Auteur Greta Gerwig finds herself in the coveted position of being one of the leading female screenwriting and directing talents in and outside of Hollywood, specifically with her Oscar-nominated solo debut film Lady Bird, which tells the story of an artistically inclined seventeen-year-old girl comes of age in Sacramento, California with her mother in tow.
Gerwig originally intended to become a playwright, but was rejected by the playwriting MFA programs she applied for. She turned to acting, soon becoming known as a possible “It Girl” thanks to her performances, writing, and co-directing in many mumblecore films.
Mumblecore is a subgenre of the indie film market that is often defined by naturalistic acting and dialogue — often improvised — in low-budget productions. These types of films put emphasis on dialogue over plot and usually focus on the personal relationships of people in their 20s and 30s.
She partnered with auteur Joe Swanberg, sharing writing credits on Hannah Takes the Stairs.
She then shared both writing and directing duties with him for Nights and Weekends.
In 2010, Gerwig starred in Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg sharing the screen with the likes of Ben Stiller, Rhys Ifans, and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Gerwig then co-wrote Baumbach’s next film, Frances Ha, which she starred in and received a Golden Globe nomination for her acting.
Her third on-screen collaboration with Baumbach, Mistress America, debuted in 2015 and then she went on to act in 20th Century Women and Jackie — both of which were highly acclaimed performances.
She then decided to write Lady Bird and venture on her first solo directing journey, leading to box office success with $53 million off of a $10 million budget, high critical praise, and Oscar nominations.
We’ve scoured the internet to learn a little more about Gerwig’s writing process and what screenwriters and filmmakers can learn from her.
Writing Words that Don’t Look Like They’ve Been Written
While she was “brought up” in mumblecore films that often utilized improv, Gerwig’s screenplays are actually very set pieces that only sound like improvisation. To her, it’s about using her improv impulse to write dialogue that doesn’t sound like writing.
Taking the Time to Prepare Yourself
She had always wanted to direct on her own, but wanted to take the time to hone her writing through writing projects and producing.
Story Structure Is Embedded Within Us All
She speaks about the idea of using familiar genre structures but having them embedded within more original stories and characters.
You Have to Take the Leap
Taking the leap, whether it be as a director or writer, is the biggest step that will force you to learn quickly. While Gerwig discusses other aspects of her journey, this single message is key for anyone trying to find a way to learn and motivate themselves.
Don’t Judge and Dismiss Your Own Writing
When asked to give advice to young screenwriters trying to write, Gerwig first suggests writing as much as possible. Beyond that, she makes the point that screenwriters shouldn’t be the sole judge of their own work. Writers should get those drafts out to friends and peers and listen to what they have to say.
Listen to Your Characters
A key point in this discussion was the writing process. Gerwig made an amazing comparison to how actors approach their performances by listening to their characters. Writers can do the same thing.
Treat Each Character as If They Could Have Their Own Movie About Them
Whether she was talking about letting the actors feel this way or writing each character in such a way, the clear message is that, yes, your characters — even the supporting ones — should be developed and written in such a way that each of them could have their own story. When you do that, your whole cast of characters will seem worthy of any spotlight you give them — big or small.
Great Screenplays Should Be Like Poetry
“Maximum impact with minimum space.” This is perhaps one of the single best and most precise lines of screenwriting advice you could ever hear or read. That is what great screenplays are all about. Having maximum impact while using minimum space.
Simple but amazing advice from one of today’s greatest cinematic voices.
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies