Note: I am pleased to present this guest post by Gabrielle Donnelly, author of The Little Women Letters. Donnelly is an entertainment journalist and she had the chance recently to sit down with Greta Gerwig, writer and director of the latest Little Women movie.
Writer and director Greta Gerwig’s last film was the acclaimed coming of age drama “Lady Bird.” A lifelong fan of Little Women, she has said that this was a film she felt she was born to make.
GD: Good to see you, Greta! Can you remember the first time you read Little Women?
GG: No, I don’t actually remember when I first read it because it was just one of the things I’ve always known. My mother used to read it to me when I was a child, and I feel like it was similar to the Beatles in some way. I don’t remember first hearing the Beatles, I just always knew the lyrics; and in the same way, I always knew who Jo, Amy, Beth and Meg were.
GD: And when you came back to read it as an adult, how had it changed?
GG:There were so many things I hadn’t seen as a child, the first being the characters as grown-up women. To see these girls in their 20s and beyond was very compelling to me, because when you’re a child you tend to focus on them as children but there are so many stories that come later – of Jo in New York trying to sell stories to make money; Amy in Europe giving up art because she realizes she can’t be great; Meg with her children struggling to find fulfillment in a life that looks very similar to her mother’s; and then Beth facing down imminent death. Those things made me want to skew the story to start with the sisters as adults, because collectively so much of what we think of in Little Women is them when they’re younger, and I thought, wouldn’t it be interesting if we started with their adult selves and their childhood became the thing that was in their memory
GD: What did you learn about the March family when you were researching this film?
GG: Two main things. One was how very much in dire straits they [the Alcotts] were as a family. They weren’t the genteel poor of the book – they were the wretchedly poor. They had to work very hard and it was very scary for them a lot of the time. The other was how very socially progressive they were. They were not merely Abolitionists – they were violently opposed to slavery. They were station masters on the Underground Railroad and they would not touch any goods that had even participated in anything to do with slavery. I also learned how committed they were to other social causes. Louisa’s mother was the first social worker and her father was part of a vegan commune – they were astonishing in their commitment to social values and ethical values.
GD: And what about Louisa in particular?
GG: I was interested to learn that she was a runner. I kept reading in books and in different letters that she had written that she was a very avid runner, and at first I thought they must mean something else because I didn’t know what it would look like for a woman in the nineteenth century to go for a run. But they meant real running. She would just tuck up her skirts and go running, and in the film I have Jo running through the streets of New York in honor of that.
GD: Which is somewhat poignant in view of the fact that by the time Louisa wrote Little Women her running days were well behind her …
GG: Yes, she contracted typhus in the Civil War, and she never really recovered. She had so much tragedy in her life and so many difficulties, which is part of the reason why I start the entire film with the quote “I’ve had lots of troubles so I write jolly tales.”
GD: You have said that you wrote this film for Little Women geeks. So what Easter eggs can we geeks expect in the film?
GG: Some are more obvious than others. First of all, there’s a scene where Amy March in Europe confronts the rise of Impressionism in paintings which I think is pretty geeky – I figure for the people who know what it is they’ll love it, for everyone else, it’s just a detail that will make it seem like part of a larger, more modern world. I have Louisa switching her hands when she wrote: Jo writes with both her right hand and her left hand, which was true of Louisa May Alcott, and I thought that was such a great cinematic thing to include. But the very geekiest thing is that the play Jo March sees in New York at the beginning of the film is Twelfth Night, and the scene we show from it is one where Viola is a woman dressed as a man, and she says “I am not what I am,” which is one of my favorite lines from Shakespeare and also plays into the gender ambiguity between Jo and Laurie, which I liked.
GD: You have a very interesting device in the film of Jo and Laurie frequently wearing each other’s clothes.
GG: Yes. I worked on that with Jacqueline Duran who is our genius costume designer. We wanted to create this very literal ambiguity about the genders of Jo and Laurie because they are both so similar – Jo is a girl with a boy’s name and Laurie is a boy with a girl’s name, and it felt like clothing swapping was an externalized way to show that in many ways they’re each other’s twins.
GD: How about the characters of the March parents?
GG: There’s a line in the book where Marmee says “I’m angry almost very single day of my life.” And when you hear that you think, “Oh, my God! Marmee is angry almost every day? I’d never heard that before!” I felt like I wanted to see who is the woman behind the myth of Marmee – not just who is she as a mother but who is she as a woman, too. Laura Dern, who plays her, has this thing about her that I feel like she’s so real, so earthbound as an actress and I felt that she was able to give me access to those qualities in Marmee.
GD: And Mr. March?
GG: He’s absent a lot. He’s absent for the entire first half of the book. In the book it’s because he was away in the Civil War, but Louisa was also exploring this female Utopia that her mother was able to maintain for herself and her sisters, and in the film I felt like we didn’t really want to see him until we saw him and then I wanted him to be, in a way, a figure that, yes, was part of the world of the house but also separate somehow.
GD: Which character did you find particularly intriguing to write?
GG: Possibly Beth, because I wanted to bring out her weirdness. She’s peculiar, and I was always thinking of her like an Edward Gorey character. She feeds her dolls, and there’s a whole sequence in the book where she kills her bird and tries to revive it. There’s a macabre weirdness to Beth that I’m really into. The other big thing that I felt was I wanted Beth to do was a thing that it touched on in the book that is when Beth sits down to play the piano at the Laurence’s house, I don’t have her playing hymns. I have her playing Bach and Chopin and Schumann. She’s playing the greats – and by the way, that really was Eliza Scanlen playing – and she’s doing it beautifully and with strength. I wanted the audience to hear that and think, “Oh, my God she has so much talent!” That was the little window of wanting to show that it was not inevitable that Beth died, that she had as much to live for as everyone else.
GD: You seem to have played with some of the more Puritan aspects of the film, in that the characters seem not to have been required to learn as many moral lessons as they did in the book – for instance, when Meg goes to the ball and actually ends up enjoying herself. Was that a conscious choice?
GG: Well, there was such a bent of self-improvement and bettering oneself in books at the time and I think Louisa wanted to echo that, because fiction for young girls was seen as a teaching tool to make them be better, and in a way she was dealing with that limitation; but the fact is that these days, why we love the characters is not because of how they conquer themselves but because of how they don’t. The book has a lot of stuff happening that’s very interesting and edgy but often by the end of the chapter Louisa May Alcott will pull back and there’ll be this Victorian morality ending where it feels like everybody’s learned their lesson and been put back in line; but what’s interesting to me is what happens before that, so if you take away the part where there’s a lesson in it, it’s often fascinating. And with Meg at the ball, two things struck me. The first thing is the part where she says to Laurie “just tell them I’m pretty and having a good time,” and that, yes, she is pretty and she is having a good time. And the other thing I noticed about the incident was how everyone at the ball calls her Daisy; and that later on, Daisy is the name she calls her daughter, so I thought, well, that night must have meant something to her after all. I found that quite moving.
GD: Talking of Meg, it was quite a coup to get Emma Watson ….
GG: Yes, isn’t she marvelous? She’s such a wonderful actress but she’s also so intelligent and so thoughtful. Meg of all the sisters makes the choice that seems on the surface to be the most conventional – she gets married and she has children. But what she does do is she marries for love, not for money, and she finds her happiness and her freedom in doing so — and Emma is such an ardent feminist and fights for so many women’s causes all over the world, that for her to give her that intelligence to the sister who makes the choice that you might say is not feminist is quite poignant in itself.
GD: Just one more casting question before we wrap up. Would you care to comment on the unusually … let’s say decorative … nature of Professor Bhaer?
GG: It’s a movie and I’m a girl! Why wouldn’t I want a good looking Professor Bhaer? I read the character description in the book – “There’s no one aspect of his face that one could call handsome” – and I was like, Nope! I’ll be casting Louis Garrel, thank you! That’s why they call it the movies.
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