The Greta Gerwig Interview
for Damsels in Distress
My first interview in over 3 years. Quite nervous going into this one, primarily because I’ve known Whit Stillman intimately for some years yet was unenthusiastic about this recent endeavor. Was relieved to learn I would only be speaking to Greta Gerwig and not Mr. Stillman, though clearly it would’ve been a tremendous pleasure to have met him.
The Peninsula: swank hotel on Chicago’s North Side, glad I had an excuse to learn of it. Pacing nervously in the 15th floor hallway, smiling contritely and thoroughly overpreparing myself. Chatting with a young critic (it would be just he and me in the smallest possible ’roundtable’) who commutes in from Peoria for his screenings, god bless him. The door is opened and I am freed into Greta’s suite. Two young women (surely publicists/comrades) and Greta mill in a room for a lone minute between her interviews, and myself and my commuting contemporary prepare to take our expensive seats. Coffee is coming, Alex the PR Princess is very nice.
Greta steps out looking very smart in a dark navy suit-dress-thing and stands an inch or so taller than I in pink heels – I being 5’9″ and a half, and you’re damn right I’m counting that half. Of course as we’re led to believe, Greta comes off as down-to-earth, lacking pretense, smiling and always speaking in a charmingly nervous, stilted manner, demonstrating the effort she is putting into remaining natural while nurturing her burgeoning celebrity and the social power it grants. I shake her hand and say that it’s a pleasure to meet her. And from this point on – while the interview went very well – I would later feel guilty about acting too familiar with her. I was psyched, what can I say. Lots of slow contented smiling, lots of eye contact, lots of subtextual nourishment and encouragement. Anything I can do, Greta. I’m so happy for you. (Take me with you.) It means very little, altogether, and will not be recalled.
Rock ‘n Roll Ghost: Were you familiar with Whit’s work?
Greta Gerwig: Yes, I was. I was too young to experience his films as they came out in the 90′s. Last Days of Disco came out in 1998 when I was a freshman in high school… so… I saw Last Days of Disco first, toward the end of high school, and then all of Whit’s other films later. And I was friends with all film nerds in college and everything is so quotable… it’s really nerdtastic. So I love the films and I knew him really well, and he was totally iconic and important to me. I was really thrilled he was making another movie.
RRG: Did they find you or did you seek it out?
GG: Well weirdly, I had put [Whit] on a list of filmmakers that I was, like, “I’ll work with these filmmakers no matter what, I don’t care what it is, I don’t care how small the part is.” He hadn’t made a film in so long, I didn’t think that was a possibility… then I got a call from my agent, and she was like, “You’ll never guess who is making a movie, and it’s about girls, and you could potentially play one of these parts!” I then I think they figured it out with the casting director, and then I met with Whit. He had originally met with me for the role of Lily – which I would’ve been happy to play – but then I realized I was really falling in love with the role of Violet. So I wanted to play Violet, and I talked [Whit] into letting me audition for it, so I could “prove myself.” And in my audition I tap danced and sang, and that was not something they had asked me to do, I just wanted to prove I could do it, cause I knew it was part of the script.
RRG: I was wondering how Whit gets you to do his “trademark meticulous dialogue.”
GG: Yeah, he is totally meticulous. I mean, I think we worked out a good relationship in figuring out the performance, because I would do it bigger, like my first take or two would be a little bit bigger and more emotion, more over the top, more invested, and more “acted” in a way. And he will kinda just say, “Can you just do it normal? Can you just say the lines? You’re not bad, I don’t care about that.” And he would kind of continually damp it down. But I just thought, “You’re gonna want options. You won’t always want it to be like this.” So I just thought I had to give him these others things… he could be the one who… it’s much easier to bring someone down than to bring them up. So I figured… that would be the way we’d do it. And it seemd to work out pretty well. And part of it is, Whit as a person is not demonstrative and he’s not emotional and he’s pretty calm, and says these things very easily, in a considered tone of voice, so he’s looking for that.
RRG: I get the impression the atmosphere around there was very light, pleasant.
GG: Yeah, pleasant… it was like you were being invited to Whit’s Garden Party every day. He was always wearing a tie… every day he wore a tie… and a sport jacket, and his hair was always… He wasn’t even really sleeping and he always looked very put together. And it was always like, “Thank you for coming to work today.” (laugh) And it was very polite, and when we broke for lunch he would always take the time to sit down and eat his lunch, he wouldn’t be running around. He’s very meticulous, and that was really helpful because his characters are kind of extensions of himself, in a way, and [something] for ideas he has and just being around him informs the way you perform.
RRG: Did you just work with Woody Allen?
GG: (smiling) I did, yeah.
RRG: Kind of ridiculous.
GG: I know, it’s super ridiculous. It was awesome. It went by too fast, though.
RRG: What kind of role did you have?
GG: Well, I… it’s… I mean it’s not like Deconstructing Harry, but it is more vignettes…
RRG: In Rome, right?
GG: In (disbelieving exhalation) Rome. Yeah. It was completely surreal. I was in… my storyline was with Jesse Eisenberg, Ellen Page and Alec Baldwin, so it was just the four of us. And… I can’t really reveal more, cause…
RRG: Sure sure.
GG: You know, he wants it to be a surprise. But I will say it went by too fast. That’s the problem with these things, they go by too fast. They really do. It’s just the nature of it. And you never take more time to make a movie than you need to…
RRG: Well, you ostensibly have a long career ahead of you.
GG: Yeeeah, ostensibly… (laughs) You know, when you don’t make movies, you have no idea how long it takes to make. Like I would believed someone if they had said, “It takes a year.” OK, it takes a year to make a movie, I have no idea. So I just… love movie sets, and I’d like to be on one every day.
RRG: I get the impression those dance scenes were, maybe, the funnest scenes in the film.
GG: They were so fun to do. They were… I mean, it was like ridic… We filmed a lot more than what was in the movie. That’s always hard when you see a movie and you’re like, “There’s so much more crazy dance!”
RRG: I saw an interview with Whit where he said it was originally going to be much more of an actual musical, and it was taken down from that…
GG: Yeah… I mean I think by the time I read the script it wasn’t, but there was still more musical than ended up being in it. I would love to do a full, full-on musical, but, em… they don’t really make those anymore…
RRG: Not the Astaire stuff that Whit likes.
GG: No. I mean, I think the last… I think there was a moment when [They] were like, “Musicals are back!” around, like, Chicago and that movie with Penelope Cruz and Kate Hudson (Nine), that didn’t work…So I think that [They] were like, “Never mind.”
RRG: Last night I saw Aida…
GG: Aida, yeah.
RRG: At the Lyric Opera.
GG: Is that.. Puccini?
RRG: Uh, Verdi.
(ego doing cartwheels)
RRG: I have this theory that modern musicals are a sort of shrunken, pop music version of what operas used to be… everything’s been going toward a slightly shortened attention span.
GG: Right. Well, originally when musicals started in the 20s and 30s, they really were these individualized [performances?] that these songwriters worked on, and then they’d tie it together with, like, a really sad story. Rodgers and Hart were a songwriting team and they wrote My Funny Valentine and a variety of other songs. Certain musicals that came out… like Babes in Arms, totally doesn’t make sense. Because it just had all these really great songs, and they were like, “We’ve gotta tie it all together!” So, like, “An aviator… who’s a communist… who smashes into a barn, in the middle of…” It’s so weird! And it’s got weird political undertones. But then it wasn’t until after World War II that musicals became Rodgers and Hammerstein, like South Pacific, and stuff like that, became like the whole story they told became an opera. And then in the 70s you have [...] . Fucking great. I love musicals. I’m a big musical fan. Love em.
RRG: I was gonna ask a “dream” question, too… Do you have a dream director you’d like to work with?
GG: Umm…. I have lots of dream directors I’d like to work with. I mean, I’d like to work with Woody Allen again, cause I couldn’t get enough. But, I mean… I have a list that everyone has: I wanna work with the Coen brothers, and Wes Anderson, Gus Van Sant, and P.T. Anderson, and all those dudes… and Kathryn Bigelow and Sofia Coppola…
RRG: How about crazy people like Von Trier or Haneke?
GG: Those are secret wishes! But Haneke doesn’t make English language films that often, so it’s like “I’m not gonna be in The White Ribbon…” …although I would totally be in The White Ribbon (laughs) Oh yeah, like Von Trier and Haneke, and like, look Bela Tarr wants to use me, I’d love to be in a Bela Tarr film. If Apichatpong wanted me to be in movie, I’d be in an Apichatpong movie. I guess my like Dream dream director is Mike Leigh, who’s my favorite director.
RRG: Greatest ever.
GG: Yeah, he’s the best ever. Another Year, when it came out, made me… it was like, I hadn’t seen anything really good in a while, and it just reminded me that things could be really really good. That people make good movies, and there are great actors, and… when you see something great, it’s almost like you can’t fake it to yourself. There are great things. And I wanna be making them… and I’m not always doing that. (laughs) That movie… Kenneth Lonergan. I loved Margaret…
GG: Whatever movie he does next. I have so many people that I like, and so many writers I think are amazing. The world feels very rich, even though it’s easy to get depressed about films and think, “Oh, nothing good is being made,” so many good things are being made. You just have to look a little.
GG: Movies that are good are entertaining. They’re not hard to watch, they’re fun to watch. It’s not like you have to be especially smart or educated, they’re just better. They’re better and they’re more fun cause they’re just really entertaining.”
RRG: I blame the marketers. If people were given the better choices, there’s no reason they wouldn’t choose…
GG: Sometimes in New York I feel so out of touch with the world. At Film Forum, where I go all the time, they’ll have like a Bresson festival and it’s always the single dudes there looking for girlfriends! (laugh)
The interview is concluded as I tell Greta that I was one of those single men at the Bresson retrospective recently here in Chicago. She finds this amusing, and I don’t blame her.
written by David Ashley