GRETA GERWIG ON CINEMA
By Crash redaction
REVEALED TO AUDIENCES IN 2013 WITH HER ROLE IN “FRANCES HA,” A NOAH BAUMBACH FILM THAT SHE ALSO CO-WROTE, GRETA GERWIG IS THE NEW FIGURE OF INDEPENDENT AMERICAN CINEMA. WITH HER ROLE IN “MAGGIE’S PLAN” ALONGSIDE JULIANNE MOORE AND ETHAN HAWKE, GRETA MAKES THE MOST OF HER TEN YEARS OF EXPERIENCE AS BOTH AN ACTRESS AND A WRITER. THIS YEAR WILL MARK A TURNING POINT IN HER CAREER AS SHE DIRECTS HER FIRST FEATURE FILM, “LADY BIRD,” A COMING-OF-AGE STORY DEPICTING THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN MOTHER AND DAUGHTER — A SUBJECT THAT PERFECTLY SUITS GERWIG’S LONG-HELD FEMINIST COMMITMENT. EXCLUSIVELY HERE THE LONG VERSION OF OUR INTERVIEW WITH HER DIRECTED BY REBECCA CONROY AND PUBLISHED ON OUR LATEST ISSUE CRASH 76 TALKING ABOUT CINEMA, INSPIRATION AND BEING A WOMAN IN THE INDUSTRY.
Interview by Rebecca Conroy
I have so many questions. I love the fact that you’re a female in NY not falling into some kind of comedic trap in a SNL way
That you’re kind of forging some sort of your own stamp on things. I notice in your films that there’s a character quest. Tell me about that. Tell me about your… the characters that you write and that you play they’re not quite sure of themselves…
In the films I’ve written- like Francis and Mistress America, I’m interested in kind of very date-old story structures that have to do with grace and epiphany, and those story structures are generally reserved for male characters. For me- this sounds crazy- it has to resonate with some more archetypical story, and then the specificity of it makes it sing. It’s something that emerges to me about the form of the story that feels as if it fits into something that’s bigger. In Francis Ha, the last place she is before the end of the movie is she goes back to the college she went to for the summer, and it opens with her in the woods. To me, that’s connected with being cast out into the wilderness and to all the stories of when people hit their low point they’re cast out into the wilderness. I like it when you can take real things from life, and give them a kind of mythic quality. People are largely unconscious of it, but it’s operating underneath the story and I always have to find how it grafts onto something like that.
When you used the term “low point,” people love to watch characters going through some situation that’s not perfect. As a character, as a writer, you are probably looking for something inspirational to pull you out of the low point or A person, a friendship, or a job… something that is an inspiration… but often with those inspirational things you almost have to kill them once you are accepted by them so do you find that you have a certain something that really inspires you as a writer or for your characters when you act. What’s that idea for you? I do notice that often your characters have to ruin what inspires them. What’s that all about?
I am very interested in the moments when people are still pursuing the thing they’ve actually moved past. In Mistress, that Brook can’t see that she’s moved past this moment, but she’s still going for it and that she genuinely thinks it will provide salvation in an economic way and she has a place in the world that makes sense. I think with Francis, she wants Sophie to live with her for the rest of her life and she wants to be a modern dancer. For both of them, they’re beating back against a current, and I find it heartbreaking and very true. In a way, in Mistress I feel that the epiphany happens less for Brook and more for Lola’s character of Tracey. She wants to be a writer, but I think this is the first time she’s really hurt an adult. That’s such a vivid moment, when you’re around that age and you realize, “I can hurt people, I’m not a child any longer, my power to injure another exists, and that writing isn’t just a frivolous activity.” One of the things I love about that movie is that it’s not OK between them. She says, “I know you came to apologize,” and Lola says, “No I’m really not that sorry,” and she says, “Oh well, fuck this then…” and then they kind of move on, and it’s like nobody was forgiven, but it doesn’t matter. You don’t get absolved for your sins, but that’s OK. And I think I’m interested in how that transforms. To be it’s all very mysterious, and I kind of stumble towards it, and then it becomes clear to me and then I go back and try to make it clear to the audience, but I never want the audience to feel like they can totally articulate it. I want it to be existing a little under the surface. So that it creates less of a thesis, and more of a feeling.
Sometimes when you’re writing you can get an idea of little vignettes and sometimes you get a whole story arch. I know you’re interersted in playwrighting. How do your stories come to you? Do they come in little more architypical storyline first?
My experience of it is that it comes in almost a collection of scenes and moments, and I’ll start building a world. I don’t know how other people do it, but I always need to generate almost too much material, and then it’s almost like a magic eye picture where you look at it, and it seems as a mess, and then all of a sudden the picture comes out at you.
Do you tape stuff to the wall or write in a notebook, or how do you siphon out the useless scenes?
I do a combination. I write in a notebook and also on a computer. I tend to print everything out and lay it all on the ground, at some point. Once I have enough material and pieces, and the story comes out, I start arranging and culling and putting things together. It’s a very odd process of faith. Underneath the spark of my idea, the character has a story, and that story will be made clear to me if I just follow the breadcrumbs. Your unconscious does a lot of the work for you; you leave a lot of clues for yourself about what the thing is. An then it’s almost as if you’re dechipering the clues you’ve layed for yourself. I overwrite in general, because it’s almost like I don’t know where the story will be, so if I have a character in a certain set of circumstances or in a certain world, I’ll write every scene because maybe she’ll be in a location or something will happen where there’s a secret story door that I didn’t open, and that’s where I’ll find it, but I can’t know until I put them through all of it.
Do you stay alone during your writing, and how long does it take for your bigger projects?
Those take a while. It’s not one straight line of writing. It’s like, you sort of pick it up and put it down, and then there’ll be a period of intensity where I’m really with it and I’m shaping it and major choices are being made, and then I put it down for a little bit and then I look at it again. Those take a very long time from the very first time I started writing them, until the time that they’re done? Two or three years.
How many projects can you have going at one time, mentally, writing-wise?
Writing wise? Well, I’m sort of testing that right now. Whenever I’m engaged in writing it, I can really only be engaged with one. But in terms of having irons in the fire, I can have different things in different stages and then go back to them and play them off each other a little bit, like I’ll work on one, put it down then work on another and procrastinate each one with each other, but I can’t spend half my day writing one thing then half my day writing the other. That doesn’t work.
This is the eternal question for an artist: the schedule and the confidence to stick to the schedule. How you have the confidence to revisit a story and really stick with a story and keep going?
I’m always tinkering with my system and trying to figure out the best way to do it. I spend a lot of my time deeply freaked out by writing, and by the faith required to do it, and I would spend so much time feeling bad about myself and sort of paying penance in an odd way, as if I had to go through these rituals in order to write which is that, “you must spend an hour feeling bad about yourself,” and that “you must spend an hour thinking that what you’ve already written is stupid,” and then at some point I was like “This is taking too much energy,” so I think there’s been a lot of trying to short-circuit that. And I’ve gotten so much better at it. And I’ve been given the confidence, and it does help.
With your success there must come some sort of huge self doubt that didn’t exist before…
That’s true. It sounds totally bonkers, but I do think so much of it comes down to having some amount of crazy faith that the thing will show up for you if you show up to it. And I think it really is faith in that way. I was watching this interview with Mike Nichols last night and he was talking about his background and improv, he said that the whole power of improv is that you come in at zero, and you just trust that it will come and he said the same skill is there as a director. You can have this faith that whatever your unconscious is doing will take care of it. And that’s a very tricky thing, and do I think you have to really build it like a muscle and take care of it. And the schedule is hard. What I do well with is, if I have something pulling on my day. If I have endless time it’s a death trap. If I have limited time, I can do it. Endless time is really hard. Some people work well that way. I feel lonely, and scared and lost, and like the day is stretching before me with no endpoint, just a horizon. And that’s really difficult but luckily I have enough pulling in other directions, that it gains a shape.
You live in New York and not LA. Is there a personal reason why?
I don’t like LA. I don’t like driving. I like walking. And you don’t walk in LA. It really is just a lifestyle thing. I like public transportation and public spaces and being around people. I don’t like the feeling of being in a pod, and I get very depressed in LA because I feel like you go from your house pod, to your car pod, to your office pod, back to your house pod and it’s a hermeticlaly sealed life. There’s no accidents, there’s no happenstance….
And so much of your wirting is about happenstance…
Yes, and I just feel so closed off from what I find nourishing there. There’s amazing things there. So I don’t mean to undercut LA there’s wonderful museums, there’s great arthouse cinemas, there’s great restaurants, there’s the beach. I completely understand why people say they like LA. I just personally feel like I start losing the plot in a pretty major way when I’m there. It makes sense to me. If I did drugs seriously I would love it, it would be a great place. You could be in your house doing drugs. But I don’t. So I feel horrible there.
Do you drink a lot of coffee? What do you do while you write?
I drink a tremendous amount of coffee. I drink too much coffee. I used to smoke a lot of cigarettes. I don’t any longer because I don’t want to die of lung cancer. But now, I still consume nicotene. I think I will wear a nicotene patch for the rest of my life. I didn’t wear it today, because I knew that I couldn’t wear it to a photo shoot …
Does it leave a mark on your skin?
Yes. I went to a psychiatrist who was asking me about my work habits once, because I was trying to quit smoking, and he asked, “How do you work?” And I was like, “So much coffee, so much nicotene…” and he was asking about other things and he was like, “yeah, you have undiagnosed ADHD.” I said “Really?” and he said “Definitely, you’ve been self medicating for your whole life,” and then I was on a drug which was to help me quit smoking, and it was an antidepressant as well, and I felt like it was carpet bombing my brain, and then I talked to a doctor and said, “Listen, I think I just need nicotene. What bad happens to me if I put a patch on for my whole life?” And they were like, “It’s weird, but you can totally do it.” But then I watched the Benedict Cumberbatch in Sherlock, and Sherlock in that version wears patches- nicotene patches- was like just nicotene patches and I’m like him. It’s just for me, I don’t really know what it does to my brain that makes me normal, and not fall into depression and not lose my bearings so it sounds crazy though. I’ve had doctors tell me that nicotene in and of itself it does the same amount to your brain as caffeine and they were like it’s OK.”
What are the seminal books or plays that you have always loved? The ones that helped you become a writer? And then what are your recent favorites?
I loved Woody Allen and Monty Python and comedians in that way, and then movie musicals like, “American in Paris,” “Singing in the Rain,” “Oklahoma” and the great Agnes de Mille choreography, were really big for me. And then it wasn’t until I got to college that started getting into cinema proper as an art form. I’ve always been a reader, and I think for me that my jam, as it were, were those 19th century novels were really big for me. The Austin, the Brontes, Dickens, Herman Melville, and the Russians. Anna Karinina was a huge one. There’s a section in “Anna Karinina” where he goes into the dog’s mind, it’s so perfect, and I couldn’t believe it. In any case, those were really big for me. And then, because of theater, Shakespeare was everything. We would go to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival every year, and I’d see two plays a day for a couple of weeks and that was very formative.
How old were you then?
From about the ages of about seven or eight to eighteen. It was an incredible way to experience theater. In high school, it was all Edward Albee and Tom Stoppard. A Tom Stoppard quote from “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” was my senior quote, which is incredibly nerdy. Albee had a kind of rhythm that I instantly connected to. It’s just awful and funny and wicked, and similarly, Tom Stoppard was just so frothy. For a high school student, it felt like you were part of the insider baseball with him, because he was always with the references, and then you’d go look up the reference, and you’d learn another thing which is the same way I felt about Woody Allen, because he’d always reference movies and books and then I’d go find them. When I got into college, I worked at a theater company downtown- I did lights and sound at Richard Foreman’s theater, the Ontological-Hysteric Theater Company- and through that group (nobody knew who I was, I was just a chubby eighteen year old who was good at lights) but that opened me up to different theater downtown, and Will Eno was a big playwright for me. I was finding my people, and what I was interested in and so those were all very formative. I read Milton, and it killed me- I couldn’t believe it. The idea that even poetry is a state of sin because it’s fallen, because it’s metaphor? I felt like I had to stay inside for the weekend when I read it.
What would you say right now would be your favorite authors?
I’ve really gotten much more interested in female writers and artists, and playwrights, and filmmakers -and I don’t think this is unusual- but I think I had sort of unconsciously internalized that the the way I think of when someone says, “Do you want wine?” I automatically think “they meant red wine. If they meant white wine they would have said white wine. Wine is red wine, is that artists are men. If it’s a woman artist, they’ll tell you it’s a woman artist.” I haven’t even totally started dismantling it until really recently. There’s the biggies of course – Austin, the Brontes, Virginia Wolf, but I really didn’t have a sense of who the women were who were my heroes and I think now, I have had the privilege to work with some of these people… the French filmmaker Claire Denis and Agnes Varda, and now Mia Hansen-Love, she’s amazing, and I recently those Ferrante books holy shit… those Ferrante books destroyed me. As a poet, Eileen Myles and Kay Ryan and for fiction Renada Adler, I felt like there was a whole world that I was stepping into. My then favorite playwright right now is Annie Baker. I felt like when I saw her play for the first time in like 2007, “Circle Mirror,” I had that feeling that was “This is not the best play by a woman, this is the best play… she is the best writer. It’s not a B-side. It’s she is better. She is better than them” I felt this surge of pride and jealousy. I’m almost, at this point, excluseively interested in what women are doing, and I’m sure that it will change in a way and of course I love male writers. I mean I think, I feel very lucky to be at the time I’m in. Living through what’s happening. I still can’t believe how unequal it is.
What’s your opinion about men everywhere in film, on film sets, etc? When you first started, were you intimidated?
I don’t mind talking about it. It’s a boys’ club. And I think that part of it is that boys are given- not to be too sociological- but I feel like boys are given machines to play with. Girls are not given machines. Boys are given computers and cameras and tools, and I think there’s an immediate intimidation factor with girls with the tools that they don’t… But I’ll tell you… I know a lot of male filmmakers and most of them don’t know anything about those tools, they just feel confident about it, but they don’t know more about lenses than you do. They don’t know. I mean, the DP knows about lenses. But a lot of them don’t know what they’re what they’re talking about- not really. And it’s a really, I mean its an invisible thing.
Do you construct your crews, now that you have some say in the matter, around picking really nice people, or talented, or…
I always want the best people to be the people. The reason that I am attracted to both film and theater and dance for that matter, and music, is that they’re so incredibly collaborative, and that they are always made by groups. You’re never just executing something, you’re bringing your whole self to it, and I want people who bring their whole selves, and feel ownership over it. I still hate, I shouldn’t say it because maybe I’ll eventially take one, but I’m not crazy about the “film by” credit. I think you directed it, and you wrote it, but the film is not by you. It’s not. That’s an absurd statement to make. It’s by the people that made it. And I think what I look for is people that have a little spark of the commune in them because for me that’s what I’m drawn to. People tend to construct film sets as if they’re military operations with a pyramid power structure with the director at the top and then you go on down. I’m much more interested in “everybody owns the factory.”
So as a pretty blonde, you could go down the road if you were offered. I’m sure you are offered the opportunity to work with those male directors.
Have you ever kind of decided, “Eh, I don’t think so,” or do you do it just for the experience? What s your thought on going down those roads, but also maintaining your identity?
When I started beginning to make my living as an actor and I was in Greenberg, and things started presenting themselves to me, I did not go for a certain aspect of it. I stepped away. Part of me thought, “why can’t you go for this? Why can’t you go for this? What’s wrong with you? Are you self-sabotaging?” I gained a solid twenty pounds. Because there was something in me that felt very much like, if I somehow tried to be identified with my looks and my youth, what the fuck are my forties gonna be like? And I think for me, it was a false binary, and it is a false binary. At that moment when I was twenty six through twenty seven, I just couldn’t do that. And I think that it felt very lonely and strange. To be honest, you can do all of it. You don’t have to make that choice. But for me, it was something I just couldn’t totally do.
I know that so many people fell in love with you in Greenberg. What do you think the qualities of your character had in that movie that were breakthrough? Nobody really saw that before. There was something…
I don’t know. I was completely unaware of what it was. I just knew that I knew who Florence was and I knew how to… I was so sure that this sounds completely arrogant but I was so sure that I was the only person who could do it justice in the way that I felt her. And I mean it’s one of those things, I just felt like I owned it very quickly. When I read it, it was a feeling of, “I didn’t write this but I’m so angry that I didn’t write this because I couldn’t write this,” and that’s a good feeling to get. I just had an instant ownership of it. I don’t know exactly what it was, but I’m very glad that it was true.
Do you do yoga, or anything spiritual like that?
Oh, Yeah. I’m a ‘theist.’ So, I’m a major I mean I’m not…I get uncomfortable around “Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior stuff,” I find that creepy, but I go to church every Sunday. I had a weird method for a while where I was going to the Quaker meeting at 9am and sit silently for an hour, and then go to a Protestant church where I liked the choir, and then at noon there was a Jesuit service I liked, and then I was like “You’re going to church for five hours on Sunday. This is weird” ..but I went to catholic school when I was in high school. I wasn’t raised Catholic. My main attraction to Catholicism is I love the Jesuits, I love the rigor, I love the mystery, I love the ceremony and I love that as a religion and as a sect of Christianity the emphasis on worshipping the Virgin Mary – it’s a woman and I know it’s complicated, because I don’t like the position of women in the Catholic church but also, they pray to the Virgin Mary. That’s not something Protestants do, and it feels like this ‘God the Father’ thing is a bit alienating for me, but to engage with the idea of a woman of the mother, it seems like it’s connected to a more pagan type of religion and also the multiplicity of saints in Catholicism feels very old to me. It doesn’t feel quite monotheistic it is from a tradition of more that theres all different sides. So yeah.
Do you still go to Church?
Oh yeah. I think it’s largely based on Catholicism rather than Christianity because that was the education I was raised in, and I feel that Buddhism is beautiful, Judaism is beautiful, and Islam. But that wasn’t the tradition I came up through, so I think I heard the Dalai Lama say, “You don’t need to become a Buddhist. Be what you are. Just be kind,” and I thought, “Oh that’s right.” It always felt like a bit of an act to me, to take on a religion. I think whatever works for people then good.
What kind of dance do you do?
I take a lot of hip hop, Jamaican dance hall, and house dancing and it’s really hard and I’m not good at it. I’m just the awkward tall blonde girl standing in the back, but it’s good for the soul. It’s hard for me to exercise just for the purpose of exercising, I’m like, “what are we doing?” It always felt like doing math to me like the way it’s taught like, “I can solve this equation for you but why? What are we doing? I’m just moving these numbers around, this is dumb. There’s no higher purpose.”
What do you see for yourself in your future?
I think in the short term, I’m directing a movie I’ve written this summer.
What’s that about?
It’s sort of a Mother-daughter movie, and it’s about an eighteen year-old, and her last year living at home before she goes to college, and her mother and their family and their town and it’s starring sioirse tonana and she’s great, and she’ll be great. I direct that in August and September, and I think what I’ve been doing and what I’ll continue to do is that I want to write and direct films about women. That’s what I want to do. I’ve been writing them, and acting in them and producing them, but think it’s sort of the next step and I’d like to make a bunch of them. I really think that the last ten years, about 2006 around when I graduated from college until now, I apprenticed in film and I feel like it’s time. I’m ready.
PHOTOGRAPHER Blossom Berkofsky
FASHION Heidi Bivens
TALENT Greta Gerwig
LOCATION Fast Ashleys Studios, Brooklyn, New York
HAIR Frankie Foye
MAKE UP Quinn Murphy
DIGITAL TECH Sean Greene
PRODUCTION A+ Productions