Making of 'Little Women': Greta Gerwig Gives Modern Take on 1868 Novel for Big Screen

Wilson Webb/Columbia Pictures
From left: Florence Pugh as Amy, Saoirse Ronan as Jo and Emma Watson as Meg in a scene outside the March family house, built on a lot in Concord, Massachusetts.

After a slew of Oscar noms for 'Lady  Bird,' the director turns her cameras on a 150-year-old novel: "I was seized by the spirit of Louisa  May  Alcott."

The morning after the 2018 Oscars — the one in which her film Lady Bird had been up for five awards, including best director and screenplay — Greta Gerwig loaded up her car and drove north on Highway 1 toward Big Sur. For the next couple of weeks, she hunkered down in a cabin, tapping out a screenplay for the adaptation she'd been waiting literally her entire life to film.

"Little Women was just a part of me," she says. "These girls felt like my sisters and their memories felt like my memories. It was the book for me."

Louisa May Alcott's 1868 novel following the romantic and social adventures of the four March sisters — Meg, Jo, Amy and Beth — hasn't just been a literary classic for generations. It's been a cinematic one, too, with no fewer than seven screen adaptations, including a 1917 silent version, a 1933 production with Katharine Hepburn, and a 1994 film starring Winona Ryder and Kirsten Dunst. And yet Gerwig, 36, was convinced there was room for one more. "I said, 'I have to make this movie,' " she recalls. "I felt like I was seized by the spirit of Louisa May Alcott."

Gerwig had, in fact, been seized by that spirit long before Lady Bird established her as the type of filmmaker you'd find on studio shortlists. Back in 2016, when she was still mostly known as an actress and sometime screenwriter (co-writing several movies with boyfriend Noah Baumbach), she'd heard from her agents that Columbia Pictures was kicking around the possibility of making another Little Women adaptation. Gerwig got a meeting with Amy Pascal, 61, the former Sony chief turned independent producer, and convinced her that she had a fresh and modern approach to remaking the story. "It was about how the ambition and the dreams that you have as a girl get stomped out of you as you grow up," says Pascal of the pitch. "It was about the kinds of conversations that we all have about commerce and art and what we have to do to make things commercial."

Gerwig walked away with a deal to write a script, but after a couple of drafts, got distracted by another project — her autobiographical coming-of-age tale Lady Bird — which went on to collect two Golden Globes (one for best picture, one for Saoirse Ronan's performance) and an Independent Spirit Award (best screenplay) in addition to all those Oscar noms. "After that, they said, 'Would you like to direct Little Women?' " she recalls. "And I said, 'Well, I was waiting for you to ask!' "

The screenplay she wrote in that cabin in Big Sur — using Alcott's letters and diaries, along with 19th century paintings of young women, as inspiration — turned out to be uniquely her own. Rereading the novel for the umpteenth time, but now from an adult perspective, Gerwig was struck by how immediate and contemporary the story was, despite taking place in the years after the Civil War. "To me, the book was so clearly about women, art and money," she says. "I felt like there were all these spiky things that I could really dig into." She also thought that the portion of the novel exploring the March sisters' adult lives had been left largely unexplored in the culture's collective memory. So she decided to tell her version of Little Women in a nonlinear fashion, starting with their grown-up points of view and flashing back to their childhood memories.

By June 2018, she was flying to London to meet with Jacqueline Durran, the British costume designer known for her work on Pride & Prejudice. Considering that the film called for roughly 75 principal period costumes, each of which takes approximately 40 hours to make, Durran had her work cut out for her. "They kept saying to me, 'It's not a big movie, it's not a big movie,' " she says, "but in terms of my workload, it was an enormous movie."

Casting the film didn't require a whole lot of legwork — actors were coming out of the woodwork to get involved. While doing press at the Independent Spirit Awards for Lady Bird, Ronan all but cornered Gerwig for the job. "I've never done this before, but I went up to her and aggressively tapped her on the shoulder and said, 'So I know you're doing Little Women. I really think that I should be Jo,' " says the actress. Gerwig told her she'd have to think about it, but Ronan, 25, got the part.

Meanwhile, Pascal had been having conversations with Meryl Streep. "She loved Lady Bird and was a big fan of Greta's," says the producer. Over lunch, Streep told Gerwig which part she wanted to play. "She said, 'I'll be the battle-ax. Write me a good Aunt March,' " remembers the director. "I was like, 'Yes, ma'am.' " Streep also wanted Gerwig to make it clear in the film that women not only couldn't vote in the 1800s but that their husbands owned everything they had, including their children — a point Gerwig infused into her script in the form of a monologue midway through the movie. "Meryl clarified a lot of things for me as a collaborator," says Gerwig. "She's not Meryl Streep for nothing."

Timothée Chalamet, another one of Gerwig's Lady Bird actors, was next to get cast — as Laurie, the boy next door — in part because Gerwig thought his androgynous looks dovetailed neatly with Ronan's. "[Timothée] is handsome but he's also beautiful, and Saoirse is beautiful but she's also handsome," she explains. She even had the pair swap clothing during the shoot to make their fluidity more evident. Though Emma Stone's name was at one point floated, it was another Emma (Watson) who ultimately signed on to play Meg. When she and Gerwig met up in Los Angeles, the conversation quickly turned to feminism and women's rights. "She saw this through such a clear, almost academic lens, which was exactly the kind of engagement I wanted around this film," says the director. After seeing Eliza Scanlen in Sharp Objects and Florence Pugh in Lady Macbeth, Gerwig cast them as, respectively, her Beth and Amy. The last piece to fall into place was Laura Dern as Marmee March, the girls' mom. When Gerwig called to say, "I don't know what this book meant to you but it meant all this stuff to me," Dern's reply was simple: "When do you need me by?"

By July, the team was assembled in Massachusetts, the novel's birthplace and where they'd shoot the movie in its entirety. Gerwig spent several hours driving around in a van with her production designer, Jess Gonchor, exploring possible filming locations. Harvard's Arnold Arboretum doubled as Paris, and they managed to film a scene in Alcott's father's actual schoolhouse, even though it's not open to the public. "It was incredible to make the movie in the place it was written because the whole thing seemed infused with American history and literature," says Pascal.

One of the biggest and most critical sets, of course, was the March family home, which the production built from scratch on a plot in Concord. "I wanted it to be like a mushroom growing out of the ground, that if you went by it fast enough, you wouldn't see it because they weren't a fancy family," says Gonchor, who set out to make the home resemble an old jewelry box: dark and tarnished on the outside but full of beautiful jewels, color and creativity on the inside (the interiors were filmed on a soundstage in Franklin, about an hour outside Boston).

The cast arrived for two weeks of rehearsals in October. During that time, they discussed what life was like in 1860s America, and were paid visits by an etiquette and dialogue coach. They even took a field trip to Alcott's home, Orchard House, which has been turned into a museum. The actresses also got a chance to practice Gerwig's detailed, fast-paced dialogue. "I remember looking at the script and thinking, 'Oh, Greta forgot to push the space button again,' " jokes Pugh, 23, of the overlapping lines the actors were to deliver on precise beats. "If you were slightly slacking on your line, you knew she'd be coming in to say, 'You didn't come in on the word 'but.' "

Over the course of the three-month shoot, the actors would bounce back and forth between eras, playing their older and younger selves from scene to scene. But the time frames were shot very differently. Gerwig kept telling her cinematographer, Yorick Le Saux, that she wanted the younger scenes to be "swirly," as if the camera were a fifth sister dancing along with them during their youthful romps. But in the adult scenes, she wanted the camera to be farther away and locked off, as though it were sitting in a formal place and watching the action unfold from a distance.

"It allowed me to play with this snow globe of childhood and these halcyon days that they yearned for," says Gerwig, who banned cellphones on set. She also went to great lengths to ensure authenticity onscreen, hiring professional calligraphers to reproduce Alcott's handwriting when Jo is shown penning her novel.

Not that Gerwig didn't take some liberties with the text. In her version, for instance, Jo only sort of gets married at the end. When Alcott wrote her novel, her publisher insisted on a happy romantic ending (Alcott herself never married). Gerwig weaves that history into her movie with a meta twist: When Jo writes her novel, her publisher also insists on a happy ending — which Gerwig wryly includes as a book-within-a-movie sequence, shooting it in over-the-top rom-com style, complete with backlighting and a rain machine. Not everyone got it. "It took a minute for everybody to understand what it was Greta wanted to say," says Pascal. "This is not a movie that studios are making these days. It's not your typical period piece, it's pretty meta, pretty subversive."

The production hit what Gerwig calls its "peak moment of method" when nearly everyone came down with strep throat, a precursor to scarlet fever, Beth's eventual cause of death. As close as they all were, Gerwig — who brought a little mysticism to the production by keeping crystals on set — also kept a big secret from the actors. She never revealed that she and Baumbach were going to have a baby, although she did drop some hints. "She went from eating a bag of Cheetos and a burrito for lunch on Lady Bird to having this amazing chef who would make a beautiful roast chicken and a salad for her every day," says Ronan, who was perplexed not only by Gerwig's new diet but also by the fact that she would wear multiple thick layers of clothing on hot studio soundstages. "Greta didn't want that to be part of the story," says Pascal. "She just didn't want that to distract anybody or cause anyone to treat her differently — she just wanted to be the director."

The pregnancy did, however, impact the editing process by shortening the timeline Gerwig had to turn in her cut to the studio. "Usually you get 10 weeks, but that wasn't going to work," says Pascal. Instead, she and editor Nick Houy finished the first cut in New York in about seven weeks, which was particularly challenging given the two-pronged timeline and the constant interweaving of past and present. "It was a huge gamble to do it that way, because if people are confused throughout the whole movie, you're screwed," says Houy.

So far, nobody seems all that confused. On the contrary, the Sony film has managed to drum up ample awards buzz despite skipping the festival circuit in favor of private screenings. (It arrives in theaters Christmas Day.)

And as for happy endings? As if on cue, 24 hours after Gerwig turned in her director's cut in March 2019, her baby was born. Jokes Houy, "That little [kid] is going to be doing schedules on movies in the future, because he has unbelievable timing."

This story first appeared in a November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.