Greta Gerwig On Rediscovering ‘Little Women’s Feminist Origins, Rebranding Amy March & Great Conversations With Meryl Streep

'Little Women' director Greta Gerwig
Josh Telles

Greta Gerwig had always loved Little Women, Louisa May Alcott’s tale of four Civil War-era sisters, especially its protagonist, rebellious writer Jo. “It’s impossible for me to tease out at this point if Jo March was like me, and that’s why I was drawn to her,” Gerwig says, “or if I liked Jo March, and thus I made myself like Jo March.” Following her directorial debut success with Lady Bird, Gerwig’s Little Women adaptation not only grew wings but also gathered a stellar cast, including Lady Bird’s Saoirse Ronan as Jo, Laura Dern as matriarch Marmee, and Meryl Streep as Aunt March.

DEADLINE: Had you been considering Little Women as an adaptation for a while?

GRETA GERWIG: Well for me, it was the book of my childhood in terms of a character that I identified with wholly. I was ambitious, I wanted to be a writer, I was angry, I was artistic. All of the things that Jo is, I was. She felt like she knew my secrets already, and that was thrilling. And I loved the book, and I read it and re-read it like you often do with books in childhood. And it had been so absorbed into my sense of myself that some of the secrets, and some of the things that the March girls do felt like they had happened to me.

Emma Watson, Saoirse Ronan, Eliza Scanlen and Florence Pugh in 'Little Women'
Sony Pictures

I hadn’t read it since I was 14 or 15, and then I happened to read it when I was 30, just because I thought I would re-love it. My experience with the book completely changed. First of all, there were things in the book that I hadn’t remembered at all. And there were things that seemed much spikier and stranger and more modern and very relevant, and who they were as adults suddenly became fascinating to me. I said, “Oh, I’d like to make a film with this, because now I see this completely differently, and I think there’s something interesting here that is completely pressing to make a film about.”

Then, I started doing my Louisa May Alcott research and that sounded also fascinating, but I wasn’t in a position at that moment to make [a] film, certainly not a period piece. I had written and I had co-directed, but I had not yet directed Lady Bird. So, I had no traction in this area. But I heard through my agent that Sony and Amy Pascal were interested in making another Little Women because it had been 25 years since the version in 1984. I said, “Well, I have to go talk to them. I have an idea. I’ve got to tell them how I’d do it.” And so, I got myself in that room, and ultimately, they did hire me to write the script, which was amazing. I wrote them a script. And then after I made Lady Bird and it came out, they came back and said, “Would you like to direct it?” And I said, “Yes, I’ve been waiting for you to ask.” So, in some ways it was probably a five-year process. In other ways it was a 30-year process.

DEADLINE: How did you sell your idea to them in that meeting? What did you say?

GERWIG: The thing I said to them was, it was so clear to me when I reread the book, this book is about women, ambition, money, and art. And it was about the intersection of those things.

Timothée Chalamet and Florence Pugh in 'Little Women'
Sony Pictures

I want to make a movie that focuses in on that, because to me, that’s what this book is about. And moreover, that’s what Louisa May Alcott liked, in fact. And this distance between Louisa May Alcott and Jo March is also at the crux of my story. I wanted to explore all that. I think I said it with enough confidence that they accepted my analysis.

DEADLINE: I don’t think people liked Amy until they saw your version of her.

GERWIG: One of my experiences of reading the book was actually re-experiencing Amy as a profound character and equal to Jo, and someone that is a worthy opponent in some ways of Jo. And her lines in particular, some of them are lines that stood out to me as if they were written in neon. As if they could have been said yesterday. Like, “I want to be great or nothing.” Which is so ambitious and big, and such a statement from a 20-year-old about art. It’s not a cute pursuit. It’s a completely egomaniacal pursuit in the best way. Or, “I don’t pretend to be wise, but I am observant.” You think, Holy sh*t, this girl sees everything. She knows everything. She can’t necessarily change the world, but she’s going to figure out how to win. And that seems profound.

Another thing she said is, “The world is hard on ambitious girls.” And the world is still hard on ambitious girls. And this is Amy speaking. To me it seems so obvious that she hadn’t been given her due in our collective consciousness. And then the other thing about Amy that I think is telling, and it’s interesting how this has changed, is Amy is a character of profound desires and lust that she has no problem expressing. And I think it’s interesting that for years, the character we hated the most is the character who most expresses her desire.

DEADLINE: Because that’s shameful for women, right?

GERWIG: We’re reassessing that, yeah. Because to want something is to be sort of too much, too desirous. So that to me is a fascinating shift, just in how we view a woman saying what she wants.

DEADLINE: Amy’s ‘women and marriage’ speech evolved from a conversation you had with Meryl Streep. What did you discuss with her?

GERWIG: She is obviously the queen of all things, but she’s also just so clear and intelligent about texts and filmmaking. At a lunch she said, “The thing you have to make the audience understand is it’s not just that women couldn’t vote, which they couldn’t. It’s not just that they couldn’t own property, which they couldn’t. It’s that they couldn’t own anything when they were married.”

Greta Gerwig and Meryl Streep behind the scenes of 'Little Women'
Sony Pictures

They didn’t even own their children. They could leave a bad marriage, but they would leave with nothing, not even the kids. So, when you’re talking about marriage, you’re talking about the biggest decision you’ll make, because if you yoke yourself to the wrong person, you will suffer for the rest of your life. And it’s not just an economic proposition, it’s all-encompassing, and it was the decision you have to make. You have no possibilities outside of that.

DEADLINE: A horrifying prospect, really. You’ve also talked about the gender fluidity between Jo and Laurie, played by Timothée Chalamet.

GERWIG: Jo spends the entire book saying she wishes that she was a boy, and it’s all over the book. Almost every other page, she says she wishes she was a boy. I think there are lots of ways to read that. We have our own particular 21st century lens on it. But I mean, to go back to the Amy proposition, she’s really stating a fact, which is that boys have options and girls have none. So wouldn’t it be better to be a boy? But so much of Jo and Laurie—I read in an essay about Little Women, they said that the gender reversal is so striking, even in their names. Laurie is the boy with the girl’s name, and Jo is a girl with a boy’s name. And Laurie in many ways is more of a dandy or flâneur in that kind of 19th-century style of masculinity.

There’s a hilarious section where like Laurie buys too many neckties, which Jo always chastises him for. He’s really into fashion and she’s like, “You shouldn’t be that way.” I mean, he’s a hilarious character. He’s preening a little bit, and Jo thinks he’s ridiculous. But there’s gender reversal stuff all over the book. And what I loved about Jo and Laurie as embodied by Saoirse and Timothée, is they’re both so physically, simultaneously handsome and beautiful. They are each other’s mirror. Timothée is both handsome and beautiful. Saoirse is both handsome and beautiful. And when they stand together, they both look like they are occupying some middle gender, which is superior to all of us.

DEADLINE: Did you always know you wanted those two in those roles?

GERWIG: Well, when I was writing I didn’t notice Saoirse yet, because I hadn’t made Lady Bird. So, Saoirse told me she was going to play Jo, essentially. She knew I’d been working on it, and she said, “I know you’re going to make Little Women, and I would like to play Jo. And I will.” And I said, “Oh, well, good. Right.”

Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet in 'Little Women'
Sony Pictures

And then as soon as I knew it was her, then I knew it was Timothée. Casting is so strange. But once I said that out loud it was just so obvious that that was the correct thing to do.

DEADLINE: The way you have everyone talking over each other feels like a musical number. It was orchestrated perfectly. How did that idea germinate?

GERWIG: Well, when I was writing it, I was directing it in my mind and I heard it at a very specific pace and I saw the camera moves in a very specific way while I was doing it. I wanted the camera to be like a dancer with these sisters, a partner to them to capture them. And I didn’t want it to be messy, I wanted it to be very clearly plotted out. We were very often on a dolly and a dance floor so that we had these precise choreographed moves with all those girls. But then it was that it could stop and just be static, like a painting and then continue to move. And I heard it, and felt it in this rhythm that was so thick. Truly, it was taking those lines that are so famous and so known, and then having them set at lightning speed overlapping very specifically, and then having a camera twirl and dance with them. I thought, I want it to feel like just the utter joy of both youth but also cinema for me.

DEADLINE: You and Amy Pascal created quite real closeness for the cast before you started shooting. But Florence Pugh, who plays Amy, was still shooting Midsommar. How did you bring everyone together?

GERWIG: Well, the rehearsal’s my favorite thing to do, because it’s the time that you get to really explore possibilities without the pressure of the clock running, and it allowed the sisters to become a sort of four-headed beast. We were sending Florence audio tapes of the girls rehearsing because of all the timing. And I would read where I wanted her to come in, or the man who was working with us on accents would do her part. And then, you know, in a funny way it was so perfect that Amy waltzed in after the work was done.

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