Greta Gerwig: The Essential Collection

To many a film festival goer Greta Gerwig is a staple of a realistic and character driven strand of the American independent circuit, while more casual audiences may consider her as nothing more than a recognisable face courtesy of her smaller roles in more popular studio movies such as Arthur (2011) and No Strings Attached (2011). She was, in her twenties, the youthful star of the so-called ‘true American independent’ – that being movies not funded by subsidiaries of large corporations, eg. Fox Searchlight and Miramax – yet despite approaching her 34th year in 2016, she’s never really broken through into the public consciousness, whether that be through critical appraisal by the Academy or through popular appeal. Now performing central characters in more expensive, popular and corporate independents under the tutelage of long-term collaborator and partner Noah Baumbach, Gerwig has as many as ten writing credits to her name, five of which are stories or screenplays for feature-length movies. With a credit as co-director also in her repertoire, Gerwig’s artistic route through film is filled with bold choices and colourful characters, the best of which shall be included in this: The Essential Collection.

“My true north is talkies about ladies.”
Greta Gerwig

Nights and Weekends 4

Nights and Weekends (2008)
Director/s: Greta Gerwig; Joe Swanberg
Writer/s: Greta Gerwig; Joe Swanberg
IFC Films | Film Science

Nights and Weekends was one of the more popular productions of a movement many came to refer to as ‘mumblecore’. Mumblecore was a small independent movement that occurred away from the eyes of the big studios and featured largely improvised personal stories about the every day lives of its characters, with no issue or task considered too big or too small to put into the finished presentation. It was called ‘mumblecore’ because, often, the sound quality was poor and the actors would improvise so much and so often that they sometimes failed to make sense. The result was an often maligned but incredibly realistic representation of every day life through the eyes of the filmmakers, making Nights and Weekends not only the first true insight into Greta Gerwig’s sensibility for more developed female characters within her writing as well as her performance, but also one of the first widely released movies to take a peer into her soul as a creator of art.

“You kiss harder than I recall… you smell the same.”

Gerwig and Swanberg play the lead characters of the movie, making Nights and Weekends a truly personal artistic endeavour in every sense that a movie could be considered one – they are writers, directors, producers and actors. In the movie, they play a couple trying to make a long distance, coast-to-coast relationship work while each of them tries to forge their own way in the world via studying and/or the development of their career. This is essential to Gerwig’s back catalogue for this reason: it’s an ultimately personal venture that already has the makings of her true themes as a filmmaker, those being… struggling to understand who you are, wanting to find spiritual fulfillment, and longing to find a place in the world. Here, those themes and the emotions that the character goes through are incredibly raw, as is the photography, which has since become typical of Joe Swanberg projects. This places the success or failure of the film on the shoulders of its leads and Gerwig shines under the pressure to deliver an honest and compelling portrayal that shows, even early in her film career, exactly what she is capable of.

In an interesting side note, Joe Swanberg has revealed that the seemingly very intimate sex scenes were shot at the end of filming and all but finished any possible future collaborations between the pair due to the arguments caused.


Greenberg (2010)
Director/s: Noah Baumbach
Writer/s: Noah Baumbach; Jennifer Jason Leigh
Scott Rudin Productions | Focus Features

“All the men out here dress like children and the kids dress like superheroes.”

Greenberg marked the beginning of Gerwig’s collaboration with writer-director, and future partner, Noah Baumbach, the man with whom she’d go on to make several other pictures with.

“I was thinking this morning that I’ve been out of college now for nearly as long as I was in, and nobody cares if I get up in the morning.”

What Greenberg represented to Gerwig was somewhat of a coming of age. The actress was a lead character in a movie with huge pulling power – mostly Ben Stiller who was fresh off the back of huge late 00s hits like Tropic Thunder (2008) – and was showcased as a talent within that role and not restricted to being a simple and uninteresting device through which the plot and Stiller’s character were seen. She excelled, and despite the movie panning with audiences, the darkly humourous undertones of the film were appreciated by critics who had begun to realise her potential even under the weight of star power Stiller had brought with him. Perhaps most interesting in regards to this Essential Collection is how Gerwig’s somewhat trademarked sense of shameless ownership over herself, her body and her characters was presented in the more glamorous and aesthetically concerned east-coast independent in such a way that lost none of her appeal or raw edge. It is easy to link the Gerwig of this relatively big production with the Gerwig of Nights and Weekends, for example, both in character portrayal and in character development and themes. Lost? Check. Wanting more from life? Check. The only major difference here is that her character’s partner is also these things, making for a comedic tragedy that would likely be included on the list of essential viewing for both Gerwig and the director Baumbach.

For a film about a middle-aged man moving back to the East Coast to ‘find himself’ while doing a lot of babysitting, it sure makes for an entertaining couple of hours.

damsels in distress

Damsels in Distress (2011)
Director/s: Whit Stillman
Writer/s: Whit Stillman
Westerly Films | Sony Pictures Classics

“Seven Oaks is the last of the Select Seven to go co-ed. An atmosphere of male barbarism predominates. We’re going to change that.”

Damsels in Distress marked a departure from Gerwig’s routes in realistic, grounded and ultimately honest independent dramas as the actress led a cast including Analeigh Tipton and Aubrey Plaza in this Whit Stillman dark comedy about fraternities, depression and general college life in the United States. It was a departure that gained the actress notoriety of a new kind, this time for her portrayal of the always tough to master act of dry humour, and despite the movie’s generally outlandish nature, Gerwig and her writer-director Stillman were praised for managing to balance the comedy with true moments of emotion that were thought provoking and even maybe inspiring.

“There’s enough material here for a lifetime of social work.”

Gerwig, in an interview published by ANS on YouTube, declared that her mother (who is a ‘psych nurse’) was personally appreciative of the manner in which this movie tackled issues regarding pressure at college and the high levels of depression and suicide on campuses, which is of course to the credit of all involved with regard to its sensitive subject matter. It is this tackling of such themes that makes Damsels in Distress both interesting and at times unwatchable, and makes Gerwig’s performance a stand-out only in how interesting it is because of how different it is and nothing more. This movie could have been considered a calculated risk and was one that ultimately paid off with audiences and critics, but it remains a large and undeniable step away from her more raw and less polished roles of years gone by, which is at once interesting and slightly odd, making it an essential Greta Gerwig movie.


Arthur (2011)
Director/s: Jason Winer
Writer/s: Peter Baynham; Steve Gordon
Warner Bros.

“If you look in the corner, you can see one dirty brick.”

Arthur remains to this day the only major studio movie that Greta Gerwig has ever held a leading role in and for that reason alone it must be considered a part of her essential collection.

Jason Winer’s re-telling of the classic British movie of the same name was mostly assembled at Warner Bros with the intention of being a star vehicle for rising comedian-actor Russell Brand, the man who played the movie’s titular character. With a supporting cast that included Helen Mirren and a host of famous celebrities in cameos, the studio wanted a basic unknown to play as Brand’s character’s love interest and Greta Gerwig was cast.

Her role as Naomi was lacking in a lot of the aspects that typical Gerwig characters often excel in, and, as a result, the character and performance weren’t quite a hit. The filmmakers and the studio wanted a safe bet with regard to the character’s portrayal, and as such Gerwig’s performance was limited to reactions of shock and confusion, and the very typically rom-com notion of ‘fighting off the boy she actually likes’ became the prominent feature of her character’s personality. Gerwig was restricted. The usually rambling and messy elements of the actress’s portrayals whose monologues had helped boost her appeal and her drawing power were restricted in an attempt to make her an ‘alternative pretty girl’, something that Gerwig was visibly less comfortable doing. The writers tried to make a well-rounded and ‘different’ character, but in doing so Naomi was cursed with stereotypes of ‘edgy’ and ‘different’, such as a dismissive and confrontational attitude and a quirky job (giving unlicensed tours around New York). Despite the movie’s being set in the same city she has spent most of her adult life and filmed most of her movies in, Gerwig was understandably lost and never really sought to capitalise on what was arguably her breakthrough mainstream role; evidence, I believe, of her frustration at the opportunities offered within the piece. Therefore, Arthur has become little more than a glimpse of the typical young, ‘different’ and ‘interesting’ romantic partner of a leading man that she could have become had she chosen to pursue less artistic projects as her star power shot to prominence. Arthur is the perfect example of why some actors and actresses shouldn’t make the move from the independents of New York to the studio system of Hollywood, and is a part of the Essential Greta Gerwig Collection for this reason.

lola versus

Lola Versus (2012)
Director/s: Daryl Wein
Writer/s: Zoe Lister-Jones; Daryl Wein
Groundswell Productions | Fox Searchlight

Fresh off their success with the understated East Coast independent Breaking Upwards, in which the writers of Lola Versus starred as well as wrote and directed, Daryl Wein and Zoe Lister-Jones were afforded a more comfortable budget and therefore the chance at a more glamorous project, and with Gerwig making waves courtesy of Greenberg (2010) in particular, it made logical and financial sense to cast someone with her acting style and drawing power in the central role. In many ways, this marked Gerwig’s return to her routes as a solid lead character actress in an understated East Coast independent passion project, and was reminiscent of her time working alongside the Duplass Brothers and Joe Swanberg.

“I think to love yourself you have to learn to love other people.”

The movie itself wasn’t very well received, with criticisms of its over-use of ‘quirkiness’ being a major part of this. It was, for all intents and purposes, a well disguised New York rom-com which buried itself beneath a cleverly constructed character study the likes of which Gerwig had always been attracted to as an actress. The independence of the movie (in terms of its budget) helped in many ways as the recognisable cast that featured Joel Kinnaman, Bill Pullman and Hamish Linklater among others was set up as background noise to the focused character story we were presented with: the personal development of a late 20s female reeling from the break-up of her engagement. Gerwig was on-screen throughout almost every scene in the movie and was, again, playing a 20 something female who had lost her way and was struggling to determine what she would become. It was a role typical of her career, only this movie seemed more based in obvious humour and irony than most of her other pictures, something that Gerwig’s portrayal of awkwardness and doubt lent itself to in a way that makes the character completely watchable despite the movie lacking in other aspects. Should you want to experience Gerwig’s leading female potential, this would be the picture to watch, for she offers just a little more quirk and readiness than she does in most of her other performances.

frances ha

Frances Ha (2012)
Director/s: Noah Baumbach
Writer/s: Noah Baumbach; Greta Gerwig
RT Features | Scott Rudin Productions | Pine District Pictures

“I’m not messy, I’m busy.”

Every artist has a standout piece of work within their Oeuvre and, for Greta Gerwig, Frances Ha is it. Playing the role of Frances, a lost, confused and not quite adult late 20s woman, Gerwig’s entire career to date seemed destined for the role she herself co-wrote. She did, as could be expected, perform it with the same raw edge and almost self-depricating honesty of her earlier years that, when combined with the New York setting, story, and the picture’s Black and White photography, made the movie not only the standout of her career but also one of the standout east-coast independents of the decade.

“Sometimes it’s good to do what you’re supposed to do when you’re supposed to do it.”

As part two of her three-piece collaboration with Noah Baumbach, and the first of their official relationship, Frances Ha radiates a trust between the two filmmakers who seem to have such an affinity with their own writing material that the performance of it (technically through the camera itself, etc., as well as on screen through the acting) is given the freedom of its black and white pallet or Gerwig’s free-moving physical style. In many ways, the movie is an authentic representation of the person Gerwig has presented herself as being throughout the years, both inside and outside of film. The story is challenging, the performance vulnerable, the photography unique and the soundtrack bubbly. What’s more is that the character is again self-depricating, unhonest with herself, lost and confused. Gerwig had been acting and writing similar characters that represented the lives of struggling female artists in their twenties for much of the previous decade, but this picture seems to be the crescendo of that stage and without a doubt this filmmaker’s most recognisable and enjoyable piece of work.

Importantly, for Gerwig and many of her fans who have been drawn to her as an on-screen personality over the past 10 years or so, Frances Ha is another one of her films about young women – ‘a talkie about ladies’ – and therefore a true passion project in terms of Gerwig as an actor, but also in terms of Gerwig as a writer and producer. Controversially, the 2010 movie is thought to have sparked the beginning of a love affair between the pair despite Baumbach being married (at the time) to the movie’s co-writer Jennifer Jason Leigh, with whom he subsequently divorced in 2013. This makes for an interesting sub-text to the movie that, with this knowledge, seems like an ode to the darling of the independents in more than a simply artistic manner.

mistress america

Mistress America (2015)
Director/s: Noah Baumbach
Writer/s: Noah Baumbach; Greta Gerwig.
Fox Searchlight | RT Features

“She was the last cowboy. All romance and failure.”

Beginning as a free and unashamed libertarian with a taste for fine art, food and parties, Greta Gerwig’s character Brooke is seen by central protagonist Tracy (Lola Kirke) to be the embodiment New York’s more commercial representation as a centre for arts, fun, sex and rock and roll, and even goes as far as to partake in each of these things throughout their first night together. But, as the characters grow closer and Tracy’s idolisation of her could-be sibling (via their parents’ marriage) begins to wain, Brooke becomes more grounded and vulnerable, even perhaps relatable, and the now seemingly semi-autobiographical characterisations that Gerwig’s more recent characters have displayed – e.g. being on a lost path; struggling to come to terms with adulthood; a longing for a place to belong – become apparent, offering an interesting evolution to many of her previous characters, not least that of Frances in Frances Ha.

“It would feel like the home everyone would want to raise their kids in.”

Diving into her thirties with the weight of societal expectation weighing heavily on her shoulders, Gerwig’s Brooke attaches her own thoughts of a free and spiritually enlightening life to, among other things including a TV show much like the real-life actor-writer’s failed ‘How I Met Your Mother’ spin-off ‘How I Met Your Dad’, a project to open a New York City restaurant, an idea that has little by the way of focus and echoes/expands upon the troubles that a slightly younger Frances was encountering in Frances Ha regarding the refocusing of dreams and the all-too-adult capitalist notion of working for money that can put food on the table. Gerwig herself described Brooke during an interview with AOL BUILD as being “super performative and always putting on a show”, expanding to describe her as ‘living in a movie that’s in her head’. This somehow manages to make her character both dislikable and completely relatable at the same time, much like the city that she embodies, and gifts Gerwig the chance to push through lengthy monologues that seem to come more often than in both of her other Noah Baumbach pictures.

From a writer and producers perspective, this movie showcases the focus that Gerwig shares with Baumbach regarding the stories they want to tell and the themes they wish to present. It’s an artistic ‘New York film’ in every sense of the word, from its intriguing synth soundtrack that pays homage to the 80s movies Gerwig has gone on record multiple times to describe as the movie’s inspiration, to its hopeful representation of despair and anxiety, right through to its semi-autobiographical and subtly humerous story, and its colourful yet focused presentation.

Conclusively, Greta Gerwig is a filmmaker who is striving to share the troubles of her generation and gender both on the page and on the screen, and throughout each of her performances alongside any number of colloborators she has managed to do so with an honest and raw edge that is both typical of the New York independent scene and completely individual to her and her alone. This filmmaker’s passion for her craft is ever-present and clearly what she defines herself by as she seems unconcerned with a celebrity lifestyle and her own individual financial success and more in tune with the art of writing a story or acting a part. She is, head to toe, an artist of film; a self-titled author of the moving picture art form. Perhaps most importantly with regard to Gerwig and her career is that she has striven to achieve her own visions no matter how far away from the studio system they may be, and her continued passion to empower women in the industry, and the ways in which she does so through her writing and her choices of characters, make her an admirable and inspirational ‘darling of the independents’ whose work outlined in this collection will likely be appreciated by any like-minded reader of this piece or general fan of the US’s East-Coast independent scene.

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