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Greta Gerwig, director of ‘Barbie’: ‘My mom didn’t like the doll... but eventually she caved and got me one’

In the summer of her 40th birthday, Greta Gerwig redefines the ‘Barbie’ stereotype. The filmmaker, who began acting in indie films, talks about her most ambitious project (so far).

Greta Gerwig attends the premiere of Barbie at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, California
Director Greta Gerwig attends the premiere of 'Barbie' at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, California, USA, 09 July 2023.NINA PROMMER (EFE)
Ana Fernández Abad

It is the most anticipated film of the summer; the one that has been dyeing Instagram accounts pink for a year. Barbie is already a marketing prodigy, as well as the most ambitious project of the career of director and screenwriter Greta Gerwig. She started in independent films (she was the actress who gave a face to the mumblecore movement with LOL and Hannah Takes the Stairs) and has now become a solvent filmmaker, with three Oscar nominations (Best Director and Original Screenplay in 2017 for Lady Bird and Best Adapted Screenplay in 2019 for Little Women).

On the other side of the video call there is a white room with a large window; Gerwig has just finished color correcting Barbie and looks relaxed. “Now the movie is finally really complete,” she says with a smile. Then she pauses: “Wait a minute; I’m going to check on the baby.” She has just become a mother for the second time, with her partner, filmmaker Noah Baumbach (Greenberg, Marriage Story, White Noise), with whom she lives in Brooklyn, New York.

The birth of Barbie has a lot to do with motherhood: its creator, Ruth Handler, noticed that her daughter was tired of only playing with dolls that resembled babies, so she decided to create an adult doll, a milestone that Gerwig uses to start her film with a nod to the famous ellipsis of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. “To me, it’s all baked into what Barbie is: a mom looking at a daughter, and trying to give her the ability to dream more for herself,” she says.

Despite the expectations raised by the film, she does not seem nervous. She was born 39 years ago in Sacramento, California, just like Joan Didion, one of her role models. At 19 she moved to New York to study at the Barnard College of Columbia University. She has been passionate about cinema since her childhood. This is why, while shooting Barbie, she set up a film series for the team. She screened The Red Shoes, Meet Me in St. Louis, Wings of Desire, Rear Window, Singin’ in the Rain, Saturday Night Fever and Grease. “And everyone’s sort of like, you know, ‘Olivia Newton-John is like 30.’ It doesn’t matter! It’s a fantasy. It’s not a documentary,” she stresses, far from the stereotype of the harsh, serious, distant director. “It’s just not my leadership style. You have to get everybody dreaming the same dream you are. You have to really allow everybody to feel safe so they can be creative and bring their unconscious and their different drives to the table [...] I love movies because they’re a communal art form.”

Question: You started doing independent mumblecore films, and now you’re doing a very big studio production. What does Barbie mean to you?

Answer: In a funny way, it feels very similar to me. I feel that I’m a personal filmmaker. I make movies that are personal to me. I wanted to work with Margot Robbie. That’s why I was excited to write the film. I was impressed by her as an actor, but also as a producer, what she’s done. So I signed, I said, “Yes, I’d like to write it,” and I signed Noah up for it. But I really didn’t know I wanted to direct it until the script was done. I was so afraid to say so myself; I thought, “Oh, this is such a funny, wonderful, great script. I don’t want anyone else to direct it.”

Q. Why did you include your partner, Noah Baumbach, as a screenwriter? You had already collaborated on Frances Ha (2012).

A. Honestly, it’s just that we have so much fun writing together. We really love collaborating. It’s just fun. That’s the best you can do.

Q. Robbie founded her production company LuckyChap almost 10 years ago to promote stories written and directed by women to close the gender gap in the industry. What progress has been made since then? What remains to be achieved?

A. Well, I think there’s been extraordinary progress, and certainly in the acknowledgment of female filmmakers and female artists. We had a woman win Best Director two years in a row [Chloé Zhao for Nomadland in 2021 and Jane Campion in 2022 for The Power of Dog]. Nomadland also won Best Picture. Not that awards are everything, but it’s nice to see an acknowledgement by the larger community to the contributions of women in cinema. It’s changed so much from the time I was 18 until now. And I think the work continues, and the transformation continues. I feel very blessed to be making movies at the moment, I think of all the women who paved the path for me, and I can only hope that we’re just making it a little easier on the next generation.

Q. You grew up in a house with no television; you have said that your mother did not let you wear logos on your clothes... but did you have a Barbie doll?

A. Well, no, she didn’t like that either [laughs]. But I did, because I grew up in a neighborhood where there were lots of kids, so I would often get the hand-me-downs from other kids and I got a lot of Barbies that had already had their hair cut. And there they were in the splits, you know, like the Kate McKinnon doll in the movie. But there’s a picture of me opening a Barbie on Christmas morning once, so there definitely was a moment where she caved and got me a Barbie. But yeah, I remember Barbie was sort of looked askance at in my house.

Q. Do you remember which one you got?

A. I don’t know. In the picture, which I know I have, I can just see the side of the box. I think it says like Super Style Barbie or something.

Q. What has been the most difficult part of trying to create a feminist approach to a doll that has been criticized by feminists for the stereotypes it perpetuates?

A. I think the biggest part for me was really stepping into that complexity and not shying away from it, and allowing the movie itself to grapple with all of it and not pretending it never existed as an issue. Barbie has as a history that needs to definitely be contended with. Mattel has moved so much into the 21st century and they’ve expanded so much what their idea of their doll is: the shapes of the dolls and the diversity of the dolls, which have really made giant strides. I think that it’s so fascinating because the thing which Barbie has always been criticized for – and we deal with this in the movie – it just feels like at this moment in time, with social media and everything else, such an incredible machine for comparison which we all live in, whatever the problems of Barbie were, even though Mattel has moved beyond them themselves, we have not, we continue to hold ourselves to completely unrealistic standards that have nothing to do with real life. We’ve just found other ways to do it. Investigating what Barbie has been was a way to look at everything in terms of that culture of comparison and feeling like you’re never good enough. If I can give people one thing is that you don’t earn your worth, you’re worthy and you’re okay, because I certainly don’t think that that’s the message most people are getting right now, particularly young women.

Q. In the movie you created a world, Barbie Land. Is it a metaphor for today’s society, in which it seems that a lot of progress has been made and suddenly it collides with a reality in which there is still violence that leads to movements like MeToo or Black Lives Matter?

A. Barbie Land as an idea was, for me, connected to a classic spiritual journey that’s present in many religious texts, the paradise lost. You’re in a place that has no death, no aging, no pain, no shame. And then that goes away. The first moment that she says, “Do you ever think about dying?” is the first moment she’s ever had separation between herself and her environment. She’s never had an internal life, because everything about what she feels inside is continuous with what’s outside. And that’s the moment where things start breaking down. And as they break down, you realize that Barbie Land maybe wasn’t so great to begin with.

Q. Why do you tackle deep ideas with music, dance and pink paint?

A. I’ve always been really fascinated by the film artists who are able to deal with things that are quite profound and weighty, but they do it with such a deft touch. I’m thinking of Preston Sturges or Ernst Lubitsch or Howard Hawks. They made very light comedies and, at the same time, there are profound truths and anger and sadness and many, many things layered in there. I’m always interested in how can movies have real grit and truth while being a beautiful fantasy, not to hide the truth, but to say that they can be just as profound as something sort of more obviously, quote unquote, “important” or “hard.”

Q. Do you have any superstitions while directing?

A. I’m full of superstition. Rodrigo Prieto, who shot the movie – his wife gave me a magical stone before we started shooting. I had to have that stone with me every day. I still have it in the other room; I carried it with me to the sound mix. I only wore boiler suits, like work suits, one thing, because it was practical, and then I had this sort of superstition around it. I only wear one pair of shoes. I become the most outrageously mystical person. This is true in lots of sports, we watch a lot of baseball in my house, and baseball players, you know, the way they go to bat, the way they do everything, the way they pitch, there’s so much ritual and so much superstition, like how many steps, how many times do you adjust before you hit… I think I’ve absorbed a lot of that.

Q. In the soundtrack one can see your taste in music, with songs by Lizzo, Dua Lipa, Karol G, Haim...

A. I used to go to the movies when I was a teenager in the 1990s, and I remember soundtracks being a really big deal, and going to Tower Records and looking at all the soundtracks for the movies. I wanted to create a special soundtrack, like Saturday Night Fever or Grease, I wanted to have all these original songs and have these artists make songs for the movie. It was like Christmas morning every time I got to talk to one of these artists, because I’d show them bits of the movie and I’d explain what it was, and then they’d go away and write these incredible songs. I honestly feel cool by association, because I’m not that cool, you know, I’m a mom.

Q. You just had your second baby. Has this been the most intense year of your life? A baby, your most ambitious film (which could earn you a second Best Director Oscar nomination), you turn 40 on August 4...

A. I’m going to focus on getting through the next, like, three weeks. But that’s a wonderful prediction. I’m so happy. Knock on wood. Turning 40 feels surreal. Middle age sometimes sounds to people like, “oh, middle age, I don’t know,” but the thing about it is that you’re really in the middle of everything – or that’s how it feels to me anyway. I’ve got small kids, I’ve got movies... it’s kind of chaotic, but it’s pretty wonderful.

Q. Would you say that the idea of perfection of the original Barbie is still a big problem among women?

A. Now girls compare themselves to people they see online, and they don’t know the difference between reality and not reality. It looks like they wake up and they are just so perfect all the time… my generation – because I was born in 1983 – we had the magazines at the supermarket and stuff, but we didn’t walk around with a device that had a constant stream of everything we weren’t updated in our pocket.

Q. You don’t use social media. Why?

Oh, I don’t use it because I have absolutely no self-control. I know I would just be addicted to it. That’s the reason: I just know myself well enough and I would spend way too much time on it and I would never write anything.

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