Welcome to Commentary Commentary, our long-running series of articles exploring the things we can learn from the most interesting filmmaker commentaries available on DVD and Blu-ray.
It’s been many, many years since my last confession, though I have one now: it is nearly impossible for me to approach Lady Bird with any sort of critical distance. Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson and I are almost exactly the same age. I grew up in California and attended Catholic school. I cried to “Crash Into Me.” The film speaks so singularly to my experience that her memories feel like my memories. And listening to the film’s writer/director and cinematographer speak on how it all came together is my ideal form of Sunday worship. So please open your hymnal books and continue reading to see what I heard on the commentary track for…
Lady Bird (2017)
Commentators: Greta Gerwig (writer and director) and Sam Levy (director of photography)
- In the opening scene, Marion and Lady Bird are sitting on the edge of a hotel bed in front of draped windows representing backstage curtains. This is the first in a motif of proscenium shots conceptually framing the characters on literal and figurative stages and altars that highlight the theatricality of Catholicism and juxtapose places of worship with places of performance. “Who are we really and who are we performing ourselves to be?”
- DP Sam Levy was visually inspired by Andrew Wyeth paintings that reflected California’s agriculture and topography. Golden fields bathed in golden light can be seen out each window as Lady Bird and her mom road trip home listening to The Grapes of Wrath on tape. Gerwig was also struck by the reverse migration of Lady Bird’s generation back to the East Coast after having grown up out west.
- The first thing Greta told Sam was, “I want this film to look like a memory.” During pre-production, Sam covered their office walls with photographs and paintings printed out on paper, giving the images the effect of having lost a layer but also having gained something in being reproduced.
- The film maintains consistent color stories for different storylines. Popular girl Jenna and the other cool kids are lit with a violet hue. By comparison, Lady Bird and her family are shot in softer, yellower light.
- Stephen McKinley Henderson, the actor playing Father Leviatch, teaches at Julliard. When filming his rehearsal scenes with the cast of Immaculate Heart’s high school musical, Gerwig encouraged him to play unscripted theater games with the young actors, who were predictably ecstatic and enthusiastic to be learning from such esteemed faculty.
- Gerwig always wanted Jon Brion to compose the score. She was told on many occasions he would never do it. To her surprise and delight, Brion agreed. As part of the old-fashioned score, he created a piano motif that repeats throughout the film and is later punctuated with melodious feedback, evocative of memory itself.
- While some actors choose to pretend the camera isn’t there, Saoirse Ronan loves and uses the camera. She treats it as a friend and always finds a way to get her performance into the camera. Producer Scott Rudin characterized it as “a deep will to communicate.” She also sees herself as a crewmember.
- Gerwig’s film rejects French filmmaker Robert Bresson’s contention that theatricality has no place in cinema. She stylistically leaned into the theatricality and inspired everyone on set to follow the performance. Just like Lady Bird herself, the movie has a “performative streak.” Later, Gerwig admits to using a “Bresson shot” when the Dr. Martens-footed heroine ascends the white marble steps of a church balcony.
- The film’s quick cuts and transitions were other stylistic choices – a means of conveying breathlessness and the qualitative effect of time tumbling forward faster than one can hold onto it.
- Levy used old Panavision lenses to get a slight flare. Gerwig and Levy went to a Panavision warehouse and picked out lenses together. They independently decided on the same one since “[they’re] the same person,” according to Gerwig.
- The crew choreographed, lit, and filmed five musical numbers in entirety from Stephen Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along.” To sell one minute of footage, they needed to have the whole thing right.
- Henderson reads Gerwig’s favorite line in the movie following the Sondheim production: “They didn’t understand it.”
- Gerwig told Timothée Chalamet to grow out his hair when she cast him as Kyle, Lady Bird’s Howard Zinn-reading, conspiracy theorizing love interest. “That look is really working for him.”
- It was difficult to scout the right cinematic parking lot for scenes at cool kids’ hangout “the deuce.” Office parks are these late-20th century things that will one day cease to exist. That sensation of time slipping away is likewise palpable in the Sacramento air.
- Saoirse, who grew up Irish Catholic, taught all the Catholic prayers to Beanie Feldstein, who is Jewish and played her best friend Julie in the movie. In turn, Beanie taught Saoirse the Pledge of Allegiance because she had no idea what it was.
- Of the emotional airport scene, Lori Metcalf, who plays Lady Bird’s mom, said “I can do this twice.” The scene heartbreakingly redefines that romantic run through the airport to catch someone at the gate and tell them how you feel as a moment of missed opportunity between a mother and a daughter.
- Lois Smith as Sister Sarah Joan is set up as a mother figure, and framed as Lady Bird’s equal, prior to delivering the thesis of the movie: “Don’t you think maybe they are the same thing? Love and attention?” In speaking about her experience making the film, Gerwig achieves this same level of earnest sincerity devoid of sappiness.
- Lucas Hedges (Danny) saw all the characters in the film as looking at a life they don’t have and thinking it is better. Lady Bird so envies the lives of the cool, rich kids, and there is a subtle indication that Julie would envy Lady Bird’s life in that same way.
- The film is very much about finding beauty and romance in unexpected places, i.e. mother/daughter relationships and best friendships. After their fight, Lady Bird has to win Julie back. Gerwig described this as Lady Bird’s “boom box over your head moment” (in reference to Lloyd Dobler’s wooing of Diane Court in Say Anything) and told Saoirse to “go get your girl.”
- Immaculate Heart’s prom theme was Eternal Flame, but nobody within the context of the film actually thought it through. With fiery orange decorations, “They had a hell prom. Their prom looked like hell.” Gerwig wore a prom dress to direct these scenes.
- Levy used different film stock when shooting the New York-based scenes. The effect is crisper, cooler, and inkier.
- The Kagemusha poster in the background of Lady Bird’s first college party tells us the host (and Kurosawa stan) is very likely a young man. “These people define themselves by their tastes.”
- Author and illustrator Leanne Shapton designed the font for Lady Bird’s title and credits. She made an entire uppercase and lowercase alphabet and painted it ten times the size, then shrunk it down to reveal imperfections without appearing overly cutesy.
- The entire ending came to Gerwig whole cloth. She never doubted it. Lady Bird leaves a kind, gracious voicemail for her mom, hangs up the flip phone, and inhales. The film cuts on the inhale because when she exhales “we’re in a different story and I’m not telling the next story.”
- Gerwig encourages audiences to stay for the final credits. Not only as a sign of respect to all those involved in the collaborative filmmaking process, but also as a meditative moment to sit through what you just heard and saw. “I guess I sound like Marion [after listening to The Grapes of Wrath on tape].”
Best in Context-Free Commentary
“[Sam Levy] has a suburban fantasy.”
“It’s funnier because she’s believing it one-hundred percent.”
“Jesus has gotta watch the game, gotta make sure it goes the right way.”
“I’m always interested in how people use language to not say what they mean.”
This commentary track is a pure delight, striking a fine balance between highlighting the technical aspects of filmmaking, delving into sources of inspiration, and revealing little Easter eggs of trivia. Live Lady Bird in our hearts. Forever.