On August 4 this year, Greta Gerwig turned 35. In 2013, she was a fresh-faced 29, and wrote an article for The New York Times about a scene in her breakthrough film, Frances Ha (2012), which took 42 takes to get right. “In 50 days of shooting, we averaged around 35 takes per scene,” she explains by way of contextualising the number. “Most independent films shoot in 25 days with, at most, 10 takes per scene.”
For the piece, Gerwig went back to the editing suite and watched each of these takes in turn, providing a commentary which is by turns witty, self-deprecating, clear-eyed and intelligent. She admonishes herself and co-star Mickey Sumner for “for all the acting that we are doing.” She shows an attention to detail and willingness to experiment, not always with positive results, which betrays her own behind-the-camera talents.
Frances Ha was her fourth film as screenwriter, collaborating with director and now-partner Noah Baumbach, whom she met when she co-starred in his Ben Stiller miserabilist dramedy Greenberg (2010). In the film she plays a young woman who still isn’t sure what she wants to do with her life; she floats between apartments, friends and jobs; “I’m not a real person,” she says half-jokingly at one point.
This is in stark contrast to Gerwig herself. As with many of the so-called “mumblecore” stars she came up with, independent filmmakers to whom a lack of budget, story, or acting chops was rarely an obstacle to shooting a feature, Greta Gerwig created a career for herself through sheer force of will. She knew this is what she wanted to do, and she did it.
It helps that she has both an enviable work ethic, and that indefinable presence that all the most iconic film stars possess. She made her screen debut with a minor role in Joe Swanberg’s LOL (2006), which lead her to being cast in the Duplass Brothers’s meta-horror-drama Baghead (2008). She and Swanberg collaborated on the script for 2007’s Hannah Takes The Stairs, where she played the title role.
From there she began to take on more mainstream parts, including a role in Woody Allen’s To Rome With Love (2012, which she later stated she regretted appearing in), Pablo Larraín’s Oscar-nominated Jackie (2016) and, most bizarrely, as the love interest in Russell Brand‘s ill-advised Arthur remake from 2011.
A number of her early collaborators have gone on to bigger and better things — the Duplass brothers have recurring roles in Transparent and The League, and have produced recent Netflix true crime docs Evil Genius and Wild, Wild Country; Swanberg headed to the streaming service for anthology series Casual — but few have reached the heights Gerwig has.
After being typecast as a quirky love interest in lesser efforts like Lola Versus and The Dish & the Spoon, she has since beat her own path through the industry, wield an increasing amount of creative control over the films she makes. With Noah Baumbach, she also co-wrote and starred in Mistress America, playing a variation on her Frances Ha persona (this time as a thirtysomething who has at least created the illusion of having her life together).
She has worked with some of the best directors in cinema today, with plum parts in Todd Solondz’s Weiner-Dog, Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs and Mia Hansen-Løve’s Eden. She was particularly impressive as punkish, withdrawn cancer sufferer Abbie in Mike Mills’s period drama 20th Century Women.
The crowning achievement of Gerwig’s career to this point, however, is one which did not feature her on screen at all. The hype surrounding her solo directorial debut (she had previously co-written, co-produced and co-directed 2008’s Nights and Weekends with Joe Swanberg) Lady Bird was intense. When general audiences got a look at it, they were inclined to agree that it was something special.
A coming-of-age drama with a rare sense of generosity and depth of feeling for its characters, while remaining thoroughly unsentimental when it came to the strained central relationship between the titular teenage rebel (Saoirse Ronan) and her embattled mother (Laurie Metcalf), Lady Bird was more than just a competent debut. It may go down as one of the best coming-of-age movies in cinema history, with the Academy agreeing to the tune of five Oscar nominations.
By take 17 of her Frances Ha play-by-play, an hour into shooting the scene, Gerwig writes “We’re on a roll! When a scene starts working, it feels as if every choice you make is the right one. It’s getting into a zone where each take can be wildly different, but it all feels true.”
That’s still 12 takes away from the one that wound up in the finished film, and 25 away from wrapping the scene, but Gerwig’s note encapsulates what makes her so special, as both a performer and a filmmaker. Without ever necessarily being part of the “realist” tradition, without being method or tic-heavy, her best work captures a deeper truth than many of her peers can manage. Happy (belated) birthday, Ms Greta Gerwig1
“Sometimes it’s good to do what you’re supposed to do when you’re supposed to do it.”
– Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha
Got a favourite Greta Gerwig performance? Want to highlight a favourite scene from one of her films? A passionate defender of that Arthur remake? Let us know in the comments!