Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha (2012)
Stories & Ideas

Tue 04 Jul 2023

Greta Gerwig – rhythm and momentum

Film Pop culture Retrospective
Philippa Hawker ACMI
Philippa Hawker

Film & arts writer

From Hannah Takes the Stairs to Little Women, The actor-writer-director brings a distinctive, unburdened kinetic energy to her films, on screen and behind the camera.

There is a scene in Frances Ha (2012) in which Greta Gerwig, playing the title character, runs, lopes, leaps and dances along New York streets, with David Bowie’s Modern Love on the soundtrack, as the camera races to keep pace with her. It is a talismanic scene for all kinds of reasons.

The body in motion is important in Gerwig’s work as an actor. In a short audiovisual essay called Greta Moves, Luis Azevedo has given a perfect demonstration of this, carefully assembling and matching clips from a dozen of her screen appearances between 2006 and 2016. They range from actual dance scenes to moments of vivid, eloquent physicality; sometimes it is simply how she walks across the room, or leans against the door. Azevedo devised it as a tribute to the distinctive quality of her kinetic energy, something she has also brought, in various ways, to her work as a filmmaker.

Frances Ha, a pivotal film for Gerwig as both actor and writer, draws to a close with a sequence in which Frances, a dancer and teacher, creates a work for her students. Her choreography is based on what is known as “release technique”, using gravity and momentum, so that a falling motion becomes the means to rise up. It feels like a clue to many characters she has played or written, to the significance of rhythm and momentum in her approach to structure, dialogue and pacing.

Greta Gerwig dancing in the street in Frances Ha (2012)

Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha (2012) © Transmission

When Gerwig started working on the Frances Ha screenplay, it took her a while to get a fix on the title character. Something finally clicked when she wrote a scene about Frances helping her old dance teacher to carry groceries home. This extended sequence, Gerwig told an interviewer, revealed a person who was “kind of sincere and sweet but also a complete wrecking ball”. In other words, Frances at her paradoxical best and worst — and in that balancing of opposites, a quintessential Gerwig figure.

The scene itself did not make it into the final film, but the insights did. It was the specificity that was the point: the opportunity to clarify a character, her traits, her flaws and strengths, and to think about how she existed in the world. Frances Ha, shot in austere, evocative black and white, introduces us to a character at a moment when her life is about to start falling apart, when nothing feels quite stable or within her control anymore.

The film also introduces a tendency that runs through Gerwig’s work as writer and director: romantic partners, whether past, present or prospective, are almost always at the periphery. Loneliness can be deep and painful for the young women at the centre of her stories, and there are moments when they reflect on this with feeling (Frances Ha and Little Women are cases in point). But the films are more concerned with what else is happening to them and around them, to different kinds of thematic emphasis.

Josh Hamilton, Britta Phillips, Dean Wareham, Juliet Rylance, Greta Gerwig, and Grace Gummer in Frances Ha (2012)

Josh Hamilton, Britta Phillips, Dean Wareham, Juliet Rylance, Greta Gerwig and Grace Gummer in Frances Ha (2012) © Transmission

Filmmaking was not something Gerwig originally envisaged for herself. She says that it was not until she saw the 1999 French feature Beau Travail in college, and noticed that it was directed by Claire Denis, that she realised that there were women directors. She had gravitated early to dance, theatre, performance and playwriting, and these elements have found their way into her screen work, directly and indirectly.

Growing up in Sacramento, California, Gerwig attended a single-sex Catholic high school, studied ballet and dance, did school plays and musicals. She had hoped to be admitted to a musical theatre course but instead went to Barnard, a liberal arts women’s college in New York. There she studied English and philosophy and did plays and revues. Her filmmaking career began almost by chance while she was still in college. She was asked to contribute some voicemails and videos to LOL, an early project from Chicago independent filmmaker Joe Swanberg. After graduation, and unsuccessful applications to MFA playwriting programs, she took up Swanberg’s invitation to move to Chicago and joint a close-knit group of friends making ultra-low-budget films.

She made several works with members of this loose coalition. In Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007), she plays an intern at a small production company who breaks up with her boyfriend then becomes involved with two of her colleagues. Baghead (2008) is a very different beast, a sly, self-referential horror comedy about aspiring actors and filmmakers and a trip to the country that turns weird. Nights and Weekends (2008) is a two-hander in which she and Swanberg, sharing writer and director credits, play a couple whose relationship is in flux. Over two sections, filmed a year apart, the power dynamic between the two has shifted.

These works were made with an all-hands-on-deck approach to filmmaking, and they were based on improvisation. They already show her talents as an actor and a screen presence: a looseness and unselfconsciousness, a seemingly effortless quality that co-exists with a sharp sense of comic timing and a gift for conveying what happens between the lines in dialogue.

Greta Gerwig, Steve Zissis, Ross Partridge and Elise Muller in Baghead (2008)

Greta Gerwig, Steve Zissis, Ross Partridge and Elise Muller in Baghead (2008) © Visit Films

When she auditioned for Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg (2010), she was entering new territory. Reading his precisely detailed screenplay, she has said, was a kind of revelation for her. She was cast in a lead role, opposite Ben Stiller, as Florence, a young woman who works as a personal assistant in Los Angeles and becomes entangled with her boss’s angry, damaged, self-sabotaging brother (Stiller).

Her performance brought critical attention and considerable praise. The role gave Gerwig a profile, yet Hollywood had few ideas about what to do with her acting talents. Writer-director Whit Stillman’s idiosyncratic, graceful campus caprice, Damsels in Distress (2011) is something different: it highlights her lightness, her comic timing and her dance moves, as she brings a combination of earnestness, angst and screwball verve to the role.

After Greenberg, she and Baumbach had decided to work on a script together. Frances Ha emerged from the process, and in the course of the collaboration, they became a couple. Her next screenplay with Baumbach was Mistress America (2015), which he also directed. It is another New York story, the tale of two young women in a relationship of mutual dependency and manipulation. A college student and aspiring writer, Tracy (Lola Kirke), falls in with Brooke, played by Gerwig, who becomes a kind of messy mentor to the younger woman. Brooke, a kind of airy steamroller, a mixture of ambition and delusion, is an alluring figure for Tracy, but she is also grist for Tracy's creative mill, material for a piece of fiction she is gradually constructing.

Greta Gerwig and Lola Kirke in Mistress America (2015)

Greta Gerwig and Lola Kirke in Mistress America (2015) © Walt Disney Company Australia

Several of Gerwig’s screenplays draw on biographical details from her life, such as her hometown, her adolescent passions and her alma mater. In Frances Ha, Gerwig’s parents play Frances’s mother and father in a couple of brief scenes; in Lady Bird (2017), the main character, like Gerwig, attends a Catholic high school in Sacramento, and dreams of studying in New York.

Lady Bird is Gerwig’s first feature as a solo writer and director, and she does not appear in the film. The central character, Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan), is in her last year of high school, in 2002, and she is bursting with a desire for experience. Her abrasive, edgy, intimate relationship with her mother (Laurie Metcalf) constantly threatens to boil over, as the mother hovers and prods and seeks to be helpful while controlling, while the daughter is always pushing back. We learn, at the beginning of the film, how reckless Lady Bird is prepared to be in order to make a point to her mother: this shows the body in motion with a vengeance.

Lady Bird is also generous with its secondary characters, who are given moments of weight and specificity, and the opportunity to reverse expectations. Familiar Gerwig themes are in play once more: intense female friendship, vocation, solitude, self-fashioning, a sense of place combined with the yearning for elsewhere, an evocative exploration of what it is to be a young woman, all expressed in sharp, vivid detail. Financial constraint is a recurring element in her work; so is the desire to make art, to be part of a creative world, and the complicated repercussions this can involve.

Saoirse Ronan and Greta Gerwig in Lady Bird (2017)

Saoirse Ronan and Greta Gerwig behind the scenes of Lady Bird (2017) © Universal Pictures

These themes are very much part of Little Women, Gerwig’s second feature as a solo writer-director. The film is both a departure and a continuation for her. It is a more expansive production, her version of Louisa M. Alcott’s much-adapted, popular and influential 19th-century novel, the story of four sisters that is set around the period of the Civil War.

One of Gerwig’s boldest decisions has to do with time and momentum. She uses two timelines, seven years apart. The film begins with the later timeline, in the winter of 1868, as a young woman Jo March (Saoirse Ronan), visits a New York publisher to find a buyer for a story she has written. Having made the sale, she runs through the streets, exultantly, in a moment irresistibly reminiscent of the scene from Frances Ha. The sense of pressure and release, the intertwined themes of money and creativity, are immediately apparent.

Saoirse Ronan in Little Women (2019)

Saoirse Ronan in Little Women (2019) © Sony Picture Classics

In this interwoven double timeline, past and present press on each other. Dialogue and detail are drawn not only from Little Women, but also from other parts of Alcott’s writing, including her diaries and letters, as well as her biography. As always with Gerwig, rhythm and pacing are a focus in every aspect of the production process. But it begins with the screenplay. “I do think about the rhythm of the words, it’s a big deal for me as a writer,” she said in an interview. The way that it sounds, “almost musically, is how I know a thing is done.”

– Philippa Hawker is a writer on film and the arts. She is working on a book about Jean-Pierre Léaud.

This essay was written for Focus on Greta Gerwig (Thu 6 – Sun 23 Jul 2023)

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