We spoke to the director and star of the record-breaking coming-of-age film about first kisses, prom, and writing substantial roles for women.
Photos courtesy A24
It's no surprise that Greta Gerwig's solo directorial debut, Lady Bird, is an instant classic. She's always been more than a "muse," a label many were quick to attach to her. But real heads know Frances Ha and Mistress America—two films directed by Gerwig's real-life partner Noah Baumbach—are standouts in his filmography thanks to Gerwig's co-writing credits. Gerwig has starred as leads in both films, but in Lady Bird, she stays behind the camera, instead letting Saoirse Ronan play the teenage heroine: a Catholic school good girl with a rebellious streak and pink-dyed hair who prefers to go by the titular moniker.
Ronan has always been a standout among her generation of actors, but she's pitch-perfect in Gerwig's film. Set in 2002, in Sacramento, California, Lady Bird is a Bush-era coming-of-age story with the timelessness of adolescent anxieties and excitement. Though shades of the film are autobiographical (Gerwig grew up in Sacramento around that time and eventually moved to New York, as Lady Bird dreams of doing), the writer and director merely uses her own life as inspiration. Lady Bird is tender and romantic, but doesn't use "getting a boyfriend" as its leading lady's source of validation; it's also very much about her character-building relationships with her mother, best friend, and teachers.
Broadly spoke with writer/director Greta Gerwig and star Saoirse Ronan about Catholic school upbringing, first kisses, and prom. Lady Bird is in theaters now, and New Yorkers can also attend a Greta Gerwig-curated series of her favorite films at the Quad Cinema.
BROADLY: Congratulations! I love this movie so much, and I just heard that it earned the highest-per-theater average intake for a female director in history, that's amazing! How are you feeling?
GRETA GERWIG: That news is very fresh to me too, I can't believe it!
SAOIRSE RONAN: I was able to experience watching it for the first time as an audience member. And I was weirdly able to be quite objective about it. I've never had that experience before. I don't enjoy watching anything that I'm in. I usually can't sit down to watch anything I'm in without having like a full-blown anxiety attack. And I was very nervous going in to watch it, just because of how much it meant to me, and how much it meant to Greta. And I really wanted to get it right for her. So, I went and I watched it with my best friend, in London. And from the opening frame, I kept turning to her throughout the whole thing, and I was like, "This is great, isn't it?" And I just feel very, very proud to be a part of it. And also to be a part of her first film. Because she's a great director already, and she's just going to continue to become greater and greater. And it's wonderful to witness that. And to see everyone celebrate her and her work, as much as they are already, is fantastic.
GERWIG: Saoirse is extraordinary. I'm glad she knows that. I mean, I know it's hard to watch yourself sometimes, but she just so becomes this other person.
I also generally really love coming of age movies. But I grew up religious/am religious, but I also went to a liberal New York school, so there was so much from the film that I identified with and loved.
GERWIG: Thank you so much. I went to an all girls Catholic school and I grew up in Sacramento. Lady Bird is actually kind of the opposite of how I was. I was a rule-following kind of kid. I never made anybody call me by a different name, I never dyed my hair bright red. But I think, in a way, I was almost creating a heroine that was flawed and could sometimes be a bit of a jerk but also had incredible courage to be herself, even when she was sometimes lying about who she was. I wanted everything to be treated with dignity. For me, it was a love letter to Sacramento. But also, I know sometimes particularly Catholic school can be the butt of the joke and I never wanted it to be that. I wanted it to be something more profound.
That is one of the things I loved about it, that it wasn't a joke, as it often can be, for sure. What is your tie with catholicism and spirituality these days?
GERWIG: I was raised a Unitarian Universalist, even though I went to Catholic school. I don't have an identity or affiliation with a particular institution. But the ritual of religion is something I really love and I'm really drawn to, whether it's the Catholic traditions or the Protestant traditions. I've gone with my friends to mosque and to synagogues and all of that is something I find very moving and true. There's something about it that I always feel connects us to our deepest need for storytelling.
RONAN: I grew up Catholic. I'm not religious at the moment. I mean, that could all change. I think that's one of the things that can come back to you at a later date. I went to a Catholic school and I made my communion, so that whole Catholic culture I could totally identify with. And what I love about this is that it shows all of the good that you can experience with nuns like the character that Lois Smith plays, and the priest, and things like that. And there's a lot of joy and a lot of community within that world too. And it was nice to see that in a film.
For sure. When I watched movies in high school, I would fantasize about going back in time, if I could do things differently. Was there something that you wanted Lady Bird to do that you didn't get to do in high school?
GERWIG: Certainly, I think some of her mouthiness was what I would maybe think in my head, but not actually say. Her boldness, really. Her going after what she wants, even with romantic interests, she didn't wait for anybody to notice her. She was gonna really go after what she wanted and who she was into. I admire that and I wish I had been more like that.
How does Lady Bird feel different from some other coming-of-age films?
RONAN: When I was about 17, obviously I was acting at that time, and I found it very difficult to find roles, especially lead roles, where girls were actually well-written, and actually had something to say and had something to do. And it's so exciting to see a character like this come to life. Something that we don't see a lot of in any teen film is for the romance between usually a guy and a girl, for that to not be the focus. And for that to not be the thing that validates the girl, is terrific. And we learn so much from relationships, of course, but we learn just a much from our mothers and our fathers and our brothers and best friends and our teachers. And, you know, there's so much attention being paid to all of these connections she has. And that's really unusual too, I think.
Right. Having crushes is such a big part of growing up but it isn't the end-game of this film. I love how there are two romantic interests. The first one feels like true love and then later she crosses out his name, and that's so real, when it comes to falling in love at that age.
GERWIG: I wanted to honor the vividness of the emotions and intensity of that love, but I didn't want the movie to be a movie that organized itself around the idea that there's a "right guy" for you. I don't think that's true and I don't think that's a story we need told about a female character again. We see that story all the time with a female character. I'm interested in human relationships, but I'm not interested in women feeling validated through being loved by a partner.
Definitely. At the same time, there are some magical moments. I love when she gets kissed for the first time and she runs and screams.
GERWIG: I always wanted it to be romantic, even if it wasn't ultimate. I'm a romantic, I wanted it to feel like, "Oh god, I know where you are. I remember. I know how exciting this is."
"I'm interested in human relationships, but I'm not interested in women feeling validated through being loved by a partner."
Did you have that kind of running and screaming joy of teenage romance when you were growing up?
GERWIG: I did. I mean, I don't know if I ever ran and screamed on the street, but I felt like that inside. Falling in love is one of the most wonderful things to feel. It's extraordinary, it's amazing and the thing about being a teenager is: You can't believe it! You can't believe that this is part of life and that it's happening to you.
RONAN: I can't remember what I did after my first kiss. I mean, it was so exciting. And it's one of those things that you think about for so long and you think it's never going to happen. Then it does and it feels like a eureka moment. It feels like this revelation, like, "Oh my god, this can happen to me." I wouldn't necessarily say that I ran down the street in a cowgirl outfit and screamed. But you know, I did my own version of that, probably.
What is your fondest memory from shooting Lady Bird?
GERWIG: The whole thing was, top to bottom, filled with love and care. Every single person was a storyteller, and that was so meaningful. Whether it was a PA or a gaffer or Saoirse Ronan or the DP, everybody was really a carrier of the story. For me, that was just extraordinary every single day. I mean, watching the actors work is the best feeling I've ever had in my life. It's hard to pick just one moment. I did love the prom. Everyone in the crew dressed up too! I wore a prom dress and we made a prom. It was amazing!
Saoirse, I heard Lady Bird has inspired you to direct in the future as well.
RONAN: Yeah, I mean, I think I'd like to work with friends of mine. I have a few friends who are great writers, and I think that's something that we would want to do together. And it's something I've been thinking about more, actually, over the last few months, just meeting other like-minded people who want to produce and write their own stuff, and maybe don't want to direct. And how we can all work together to make something. So, it's just about finding the right time to do it. But it's really exciting to meet other people that you actually really want to work with. I can understand more now why even directors that I've worked with, like Joe Wright, want their company around them. They want to keep working with the same people over and over again. There's a safety there that kind of allows you to be your most creative self. So, I think I'd like to do that at some point, yeah.
Greta, do you have a preference for writing and director solo versus collaborating?
GERWIG: I love writing and directing solo but I also love writing with Noah Baumbach. I hope we write together soon, because it's so much fun. He's my favorite writer/director so it's just pure joy. There's nothing more gratifying than making the person you admire most laugh with something you've written. Like, when you get a reaction right away? And then they write something for you, it's so great. It's a very wonderful process. Honestly, I hope I continue the way I have been. I love doing everything, and I'm gonna continue writing and directing on my own, collaborating with people but also acting for different directors. It always gives me a new way to look at the world. That's a very important thing.