home in Sacramento.” Gerwig herself is from Sacramento, and her 2013 feature “Frances Ha” (which she both starred in and co-wrote with director Noah Baumbach) even features a section that sees her Frances going back there for a brief visit.

That next step may be on the top of Gerwig’s mind now, but the multi-hyphenate is eager to use her past experiences with other filmmakers — especially both Miller and Solondz — to make “Lady Bird” really sing.

Gerwig sat down with Indiewire at the festival to talk about why she’s not on social media, what she loves most about “Lady Bird” and why it still stings when people forget to mention her copious accomplishments when talking about her films.

“Maggie’s Plan” debuted back in September at TIFF. Is it hard to keep the momentum going when you’re taking it to other festivals and looking to a spring release?

It’s always a bit hard when you premiere in Toronto and then there’s a delay before it comes out, but I think the reality is, you’re just happy that a movie has distribution and that it will come out at some point. You cross your fingers and hope that people will want to write about it.

I think there is so much weight given to instantaneous reactions that sometimes people who are more thoughtful and take more time and reflect on cinema as a whole — a film can sometimes get lost in the noise. I think that film is a dialogue between filmmakers and critics and academics and an audience, and I think it’s healthiest when all of those are functioning, like a checks and balances.

That’s one of the hazards of premiering at a festival, you get tons of people seeing the same film at the same time and instantly putting out their thoughts on social media, for better or worse. 

That’s true. It cuts both ways. I also think it’s just the world we live in, it’s not just specific to film festivals. It is what happens now. I’m not on Twitter or anything, so I don’t see all of those things. People tell me I have to get on for work, and I don’t. It doesn’t really matter for me.

But again, it cuts both ways. There’s a way in which it’s great that everyone can instantaneously be connected and be reacting and be in a conversation, but on the other hand, it can feel like trauma to the people who have made the films. You spend a year on it and then somebody composes a tweet of 140 characters, and it feels…it’s hard.

Especially a film like “Maggie’s Plan,” that seems to have come from a real place of personal affection for the work and the talent.

I met Rebecca and she gave me the script and I read it, but I was very much in love with Rebecca when I first met her. I really loved the script as well, but I also think I knew right away. As much as I care about the written word and the rhythm on the page, and that matters a lot to me, I think what is paramount for me is the feeling I have about the filmmaker. I kind of know right away when I meet them. It’s just a feeling of “I want to play in your world, whatever world you’re making.” 

I’m not really a person who looks at “parts” in that way. I don’t really say, “Oh, I’d like this kind of part” or “I need to be this kind of part.” I just am really interested in the people making it and then [I] trust that if their vision is unique, that they will build something that has integrity and is challenging. And it’s also so not up to you. There’s lot of roles that I would love to play with filmmakers I’d love to work with, and maybe I’ll get to, but I don’t really go at it that way.

Speaking of a filmmaker and their universe and playing in that sort of world, you are also here with “Wiener-Dog,” which is very much in Todd Solondz’s special universe. 

He’s built his own universe.

Was Todd someone you’d wanted to work with for a long time?

Growing up, my sister, who is very smart and very creative, she actually doesn’t like movies. Like, full stop. She likes novels and short stories and poetry, and I don’t know what it is, but she doesn’t like movies. She liked two movies when I was growing up. One of them was “Tremors” and the other one was “Welcome to the Dollhouse.” So I watched “Welcome to the Dollhouse” a lot because of her. 

After I developed my own taste and I really loved films, Todd was one of the people, I really loved his writing and his darkness and his humor and his commitment to what he’s doing.

Did you see the film before its premiere? 

I saw it for the first time last night. I loved it. In a way, I think this one was particularly pleasurable because it’s told as a series of almost short stories, but I knew I was in this one [section], but then I could watch the others that I wasn’t part of filming at all, so I had more of just the pleasure of watching a movie. That made it nicer in that way.

I was so proud of him and the cast. I am so honored to be in it and, to me, it felt like this jolt of excitement. I love watching films where it feels like it can be anything you want. It can be anything you want! I think that people get so stuck in these very narrow parameters. To have someone who says, “I don’t care” and it’s not weirdness for weirdness’ sake, it’s completely internally consistent with itself and with his vision and what he’s doing and, for him, it’s the clearest way to express this story and communicate this emotion. And it’s beautiful that he has the ability to stick with it like that. 

I love that feeling of being a little bit disoriented in the theater, and then kind of catching up to what it is. I think, too often, things are force-fed. 

Both “Maggie’s Plan” and “Wiener-Dog” trust their audience to follow along with their twists.

I know! But I love that! And for Todd, he was like [does really excellent Todd Solondz impersonation], “It doesn’t matter to me. I don’t — it’s just about the dog trying to find a home.”
Oftentimes, your work behind the camera doesn’t get the attention it deserves, particularly your work with Noah Baumbach on films like “Mistress America” and “Frances Ha.” Your contributions are sometimes listed as just “the star” or “the muse,” is that something that you notice?

Yeah, I’ve noticed. It definitely bothered me a lot when “Frances Ha” came out. I felt so much ownership over it and I felt such a sense of authorship with it, and while there have been many forceful cinematic muses who are equal authors to the work that the filmmakers created, I’ve felt like it was not the correct description of what I was doing. I was a genuine creator.

I think, as with all things that you smart from when you first get that blast of cold air, you get used it. I know what I did on [those films], and I know how much I learned from them and how much they’re my voice and my vision. I think part of that is a male/female thing. Also, I think it’s also just a director’s medium, in terms of where people assign credit. Probably, in a healthy ego way, I have the feeling of, “Well, now I will make stuff that you absolutely can’t say I was the muse of.” 

It’s truly one of those things that, at first you feel indignant, and it sort of softens into acceptance and then you figure out how to do it in a way that feels like the reward is commensurate with the effort.

After this, you’re gearing up to direct again with “Lady Bird.” It was just announced yesterday that you’ve cast Saoirse Ronan as your leading lady.

She’s my girl. She’s my girl. I’m very, very blessed. She is a talent for the ages. She is so young and she is so great. Every time I wake up and I remember that she’s going to be in it, it’s like remembering, I don’t know, it’s like “the dream was real! It’s happening!” I’m really excited. 

I’ve spent a long time writing this script and it feels like something I’ve been working towards for — it’s 2016, I graduated from college in 2006, I’ve been working as a co-writer, a writer, co-director, producer, actor — and it feels like I’ve apprenticed for ten years and it feels time and I hope that I am equal to her talents. 

She’s a chameleon, but she’s so subtle, it never feels like she’s bringing you this ready-made performance, she kind of subtly becomes this other person, and that’s the kind of acting I like. I’m so glad she’s been rewarded for it so richly.

You’ve had great luck with female-driven stories in the past, especially “Mistress America,” which really alerted a lot of people to the talents of another great emerging actress, Lola Kirke.

One of the greatest pleasures for me, both in “Frances” and “Mistress,” was other actors saying these words that I had written with Noah and saying lines that I’d penned. The pleasure of finding people who hadn’t been found yet, and clearly people have found Saoirse, that’s not the issue, but I think that was another thing that made me feel very deeply, I take a director’s pleasure in that.

I love especially girls. I love finding them. Maybe if I were a straight male director, this would sound quite creepy, but I love finding them and seeing their beauty in a not fetishizing way, but just in that moment that they’re becoming. Lola had that. I felt like her face and her voice and her little lisp and her tallness and her broad shoulders, I just wanted to make things for her. I’m so proud that she really blossomed and has taken ownership of her powers as an actress. 

“Maggie’s Plan” will open on May 20. “Wiener-Dog” premiered this week at the Sundance Film Festival and is currently seeking distribution. 

READ MORE: Review: With ‘Maggie’s Plan,’ Greta Gerwig Officially Owns Her Own Genre

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