Before she directed “Lady Bird,” Greta Gerwig brought a unique rhythm and cadence to the characters she played. The pinnacle of this came in “Frances Ha” and “Mistress America,” scripts she co-wrote with director Noah Baumbach, in which her characters’ graceful awkwardness and effortless rapid-fire line deliveries established her as one of her generation’s most exciting leading ladies. “Lady Bird,” Gerwig’s first solo directing credit, embodies so much of that Gerwig rhythm and feel — but with the actress behind the camera.
When Gerwig was a guest on IndieWire’s Filmmaker Toolkit podcast, she traced this back to her love of playwrights and not the DIY, improv-heavy microbudget productions that first introduced her to indie film fans.
“As a writer my writing was grounded in writing plays and admiring playwrights and in theater the playwright is king, you don’t change those words – you don’t change Kenneth Lonergan’s words, you say them,” said Gerwig. “I remember when I was in college, writing pretty strange plays, that the best feeling I ever had was when I stood in the back of the theater and actors were performing something I had written.”
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After graduating Barnard College, Gerwig was rejected from playwright graduate programs at NYU, Juilliard and Yale, and found herself – after a fortuitous trip to the 2006 SXSW Film Festival – as part of making a DIY crew of filmmakers – like Swanberg and the Duplass Brothers – using new DSLR cameras and making a new breed of indie films. This demystified the filmmaking process for her, but something was missing. Then Noah Baumbach sent her the script for “Greenberg,” in which Gerwig would star opposite Ben Stiller, and she started to figure it out. “I understood it right away, and the rhythm and musical thing,” said Gerwig about reading the “Greenberg” script. “I knew how it should sound intuitively and not line readings, almost the internal rhythms of the language.”
Working with Baumbach on “Frances Ha” and “Mistress America” helped embolden her approach. “He’s so meticulous with his language and he’s so careful about how he constructs something and that really went along with my sensibility,” she said, adding that it’s “hard to overstate how important that was to my development.”
While on the podcast Gerwig also talked about what her artistic dreams were when she, like Lady Bird, came to New York to go to college, her collaboration with DP Sam Levy in creating the look of the film and how her preparation on the visual aspect of “Lady Bird” allowed her to properly use her time on set.
The Filmmaker Toolkit podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Stitcher, SoundCloud and Google Play Music. Previous episodes include:
The music used in this podcast is from the “Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present” score, courtesy of composer Nathan Halpern.