Sacramento is the capital city of the most populous state in the country. Yet as movies and pop culture romanticize Hollywood and San Francisco, it tends to get lost in the shuffle.
Sacramento also is the hometown of actress Greta Gerwig (Mistress America), who proudly puts it in the spotlight in Lady Bird, her directorial debut about a teenager striving for independence while balancing adolescent obligations during her final year of high school.
“Cinema, more than any other medium, is really a way you can capture a place. A lot of movies take place in New York and Los Angeles, but I’m interested in what the stories are in places that aren’t as well documented,” Gerwig said by phone. “I’d always wanted to make a movie about home, and how home only really comes into focus when you’re leaving it. It’s very hard to understand what it means to you, and how much you love it, when you’re only 17 years old.”
The film chronicles the gently comic adventures of Christine (Saoirse Ronan) — who prefers the titular nickname — trying to navigate her senior year at a Catholic high school while applying to colleges, dealing with relationships, and enduring her overbearing but well-meaning mother (Laurie Metcalf), a nurse trying to support the family after her husband (Tracy Letts) loses his job.
Gerwig’s screenplay offers an exploration of relationships between teenage classmates but also of mothers and daughters who frequently are more alike than different, even though they might hate to admit it.
“I’m so interested in young women coming into their own personhood. But I wanted to make a film where the adult world is just as vivid as the teenage world, where the parents and teachers weren’t just a joke,” Gerwig said. “One person’s coming of age is another person’s letting go, and I’m just as interested in the letting go. I love how rich and complicated it is.”
Gerwig went to an all-girls Catholic school in Sacramento, but she insists the autobiographical connections with the protagonist stop there.
“I wasn’t like Lady Bird. I never made anyone call me by a different name. I was much more of a rule-follower and a people-pleasing kid who wanted a gold star and to be on the honor roll,” she said. “The character was a way I could explore some things that I didn’t have access to. In a funny way, it’s almost the opposite of how I was. The events of the film are not the events of my life, but the core of the story is very close to my heart.”
While Gerwig was putting together the cast, Ronan (Atonement) read the script and contacted her, saying she really responded to the character even though she’s from a small town in Ireland.
“We met up and read the whole script out loud. She read all of Lady Bird’s lines and I read everybody else’s lines. I knew by Page 2 that she was exactly right,” Gerwig said. “The way she performed was both exactly how I thought it would be and totally different than I thought it would be. She also had an ability to be quite funny by just being incredibly truthful.”
Gerwig, 34, believed in the actress to the extent that she delayed the start of production for several months to allow Ronan to finish performing The Crucible on Broadway.
She’s always wanted to be a writer-director, but Gerwig never went to film school. Instead, she dabbled in writing and producing while building a steady acting career for more than a decade. She felt Lady Bird was the right time to make the transition.
“I felt like I had to learn my craft on set. I spent 10 years pretty much doing any job that anyone would give me. I saw how a lot of different directors work and saw up-close what the process was,” she said. “This story was so close to me and I felt like I had such a vivid sense of what it should look like and sound like. I was so grateful that I spent all that time absorbing craft and technique.”