There were countless tributes on social media earlier this month when David Bowie died. One moment that kept popping up was Greta Gerwig’s scene from Francis Ha as she’s running through the streets of New York City while Bowie’s “Modern Love” blasts on the soundtrack. It’s a scene that captures the spirit of the song. Gerwig – who is promoting two movies at the Sundance Film Festival – never met Bowie, but she saw that scene mentioned a lot on the day he passed. And Gerwig has a lot of opinions about Bowie.
Gerwig is promoting both Maggie’s Plan and Wiener-Dog, two very different movies. In Rebecca Miller’s Maggie’s Plan, Gerwig plays the title character, a woman who falls in love with an older married man (Ethan Hawke), then, after he leaves his wife for her, she decides that he’s truly better off with his ex-wife and formulates a plan to reunite them. In Todd Solondz’s Wiener-Dog, Gerwig plays Dawn Wiener (the same character Heather Matarazzo played in Solondz’s 1995 breakthrough Welcome to the Dollhouse), a woman who comes into possession of a dachshund. The dog then changes hands a few times during the film as we jump in and out of characters’ lives as it follows this dog.
I met Gerwig off Main Street here in Park City, Utah, to discuss everything from Bowie to Daniel Day-Lewis. And to discuss Gerwig’s big news, that Brooklyn’s Saoirse Ronan will be in Gerwig’s first solo directorial effort, Lady Bird.
It was just announced Saoirse Ronan will be in your solo directorial debut, Lady Bird. That’s big news.
I know. I know.
How does that happen? Did you make contact with her at all?
Well, kind of. It was a very fortuitous turn of events. She ended up reading the script and really connected to it. Then I met her and we read it together and she’s so instantly great. It was written in the stars a bit and I’m very lucky it happened the way it did. But, yeah, it was fortuitous.
It was already getting a lot of attention because it’s your first movie directing by yourself, and now with her…
I know. She’s the best. In a way, I’m so happy that all of this has happened for her. But it’s not the basis of my interest. She was great no matter what. But, I’m so glad, it’s so great to reward the good guys.
But now you don’t have to tell people, “Oh, you’re going to love her.” People already know.
Yes, that’s true. And she’s just a tremendous talent and what a face. I couldn’t be more honored that she’s going to be in the film.
When David Bowie passed away, your scene in Francis Ha, running through the streets of New York City to “Modern Love,” was mentioned quite a bit.
David Bowie, when I found out he died I was really sad about it. I had never met him, but he always felt like my rock star of all the other rock stars. They don’t make them like that anymore. There is no new David Bowie. I remember when I first saw him when I was in high school, first heard his music, and I felt like, “Why has nobody told me about this man who is a space alien who is a woman who is a man who writes these great rock songs and is writing about spiders from Mars. Anyway, that I’ve managed to make something that’s associated with him at all is great. I’m very honored.
I’ve always wondered this: If you act in a Rebecca Miller movie like Maggie’s Plan, does Daniel Day-Lewis ever just show up on set?
That sound intimidating. Is he just bringing coffee or saying hi?
It was worse than that, he brought P.T. Anderson. All of a sudden I looked up at the monitor and I was like, “Rebecca, what the fuck have you done?”
What scene was this?
We were outside in New York, I remember I looked up in the monitor and thought, Oh no, what must they think?. But they are both very nice and very cordial. I have a lot of affection, obviously for Rebecca and him together. They are such artists of integrity. It’s really amazing that they are together and the way they both make art.
Maggie is an interesting role, because we don’t always agree with what she’s doing.
There was something about Maggie that was utterly guileless, even though she is making questionable decisions at some points. I don’t think she’s a manipulative person…
But she manipulates.
You know what, I actually think she manages.
When you watch, it feels like something is wrong about it, even though the end result is probably right.
But she does have this sense that once she sees the truth of a situation, it’s hard for her not to act out that truth. Everyone knows the word ruthless…
She’s not ruthless.
There’s a word “ruth,” which is the opposite of ruthless. And Maggie, to me, is full of ruth.
You’re also in Weiner-Dog, which is playing Sundance. I’m guessing a Todd Solondz set is a lot different than a Rebecca Miller set.
You’re playing Dawn Wiener, a character that already existed in his universe, in Welcome to the Dollhouse.
And has already been killed off in his universe and is now played by a different person. I just saw the movie for the first time last night. I adored it, and I adored Todd. And, in a way, I think it was easier for me to watch because I knew I was only in a section.
Do you like watching your own movies?
No. I mean, I can get past it. I think I’m a bit better at it than other actors because I’ve been so involved in the creation of my movies, that I’ve had to look at cuts and edits and I’ve had to take myself out of it and ask myself if it’s telling the story at every moment. So I’m not judging my performance so much on, “Is this a good performance or not?,” and more, “Is this telling this story we need to be telling at the moment?” So, I’m better at it.
So Friday at the premiere, seeing it for the first time in that setting is unusual for you.
I was talking last night at the party and the last time I felt so excited in the movie theater and had that genuine excitement that movies could be anything was when I saw Holy Motors.
That’s a great movie.
And it has an intermission.
With a musical number.
With the accordions in that church, and they are marching around and you are like, “What is happening?” It you just feel like you can do anything you want.
Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.