For 30 years, Greta Gerwig has wanted to make a Little Women movie. Well, no, she didn’t know that at the time, but this particular version of Little Women has been inside of her for that long. Louisa May Alcott’s beloved classic has often been derided for its, let’s say, uncharacteristic ending for its lead character, Jo March (played here by Saoirse Ronan). So, Gerwig did something about it, giving Little Women a more satisfying ending. (And, yes, we get into that ending a bit. So, if this something you don’t want to know anything about, you should maybe not read on if you haven’t yet seen the movie.)
Gerwig, with her all-star cast — that also includes Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Laura Dern, Timothée Chalamet, and Meryl Streep — also upends the narrative of Little Women by establishing a non-linear telling, crisscrossing the timelines, which creates a stark contrast, scene to scene, between the characters as kids and as adults. So, here’s a 151-ear-old story presented like it’s never been presented before.
Of course, Gerwig had to put up a fight. There’s meta-commentary in Little Women about the concessions creators have to make. And as Gerwig was fighting for her vision, about a character who is fighting for her vision, as Gerwig puts it, “There were moments that were extremely meta upon meta.”
Ahead, Gerwig takes us through her journey that helped her land the writing and directing job of her dreams. And, yes, a little movie called Ladybird had a lot to do with all that.
I saw this in New York at the Sony screening room, which I think was the first time you showed this movie to people. When you spoke before, I wish I could have harnessed your emotion. I’ve never seen you quite like that before.
Yeah, that was really early. That was the first one. The very first one.
I’ll never forget it, because I just raced back from being at Bruce Springsteen’s house in New Jersey and barely made it. I know that’s a weird sentence.
Oh man! I have to say, I feel like leaving Bruce Springsteen to come see my movie isn’t fair. You really should’ve just been like, “I’ll see Little Women another time, I’m going to stay with The Boss.”
To be clear, he had kicked us out by then.
Okay. I’m really glad because if you had bounced out, I would be like, that was the wrong choice.
But I am glad I made it. It’s always cool to see a filmmaker show a movie they’re proud of for the first time.
I mean, your heart’s in your throat when you show a movie for the first time. It’s a movie, too, that I’ve been actively wanting to make for at least five years. But, cumulatively, I’ve had this movie inside of me for something like 30 years.
So, the moment when you first show it, there’s no way, for whatever the experience is, to make sense of the disproportionate amount of time you’ve spent working on this and thinking about it. But it feels very vulnerable, and the truth is even though you get more used to it as time goes on as a movie is shown, you never lose it. You never lose the vulnerability and that feeling of kind of being just exposed in all ways I don’t know how you make something that you don’t feel utterly passionate about.
So I know Sony has been wanting to make this for a long time, too, and it never worked out. When did both your paths finally line up?
Well, I actually don’t know what their timeline is. I know what my timeline was: I had actually re-read the book — which I had grown up with and loved and lived through as a girl — but I had re-read the book when I was 30 and I had a very instant idea for how I would make it as a movie. And because all of these things suddenly stood out to me, like they were written in neon, which I’d never seen before, which felt so incredibly modern and pressing and necessary and I had to make it tomorrow.
And then, close to that time, I heard my agent saying, “Oh, Sony’s interested in making Little Women again.” Not even to me, to someone else! And I said, “What do you mean? I have an idea. I need to go talk to them.” I hadn’t made Ladybird yet. And I’d written with Noah [Baumbach] and I’d co-directed, but I don’t know, I was not on anyone’s list. So, sometime in 2015, I went in and talked to them and told them I wanted to write and direct it. Which was a ridiculous thing at that moment for me to say. But I was like, meh, what would Jo March do? Just tell them you’re going to do it all.
And then they said yes to the writing. And so then I wrote a couple of drafts in 2015, early 2016. And then I directed Ladybird. And then after Ladybird was out they circled back around and said, “Would you be interested in directing your script?” To which I said, “What have you been waiting for? I’ve been ready to do this since 2015!” Anyway, I don’t know exactly what their timeline was, but it was fortuitous.
That’s a great story.
It was like all roads were leading to Little Women.
When you first told them, “So here’s what I want to do with the timeline.” What were the looks on their faces?
I think they were just sort of… I will say, I think Amy Pascal, right away, when I talked to her about what I thought the book was about — how I thought it was about ambition, and money, and art, and women, and how all of those intersect — she was very excited. And she said, “Yes, I think you’re right. This is great. If you make a film where that’s the main current underneath it.” In terms of the timeline, to be honest, now that I’m thinking back on it, it was something that I knew would work, but that I had to show them it will work before anyone would believe me.
How do you do that?
I actually didn’t end up doing it the way I wrote this. I was going to go into pre-production for Ladybird, so I actually had a shortened amount of time to work on it. So I didn’t end up writing an outline or a treatment, which is usually how you go about writing studio movies — which I was grateful for because I’ve never felt that I’m particularly good at writing outlines or treatments. I felt like I need to just write the script. I have trouble writing a secondary thing that’s not the script before I write the script. So in any case, I felt that it definitely worked on the page. So that was the thing that I think convinced them it would work. And because I didn’t have to do intermediate steps, I didn’t have to debate whether or not it would work. I could just show them that it did.
But I would say, in general — not just the timeline, but the whole way of going about it — the thing I said to them and that they supported me on was: I have these feelings about how it should be done. And I have such a feeling for this book, and for these sisters, and for the story. But if I make something that’s only polite, I think we’re going to be sunk. I have to do what I see as vital about it, and I have to do it in a way that makes sense to me. And the way that made sense to me was to start with them as adults, so that I can ground the story I was telling in “locating the author.” The author as both Jo March, and Louisa May Alcott … and me.
So based on that, and maybe this is the wrong word, but is that where the meta-commentary in the film comes from? What the movie says about trying to get art made and compromises you have to make along the way?
Definitely. I mean, it was fascinating to me because, as a girl, I loved the character of Jo March because she was ambitious and she wanted to be a writer and she had an anger problem and all of those things applied to me. And I never quite internalized what the end of the book was, which is she gives up writing, she gets married, she has children, she opens her school. And when I re-read the book, I said, well, this can’t be right. Is that what happens? In my mind, she becomes the writer that I know her to be. And the truth is, in later books, Louisa May Alcott eventually does have Jo continue writing — and she writes a book and become famous and all this stuff. But in that initial Little Women, she doesn’t do any of that.
So then I started looking at Louisa May Alcott’s life and she never got married. She never had children. She did keep her copyright. She did continue writing and became fabulously wealthy and famous off of this book and off of the subsequent books. And this distance between what life was and what fiction was, it was fascinating to me. And how she altered the fictional avatar of herself to be, in some ways, less revolutionary than she was. Because how revolutionary she was still wasn’t going to sell. Which I think is really interesting. And I think as somebody who is a filmmaker, that’s the question we’re dealing with all the time because it’s a popular art form. So you’re both making something that is art, hopefully, and it is deeply felt and personal and idiosyncratic. And also you are asking to share it with people, and so you’re always balancing that.
And on top of that, it’s expensive to make movies. So what’s your obligation to the markets in terms of what are you spending? What does it need to make? It’s something I think about all the time. So when I was reading, the scene between Jo and Dashwood [Tracy Letts as the publisher] — where she’s trying to sell the story, and he’s telling her the edits he wants to make — I thought this is so wonderful. Because this was obviously written from a place of deep understanding from Louisa, and then also it could be written yesterday about me in a movie studio. Or about any writer.
This is why it might even be more meta, because I heard a rumor that you really had to fight for that different ending.
Yeah … all I’ll say is there were moments that were extremely meta upon meta when I was having further conversations about the ending.
I mean, it was surreal at points. Luckily, the thing that I was hoping would happen did happen. Which is, even though it becomes in some ways a movie within a movie, where the very thing you’re getting is being called into question as why do we need this narrative to be what we’re telling? And why do we need it to be told this way to be satisfying and yet it still is satisfying? I find it satisfying, even though I know all the ways it’s constructed. And also then, hopefully, the ultimate thing that you feel is not that this is a story of “boy gets girl,” but this is a story of “girl gets a book.” You don’t realize you want it, but hopefully you realize, as she’s holding the book, that that’s what you needed to see. But yes, the layers of their reality and meta-ness were extraordinary. But, also, actually kind of delightful and fun, even as they were happening, because it was so hilarious to me that it was actually unfolding in a not dissimilar fashion.
Well, before I saw this my Little Women knowledge was embarrassingly low. So, I didn’t remember the book’s ending, so while watching I kept thinking, “I hope she gets her book.”
Oh, wonderful! I’m so glad. That makes me really happy. So that you, as a viewer, felt that coming?
Oh for sure.
Yeah, the actual ending is sort of depressing in a way. The actual ending she’s like, “Well, I don’t write anymore.” And you’re like, what? Really?. This is something we need to correct.
Well, I know you’ve got a long road ahead during this whole awards season, but I appreciate you carving out some time here.
Well, I’m sorry you had to leave The Boss! But I’m glad you saw the movie.
Oh, I’ll never forget this day.
And I’ll be part of it.
‘Little Women’ opens in theaters on December 25th. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.