When Gerwig enrolled at Columbia U. in the early 2000s, she didn’t think she would be able to make movies. “Film still seemed pretty inaccessible,” recalls the “Lady Bird” director. So Gerwig got involved in theater (which remains her true passion), volunteering in any capacity: lights, sound, stage management.
“I loved being around actors,” Gerwig says. “I managed to con my way into the ‘Varsity Show,’ ” Columbia’s satirical musical theater troupe, around the time that Jenny Slate and Kate McKinnon were members. “I was never as funny as they were, but I was always enthusiastic.”
While she was still in college, something seismic happened to the film industry. Digital technology made cameras cheaper, and aspiring directors who never could have financed their films before suddenly found it possible to experiment.
“I saw Andrew Bujalski’s film ‘Funny Ha Ha’ at the Cinema Village, and I think I watched it three times in a row,” she says.
After attending the Telluride film festival student symposium, Gerwig’s college boyfriend introduced her to a young filmmaker named Joe Swanberg. She agreed to let him use some of her voicemail messages in his movie, “LOL,” flying to the 2006 SXSW festival, where the film premiered — a historic moment in independent cinema: the birth of the “Mumblecore” movement, a label she and her collaborators have since come to resent.
Acting for Swanberg (who gave her a co-directing credit on 2008’s “Nights and Weekends”) and the Duplass brothers (on “Baghead”) took the place of a graduate playwriting program for Gerwig: “Because they were all improvised, it was a way to write in real time. We were learning a tremendous amount about how movies were put together. But I needed more experience on sets that were more about executing a script.”
After collaborating with more established directors Whit Stillman, Mike Mills and Noah Baumbach, Gerwig finally felt confident writing her (solo) debut, “Lady Bird,” the enthusiastic reception for which has only fueled her ambition further.
“Agnès Varda has this quote, ‘In cinema, anything is possible,’ ” she says. “I would like to figure out how to make movies on larger canvases and still make ‘smaller movies’ at the same time.”