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Greta Gerwig flies away home

The writer-director is used to mining her personal history for the screen. But with Lady Bird, she digs deeper than ever. Simon Houpt talks with the artist behind a blessedly of-the-moment movie

Greta Gerwig’s coming-of-age tale Lady Bird draws on details from her own life.

Greta Gerwig is stranded and exhausted and apologetic – and still trying to do the right thing: On a recent Sunday night, a long delay for her flight out of Washington means she is going to miss an invitational screening in Toronto, but she doesn't want to disappoint anyone, so she takes out her phone to perform an impromptu low-res Q&A with herself and send it along.

Gerwig, 34, has been on the promotional circuit since her coming-of-age tale Lady Bird premiered at Telluride to rapturous reviews and then flew through TIFF and New York and London and a dozen other festivals, beguiling audiences and breaking hearts along the way. So, standing in the Dulles airport departure lounge, a discarded pizza box at her feet, she gamely zips through the questions that have regularly come up: What was it like to write and direct her first feature? How autobiographical is the film? (Strictly speaking, it's not. Though more on that later.)

But if most of those questions have stayed the same, the film's significance has begun to shift in the two months since its September debut, when Variety focused on its "honest and personal" take on the clashes between a willful high-school senior (Saoirse Ronan, Oscar-worthy) and her disparaging mom (Laurie Metcalf, ditto), and The Hollywood Reporter called it "snappy, spirited, and shot through with the pleasures of leaving childhood behind."

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All of which it still is. But suddenly, amid the post-Weinstein eruption of conversations about the interplay between power and gender and the stories Hollywood chooses to tell, Lady Bird's authentic depiction of a love story between a mother and daughter feels blessedly of the moment – necessary even. It is a joyous gift both to audiences who long for something different on screen and those who don't yet know they do.

While Lady Bird is her first solo writing effort, Gerwig also co-wrote (and starred in) two films directed by her partner, Noah Baumbach: Frances Ha (2012) and Mistress America (2015), both of which were platonic love stories between women.

Saoirse Ronan, left, with Gerwig, plays a willful high school senior who insists everyone call her Lady Bird.

She does not consider herself a political filmmaker. And yet: "I was very conscious, in each of these, to make movies where the central story is a relationship between women," says Gerwig, having finally made it in from Washington, her lanky frame now folded into a deep chair in a suite at the Thompson Toronto hotel.

"I'm interested in women relating to each other, because I think, so often in films, women are reduced to relating through a guy. Which, you know, has made lots of marvellous films, so I don't mean to throw any shade on it. But I do think it means there's a vast uncharted territory of relationships that don't get explored."

For fans of Baumbach, there may be moments when Lady Bird reads like a companion piece to The Squid and the Whale, his 2005 semi-autobiographical comedy-drama starring Jesse Eisenberg as a Baumbach-in-waiting growing up in the shadow of a domineering writer father. Lady Bird is similarly a portrait of the artist as a young woman, a proto-Gerwig named Christine who wanders through her final year of high school trying on different characters and insisting everyone call her Lady Bird.

But where The Squid and the Whale was lacerating and judgmental (and very male), Lady Bird exhibits an inclusive (shall we say female?) empathy for all involved – Lady Bird; her mother, Marion; her father, Larry (played by Tracy Letts, perhaps best known as the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of August: Osage County), even the drama teacher at Lady Bird's school.

Metcalf, who plays Marion, said that was a strong draw for her. "Everybody, with either just one well-placed line or something, has a back story. You want to know more about that character," she noted during a phone interview last weekend. "Because of that, I just had the instinct that this would be a director I could trust – who could see that in each one of the characters that she created."

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Gerwig notes that, about midway through the film, Lady Bird has an uncomfortable confrontation with a boy "and she suddenly sees him as a person independent of her, who is in the middle of his own story, who is not just a function in her life. And that is a journey we're all going on all the time, because I think you're sort of always looking at what the relationship is between somebody and you. And then you look at them and you think, 'They're in their own opera. What they're doing to me is not important.' "

This is a rare, kaleidoscopic approach for an American film, a form so dominated by stories of single heroes on journeys that other cast members are literally known as supporting players.

"I think films and writing and acting, they're such deeply collaborative art forms and they're really an exercise in empathy, and I think extending empathy is …" – Gerwig takes a long pause – "it's what 'political' should be, in a way, I think. I think there's a lack of empathy, and I think I look to different kinds of arts, different kinds of writing, for that empathy that I find lacking in the public sphere."

Lady Bird is set in Gerwig’s hometown of Sacramento, Calif., but she says the movie is not directly autobiographical.

As she hit the road this fall, she repeatedly insisted her film is not directly autobiographical. "I was very different from Lady Bird," she says. "I was a very rule-following kid, I was a people pleaser and kind of like a gold-star getter. And I think, in a way, writing this was an exploration of something that I didn't have access to when I was a teenager. Or I didn't have the courage to be as wild or as kind of out there as she is." Although, she admits, with an explosive laugh: "I did give my mother hell – which I feel tremendously guilty for now!"

Still, it is hard to ignore the parallels between Gerwig and her heroine: The story takes place in 2002-03, when Gerwig herself was 19; Lady Bird attends a Catholic girls high school, as Gerwig did; it is set in her hometown of Sacramento, Calif., from which, like Lady Bird, she longed to escape; and Lady Bird's parents even have the same jobs as her own. (Furthermore, Lady Bird's given name, Christine, is Gerwig's mother's name.)

Gerwig has been mining her own life, following Nora Ephron's dictum that "Everything is copy," since her early years as a frequent lead actor and co-writer on so-called "mumblecore" (a.k.a. DIY) films such as Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007) and Nights and Weekends (2008). In Frances Ha, real elements of her life appear on screen: During a montage in which her character goes home to Sacramento for the holidays, Gerwig's own parents play her character's parents.

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Now, with Gerwig having gone back to that well again to give us a version of her origin story in Lady Bird, where does she go next?

She sighs. "You know, the only thing I know for sure is, every time I finish something big, I think I will never have another story to tell. Like, when I finished Frances I felt that way. When I finished Mistress I felt that way. And certainly, when I came to the end of this. And it's this feeling that you're empty. And it's a terrifying feeling, but I also know that's the only place that anything comes out of. That, in that silence and in that emptiness, if you get really quiet and you listen for it, there's a voice that pops up, and it's either a character or a line or a place, and you just follow that thread.

"The thing is, I write to find out what I'm going to write. I don't decide what I'm going to write and then execute it. I'm always amazed by how much I surprise myself. It's almost like I go into a fugue state, where I'm able to unlock something unconscious. So, the truth is, I always feel like I'm at zero, and that's a scary but good place to be."

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