All-Around Gal

Mumblecore baby Greta Gerwig acts, writes, directs, enunciates properly

All-Around Gal
Photo by Aubrey Edwards

Mark and Jay Duplass had been trying to cast the role of Michelle in Baghead for a while already, but when Mark arrived on set in Chicago to be in Hannah Takes the Stairs, he says: "It took about 12 seconds with Greta, and I knew. She wasn't exactly who we had envisioned ... but she's really bringing something very different in Baghead. The whole mumblecore slant is supposedly about just playing yourself, but this is really a performance."

Greta Gerwig was an aspiring playwright thinking of applying to law school who fell into acting by literally being herself, when then-boyfriend Chris Wells asked to use a voice-mail message she had left for him as a message from his character's fictional girlfriend in LOL, a movie he was making with Joe Swanberg in Chicago. From New York, Greta literally phoned in a performance with calls and pictures, and it wasn't until LOL's premiere at South by Southwest in 2006 that Swanberg and Gerwig met in person and instantly knew they wanted to work together, resulting in Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007), immediately followed by this year's Nights and Weekends, which she also co-directed. Though in neither does she quite play herself, as one might guess from how this all got started, Swanberg's methodology tends to blur the lines between person and performance.

"Part of my process has always been to break down professional barriers, working with friends and with people who I want to be my friends on these movies," says Swanberg. "But sometimes I feel like I'm pushing hard into dangerous territory. I'm simultaneously proud of what I can get in that territory and terrified of what can go wrong." Personally and artistically, Nights and Weekends proved as thorny and difficult for both Gerwig and Swanberg as it has been ultimately rewarding, pushing both artists to new limits. In a very short time, Gerwig has distinguished herself as a fearless and resourceful actress in a growing filmography of highly collaborative projects, so it was a pleasure to talk with her about the dangers and connections to be found working together in dark woods, both literal and figurative.

Greta Gerwig: You know, Hannah felt like an anomaly, something that maybe wouldn't be repeated. I still haven't figured out how to make money out of this, but it's more of my life, and it's real, and it's great. Now I think, yeah, it's not impossible, but you've also got to be pragmatic. I'm smarter now about how I earn my money in New York, having a job, and even if I can't fully support myself doing this, I can still do it if I want to, and that's great. With Yeast [Mary Bronstein's film, which plays in the Narrative Feature Competition], Mary came to me with this idea and asked me if I could take some time off on some weekends, and we didn't know if it was going to come together, but it did, and it was great. It was a really good feeling that we just went out and did it and it worked.

Austin Chronicle: On Hannah, you were "just" an actor, even though that means pretty intense collaboration, working with Joe Swanberg. How was it to co-direct Nights and Weekends?

GG: Yeah, Nights and Weekends is a beast. I mean, I don't think that it's fully co-directed in the sense that – well, I think it's very much in the style of what Joe does. I think it was more about me having more influence on his turf. I mean, it's impossible to say "co-written" or "co-directed" because it's just the two of us for the whole movie anyway. And it's really intense and physical and a really hard experience.

AC: Often when people talk about the collaborative process in filmmaking, it can sound like sunshine and roses, but the reality can also be pretty tough.

GG: Well, maybe Hannah was sunshine and roses. I mean, not like it was easy in the sense of being without effort. But without strain. It came together like magic. So when my plane got delayed heading home from that shoot, Joe and I ended up hanging out in a coffee shop for a few hours and talked about this idea that became Nights and Weekends. We started with this high left over from Hannah.

We ended up shooting what's now half of the movie one year and then the second half a year later, and we didn't know we would do it that way. But it was a difficult power dynamic because, on one hand, I was collaborating in this way I had before, but on the other, I was stepping into a world he had control over and he already knew, but it was new to me. So it was weird moving into stuff I was less comfortable with. And it was just the two of us. As an actor, it was hard because I didn't have anyone to look to for approval. I would look at Joe at the end of a take, and he would look at me, and we're both like, "Is that the scene?"

That made it really hard to be playing a couple onscreen, because of the nature of the real intimacy of an artistic relationship versus the intimacy between the people we're supposed to be playing. It's always sticky involving real emotions and real physical lives. That was constantly being renegotiated and constantly figured out. And I think that's all there in the movie. I think ultimately Joe and I were both kind of losing our minds when we made it. Especially the first half.

The first shoot was December 2006, and I think we were in pretty low places in our own lives, and it was unhealthy for us to be around each other that much. But then I feel like the second half, that's a much better representation of me and Joe on our A game. But we were making a movie about a couple that clearly shouldn't be together, so a lot of our discussions in the movie would veer into the difficulty of artistic collaboration and how it has to end, and you go on working with others. In romantic relationships, you're obviously at least hoping that doesn't happen, but in artistic relationships, you have to move on. All that stuff is in the movie, and it's complicated. But I think it's a very brave thing that we did.

AC: The Duplass brothers have a more scripted approach, even though they use a lot of improvisation, and Baghead's also kind of a horror movie.

GG: It was kind of a grueling shoot, and none of us had made a horror film before, so it was a lot of people who didn't really know how horror elements were supposed to work. Actually, Elise [Muller] had done some horror before. She'd been in some shark movies, like ManShark 4 [actually Raging Sharks and Hammerhead: Shark Frenzy]. So she was a much better screamer than anyone else! But I would say it's really a solid ensemble piece, and that's the cool thing about it. Four people in the woods, and the dynamics between the actors keep everything afloat. Jay and Mark were really great at keeping everyone good with each other, making the set feel like the happiest, most productive place on earth. I had a lot of fun making a whole character that's totally different from me; I got to wear completely different clothes and changed my hair and made up different speech patterns. Between making up a character that's totally unlike myself and Jay and Mark doing the genre totally differently, it was just great.

AC: So where are you with your own work as a writer?

GG: Well, last summer I was working on a play ... but I've put that away for the moment to work on movies. I took on a script-doctoring job ... and right now, I'm working with Alison Bagnall [co-screenwriter on Buffalo '66], writing a script together. But once that's under control, I really want to do another play.

When I write, I like to get myself into a state that's a lot like improv acting, just hearing characters say and do things that surprise me, really try to let discoveries happen and work to keep those things in, warts and all. I think that sort of thing can help actors keep discovering things every night they perform a play. I'm pushing things to a point of draining out what I know or what you could expect, getting to this point of desperation but going beyond it and seeing where that leads. Then I go back and cut out the first part. But I also think now that both acting and writing are really good for the soul. At its best, it's about being really nonjudgmental of yourself or your characters or your story if you're open to it. I think I'd be a lesser writer and a lesser actor if I didn't do both.


Baghead

Narrative Feature, Spotlight Premieres, Regional Premiere

Sunday, March 9, 6:30pm, Alamo Ritz


Nights and Weekends

Narrative Feature, Spotlight Premieres, World Premiere

Sunday, March 9, 9:45pm, Austin Convention Center

Tuesday, March 11, 9pm, Alamo Ritz


Yeast

Narrative Feature, Narrative Competition, World Premiere

Monday, March 10, 7pm, Alamo Ritz

Tuesday, March 11, 4pm, Alamo Ritz

Thursday, March 13, 5pm, Alamo Ritz

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Greta Gerwig, Yeast, Baghead, Nights and Weekends, SXSW

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