Not All Talk
Mumblecore Queen Greta Gerwig May Have Stumbled Into A Film Career, But She's Running With It Now
"It was a little bit weird--you know, you live your life and don't think anyone is ever going to take that and make it into something that is art," Greta Gerwig, age 24, says. "But, ultimately I was into it."
She is referring to the odd chain of events that led her to playing the fictional girlfriend of her then-real-life boyfriend C. Mason Wells in the 2006 low-budget film LOL, her screen debut. A student at New York's Barnard College at the time, Gerwig's involvement began when Wells, a writer and actor in LOL, which explores the effect of technology on the modern dating scene, asked if he could use voice mails she had left him in the film. Her role eventually expanded so that she appeared in cell-phone photos and on the other end of phone conversations, with all her acting done remotely from her home in New York while LOL filmed in Chicago.
This bleed-over of real life into fiction sparked Gerwig's short but busy film career so far. In the last three years she has been involved as an actor, writer, and/or director with six movies: LOL, 2007 film-fest fave Hannah Takes the Stairs, and four different selections screening at this year's Maryland Film Festival, namely features Nights and Weekends, Baghead, and Yeast, and the short "Quick Feet, Soft Hands." Currently, she's filming indie horror flick The House of the Devil, slated for release next year.
Gerwig has become something of an It Girl for the mumblecore scene--so named for the mush-mouth tendencies of the talk-heavy films--a loose but highly interconnected network of young filmmakers working on tiny budgets and employing nonprofessional actors (often friends and lovers) to create naturalistic studies of relationships among educated, artsy twentysomethings. Critics and fans have drawn parallels to '90s "slacker" filmmakers like Richard Linklater and Kevin Smith while also pointing to navel-gazing exhibitionism of reality TV, MySpace, and YouTube as likely influences on the films. What distinguishes mumblecore from the contrived self-presentations of online social networks, however, are the unflinching, even unflattering, portrayals of characters. There are no clear heroes or villains in the films, and even the most likable characters come off as jerks at times. And while mumblecore flicks dwell on characters' failings to often humorous effect, there is little of the irony that marked films like Clerks. The films' hyperfocus on mundane matters--say, deciding whether or not to answer a call from an ex-boyfriend--acknowledges that even the most seemingly inconsequential action can have off-the-Richter-scale effects on one's life.
It's easy to see why Gerwig has become a favorite actress in the scene. Tom-boy pretty, with an ingénue's wide eyes and sweet smile, she brings a laid-back quirkiness to her roles. Even when her characters are behaving very badly--as in Yeast, where she plays the smoldering, physically abusive Gen, who can't come to grips with growing apart from an old friend--she remains sympathetic and endearingly upbeat.
This infectious energy marked her from a young age. "I was an activities kid." says Gerwig, who grew up in Sacramento, Calif. "I kind of thought I had ADD, but my mom didn't want me to be on any medications so she signed me up for lots of stuff." This included fencing and her prime youthful passion, dance. Later Gerwig added high-school musical theater to her list of extracurriculars. It wasn't till she was attending Barnard that she moved backstage. Encouraged by some of her professors, Gerwig began writing plays. "I got way more interested in writing plays than acting in them," she says, "although I never lost my love for acting."
While she's often in front of the camera these days, she writes film scripts as well, garnering writing credits for Hannah Takes the Stairs and Nights and Weekends, the latter of which she co-directed with Hannah director Joe Swanberg. However, traditional notions of script-writing don't quite apply to Gerwig's work in the mumblecore scene. The films are often a group effort and subject to change--especially when Swanberg is involved. "Collaborating with him is completely an exercise in spontaneity and cutting things out." she says, "He doesn't even like to write things down--I do."
This loose approach is most obvious in Nights and Weekends. The film, starring Gerwig and Swanberg, follows the disintegration of a long-distance relationship and a frustrated attempt, one year later, to revive the romance--a plot that somewhat mirrors the strife that went on behind the camera.
"We filmed the first section, thought it was done, and then we edited it and realized we had a lot more work to do," Gerwig remembers. "But, it reflects life in the sense that Joe and I got into a huge fight after we shot the first section and we didn't speak for a few months. Then, we came back together to make the second section. So, it follows the trajectory of the characters, even though it's a fictionalized story."
Gerwig's theater experience also led to her involvement with Yeast. After befriending filmmakers Mary Bronstein and her husband, Ronald Bronstein, at last year's South by Southwest Film Festival (the two were promoting Ronald's acclaimed indie flick Frownland), Gerwig asked Mary to act in a workshop rendition of her play C'mon, Girl (You Can Do Better Than That). The play showcases the complex relationships of six women living together over the course of a year. When Mary Bronstein set out to explore similar themes of female friendship in Yeast, her film-directing debut, she recruited Gerwig for the project.
"Something Mary said, that I'm just going to steal from her, is that generally, in film, female friendships are portrayed as a safe haven from everything else that is going on," Gerwig says. "But in my experience, they aren't really like that. . . . They are not just neutral territory. They are ripe with love and conflict."
In fact, Yeast is overripe with conflict. Detailing the destructive friendships between three women, the film is excruciating in its intensity. The needling passive-aggressiveness of the characters slow-boils until the women erupt into screams and physical violence. Gerwig plays the scruffy, underemployed Gen, who lashes out at her old friend, the uptight, constant complainer Rachel (Bronstein), during an ill-fated camping trip.
For Gerwig, Yeast was a welcome relief from her previous films, with their focus on the hazards of heterosexual romance. "You know, I've gotten kind of tired of relationship movies, actually," she says with a laugh. "Not that I'll never do one again, but they can be kind of draining. . . . Sometimes when you watch these films, you start feeling like it's all there is to life."
She quips that her film work "ain't payin' the bills"--she supplements her income by doing script rewrites and tutoring students taking the SAT--but Gerwig plans to continue. She is particularly interested in directing again once she settles on a new project. When asked what she would do if her money worries were taken care of, she says, "Filmwise, exactly the kind of projects I'm doing. Exactly these kinds of films."
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