The first movie Greta Gerwig saw in a theater was “Muppets Take Manhattan.” When it was over, her parents momentarily couldn’t find her. She had run to the front of the theater to put her hands on the screen.
“I thought I could get into it,” Gerwig says.
As a filmmaker, Gerwig has often been in the frame or just outside it. In 2012’s “Frances Ha,” which she co-wrote, she starred as a 27-year-old dancer from Sacramento gaining a foothold in New York -- an origin story not so unlike Gerwig’s own. Her semi-autobiographical 2017 solo-directing debut, “Lady Bird,” was like a “Frances Ha” prequel, set in high school in Sacramento about a young woman with artistic ambitions.
In her latest, “Little Women,” Gerwig has adapted Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel about the March sisters, but Gerwig has also added meta dimensions outside of the book. Jo March (Saoirse Ronan in the film), the book’s aspiring writer was herself a kind of stand-in for Alcott, who tweaked the character to suit audience demands. Alcott married her off by the end but later wished Jo had turned out “a literary spinster.”
In Gerwig’s version, the seventh big-screen “Little Women,” Jo becomes a synthesis of the character, of Alcott and of Gerwig, herself, stretching the struggle of what it is to be a woman writer from 19th century New England to present day.
On a blustery autumn day last month, Gerwig met for an interview over tea in Tribeca to discuss the many layers of her “Little Women.” The film opens in theaters Christmas Day.
AP: Every frame is so full of life in “Little Women.” How did you give it such vitality?
Gerwig: I didn’t want it to be beautiful at the expense of being real. But I did want it to feel like you wish you can jump inside and live in there or eat it. I remember trying to explain that to the gaffer who was like, “You want what?” I was like, “I want them to want to eat it. I wanted it to feel like it was flying through at the speed of life.
AP: There’s a nice connection between “Frances Ha,” which memorably had a scene of you running through New York. “Little Women” opens with Jo sprinting through the city.
Gerwig: I had come across in my research on Louisa May Alcott this stuff that talked about her as a runner. She would run every day through the woods of Concord. I actually shot a bunch of footage of Saoirse running through the woods but it didn’t end up fitting in the movie, which I’m so sad about. Kill your darlings, as they say. But I thought: how perfect. Louisa May Alcott loved running and I can do this and it’s completely footnote-able and it’s also exactly what I’ve always been interested in. It felt like the most modern thing to capture a woman faster than we think they’re allowed to move.
AP: How would explain the relationship you felt between yourself and Jo?
Gerwig: I was interested in making something cubist and that honored this kaleidoscope of authorship. Part of what I wanted to do with the construction was to find the author everywhere — to find the author as Jo, to find the author as me, to find the author as Saoirse. There’s all this doubling of selves. It’s Louisa writing Jo. It’s me writing Louisa writing Jo. It’s Saoirse playing Jo playing Louisa playing my lines. There’s some communication between the four of us. The transcendentalists — and not to draw too many connections that are only, really, for me — were thinking that way. Walt Whitman said, “I contain multitudes.”
AP: If there was a distance between Alcott and Jo, your characters seem closer to you. You’re living the life that they aspire to.
Gerwig: Yes, maybe that’s true! Even though I’m getting to make films, which is all I’ve ever wanted to do, the deepest connection to myself will always be with the person who wanted to do that, not the person who’s doing it. And showpeople in general, you have to build the castle again every time. There’s that feeling that there’s no guarantee that anyone will come. You’re a dream machine, a smoke machine, so there’s a feeling of: I don’t know if any of this is real. I guess that’s just to say I identify more with the striver, still. And I still can’t believe that I get to do this at all. I feel like I’m getting to steal these movies, that somebody’s going to tap me on the shoulder and say, “Excuse me, ma’am, can you please come with us? You’re not a director.”
AP: You’re so obviously meant for it.
Gerwig: I love it. I love it so much. I love it more than any other thing I’ve gotten to do, every step of the way. I still feel like a young filmmaker even though I’m 36, even though I’ve been making films in some way or another for 15 years. It still feels like I’m at the beginning of whatever, hopefully, body of work I get to do.