Thrillist: The way you decided to approach the story gets into some of the problems or quibbles people have had with Little Women over the years. Why does Amy marry Laurie? Why does Jo end up with Professor Bhaer? Did you go in knowing these were things you needed to address?
Greta Gerwig: My first layer of approaching this story is love of the book. That's where I began and there is so much of the book that struck me as so wildly modern and so important to tell right now. When I was reading it as an adult I kept underlining passages and writing, "Do people know this is in this book?" on the side. Even though I read it so many times when I was a girl, reading it as an adult I thought, "Oh my god. This is even more alive than I had remembered." My first aim was bringing out what was already there. And the second thing that was compelling to me was, as I was researching Louisa May Alcott, Louisa May Alcott had a relationship to these quote-unquote "problems." Particularly, Jo getting married, which was never something she wanted Jo to do. So as I started looking at that, what my guiding light became was, "How do I not change what's in the book, but bring out what's already there, and how do I make a film that Louisa May Alcott would have liked?" Then I was able to do things like have the publisher say things like, "Frankly, I don't understand why she didn't marry the neighbor." Because I know that everyone for all time has asked that question and because of the way I structured that film was able to actually have someone say that.
At what point did you hit on the alternating timeline structure?
Gerwig: When I read the book as an adult I was so struck by the sections when they are adults because being an adult I read them in a new way. I thought they were sort of amazing and incredibly compelling: Amy in Europe, contending with whether or not she is a great artist is completely fascinating and interesting; Meg, who is married and has children and who is what you would consider to be narratively closed as a character because she is married, dealing with domestic frustrations and being left alone with her young children and spending too much money and not telling her husband about it. Beth is at home alone in her childhood dealing with what she knows is her own death. I thought, "Jesus Christ, this is fascinating." And then I realized once those girls are all separate as adults they are never going to be all together again. The thing they miss is already gone. They'll never get it back.
I found that to be very moving, and it allowed the thing that they are looking back at and that they are yearning for in some way to be the thing that the audience is also yearning for. It was something that occurred to me also because there's so much doubling in the book between the first half and the second half. The most obvious one, the initial one that I was moved by was that, as a child, the magic of childhood is when Beth gets sick she gets better. In adulthood, when Beth gets sick she dies. I found doubling all over. When Meg goes to Vanity Fair, people at Vanity Fair call her Daisy, and when she's grown up and has kids she calls her daughter Daisy. When they are children, Amy burns Jo's book in a fit of rage. When they are adults, Jo burns her own writing because she feels it's not worthy. And this is all from the book. I'm not making any of this up. When I started finding all these doublings between childhood and adulthood, I started thinking what would happen if I just grafted these on top of one another. I found it to be this amazing experience of having your life explained to you by where you've been.
The parallels in the Beth sequence destroyed me, emotionally.
Gerwig: Oh good.
Alcott describes Professor Bhaer as "neither rich nor great, young nor handsome." But you cast Louis Garrel, who is very handsome. What was your thinking there?
Gerwig: Right, no. She describes Professor Bhaer as being a not attractive middle-aged German man. But this is the movies. I get to do what I want. Little Women is about so many things: It's about ambition, it's about art, it's about money, it's about family, it's about how do you grow up. But one thing it's about is female desire, and it's about female desire for lots of things and the multiplicity of female desire. As a filmmaker, I'm hesitant to talk about things like "the female gaze" because I feel like that's a purview that should be left to journalists and academics. I don't tend to think about it that way.
But to be honest with the characters of Professor Bhaer and Laurie, I did want to introduce the feeling of "what if we treated the men in this movie the way we usually treat girls?" Let's give Laurie a slo-mo shot of walking down the street. That's how Amy sees him. He's the object of desire. To make Professor Bhaer incredibly handsome was another example of movie-making and making him what we think of as a movie romantic character. So much of the book within the book is the past and the present, which becomes, for me as a filmmaker, the movie within the movie. It's the story I'm telling within the story I'm telling: The handsome man and the kiss and the rain and the chase.
The whole thing of it is about the signifiers of movie romance. In particular, someone mentioned, "When Professor Bhaer shows up at the end it's very deus ex machina?" That's literally what it is. That's what it is in the book. That's what we're doing. We're saying, "He's coming to save her." From what? I don't know! From writing? That's sort of what happens in the book. Playing with that is part of what I'm doing.