Currently in the editing bay for Lady Bird, her directorial debut which she also wrote, Greta Gerwig is on the press circuit for several 2016 films by writer/directors and respected auteurs, which somehow seems fitting. There’s Maggie’s Plan, from Rebecca Miller, and Pablo Larrain’s elegant Jackie, but the apex for Gerwig this year would be her turn as young, artistic cancer survivor Abbie in Mike Mill’s 20th Century Women.
A film layered densely with beautiful, often-autobiographical detail, Mills’ latest explores the complicated relationship between a mother and her adolescent son in late ‘70s Santa Barbara. Speaking with Deadline, Gerwig touches on her reverence for Mills’ work, research in photography and literature and her 2016 takeaways.
What attracted you to 20th Century Women?
I was a big fan of Mike Mills’ work going into this, so I thought that I would like the script because I like his work. It’s a pretty good assumption that you’ll like what the script is. I loved the script; I thought it was beautiful and moving. I felt very attached to all of the characters right away, which sometimes I don’t feel that way about films. Particularly with my character, Abbie, I felt very attached to her and very protective of her instantly.
What spoke to you in his writing? He takes a very detailed and very personal approach.
I think it’s hard for me to distinguish his writing from the films themselves. The documents that his screenplays are inherently have what the movie will feel like visually in them. For example, on one side of the page, there’s dialogue, and then on the other side of the page are images he’s interested in seeing while the dialogue is being spoken. It feels like you can see the film as you’re reading the script because it’s all written out for you. I think that his writing and the film go together for me. It’s not like a document, like a play. It truly feels like the blueprint for the movie.
Having worked with an array of great directors, what stands out about his process?
I’m so lucky. I don’t know what I can say to say thank you to all of these people, because I’ve loved working with them, particularly Mike. I feel like he creates a really safe environment for his actors. There’s a lot of rehearsal that goes on. There’s a lot of preparation. We spent a lot of time talking—I, in particular, spent a lot of time. I took all these photography lessons to learn how to use cameras. I spend a lot of time listening to records. He sent me a lot of books. He told me to watch a lot of films. In the six months before we started shooting, I really had all this time to prepare and all this information to load myself up with, and also the character that I play is based in a way on his sister, so I got to speak to his sister, and I got to talk to her about her life experiences in New York and Santa Barbara in the ’70s, and how her journey is recreated in this movie. When we actually were all together, the entire cast, what was really special about it was the rehearsal process we went through, which was very unusual.
It was like nothing I’ve ever done before. We did a lot of improvisation that didn’t end up in the movie. We improvised scenes that we knew we would never shoot. We traded parts, like I would play Elle [Fanning]’s part. She’d play Annette [Bening]’s part. Annette would play Billy [Crudup]’s part, and we’d read the scene all with each other’s parts traded. We did dance parties as our characters. It was a lot of work to in some ways deepen our characters, but also create a unit that the five of us felt we were really connected and really had each other’s backs, so that by the time we were shooting, it felt like we were already a little family.
What was it like working with the film’s young leads? The film presents really unique dynamics amongst its characters.
Elle Fanning is a savant. She’s made a ton of movies, and that girl really knows what she’s doing, but Lucas [Jade Zumann] had not really made anything yet. In a way it was a nice reflection of what was going on in the movie and what was going on in life, which was that he was surrounded by all these people who’ve made a lot of movies and he’d not made one. In the story, me and Elle and Annette are trying to, and Billy, are trying to raise him into a man, and in life we were trying to help him feel at home in the moviemaking process. It was an interesting parallel between the script and [reality].
The film is interestingly intertextual—Mills incorporates a lot of archival footage of the period, often with title cards setting it up. How many of the film’s musical and literary references were you previously familiar with?
The research process was pretty extensive. I knew a lot of it because I’m interested in music and I’m interested in art, and I’m particularly interested in the ’70s, so I knew going into it quite a bit, but I learned a tremendous amount. There were things I definitely didn’t know, like I was not familiar with the all-female punk band, The Raincoats. I was not familiar with a lot of German art photographers of the time that he was interested in. That was stuff that Mike gave me. Some of it was revisiting it, revisiting Susan Sontag’s On Photography, some of the feminist essays of the ’70s, which I had read but I read with a different eye, and to really read it in terms of trying to think about that time, and what would it feel like if it was the first encounter with those ideas?
Abbie’s project of photographing all of her possessions comes straight from Mills’ own life, I believe.
Yeah. He mentioned the stuff that came from him, but he also talked about really what his sister’s work was, because she went to New York before he went to New York, and she was at art school, and she was a photographer, so the kinds of things she was interested in, and using herself as a subject. And also staging things, and this world of objects, and creating meaning. It was autobiographical, but it was also drawing upon the kind of work she was doing at the time.
Did you shoot the entire film in Santa Barbara?
It was shot half in Santa Barbara, half in Los Angeles. We all, as a cast, went on a field trip to Santa Barbara before we started shooting, because the first half, the shoot was in LA, and Mike wanted us to really feel Santa Barbara before we started. We went around the neighborhood he grew up in, and the different neighborhoods, and the beach. He was explaining how it was very different in the late ’70s. It was at the end of the recession, and it was a lot of older houses that were falling apart, not a lot of money in that way. It’s beautiful, but I think I was seeing it through Abbie’s eyes. It’s kind of impressive. It’s so stunning. To feel sad in that landscape somehow deepens your sadness, because you feel isolated from your environment.
What was your biggest hurdle in making this film?
Really just how much I loved the project, and the actors, and Mike, and feeling like every day, every moment, trying to be as present and as truthful as possible because I didn’t want to let him down, or let the character down, really. It wasn’t one specific thing. It was just that overall feeling of just praying every day that you’re getting it right, and that you’ve done the work, and that it’s coming through.
What was it like shooting the scene in which your character has a public meltdown?
I broke a lot of chairs. I broke about 13 chairs. In a way, it was very cathartic for the character, but it was also cathartic for me. They say depression is turning anger inwards. I felt that Abbie’s character was depressed and turning her anger inwards. It was a moment where I got to turn the anger outwards. It felt like a valve had been released.
What did you take from working closely with Annette Bening?
I adore Annette Benning. She’s one of my favorite actresses, and I was so thrilled that I got to work with her on this, and also to work with her on something that was so intimate and feels so loving. Again, it paralleled life because I think Abbie looked at Dorothea and thought, “Oh, that’s the kind of woman I want to be, and I just want to put myself in this woman’s house because I hope some part of her rubs off on me.” Her self-reliance, her ability to go against the place and time that she’s in, her big-heartedness and her complicated relationship with what the world seems to be, and what it seems to be turning into, were all things that Abbie related to. I feel just as a person, as myself, how much I love and admire and look up to Annette. It felt like those things really went together.
What was your takeaway from working on Rebecca Miller’s Maggie’s Plan?
I have to say, last year, I shot all these films, and this year, they’re coming out, but to have a year where I’ve worked with Rebecca Miller, and Todd Solondz, Mike Mills, and Pablo Larrain. It’s a banner year. I’m trying to really enjoy this because it doesn’t happen that often. Rebecca is another great director who’s a really unique voice and a very special lady. I also had a very long time to work with her before we shot that film, so I felt a real sense of collaboration with her, which was incredibly pleasurable. She’s so smart, and so articulate, and so thoughtful, and that’s always what you want in a director.
Is there something special about working with writer/directors, specifically?
I like a writer/director, but at the same time, Pablo Larrain, who directed Jackie, he did not write the script. The script was great, written by Noah Oppenheim, but the script was linear. Pablo told us on the first day, “Disregard all the scene numbers. Assume that any scene we’re shooting could happen in the beginning, middle, or end of the film.” In a way, even though he didn’t write it, it became his. He knew he was going to make a cubist narrative, and he wasn’t executing the script in that sense. He was making it his own. Even though he didn’t write it, it did feel like working with a writer/director. He’s an auteur.