In 20th Century Women, Greta Gerwig plays a free-spirited punk photographer who, along with Annette Bening and Elle Fanning, teaches a teenage boy about girls, life and love. Set in Santa Barbara in 1979, the A24 coming-of-age dramedy — currently playing exclusive engagements in Los Angeles and New York — is based on the experiences of its writer-director, Mike Mills.
Gerwig is known as an indie darling who made big impressions starring in 2012’s Frances Ha and 2015’s Mistress America. She is also appearing in the Natalie Portman starrer Jackie, playing Jacqueline Kennedy’s assistant, Nancy Tuckerman, and she is currently editing Lady Bird, a comedy she wrote and directed that stars Saoirse Ronan, Lucas Hedges, Laurie Metcalf and Tracy Letts.
Gerwig, 33, spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about researching the ’70s, the advice Mills gave her as she embarked on Lady Bird and how she’d advise those entering the industry today.
What do you admire about your character, Abbie, in 20th Century Women?
Her willingness to be wrecked by something. She allows herself to go through the hard things fully because she’s an artist. She’s allergic to things that aren’t true, and I admire that.
What sort of research materials did Mike Mills give you?
He gave me a thumb drive of music from 1979, which I then tracked down in record form. I took photography lessons to use these 1970s cameras Abbie would’ve used and learned how to develop film. I looked at photography and art books, and read a lot of art criticism and feminist essays — particularly Susan Sontag and her writings on photography — but also about the intellectual questions of the ’70s. And because Abbie was based on his sister, I spoke to her a lot, who also gave me food for thought.
Mike was always giving me something new to look at. Directors don’t usually give all the material, but I love it. The more material they give me, the better; I have all these points of reference that feel vivid. When I suddenly feel like I can’t find my footing, I listen to a song or look at a photograph or read an essay, and reconnect with what I felt the essence of the character was.
What are some standout artists from the playlist?
I’m pretty well-versed in music, so I knew the biggies: David Bowie, Talking Heads, Iggy Pop. But I didn’t know The Raincoats and The Slits — they’re both all-female punk bands. I really felt like I connected to something through them. The Raincoats had a great explanation about the history of rock ‘n’ roll being a heteronormative art form — men singing about women. So if you’re an all-female band, how do you write a song if, basically, that’s the only song that’s ever written? They felt they had to break apart the whole language of music to write a truly feminist song.
There’s a scene in which the cast watches Jimmy Carter’s Crisis of Confidence speech. What was that like to shoot?
I had heard of it as the “malaise” speech, but he never actually says that word. When I started to prepare for the movie, I watched the whole speech online. It’s beautiful and incredibly prophetic and also incomprehensible for today’s ears that a president would say something like that on national television. When we shot it, our faces watching the speech are real. Then we all just talked about the speech: how relevant it is and how brave it was to say.
What was it like to work with Annette Bening?
She’s one of my favorite actresses of all time. I think, like so many people who are blessed with some genius, it’s like breathing to them. I loved watching how she never lost her intelligence about creating a character. She’s very smart, and she used every ounce of that to help her figure it out with every single character she plays.
You’re also in Jackie. Is it important for you to be in projects that center on women?
Yeah. When I write movies, I really only write about women. There are male characters, but I’m mostly interested in women. I’m interested in films about people, not stereotypes, so I tend to gravitate toward films that have complex characters for both men and women.
You’re currently editing Lady Bird, which you wrote and directed. Did fellow writer-director Mills share any advice?
He did. We talked about it a lot. He read my script and gave me notes. He was incredibly helpful. I loved the way he ran his set so much; he really has a knack for making a set feel like a warm, inclusive place. I wanted to talk to him about how he achieved that.
Is it tough working on Lady Bird while promoting movies you’re in?
Whether you’re writing or acting, you just have to honor the thing you’re making. It can be a little hard to see other movies while you’re making one because you think, “Well, my movie’s not like that.” There’s this great story of when Francis Ford Coppola saw French Connection while editing The Godfather, and he thought, “Oh no, this is great and my movie’s nothing like this, and my movie’s just gonna be a slow, boring, dark movie.” He asked his editors, who had also seen French Connection, “Do you think people will think our movie is boring?” And they said yes! So you just gotta make what you’re making, “dance with the date that brung ya” and try to make it the best you can.
What advice would you give to those entering the industry today?
Make your own things. Even if it’s just a short play with friends or a movie you put up on YouTube, it helps you figure out how to make things and what you’re good at, and it gives you community quickly. I think you’ll get more from it than it takes from you.
This article was originally published by The Hollywood Reporter