Greta Gerwig Explores Mother-Daughter Love (And Angst) In 'Lady Bird' "I don't know any woman who has a simple relationship with their mother or with their daughter," Gerwig says. Her new film tells the story of a teenager preparing to leave home for the first time.
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Greta Gerwig Explores Mother-Daughter Love (And Angst) In 'Lady Bird'

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Greta Gerwig Explores Mother-Daughter Love (And Angst) In 'Lady Bird'

Greta Gerwig Explores Mother-Daughter Love (And Angst) In 'Lady Bird'

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Greta Gerwig, has just made her directing debut. She previously co-wrote and starred in the films "Frances Ha" and "Mistress America," which were co-written and directed by her partner Noah Baumbach. She also co-starred in "20th Century Women," "Greenberg" and "Jackie." Her new movie, "Lady Bird," which she wrote and directed, draws on some of her own experiences when she was making the transition out of high school, preparing to leave home and start college.

The movie centers on a complex mother-daughter relationship, a relationship that becomes particularly fraught when the teenage daughter is trying to assert her identity as a soon-to-be adult. This will be recognizable territory for a lot of mothers and daughters. Saoirse Ronan plays Christine, a senior at a Catholic high school in Sacramento. One of the ways she's asserting her independence is by renaming herself Lady Bird and insisting that her mother call her by that name.

The movie opens with Lady Bird and her mother, played by Laurie Metcalf, alone in the car, coming back from checking out local colleges. The mother is driving. They've been listening to the conclusion of the audiobook of Steinbeck's "The Grapes Of Wrath," which leaves them both in tears, but they're soon arguing about where Lady Bird wants to go to college.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LADY BIRD")

SAOIRSE RONAN: (As Lady Bird) I want to go where culture is, like New York.

LAURIE METCALF: (As Marion) How in the world did I raise such a snob?

RONAN: (As Lady Bird) ...Or at least Connecticut or New Hampshire, where writers live in the woods.

METCALF: (As Marion) Well, you couldn't get into those schools, anyway.

RONAN: (As Lady Bird) Mom...

METCALF: (As Marion) You can't even pass your driver's test.

RONAN: (As Lady Bird) Because you wouldn't let me practice enough.

METCALF: (As Marion) The way that you work - or the way that you don't work, you're not even worth state tuition, Christine.

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

METCALF: (As Marion) Well, actually, it's not, and it's ridiculous because your name is Christine.

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

METCALF: (As Marion) Just - you should just go to City College. You know, with your work ethic, just go to City College, and then to jail and then back to City College, and then maybe you'd learn to pull yourself up and not expect everybody to do everything - (yelling).

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Greta Gerwig, welcome to FRESH AIR. And I should explain - do you want to explain what just happened when the mother is screaming?

GRETA GERWIG: Oh, yes. What just happened is, the actress, Saoirse Ronan, playing Christine "Lady Bird" McPherson - she just jumps out of the car - out of the moving car with her mother.

GROSS: So this is the daughter - she's - the daughter's just, like - she's so angry with her mother, she just jumps out of the car.

GERWIG: That's right.

GROSS: And it's the only, like, totally crazy, unhinged thing that she does during the movie. Why did you want her character to start by doing something so extreme?

GERWIG: Well, I think everybody knows what it feels like to be in a car, particularly with your mother and - or with your daughter, and either you want to shove them out of the car or you want to jump out of the car. There's a quality to fighting in cars where you're trapped, and it felt like it kind of gave the right tone for the movie, and it's going for something that's emotionally real.

And then the entire scene, to me - it starts off with them listening to John Steinbeck's "Grapes Of Wrath" on Book on Tape (ph) that they checked out from the public library. And they're having this moment where they're both crying at the end of the book, and they're really connecting. And then within two minutes, it's completely off the rails.

GROSS: Why did you want a mother-daughter relationship to be so central in your directorial debut?

GERWIG: Well, I feel that it's such a rich relationship. It has a tremendous amount of love and a tremendous amount of angst. And I don't know any woman who has a simple relationship with their mother or with their daughter. And I feel that it's not something that's given as much cinematic time as it is worthy of it, so I wanted to give it a space that you would usually reserve for a romantic relationship, that - it kind of follows these ups and downs and these fights and also these moments of real connection.

And I knew I wanted to set something in Sacramento, Calif., which is my hometown, which I love very much. And I knew that I wanted to make something about a mother and a daughter, but I didn't know what it was going to exactly end up being. But I did have a hunch, and I had a hunch that the mother-daughter dynamic was something that would be infinitely interesting and also would feel both like the oldest story and new, somehow.

GROSS: You said that you're interested in how women fight. Do you think women fight differently than men when it comes to an argument?

GERWIG: I do. I - well, you know, I never really thought about it as being different until I had the script for the film, and I was going around and I was talking to different financiers about putting money into the film and making it. And most of those people are men, and if they were raised with sisters or if they had daughters, they knew what it was.

They said, oh, yes, that's my mother and my sister; that's my wife and my daughter. But if they didn't, they had no idea that that was how women fought and how they loved, too. I think it was kind of like, they were getting to look into a world that they didn't know existed.

GROSS: So the title of your film, "Lady Bird," is the name that the main character, the daughter, gives herself.

GERWIG: That's right.

GROSS: Her real name, her birth name, is Christine, but she wants to be called Lady Bird. She wants her school to call her Lady Bird. She wants her mother to call her Lady Bird. And it seems like there's something so passive-aggressive of insisting that your mother, who named you Christine, should now have to call you by a totally different name - Lady Bird (laughter).

GERWIG: Yeah, it's a rejection of everything her mother gave her, including her hair color. It was just totally, like, I'm not yours.

GROSS: But the funny thing is, for me, when I knew that you were make - before I knew anything about the film, when I knew that your forthcoming film was going to be called "Lady Bird," I thought, LBJ's wife.

(LAUGHTER)

GERWIG: I know, I know.

GROSS: Because to me like, Lady Bird means, like, you know, the former first lady.

GERWIG: Yeah, I know.

GROSS: Did you think about that when you named it "Lady Bird."

GERWIG: No, although I will say, I just did press in Texas, and it's so confusing there. They were like, why? Why did you call it "Lady Bird"? You know, the truth is, I mean, this is one of the things that's so mysterious about writing. And it takes me a very long time to write. It takes me a long time to finish scripts because - partly because I don't do any improvisation once I'm on set, and I like having the document have integrity on its own.

But that being said, there's a fair amount of writing for me which feels unconscious, and I almost feel like, I don't know where it's coming from. And I do actually experience characters speaking to me or through me, and I don't know where that comes from. But "Lady Bird" - the name "Lady Bird" was something that came out of - I had been writing all these other scenes, and I couldn't find exactly how it all fit together. I felt like I was - I kept hitting a wall, and then I put everything aside, and I wrote at the top of the page, why won't you call me Lady Bird? You promised that you would.

And I have no idea where it came from. And I looked at it, and I thought, who is - what's this? And who is this person who makes someone call her that? And then I kept pressing on it, and I found this character behind it. I never - I didn't make anyone call me by a different name, so it's not coming from me. But then I remembered later - and this is the creepy, mysterious part of writing - there's a Mother Goose nursery rhyme, lady bird, lady bird, fly away home. And then it finish - it says, your house is on fire, and your children are gone, which is depressing.

But I think that that had lodged itself somewhere in my brain. But the truth is, I find writing to be a process of, my unconscious knows a lot more than I do. And then I try to trust it as much as I can and consciously craft it into something that has story and propulsion, but trusting that underneath it, there's something at work that I don't have control over.

GROSS: So in this mother-and-daughter story that you've written, the daughter rejects the name her mother gave her. Her mother gave her the name Christine. And she says, no, you have to call me Lady Bird now; that's my name.

GERWIG: Right.

GROSS: But the name you gave the character - Christine - if I'm not mistaken, is the name of your actual mother.

GERWIG: It is.

GROSS: Was it also a way - naming the daughter Christine - was it also a way of kind of telegraphing to your mother, I'm not angry with you; this movie is not trying to make you into a monster?

GERWIG: Maybe, maybe. And, you know, it's funny. I think I always liked the name Christine, too, because it's a religious name.

GROSS: Because it has Christ in it.

GERWIG: It's Christ - it's the female version of Christ. And I spent a lot of time thinking about saints - lives of saints. And I, you know, read documents of lives of saints and how - I was always interested in who they were as people and that they both were these people who were divinely inspired, but they were also also kind of just annoying teenagers.

Like I - the story of St. Ignatius, who started the Jesuits, he has a saint story of he was a - he was a military man. And he was a soldier. And he wanted to be a great soldier and a hero. And he was very ambitious, and - but he hurt his leg. And while he was recuperating, he was reading the lives of the saints. And he had this kind of teenage ambition moment of - he basically looked at it and said, I could do that. I can do that better than those saints. I could be the best saint there ever was.

And he set out in almost this childish way to do it. And sort of the - the story is - I've read it - was that the moral of it, in a way, is that God can use whatever you have even if it looks unpromising. Even if you're just kind of an arrogant teenager, that can be something that's transformed into something holy. And so I think giving her a name like Christine it, to me, it kind of drew that connection. And it's not something I need the audience to know while they're watching it. But I think, for me, it becomes an organizing principle.

GROSS: What was your saint name when you were given one?

GERWIG: You know, the - I'm not Catholic. I was not raised Catholic.

GROSS: You're not Catholic? I assumed you were a Catholic...

GERWIG: No, no.

GROSS: There's so much Catholicism in the movie. She goes to a Catholic school. Oh, right. I read you were raised Unitarian.

GERWIG: Yeah. I mean, I was raised Unitarian Universalist. But I did go to a Catholic high school. And I - I've always been drawn to Catholicism. And I - I'm very admiring of many parts of it. My sister is, too. She studied with the Jesuits at the Berkeley Theological Union. And she never converted, but she got her master's in divinity. And we both separately have always been fascinated by it.

And then when I was in - I was in high school and I loved - I mean, I sang in the choir. I was second soprano. So I was not singing the main line. But I always really liked being part of it. And I like the ritual. And I liked - I knew a lot of really interesting priests and nuns. And I think, you know, I am interested in the faith and tradition and how it functions and how it informs people's lives. And it's something I've been serious about without ever being a Catholic.

GROSS: So when you went to Catholic school in high school and you were not Catholic, did you feel like you were more Catholic than a lot of the Catholic kids in the school because you were actually interested in the rituals (laughter) and in the saints?

GERWIG: Yeah. Well, I think because it wasn't my background, I was allowed to love it in a way that if maybe it had been, you would seek to reject it.

GROSS: Because it couldn't oppress you because it had no power over you. You could just take what was beautiful from it.

GERWIG: That's right. And I didn't have to feel like it was something I had to define myself against. It could be something that just was enriching. But I think - I also think Unitarian Universalism, which my dad always describes as, we believe in, at most, one god - it's - it does have - its - I think this is the right word - ecumenical. Is that what I - is that what I think it means?

GROSS: Yes.

GERWIG: All the different - it has a sense of really instilling a reverence for other religions that I think can be some - a way in to some - a tradition that's not yours.

GROSS: I think we need to take a short break here, so let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Greta Gerwig. She's an actress, screenwriter. And now she's a director as well. She wrote and directed the new film "Lady Bird." We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEEP BLUE ORGAN TRIO'S "TELL ME SOMETHING GOOD")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is actress, screenwriter and now director Greta Gerwig. She wrote and directed the new movie "Lady Bird," which stars Saoirse Ronan as a teenager on the verge of leaving home for college. And Laurie Metcalf plays her mother.

So there's a scene when they're shopping together for her prom dress. And shopping is such a thing for mothers and daughters. Like, you're together doing an activity. It can be a real bonding experience, except that your taste can really be different. And when your mother really likes something and she's paying for it because you're not earning a salary yet and you really hate it (laughter) or vice versa, it's like such trouble. And, like, all these other issues can come up as a result.

So let's hear this shopping scene. And so they're shopping for the prom dress. And Lady Bird is coming out of the dressing room that her mother's waiting outside of in this, like, pink dress, like, below-the-knee dress that's very - it's a little princess-y (ph), I'd say, and very pink. And here's the conversation they're having about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LADY BIRD")

RONAN: (As Lady Bird) I love it.

METCALF: (As Marion McPherson) Is it too pink? What?

RONAN: (As Lady Bird) Why can't you say I look nice?

METCALF: (As Marion McPherson) I thought you didn't even care what I think?

RONAN: (As Lady Bird) I still want you to think I look good.

METCALF: (As Laurie Metcalf) OK. I'm sorry. I was telling you the truth. You want me to lie?

RONAN: (As Lady Bird) No, I mean - I just wish - I just - I wish that you liked me.

METCALF: (As Laurie Metcalf) Of course, I love you.

RONAN: (As Lady Bird) But do you like me?

METCALF: (As Laurie Metcalf) I want you to be the very best version of yourself that you can be.

RONAN: (As Lady Bird) What if this is the best version?

GROSS: That's Laurie Metcalf and Saoirse Ronan from "Lady Bird." Why can't the mother just say I love you and I like you?

GERWIG: Well, I think she's terrified that if she says you're good just as you are that she won't continue to grow. And I think immediately after, she doesn't - immediately after she says it in the film searches - closes the door and Laurie has this look like she's going to knock and say something and then decides not to. And to me, I think, you know, it's a heartbreaking scene because they're missing each other. And her mother can't - her mother can't concede the point because she's too scared. And I'm always interested in how people use language to not say what they mean.

And I think in so many of the fights with Lady Bird and her mother, what her mother wants to say is I'm terrified, and she can't say it because it feels too vulnerable or, you know, for the myriad reasons that you can't say you're scared. But she just can't do it. And I talked with Saoirse and Laurie about this a lot, that I wanted the audience to feel like I know exactly where that mother is and I know exactly where that daughter is and that you don't feel that either one of them is a villain, but you do think, oh, man, it's so hard to love people and to be in a family.

GROSS: Since you were raised as a Unitarian, how did you end up going to Catholic school?

GERWIG: Well, I went to Catholic school because I was - part of the decision-making was I was a competitive fencer and I...

GROSS: Not many of those anymore (laughter).

GERWIG: No. This is - but when I talk about my childhood and then fencing gets thrown in, people are like you lived so many lives. But I was very serious about fencing and - but the tournaments that I'd have to go to would require me to miss school. And part of the issue was that it was harder at the public school to work around that. And I remember I talked to - I took the entrance exam for the Catholic high school, and I talked to Sister Catherine, who was the president of the school at that point, and she said we would be we would be proud to have you represent St. Francis at fencing tournaments, and we would be happy to accommodate whatever school you need to miss.

GROSS: Wow, so you went to Catholic school so that you could spend more time fencing. That's so interesting.

GERWIG: That's right.

GROSS: 'Cause when you think of the trade-offs, I mean, Catholic school is stricter than public school. It's going to be an all-girls school as opposed to co-ed school, and you're doing that because you want a fence.

GERWIG: (Laughter) I know, and then I didn't even end up sticking with fencing through college, but - yeah.

GROSS: Why did you give it up?

GERWIG: Honestly, it was expensive. It's a very expensive sport. It's something that, you know, it's a lot of equipment. It's a lot of traveling. It's a lot of training.

GROSS: It's a lot of equipment. I think there would just be, like, a foil, you know? (Laughter) Like, what else is there?

GERWIG: No. It's a whole - you have a lame, you have all these masks.

GROSS: Right, right.

GERWIG: I mean, it's - and all the foils are quite expensive, and you wear them out. You know, you break them as you're fencing. I loved the sport, and I still do it occasionally. I'll go to New York Fencers Club. But yeah, it was just - it just became tremendously expensive, and then it became a thing of realizing that it was such a financial burden, and I would have to have gotten a scholarship to go to college on it to make it worth the trade-off. And then if you're, you know, a collegiate athlete, that's a really big part of your experience. It's almost like you're a full-time athlete, and then you're also in college. And I think between all of that, my mom had this line, which I think is very wise now. She said, Greta, I want you to be a human being, not a human doing. And she was worried that if I went all in with fencing and felt indebted to it that I would not explore other parts of what I was interested in.

GROSS: My guest is Greta Gerwig. She wrote and directed the new film "Lady Bird." We'll talk more after a break, and we'll listen back to an interview I recorded with health care economist Uwe Reinhardt, who died Monday at age 80. He advocated for universal health care and helped shape the health care debate. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JON BRION'S "ROSE GARDEN")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Greta Gerwig. She co-wrote and starred in "Frances Ha" and "Mistress America" and costarred in "Greenberg," "20th Century Women" and "Jackie." She wrote and directed the new film "Lady Bird," which stars Saoirse Ronan as a high school senior who's preparing to go to college and trying to assert her independence from her mother, played by Laurie Metcalf.

So your movie is coming out at a really interesting time. You know, it's about relationships between girls and between, you know, mother and daughter. And you, a woman, wrote and directed it, and it's being released at a time of all these kind of revelations about individuals who have, you know, sexually harassed women. It's, you know, all these revelations about sexual misconduct. I mean, everybody knows there's a lot of sexual misconduct, but individuals are being named now and, you know, held responsible. So do you feel like this is an interesting time to be a woman whose movie that, you know, you, a woman, wrote and directed is being released?

GERWIG: Yes, I do. I think it's heartbreaking, and it's - and I think it's overdue. But it's just - it's heartbreaking for everyone - the men and women who are involved.

GROSS: You know, you mentioned that these - you know, the unmasking of some men who have or have been alleged to commit inappropriate sexual acts - you said, you know, these revelations are kind of heartbreaking. And, you know, I just want to mention here that your, you know, partner, Noah Baumbach, with whom you wrote a couple of screenplays and you starred in those movies - "Frances Ha" and "Mistress America" - his new movie, "The Meyerowitz Stories" - like, a movie I really love - one of the stars is Dustin Hoffman, who's one of the people who is alleged to have committed acts of sexual misconduct. So in that sense, this is - must be hitting really close to home.

GERWIG: Yeah, definitely.

GROSS: And this is going to put you on the spot a little bit, so excuse me. But I feel like I want to ask you this. So I know you're a big fan of Woody Allen. And you say that one of the reasons you moved to New York is because you loved his Manhattan films so much, and you loved Diane Keaton and kind of wanted to be her as a teenager.

And you were in one of his films, "To Rome With Love," which opened in 2012. And a couple of years later, his daughter Dylan accused him of sexually molesting her. He's denied it. Ronan Farrow, his son, has been write - who has been writing about the Harvey Weinstein story and uncovered a lot of stories related to that - Ronan said that he believes those accusations made by his sister are true.

And in the past, he said he wonders why Woody Allen seems to be getting the red carpet treatment in spite of all of that. And I'm just, you know, wondering, as somebody who is, you know, I think very feminist-oriented and has given a lot of thought to these things, what your thoughts are about that and about having been in one of his movies.

GERWIG: You know, it's all very difficult to talk about because I think I and other women - we've - feel that this moment has been a long time in coming and also feeling terrified that we're going to now say the wrong thing. And I think you can even see in the way that certain women have been attacked, even since taking a brave step of coming forward, and how they've been torn down or questioned their motives or why didn't they say something - and just this fear that you're going to somehow address this not correctly - and I think it's a - I think I'm living in that space of fear of being worried about how I talk about it and what I say. And I was in that film with Ellen Page, who wrote something very beautiful recently and very strong and thoughtful and...

GROSS: About how she was once molested...

GERWIG: Yes, and...

GROSS: ...In relation to a movie, yeah.

GERWIG: ...And outed - and that trauma, for her. And I mean, the thing that I keep coming back to is, for me, as a woman, particularly young women who have dreams of being part of this industry and this space of artists and dream-makers, and how protected that space should be by how vulnerable you're asking everyone to be - and that would be somehow abused or corrupted breaks my heart for the very reason that you said.

Oh, I had an idea of wanting to move to New York and that I admired Woody Allen's movies, and I was that person. And I'm very lucky. I didn't do anything right to not have anything happen that was traumatic. But I was lucky. And I don't know. I'm experiencing it in real time with everybody else. And I wish I had something more articulate to say about it. There's so many ways that you cannot address this well, and I...

GROSS: Can I just stop you there because...

GERWIG: I don't know what to say about that.

GROSS: I appreciate what you're saying, that you're afraid of saying the wrong thing and that you feel like right now you're coming at this from this place of fear. And I'd love it if you could just elaborate on that a little bit more - like, what you're worried about inadvertently saying. Like, what are the fears? What would be - are you afraid of hurting somebody or...

GERWIG: Well, I mean, and not to...

GROSS: Yeah.

GERWIG: Well, not to put you on the spot, but, I mean, just to sort of - this is to give you an idea of, you know...

GROSS: My questions to you were an example?

GERWIG: Well...

GROSS: Yeah (laughter)...

GERWIG: You know, you've interviewed Louis C.K. many times.

GROSS: Absolutely, and I've been thinking about that a lot.

GERWIG: And what do you...

GROSS: Yes.

GERWIG: And then, like - but when I ask you that question and - you know, do you have a moment of some fear inside you because you're like, I don't know how to answer this?

GROSS: I do. I do, and I will use your word, heartbroken. I'm heartbroken. I love his show "Louie." I've loved a lot of his stand-up comedy. Some of his relationships with women in his show "Louie" made me uncomfortable. But, you know, on the whole, I really loved the show. I enjoyed so much my interviews with him. I mean, they were such joys to me.

And now I just - I'm heartbroken for the women who were exposed to that, and I'm heartbroken that he somehow had that compulsion to do what he did. It makes me truly sad. And I'm worried that whatever I'm saying now is going to be misinterpreted and...

GERWIG: That's right.

GROSS: ...Blow up in my face. And so...

GERWIG: That's - and that's it exactly it, what you just said. And you were being worried that it will be misinterpreted - and, somehow, that is the fear, and that is the thing. And the thing that I feel is that right now, as much as men are being called to task for it, women are in a position of damned if you do, damned if you don't. And it - and that fear is the thing - that gripping of like, oh, God, did I just say something that will be wrong?

GROSS: Mmm hmm, mmm hmm, yeah.

GERWIG: And it's - and I also think, you know, wanting to not - to want to talk about your work too - and I think, you know - and I understand that this is something that we need to talk about, but I also have directed my first film that I wrote on my own, and I want to talk about that.

GROSS: No, I understand that. So let's get to more- some more comfortable territory for you.

GERWIG: No, it's OK, it's OK. I mean, I'm glad we're having this discussion because I do think it needs to be had. But I do think that that feeling of like, oh, God, now I have to answer, somehow, is very scary.

GROSS: Yeah, I really do understand that. So in your new movie - see, and we're getting right back to more comfortable territory, so...

(LAUGHTER)

GERWIG: Yes.

GROSS: You can take a deep breath (laughter).

GERWIG: Sure.

GROSS: So it seems to me like you're in a transition in your life now, going from being like the young actress to being like the director.

GERWIG: An old lady.

GROSS: No, no, to being like the director who isn't even in the new movie. It's a really new stage of your career. And the reviews that I've seen have been really good. So it's a new stage of your career that seems like the door remains open for you to continue, you know, walking through. So what's this transition feeling like to you?

GERWIG: Well, it's happened in stages in a way because I worked on the script for so long. And then I had this script I was - thought was good. And then I started involving people. And I involved producers and my cinematographer and then these different actors. And I had time to prepare. I had a year to prepare with my DP and Sam Levy, who also shot "Frances Ha" and "Mistress America."

And we had a whole year to talk about it. And I'd cast Saoirse a year before we started shooting. And so this sort of stepping into the role of director, I had an adequate amount of time and space to really overprepare for that moment. And then once I was on set and even really before I was on set, it's just the most fun I've ever had doing anything. And I loved it so much that I...

GROSS: Really, directing?

GERWIG: Oh, God, I just love it. Film is such an inherently collaborative art form. And I just - I have never felt more happiness in my life than I have sitting next to the camera with Sam operating, listening to great actors say the words I've written but bring them to life. And it's some combination of complete and total control - because it's your vision and your words - and a total lack of control, which is that you give all these other people faith that they will bring their best and that they will elevate what you've done. And it's extraordinary. I absolutely love it.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here because it's time for another break. If you're just joining us, my guest is Greta Gerwig. She is an actress, screenwriter and now director. And she wrote and directed the new movie "Lady Bird." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MISHA MENGELBERG TRIO'S "ROLLO III")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is actress, screenwriter and now director Greta Gerwig. Her new movie, which she wrote and directed, is called "Lady Bird."

So in your movie, "Lady Bird," the main character starts doing theater in high school. And the show that they're doing is Stephen Sondheim's "Merrily We Roll Along." I love that show. I love the songs from that show. And it's interesting that you chose that show because it begins with three friends in middle age. And their lives have not worked out as they'd hoped. And they've all become like really cynical about life and about each other. And the show goes backwards in time.

As the show goes deeper and deeper into the past, the characters become less and less cynical and more and more idealistic and more and more just kind of in love with being together. And you're starting off, you know, in high school, where that show kind of ends. So tell me why you chose "Merrily."

GERWIG: Well, "Merrily" is my favorite musical. I have listened to the original cast recording so many times. It makes me cry instantly. I'm a big Stephen Sondheim fan in general.

GROSS: Me too, yeah.

GERWIG: And I had written it into the script. And I didn't - I had no idea how I was going to get the rights to do it. I just loved it. And it has - again, it has that quality of time slipping away faster than you can hold on to it. Even though it's going backwards, it feels like you're always like, oh, that time's gone. Now we're in another time. And that quality was something that I wanted to capture.

And I thought it would be - I never did "Merrily We Roll Along" in high school because it would be a completely odd show for a high school to do. Although since showing the movie to a lot of people, people have come up to me and said my high school did it, which I find totally amazing. And I just thought there's something about it, to me, that it has this sensual ache that I had hoped that my movie would have. So...

GROSS: About transitions?

GERWIG: Yeah and about how where you end up and where you're from, how they're connected and how they're also so different. And I felt like it answered something in that to me. And even the songs in the middle that, you know - yesterday is gone, see the pretty countryside. Or dreams don't die, so keep an eye on your dreams because before you know where you are, there you are. That felt, to me, like those songs and those lyrics spoke so deeply to what I was trying to capture that it just seemed perfect to me.

GROSS: How did you get the rights for it?

GERWIG: Well, I was very lucky because I - when Scott Rudin signed on to make this film, he has produced Stephen Sondheim. And he's friends with Stephen. And he said, I wrote Stephen Sondheim a letter which got to him, and he said yes. So that was just the most exciting thing that could have happened to me because it meant, hey, it's Stephen Sondheim. And I've still never met Stephen Sondheim.

GROSS: Greta Gerwig, it's really been a pleasure to talk with you again. Thank you so much and congratulations on the film.

GERWIG: Thank you.

GROSS: Greta Gerwig wrote and directed the new film "Lady Bird." After we take a short break, we'll listen back to an interview I recorded with health care economist Uwe Reinhardt, who died Monday at age 80. He advocated for universal health care and helped shape the health care debate. This is FRESH AIR.

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