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6 Filmmaking Tips From Greta Gerwig

The ‘Lady Bird’ director gives advice to fellow first-timers.
Greta Gerwig
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By  · Published on November 2nd, 2017

Welcome to Filmmaking Tips, a long-running column in which we gather up the shared knowledge of a particular filmmaker and assemble it all into the internet’s favorite thing: a list. This one is about the filmmaking of Greta Gerwig.

Almost a decade after co-directing the mumblecore classic Nights and WeekendsGreta Gerwig has made her solo debut as a filmmaker with Lady Bird. The feature is garnering so much praise that she’s coming off like a seasoned pro. Maybe that’s because she’s not entirely green to the process of making movies and has spent the last 10 years co-creating such films as Hannah Takes the StairsFrances Ha, and Mistress America.

Gerwig has been doling out advice for a while, mainly for writers, but more of it is coming with the success of Lady Bird, particularly for other first-time directors. This includes a number of tips given last week at the opening night Austin Film Festival screening of the new movie. We were on hand to get her words of wisdom directly, and we’ve added them to other nuggets collected from interviews over the years below.

The filmmaking lessons we can learn from Greta Gerwig

1. Writing is Listening

The first of Gerwig’s tips given at the AFF screening Q&A has to do with writing. Asked for advice for writers starting out, she compared the craft to acting, explaining how the former requires even more openness and how she starts out with nothing and lets the world and the characters of a story guide her through it:

“Something people say about acting is that acting is listening. But I think that writing is listening too. That you really have to listen to what are they saying and what they’re communicating to you. And so, a lot of it is just getting stuff down. I do a combination of slowing everything down. I mean this is really specific writing stuff but often I’ll write entire… I need to know how everybody got from location to location, which sounds incredibly boring except there might be a scene in there. It’s almost like I have to explore what the entire world of the movie is and figure out what has the heart of the story.”

Gerwig had something similar to say at this year’s New York Film Festival:

“I don’t really decide what the core of the story is before I write. I write to figure out what the story is. And I think the characters end up talking to you and telling you what they want to be doing and what is important to them. So in some ways, your job is to listen as much as it is to write. And to listen to what it is these characters that are coming through you are telling you.”

See the rest of that interview, featuring more of Gerwig talking about the writing process, here:

2. Figure Out What You Hate

In another piece of advice for writers from the AFF screening Q&A, Gerwig explained how inspiration for a script can come from things you dislike — things you think could have been better in other people’s movies:

“This sounds negative, but I don’t mean it negative. I would say figure out what you hate. Actually figure out what you hate. Figure out what you in a movie theater would think ‘if I see another scene like this, I’m going to rip my hair out.’ Or if I see another character do this thing. Because I do think it gives you a kind of energy, a kind of anger, and a kind of ability to set out your own thing.”

Last year, Gerwig told interviewer Sam Jones on Off Camera something similar about how she writes:

“I’m so interested in taking tropes from other movies and putting them on something where it doesn’t belong. And it’s not like then we literally wrote it around that. We started writing this character and we started writing these scenes, and it’s like a magic eye picture.”

Watch more of that interview here:

3. Story Structure is Your Birthright

In that same Off Camera interview, Gerwig goes on to discuss story structure and how this isn’t something we need to learn because it’s an innate thing in all of us:

“I think structure is so deep in us. We put it in stories we tell our friends or in emails we write. We want it. It’s how we create meaning. So I feel like sometimes coming at it from an analytical way, it’s like denying your birthright, which is story structure. Your birthright is story structure. You have it. You don’t need to teach yourself how to do it by the fact that you exist with language.”

Watch another Off Camera clip where Gerwig talks about writing scripts that don’t seem like they’re scripted here:

4. Acting is Good Training for Directing

Gerwig is known first and foremost as an actress, and she recommends having some acting experience if you want to be a director. Maybe you don’t need to make that your primary career like she has (and received a Golden Globe nomination for), but the experience is helpful in learning from other directors and in knowing how best to direct other actors. From the NYFF screening Q&A:

“I do feel that working as an actor, for so many reasons, is such good training for directing. Most directors are only ever on their own sets. They don’t actually know how anyone else does it. And I’ve been on a lot of sets. And I’ve seen a lot of different ways of working, and a lot of different ways of relating to actors and crew. And I’ve sort of seen what works and what doesn’t work. I took all of these ideas that I’ve been gathering over the years, and they could be as little as things like having your crew wear name tags every day. Which sounds small, but actors actually, if you switch out the camera operator, and they don’t know who the new person is and you know because you’ve talked to them, but they don’t know. I stole that from Mike Mills on ‘20th Century Women.’ So I felt like that was helpful. My greatest joy is working with actors, and watching them bring life to these things that I’ve put on the page, that are essentially dead until they bring their spirit and their artistry to it. So I adore them and I think they know that. And I have a lot of empathy for what I am asking of them because I’ve been there. And it’s hard. So I try to bring sensitivity to it.”

Here’s an interview from last year, while Gerwig was promoting her performance in Maggie’s Plan, in which she talks about how directors should have some acting experience:

5. Take Up Space

At the AFF screening, Gerwig was asked how women, particularly actresses, can “grab credibility from the jowls of hell as a writer/writer-director.” Her answer was related again to her lengthy experience working on other people’s movies:

“Take up a lot of space. And actually, don’t feel like anyone is ever going to give you permission to do anything. I think a lot of women wait for permission. They wait for someone to say ‘it’s time’ and ‘go ahead.’ And no one will ever do that. It just never happens. So I think, take up space. Put your name all over a movie. Just every credit.”

In a recent Script magazine interview, Gerwig mentions some of those credits:

“I apprenticed myself in many areas. I’ve been lucky enough to work as an actress with wonderful directors, but I’ve also co-written and co-directed, and held the boom, and costumed and had done makeup, was a production assistant, basically everything you can do on a film set. Even though it’s my first writing and directing venture, it’s also an accumulation of all I have learned over the last 10 years.”

Gerwig also stresses, in a recent RogerEbert.com interview, that you have to just make the leap:

“I’ve been making films for 11 years now, and I feel like I was working on films as my film school because that was what was available to me and it was such an amazing classroom in a way. I co-directed, and then I was writing, co-writing and then I wrote on my own, and then it was just, there was a moment when I finished this script and it was done, when I felt you just have to jump. You have to do this, or you’ll never do it. And I’d always really wanted to. Courage doesn’t grow overnight. It can be a long process. Now I feel like that first mountain is probably the hardest, but it definitely needs to be crossed.”

Here, at the Toronto International Film Festival premiere of Lady Bird, she speaks to the same idea of just taking chances:

6. It’s Hard No Matter Who You Are

Gerwig’s experience and fame may have helped her get to the point that she could direct a movie, and the experience definitely helped her in the work itself, but she recognizes that there are bigger talents than her out there, as well as smaller, and all are just the same when it comes to making movies. No matter who you are, you’re going to have to work really hard. From a 2013 NPR Fresh Air interview:

“Whenever you work with someone who you idolize, you realize … he’s just a person trying to make a movie as best he knows how. And that doesn’t look so different from other people trying to do the same thing. And he’s wildly smart and brilliant and funny, but it’s moviemaking, and there’s something kind of democratic about how difficult it is. Because everybody — whether you’re Woody Allen or Noah [Baumach] or P.T. Anderson — it’s HARD. Making movies is a hard thing, and it’s slow. So you can glorify the product, but the process is difficult no matter who you are.”

In a recent Awards Daily interview, she combined the last two tips, starting by talking of how her experience being around other directors helped shape how she took on the job:

“It was invaluable, all of the lessons that I had received, and it was everything from tiny lessons to huge lessons. From how to speak to a crew, to how to set up a shot, and my belief that everyone should wear name tags, right to prohibiting cellphones on set. Overall, it was the absolute relentless work ethic you need to have to finish a film. At the end of the day, it’s at least two solid years of work and work that you are there for every single moment of. It’s enormously satisfying but it requires an indomitable mindset because there is so much that can go wrong. One of the pleasures of taking this film to festivals is talking to all these different directors who have films and just how supportive everyone is because everyone knows how difficult this is to do.”

Note the name tag Gerwig is wearing while directing Saorsie Ronan in ‘Lady Bird.’

What we’ve learned about filmmaking

Creating something doesn’t take training, just a natural knack for telling stories and the patience to listen to your characters in order to find the story you’re telling. From there, though, it does help if you’ve broken in and/or worked your way up on screen or on set. Having acting experience is a benefit, but so is just being involved and taking part in as much of the filmmaking process as possible. Most importantly, be a hard worker, because nobody makes it without persistence and a strong work ethic.

Additional reporting for this article by Natalie Mokry

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.