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Q&A: ‘Barbie’ filmmaker Greta Gerwig on art, commerce and embracing the mess

2023-07-20 23:52
Barbie, the doll, may be 64 years old, but “Barbie,” the movie, is a pandemic baby
Q&A: ‘Barbie’ filmmaker Greta Gerwig on art, commerce and embracing the mess

Barbie, the doll, may be 64 years old, but “Barbie,” the movie, is a pandemic baby.

Greta Gerwig, the Oscar-nominated filmmaker behind “Little Women” and “Lady Bird," started dreaming it up at a time when she wasn't sure movies would ever come back.

“I wanted to channel something that had that ache in it, but also something so wild and unruly and something that was so just spilling out over the edges of it that you want to be in a group and see it big,” Gerwig told The Associated Press this week. "Because I thought we’ll never make any movies again, but if they’re going to, I’d like this.”

Her “Barbie,” which releases in theaters on Friday, is a joyful, maximalist, deeply weird, insightful and defiantly pink confection starring Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling. She co-wrote it with her partner, Noah Baumbach, with whom she shares two sons — a toddler and a five-month-old whom they welcomed into the world while getting “Barbie” out to the world.

Gerwig spoke to the AP this week about the film, the reviews, the tension between art and commerce, and the unlikely connection between “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer." (Hint: It’s not just the release date.)

Remarks have been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

AP: Reviews for “Barbie” came out (Wednesday) and are very positive. I’m wondering if you engage with those and how you’re feeling?

GERWIG: I do. I mean, of course. I’m not Emily Dickinson. I’m not above anything. I didn’t actually look last night because I just knew I would be too anxious. I was like go to sleep, wake up, caffeinate, get your kid to summer camp and then find out where we are. There’s a lot of reviewers that I really respect and have really liked. Film criticism matters to me as a person and also being in conversation with people who think about cinema matters. But it can feel very scary at the moment that you’re at the emotional pitch of releasing a movie to take it in.

What I tend to do is know which ones I’m going to go back to in a few weeks when I can take it in more. It’s too overwhelming at the moment. ... All my metaphors go to giving birth because I have a five-month-old but it would be like if you just give birth and then you’re like, “What are the reviews of the baby?” But I did check the email and I’m pleased. ("Barbie") seems to have been received in the spirit that it was meant, which is exciting.

AP: I read that you called Peter Weir (“The Truman Show” director) to get advice on creating an artificial world with emotional authenticity. Is there anything he told you that you can share?

GERWIG: He was so generous getting on the phone with me. I had this idea of making Barbie Land basically an interior soundstage world. That was that was the concept. But as big as soundstages are, they’re not the world. They’re going to be small. You can only hang the lights so high.

There's obviously parts of his movie that are done on a stage, but then there are other parts of it that can’t possibly be on a stage because it’s too big, but it feels like it’s on a stage, you know? Why does it feel like it’s on a stage? He explained to me they did shoot a lot of it outside in this community in Florida, but that they hung big stage lighting everywhere so it would look lit even though it was outside. And then he said it made everything like 120 degrees and that he did not suggest that. He was like I wouldn’t do that. It works but you might want to avoid making a place that’s hot, hotter.

AP: That's great that you asked.

GERWIG: In my experience, directors are so generous speaking about what they’ve done and how they did it and what were the problems, because you’re only ever on your own movie AND movies are hard and they always feel completely unlikely and completely impossible but in a new way that the other one wasn’t. Whatever lessons you learned on the last one, you can apply some of them, but it’s going to be a new set of issues. And other directors want to give you the knowledge that they’ve gotten that they can’t use anymore because they’ve already made that movie.

I had the same experience when I was making “Little Women.” Steven Spielberg was incredibly generous with me because he had made “Lincoln,” which took place in the same year. He opened up all of his research, all the lighting diagrams that he did with his cinematographer. He was like here’s how we did it. He just showed me absolutely everything. Even though you’re only ever in your own in your own dream of your own movie, there’s camaraderie in the loneliness.

AP: I wondered going in if “Barbie” was going to be for kids, but then about 15 minutes in I realized that this is exactly the type of movie that I wish I’d had to obsess over at age 8 instead of, like “Grease 2."

GERWIG: I’ve never thought of such a sharp delineation of like what’s for kids and for adults. I just don’t see it as church and state. There’s this Demetri Martin joke that’s like, saying you like kids is like saying, “I like people, for a little while.” We all have some sense of childhood and sense of moving out of it, too, which I think is something that I probably will be forever interested in. We’re not Merlin. We only live in one direction.

AP: There’s talk of a Proust Barbie in the film, which doesn’t seem random. Could you elaborate on why you chose him?

GERWIG: In “Remembrance of Things Past," in “Swann’s Way,” he is literally thrown back into his childhood through the taste of the madeleine. I thought, well, that’ll be a nice Easter egg for one person.

AP: Proust was Oppenheimer’s favorite too. I did not expect that to be the connection between these movies.

GERWIG: So he would have loved Proust Barbie!

AP: There’s a scene where Barbie enters the real world and is being ogled on Venice Beach and certainly it’s something a lot of women can relate to, but I wonder if that reminded you at all of your days starting out as an actor and feeling like you had to look a certain way.

GERWIG: I always felt like I was just was never quite right, that I was somehow being looked at and found lacking. That’s not exclusively available for actors, I think it’s pretty universal. But it’s heightened as an actor. I did an audition once and I was wearing overalls, I think it was for a TV show, and I got into the room and the casting director looked at me and said “Well you must be very talented.” I thought, “Oh no, maybe I’m not talented enough to just be wearing overalls.” Also that this is going quite badly.

AP: There’s some thematic similarities between all your films — women’s economic independence, self-actualization and the idea that emotion is not a weakness.

GERWIG: With any project, I’m completely in it. I can’t really connect it to other things I’ve done. But then when I step back from it, I think, “Oh, these are connected in some way.” I think I’m just interested in the gleeful messiness of life and people. And I’m interested in women. I don’t know, I like them a lot. And I’m interested in women talking to each other through generations. The unwieldy nature of living life is not something that always has to be organized. It can kind of live in its own wildness.

AP: There’s comfort in the idea that it can all be true.

GERWIG: The hope of stepping into everything, was allowing it to all be equally true. I think of the character of Sasha who dismantles Barbie. I wanted everything she said to be absolutely true. And also other things that are true at the same time. That’s always the place that feels most accurate to me.

AP: There was a Guardian piece, I’m not sure if you’ve read it, about indie directors “selling out.” I feel like this is related, that “Barbie” can be a Mattel movie and also a piece of legitimate art and expression as well. And also, like your characters, you’re ensuring your economic independence while getting your ideas out to the biggest audience possible.

GERWIG: I haven’t read it. I’m sure they make good points, probably. There’s always some tension, obviously, between art that exists in the world to be seen and consumed. I joked at the beginning that I’m not Emily Dickinson, but I really am not Emily Dickinson. I’m not writing poems on the back of envelopes and creating and destroying worlds from the confines of my home and never letting anybody see it. I’m making art to be seen by people.

I am not comparing myself to this person at all, but one of the first things when I was a kid was (Sacramento’s) version of Shakespeare in the Park. I got to be part of it when I was 11. I had one line but I loved it, I would go backstage and just watch everyone. It was “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” which was created because the fans liked the character of Falstaff. That’s true. He was a fan favorite in “Henry IV” and, like, someone said could you write a play that’s like, a spinoff. And Shakespeare was like, you got it. And it’s amazing. And it’s also a spinoff of a character. I’m not saying I’m like Shakespeare, but I do think that sort of tension is part of what I like about all of it. We all live in this mess. Except for Emily Dickinson. But she’s the only one.