What can we learn from Greta Gerwig?

In a nutshell

  • Greta Gerwig’s unique approach to filmmaking, focusing on character-driven stories, realistic dialogue and coming-of-age themes, has led to her unprecedented success.
  • Gerwig’s background in mumblecore and improvisational acting, combined with her detailed character development and writing process, contributes significantly to her distinctive storytelling style.
  • Perseverance in the creative process, along with a focus on developing deep character narratives are a few key lessons to take away from Gerwig’s career.

Greta Gerwig is the first and only female director to have a movie cross the billionaire dollar mark at the box office. The cowriter and director of “Barbie” (2023) created a film that appealed to audiences of all ages and genders. Additionally, she was able to speak to a wide varied, opinionated group of moviegoers who either loved the dolls, had no interest or experience with the toys or utterly disdained Barbie. Gerwig managed to simultaneously cater to all three of these types of viewers because of her unique style and interesting approach to filmmaking. For those who dream of helming a big blockbuster or those who just want to make a good indie feature, there are two fundamental questions to ask: How did she do it and how can I do it?  

Trying to follow in the footsteps of any great filmmaker is no guarantee of one’s own success. Nevertheless, one can learn some very valuable lessons from Greta Gerwig’s stellar work. Her solo directing career credits are “Lady Bird” (2018), “Little Women” (2019) and “Barbie.” For all three of these films, Gerwig has received Oscar nominations for screenwriting. Additionally, she was nominated for Best Director at the Oscars for “Lady Bird.” Gerwig is also an accomplished actor who has worked with talented directors like Wes Anderson and Woody Allen. Now, let’s take a look at what we can learn from her and her inspiring work.

Beginnings

Unlike many well-known filmmakers from the past few decades, Gerwig didn’t study the trade through a university film program. She was always intent on writing scripts; however, she was not accepted into any MFA programs for it. Wanting to be involved in the creative process, Gerwig auditioned and was cast on ultra-low-budget films by notable mumblecore directors, such as Joe Swanberg and the Duplass brothers. Gerwig’s acting in many of these films garnered awards from major film festivals across the country.

Mumblecore

The popularity and availability of digital prosumer video equipment democratized filmmaking and allowed directors/producers to create low-budget movies in the 2000s. Mumblecore was born from these roots. In mumblecore, directors created slice-of-life films that were highly character-driven. In many cases, the films relied on the improvisational skills of the actors to embody naturalistic portrayals of people in real-world situations and settings. If the movie had a plot, it was usually secondary to the film’s main objective, which was to portray characters trying to find their place and purpose in the world. Additionally, music was often used to transition as well as link scenes together to create a more cohesive story. 

The effects of mumblecore on Greta Gerwig’s creative processes

Although mumblecore films portrayed realistic stories and relationships, Greta Gerwig has been quick to point out that the characters she played were fictional (as opposed to a reflection of herself). Even though the films were improvisational, Gerwig would spend an extensive amount of time taking notes as she developed her onscreen characters. Because of her skill at this, Gerwig would receive her first cowriting credit on the indie darling, “Hannah Takes the Stairs” (2007). Her cowriting credits on “Nights and Weekends” (2008) and “Northern Comfort” (2010) also relied heavily on improvisational dialogue. This all changed when Noah Baumbach approached Gerwig to cowrite “Francis Ha” (2012) with him. While her writing approach started with creating scenes and dialogue for the characters, “Frances Ha” was extensively scripted.

Greta Gerwig as a codirector

“Nights and Weekends” (2008) was Greta Gerwig’s first directing experience. With her codirector Joe Swanberg, the two managed to make the film for $15,000. For those familiar with camera gear during this time period, the movie was shot on the Panasonic AG-HVX200. Light on plot, the movie focuses on the effects of a long-distance relationship on the two main characters, Mattie and James, played by Gerwig and Swanberg. The movie played at many notable festivals including SXSW

Greta Gerwig’s recent writing and solo directing career

Greta Gerwig and Sam Levy on the set of “Lady Bird.” Image courtesy: A24/Everett

If you casually glance at the trailers for “Lady Bird,” “Little Women” and “Barbie,” it would seem as if these three movies have nothing in common. However, upon watching the films, you can spot commonalities that run through all three. These include:

  • Character-driven stories
  • Realistic and overlapping dialogue
  • Use of monologues
  • Coming-of-age themes
  • Hero’s Journey
  • Authentic costumes and sets

Character-driven stories

Greta Gerwig believes that in-depth knowledge of your characters is the foundation of any story. It doesn’t matter if Gerwig is acting, writing or directing, she always starts with this process. Furthermore, Gerwig believes that writing the screenplay for the film is key to her being an effective director. In an interview with James Cameron, Gerwig explains that she starts with a lot of notes about characters and scenes and then puts them all together to form the script. By doing this, she avoids the pitfalls of creating two-dimensional characters.

For “Barbie,” Gerwig admitted that she and cowriter Noah Baumbach had hundreds of pages of notes about the Barbies and had to stop writing notes about the Kens because they had too much material for what would be the 147-page screenplay. Greta and Noah went one step further and envisioned who they thought should play the characters for “Barbie.” Gerwig specifically wrote in the “Barbie” script the specific actors and actresses she visualized for the role and made it part of the character’s name, such as Barbie Margot, Barbie Issa, Ken Ryan Gosling and Ken Simu. Ryan Gosling’s full name is included because Gerwig thought, based on his work, that he embodied Margot’s Ken even though she had never met Gosling, and he had not even seen the script, much less signed on to the project.

Ryan Gosling as Ken in “Barbie.” Image courtesy: Warner Bros. Pictures

Realistic and overlapping dialogue

Greta Gerwig loves the sound of the dialogue in mumblecore films because it sounds so natural. She writes her scripts to mimic the rhythm and dialogue of natural conversation. Additionally, because Gerwig wants the dialogue to sound realistic, the characters will often talk over each other. This is particularly noticeable in “Little Women.”  

Use of monologues

Monologues in film can be tiring to the audience, yet Gerwig manages to breathe life into them. She has a distinct talent for writing and directing monologues that give you deep insight into her characters. You can find them sprinkled throughout her films. Probably the best example of Gerwig’s use of monologues is the phenomenal speech delivered by America Ferrera in “Barbie” about the struggles and paradoxes of being a woman.

Coming-of-age themes

Greta Gerwig’s films have all been coming-of-age stories. The coming-of-age genre typically features the main character’s journey of transitioning from a child or teen to an adult. Now, maybe you’re wondering how “Barbie” is a coming-of-age movie. Gerwig explains saying that she believes coming-of-age happens to all of us, continuously throughout life. She believes that based on our life experiences, we shed our old selves for new ones. In “Barbie,” Margot Robbie’s existential crisis is all about discovering and defining her new self. 

Hero’s Journey

Greta Gerwig incorporates the Hero’s Journey into her screenplays. However, she believes that this story structure is not about attaining the object or goal at the end of the journey. Instead, she views the whole point of the journey is to change the hero. For example, some people believe that a common thread in Gerwig’s movies is the portrayal of strong women. However, Gerwig believes that her female characters do not initially start out as being strong; it is the hero’s journey that transforms them. 

Authentic costumes and sets

Greta Gerwig believes that realistic costumes and sets are vital for actors as they try to embody their characters. For “Lady Bird,” Gerwig used her personal experiences in Catholic schools for the look of the costumes and sets. She even dusted off her high school yearbooks for inspiration. For “Little Women,” Gerwig spent time intensively studying Louisa May Alcott and her writings. “Little Women” was also inspired by Alcott’s own life experiences, so Gerwig spent an extensive amount of time studying Alcott’s home, her belongings and even the houses in close proximity to the Alcotts.

For “Barbie,” Gerwig admits that she did have Barbie dolls as a kid. However, she has spent a lot of time at Mattel where she was able to view all of the Barbie line of toys. Still, it’s Gerwig’s personal experiences playing with Barbies as a kid that brings distinct details to the film such as the way Barbie just floats through the air from the 2nd story of her dream house down to the ground.

Greta Gerwig’s best practices

There are many lessons to be learned from Gerwig’s approach to filmmaking as well as her body of work as an actor, writer and director. Let’s go over them.

Develop your characters 

Write the script yourself. If you can’t, make detailed notes about the characters based on the existing screenplay. Think like an actor. How can you bring these characters to life?

Have long rehearsals and bonding activities 

For “Little Women,” the actors had two weeks to rehearse together which they considered a luxury. For “Barbie,” Gerwig had “girl’s night” sleepovers for the female cast. Although, like in the movies, the Kens were only allowed to visit.

Listen to your dialogue

Scene from “Little Women.” Image courtesy: Sony Pictures Releasing

When shooting, Greta Gerwig will frequently avoid looking at the monitors. Instead, she closes her eyes and listens to the dialogue, focusing on how the actors are delivering their lines. Gerwig believes that this is one of the best ways to tell if your dialogue sounds realistic.

Test your edits

Greta Gerwig likes to test her edits with an audience to see their reactions and to inform herself where additional improvements need to be made. She believes this process can be very effective even if it’s in a room with only one or two people. 

Persevere

If you can’t afford film school or you can’t get in, don’t give up. Find an open door into the industry and get involved in the creative process. You can learn a lot just being on a set as an actor, a grip, a camera operator or even a production assistant. 

Learning from Gerwig’s success

Greta Gerwig jokes about the fact that “Nights and Weekends” was made for $15,000 while “Barbie’s” budget was $1.5 million. This jump in budgets didn’t happen overnight. In fact, Gerwig never imagined that she would make a film with a blockbuster budget, especially this early in her solo directing career. It was Margot Robbie who approached Greta about writing and directing “Barbie” based on Gerwig’s prior body of work. So what’s the biggest takeaway from Greta Gerwig? If you dream of being in the director’s chair for a blockbuster film, pick up your camera (or your phone), shoot your movie, edit it and get it in front of audiences. Even if your movie only plays at small local film festivals, it’s a great way to get recognition and start your career. It worked for Greta Gerwig, and it just might happen for you too.

Image of Greta Gerwig courtesy: Martin Kraft creator QS:P170,Q65553673, MJK 08458 Greta Gerwig (Berlinale 2018), Cut out, CC BY-SA 3.0

W. H. Bourne
W. H. Bourne
W. H. Bourne is a screenwriter who is spending her pandemic time working on a screenplay that's an adaptation of a novel.

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