For our first episode, we brought Barry Jenkins and Greta Gerwig together for a conversation on what it's like to make a movie about the place you grew up.
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Speaker: Hey, and welcome to the first podcast from A24. Thanks for listening. Today we bring you a conversation between two A24 filmmakers whose names you know well: Barry Jenkins and Greta Gerwig. From Moonlight and Lady Bird, Barry and Greta went all the way home to tell two deeply personal stories about the places where they grew up. For Barry it was Liberty City, Miami; for Greta it was Sacramento, or “the Midwest of California” as Lady Bird would say. We thought they'd have a lot to talk about. We're new to podcasts, so we'd love to hear your thoughts. Send any ideas or feedback over at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow us on Instagram for the latest @a24. Now, Barry and Greta.
Barry: All right. So I guess we'll kick this off talking about hometown movies?
Greta: Let's talk about place.
Barry: Yeah, because Moonlight is such a Miami story. But it's kind of weird because Miami's a place that a lot of people know. I think I was telling you, I lived in the Bay Area for eight years and I never went to Sacramento. It's like 90 minutes, two hours away. So when I saw your film I was like, Oh, this is Sacramento as a place. So just talk to me about what came first: I want to make a movie about Sacramento or I want to make a movie about high school, I want to make a movie about my mom.
Greta: Yeah. I think the first thing was I want to make a movie that takes place in Sacramento. I knew that. And I also had this idea of—I tend to make proclamations out loud that might become public because I feel that then I'll feel the pressure to deliver on them.
Greta: It's a very silly way of going about it, but it works for me. But I'd like to make a total of four films that take place there. I would like to do a quartet of Sacramento films.
Barry: A quartet of Sacramento films.
Greta: It's inspired by the Elena Ferrante Neapolitan quartet. She wrote these four books that took place mainly in Naples, and they're so great. And I thought, Oh, I'd like to do that, because this was one part of Sacramento. But there's a lot of different parts of Sacramento that I'd like to explore too, and I feel like I have the privilege of being from a place. And I am really from that place.
Greta: And my family didn't move and my family's still there, my friends are still there. And I feel like I can actually speak to it with some feeling. And I don't know if you felt like—because I felt like with Moonlight it was like, what it felt like to me was we got a passport to a world.
Greta: And it was a world that—we think we know Miami, we think we know Florida, and then it's a part of it that we didn't see, or we didn't get the privilege to see.
Barry: Yeah. But one of the really lovely things for me about Lady Bird is, I'm like, Okay, is this California or is it Nebraska? Or is it Iowa? There's something very different about this. And I wanted to talk to you about Sacramento and Lady Bird, which is—there were times where I was writing Moonlight where I knew exactly what the light was like. I knew exactly which corner it needed to be set on. I knew exactly the feel, the flow, the vibe, the atmosphere, and so when you're building a movie like Lady Bird and Sacramento is, and this is cliché but it's true, it's a character.
Greta: It's a character. Yeah. Yeah.
Barry: But I think when you put your director's hat on, that idea of place being character takes on a whole other meaning. So talk about that a little bit.
Greta: Yeah. That's exactly the feeling when you're describing—and I know Moonlight was first a play, and then you adapted it into the movie, but you're both writing from the same understanding where the place was.
Greta: Yeah, when I was writing, I just had certainty about what I wanted it to look like, down to little things like—there's a scene where Lady Bird and Danny are sitting on a ledge, and I knew I wanted this ledge where their legs wouldn't touch the ground because I love it, and also to me it looks like childhood. You're not quite there yet, you're still a kid. I think your legs dangling is such a kid thing.
And the way that the interiors of the houses have this very specific light. Also the differences for me about the different houses, like a house that had been just built in the '90s versus a house that was built in the post-World War II boom. And what those different things mean, and they're very specific. And yeah, I would see all of that in my head, and then of course when you're actually looking and scouting, I don't know if you had this. The weirdest thing for me was, I had written about this dream house that these girls love.
Greta: And I was so sure in this one neighborhood, and everybody knows the neighborhood, it's called the Fabulous Forties. Well I was like, Well there's a million houses like that. And the thing was that my memory had kind of made a house that didn't totally exist. And then I found this blue house which was perfect and did everything I wanted it to do for the movie, but I realized that I’d made an amalgam of something that wasn't quite true. So then it's an interesting thing. It made me think a lot about the movie Amarcord, that sort of faultiness of memory, about how the faultiness ends up feeling more true than the thing itself.
Greta: But I don't know if you had things where you were like, “I know the street corner,” and then actually you discovered that the better street corner is—
Barry: Not even that. Like the opening of Moonlight is not in my head, in my writer's head. And in my memory, my history of Miami, it's not meant to take place on the block that the actual film opens. And just like you, we were scouting and I'm like “Turn to the left here, go there,” and people would be like, “That place isn't there.”
Greta: Isn't there, yeah.
Barry: And it's not even like it's not there anymore, that place isn't there. For me personally, you know, I'm not a documentary filmmaker, so I'm not looking for that particular house. It's more like the feeling—
Barry: —of this structure or the feeling of this corner, this neighborhood. Whatever it is, the feeling of this light—
Barry: —has sort of inspired this imagery.
Barry: And I think the beauty of making films is that you're not doing it by yourself.
Barry: All these other people come in and they help you.
Greta: And the beauty of film is the moment when the thing that was in your head doesn't work out, and something better comes through. I think that's actually one of my favorite moments, is when it alters from what was in your head, and all of a sudden this thing that you couldn't have anticipated ends up being the thing that's right.
Greta: But it's almost like, it's not like you have a set plan that you absolutely have to execute, it's more like that your compass is pointing you in the right direction all the time.
Barry: Talk to me about the look of Lady Bird. You just said, sometimes you see things in your head one way, and then as you make the film, it becomes what it wants to become. And watching the movie, I wasn't sure if it was emulsion and it was shot on film, on celluloid, or if it was shot digitally.
Barry: So talk to me about the process. Did you originally intend to shoot it on celluloid? And you ended up shooting on the Alexa Mini, correct?
Greta: Alexa Mini, yeah. I had an idea of wanting to shoot on film, on Super 16, initially because it loses something and gains something. I like the way the image breaks up. I don't like things that are overly sharp, they make me uncomfortable as a viewer. I think that's just particular to me, but I think sometimes you have to lean into the things that are weird or a little different about you, because that's what makes you a voice and not just anyone. But yeah, I wanted to shoot on film, but because of budgetary constraints, it didn't work. But we worked really hard to establish the look of the film and with my DP Sam Levy and Alex Bickel, who did my color, who did your color—
Barry: Also colored Moonlight, yeah.
Greta: And he's great and he's relentless, which was important because I was kind of, I had this very clear concept of what I wanted it to be, and I wanted it to feel almost like a xeroxed photocopy. Like something, like a color copy of a painting, where it almost loses a layer but gains a layer. And there's something about the way the image is reproduced that you feel the paper. Alex and I would always have this thing like “I want to feel the paper more.”
Greta: I wanted every frame to feel like that.
Barry: It's funny, I can hear his voice saying that.
Greta: Yeah. Yeah. Exactly. I mean he's so patient [laughs]. But I think, for me too I knew very much I wanted everything to feel pretty static. I wanted it all to be on sticks, I wanted it feel like everything was a painting, a still life. And I didn't want it to be, you know, hand-held or catching things that way. I wanted it to feel very composed.
And I think that a lot of it was just instinct. And then, just as you're sort of figuring out your instinct, you discover why you were drawn to it. And I think for me, it was like a lot of medieval triptychs and stained glass windows and the way a story can be told in single frames. But in Moonlight, the camera's moving, like the very first shot is just like—
Barry: It's a lot of movement.
Greta: —we’re moving. The camera's a dancer.
Barry: Yeah. You know for us it was—one, we started working with Alex Bickel pretty early in the process. And we knew we were going to shoot anamorphic wide open, we wanted to be really aggressive with the image, and so we sent Bickel a few reference stills before we went into production. And then as we were shooting, we would get these still images, these thumbnails, from him as well. Just to make sure that we weren't pushing things too far. But what I loved about working with him was, James and I, James Laxton, my cinematographer, we framed the movie as being in the consciousness of our main character. We felt like that would allow us to do some things aesthetically that you wouldn't associate with the genre of film we were making, the social realist coming-of-age kind of movie. And Bickel I remember was really, really wonderful about taking certain scenes and sequences to a place that was appropriate for the character, but maybe not particularly appropriate for the genre—
Barry: —that we were working in. And when I look at your film, I remember speaking to you about the colors blue—
Greta: Yeah blue, yeah.
Barry: And the colors orange. And also too, your grain is different than, because we used the same colorist, is different than the grain that we have in Moonlight. Like no doubt about it.
Greta: Right. No doubt, yeah.
Barry: So how did you come, because when you start in emulsion, which you end up with the Alexa—
Barry: The quality of the grain is super important.
Greta: Yeah. I mean so one of the things that was really important to me was that I didn't want to use film grain on top of the Alexa image. I think it can work, but for me I had this, I was like, this movie has to be true to what it is through and through, and it's shot on Alexa. We have to give it that, it's not grain exactly, but it's noise. And so we shot gray cards in low light and turned up the contrast and used that as a layer. So that Alexa noise is part of what's coming through in the image. And what the sensor is actually picking up and what the imperfections, if there are imperfections of the Alexa. But there are little things.
Something that's interesting about digital, too, is like in low light you can, not the Alexa Mini, but in some of them you can see the grid, which I kind of like because it's like that grain. It's like the way that this is the thing. I like knowing that a machine captured it. I don't know any other way to describe it.
Barry: Well like a machine or an analog machine, or—
Greta: Yeah or like, it's not life, it's constructed.
Greta: I like seeing that there was a mediating thing in between it. I don't know.
Barry: No no, I know what you mean.
Greta: It's hard to talk about it exactly.
Barry: No, the picture I'm getting in my head is when we did Medicine for Melancholy, you're creating this abstraction, you know between—
Barry: —the lens and the characters. And it's like, it's another thing to control in a certain way.
Greta: Do you think that for you, is every film—because now you're just, you're editing your third feature film. And do you think that every project to you has a way that it cinematically wants its story to be told? Meaning like do you have a style, or do the stories have a style, in a way?
Barry: I think the stories have a style. And I'm looking forward to whatever you do next. Because you know, I mean the other film that you co-directed that I've seen, Nights and Weekends—
Barry: —is nothing like Lady Bird. And this movie that we've just made, Beale Street, is nothing like Moonlight. I mean, the language of the film is completely different. So I do think the stories have a style that they sort of—
Greta: Yeah, well I mean Medicine was not, it was so different from Moonlight.
Greta: I mean it was—obviously you're interested in stylistic things and changing the images and playing with color. I remember the color from Medicine being so specific. It almost felt painted.
Greta: And that was such a—
Barry: Well the few places that we allow color into the image.
Greta: Yeah. But I mean that's what I mean. It felt like the painted frames of early color films. Like those Isadora Duncan movies where she would paint her skirts, as they would—do you know what I'm talking about?
Barry: I do.
Greta: Like it looked painted, in that way.
Barry: I do. That's one of the things I wanted to talk to you about with Lady Bird. I have this joke that I like to say to you which is, I've known you for I guess like ten years now, and I'd heard that Lady Bird was autobiographical. As I'm watching this film, I'm like, This is not the Greta Gerwig I know. I don't see where the autobiography is. Unless I just don't know her very well. I think, going along with that, people assume that this film is just a construction of a life that you lived.
Barry: And what I see are just all these choices. So I'm glad we're getting to talk about—
Barry: —you know, wanting to shoot on film, but then deciding you should you should shoot on Alexa, but in a very particular way shooting on the Alexa Mini. This notion of the xerox. There's just so many choices. Just talk to me about building the world of Lady Bird in a certain way.
Greta: You know, for me, I mean the character of Lady Bird is really this person that I wasn't, and I was almost the opposite.
Barry: I was going to say that you wished you were.
Greta: I wished I was that cool and that brave in the way that she is. Even though she's flawed. I mean, I just read something someone said recently. It said, I think about a novel, that it's the most personal and the most imaginative at the same time. And I think it's not autobiographical, but it is deeply personal. I mean all the choices are really specific because I care about these characters, and also I just think as a person in the world you pay attention to these things. Like little things that are not little things. Like what are the plates? What are the drinking glasses? She has this—when she gets to her birthday, she has this red plate that says "You Are Special Today." Which is a plate from the '70s that a lot of people I knew had, but I wanted that plate. I didn't want a different plate. I wanted that one plate. The “You Are Special Today” plate. And it's, some of it's, a lot of it's not mine, some of it's mine, but I think I just believe in details mattering. Film is such a limited amount of real estate. But I feel like you had a thought and I cut you off.
Barry: No. I think we're kind of just riffing at this point.
Greta: Yeah [laughs].
Barry: One of the things I did want to talk to you about that's very similar—Moonlight and Lady Bird are very different films, but they're very similar in the sense that I assume that Laurie Metcalf is playing some version or some collection of memories or remembrances or odes to your mother. And in Moonlight, Naomie Harris is playing this amalgamation of my mom and Tarell McCraney's mom. I'm going to speak from my personal experience. OMG. I've rarely done anything as difficult as direct just a powerhouse actress performing, essentially, this character that is based upon my mom. What was it like working with Laurie?
Greta: Yeah, for me, especially because it is something that's personal, so much of what I feel like I have to do is give them the flame of the character and say, “I don't know more than you know.” It's not for me to—because I feel like, especially if you're a writer or director and especially if it's personal, you don't want the actors to feel like they're being watched all the time or that they can't make a decision that's theirs. And I just feel like the minute that they inhabit that character, they know I'm not playing them. They bring their whole life history to it, so as much as I have an idea of how I think it’s—I want them to be empowered that they can take it over and make it their own. So, for me, again it's almost like the same thing with the locations, it's like, let go of what the thing is in your memory and let it be as it exists in front of you and it will probably be better and more interesting. So, for me, with Laurie, she's not, I mean as anyone who knows my mom will tell, she's actually not like my mom. Although my mom did say the funniest thing anyone's said to me after she saw the movie.
Barry: Which was?
Greta: She said, "Oh Greta, you wish I’d give you the silent treatment." [Laughs] And I was like, that's so true!
Barry: I could totally see Laurie saying that.
Greta: Yeah, but she was like, "Oh no, I would never." And I was like, no it's true, she wouldn't do that. You know, you let go and you find the new thing. I don't know, how was it, was it surreal for you?
Barry: Oh, it was insane. I mean, the stuff Naomie does in the film, she was only with us for three days, so it was a very just intense three days—
Greta: That's amazing.
Barry: She was in every scene for three consecutive days, some of the things she's doing in the film were just intense. Just intense. But this really beautiful thing happened for me, which was, as you said, it's deeply, deeply personal, and the scenes with Naomie playing essentially my mom were more personal than other aspects of the film for me. And there were occasions that personal connection, it took the craft to a place that it couldn't get to otherwise. The scene I always think of is in the second chapter, when Chiron comes home and she's waiting for him in the courtyard, and she's essentially about to ask him for money.
Greta: Oh yeah.
Barry: It just seemed like it hadn't gone far enough and that was the first time that we had the actors look directly into the camera because I wanted the audience to literally have to inhabit Chiron's body to feel what that felt like. So, sometimes those things happened, and it's something you can't plan for, and I think it's why making work that is personal—and again, there's a difference between being personal and autobiographical, but—
Greta: Yeah, definitely.
Barry: But, making work that is personal can sometimes take the craft and elevate it.
Greta: Right. Totally.
Barry: Question for you—
Greta: No, wait, I had another question for you while you were talking.
Barry: Get it.
Greta: One thing I'm always interested in, because there's this process of making the film an actual—you're on set, you're making it, and then when you're cutting it together, what's interesting to me is because Moonlight is so delicate, what the story is and how story comes out and it's so, the way it unfolds is so deliberate but so just, you know, it doesn't broadcast anything. And I wondered for you, in the editing process, sort of two things: the first thing is, did you ever go through a panic of will people understand this story?
Greta: Did you? [Laughs]
Barry: Every damn day. Because we edited that film in a room that's like maybe a third the size of this with like two editors sitting back to back and that's it. No assistant. No kitchen. No nothing. I mean, it was as small as small can be, so it was impossible to not be just completely immersed in, as you said, this very delicate process. So there were several times where I turned from one monitor to the other, literally just spin half a foot, and be like, “I don't know if that's going to connect with that.”
And because we have three different actors playing the same character, it was really tricky to hope—and you know, three different actors who don't necessarily look physically like one another—to make sure they were carrying the same energy.
Greta: So when did you know that people were able to follow? Like I'm genuinely asking this because I feel like—
Barry: I'll be honest and then I want to ask you this question because your movie is so—actually there's a thing you do that I want to talk to you about but, I'll say the first watch, it's just so well done. I mean, it just feels like this beautifully chiseled kind of sculpture in a certain way. Which, I mean, the beats just link up in this way, they almost like sneak up on you, which I want to get to in a second. Whereas with our film, I remember the first time we screened it for the producers, it was a very different movie than the movie that ended up going to theaters.
Barry: And man, the delicacy you're talking about, the delicateness I should say, it wasn't there. So a lot of these things were just clanking.
Greta: Oh, interesting, oh it was two—oh that's so interesting.
Barry: It was, I mean I haven't watched it ever again since that day, and it's funny we're coming up on the anniversary of that first screening for producers, it was like late January, early February. But it was just, there wasn't balance, and a movie like Moonlight needed balance from chapter one to two to three.
Greta: Yeah, and then also, I mean it’s just because of the, again I just keep using this word but it is so true, in the final chapter when he shows up, and that song, and you gotta build that right because you gotta care that they—you have to be so clear. Oh, and you have to be hanging like, oh that's his kids. Is he—oh wait, no, they're not together. Like you have to reel them in a very classical way.
Barry: And it's beautiful you use the word delicate because what happened with the edit on Moonlight, which, I'd say the last third of that edit would be making three or four cuts a day. Literally, just watching the same things and being like, “A little bit this way, no no no a little bit that way.”
Barry: And it was always, you’d find this one little thing and be like, “That's it.”
Greta: I know, I know. It's such a revelation. It's just, when you're sitting in the editing room and at the beginning it does feel like possibly just a giant bad mess and then—[laughs]
Barry: In Lady Bird, you know we talked about this before, there's this really lovely thing that happens where you start off, you're watching a coming-of-age film, and it's got this nice pace and rhythm and there's all this beautiful mise-en-scène. The scenes are constructed in a way that, you're right, you're not hand held, finding one piece and going to the next. Everything is very deliberate and appropriate. The pacing, the way the beats are being delivered to the audience, you kind of get into this rhythm and then something happens about a third through the second third, I don't know how to describe it, like Robert McKee, so frightening—
Greta: I know, have you read that?
Barry: I went to film school so yes, I’ve read it.
Greta: Me too, I read it, I have it like underlined in my house, like “rising action.”
Barry: In your film, it seems like it's going that way and then it just completely jumps off the damn rails. And you're watching this movie, and I remember seeing it in Telluride for the first time and everybody's laughing their heads off the first 45 minutes and then you start to hear a few people sniffling in the back and on the side and then you realize, I'm watching a very, very heavy, sad kind of film. And it all coalesces into this very hopeful kind of thing that feels earned. So, tell me about building this piece that shifts so smoothly from one tone and tenor to another.
Greta: Well, I tried to do it in the writing, and I think the writing I've done with Noah Baumbach, the two scripts that we wrote together, I learned so much writing with him. One of the things I learned is he's absolutely relentless and brutal with himself. He cuts, he cuts, he cuts. He rewrites, he does not—no line that ever ends up in one of his movies is not vetted a million times. And I just, it was this sort of precision that working with him was drilled into me. And when I was making my script, I tried to do the same thing. It's a cliché, but it's a cliché for a reason. They always say, you know, films are written three times: in the writing, the shooting and then the editing.
Greta: And really honestly, the movie that's on the screen is not very different at all from what was on the page, but what it is is almost like getting all the rhythms right and getting so that, I don't know. For me it's almost like I can sing along with it when it’s working, and if I can't sing along, it’s not working.
Barry: Now, the first draft of this film, I know the page count so I'm assuming it's different than that. The first draft was—
Greta: 350 pages [laughs].
Barry: And the film that you shot was?
Greta: 120. But I know my dialogue goes faster than—I also learned that from writing with Noah and shooting with Noah. 120 pages of dialogue is not 120 minutes for me.
Barry: Yeah, it's kind of cool watching Saoirse and Laurie take some of this dialogue, and it's almost like you're watching this film from the golden age of Hollywood. People are just like throwing these lines back and forth, back and forth. Super snappy.
Greta: I like talkies. I like them. I don't know, I've always liked fast-talking ladies.
Barry: I know, but it's cool because, now I'm going to go way back, you come from being the queen of mumblecore, where there's not a lot of this super fast talking back and forth.
Greta: [Laughs] I know.
Barry: I say that because you have all these years of experience as a performer in front of the camera, as an actor. How was it being on the other side, and when did you realize you wanted to be on the other side?
Greta: I think it took me—well, I loved being on the other side.
Barry: You loved being in front of the camera.
Greta: No, no, no. I loved behind the camera.
Greta: I think that was the happiest I've ever been. I knew right away. I loved it so much that I think I said to my DP, I was like, "If I'm terrible at this, I'm just gonna Florence Foster Jenkins my life and not know it, and just keep making them." The worst thing that happens, I make some bad movies. [Laughs]
Barry: I would say you've done pretty damn well.
Greta: But I loved it, I absolutely love doing it. And I think it took me actually a long time to fully admit to myself that it's what I wanted. I had a little voice in me that was like, That's what you want to do, but it felt like a too big thing to say. It felt arrogant to me to say.
Barry: Now why is that?
Greta: I don't know. Saying, "I want to be a writer-director," felt like, “Okay, and I also want to go to the moon.”
Barry: You know what's funny? I went to film school with no intentions of becoming a director. Same thing, I was like, “Oh, I'll be a writer.” For me it was because I just didn't know, I'll be honest, other than Spike Lee, I didn't know any black people who made films.
Barry: I thought, "Oh, but I can write them," because I was already in the creative writing program. But thankfully at my film school, you had to do everything.
Greta: You had to do everything.
Barry: So I was forced to direct. And thank God, because I can't imagine doing anything else with my life.
Greta: I honestly think that was a big part for me, was I didn’t know—I mean I guess I knew about Sofia Coppola, I knew about Jane Campion. And I think that's pretty much where my list stopped. And when I was at South by Southwest my senior year of college, I went there and I met for the very first time Ry Russo Young.
Greta: And I'd never met a woman, a young woman, who said she wanted to be a director. I'd never met—that's actually true. I'd never met a young woman who said she wanted to be a director. And that was true at Columbia. And she had a short film there, an experimental short film based on Psycho, and it was really great, and she was just really passionate, she knew a lot about movies. We talked about other female filmmakers, I got a list from her of other people. And I had fallen in love with film, but it just still felt out of reach. And all of a sudden I was like, Oh, wait, are we allowed to say we want to do this?
Barry: Ry Russo Young is like, “Yes!”
Greta: Yeah. I'm so excited for whoever's fifteen right now.
Greta: Because I think it maybe looks like there's more opportunity, or kids might have a dream they wouldn't have otherwise.
Barry: For me, a fifteen-year-old black kid right now, you can look at me, you can look at Ava, you can look at Ryan, you can look at Justin Simien, you can look at John Singleton, Spike Lee, you can look at Julie Dash, there's just so many people you can look at right now. Dee Rees, it's amazing. Jordan Peele, it's amazing!
Greta: That's why my favorite thing to do right now, it's like, people are like, this year of “women in film.” And I’m like, not only do you have Sofia Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow, you also have Maggie Betts and Dee Rees and Valerie Faris and me and Patty Jenkins and Angelina Jolie. And those are all very visible films.
Barry: Exactly. And there are like thousands more.
Greta: And there's thousands more. And that is an extraordinary moment, I think. And those are all such different films from each other. It's not like, “Here is the kinds of films women make.” It's like, I can't think of two films more different from Battle of the Sexes to Mudbound to Wonder Woman.
Barry: Exactly. So wait, I want to take it back to Greta Gerwig. So what was it that made you realize, No, I'm actually gonna say this out loud, I'm gonna go and do it. What was the breakthrough?
Greta: The truly embarrassing thing is that I was at the YMCA in New York, and I was taking an aerobics class that was also inspirational. It was like off-brand Zumba type thing, but it was great. But I was there, and they were like, "Just scream what you want, as loud as you can." And I honestly screamed out loud, "I want to be a director," and I didn't know that I was going to say that, and I said it out loud. And that was the first time that I said it out loud.
Greta: And then, I was sort of like—it still felt impossible to me, and then I think I was on enough sets, and I'd been paying attention, I'd been around a lot of people, and there just reaches a point where you're like, Even if what I make is terrible, it's scarier to have not made it, than to make something terrible. I don't know if you felt like that, either before your first film, or in the gap between.
Barry: I felt like that in the gap between. Because there was an eight year gap between Medicine for Melancholy and Moonlight. And Tarell's play came to me, and it was the last thing I ever in a million years thought I would make.
Barry: One, it wasn't a story that originated with me, and then two, it featured a character whose sexuality I did not share. I even had a friend say to me, "Are you sure you want to make this film as your follow-up? This sounds like career suicide." I was like, "You know, I want to make a movie, man." And at that point, I'd never made anything set in Miami. Never. My whole film life was from Tallahassee to LA to San Francisco. I'd done a few little things in New York, but I'd never gone home to make anything. I was like, "You know what? I'm gonna do this," you know?
Because one, I thought, I'd become really jaded, and I just thought similar to you, this isn't ever going to happen. It's just never gonna happen. I'm just not meant to be a filmmaker. I made this one little tiny $15,000 film, and that's all I get. And then this opportunity came up, and it was like, you know what? This is not the ideal second feature, a triptych with no movie stars about a gay black kid trying to find his sexuality while his mom is wrestling with this huge drug addiction. But I've got to make this thing. And I will never forgive myself if I don't at least leap and see what the experience will be.
Greta: But that's the thing. I don't know, those years are valuable, where you're not doing the thing. I don't know. One of my very favorite playwrights is this woman, Annie Baker, who—she's now a friend. I was a fan before we became friends, and she always talks about, it takes her a long time to write. She said something like—I think there's such an addiction to productivity, that sometimes you miss these moments where what looks like being lazy or a fallow period or like you haven't done anything, a lot of important work can get done there, when it doesn't look like anything is happening on the surface. And I think sometimes those incubation periods—because then by the time you were making Moonlight, you had stored up a lot.
Greta: And that's true.
Barry: Maybe a little too much. There's so much aesthetic inspiration in Moonlight. But that's neither here nor there. The story's been written.
Greta: No, I'll tell you where it is. It's right here. It's here, and there.
Barry: I wanted to ask you a somewhat dark question. Not too dark. I don't think it's dark.
Greta: Ask it, ask it.
Barry: Was there a period where you either entertained or was a possibility that someone else would direct your script for Lady Bird?
Greta: Yeah, sure. There was. Because by the time I had a script for it, when the script was done, I thought, This is a good piece of writing. I know enough about movie scripts, this is a good piece of writing. And I thought, I know a lot of directors, and I know a lot of really good directors. And I thought I could give it to one of them and they would make something good out of it. And they could take care of it. And it was really scary not to do that. And then I went through a phase where I was like, I need one of them to officially bless it. I went through that phase too. Or maybe I should co-direct with them. I tried to abdicate responsibility a few different ways before I was finally like, No, you're gonna do it. You're doing it.
Barry: And tell me about that moment, I hope you were at the YMCA again.
Greta: No, I wasn't.
Barry: But what was it that made you really decide? What was the moment, what was the breakthrough?
Greta: Yeah. I flung myself at it. I said it before I knew it, I told people. I had an agent and I had said, "I have a movie, I'm gonna make it, I'm gonna direct it," and they were like, "Oh you are?" And I said, “Yes, I have this script,” and in my mind I was like, You can back out, you can back out later.
Greta: I have to break things down that are scary for me into mini steps. You're not directing a film, you're just telling someone that you're going to. And I just kept doing the actions over and over again, like I built my lookbook, I had the paintings that I liked, I had the influences, I had my playlists. And I was like, Just keep pushing the ball down the road.
Barry: That doesn't sound quite like pushing a ball down the road so much as building a house, and you were laying the foundation, and then putting up the drywall.
Barry: Speed round, real quick.
Barry: What was the most magical day on set?
Greta: Magical day. Oh, directing prom. Because we all wore prom dresses.
Barry: I was going to say, I know from behind-the-scenes stills that you also wore a prom dress that day.
Greta: And also, my crew wore tuxedos.
Greta: So classy.
Barry: And then if you don't mind, what was your worst day on set?
Greta: Worst day on set. Any day where I felt like I couldn't help an actor. That was always hard. Because all you want to do is help them figure it out, and you feel like you're failing, and you feel like—
Barry: And as an actor, you know what that's like. So you're like, "I know that this giving should happen." There was a day on this film that we just wrapped, that—because I'm freshly in the edit, and I walk in every day, and I know the scene, and I remember the day, I remember being on set. And it was the same thing. I just couldn't give the crew what they needed. And what that feels like to me is just this responsibility that we have, and part of that responsibility's about creating the work, of course. But it's also about creating the space and this atmosphere where people feel comfortable to ally with us in creating these things. Mom, I hear you moving back there. Are we wrapped?
Greta: Are we done?
Barry's Mom: Yeah.
Barry: Alright. Cool.
Greta: We're done. Okay!
Barry: High five, girlfriend.