Director Greta Gerwig On The Parallels Between Her Life And 'Lady Bird' NPR's Audie Cornish talks to Greta Gerwig, the Oscar-nominated director of the film Lady Bird about teenage friendship and complex, sometimes messy, female characters.

Director Greta Gerwig On The Parallels Between Her Life And 'Lady Bird'

Director Greta Gerwig On The Parallels Between Her Life And 'Lady Bird'

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NPR's Audie Cornish talks to Greta Gerwig, the Oscar-nominated director of the film Lady Bird about teenage friendship and complex, sometimes messy, female characters.


Among the Oscar nominees for best picture, "Lady Bird" stands out not just because it's directed by a woman, the actress Greta Gerwig - also because compared to the others - "Dunkirk," "Get Out" or "Shape Of Water" - its story is deceptively simple. A teenage girl in Sacramento grows up. That's it.


SAOIRSE RONAN: (As Lady Bird McPherson) My name is Lady Bird.

LAURIE METCALF: (As Marion McPherson) Well, actually it's not, and it's ridiculous...

RONAN: (As Lady Bird McPherson) Call me Lady Bird like you said you would.

METCALF: (As Marion McPherson) ...Because your name is Christine.

SHAPIRO: That's Saoirse Ronan playing Lady Bird and Laurie Metcalf playing her mother. Director Greta Gerwig told my co-host Audie Cornish that there are a lot of parallels between Gerwig's life and Lady Bird's. Both grew up in Sacramento, went to an all-girls Catholic high school and ended up going to the East Coast for college. Still, Gerwig says she was nothing like her main character.

GRETA GERWIG: I was actually sort of the opposite of Lady Bird. The movie - I always say it's not true, but it rhymes with the truth.

SHAPIRO: And she told Audie that some of the lines in the movie actually came from a very real place.

GERWIG: I was actually on the subway in New York, and I heard two teenage girls talking. One of them said to the other one, I wish I could live through something. And I laughed, and I wrote it down. And I put it in the movie...


RONAN: (As Lady Bird McPherson) I wish I could live through something.

METCALF: (As Marion McPherson) Aren't you?

RONAN: (As Lady Bird McPherson) Nope. The only exciting thing about 2002 is that it's a palindrome.

GERWIG: ...Because I think that's such an understandable (laughter) feeling, particularly for teenagers, this feeling like life is happening somewhere else and not to you.

AUDIE CORNISH, BYLINE: One feature of being a teenager is the kind of morphing and flexibility of friendships, right? It feels like a moving target. And in this movie, one of the key relationships that Lady Bird, or Christine, has is with her best friend.


BEANIE FELDSTEIN: (As Julie Steffans) Ms. Patty assigned you a role, by the way. You just never showed up to claim it.

RONAN: (As Lady Bird McPherson) What role?

FELDSTEIN: (As Julie Steffans) The Tempest.

RONAN: (As Lady Bird McPherson) There is no role of The Tempest.

FELDSTEIN: (As Julie Steffans) It is the titular role.

RONAN: (As Lady Bird McPherson) No, it's a made-up thing so we all can participate.

FELDSTEIN: (As Julie Steffans) You can't do anything unless you're the center of attention, can you?

RONAN: (As Lady Bird McPherson) Yeah. Well, you know...


GERWIG: Oh, I just love hearing their voices.

CORNISH: Oh, yeah, that was Beanie Feldstein playing the best friend, Julie.


CORNISH: What did you want to explore about friendships 'cause I do feel like it felt so familiar, right? Someone ditches you for the popular girls, or you do that to your friend, right? You have these blowout arguments. And you recover, or you don't.

GERWIG: Right.

CORNISH: How did you want to bring this to the screen?

GERWIG: Well, I wanted to explore the fact that I think when you're a teenager, you're trying to figure out who you are through the refraction of other people. It's reaching for a definition of oneself through relationships and sometimes rejecting the ones that are close to you because you are sure that someone else is better; someone would reflect a better self to you. It's like that wanting to be reflected back as cooler than you are somehow.

CORNISH: As you say this, it does make me think about the other relationships in the movie, right? The young men that she dates are different personalities - right? - different skins that she's trying on.

GERWIG: That's right.

CORNISH: And then the ultimate relationship, the one with her mother, is the rockiest.

GERWIG: Yeah. You're expressing what your understanding of love is, and the healing of her relationship with her mother - her acceptance that she's both in some ways exactly like her mother and also a separate entity - it's painful and necessary. But I think it's what needs to happen to allow her to have, you know, friendships and romantic relationships. I mean, I'm always interested, particularly for Lady Bird, the way - with romantic relationships, you know the movie that's playing in her head, and that's not the movie she's in.

CORNISH: (Laughter).

GERWIG: It's that kind of necessary narcissism of youth which I have so much sympathy for.

CORNISH: How come?

GERWIG: Oh, because I've been there.


CORNISH: You know, she felt like a cousin to a character you've played before. I was thinking of "Frances Ha..."


CORNISH: Like, somebody who is very committed to being creative and to a particular...


CORNISH: ...Form - right? - even if maybe they haven't quite gotten all the way there.

GERWIG: Yeah, you know, I...

CORNISH: Is that a generous description (laughter), or...

GERWIG: Yeah, well, I am interested in people who - in a creative way, not a destructive way - seem to bump up against something that feels slightly manic and a little too much. I think I'm interested in writing and letting - really female characters go too far because I think as women, we're taught to really (laughter) - really keep it together and not be too much and not go too far and not be too loud or too crazy or too ambitious. And I think I like having the space as a writer to explore characters who didn't seem to get that memo because there's a freedom to it even when they're failing.

CORNISH: The main character - her intensity - it doesn't come from nowhere, right? I think we see over time, it - a lot of it does come from her mom. And this movie takes the mother figure from being the shrill voice from downstairs or on the other side of the slammed door. What kind of reaction have you gotten?

GERWIG: You know, I've gotten such a range of reactions. A lot of women have told me, particularly women who are in their 50s or 60s - they've said, you know, I've been that mother, and I've been that daughter, and I understand both. And that's very meaningful for me. What I really wanted to do was kind of capture this idea that one person's coming of age is another person's letting go. And I didn't want the character of the mother to fall neatly into a category of either an angel or a monster, which is generally what I think happens with mother characters in movies. And that's not what - how I see most mothers in the world.

I see most mothers doing their level best, making mistakes and trying to pick up and keep going. And I think I always wanted the audience to feel like - even when Lady Bird says the wrong thing or makes a mistake or her mother says the wrong thing or makes a mistake, I never wanted the audience to feel like these are bad people. It's that you can be a good person, and parenting is hard (laughter).

CORNISH: Well, Greta Gerwig, I know you said that this story only rhymes with the truth.

GERWIG: (Laughter).

CORNISH: But I can't help thinking, this is a pretty nice ending for "Lady Bird," right? Like, if Christine went to New York...


GERWIG: That's right. It's right.

CORNISH: This is not too shabby.

GERWIG: No, I know. It's been an extraordinary journey with this movie, and I'm very touched in so many ways that it's been recognized like this, not the least of which is because it's a movie about a young girl and her mother and, in some ways, an extraordinary year and, in other ways, the most normal year. And that it's being recognized as a story with importance is very meaningful, and I couldn't be more grateful.

CORNISH: Greta Gerwig is the writer and director of "Lady Bird." Thank you so much for speaking with us.

GERWIG: Thank you so much for having me on.


SHAPIRO: That was my co-host Audie Cornish talking with Greta Gerwig, who's nominated for Oscars for best director and best original screenplay.


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