In the lead-up to this year’s Academy Awards on March 4, EW is taking a closer look at some of the screenplays honored in the original and adapted categories. Each weekday between now and Oscar night, a nominated writer will break down a single scene that was essential to the stories they were telling and explain how the pages came together.
Lady Bird, the directorial feature debut from writer and actress Greta Gerwig started, like most of her scripts, as something much, much longer. “I had a script that as 350 pages that was my original jumping off point that was called Mothers and Daughters,” she said. “A lot of the material that ended up in the movie was in that script. I use the process of writing in part to spend time with my character and let them talk to me and talk to each other and develop more details for characters who are supporting, so that when I have a final script, there’s a density to the language and a density to the information that I have about these people.”
And that density is present in Lady Bird, especially in a scene where the central conflict between mother and daughter (acting nominees Laurie Metcalf and Saoirse Ronan) boils over after the high school senior is suspended from school. The argument jumps around, referencing comments from months before and dragging disparate moments and one bystander in to the fray.
Here, Gerwig explains how she crafted a family fight that’s almost too real.
GERWIG: “The final movie hews almost exactly to the words on the page. That’s different than how a lot of people do it, but for me, I need to almost have shadow boxed every cut of the movie and every moment of the movie and already gone through the process of eliminating what’s not necessary before I make it. I’ll even have exact cuts in the film are cuts that I knew about in the script. Here, I wrote her mother’s lines pre-lapped, ‘Suspended? How does this happen?’ Then they go into that scene. I knew that’s what I was going to set up against.”
“One thing that I’ve always loved in plays is cacophonous dialogue. I try to include that feeling in a movie, to allow dialogue to overlap, and I do it from the very first scene, the fight in the car. I like that it seems so chaotic and also like a symphony. People, especially when fighting, don’t wait for the other person to finish.”
“I thought there was something specific to the time about playing solitaire on the computer. Everyone had that preloaded on their computer. I also thought it was funny but also sad. Larry’s unemployed and trying to fill his time while he figures out what the next thing is. I like things that cut both ways.”
“I always like in movies when it seems like when a movie starts, it’s just going along and we’re kind of along for the ride. The things that seemed incidental in the beginning, it becomes clear in the second half of the movie that they were all catching now. These things that just went by us like asking her dad to drop her off not at the front of the school, we see that, but we don’t really recognize that the story point until later.”
“It’s the same thing with the way ‘the wrong side of the tracks’ is threaded through. The first time you hear her say it is to Danny as a strange joke. Then you hear Danny say it back to Marion before Thanksgiving. Now, in the spring, Marion brings it up again. It’s partly mean to throw words back in someone’s face, but at the same time, what Lady Bird said was hurtful and callous and unthinking.”
“What Marion wants to say to her daughter is, ‘I’m terrified that I have not done my job. You are about to go into the world, and you are going to have no ability to function there.’ But also, ‘I’m scared about my own life, and that your dad’s not going to get another job.’ But all of that is so scary to say, you focus on something else. In the midst of that, you get distracted. Nothing is linear.”
“It’s a very specific character who says, ‘Tell me what it cost to raise me, and then I’ll pay you back and never talk to you again.’ Some teenagers would just say, ‘F— you. I’m never going to talk to you again.’ Lady Bird has a very strong sense of ‘I’m gonna settle up, and then I’m not going to talk to you again.’ It both explains something about her and also reduces what her parents did to economic, and it’s cruel.”
“And Marion meets her right there with equal venom, but that’s why Lady Bird is who she is. She can sling it, and her mom can sling it right back. Something I always wanted to do was make them the same. On some level, they can’t knock each other over because they have equal weight.
“We rehearsed before, and I knew that the hand raising wasn’t right. It always seemed like something that might actually work in play, but with a film, the negotiation of where the camera is and where the audience is and what the perspective is made the hand raise seem theatrical in a negative way. Saoirse actually came up with throwing the notepad.”