Visible Women

Greta Gerwig: “I have a lot to be euphoric about right now”

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Helen Bownass
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Stylist sits down with the Oscar-nominated director to discuss Lady Bird, her favourite women artists and how she gets things done. Photography: Chris Floyd. 

Four hundred and forty-five. That’s how many people have been nominated for the best director Academy Award since the very first ceremony on 16 May 1929.

Five. That’s the number of female directors who have been nominated in 89 years of the Academy Awards.

One. That’s the number of women who have won it. (Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker in 2010). Just one.

It doesn’t matter who’s doing the sums: when only 1.1% of best director nominees in the history of the Oscars are female, it’s bad, bad maths. And let’s not even talk about this year’s Emmy or Bafta awards for which female directors weren’t even acknowledged. And all this in a landscape where 51% of cinema-goers are women (the same women who make up 51% of the UK population) yet only 11% of top directors are female. 

So it matters – and God I wish it didn’t – that we’re celebrating the fact that woman number five in those 89 years of Oscar history (after Bigelow, Sofia Coppola, Jane Campion and Lina Wertmüller) is here.

That woman is, of course, Greta Gerwig, whose film Lady Bird, out now, is a truly deserving nominee, beautifully reflecting the human experience.

What’s more impressive is that the film is 34-year-old Gerwig’s first time directing solo. The majority of her career has been spent on the other side of the camera in wry indie films including Frances Ha, Mistress America, Greenberg (all collaborations with director and partner Noah Baumbach) and 20th Century Women. The result is an impeccably observed coming-of-age story of Christine, aka Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan), as she winds through her final year of high school in 2002.

It’s a story about love, but not a love story. It bristles with moments that remind you of what a little sh*t you almost certainly were as a teenager.
 Lady Bird is headstrong, funny, has acne, badly dyed hair and dreams of living in New York. At the centre of her world – and the film – is the conflict-filled but loving relationship with her mum, played by Laurie Metcalf. Both Metcalf and Ronan are also Oscar-nominated.

Could you be the next Greta Gerwig (or, indeed, Agnes Varda)? 

Lady Bird isn’t autobiographical, but there are elements of Gerwig’s life that have been mined. She too grew up in Sacramento, and went to a Catholic school. She didn’t dye her hair. Or argue so much with her mum. Rather, she describes herself as “the most apologetic person I’ve ever met”. 

She’s not apologetic when Stylist meets her at Claridge’s in London a couple of days before the Bafta awards, an hour before she’s about to fly to Berlin. She doesn’t need to be. Instead, she’s thoughtful, keen to kick her shoes off and excited about the Girls on Tops Agnès Varda T-shirt we’ve brought for her to wear (Varda was the leading female director of the French New Wave).

With more directing plans to come, as well as roles in Wes Anderson’s animation Isle Of Dogs and Baumbach’s latest alongside Scarlett Johansson and Laura Dern, it’s a good time to be 
Gerwig. It remains to be
 seen if Hollywood will make
 her lucky number two but
 the fact of her nomination
– and the film that got her 
there – is something to shout about regardless. 

It can’t be 
a coincidence that in 2018 a film that reflects what it is to be on the cusp of womanhood, who has her own agency, as seen through the lens of a woman, has gone from being a lo-fi indie film to a major awards contender. 

From L-R, the only five women ever to be nominated for a best director Academy Award: Lina Wertmüller, Jane Campion, Sofia Coppola, Kathryn Bigelow and Greta Gerwig  

Did you ever imagine that this tale of a teenage girl navigating her life would affect so many people on so many levels?

I certainly wrote it wanting people to identify with it or be able to see themselves in it somehow, but 
I never expected it to be on the level that it has been. Doing the London Film Festival [in October 2017] was the first time I had this sense that it was connecting. People were saying, “I’ve never heard of Sacramento, but I’m telling you, that’s my story”, 
and that was very emotional
 for me.

What I’ve always
 loved about movies is that they are something that allows people to understand commonalities between a human experience, even though it might be a highly specific story that doesn’t seem like it would be universal, but somehow it is.

How do you feel about the volume of conversation around your Oscar nomination?

I know how much it’s meant for me: the women I’ve looked up to and their visibility as artists of the cinema has shaped my ability to think that I could do this. Whether it’s Agnès Varda, Sally Potter, Sofia Coppola or how much it meant to me when Kathryn Bigelow won the Oscar… I came to them through repertory programming [a cinema that shows a repertoire of old and art-house films] and that spotlight being placed on female directors changed things for me, so I can only imagine that it probably changes things for other people.

Until it’s closer to 50/50, I say keep shouting about it, because it might reach a girl or woman who hasn’t directed or is looking for the courage to do it and move them to make that step.

Saoirse Ronan as Christine in Lady Bird

Fifty per cent of directors being female by 2020 sounds
 great in theory, but
 how will we actually get to that point?

When I think about
 moving forward, I think 
the fact that there aren’t
 more female directors 
has to do with a lack of
 taking a chance on 
someone. Experience 
aggregates; if someone
 doesn’t take a chance
then they don’t get that experience. By the time [a woman] gets all the
 way up the ladder when [producers] look round and say, “Who could
 direct it?” – but women
 weren’t given an
opportunity in the beginning.

Fifty/fifty by 2020 is an incredible goal, but some of these things will need to be persistently tackled for years because you don’t get to an all-male hiring pool in five years – you get to an all-male hiring pool by having 90 years of ‘this is how we do it’. You need to actively push the other way.

I look at statistics of kids graduating from film school and it’s half women, so they’re there. Something happens between half of the people who graduate from film school who are women, to there being no women directors. 
I think when these things aren’t talked about, they become invisible because it’s like the air we breathe, and pointing it out makes it obvious.

Have you thought about what your personal role is in changing this?

I’ve been very impressed with women, like Reese Witherspoon and Margot Robbie, who have started their own production companies and hire female directors. This is something that has been percolating for me, and I would love to figure out how to help other women get movies made. 

Gerwig at the 24th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards with Lady Bird stars Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf (right) 

Did you do an inner cheer when Natalie Portman called out the all-male best director nominees at the Golden Globes?

I actually didn’t see that until the next day because I was backstage. My favourite part was the way she backed up from the microphone, as if she just dropped it.

We’ve all witnessed the power of Time’s Up in a post-Weinstein world. How do we ensure that isn’t just for an elite voice? How do we ensure that this is being talked about across all of humanity?

When the leaders of Time’s Up wrote their response letter, it was to women across all industries. Being able to back that up with a legal fund so that women who didn’t have resources could get legal aid if there was a harassment situation in a workplace is very thoughtful and it’s very important. 

It’s something that’s obviously in all walks of life. It’s really important to move this on to people who don’t have resources or the same amplification of their voices.

So if you have a voice you should use it?

Yes, it’s partly that, and it’s also about where does the attention in the media go to? The New York Times did an incredible piece about auto workers [exposing how women working at two Ford plants in Chicago faced a culture of harassment, published in December 2017], which was using their powers of investigative journalism to shine a light on something important. Focusing on it in all industries is something that you can raise your voice about and that is another way to use that power to change something.

Do you think as a female filmmaker there is more pressure to prove that you can make a successful film?

I think some of that is changing now. Before, there was a sense that every time a woman directed a movie everyone would wait with baited breath to see if it did well or not, because the feeling would be that if it does well then this is good for women and film, and if it doesn’t then it’s bad. I think we’re looking at a time where the numbers, hopefully, are shifting, so every time it’s not a trial over whether people like films about and directed by and written by women; it just becomes another movie.

I certainly felt in ways that I wanted to be as prepared and as ready as I could be because I wanted to make a good film, and I also knew that if the experience of working with me was good, it might make it that much easier for the next woman who comes along. 

Gerwig wears dress, £1,490, Emilia Wickstead.

Writer and director Aaron Sorkin said that a “cloud of euphoria” surrounds you wherever you go. Do you think that’s true?

I think I have a lot to be euphoric about right now; I’ve had a lot to be euphoric about for a very long time. I’m incredibly lucky that I get to do what I love – I get to be around people who are artists of the highest calibre and I am able to see a road where I continue to do this, so I think euphoria is a pretty [good] response to what is going on.

How do you maintain that with the volume of travel and press you’re doing for this film?

I’m pretty good at sleeping on a plane, but it’s never great sleep. I’ve always slept a lot. If I don’t have eight hours of sleep I tend to see everything more negatively and it takes me longer to finish things. When I began my sophomore
 year [at Barnard College, New York] I made a list of priorities 
and number one was to get eight hours of sleep. Everything else fell under that.

Do you still write a list of priorities?

Sometimes I have too many
 things that are important to me. When you’re writing resolutions or priorities you can get very ambitious, and it creates mores stress because you’re not accomplishing the things that you didn’t have time to accomplish in the first place.

It’s helpful for me to focus on ‘What is the actual thing you’re going for? Sure, it would be lovely if you had an extra three hours
 in the day, but if you don’t, what is the thing you really want to do?’

Do you find it easy to recognise what it is you really want? Often many people know there’s something but don’t know how to get to it.

If I’m honest with myself I generally know what it is that I want, it’s just it can get covered over by other things. Sometimes it takes a long time to achieve those goals – for example writing a movie takes a while. Because it’s such a long process, when I would think about the whole thing it would overwhelm me, and I would get scared and think, ‘What if it’s terrible; maybe I should let someone else direct it?’ I would go through whatever my insecurities were. 

In a way, it was always, ‘Get it to the next step: just get this scene done. Just get this draft done. Now just give this draft to a friend to read…’ Taking every step as its own action was helpful because it broke it into something that I could wrap my mind around. 

Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach

You’ve been in the film industry for many years, but this is your first solo-directed project. Where do you go when that is recognised at the highest level critically?

I think no matter who you are, making a film always feels like jumping off a cliff. But if I had to choose my problem, I’d chose this one. If my biggest bellyache is, ‘How will I ever top this?’ then I think that’s OK [laughs].

How do you think Lady Bird will change your career?

When I was going into this, my concern was that I wanted it to reach as many people as it could, but I was mainly thinking about trying to make it easy to make the next one because I want to make a lot of movies. So much of filmmaking is meeting people who will take a chance on you, and it’s easier to take a chance if it worked out the first time. What’s beyond lovely about this moment is that it makes it easier for me to make films now because it went well.

Which other women in the arts should people know about?

Novitiate by Maggie Betts is a beautiful film – and an interesting companion piece to Lady Bird. It’s a completely different vision of Catholicism. It was her first film and I thought it was great. But Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Oh my God I love her – I eat her books whole.

I also love the writer Maggie Nelson. I first read The Argonauts and now I’ve read almost everything she’s written. And Durga Chew-Bose is a brilliant writer; she’s published a book of stories that are beautiful called Too Much And Not In the Mood.

How do you think female artists will evolve with the culture around them now?

I think whether it’s in cinema or other mediums, there will be more and more women contributing their voice to the story of what it means to be human, and that voice has been left out for almost all of human history. I always think about the fact that it was less than 100 years ago in the United States that women got the right to vote, so it’s a crazy amount of transformation that is going on and I couldn’t be more excited. 

I love literature from the 17th century, but I’m also vividly aware that there is so much of that time that we don’t know because [women] weren’t writing or participating. As you increase the number of people who are women that are making art, you get a much richer vision of what it means to be human.

Lady Bird is in cinemas nationwide; watch the Oscars live on the Sky Cinema Oscars channel from 1.30am on Monday 5 March.

Stylist’s Visible Women campaign is dedicated to raising awareness of women who’ve made a difference, celebrating their success, and empowering future generations to follow their lead. See more from Visible Women here.  

Images: Rex Features