ENTERTAINMENT

The Greta Gerwig Trick For A Modern 'Little Women': 'Make It Sad'

How the Oscar-nominated “Lady Bird” director updated Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel for a new generation.
Greta Gerwig's "Little Women" opens Dec. 25.
Greta Gerwig's "Little Women" opens Dec. 25.

Greta Gerwig kept pausing, sometimes midsentence. It was a Monday night in early November, and her newest movie, “Little Women,” echoed through the halls of the Manhattan theater where awards voters were among the first to see it. She shot it on film, and a projectionist needed to switch reels at the exact right moment so the action didn’t skip a beat. Gerwig was nervous. “It’s very easy to fuck up,” she said. She stopped periodically to listen, the sounds of the famous March sisters flooding our greenroom. 

Nothing went awry, at least not during the 45 minutes I spent with Gerwig, who was beginning the monthslong promotional blitz required of a Christmas Day release that’s based on a beloved book and headed for Oscar contention. But you’d forgive those interruptions, too. “Little Women” isn’t Gerwig’s first solo directorial achievement — that’s the 2017 coming-of-age hit “Lady Bird” — yet it is the movie she was destined to make, as corny as that sounds. Of course she was nervous.

Like “A Star Is Born” last year, “Little Women” is a testament to once-a-generation adaptations. The previous big-screen rendition, featuring Winona Ryder and Kirsten Dunst, opened 25 years ago, allowing enough distance to justify another interpretation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic text. (Before that, Hollywood had adapted “Women” five times, including versions starring Katharine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor.) In the same way that Lady Gaga’s “Star Is Born” performance implicated those of Barbra Streisand and Judy Garland, Gerwig’s “Little Women” offers a meta approach to Alcott’s words and the reactions they’ve elicited over the past 150 years. 

During their second week of production last October, Gerwig and her cast went to see “A Star Is Born” near Concord, Massachusetts, which is where they shot the film and where much of it takes place. “We sobbed our faces off,” she said. “If you’re starting with great source material and the heart of something eternal — I mean, how many productions of ‘Hamlet’ have there been? We revisit these because they say something to us. I think what was astonishing to me when I read ‘Little Women’ as an adult was how ... ” 

She trailed off. A reel change had occurred. “Fuck, I missed it,” Gerwig said, leaping into a “hyper-nerdy” monologue about projection mechanics while Alexandre Desplat’s score crescendoed around us.

“Anyway, I’ll stop talking about the reel changes,” she finished, returning to the book. “There were so many things that were jumping out at me as being so incredibly modern. I couldn’t believe it.”

Whereas Godzilla and the Skywalker cooperative clang into multiplexes every 16 months, this is more than a corporate nostalgia push. Gerwig’s “Little Women” is a dissertation on the passage of time, the evolution of femininity and the weight of shared stories.

Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh and Emma Watson in "Little Women."
Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh and Emma Watson in "Little Women."

For Gerwig, this endeavor predates “Lady Bird.” She started drafting “Little Women” in 2014, by which point she’d co-written the idiosyncratic “Frances Ha” and “Mistress America” with her now-partner, director Noah Baumbach. Gerwig then set “Women” aside to write and direct “Lady Bird.” When that movie broke into the mainstream, grossing $79 million worldwide and making Gerwig only the fifth woman to receive an Oscar nomination for directing, producer Amy Pascal asked whether she’d like to step behind the camera on this one, too.

That’s a familiar trajectory for a relatively young filmmaker. (Gerwig is 36.) You make a fruitful indie, then a big studio snatches you up. With additional resources come heightened stakes and a higher profile, especially for a known actor who’d appeared in films as disparate as “No Strings Attached,” “Arthur,” “Jackie” and “20th Century Women.” But Gerwig’s goal wasn’t to go commercial. If it were, she could have picked one of the flashy scripts producers sent her in the wake of “Lady Bird” — and not just more teen dramedies, surprisingly. She had action movies and suspense movies and all sorts of genres to choose from, but none enticed her to abandon “Little Women.” 

“It wasn’t that I was looking for the bigger thing and then this was the bigger thing,” she said. “It’s that this is what I wanted to do, and it needed more bells and whistles. It needed the whole confetti factory. One thing that I loved about ‘Little Women’ was that there were so many different things about it that were new to tackle for me, [like] the world-building of the time period and creating something consistent but interesting but modern but genuine but period-correct but not slavishly devoted.”

Saying her “Little Women” isn’t slavishly devoted might be an understatement. Gerwig knew immediately that she would restructure Alcott’s linear tale, beginning when the four March sisters are adults and using flashbacks to navigate the defining recollections of their youth. Her approach is both reverent and fresh, wistful and progressive. Events unspool as the protagonists look back at a bygone time when they resided under one roof, poor but spirited. 

Saoirse Ronan and Greta Gerwig on the set of "Lady Bird" in 2016.
Saoirse Ronan and Greta Gerwig on the set of "Lady Bird" in 2016.

Alcott’s book, published in two parts in 1868 and 1869, is targeted at young readers, something adaptations tend to accentuate. As a girl, Gerwig skipped the novel’s second half, finding the depiction of marriage and maturation unrelatable. Now, it’s what most interests her. For that reason, she wanted to make a “Little Women” for adults. Memories — “the way you’re always looking back to go forward,” as she described it — are a fulcrum that guides the characters’ sense of themselves. No single moment better distills that essence than a line delivered by a grown-up March: “I can’t believe childhood is over.” 

Such finality — the idea that they will never again capture what existed in the humble home they shared, when they put on plays and flirted with neighbors and helped their mother finish those endless chores — is what makes the film so wonderfully Gerwigian. “Frances Ha” and “Lady Bird” were also about saying goodbye to one chapter and hello to another. 

“If I told it linear, I would lose the ability to do what I’m interested in, which is to make it sad,” Gerwig said.

In independent-minded writer Jo, the second-eldest March sibling, she found a kindred soul. The movie begins with adult Jo (Saoirse Ronan, who also headlined “Lady Bird”) preparing to enter a New York publisher’s office to sell a story she’s composed. At first, we see only Jo’s back — “like a boxer,” head lowered, shoulders wide. Moments later, she’s running through town in a mad dash that resembles a popular “Frances Ha” scene wherein Gerwig’s title character sprints down a Chinatown street. (“I’m interested in women in motion,” Gerwig said. “Of course I am.”) Another two hours pass, and after gracefully hopscotching across timelines, the film concludes with a shot of Jo’s face in that same office. No matter the financial and emotional trials that intervened, she has won the match.

“I wanted it to be a palindrome,” Gerwig explained. “I wanted it to read backwards and forwards, so the movie starts on her back and ends on her face so that you could start the movie again from the beginning. It’s a circle.” 

That quote alone defines the Gerwig who has blossomed over the course of the 2010s: literary, analytical, witty. When “Little Women” was announced last summer, I thought it came from left field. After penning so much original material that feels indebted to Gerwig’s own life, why do a remake? But in seeing the movie and hearing her talk about it, any doubts evaporate. It’s more revelation than remake, the work of an artist bold enough to refashion something that never went out of fashion.  

Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach at the Oscars on March 4, 2018.
Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach at the Oscars on March 4, 2018.

Further confirming the serendipity of this moment in Gerwig’s career, she gets to cruise the awards circuit with Baumbach, who is hawking the biggest work of his career, “Marriage Story.” In a post-Sofia-Coppola-and-Spike-Jonze universe, Gerwig and Baumbach are Hollywood’s primo director couple. (The pair recently gained competition in Barry Jenkins and Lulu Wang, who helmed “Moonlight” and “The Farewell,” respectively.) They swap notes while working and attend red carpets together, which they’ll do a lot of over the next few months.

When Gerwig returned home for Thanksgiving last year, she was still shooting “Little Women.” The next day, she went to Baumbach’s editing suite to see his first cut of “Marriage Story,” a divorce drama in the vein of “Kramer vs. Kramer” and “Scenes from a Marriage.” (Fun fact: “Little Women” and “Marriage Story” share a supporting actor in Laura Dern, who is fantastic in both.) What’s it like, I wondered, to watch the breakup movie your boyfriend just finished? 

Gerwig demurred, savvy enough not to take the bait. She and Baumbach had a child earlier this year, but they’ve managed to remain fairly private about their personal lives. “I just cried for two and a half hours, and I came out and I was completely dehydrated,” she said of Baumbach’s film. “I was like, ‘Jesus Christ, Noah.’ He was like, ‘Should we have more stuffing?’”

As Gerwig and I wrapped up our conversation, she went back to listening for the reel changes. Exiting the greenroom together, I started to head for the lobby when she turned and suggested we step into the auditorium to see how much better her movie looks on film than in digital transfer, which is how most of the public will see it. We stood in the back, watching a touching scene in which a neighbor (Chris Cooper) grants musically inclined Beth March (Eliza Scanlen) access to the piano at his home. Whispering, Gerwig pointed out how crisp the colors looked without the silky glaze that accompanies digitalization. The trees were greener, the roads more textured. It looked like a postcard. Or, in her words, “a snow globe.” She stood there smiling, reveling in the beauty she’d conjured.

“That’s just my taste,” she said. 

Then Gerwig bid me farewell and slid out the door — a woman in motion. 

“Little Women” opens in theaters Dec. 25.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misidentified the youngest March sister.

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