Greta Gerwig Reveals the Extent of Her 'Little Women' Obsession

little women
Gerwig directing Emma Watson. | Sony Pictures
Gerwig directing Emma Watson. | Sony Pictures

When I got on the phone with Greta Gerwig to discuss her brilliant new adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's classic novel Little Women, she almost immediately made a proclamation. "I feel like maybe I deserve the title of biggest Little Women nerd of all," she declared, before quickly conceding it's actually probably a tie between her and the person who runs the Alcott house in Concord, Massachusetts. Fair enough. 

In Gerwig's defense it's not like she made this claim unprompted; I began the conversation gushing about what the book has meant to me, acknowledging that I'm sure she gets that a lot. Little Women has been a crucial text for more than a century's worth of readers, and Gerwig puts all that history into her interpretation. She gives us the March sisters -- Jo (Saoirse Ronan), Amy (Florence Pugh), Meg (Emma Watson), and Beth (Eliza Scanlen) -- both as we remember them and as we should remember them: They're children, yes, but also messy, driven, passionate young adults trying to make their way in a world full of limitations. 

Between Little Women and her 2017 directorial debut Lady Bird, Gerwig has established herself as one of cinema's foremost chroniclers of girlhood. Here, she adds her distinct authorial vision to a classic, telling the sisters' story in distinct non-linear timelines and inserting some of Alcott's own history into the narrative. I talked with Gerwig about that melding of fact and fiction, making Professor Bhaer hot, and how it's impossible to divorce women's narratives from economics. 

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? 
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. 
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?
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. 

little women
Sony Pictures

Do you see it as a wish fulfillment fantasy for Jo who, in your telling, gets to have this handsome man and gets to publish her novel and maintain the rights? 
Outside of Louis Garrel, the end of my movie is the end of the book. I do the end of the book. And then I do the end that Louisa May Alcott had, which is getting the book. Probably it's just wish fulfillment that, I don't know, Louis Garrel is Professor Bhaer. That's my own version of wish fulfillment. 

I guess I mean more in the sense that Jo has the handsome version of this character and that gets to do what she doesn't in the book: Negotiate her fee. That's grown-up professional wish fulfillment. 
Yes, yes. Definitely. And when people have asked me, did she get married? I say, "Well, in the book she did." And the movie is half the book. So, sure. 

Let's pivot to what it was like on set. What was it like filming that dance sequence with Timothée and Saoirse, both of whom you worked with on Lady Bird, when Laurie and Jo first meet? 
Actually, that dance sequence, outside of Timothée and Saoirse, was borne out of: I knew there was going to be a dance and I knew that I wanted it to be long. It's such a beautiful moment in the book where they go have their own secret dance party. It's very romantic in the book, and I thought, "How cinematic. Let's really make a meal out of it." As I love movie musicals, I was like, "Let's do it up."

I knew Timothée was a great dancer and Saoirse was a great dancer. So I got a choreographer, who is terrific, her name is Monica Bill Barnes. She did all the dances in the movie. I had her choreograph this dance to actually modern music. I had her choreograph all the dances to modern music even though I knew that Alexandre Desplat was going to write a score that was classical even if it felt modern. I wanted them to dance to modern music because the thing is, even when you are doing a traditional dance, which many of these dances were based on, if you're doing it to modern music, you hold your body differently. It feels more like how we think of dancing. For people in the 1860s, the quadrille was the newest, hippest dance. I wanted people to look like they felt like that while they were doing it.

In terms of the dance itself with Saoirse and Timmy it was dictated by this location that I kept coming back to, which I loved but I couldn't figure out where I was going to stage the dance. I kept looking for a very long hallway, which I couldn't find anywhere. I kept looking at this location. One time we came in the evening and I saw that the ballroom area was lit up, and if they danced on the wraparound porch you could see through and see other dancers inside. I thought that is so marvelous. I have to do this. That is where it came from. I remember from the very first rehearsal where Timothée and Saoirse worked on the dance with Monica it was just so wonderful. I thought, well, if I have nothing else I have that. 

Do you remember what modern music was it set to originally? 
Yes, but I'm not going to tell you. I don't want anyone putting it up on YouTube. 

Someone doing a fan cut version of it. 
I'm going to let everyone guess. We'll have a competition. 

click to play video

Even though it is all from the book, the way you present Amy feels like your most radical reimagining of a character. How were you approaching her? 
When I re-read the book as an adult [what stood out] was just how much this book is about money. It's about women and money. It's about women, ambition, and money, and art. Amy is very engaged with these questions. Amy's journey being an artist in Paris was fascinating to me because she has that fabulous line, "I want to be great or nothing," which is so ambitious and so not how you think about Little Women. It's interesting because everything that Amy is in this movie was so intuitive and so clear to me that I felt like when I read the book again, I couldn't believe that we saw Amy any other way. I thought, wow, did we all just miss it? She's an amazing character.

One of the reasons I think she's so amazing is because she has the ability to stand inside of her own desires and say she wants what she wants and she's not ashamed of it. That in and of itself feels incredibly modern and incredibly inspirational. Because we're taught that what we want and what we desire is bad, and that we should feel bad for wanting that. And she doesn't. How wonderful is that? And then Florence Pugh is just terrific. I knew by the way I had structured the film I wanted Amy to be  a worthy opponent of Jo. So I needed to have an actress who could punch in the same weight class as Saoirse Ronan, which is a damn difficult task. Florence Pugh is really incredible. 

So many of us are Jo girls, and the book burning really sticks in your mind. 
I know, I know. It's hard to forgive her. 

The focus on economics is also a theme in Lady Bird. These are films about young women and their dreams, but also how you can't forget about money in telling these stories. Did you draw these parallels, or is it just something you can't help but think about? 
The opening quote on this film was originally a Virginia Woolf quote, not a Louisa May Alcott quote. And the Virginia Woolf quote was from A Room of One's Own. The quote is: "Intellectual freedom depends on material things." In her essay, A Room of One's Own, she has her famous line, "to write you need a room of one's own," which people remember as being this kind of almost quaint, cozy feeling, like you are wrapped in a shawl and you are in your little room and you've got your cup of tea and you're in your room of one's own. But what she actually says is to write you need a room of one's own and money. The source of the essay was she was asked to speak on why there are no great women writers. And she says, "That's not the question." The question isn't why are there no great women writers the question is why have women always been poor? Because they have been poor not for 200 years, but since the beginning of time. Poetry depends on intellectual freedom and intellectual freedom depends on material things, so women have not had a dog's chance in writing poetry.

When I looked at Little Women again, and then I looked at Louisa May Alcott's life, and I thought about women, and I thought about artists, and I thought about their journeys to have authorship and to have ownership, I thought, "Goddamn, this could have been written yesterday." This is all over it. And this is something that is fascinating to me. This question of great women artists as separate from women having economic freedom is a ridiculous conversation. So, yeah, I'm interested in this conversation because in many ways for female artists it is the thing. 

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.