Our homegrown star

Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird shows Sacramento in all its raw beauty

Like actress, like director. Saoirse Ronan, left, and Greta Gerwig on the set of Lady Bird.

Like actress, like director. Saoirse Ronan, left, and Greta Gerwig on the set of Lady Bird.

Photo courtesy of A24

Starlight bathes the roses inside McKinley Park. Under the sepia tones of nightfall, Saoirse Ronan, the Oscar-nominated actress, stretches out on the grass beside actor Lucas Hedges.

“You know you can touch my boobs, right?” she asks.

“I know,” he replies. “I just respect you too much.”

The actors are playing teenaged characters Lady Bird and Danny in one of the many belly laugh-inducing scenes from the solo directorial debut of Sacramento native Greta Gerwig, who also wrote the script. Already the subject of Oscar murmurs, Lady Bird releases publicly in Sacramento on November 10.

In McKinley Park, as Gerwig stood behind the camera filming, the ex who actually said those words—likely near the same rose hedges—stood just feet away from her. Connor Mickiewicz, the former beau and current friend, recalled the scene and others like it: “We spent a lot of time there, making out,” he says. “Poor thing. I feel so bad now.” As Danny does in the film, Mickiewicz eventually came out to Gerwig as gay after dating her for a few years in high school. “The McKinley Park scene is deeply personal for me,” he says.

In Lady Bird, Gerwig has mined her childhood for material and crafted a bittersweet Valentine to Sacramento. She’s indie famous for her co-writing and starring roles in Frances Ha and Mistress America and appearances in wide releases including Jackie. She’s acted in a total of 25 films and co-written five. But it’s really in Lady Bird where Gerwig and her humble charm blossom. She has excelled as a director—a role still resoundingly dominated by men, her romantic partner Noah Baumbach among them.

Friends and former teachers credit Gerwig’s success to her ability to listen keenly, both in daily life and on stage.

From the opening scene of Lady Bird, it’s obvious that the filmmaker has paid close attention to her hometown. Under her direction, Sacramento sparkles like it never has on screen, both for its natural beauty and straightforward elegance.

“We wanted it to look plain and luscious,” Gerwig told SN&R. “I had a really strong feeling of: Sacramento is beautiful, we don’t have to do anything to make it beautiful. We have to spend time there and we have to think about what it looks like and we have to shoot it honestly—and it will be beautiful because we shoot it honestly, just as these characters will be beautiful because they’re written and acted and shot honestly.”

Despite the city’s supple look, drama queen Lady Bird (given name Christine McPherson) can’t wait to leave. In the movie’s opening line, she self-consciously asks, “Do you think I look like I’m from Sacramento?”

“You are from Sacramento,” deadpans her mother, Marion, played by Laurie Metcalf.

After watching the highly naturalistic film, you’re left to wonder how much Gerwig identifies with Lady Bird. Like the title character, the director graduated from a Catholic high school in the early aughts, and her mother also worked in medicine. Where does the fiction cross-fade into reality? And how does she truly feel about Sacramento?

Homecoming screen

A thread connects Gerwig with characters she's written, and it's difficult to untangle the fact from the fiction. Like Brooke in Mistress America, she’s a multidisciplinary artist—what with her writing, acting, directing, fencing and dancing—who admires others’ ability to cross-pollinate.

She left California to attend Barnard College in New York City. Her reason for going? Well, first, Gerwig was rejected from UCLA’s musical theater department, she says. But she whisked away to New York because she was fascinated with the students at Barnard and their a la cart degrees.

Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf in a scene staged at Thrift Town.

Photo courtesy of A24

“The girl who interviewed me was a double major in astrophysics and opera,” she says, “and I was like, ’Who are you? How do I get in here?’”

Like the pirouetting protagonist of Frances Ha, Gerwig admits that she herself is sincere. Plus, friends describe her as whimsical and kind, a graceful dancer yet a klutz. “She would come into a room and trip because it was Greta,” says high school drama teacher Cheryl Watson. “Or just stumble a little and come up in a Greta way.” This mirrors the awkward gestures yet refined movements of the aspiring dancer she played.

She, like Frances and Lady Bird, left Sacramento for New York to make it in the arts.

“I had a pretty strong sense of needing to—feeling like I have to go prove myself,” Gerwig says. “That I have to go do this in another place and then I can come back.”

During college, Gerwig was cast in a small role in LOL, an indie film in the mumblecore genre that would continue to shape her dialogue-driven sensibilities as a filmmaker. In New York, she also met Baumbach, her future boyfriend and pivotal creative collaborator. The two co-wrote Frances Ha in 2012—earning Gerwig a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress—and Mistress America in 2015.

And with Lady Bird, Gerwig has come into her own. Compared to her introspective co-written films, this script rips to the heart of relationships. She probes into icy mother-daughter rifts and deeply rooted friendships with an openhearted humor that makes the ordinary tragedies sting with realness. Poignant scenes, such as a son interviewing for the same job as his unemployed father, resonate in her hands, not for their florid banter, but for the silences in between the dialogue.

“I wanted the language of the script to be quotidian but also poetic, and that it felt like you would stumble into something beautiful,” she says, “and even though it’s teenagers bumbling and never saying exactly what they mean, or a mother and daughter fighting, that there was a way that you could somehow get to something that was beautiful without meaning to. And not trying to dress up language, but allow it to exist.”

The plot is as straightforward as the language. Lady Bird dreams of flying away to an East Coast school to become someone. Her nitpicky mother dotes on her while criticizing her every statement and thrift-store purchase. So Lady Bird colludes with her father to apply to the fancy East Coast colleges that would meet her mother’s disapproval. In the meantime, Lady Bird finds an outlet for her hammy personality in theater, falls in love, gets her heart broken—twice—dumps her best friend for the cool crowd and eventually makes right.

She realizes that, all along, she’s loved those things that nurtured and bugged her at the same time: her mother and her motherland.

It all sounds so normal, but many moments feel remarkable. During the Sacramento debut screening at the Tower Theatre on October 29—filled to capacity with Gerwig’s friends, family and other Sacramentans—viewers sniffled back tears in surround sound.

Upon reading her college application essay, one of the teacher-nuns remarks: “You clearly love Sacramento.”

After some back-and-forth, Lady Bird eventually realizes, “I pay attention.”

“Don’t you think maybe they are the same thing? Love and attention.” The words rippled through the audience with the warm flush of wonder.

Though the characters often fail at their small aspirations, the story elicits a stream of laughter. It ping-pongs us between a state of bemusement and reluctant recognition of ourselves in these characters.

For those of us who live in Sacramento, the film tugs even harder. Gerwig and cinematographer Sam Levy studied local painters Gregory Kondos (think: soft landscapes) and Wayne Thiebaud (pastel-colored diner food). The palette reads just as they intended: plain and lush.

“It has a painterly quality—the whole film,” Gerwig says. “I felt like those were two painters who really captured that Northern California palette, which is so specific, which is different from L.A., it’s its own world.”

Gerwig behind the camera.

Photo courtesy of A24

For locals, the movie also offers a treasure hunt: There’s the liquor store across from CLARA! The SN&R stand outside a coffee shop! (Forgive the self-promotion.) The yellow Tower Bridge hovering like a timeless icon!

“I wanted to do a tip-of-the-hat to the scene in Manhattan where they’re talking until dawn and you see the Brooklyn Bridge, but I wanted it to be the Tower Bridge,” Gerwig says. “It was like their own cinematic moment.”

During the screening at Tower Theatre, the audience hooted each time a local landmark flashed on screen.

Though she has lovingly depicted Sacramento, Gerwig grew up dreaming of leaving her home, like Lady Bird. But how does the relocated New Yorker feel about Sacramento today?

Reckoning with the past

I met Greta Gerwig inside the Ritz-Carlton on the tippy top of Nob Hill in San Francisco. She tells me that the night before, she had gone out drinking with friends she'd met at Phoebe Hearst Elementary School in East Sacramento. Longtime buddies, including local art consultant Tre Borden and Mat Cusick, the founder of Q Arts Foundation, had crashed in her extra room at the Ritz.

“Last night, I had four people I’ve known since I was 6 years old at the screening, and it was so moving,” Gerwig says. The lanky filmmaker wore an artfully tousled bob and a drapey shirtdress patterned with palm fronds. Even in a chilly and cavernous meeting room, she exuded ease.

Borden remembers that Gerwig showed signs of her future career in early elementary school. “There was a talent show where she did ’Yankee Doodle Dandy and tap-danced, and it was epic,” he says. “She’s always been a triple-threat kind of person.”

Gerwig recalls Borden a little differently. “Tre would tease me a lot, and I did not like it,” she says with a smirk. “I’m very easy to tease because I’m really sincere, and also I take things really personally, which, obviously, kids love that, and then they’re like, I’m just gonna razz you more.”

Borden says he probably teased her “for knowing everything.” Clearly, they’ve since made up.

Gerwig did know a lot of things early on: In addition to being a fencer and a dancer, she was a high-achiever academically. “Greta was such a cool geek,” says former drama teacher Watson. Her heavy load of extracurriculars continued on through high school at St. Francis in East Sacramento.

“She had her hand in every pot in high school,” Mickiewicz says. “A very smart student, very unlike Lady Bird.”

Gerwig credits St. Francis’ all-girl atmosphere with providing a haven where she could concentrate on her work, an environment she carried over into college when she chose to go to Barnard.

“I was the combination of a late bloomer and also kind of precocious, so it was an unfortunate combination,” she says. “Once I got to St. Francis, I felt this relief of not having to present yourself as a desirable object. All of the girls looked like hell for all four years—it was a wonderful thing.”

Thanks to brother-school Jesuit High in Carmichael, Gerwig was able to act in four theater productions a year. Gerwig says it was through these plays that she grew as an artist. High school theater also is central to Lady Bird; through goofy warm-ups, student actors bond indelibly.

Ed Trafton, a drama teacher at Jesuit, remembers a performance that seemed to stop time. Gerwig played Dorothy in the musical The Wizard of Oz, but as an alto, she wasn’t able to hit some of the high notes in “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” During practice, Trafton lowered the key to A flat—he still remembers—and asked her to imagine speaking it.

Filmmaker Greta Gerwig’s senior yearbook photo.

Photo courtesy of sT. Francis high school

“She performed it beautiful and plaintively, and she moved everyone there,” Trafton says. “It became this incredible moment that she managed to make really open and vulnerable and really transparent. That’s another thing that’s in her work now. She’s simultaneously so strong and so full of steel, but she also is so tender, and she also has the capacity to convey delicacy.”

When Gerwig rewatches videos of those early performances, she says, she cringes.

“When you see any child or teenager do something with incredible intensity, there’s just a slight amount of humor around it because it feels a bit like they’re play-acting being an adult,” she says.

Through high school drama, Gerwig also cemented some of her most lasting friendships, including with Mickiewicz and Rebecca Light, theater-director Watson’s daughter, who now lives in Southern California. Their real-life stories and friendships are echoed but not exactly copied in the film.

“I don’t think I ever laughed harder in my life than doing plays in high school,” Gerwig says.

Outside of school plays, Mickiewicz and Gerwig remained serious actors. They went to many school dances where they played dress-up, including as characters from The Great Gatsby and a French couple. (In Lady Bird, themed dances include cowboys and eternal hell.) One year, they thrifted for a 1920s ballgown, fedora and suspenders, Mickiewicz says. They were so committed to their roles that, when the backdrop for the couples’ photos was a cardboard cutout of a jukebox, the young couple moved the set piece because it had not yet been popularized in their chosen decade.

“She was totally committed to the moment,” drama teacher Watson says. “She was always in the moment on stage and always present and real. It’s a gift that she has. She makes every moment her own, but in a way that supports everything around her.”

Gerwig consciously created memories outside of school as well, she says. She fondly remembers a pre-cellphone-era Sacramento, when she and her friends would drive between the now-shuttered True Love Coffeehouse and the still-open Willie’s Burgers looking for her crush. One time, she left her car parked at True Love and hitched a ride with her friend to cruise around town in pursuit of him.

“We got back to True Love, and the crush had left a note at my car, and I was like, ’Noooo! I was thwarted!’”

Unlike the title character of Lady Bird, Gerwig says, she didn’t think Sacramento was uncool. She compulsively kept notebooks to hold onto her memories of home.

“There are many ways in which I’m not like this character,” Gerwig says. “I’ve always had a presentiment of loss, as Joan Didion puts it, and sort of nostalgia for what I’m experiencing now. So I kind of knew I was going to have these memories embossed. … I think I always knew that I was preserving it somehow, and I loved it.”

Now, Gerwig is recording Sacramento in a far more public forum, and as usual, she’s taking the role seriously. While the city grows, seemingly at a faster clip than in decades prior, she hopes to preserve it on film.

“It’s hard to see it change,” she says. “There are little things that I know are fading, which was one of the nice things about shooting in Sacramento. There’s a ton of footage that’s not in the movie that I’m actually gonna try to cut together into something else—not a full-length movie, but just a piece of Sacramento because I feel like I want to get it before it’s totally changed over.”

At the Tower Theatre premiere, she announced her hopes to direct a quartet of films here.

Gerwig says she adores the people of Sacramento most of all, as it’s the place where her family and some of her closest friends live. She cites her mother’s friend who grows the majority of her own food in her backyard.

“If that was anywhere else, that person would make it their whole identity that they grow their food, and they would have an Instagram page about it and do all this stuff, and it would be so public—and she just does it in her backyard,” Gerwig says. “There’s something about that to me, not commodifying everything, that’s great about a place, that feels like Sacramento to me.”

But would she ever move back, or does success still require living on the East Coast?

“I would move back,” she says. “A lot of different filmmakers, you get to a point where you can live anywhere you want.”