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


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Today's first guest, Greta Gerwig, is an actress who starred in the films "Frances Ha" and "Mistress America," movies she had co-written with her partner Noah Baumbach. But he had directed those films. Greta herself never directed a movie until last year with her semi-autobiographical film "Lady Bird," which she also wrote.

And now she's the first woman in eight years to be nominated for a best director Oscar and only the fifth woman ever in that category. She's also up for best original screenplay. And "Lady Bird" also is nominated as best picture and for two of its stars, Saoirse Ronan in the best actress category and Laurie Metcalf as a best supporting actress nominee. Terry spoke with Greta Gerwig last year.

"Lady Bird" draws on Greta Gerwig's 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.


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).


TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: (Laughter) 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 moving car with her mother.

GROSS: So this is the daughter - 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 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, or 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: 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, on the one - 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 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, 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? Oh, I assumed you were a Catholic 'cause...

GERWIG: No, no.

GROSS: ...There's so much Catholicism in the movie. She goes to a Catholic school.


GROSS: Oh, right...


GROSS: ...I read you were raised Unitarian.

GERWIG: Yeah. I mean...

GROSS: That's right.

GERWIG: ...I was raised Unitarian Universalist. But I did go to a Catholic high school. And I've always been drawn to Catholicism. 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: Exactly. 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 does have - it's - I think this is the right word - ecumenical. Is that what I - is that what I think it means?


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

BIANCULLI: Greta Gerwig, writer and director of "Lady Bird" speaking to Terry Gross last year. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview from last year with actress, screenwriter and now director Greta Gerwig. Her movie "Lady Bird" is up for five Oscars this year, including best picture and for Gerwig's work as both screenwriter and director. Also nominated for Academy Awards are Saoirse Ronan, who plays a teenager on the verge of leaving home for college, as best actress and Laurie Metcalf, who plays her mother, as best supporting actress.


GROSS: 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.


GROSS: And here's the conversation they're having about it.


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, Saoirse closes the door. And Laurie has this look like she's going to knock and then 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 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: 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.


GROSS: 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 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: 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.

GERWIG: Me, too.

GROSS: And it's interesting that you chose that show because it begins with three friends in middle age.


GROSS: 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. Then 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 (laughter), 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 (laughter).

GERWIG: 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 onto 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 central ache that I had hoped that my movie would have. So I felt like...

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 the, 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. And...

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 Scott to him. And he said yes. So that was just the most exciting thing that could have happened to me (laughter) because it meant 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.

BIANCULLI: Actress, writer and director Greta Gerwig speaking to Terry Gross last year. Her film "Lady Bird" is up for five Academy Awards, including best picture and personal nominations to Greta Gerwig for best direction and best original screenplay.


BIANCULLI: After a break, we'll visit with another Oscar contender in the writing and directing categories, Dee Rees of the movie "Mudbound." And film critic Justin Chang will review "On Body And Soul," an Oscar nominee in the best foreign language film category. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.