Greta Gerwig can be scattered. But she likes to say that the greater the chaos and uncertainty, the calmer she gets.
When I meet her at her office in New York, she is very calm despite the whirlwind. She’s six months pregnant with her second child, another boy. She’s promoting her star turn in a Netflix black comedy with Adam Driver and Don Cheadle – an adaptation of Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel, White Noise, directed by her partner, Noah Baumbach. And she’s editing a movie due out in July that she directed – and that she and Baumbach wrote – that has generated giddy excitement, along with intense curiosity about Gerwig’s approach: Barbie, a cotton-candy-pink extravaganza starring Margot Robbie and, as the living doll’s consort, Ken, a platinum Ryan Gosling.
“I’ve just got to finish Barbie,” says Gerwig, who is wearing a plaid shirtdress, black leggings and some black ankle boots she got at Liberty in London, the city where Barbie was mostly filmed. “I’m bad at focusing on too many things at once. I don’t have that kind of bandwidth.”
She sheepishly confesses that she’s so busy that she used dry shampoo this morning instead of taking a shower. But it’s hard to believe that the 39-year-old is a bad multitasker, given how many things she is juggling, including, the day after we talk in her office, hosting a big family Thanksgiving dinner for 20 in her Manhattan apartment.
She has collected so many hyphens in her résumé that even Barbra Streisand would be impressed: actor-writer-director-producer and multiple Oscar nominee for the critical darlings she wrote and directed, Lady Bird and Little Women.
I have heard that Gerwig is a great eater, so, even though we are lunching dutifully on salads, we start off talking about one of her culinary delights: doughnuts.
“I think, particularly on film sets, I become the child version of myself that wants just junk food,” she says. She read that Steven Spielberg had wooed a reluctant David Lynch to play a cameo as John Ford in The Fabelmans by acceding to his request for Cheetos on the set. “Then I felt like a kindred spirit with David Lynch, since we have the same addiction to the salty, cheesy goodness of Cheetos.”
Will Ferrell, who plays the Mattel chief executive in Barbie, says the movie is a homage and a satire. But details are scarce about how Gerwig solves the sticky issue of Barbie. Feminists have had their issues over the decades, saying the doll offers a superficial, beauty-centric view of women – in 1992, a talking Barbie burbled, “Math class is tough!” Under pressure, Mattel added different shapes and races and professions to the line. “Barbie believes in the power of representation,” the doll’s Instagram account boasts.
She was a wonderful combination of an actress who can embody the character naturally but at the same time keep half of her brain working as a writer inside of the scene— Mark Duplass
“My mom was a feminist, and I think there was some resistance to all of it and eventually there was relenting,” Gerwig recalls, describing hand-me-down dolls. “I think I was totally compelled by hair that was 10 times bigger than your body.”
Her own childhood hair, she recalls, was thin, which made Barbie’s all the more an object of fascination. Gerwig says she wanted the movie “to be something that is both able to come from the adult part of your brain and also remember what it was like to be a little girl just looking at a beautiful Barbie”.
She says the main draw for her in taking on the project was Robbie, who is starring and producing. “She’s so fearless,” Gerwig says. “There’s something really infectious about that. For some reason I thought, Yes, I would love to write this and Noah would love to write it, too. I don’t think I really checked with him. At first he was, like, ‘What? What are we going to do?’ He was not sure. Then we both got really excited and fell in love with the project.”
In London, Gerwig and Robbie kicked off filming with a “Barbie sleepover” with some of the other women and men working on the movie (alas, Gosling didn’t participate) – complete with games, goody bags and pink sleepover outfits.
“I really love building companies of actors almost like a theatre troupe,” Gerwig says. “I wanted that kind of energy because it was a really big cast. It was, like, well, let’s do something totally girlie.” The director also showed movies every Sunday at the Electric Cinema in Notting Hill for the cast and crew, hoping to provide some style or comedy inspiration for the shoot: His Girl Friday for the manic pacing and The Red Shoes for the saturation of colour. Gerwig says the message was: “Don’t worry. People have made really wild movies before.”
Even Gerwig seems startled by the pictures of Robbie and Gosling as Barbie and Ken on a beach in Los Angeles that broke the internet in June. “I couldn’t believe Ryan and Margot were just out there in full neon,” she says. “It was like we were in this bubble, and all of a sudden they were doing it in public in front of everyone. Everything was so extreme and they were really going for it. Just 100 per cent commitment.”
Robbie recalls that, in order not to “waste brain power” on her wardrobe, Gerwig wore the same boiler suit, in different colours, every day of the shoot. “We did pink on Wednesdays,” Gerwig says.
Laurie Metcalf, who played the mother in Lady Bird, says that, on that shoot, Gerwig told people to wear a name tag revealing a movie that everyone else loved but you didn’t get. Gerwig’s was Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
It’s funny, as she played free-spirited young women not unlike Holly Golightly earlier in her career, ones whose brio masked their vulnerability as they tried to make it in New York.
“I just never liked it,” she says of the Audrey Hepburn classic. “It made me uncomfortable. There’s something at its core I just don’t like.”
In her early career, Gerwig’s quirky, wobbly, lovable persona in “mumblecore” films, then later in Greenberg, Frances Ha and Mistress United States – she wrote the latter two with Baumbach, and he directed both – made her the indie “It girl”, a successor to Diane Keaton in Annie Hall.
“She was a wonderful combination of an actress who can embody the character naturally but at the same time keep half of her brain working as a writer inside of the scene,” says Mark Duplass, who made mumblecore movies with her. He recalls directing her in Baghead in 2008, as she was putting a suitor in the friend zone; she improvised and put tiny hair clips in the young man’s hair while she was letting him down, as a way of letting him know.
It’s a shock to see Gerwig in White Noise, looking almost unrecognisable as Babette Gladney, the permed, sweat-suited wife of a Hitler-studies professor at a small liberal arts college in the midwest United States. She cast herself in the role. “When Noah said, ‘Who do you think should play Babette?’ I said, ‘Me’.”
Since the first time she was directed by Baumbach a dozen years ago, Gerwig has become an acclaimed director herself. Did she want to correct him on how he was directing a scene?
“No, I think I only did it once on the set,” she says. “He’s incredibly open to suggestion. The truth is, I think if I had wanted to sit there all day, every day, even when I wasn’t on the set, he’d be happy to ask what I thought of every shot. I think also, as a director, there’s a certain loneliness. Mike Nichols says directors need a buddy. So someone who has a thought or a point of view or is looking over your shoulder makes you feel less like you’re having an isolated existential crisis every day.”
Was it uncomfortable when the two had to go up against each other at the Oscars for best picture of 2019, he with Marriage Story, she with Little Women?
“It was so weird in the moment when we actually were there,” she says. “It’s very funny, but we did actually vote for ourselves. We were at our computers and I was, like, ‘Just so you know, I’m going to vote for myself,’ and he said, ‘Okay, I’m going to vote for myself, too.’”
Baumbach says that the Oscar face-off was “easier” because they both lost. “We could celebrate that together.”
Having been in competitive situations with journalists I was dating, I am impressed with their equanimity, especially with Baumbach’s apparent lack of overweening male ego. Gerwig has addressed this in her work; in Mistress United States, Lola Kirke’s Barnard College student is interested in a guy in her class, even as the two compete against each other to get into a prestigious writing club, and she wins a spot. He gets involved with another young woman and dismisses Kirke’s character, saying: “I need someone I can love, not keep up with.”
“I feel like it must be hard if you’re 25,” Gerwig says. “I think as you get older, things work, things don’t work. You’re up, you’re down.”
Greta Gerwig pays absolutely incredibly sharp attention to everyone and everything around her— Saoirse Ronan
I explain that my illusions about the glamour of being “the first couple of film” – as the Hollywood Reporter called Gerwig and Baumbach in 2019 – was shattered long ago when I interviewed Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, that earlier first couple of film. Woodward said she would not participate in the 1986 New York Times Magazine cover story about Newman because she did not give quotes for stories that were focused on him rather than on her or on both of them. Newman appealed to her but was rebuffed. Later I interviewed them for the cover of a women’s magazine, and Woodward was charming.
Woodward had talked about “the tough fight” and many years of analysis involved in keeping her own identity, and I was left wondering how many hours with a psychiatrist it took to work those rules out. Even in this most enduring of Hollywood marriages, careful ego management was required.
Baumbach first worked with Gerwig on the 2010 movie Greenberg, starring Ben Stiller. Baumbach directed the movie and wrote it with Jennifer Jason Leigh, who was his wife at the time; she also acted in it and served as a producer.
Clearly some life-altering alchemy was at work between the 40-year-old Baumbach and Gerwig, the 26-year-old newcomer, who played a personal assistant. (She trained for her role by working as a personal assistant for a month to Leigh’s mother, Barbara Turner, a screenwriter.)
I tell Gerwig it’s easy to see now, rewatching their first movies together, that the director was infatuated with her. “I’m turning red,” she says, a blush spreading over her ivory skin. Baumbach midwifed Gerwig’s stardom; in the New York Times review of the film, A O Scott declared that she “may well be the definitive screen actress of her generation”.
Leigh filed for divorce eight months after the birth of her son with Baumbach, who was born before Greenberg came out. The divorce was not finalised until 2013. This bitter, chaotic time informed Baumbach’s Marriage Story.
Was it difficult establishing a relationship with Gerwig amid the wreckage?
“I was going through a hard time in my life, and she was going through a different time in her life,” he says. “We really wanted to make it work together, we really wanted to be together, and we were both drawn by that. That’s how we still feel about each other.”
He says that he and Leigh – who has stayed publicly silent about the dissolution of the marriage and her opinion about Marriage Story (although Baumbach told the Wall Street Journal that he screened it for his ex-wife and she liked it) – coparent their 12-year-old son, Rohmer. “In another completely different way,” he says, “you have to work together on that so that you can be the best parents you can to your great kid.”
I’m not interested in the sex scene just for the sex scene of it. It would have to be something where it felt part of the story. I might write one eventually
His partnership with Gerwig – they are not married but she wears an engagement ring – has changed him, he says. “I feel like I’m a better artist because of it,” he says. “I know I am. I think a lot about Marriage Story, which she didn’t write with me, but the things I was able to do with that movie as a direct influence of just being in a relationship with her and being around her, and things that she’s brought out in me that I was maybe sitting on.”
Saoirse Ronan, a star of Lady Bird and Little Women, says that Gerwig, like the director Steve McQueen, was “a bundle of energy, ideas and inspiration. She was constantly rewriting scenes to make the script as tight as she could. She’ll work all the hours that God sends”.
Ronan says that in Lady Bird a nun tells her character that the greatest form of love is to pay attention. “That came from Greta directly,” she says. “She pays absolutely incredibly sharp attention to everyone and everything around her.”
Amy Pascal, a producer of Little Women, is equally effusive. “She barged into my office and says, ‘You have to hire me to write Little Women, and I want to direct it, and here’s why. I want to tell the story in a completely different way’.” She told Pascal: “It’s about money.”
“She was able to decipher the book to tell it in a really modern way,” Pascal says. “Her ambition is to conquer American cinema.”
Metcalf says the key to Gerwig’s success as a director is dogged preparation. “She does all of the homework before anybody gets to the set,” she says, eschewing the usual mad scramble. “There’s a lightness there. She takes away all the pressure.” Instead of being the type of director who withholds praise from “the children” and whispers about the actors behind the monitor to make them paranoid, Metcalf says, Gerwig “keeps a bubble around you, so no negative feelings are allowed in”.
My parents were hippies a bit. They didn’t really want us to be inundated. We weren’t allowed to wear logos on our clothes. My mom felt that it was turning us into billboards
Before they began filming Lady Bird, Gerwig brought the cast over to her New York apartment and showed them a shoe box of mementos she had kept from high school, saying, “Here’s how I see the character.”
“That clicked with me in a way that was rare,” Metcalf says. “That made it so real to me. It was the first time I was playing a fictional character where I actually was able to think of it as a real woman.”
As sunset nears and New Yorkers scurry off to trains, planes and automobiles, getting ready for Thanksgiving, Gerwig clears our plates from lunch and goes to the fridge in the kitchen to make herself some yogurt with honey and cinnamon. Then she gets back to work, cutting Barbie. After writing for so long about the paucity of woman directors, I tell her as I leave, it’s great to see a woman behind the camera smashing it, and doing it like a woman, not a man.
“I hope to continue to do so,” she says as she disappears into an editing room. “I hope I make movies all the way through my 70s, maybe my 80s. We’ll see how I go.”
CONFIRM OR DENY
Maureen Dowd: You threw up on a yacht in front of the Kardashians.
Greta Gerwig: It’s true. I had never been on a yacht and I was so excited to, and then five minutes after being on one, I threw up in front of two Kardashians. I haven’t been on a yacht since. I don’t think this is a big memory for them. Only for me.
Your greatest accomplishment was forcing hipsters to like the Dave Matthews Band after Lady Bird.
I don’t think I had to force anyone to do anything. I think they all secretly loved it like I do, and they had to admit it to themselves.
Your favourite sex scene is Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie in Don’t Look Now.
Yes, I stand by that.
You avoid sex scenes when you write your own movies.
I’m not interested in the sex scene just for the sex scene of it. It would have to be something where it felt part of the story. I might write one eventually.
You want to make a musical.
Musicals are always top of mind for me. I would love there to be a musical in my future.
You forbid cell phones on the set.
You make your own baby food.
(Laughing) Not any more. It’s a lot of pureeing. I’ve forgotten all of this. I’m going to have to remember how to do all this stuff.
You grew up in a house without a television.
There was a little black-and-white set that they plugged in, they kept it in the closet. My parents were hippies a bit. They didn’t really want us to be inundated. We weren’t allowed to wear logos on our clothes. My mom felt that it was turning us into billboards.
You say your fallback career is tutoring “rich, stupid kids”.
No, my fallback career is being a step aerobics instructor, which I’m certified in.
You bring a posse of college friends to the Vanity Fair Oscar party and they all dress alike.
Those are my best friends. One’s a nurse, one’s a social worker, one’s a lawyer, one’s an actor. It was their idea because I was, like, “I don’t know if I can get everybody into the Vanity Fair party.” And they said, “If we all wear the same outfit, they’ll think we’re part of something and then we’ll be able to find each other easily.” They wore a print from a designer in Brooklyn the first time and five different yellow dresses the next time. It’s going to get weird as we get older. – This article originally appeared in The New York Times
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