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Greta Gerwig,
the cinema's smart dreamer

Greta Gerwig, the cinema's smart dreamer 01

Let’s begin with a statement based entirely in fact. It is this - over the past decade, technology has officially taken over Hollywood. 

The evidence seeps out of the pores of every film studio; it’s splashed across the press releases of distributors big and small; and leads the stars of blockbusters to discuss how much of what they did should be credited to raw talent, and how much to a green screen. The result, however, is that movies are bigger, brighter, more ambitious. A stunning array 3D graphics confront every moviegoer, death-defying CGI leaps from every pocket, and HD tricks and illusions pattern even the simplest of storyboards. 

But among all these superhero sequels, bombastic reboots and thrilling trips around cinematic imagination, doesn’t it sometimes feel as though we’ve lost control? Modern cinema appears to be boarding a rollercoaster ride that is high on adrenaline but low on heart and, most worrying of all, bereft of true artistic innovators. 

All that explains why 2017 was the year that an obscure indie star created the biggest wave in the film industry. For although Greta Gerwig’s glorious coming-of-age tale Lady Bird was not one of the most lucrative movies – such accolades went to the likes of Disney’s live action Beauty and the Beast and Star Wars: The Last Jedi – it is arguably the film that people found the most touching and surprising; rich beyond words in every sense but box office dollars. Earning an almost perfect score on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, it was adored by critics and cinemagoers alike. 

A coming-of-age dramatic comedy about a fiercely independent 17-year-old Sacramento girl, Christine (Saoirse Ronan) is anxious to escape the confines of small-town life, and her mother in particular. A simple plot makes Lady Bird a straight-forward and highly relatable tale, and one that its creator laboured over for some time. “It felt like I had been writing this story forever – at least the last 10 years,” offers Greta Gerwig, who embraced screenplay writer and director duties. “It's about how home becomes most vivid and meaningful when you leave it; it's about mothers and daughters and how there are none who are perfect.

Greta Gerwig, the cinema's smart dreamer 02

“It's also about the kind of perspective that teenagers have that, there's a more interesting place to be somewhere else in the world, and that's where real life begins."

For the perennially restless Gerwig, ‘somewhere else’ was New York City. That’s where she headed at the first opportunity to break from home. Originally intent on obtaining a musical theatre degree, she instead studied English and Philosophy at Barnard College, a private women's liberal arts base in Manhattan. Though initially disillusioned, this period proved to be vital, for it is hard to imagine Gerwig becoming the introspective, laterally-minded artiste she is today had she spent three years studying modern jazz and ballet (although she remains an ardent dancer as demonstrated in her film Frances Ha). It was also during this period that she broke free of the confines of her small-town mindset, succumbing to the unique pleasures of the city. 

“I became addicted to film while I was in university, and because there were video clubs and repertory cinemas virtually all over the city that was how I became so devoted to arthouse films. I was never exposed to any of that where I grew up in California and once I started getting into film culture I couldn't stop,” she admits.

It was also while studying at Bernard that Gerwig would meet filmmaker Joe Swanberg, who cast her in his sophomore film LOL. Not to be confused with the Miley Cyrus teen flick of the same name, LOL was shot on a modest budget and examines the impact of technology on social relations through the experience of three recent college graduates. Not only was the result a pertinent examination of how tech and social media were transforming the way we interact with each other – by 2006 Friends Reunited and Myspace were becoming an everyday part of life, while Facebook was just beginning to expand outside of colleges – it also heralded the beginning of a very important professional union between Swanberg and Gerwig, who would collaborate on two further films – Hannah Takes The Stairs and Nights and Weekends – becoming key figures in the mumblecore scene along the way. 

Through Swanberg, Gerwig was introduced to Noah Baumbach who would become her long-term partner and collaborator. Baumbach cast her in his film Greenberg, a critically praised dark comedy starring Ben Stiller. This ought to have felt like a huge step forward for the indie sweetheart, but despite earning respect among her peers while also teaching her the intricacies of the film industry, Gerwig found this to be a frustrating and depressing period in her life as mainstream success continued to allude her. At 25 she recognised the need to refocus and redefine her path, and it is from there that she would begin to flourish into becoming the filmmaker she is today. 

“Looking back, I wish I had taken that time and written more, but it felt like acting was happening for me, and I went back to my classes. The blessing and curse of my life is that I think I thrive when I have a singular purpose and a calling. But actually, I'm happiest when I'm doing lots of things,” she says. “And I have to reconcile that.”

In many ways, Gerwig’s career has been a slow burn, taking almost a decade to reach the point where she felt confident enough to take the wheel and direct, having had only moderate success with her collaborations with Baumbach. Yet by offering patience, she has allowed herself to blossom slowly outside of the Hollywood hothouse. This is probably why so many felt almost blindsided by Lady Bird, for unless you’ve been a follower of independent cinema over the last decade, you probably wouldn’t know her name.

Greta Gerwig, the cinema's smart dreamer 03

Some critics have called the production the first truly feminist teen movie. Gerwig retorts that she is “interested in women, period”, but also “fascinated at how we can remove technology and pursue a dream that is built in storytelling not fashion”. She has also been called on to reveal just how autobiographical the story is, explaining that for the most part it is only inspired by her own life. “There aren't any specific moments in the film that literally happened to me, but the story is very reflective and true to the emotions and experiences I had during that time in my life,” she clarifies - stating that the main goal was to make a coming of age film that focused on a girl, and was about personhood, not romance. 

“I wanted the film to deal with a wide range of themes that interested me. But at its core it’s about the relationship and love between a mother and her daughter. I also wanted to subvert the clichés that you see in most movies around teen-age girls, where it's all about meeting this one guy that changes their world,” she says rolling her eyes. 

“I didn't want my story to be about that and I don't think it's even true - usually there are many different guys that you're going to meet and who are going to influence you or be part of your journey at that age. I think your primary relationship will be the one between you, your parents and friends. That's how you relate to the world and that kind of experience is going to shape so much of how you feel about yourself and your idea of love.”

In every success story there is an element of luck. And while there is no doubt that someone as articulate, intelligent and free-spirited as Gerwig deserves a platform to present her art, it also needs to be acknowledged that the release of Lady Bird could not have been better timed. For not only are the boundaries between independent and mainstream cinema becoming more fluid (thanks to the work of creatives like Gerwig and Baumbach), but audiences are crying out for authentic stories that, beyond wowing us sensorially, also stimulate our minds and souls. Consider too, the film industry is in desperate need of redemption in the post #MeToo era, and while Gerwig’s gender ought not to be the sole reason she is celebrated, it certainly not a bad thing to see a woman’s creativity powering a generation’s creative energy and belief.

In short, we need Gerwig. And we need her to continue bringing to the table her compassionate, politically sensitive, forward-minded and multi-faceted cinema. Her work was acknowledged heartily at this year’s Academy Awards, where nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Actress (for Ronan), and Best Actress in a Supporting Role (for Laurie Metcalf, who plays Christine’s mother), landed like confetti at the church gate. Naturally, Gerwig is smart enough to know awards and accolades don’t really matter – instead, she would rather move forward in her career safe in the knowledge that she is articulating truth, honesty and simplicity as an artist.

“I grew up watching all the awards shows - I’d put on a fancy dress and soak it all up with my friends. It’s thrilling and part of what the dream of making films, but awards do not define whether or not I’ll make another film. I’ll keep making films, no matter what,” she explains. 

“That process is simultaneously something that’s in your control and utterly not in your control. And that paradox is very appealing to me,” she continues. “The illogical nature of making movies is appealing to me as well. It’s a reverse magic show - it’s so much time, weight, money and people. You’re taking all this stuff and reducing it to flickering light, making it disappear into a dream. That feels satisfyingly strange.”

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