Alcott’s book — about four sisters, Jo, Meg, Amy and Beth, growing up in 19th century America — has been an ever-present literary companion in Gerwig’s life. She does not recall when she first read it, only that it lives in her cellular memory like the music of the Beatles. “I don’t remember when I heard the Beatles for the first time, but I always knew the Beatles, I always knew the lyrics,” she says.
The same was true of the March sisters, Gerwig adds. “I felt like I grew up with them, that they were part of me and that they were part of this inner landscape of my life. And the character of Jo was my favourite, she was big and brash and she was ambitious and she had an anger problem and she was petty and wonderful and funny and utterly unlike any other female character. And her desire to write was something that I had, but that I also emulated.”
In August 2016, Gerwig was brought onto the project to write its script. And in 2018, in the wake of her success as the director of Lady Bird — it won the Golden Globe award for best picture and secured five Oscar nominations — she took over the project as its director. Working on the film adaptation, Gerwig says, “everything felt so familiar to me”.
Little Women is plainly not an autobiographical work, and yet there is a very specific connection between writer/director and source material. Even the word autobiography poses challenges. Around a woman, adapting the story of women for the screen, it can box the filmmaker unfairly. Instead, I suggest this to her: is Jo March Greta Gerwig’s spirit animal?
“It’s confusing with literature that you grew up with … because you’re not sure if it’s the reflection or the aspiration of it,” Gerwig says. “Did I want to be a writer and then I found Jo March or did I find Jo March and then I wanted to be a writer? I don’t know. What’s so wonderful about literature that you encounter as a child is it’s a two-way street because you’re still forming yourself. You aren’t simply looking for reflections of you. You’re looking for who you are, how are you going to build yourself based on what fictional characters you encounter.”
So, Gerwig says, “Jo was my spirit animal, but at the same time as an adult reading the book, I found myself in each of the sisters. I found them more compelling, especially as adults, which is another reason I wanted to begin with them as adults. Amy, in Europe, figuring out that she is not a genius is one of my favourite things, and I felt like I’d never seen that in another version. It was her saying, ‘I want to be great or nothing’, and it is such a marvellously modern and very self-aware thing to say.
“It almost felt like autobiography in a way,” Gerwig adds. “It did not feel separate from me in any way. And I think the core of the story, the love between the sisters and their delightful ambition and how the world was not suited for them … there’s a great line Amy has, the world is hard on ambitious girls, which I didn’t actually find a place for, but I’m saying it now. And it’s true. The world is still hard on ambitious girls. It’s getting better, but it’s still hard.”
Little Women, with sumptuous cinematography by Yorick Le Saux and music from Alexandre Desplat, swims in the frame like a living painting. And it comes with a dream cast. Not just Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh and Eliza Scanlen as Jo, Meg, Amy and Beth, but also Laura Dern as their mother Marmee, Timothée Chalamet as the dashing Laurie, and Meryl Streep as Aunt March, a grand dame with a dry disapproving wit that might have been inspired by Pride and Prejudice‘s Lady Catherine de Bourgh.
“To have everyone together, it was a dream,” says Gerwig. “It was a dream to have that many talented actors and what was equally a dream was how much time they gave me. I had two weeks of rehearsal, which is very rare. In a way, it was like playing a massive game of hot potato with all these actors, and everybody’s keeping the ball in the air. And we do really long takes, through several rooms.
“And then Meryl Streep, I don’t know,” Gerwig says, pausing. “There’s so many things about her. She’s obviously extraordinary as an actress. And I spent time talking with her about the film and the book and the characters. And there’s a lot of things she said I just took and put in the movie. The speech that Florence gives as Amy, saying I’m not a poet, I’m just a woman and as a woman I can’t earn my own living, that whole thing. That was just something that Meryl said to me.”
In a way, the characters in Little Women are as complex as all of the women Gerwig has brought to the screen: Frances Halladay in Frances Ha and Brooke Cardinas in Mistress America, both of which Gerwig co-wrote. And of course the brilliant Lady Bird, which she wrote and directed, and which starred Saoirse Ronan as the title character and Laurie Metcalf as her mother, Marion.
But Gerwig’s women never sell their complexity for female conflict, side-stepping one of Hollywood’s oldest tropes: that complex women must inevitably come into conflict with each other. Particularly in a story such as Little Women, what stands out is that despite some blazing clashes between the March sisters — and there are corkers — there is a deeper love that endures, no matter what.
“The reason you believe they love each other in such an enduring way is because they fight so vividly,” Gerwig says. “Amy and Jo really go up against each other, and casting Florence Pugh [as Amy], I needed someone who could punch the same weight class as Saoirse [playing Jo]. I felt like Florence could really be a formidable opponent. And I felt like if I didn’t do justice to the conflict, then you’d never really believe the love, because it just wouldn’t seem real.
“Somebody once said to me, oh those girls, I could never get into them because they’re so well-behaved. And I was like, well-behaved? What are you talking about? I wanted them to speak very quickly. I had very precisely scripted, overlapping dialogue and I wanted it to be loud and I wanted it to be physical. I wanted it to be like rugby. I wanted this to feel like they were just tumbling over each other and it was this full-bodied experience of sisterhood.”
In a profile of Gerwig published in 2017 in The New York Times, the writer observed that a female body on screen has a way of obscuring or distracting from the intelligence within. It begs the question of whether Gerwig, an actor, but now also a respected producer and director, had to make those career choices in order to be taken more seriously in a town like Los Angeles.
“I think a lot of actors, myself included, when you list the actors you admire, they’re great actors,” Gerwig says. “Obviously Cate Blanchett, Meryl Streep and Judi Dench. You envy their talents and you worship their talent and you envy the respect the world gives them. But I think because they’re actors and they also are so clearly great artists and they are not merely decorative. And I think sometimes actresses feel relegated to something that feels decorative.
“I certainly don’t think you’d have to be a writer director to get respect,” Gerwig adds. “But I’ll say I’ve gotten more of it … Directors are spoken to differently and they’re spoken [to] about different subjects.”
In that sense, Little Women is a properly transactional female-led project. In addition to Gerwig, and the formidable on-screen lineup of female actors, the film’s producer is the former Sony Studios chief Amy Pascal.
Measuring the empowerment of women in post-#MeToo Hollywood is difficult, Gerwig says, “but the visibility of women and their transactional power is shifting”.
“In this new landscape … what has definitely changed is the studios… there’s a very big deliberate effort to hire more women and it no longer seems acceptable to have a slate of films, none of which are directed by a woman for wide studio release,” Gerwig says.
Her success also sits in astonishing contrast to the historical footnote that Gerwig was, as a younger woman, rejected from a number of master of fine arts courses as a playwright. That rejection is what made her refocus on a career as an actor. She carries no ill will from the experience, even though I ask her how tempting it is to march back to those doors in academia and bang on them with her Golden Globe statue, served with a side order of Oscar nominations.
“Not to sound like Yoda, but rejection is whatever you will take it to be,” Gerwig says, with much more natural charm than the wizened old Jedi master she is paraphrasing. “That’s the Yoda way. That sense of what I took it to mean was, well, what do they know? That doesn’t mean that I didn’t … I definitely had a moment of like, oh God, well if all three of these schools think it’s not going to happen, then maybe they know something that I don’t. I think again and again, the thing that I’ve learned about making art is that it’s a relentlessness.
“And it is something that I did find in Little Women, which is this purported difference between Jo and Amy. Amy decides, oh, I’m a hack and I’m not going to keep painting. And Jo decides, I’m going to keep writing. Jo’s not actually maybe even any better than Amy. She’s writing penny tales for scandal magazines and she’s maybe not that great of a writer. We don’t really know. She’s good enough to sell, but is she one of the greats? The difference between Amy and Jo is that Jo keeps going.
“I don’t know that I’m more talented or any more gifted than anyone else, but I certainly just kept doing it because that was the main thing I could see as a difference,” she says. “I suppose you could argue with quality, but you can’t argue quantity. If you make a certain number of films, well, you could say they’re all garbage, but that number still exists. I don’t know that I want to throw anything in anyone’s face, but I might just want to pile them in front of them and say, well, just look at that. That’s just true. It exists.”
Little Women opens on January 1.
Michael Idato is the culture editor-at-large of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.