Cutting ‘Lady Bird’: Greta Gerwig and her Editor Tackled a Bittersweet Mother-Daughter Love Story


Lady Bird,” actress Greta Gerwig’s remarkable directorial debut, offered one of the season’s best examples of editing, courtesy of Nick Houy (“Billions”). His sharp cuts and sense of balance help to navigate a perilous coming-of-age story for the eponymous teen (Saoirse Ronan) from the wrong side of the tracks in Sacramento of 2002. At the same time, Houy keeps the focus on the bittersweet conflict between Lady Bird and her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf).

(WARNING: SPOILERS FOLLOW)

In fact, this is where the heart and soul of “Lady Bird” resides and why Gerwig, Ronan, Metcalf, and Houy are all strong contenders for Oscar nominations. “From the very first shot, it’s evident that it’s a mother-daughter love story,” said Houy, who was introduced to Gerwig by editor Jen Lame (“Frances Ha,” “Mistress America”). “It was always by design. We just brought it to the level that it needed to be. It took a long time to get it just right but we got it.”

“Lady Bird”

A24

Houy found Gerwig to be a kindred spirit. He was familiar with Sacramento and had an appreciation for the time and place and dynamics of Lady Bird’s desire to explore her individuality before going off to college. And, although the director was often in the room with him throughout the editing process, she also gave him the freedom to cut scenes on his own.

“There are some days where I just need to go to very strange places…and explore every part of an emotion and mine it for what the scene is really trying to say,” Houy added. “Sometimes it’s not useful for her to go there with me, necessarily, or I’m not able to go there with her. It’s a personal thing. But there were other times when she needs to see how it’s built to understand how it’s working.”

The College Road Trip

The intimacy between mother and daughter and the fun and fighting between them are displayed at the outset during a college road trip. “The very first scene they’re in bed facing each other in the motel room,” Houy said. “You immediately understand their dynamic.”

Then during the car ride home, after enjoying an audio tape of “The Grapes of Wrath,” they start arguing about Lady Bird wanting to leave Sacramento, ending with the shock of her jumping out of the car. (She breaks her arm.)

“Lady Bird”

“But instead of doing it in one long take, the editor broke it up to do the performances justice. “I played with the rhythm of cutting back and forth to create tension between them,” Houy said. “A oner would’ve been too relaxed and too
neutral.”

A Consoling Bridge Scene 

Lady Bird’s first crush ends in heart break when she discovers her boyfriend, Danny (Lucas Hedges) kissing another guy in the bathroom during their rehearsal of “Merrily We Role Along.” However, this leads to a tender reconciliation outside a coffee shop, which serves as a reminder of the compassion she shares with her mother. But the scene changed drastically during the edit.

Lucas Hedge and Saoirse Ronan in “Lady Bird”

A24

“There was a lot of dialogue after the embrace of Danny outside the coffee shop,” said Houy. “They talked about his kissing the boy and what happened after and what they were going to do next with their relationship. But we cut everything after that. We needed to end it on the hug and ride that emotion, and that was a breakthrough for that part of the film.”

Finding the Right Ending

Eventually, Lady Bird gets her wish to attend college in New York and experiences an epiphany about herself and her mother, which concludes with a phone call and reconciliation. But there was an important epiphany as well for the director and editor.

“Lady Bird”

A24

“I always thought we had to do something extraordinary,” Houy said. “And we had all the elements there. You could just have her do the phone call and hang up, and that’s the way it was scripted and how we did our first cut. It’s just that it needed to be taken to the next emotional level.

“We had this great reel of her driving around and Laurie driving around and happened to have shot it with the same camera rig,” added Houy. “So we were able to throw in shots of them both driving, and cross-cut them, and it brought this immediate impact that took it back to the opening road trip.”

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