Greta Gerwig on How Her 'Little Women' Adaptation Became "A Movie About Making Movies"

Greta Gerwig Getty 2019
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The award-winning director, writer and actress revealed how she used the film's editing, dialogue and dance choreography to weave together a timeless yet modern iteration during a post-screening Q&A at the 92Y.

Five years ago, Lady Bird writer-director Greta Gerwig pitched Sony her spin on Little Women, Louisa May Alcott’s popular coming-of-age classic about four sisters wrestling with their identities and futures in the aftermath of the Civil War. 

On Saturday, just days ahead of its Dec. 25th release, the director and writer was welcomed by a rousing ovation at New York’s 92Y. Following a preview screening of the film, Gerwig spoke with "Reel Pieces" moderator Annette Insdorf about how the multihyphenate — backed by a team of female producers — combined taking creative liberties with her independent film sensibilities to tell a version of the literary and studio classic that hadn’t been told before.

Throughout the hourlong conversation, Gerwig acknowledged how the act of making Little Women was quite meta, despite how different the film's three storytellers — herself, Alcott and the story’s central figure Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) — are. Those layers, of writer upon writer upon writer, turned crafting the film into something as much about the source material as “a movie about making movies” or “a movie about making art.”

“What’s fascinating to me is there’s Louisa May Alcott and her real life and then there’s Jo March, who’s sort of her avatar. Then there are all these things that are different between Louisa May Alcott and Jo March,” Gerwig said. “So there’s that dissonance, and then you’re adding me, and I’m writing her. It’s like this kaleidoscope and I felt like there was no way for me to represent all of these layers except by making something cubist.”

To construct that infinity mirror, the director said she front-loaded much of her work during prep and writing. That meant putting together a shot list and storyboard, but also writing editing cuts into her script and having her script supervisor close onset.

“I’m always thinking about what are we coming out of and what are we coming into?” the Little Women writer told the panel audience. “I thought about that in the writing, and I think about it all the way through shooting. Some of that I think is a function of coming from independent movies, because you just need to get the thing exactly as it should be.”

Having a clear vision of what she wanted this film to be meant the writer and director also knew what it wouldn’t be. For Gerwig, that was a period piece that felt weighed down by its aesthetics.

“I think often period pieces can feel quite heavy, they can feel quite nailed to the floor. Like how much everything costs, you can really see it,” Gerwig said. “And I wanted [Little Women] to feel light on its feet. I wanted it to feel irreverent. I didn’t want it to feel chaotic, I wanted it to feel very, very choreographed but I also wanted it to feel effervescent and staccato.”

Breaking away from the constraints of traditional Hollywood period pieces helped the Little Women director deliver a more modern spin chock-full of small and big creative liberties. Gerwig said she played with dialogue by pulling lines from other Alcott stories, but she also drew on the author’s own experience with poverty and used sisters Jo and Amy (Florence Pugh), especially, to make a powerful statement about the economics of womanhood, self-reliance and love. It was a message that not only drove her decision to tell this story “anew,” but distinguishes it from its predecessors.

“That question of authorship, ownership, women and money — that is what I sort of thought was at the center of [Little Women],” Gerwig told Insdorf. “It’s the thing that Virginia Woolfe wrote about in A Room of One’s Own. Everyone remembers that to write you need a room of one’s own, and it’s very romantic but she actually said you need a room of one’s own and money ... Poetry depends on intellectual freedom and intellectual freedom depends on material things.”

The film’s most prominent and memorable dance scene, a moment between Ronan and Timothee Chalamet, who plays Theodore "Laurie" Laurence, was also infused with creative liberty and a particularly modern touch. Choreographed by Monica Bill Barnes, Gerwig said she wanted the scene to retain both its groundedness and traditionality while remaining true to “the way people move in their bodies when they’re hearing music that feels modern.”

“The thing is if you lived in the 19th century and you heard a waltz, you’d be like 'No way! A waltz!' So [Barnes] made the dances and [the actors] danced to modern music,” Gerwig told the audience. “I actually had all the dances throughout the entire movie as if they were dancing to The Cure or some other modern music.”

While appearing on the panel, Gerwig also admitted to another, more cosmetic tweak that lent itself to bucking movie-making tradition. In the film, French actor Louis Garrel plays the second of Jo's suitors, professor Friedrich Bhaer. In the book, Alcott wrote the character as German and described him as “not having a single handsome feature on his face.” 

“I’m like, 'This is a movie, I’m not doing that,'” Gerwig said to a wave of audience laughter. “I mean, we don’t love Jo March because she married a German. So I took some liberties. I also felt like I was allowed to take liberties because I feel like for the history of cinema men have been putting glasses on hot women and calling them awkward.”

While Gerwig may have had fun playing with some of the male representation in the film, she said she took the job of illustrating Meg (Emma Watson), Jo, Amy and Beth's (Eliza Scanlen) separate journeys towards happiness seriously. As a filmmaker and a world-builder, the Little Women writer and director expressed a sincere belief in telling stories where “different paths have value.”

“I’m not interested in a hierarchy of lives,” Gerwig said in answer to an audience question. “Something I think about a lot, particularly with women’s stories, is that they tend not to be thought of as epic. But I’ve always thought there’s just as much epicness in the kitchen as there are on battlefields.”