Greta Gerwig:

November 6th, 2017 by Karen Burg

Main Photo
Coffee shop exterior… Writer/director/creator Greta Gerwig works out a scene with actors Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet Photo by Merie Wallace ©2017 A24

Marion McPherson, a California nurse, works tirelessly to keep her family afloat after her husband loses his job. She also maintains a turbulent bond with a teenage daughter who is just like her -- loving, strong-willed and deeply opinionated...Lady Bird.

Writer/Director Greta Gerwig shares delightful insights in the making of this very personal, witty, heartfelt and artistic film...including her deep collaboration with Production Designer Chris Jones and Set Decorator Traci Spadorcia SDSA, and her entire team!

Greta Gerwig: I grew up in Sacramento and I love Sacramento...there is a modesty and an integrity to the place and the people. The initial impulse to make the film was a desire to write a love letter to a place that only came into focus after I left. It is difficult to register the depths of your love when you are sixteen and quite sure that “life” is happening somewhere else.
None of the events in the film literally happened, but there is a core of truth that is connected to a feeling of home and childhood and departure.

SET DECOR: The lovely scenes of Marion driving and enjoying the Sacramento delta landscape seemed to key the palettes for the film...
Greta Gerwig: They did indeed! You know, we...the entire production team...looked at a lot of paintings of Northern California by Wayne Thiebaud and Gregory Kondos...and particularly of the Sacramento delta.  The colors are so specific and they’re so right in the way they use light and these yellows and blues, with a little bit of green. They kind of capture this horizon and this flatness and this look...that was something we really spent a lot of time talking about. Our production designer Chris Jones is a painter as well as being a PD, he has such a sensitive eye to color, so when we found all the set locations and all the places that we used for sets, we ended up painting a lot, even though we didn’t shoot anything on a soundstage! We did many tests of different color walls and what kind of matched that feeling for us. You know, detail is incredibly important for me, because I think the more specific something is, the more universal it is.
And, for me, that includes everything down to what plates does this family’s loaded. It’s incredibly loaded and meaningful. And so every object, every chair, everything in the movie was really thought about...and it was thought about so the audience doesn’t have to think about it, they can just be in the world.
SET DECOR: That’s the true goal of a set decorator, to take you into the story. Not that you’re sitting and observing, but that you’re brought in and you’re living it with them...
GG: Sure, yeah!
SET DECOR: But at the same time, this did exactly that while being somewhat painterly.
Greta Gerwig: Yes! Yeah, it’s playing with both. I like things that feel chosen but not self-conscious, and that’s a hard thing to strike that balance, but I really did try for it. And the production design and the set dec and the art department and props...everyone had such a specific taste. What I try to do with everyone is I try to hire storytellers, because I think you’re telling a story in your part of the movie, whether you’re an actor and you’re telling your story from the character’s point of view, or whether you’re a decorator and you’re telling it from that point of view. I just think that everything that’s inside of the frame is telling the story.
SET DECOR: Yes, and those details are revealing character so much, so you’re not having to state it because you’re seeing, for instance what Lady Bird has in her bedroom...
GG: Yes!

SET DECOR: Obviously, the rest of the house reflects her parents. The muted yellows of the kitchen and dining room seem to speak to Marion’s underlying sunniness that gets beaten down by life...
GG: Exactly...
SD: And then that typical pink-tiled bathroom that was just perfect...
Greta Gerwig: Oh my gosh! We spent so long looking for this right house, and I mean the whole team. We went to about 50 different houses because I was looking for that very specific ‘50s, post WWII tiling and paneling that was done then. We’d pull up to a house, and the exterior would be all right, but we’d walk in, and the owners would have done a renovation. And I’d say, “Nope. That’s not it. I mean, I’ll know it when I see it.” It’s this very specific kind of tile—in the kitchen, it’s that great yellow tile and in the bathroom it’s the pink. I think it’s life influencing art and vice versa, which is that those colors are exactly the colors that you find in, for example, a Wayne Thiebaud painting of a pie. Which doesn’t technically have anything to do with California, except he was a California painter and those were his colors...and those were the colors of the houses, and those were the colors in that world. We did find the house, it just so perfectly matched up with what we wanted, and I thank my lucky stars that we found that house because any other wouldn’t have been able to tell that story of that family...a house whose owners hadn’t renovated the bathroom and the kitchen, that they had the same thing that Lady Bird’s family would have had.
And you know what’s so funny to me is, now, if people haven’t renovated, their house looks so much cooler because they have the old style that totally went away. And that stuff really matters. And to speak to the yellow, you know, the yellow, we wanted to pick up everywhere, and then also the yellow in the warm light color, like the warm bulbs everywhere, because I wanted it to have that color all over the movie.
SET DECOR: And it does. It has that old-movie richness...
Greta Gerwig: Denseness, yeah. It is painterly. It’s something we were very specific about. You know, my DP and I just spent so long getting to that, being able to capture that, and of course the design and decor team, they brought it so much to the fore.
SD: The den is darker...
GG: Yes, with the ‘50s wood paneling...
SD: And that’s where we see the father with his depression
GG: Yeah, that’s right, that’s true...
SD: And then Lady Bird’s bedroom...
Greta Gerwig: When we picked the color and we chose all the objects, the idea behind it was that it’s a color that she would have chosen for her room when she was a little girl and then it became the wrong color as she got older. I think that’s something that happens in so many girls’ rooms. Towards the end of the movie when we see that she takes apart her room...she takes everything off the wall and she paints it’s such a visual expression of the sadness of leaving childhood behind. It was something I actually came up with while we were shooting in the house. I asked them, “How are you going to take this down?” And then I said, “Well, let’s set up a camera and just have her take it down.” They were going to have to paint it back to another color and first put primer on it, so I said, “Let’s have her do the whole thing, and we’ll film it.” And it became so emotional to have her do that.
SET DECOR: Wow. We could see it in the movie, but who knew all that was behind that?
She had literally covered her walls with expressions of her self, layers of self definiton...
Greta Gerwig: Yeah, that’s right...and I liked all the writing on the walls...I chose these very specific quotes for her to put on her walls, and her bedroom is so cinematic to me, I love it.*
It’s’s very satisfying every time I see a shot of that bedroom—like at Christmas when we see the lights on her wall and the poinsettia in the corner, it’s just such a beautiful frame. And I like, too, the way the furniture is like little girl furniture, it’s what you grew up with and then you had to make do with.
That room, once it came together, just felt so exactly right. This whole house, this whole set...everything is considered. When her father gives her the birthday cupcake, he gives her it on a plate from the ‘70s—it’s a red plate that says, “You Are Special Today” around the border. It was a plate that I knew from my childhood and I mentioned it to Traci and Chris, and they found it!  And I’ve actually had a couple of people recognize that plate and say, “I grew up with that plate.” That to me is what the art of production design/set decoration is...and what the art of props and decorating creates a world of meaning.
SET DECOR: The little touchstones like that don’t really take you out of the scene, they actually take you in further in, even though you momentarily stop and recognize them.
And whenever this was set, things happened 10 years past that you would still have there...
Exactly!!! Which was so important to me, because this movie is set in 2002 to 2003, and it was so important to me that not every object you see is from 2002. It’s a pet peeve of mine. I mean even like the cars on the street, that’s not how it would look. For me, what’s interesting about this moment, and what they captured so well, was this feeling of: it was before IKEA, it was before the internet was so big, it was before Pinterest and a certain kind of taste, so it would be like things you had from your grandmother, things that you were given on your wedding, and then something you’d buy at Sears or Costco. You know, Costco was a thing then, but it was before Crate and Barrel was everywhere. And that specificity of not having the Internet as a style guide is such an interesting time period thing.
SD: Very good point. Otherwise it’s a different film.
GG: Otherwise it’s a different film. And I thought they really nailed that period.
SD: We saw that in another way with Chris and Set Decorator Neil Wyzanowski on 20TH CENTURY WOMEN...[See Film Decor article]
Greta Gerwig: 20TH CENTURY WOMEN, exactly. That’s why I wanted to work with Chris and the team that he has, because I know what a careful tender job they did on that film and how specific they were...and I felt like it was the kind of eyes and hands I wanted on this movie.
SET DECOR: That’s perfectly said, because you’re bringing to life the characters, so you have to own it and become it as well.
Greta Gerwig: Yeah, exactly. And Traci was another great fit.
SD: Great set decorators say that when they shop, they become the character to go shopping...
Greta Gerwig: Totally! I totally understand that. I also feel that, I mean this is off of set decoration, but it’s a part of it, because the way I like to approach costuming every character, is not creating a costume for each scene, I’m building a wardrobe, and building a closet. These are the clothes that this person has. This movie takes place over the course of a year, and I wanted it to feel like Saoirse or Laurie or Traci could decide the thing that their character would wear on any given day. And of course, I’d have final approval and I’d want it to look right, but they would feel like that could pick something from their wardrobe...
SD: By then they have “become” that person...
Greta Gerwig: They have become that person.
SD: Although, that person came from you!
Greta Gerwig: Exactly. But that’s like, you know in the set dressing of the wardrobe, those are her costumes – I said let’s use the things that Costume Designer April Napier has and fill the set closet with the actual clothes. And if the audience happen to notice a dress they’ve seen, it would be right because it’s that person’s closet.
SET DECOR: Once again, fully embracing the characters and their lives...the story.
Greta Gerwig: Yes! I am so grateful to the design and décor team of this movie, and the crew of this movie, in terms of how much emotion they were able to put in every object. It just felt like nothing was not not-thought-about, and that’s always what you want out of a movie....
Objects have emotions completely. You walk into a house and there is nothing you can pick up that doesn’t have some connection to the person who lives there. And I think that if you approach a production designer’s job or a set decorator’s job or a propmaster’s job like that that, it will give it that emotion. Even little things like the collection that Sister Sarah Jones, the principal of the school, has. Chris and Traci decided that she loved elephants. And we had this idea that over the years, students would have brought her little elephants. So all over her desk, on shelves, in nooks, there are elephants. And it’s because nobody is arbitrary. Everyone is so specific, and that little thing is so meaningful.
This is so much fun to talk about. I never get to talk about this in detail and I love it. And also much of the pleasure of making the movie is finding all these meaningful details...

*Editor’s note:

Set Decorator Traci Spadorcia SDSA shared...

“It was important to Greta to layer the walls of Lady Bird's bedroom with as many posters, photos, drawings, CD covers, magazine clippings, random things, etc as we could.
She showed us photos of her own bedroom in high school to use as reference for the amount of coverage and types of things she wanted for the walls, which were pretty much totally covered.
The challenge came in finding enough content to put on the walls to get that heavily collaged look that shows Lady Bird’s unique personality and also the passage of time. It would’ve been great to be able to use real band posters and movie posters but that wasn’t really an option with our budget, to get all of the legal clearances. So while we were able to get clearance on some CD covers, we had to get creative, using as many resources for cleared images as we could, making some things, using some of Greta’s photos and taking some photos of the cast.
As a finishing touch to add the final layer, Greta wrote the phrases, quotes and random things on the walls in crayon.
In my opinion, as a metaphor, maybe the walls are at capacity, they’ve been so decorated with the memories she’s collected through her childhood and adolescence that there’s no space left. Lady Bird is ready to move on and leave her childhood behind. As the tagline of the film says, ‘Time to Fly’.”

Spadorcia also graciously acknowledged SDSA Business Members, particularly:
Advanced Liquidators
Alpha Medical
Artery Props
Green Set
Hollywood Studio Gallery
Lennie Marvin
Nest Studio Rentals
Omega|Cinema Props
Pinacoteca Picture Props
Sony Pictures Property
Universal Studios Property
Warner Brothers Property
Wertz Brothers



Photo 3
iconic mural… “I’ve always loved this mural...and I thought it was cinematic,” says Writer/Director Greta Gerwig, who grew up in Sacramento, where the film is set. “The artist who made that mural touched it up for us in the more vibrant colors that I wanted. And so it was that it was real, it existed, but then we heightened it, and the guy who made the mural made it better...” Photo by Merie Wallace ©2017 A24

Photo 4
Lady Bird’s bedroom… “It’s a color that she would have chosen for her room when she was a little girl and then it became the wrong color as she got older,” says Gerwig, who used a large purple crayon to write quotes and phrases amidst the layers of visual personal statements...

Photo 5
Lady Bird’s bedroom… The fan chair is one Gerwig remembered from her childhood and asked Set Decorator Traci Spadorcia SDSA to find...

Photo 6
Lady Bird’s bedroom… Spadorcia used a subtle bird theme, quiet touches such as the small hand-painted chest standing in the closet...

Photo 7
McPherson kitchen… A typical family morning... Gerwig and team searched for a location that had this style of kitchen tile, bathroom tile and a wood paneled den. They then painted it in muted tones and carefully edited set dressing to show years of family life in one home... Laurie Metcalf, Jordan Rodriques, Tracy Letts, Saoirse Ronan Photo by Merie Wallace ©2017 A24

Photo 8
McPherson dining room… In readiness for Thanksgiving... One which Lady Bird will not attend, since she is has been invited to join her new boyfriend’s family at his grandmother’s house instead...

Photo 9
McPherson living room/dining room… Another conversation in which mother and daughter seem to be living in different worlds... Marion [Laurie Metcalf] is convinced that Lady Bird [Saoirse Ronan] has a total disconnect to the realities of life... Photo by Merie Wallace ©2017 A24

Photo 10
McPherson den… An almost painterly portrait of Lady Bird [Saoirse Ronan] in the classic paneled den/family room... Photo by Merie Wallace ©2017 A24

Photo 11
McPherson family traditional birthday plate… “Lady Bird’s father gives her the birthday cupcake on a plate from the ‘’s a red plate that says, ‘You Are Special Today’ around the border. It was a plate that I knew from my childhood and I mentioned it to Traci and Chris, and they found it! And I’ve actually had a couple of people recognize it and say, ‘I grew up with that plate.’ That to me is what the art of production design/set decoration is...and what the art of props and decorating creates a world of meaning.” --Greta Gerwig

Photo 12
McPherson den… Another almost painterly portrait of Lady Bird [Saoirse Ronan] in the classic paneled den/family room with furnishings that have been there most of her life... Photo by Merie Wallace ©2017 A24

Photo 13
McPherson bathroom… The one bathroom for the entire family has the traditional pink decorative tile of the early ‘50s. Mother/daughter talks take place in the tiny space as both ready for the day... Laurie Metcalf, Saoirse Ronan Screen image ©2017 A24

Photo 14
McPherson dining room… Although saddened and a little hurt that her daughter won’t join them for Thanksgiving, Marion [Laurie Metcalf] tailors her daughter’s new dress...ironically, at the very table where they have always celebrated Thanksgiving... Photo by Merie Wallace ©2017 A24


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