Homecoming Queen

Greta Gerwig proves that you can indeed go home again with her stunning directorial debut "Lady Bird," a semi-autobiographical story about the Sacramento native’s senior year in high school. In her “love letter” to the River City, she fills the screen with nostalgia-soaked scenes of local landmarks and neighborhoods, revisiting her youth with the thoughtful perspective that only time can bring. And if growing Oscar buzz for the film is any indication, this is just the beginning for the first-time auteur and newly crowned Hollywood royalty. Long may she reign.


Portrait by Ben Rayner

 

TThe epigraph that Greta Gerwig chose to open her solo directorial debut, Lady Bird, a semiautobiographical coming-of-age film set in her native Sacramento circa 2002, is a quote from her literary hero Joan Didion: “Anybody who talks about California hedonism has never spent a Christmas in Sacramento.” At once blunt and razor sharp, the renowned essayist reportedly uttered the words in 1979 on a flight from Los Angeles to Sacramento, her hometown and frequent subject of her writing, just as the valley’s patchwork of farming fields—an iconic depiction that instantly conveys the region’s humble, hardworking roots—was coming into view. “The quote says everything you need to know about growing up here,” says Gerwig. “I almost didn’t need to make the rest of the movie.” [Watch the trailer for Lady Bird below.]

Yearning for a more hedonistic locale for college, a young Gerwig absconded to New York to attend Barnard (after unsuccessful auditions for the acting schools at Juilliard and NYU) as soon as her high school orchestra played the last note from “Pomp and Circumstance.” Her childhood friend, Tre Borden, remembers riding around with Gerwig in her old Mercedes and stopping at Rick’s Dessert Diner for one last towering slice of carrot cake before they left for college. “We were like, ‘We’re done with this place!’ Now that we’re older, that’s changed. That’s changed a lot,” says Borden, who went to Yale, but returned to the Sacramento region in 2008 for grad school at UC Davis and has lived here ever since. For Gerwig, the hometown ennui would eventually take the form of aching nostalgia for Sacramento’s winding rivers, nourishing farmland, sun-dappled streets, charming heritage houses and sweet neighborliness. It’s as if a homing device was set to activate a decade or so after moving away, whisper faint at first, but growing louder the longer she stayed away. “It took time to realize that Sacramento gave me what home should give you, which is roots and wings,” says Gerwig. 

This universal rite of passage inspired her screenplay for Lady Bird, which she started crafting in 2011, soon after shooting scenes for her title role in the film Frances Ha at the Sacramento airport, at her childhood home in River Park, where her parents still live, and at Burr’s Fountain, a frequent haunt in Gerwig’s youth for its hot dog sandwiches on white bread and ice cream frosts. Sometime while filming the earlier movie, probably during golden hour (when the sun meets the horizon; the flatness of the Sacramento Valley is particularly prone to flooding in the form of soft, radiant light), cinematographer Sam Levy turned to Gerwig and said, “I love it here.”

“I know, me too,” she replied.

“I’d love to shoot a whole feature here one day,” he continued.

“I know, me too,” she said. 

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I meet Gerwig for lunch in New York on the day in late September when the seasons shifted and the summery heat and humidity of not 24 hours before gave way to a slight autumn chill. Running a few minutes late, I race-walked down 7th Avenue to Morandi, an Italian restaurant near Gerwig’s home in Greenwich Village, after a private screening of Lady Bird, blotting tears from my eyes. One of the last scenes in the movie had done me in: a stunning montage of Sacramento’s iconic bridges and tree-lined streets and river bends, all sheathed in that beautiful late afternoon light. Cinematically, a surefire way to stir emotions in the viewer is through a well-curated visual medley, and this one ranks right up there with the training sequences in the Rocky movies or the highlight reel of Alvy Singer and Annie Hall’s romance in Woody Allen’s Oscar-winning film.

If Lady Bird is, as Gerwig asserts, a “love letter to Sacramento,” then this montage of everyday, easy-to-take-for-granted sights is the big S.W.A.K. on the envelope, an unmistakable declaration of affection; the static shots throughout the movie of old neon signs from Gunther’s, the Tower Theatre and Club Raven could be considered the missive’s heart-shaped punctuation marks; and the purposeful use of light, about which Gerwig was particularly exacting (she dutifully studied the Sacramento landscapes of renowned contemporary painters Gregory Kondos and Wayne Thiebaud to make sure the color and intensity were just right), is suitably analogous to the fine mist of perfume that will linger after the pages have been folded away.

Like Gerwig, getting to this sentimental place was a long and angsty road for her movie alter ego, the self-monikered Lady Bird, née Christine McPherson, played by Irish starlet Saoirse Ronan (Atonement, Brooklyn). A senior at a Catholic all-girls school in 2002—the same year Gerwig graduated from St. Francis—Lady Bird suffers from a chronic case of teenage boredom, exacerbated by such youthful ensnarements and pitfalls as an atypical first love, a disheartening first time (her first love not present), family money woes, a hypercritical mother and, most importantly, an irrepressible desire to see all of it grow smaller and smaller in the rearview mirror. During a disastrous inaugural night as a college student in New York, a drunken Lady Bird tells a fellow freshman that she’s from San Francisco and is immediately rueful for selling out her hometown. 

Greta Gerwig being interviewed by childhood friend and art consultant Tre Borden during the Emerge Summit at Memorial Auditorium in March 2016. (Photo by Max Whittaker)

Gerwig will tell me that she considered reverse engineering the story from that gut punch, which comes near the end of the film. “You feel the power of Lady Bird denying Sacramento,” she says. “It’s poignant because the character has a great deal of trouble appreciating her life. I encounter very few teenagers who say, ‘You know what’s great? My home.’ ” Gerwig deftly squares her crosshairs at the heart of anyone who requires time and distance to realize how much they love the place where they grew up. Ready, aim, fire. Emotions everywhere. Luckily, most of us are easy targets, judging from the movie’s early Oscar buzz—a best actress nom seems to be a lock for Ronan; “if there is any justice in the world,” says Deadline, Laurie Metcalf, who plays Lady Bird’s mother, will receive a nod for best supporting actress; and fingers crossed that, in Vanity Fair's words, Gerwig’s “warm, confident filmmaking” will also be recognized at this level. From Toronto to London, the standing ovations the movie has received on the 2017 film festival circuit all portend golden statuettes. In September, Lady Bird auspiciously launched in Telluride, just as Moonlight—a fellow production from indie distributor A24 and the Academy’s most recent best picture winner—did a year earlier.

Then, just two days after the film’s hometown premiere at the Tower Theatre on Oct. 29 (the movie opened publicly in Sacramento on Nov. 10), the New York Times review came out. Critic A.O. Scott called the film “perfect” and enthused, “I wish I could convey to you just how thrilling this movie is.”

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Gerwig arrives at Morandi wearing a men’s-cut chambray shirt and ankle-cropped trousers, a smartly unassuming and transitional outfit, considering the public venue and the new weather. Even at the height of Manhattan’s lunch hour, she doesn’t seem to be recognized, unless New Yorkers are more aloof to star sightings than Californians seem to be. Despite being featured on the gatefold cover of Vanity Fair’s 2017 Hollywood Issue in a sparkly, thigh-baring gown, flanked by Dakota Johnson and Janelle Monáe, Gerwig is pleasantly unpretentious; just an ordinary citizen—like many of her roles—meeting someone for lunch at the restaurant around the corner from her house that serves her favorite fried artichokes. She seems somehow more luminous in person than on the screen, which is partly attributable to her healthy, makeup-free glow and her flaxen hair (conveniently backlit for a dreamy halo effect by the well-placed sconce illuminating our corner table), but mostly due to the manifest differences between her genuinely confident, easygoing self and the flawed, sometimes downtrodden characters she plays.

The 34-year-old has skillfully leveraged her natural charisma and authenticity into a unique acting style that The New York Times has described as “charmingly idiosyncratic.” It’s so organic, one has to wonder how blurry the line between the actor and the role really is. The actress is at her best, as a 2015 article in The Guardian suggested, when she’s “playing square pegs, also-rans and might-have-beens.” Her realness is deeply nuanced as the struggling artist, feminist and early advocate of punk music in Mike Mills’ 2016 sleeper hit 20th Century Women. She was impossibly believable improvising the twentysomething experience in low-budget mumblecore flicks—a decade-old body of work that she admits she can’t watch because hand-held camerawork makes her queasy. Gerwig is effortlessly convincing in her Golden Globe-nominated portrayal of the forlorn but hopeful young Brooklynite in Frances Ha, a character willfully ignoring her diminishing circle of friends and bleak career prospects. She brought to that performance her actual experiences as a nanny, SAT tutor and cocktail waitress, temporary vocations that supported her early acting endeavors in New York, which included making web shows in an office she shared with Lena Dunham, who, at the time, was not rolling in HBO clover, but working in a baby store.

Gerwig with cinematographer Sam Levy on the set of "Lady Bird" in October 2016. (Photo by Merie Wallace, courtesy of A24)

One of Gerwig’s high school drama teachers, Ed Trafton of the all-boys Jesuit High School—which invites students from her alma mater, the all-girls St. Francis, to participate in their stage productions, and vice versa—recognized her “it” factor nearly 20 years ago when she was a bespectacled, Converse-wearing Dorothy in a student production of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, speak-singing “Over the Rainbow” to his solo piano accompaniment in the key of A-flat major. “There’s an absolute clarity about Greta. [Her performances] just go straight into your bloodstream,” he says. By phone from her home in L.A., a more recent collaborator, Annette Bening, who co-starred with Gerwig in 20th Century Women, puts it another way: “Greta has a lot of range. But within that, she has a way of never being phony.”

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Though she said she wasn’t hungry, Gerwig is nevertheless remorseful at the sight of the green salad she ordered—save for a drizzle of red wine vinaigrette, it’s an otherwise unadorned pile of Bibb lettuce leaves. The fried artichokes we’re sharing seem to be of little consolation. She eyes my bowl of cacio e pepe, a velvety Roman pasta dish made with a large snowdrift of pecorino cheese and plenty of cracked black pepper. On the spectrum of healthy eating, it is gloriously opposite the salad.

“I’m really sad about this,” she says. “It’s like a punishment. The good kids get pasta. The bad kids get salad.” Gerwig is half joking, half pouting. At my behest, we both dive into the cacio e pepe—two forks, one bowl, zero food envy.

Such disarming authenticity transcends Gerwig’s onscreen roles and real-life relationships (even lunchtime confabs with hometown reporters), not just to her writing and acting, but also now to her directing, officially making her one of the industry’s rare triple threats. Variety calls her unique point of view “honest and personal,” going on to say that while such soul-baring is “par for the course for Gerwig, [it’s] fairly rare among first-time directors who haven’t had nearly so much practice simply being real.” After all, she co-conceptualized those stammering millennials and their awkward situations in Nights and Weekends and Hannah Takes the Stairs with her mumblecore accomplice, Joe Swanberg. In collaboration with her boyfriend of six years, director Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding), Gerwig penned screenplays for Frances Ha and 2015’s Mistress America, in which she plays Brooke, an impetuous, fast-talking operator who drags Tracy, her impressionable stepsister-to-be, along on her New York misadventures. Gerwig treats Brooke with compassion, giving heart to what outwardly seems to be a pretty pitiful character. “This is part of what makes Greta so powerful,” says Lola Kirke (Mozart in the Jungle), who played the part of Tracy. “She has a voice that’s at once critical and adoring. It makes for hilarity.”

Actors Saoirse Ronan and Lucas Hedges stroll through East Sacramento in a scene from Gerwig’s directorial debut. (Photo by Merie Wallace, courtesy of A24)

Regarding Lady Bird, her first solo writing credit, Gerwig is careful to issue the story’s “semiautobiographical” disclaimer, lest any of the characters or circumstances veer off the “truth,” which has a tendency to morph, depending on who’s owning it that day, Mercury’s retrograde status, and the air temperature atop Kilimanjaro at noon on Tuesdays. Gerwig offers a more likely explanation. “The script went through a lot of work and took a lot of time to write,” she says. “The characters told me who they were by me listening to them talk.”

The muse for the character of Danny (played by Manchester by the Sea’s Lucas Hedges), a skinny kid with a good singing voice from an upper-middle-class Irish Catholic family, was Gerwig’s high school boyfriend, Connor Mickiewicz, who remembers making out with her in the McKinley Park rose garden, inspiring a key scene in the movie. “Spoiler alert—I’m gay!” he tells me. (Guess what happens between Lady Bird and Danny.) An onscreen shout-out to Borden, now a Sacramento art consultant and self-described “placemaker” who connects local creatives with civic projects, came during a scene with a guidance counselor in which Lady Bird says she’d like to go to East Coast colleges like Yale, “but not Yale because I probably couldn’t get in.” (Cue cackle from counselor.) Lady Bird’s rebound, a brooding bassist named Kyle, was loosely based on another longtime friend, Mat Cusick.

If Lady Bird is, as Gerwig asserts, a “love letter to Sacramento,” then a montage of everyday, easy-to-take-for-granted sights is the big S.W.A.K. on the envelope, and the static shots throughout the movie of old neon signs from Gunther’s, the Tower Theatre and Club Raven could be considered the missive’s heart-shaped punctuation marks.

Gerwig is more cautious about connecting the dots between her mother Christine and Lady Bird’s mom, Marion McPherson. Like many mother-daughter relationships, the one between Lady Bird and Marion functions by means of a well-oiled push-pull system. After all, as the filmmaker reminds the audience at the 2017 Mill Valley Film Festival during what she called a “loopy” Q&A (she had appeared at the London Film Festival the night before): “Someone’s coming of age is another person’s letting go.” In real life, though, the former fencer and classical dancer, who once performed as Clara in the Sacramento Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker, was much more engaged than her apathetic onscreen counterpart. She was also more obedient. In a recent talkback for the film in New York, Gerwig said, “I was really into rules and parameters, and I never made anybody call me by a different name. … Who makes someone do that?”

Lady Bird rebels by amassing piles of clothes on the floor of her room, celebrating Thanksgiving with her boyfriend’s family (during which she shows Danny’s grandmother, played by Mickiewicz’s actual grandmother, a fancy way to fold napkins—another true-to-life moment) and applying to colleges in New York, despite the family’s financial strain. Marion, exercising an evolutionary maternal reflex, repeatedly criticizes her daughter about everything from her academic talents—or lack thereof—to her indulgent use of not one, but two bath towels, an insignificant act that receives a much more vociferous reaction than, say, when Lady Bird hints that she is considering having sex for the first time. For all their differences, generational or otherwise, Gerwig successfully creates a satisfying subtext: These women are actually the same—stubborn, sensitive, loving, regretful.

A year in the life of Greta Gerwig, specifically 2002. Clockwise from top left: the St. Francis High School alum smiles for her senior yearbook portrait; Gerwig stars in "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" at Jesuit High School; the actress (center, in a red dress) performs in a St. Francis production of "The Apple Tree," helmed by theater teacher Cheryl Watson. Photo credits: David Bischoff (for the Jesuit pic). Yearbook and The Apple Tree pix are courtesy of St. Francis High School.

“None of this story is literally true to my mom and I, but there is a core of emotional truth,” says Gerwig, who intentionally composed an opening scene showing Marion and Lady Bird side by side, with the same straight, shoulder-length haircut, having the same teary reaction to the end of The Grapes of Wrath audiobook, which they listened to on their mother-daughter driving tour of local colleges. “It’s not that the qualities of the characters are the qualities my mom and I share, but the essence of fighting against each other and also being on two sides of the same coin is totally true.” In fact, the working title for the original draft of the screenplay—a heavyweight at 350 pages; the final ended up at “a slight 120,” says Gerwig—was Mothers and Daughters. “Greta’s perspective is so sharp and specific,” says Mickiewicz. “Lady Bird isn’t a regular coming-of-age story or an everyday tale about mothers and daughters. It just never feels generic.” Bening, too, offers her acute insight on the topic. “Greta has confidence in the uniqueness of her own life experience,” she says. “I admire that about her enormously.”

For guidance on accurately portraying women and female relationships, Gerwig summons the patron saint of feminism, Virginia Woolf, to whom she attributes this illuminating principle: “Men do not know what women do when they’re not there.” She suggests that since the film industry is dominated by men, including critics, the complex narratives that only women can tell about themselves are “underrepresented because they don’t involve men.”

“And if men are there, they disrupt whatever’s happening,” adds Gerwig, whose acting oeuvre thus far is filled with roles that depict a truly layered feminine experience, from drifting-apart friendships to sisterly bonds to hairbrained alliances (in Maggie’s Plan, she plays a college professor’s second wife who secretly teams up with his first wife in a mischievous scheme to sway his affections). Now on the other side of the camera for Lady Bird, Gerwig not only emphasizes the mother-daughter dynamic, but also underscores the often-lonely plight of the female homemaker with cinematically “flat and frank” glimpses into Marion’s domestic realm (sewing Lady Bird’s Thanksgiving dress, for instance), which were inspired by the static shots of housework in Chantal Akerman’s 1975 movie Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.

 “Women writers and directors have to start documenting the truth of female lives,” says Gerwig, who jokingly calls herself “The Lady Clint Eastwood” in the hopes that she’ll be making films for as long as the 87-year-old has, and admires the work of other female directors such as Kelly Reichardt (Certain Women), Rebecca Miller (Maggie’s Plan) and Miranda July (Me and You and Everyone We Know). In fact, when Miller and July, on separate occasions, bequeathed to Gerwig a pair of what she calls “men’s shoes made for women”—lace-up brogues and loafers with black tassels, respectively—she took it as a sign from the universe. “Two lady directors said to me, ‘I think my shoes might fit you.’ It’s almost too perfect,” she says.

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On the evening in October 2016 when the movie crew shot the innocent frolic between Lady Bird and Danny in the McKinley Park rose garden, the one where the lovebirds waltz through the rose bushes and name a star in the sky to commemorate their new romance, Gerwig’s friends and family gathered to watch, including her brother and sister-in-law, who live in Land Park, Mickiewicz’s sister and nieces, and Trafton, who said of the experience, “We were in the present, seeing a story inspired by the past, and witnessing something incredible about Greta’s future. It was time travel.”

Gerwig, whose long history with the park includes countless hours spent in its library, competing in swim meets at its pool, and the aforementioned shenanigans in the rose garden with Mickiewicz (forevermore, the dark-pink Precious Moments rose will be “their” rose), concurs that the night was very emotional. “Shooting that scene was one of those crazy, full-circle moments that don’t come along very often,” she says. “It couldn’t have happened anywhere else.”

To think that financiers—shunning our agrarian bohemia—actually suggested that she shoot in Canada. (Also known as “Hollywood North,” the country offers significant tax incentives to filmmakers.)

“No, no. It needs to be in Sacramento,” Gerwig said.

“But it’s a universal story,” they argued.

“It’s not universal because everybody had a childhood,” Gerwig retorted. “It’s universal because people know what it means to be from a place, and I only know what it means to be from Sacramento.”

It’s no secret that filming in Sacramento is hardly cost-effective for small-budget films such as Lady Bird. Out of 79 projects that received funding from the California Film Commission tax credit program in the 2015-16 fiscal year, only 11 were indies.

Gerwig and her boyfriend, director Noah Baumbach, at a screening of Lady Bird at the 55th New York Film Festival on Oct. 8. (Photo by John Nacion/Star Max/IPx)

“Unfortunately, there are many more applicants than there are tax credits,” explains Sacramento film commissioner Lucy Steffens. Perhaps the biggest hindrance is the fact that most unionized crews are based in Los Angeles, the mecca of filmmaking. Staffing a Sacramento production with out-of-town grips, boom operators and makeup artists quickly overwhelms the already stretched-thin resources of independent films. To wit, when a school-age upstart seeking on-set experience showed up unannounced on location one day, carrying a signed liability waiver he downloaded from the Internet and a permission slip from his mother, his help was not turned away. The crew gave him a name tag, a walkie and $100 for his good work.

“I’ll admit I just want to make it easier on myself to shoot all my movies here,” says Gerwig, who filmed mostly exteriors in Sacramento in the fall of 2016, running a “quiet and calm set” with a no-cell-phone rule (a distraction-slashing tactic she picked up from Baumbach) and mandatory name tags for the crew that also revealed answers to such whimsical inquiries as “What’s your spirit animal?” (The director’s answer: “Lion,” not just for its fierceness, but also its immense capacity for languor.) “The cool thing is, there are a lot of jobs on a film set. And if a production never comes to town, you may not realize that.”

From Steffens’ perspective, what seems like a chicken-and-egg quandary actually isn’t. “The productions need to come to town first, and the infrastructure and crew base will follow,” she says. Gerwig envisions a program in which locals apprentice with seasoned crew members (if only such an agenda were in place when Memoirs of a Geisha and The Assassination of Richard Nixon were filming in the area), citing how the cult fantasy show Xena: Warrior Princess laid the groundwork in New Zealand for Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies, some of the biggest productions in motion picture history.

Naturally, Gerwig would have preferred to film all of Lady Bird in Sacramento—just like she and Levy, also the cinematographer for this movie, talked about doing back in the day—but proved her budget savvy by shooting, for instance, the interior of the McPherson home in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley. There, in close proximity to experienced film crews, modest post-WWII residences are similar—down to the vintage tiles in the bath and kitchen, a detail not overlooked by Gerwig—to those in Sacramento. The scenes at Lady Bird’s fictitious all-girls Catholic high school were shot in Pasadena, including the student adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, staged for the movie by Mickiewicz, the artistic director of Sacramento’s New Helvetia Theatre.

The "Lady Bird" writer-director greets Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg at the hometown premiere of her semiautobiographical movie, which was held  at the Tower Theatre on Oct. 29. (Photo by Max Whittaker)

Alternative California locations notwithstanding, Lady Bird still gives viewers an authentic sense of the River City, making it a thoughtful example of regional filmmaking. “This kind of storytelling is one way we understand our national identity,” says Gerwig. Within the genre, she applauds the work of directors Alexander Payne, who shot 2013’s Nebraska mostly in his namesake home state, and Gus Van Sant, who filmed Drugstore Cowboy, among many other films within his opus, in his adopted city of Portland, Oregon.

In Lady Bird, Sacramento is a bona fide character—Gerwig personifies her hometown as “quiet, beautiful, humble, grounded and responsible.” Sometimes these traits are revealed through the plights of the characters, whose lives are influenced by their surroundings, and sometimes the city’s personality is revealed through sheer imagery. You’d be hard-pressed to find a proxy in Canada for the cameo of Ronald Reagan’s Tudor revival in the Fab 40s, or the blue manse on 44th Street, upon which Lady Bird hinges her grown-up reveries. There is no other Gunther’s on the planet, with its “Jugglin’ Joe” neon sign from 1949; no other rose garden anywhere filled with Gerwig’s memories; and no Tower Bridge lookalike that could have been a more stunning backdrop for a momentous coming-of-age conversation between Lady Bird and her best friend Julie (played by newcomer Beanie Feldstein, now starring opposite Bette Midler in the Broadway revival of Hello, Dolly!). The meaningful scene positions the golden span as a metaphor for both the steadfastness of home and a connector to the world beyond.

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New York has now been Gerwig’s home for more than 15 years. It’s where her artistry gained momentum and continues to flourish, it’s where she’s developed meaningful relationships with high-profile collaborators, from Baumbach to Julianne Moore. (Gerwig asked the latter, her co-star in Maggie’s Plan, to do a first read on the Lady Bird script, knowing that her notes would be incisive.) And New York is where Gerwig is now, shockingly, turning down dessert from the waiter at Morandi who asked us, kind of rhetorically, “One tiramisu or two?” I give her a skeptical look. “I promise I won’t eat yours,” she says. The waiter sets down an extra fork anyway. Gerwig uses it, too.

New York has been a character in a few of her movies—after all, adopted homes have a tendency to shape a person as much as his or her native stomping grounds—and Lady Bird is no different. Similar to the way Baumbach’s use of black and white in Frances Ha underscored the urbanness of New York, so too does Gerwig’s switch to a “crunchier, inkier” film stock for Lady Bird’s arrival in the Big Apple. Compared to the more straightforward filming of her hometown (“I wanted Sacramento to be beautiful in its simplicity,” says Gerwig), New York appears “mythical and fairy-tale-like”—the qualities of any whereabouts you’ve ever dreamed of going. Even still, the megalopolis, with its metaphorically ascendant skyline, never seems to live up to the quiet expansiveness of home. “I only ever see the horizon when I’m in Sacramento,” she says. S

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