Inspiration. Ambition.
Passion. Process. Technique.

By: Kaitlin Fontana

Promotional poster for LITTLE WOMEN.

Kaitlin sits down with writer, director, and actor Greta Gerwig – the writer and director of the 2019 film LITTLE WOMEN – to talk about why the world needs a new version of the classic story; how Greta cuts down her 400-page first drafts; the intersection between women, money, and writing; and much more.

Greta Gerwig started her film career with a small acting role in the 2006 film LOL. She went on to act in, co-write, and co-direct several mumblecore films over the subsequent years, and has been a frequent collaborator of writer and director Noah Baumbach since 2010. She made her solo screenwriting and directorial début with the 2017 film LADY BIRD, for which she was nominated for both a Writers Guild and an Oscar.

LITTLE WOMEN is an adaptation of the semi-autobiographical 1868/1869 novel by Louisa May Alcott. The film follows the four March sisters – Amy, Jo, Beth and Meg – as they come of age during the aftermath of the Civil War. The film will be released in theaters on December 25, 2019.

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Thanks for listening. Write on.


Kaitlin Fontana: You’re listening to OnWriting, a podcast from the Writers Guild of America East. I’m Kaitlin Fontana. In each episode, you’ll hear from writers in film, television, news, and new media discussing everything from pitching to production, from process to favorite lines and jokes, and everything in between. Today, we welcome Greta Gerwig, writer and director of Little Women. The film, which opens December 25th, is her highly anticipated followup to 2018’s Lady Bird. That film script was nominated for a Writers Guild Award and an Oscar. We’ll speak with Greta about why the world needs a new version of Little Women, how she cuts down her 400-page first drafts, and the intersection between women, money, and writing.

Kaitlin Fontana: Hi, Greta.

Greta Gerwig: Hi.

Kaitlin Fontana: Thanks for being here today.

Greta Gerwig: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah. And congratulations on Little Women. I loved it.

Greta Gerwig: Oh, thank you. I’m glad you did.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah. The cynics out there might say, “What do we need another Little Women for?” I think the film tells us why but I’m curious as to why you wanted to make it.

Greta Gerwig: Yeah, to them, I’d be like, “Go watch that movie. Then you’ll be like, ‘We needed one. I see it.'”

Kaitlin Fontana: Yes.

Greta Gerwig: No, I… Well, to me, I loved this book. I grew up with this book. And then I re-read it when I was 30 and I couldn’t believe how modern it was and I couldn’t believe how many things that I hadn’t noticed the first time. There were so many lines that felt so fresh and so current, they sounded like they’d been written in neon. They were like, just jumped off of the page. I started to research Louisa May Alcott in her life. And I wanted to create something that was, in some ways, a collapsing of Louisa May Alcott, the author and Jo March, who was her avatar in some ways.

Greta Gerwig: And to make a movie that answered to me the legacy of what Little Women had done, from the first time it was published in 1868 and it sold out in two weeks and it was translated into 52 languages, it’s never been out of print. Then you look at the number of women who have said that’s their book, that’s their character. And it’s Elena Ferrante. It’s Patti Smith. It’s Simone de Beauvoir, it’s J.K. Rowling. And I was like, well, these women don’t love her because she marries the German professor at the end.

Kaitlin Fontana: Right.

Greta Gerwig: That’s not what’s going on here. It’s something else. And I felt like I wanted to make a movie about that something else, and about the thing underneath the book, which is much messier and stranger and spikier than I think the collective memory of it is.

Kaitlin Fontana: So when I first read it, a lot of the same things came up for me and I think it’s really cool now that I had a Little Women film for my young adulthood and now I have a Little Women film for my adulthood. Obviously, the book and the films themselves reflect that change. And I feel like the big thing for me is coming online as a writer. The book and the films are about writing as an act of rebellion, in a certain sense. And I feel like that was my first relationship with the text. What was your very first relationship with the text, do you think?

Greta Gerwig: Well, I don’t really remember. I don’t have a time before I knew who the March sisters were.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah.

Greta Gerwig: It was read to me. I’ve always known who Jo March was. And they felt like my sisters and my friends. I think when you’re a kid, the way you read is different than how you read as an adult. I think as a kid, also the difference between what was fiction and what was reality was pretty porous for me. And that was one of the books I read and re-read and re-read. And I think it existed for me, I don’t know. It’s hard to say now if I was like Jo and that’s why I connected with her or if I liked Jo and then I made myself like Jo.

Kaitlin Fontana: Right.

Greta Gerwig: I don’t know what came first but she was my one. I knew I had a temper when I was a kid, so I very much related with Jo. But it was one of the ways I understood the world, anyway.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah. It’s interesting to hear you use that word avatar in a relationship between Jo and Louisa May Alcott. Because I also feel like the additional layer of that is you.

Greta Gerwig: Yes, I know. It’s very Cubist what’s going on.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah.

Greta Gerwig: Yeah.

Kaitlin Fontana: There is, and it’s interesting to walk out of the film and kind of see that and feel that kind of reverberates a little bit afterwards, after you sort of breathed out and said, “Okay, this was a story that I know.” And then you kind of let it linger on for a minute and it kind of stays with you after, is there’s this other layer, which is you, Greta, the writer, the director that’s on top of it.

Greta Gerwig: Right.

Kaitlin Fontana: That isn’t always obvious in a film like this, especially a period piece or something. It wouldn’t necessarily totally resonate but it does.

Greta Gerwig: Yeah. Well, I wanted to find the author all the way through. I wanted to find the author of Jo March as a writer, but also Louisa May Alcott writing Jo March. And then also of me writing Louisa May Alcott writing Jo.

Kaitlin Fontana: Right.

Greta Gerwig: Who’s writing? I mean, that kind of multiplicity of authorship was something that was fascinating to me. And it’s the reason I start the movie with her trying to sell the story as I wanted to ground it in that. I mean, certainly that scene, which is almost word for word from the book, except for the line where he says, “If your main character is a girl, make sure she’s married or dead by the end.” I made that up, but that applies to a lot of 19th-century fiction and a lot of fiction today. Married or dead seems to be the two good options we have as female characters. But her sitting in front of Mr. Dashwood trying to sell her story, and he’s telling her to make changes, and he’s telling her it’s too long, and he’s telling her that morals don’t sell nowadays. And she’s trying to figure out how much she can change with it and also live with herself.

Greta Gerwig: I mean, that could be me yesterday talking to the studio head or someone about like, “Well, who’s the story for? Who’s going to buy it? And you need to change it in all these ways.” I think that is something that’s deeply personal to me. And then I also think the idea of the distance between what life was and how you wrote it down is something that’s always inherently emotional to me. And I think that’s why I started with the Louisa May Alcott quote. “I’ve had lots of troubles, so I write jolly tales.” That and I wanted to start when they were adults and go back in time because I wanted to create this quality of, “Is that what happened or is that how you remember it?” Or “is that what happened? Or is that how you wrote it down?”

Kaitlin Fontana: Right.

Greta Gerwig: And that kind of reflection on the reflection is something that I’m really interested in. Plus, I always liked all those, as a writer, I think when you have texts like this, when there’s a text that’s both the book but then also the text writ large of what Little Women is, which is all of the times it’s been adapted, and the television show and the opera and the musical, there’s a collective consciousness of the iconography of Little Women. So then you’re able to play with it and subvert it and both deliver on the thing that people know it is, and then do something else with it.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah.

Greta Gerwig: And you’re only able to do that with things that are familiar. It’s not unlike Joker.

Kaitlin Fontana: Some might say, yes, it’s not unlike Joker in that way. I do think there is that part of it too is interesting to think about, that there is this multi-dimensional aspect to you as the storyteller and the story itself, and how many times it’s been told. And what I really thought was interesting, among many things, about this version is that you give equal space and time in the story to all four of these sisters in a way that this story isn’t always written. A lot of people obviously fall in love with Jo, especially writers, and so they tend to write towards Jo and she’s sort of the central spoke and all the other sisters kind of come off of her. But you haven’t done that here. You’ve given all four of them, particularly Amy, kind of a new life within this text. Can you tell me about how you came to that?

Greta Gerwig: Well, one thing that struck me and that I wanted to bring to the fore was, when I was re-reading the book, I found each of them to be deeply serious about their artistic pursuit, that they were really a family of… It was like four lady geniuses in the 19th century, which what are you going to do if you’re a lady genius in the 19th century? Nothing. You’re going to go crazy. There’s nowhere for you to go. And I find that fascinating anyway. I mean, the line that I have in the movie that Amy says, “I want to be great or nothing” as a painter. That’s from the book. She was wildly ambitious, and I think that is something I admired and loved in them. So I didn’t see any of their pursuits as frivolous, and I didn’t see any of their paths as not worthy of exploring.

Greta Gerwig: And the interesting thing is, and another reason why I wanted to start when they were older is, I mean, Meg, even though I’d read the book so many times, to be totally honest, I’d always sort of vegged out on her story. I don’t know, she got married. Who cares what happens after that? That sort of seems like the end of the story. But actually, what’s in the book is really interesting. She has twins and then she loses her mind, because she’s trapped at home with her twins while her husband’s at work. And they don’t have enough money, and she doesn’t have any help, and she can’t figure out how to not lose it, and she starts spending money on credit that they don’t have and keeping two sets of books. Then she has finally has to admit it to her husband and you’re like, “Wait, what? I don’t remember this part of the book.” Because on some level, I think I was still reading it with the lens of once you get married, that’s it. That’s curtains. Who knows? It’s the matrimonial death.

Kaitlin Fontana: Right.

Greta Gerwig: It’s like now we’re done with that story. I felt like what was so great is, Louisa wasn’t done with that story. And with Beth that she’s not just some sainted girl who’s renounced the world, she was also ambitious and also a true weirdo, which saves her from being completely perfect and frozen in time. But Amy is really the one who, she had more lines than anyone that I thought, “This girl’s incredible.” She had the line, “The world is hard on ambitious girls,” which is, oh God, that’s still true. She says, “I don’t pretend to be wise but I am observant.” I thought, “Oh, she sees everything about how the world is constructed.” And she’s a different character than Jo but she’s equally strong, and she’s equally taking stock of her surroundings, and figuring out how she fits in, how she needs to get along, how she’s going to make this work in a world that doesn’t really have that many options for her. I found so much to be mind about her character and then I was aided by the wonderful Florence Pugh, who she’s so good.

Kaitlin Fontana: She’s amazing.

Greta Gerwig: Yeah.

Kaitlin Fontana: She was great in the film.

Greta Gerwig: Yeah.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah. And there is something there that I noticed for the first time, this feeling of the fact that Amy is sort of seen as a spoiled brat in some instances of her. But that in reality, what she’s crying out for is to be where things are happening. It’s a simple bit of FOMO but it’s because she’s like, “I need to be where I can watch and see what’s going on in this world.”

Greta Gerwig: Yes.

Kaitlin Fontana: “I need that armor for when I actually go out in it.”

Greta Gerwig: Also that what I find so interesting about her as a character is that she’s the character of all of them who most clearly says what she wants her life to be and goes for it, in a very deliberate way. And I find it so interesting that she’s the one that everyone’s like, “I don’t like her, she’s a brat” because she says what she wants, very clearly. And I think it’s kind of a good sign about where we are that now we’re a little bit more accepting of the girl who says, “I want this and I’m going to go for it” and we can see it and not hate it.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah. Yeah, maybe that is a reflection of things progressing. I hope so.

Greta Gerwig: Yeah. You’re allowed to want things and not be punished with your scarlet A.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah. I find it interesting that period pieces tend to prop women up in corners in lovely gowns and kind of leave them there. And one thing that was amazing about this, and I think this is a writing reflection and a directing reflection on your part, is that there is this colorful kinetic energy to them. They talk over each other, they rough house, they hit each other, they’re very physical with one another. It’s almost the opposite that the men are kind of standing back in the corner watching it and being like, “What just happened?” And I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the calculations in that, and how it was written on the page versus how it was directed.

Greta Gerwig: It was actually written on the page with all of the overlaps very specifically scripted. I used something that I’ve mostly seen playwrights use, which is the slash to indicate where the next person starts talking, in the lines. So, Caryl Churchill uses it a lot and-

Kaitlin Fontana: I think Annie Baker too.

Greta Gerwig: Oh, yeah. Annie uses it. She’s my sister-in-law.

Kaitlin Fontana: Oh, that’s right. I did know that.

Greta Gerwig: So weird to say Annie in full name. I mean, before she was my sister-in-law, she was one of my favorite writers.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah.

Greta Gerwig: So-

Kaitlin Fontana: Understandably.

Greta Gerwig: Yeah. But I mean, a lot of playwrights use that device but I’d seen it less in screenplays. But I knew I wanted these very famous lines, some of which had been embroidered on pillows, to just come out with so much speed and so much energy and physicality that, like you were saying, it’s embodied. I had written it with this very specific overlap so you could hear everything but that it was this cacophony of sound, this controlled chaos. And it did take rehearsal to get it all on its feet and get it to speed. Because it was very shot-listed out and I wanted the camera to dance with all of the characters and I wanted them to be able to do it almost like a tiny stage play. And they got it to speed and they got it all working together. It was truly like an athletic event.

Greta Gerwig: But I, as a director, and this is where the part of me as a writer and as a director is one and the same is, so much of it is how it sounds to me and it’s, I hear the way… It’s like, I don’t know the performances exactly, I just hear the rhythm of the words in my head while I’m writing. And I’m always listening for that to drop in. The marvelous thing is, when it does drop in, everybody feels it. It all clicks into place at once. But I’m very driven by the sound. And sometimes even when I’m directing, sometimes I won’t even look. I’ll just listen. And I’ll hear it and then I’m like, “Oh, that was the one.”

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah, yeah. It’s interesting, you’ve mentioned a couple of things here that are these lines that you expect or, watching it, sometimes I’m like, “Oh, this must be a Greta line.” And so many of them are not, they’re lines from the novel. One that really stuck out for me is Marmee saying “I’m angry almost every day” to Jo, which is such a contemporary female feeling.

Greta Gerwig: No, that’s from the book.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah.

Greta Gerwig: Yeah.

Kaitlin Fontana: It’s so heartening and discouraging at the same time to be like, “Okay, so, we’re still frustrated, we’re still angry but we’re working on it.” There’s kind of a dual energy happening there. Were there other moments like that in the text that you were surprised by in revisiting them?

Greta Gerwig: Yeah. Yeah well, that’s one of them. The “I want to be great or nothing” was one of them. This is not a line but it was just something that I kind of thought it was a revelation that made me sad, was when Meg goes to the ball, when she goes to Vanity Fair and they all call her Daisy. That’s what she names her daughter later.

Kaitlin Fontana: That’s right.

Greta Gerwig: I was like, “Oh, no. You gave her the name of the last time you felt free.” Right? Doesn’t that just kind of kill you?

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah.

Greta Gerwig: I mean, it killed me. I mean, there’s lots of stuff like that that’s just laying around the book that I think is kind of profound and strange and wonderful. Because that book was published in two parts. It was published in 1868 was… Kind of what I was saying before. It’s like what you think of when you think of Little Women. It’s Christmas, it’s ice skating, it’s the book, and it’s kind of that Christmas to Christmas girlhood year. Then it skipped several years. And then it picks up when they’re all older. That was really the next year that Louisa wrote. And I found when I looked at these two books separately, so much that was speaking to each other. Then almost in childhood, the biggest of which is being the magic of childhood is that Beth gets sick and then she gets better. And the reality of adulthood is Beth gets sick and she dies.

Kaitlin Fontana: Right.

Greta Gerwig: But with… There’s the Daisy, which functions as when Meg is young and then as her daughter becomes Daisy. And then, another one was, in childhood, Amy burns Jo’s book.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yep.

Greta Gerwig: In adulthood, Jo burns all of her own writing, which I had completely forgotten. And I was like, that idea of complete artistic potlatch, like I’m going to burn it all to the ground. It’s dramatic and extraordinary and also psychologically true is that you do the thing that has been done to you, now you do it to yourself.

Kaitlin Fontana: Right.

Greta Gerwig: And I found things like this all over the book and I found a lot of… Every chapter is organized such that there is a bit of tying things up in bows. By the end of the chapter, there’s like a lesson. But if you strip away some of the pre-Victorian morality that’s embedded in the thing, what’s behind it is really odd and very special. And I think that I’ve always been vaguely offended that people see it as just a chick lit or a woman’s novel.

Kaitlin Fontana: Right.

Greta Gerwig: Because it’s so much stranger and better and more complex than that.

Kaitlin Fontana: Well, like many of those things of that era, I feel like it’s… A lot of these women sort of isolated, alone, and mind is weird when you’re an isolated, lonely writer. That comes out on the page for a lot of writers of that era.

Greta Gerwig: Definitely. And also, the book is not told in first-person. There is a narrator and that narrator is Louisa. She pokes through and her commentary pokes through from time to time. And you feel her presence in the text. I think that that was something that I felt in terms of my adaptation, I was allowed to bring Louisa out more as a character because she’s there as the writer and the narrator.

Kaitlin Fontana: Hmm. I want to talk to you a little bit about process. Because I remember hearing with Lady Bird that you wrote a massive first draft, 350 pages. And then again with this script, 400 pages. So, I think that’s unusual. I mean-

Greta Gerwig: Yeah, I guess so.

Kaitlin Fontana: And I wonder how that process works for you, first of the building and then of the whittling.

Greta Gerwig: I’m going to do something, well, I’m not on camera, so there’s a quote that I keep kind of botching but I think it’s pretty interesting in terms of writing. And I found it a while ago and I think it’s true. Oh, it was Walter Benjamin talking about writing. He says, “Work on a good piece of writing proceeds on three levels: a musical one where it is composed, an architectural one where it is constructed, and finally, a textile one, where it is woven.” And I thought that’s exactly right. That’s how I feel.

Greta Gerwig: I feel like, in terms of, I overwrite. And then I tried to find the architectural structure of what it is I’m going for. I don’t predetermine the structure. I gather all my materials, which is this page count really, and then I see where the structure is, and then I try to start weaving it all together. I start bringing it together and it is very tactile. And actually, the scene in the film where she writes her book and she lays it out on the ground, that comes from me. I lay everything out on the ground.

Kaitlin Fontana: I do that too. I was like, “Woo.” It was exciting for me to see.

Greta Gerwig: Because I need to look at it.

Kaitlin Fontana: It makes it real. Yeah.

Greta Gerwig: I don’t know why I need to look at it but I need to see it all in one thing. And it feels like it’s like a writing quilt. It makes it also feel kind of like a folk art. Like it’s not so intellectual. It’s a physical thing.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah.

Greta Gerwig: And you’re embodying it physically. You’re looking at it. So I gave Jo my writing way, so-

Kaitlin Fontana: I love when she traps herself in the corner with all of her papers, like she’s stuck on her knees.

Greta Gerwig: She’s stuck on her… And she’s stuck in a corner, yeah. It’s a marvelous thing, I have to say, of all the satisfactions of filmmaking, that moment when you know you’ve got a pretty good script, that feels great. I think it’s that thing of then you know… Well, anyway, because what I direct, I’ve written, it’s the thing that makes me know it’s safe to go into battle. Like, “Well, you’ve got this script.”

Kaitlin Fontana: Right.

Greta Gerwig: “You’re going to be okay.” I mean, I can’t imagine. I know some people go into movies without having… I mean, I would write, they made Casablanca without really knowing? I mean, so sometimes it works clearly but to me, that would just make me want to throw up every day.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah.

Greta Gerwig: I would be completely panicked. So, yeah. But having that piece of writing that feels good. It’s almost sad that it can’t be frozen in time. It’s always actually some regret that I’ve had that like… I mean, the difference between screenwriters and playwrights, one of the differences is that, for playwrights, you get the final text based largely, I guess, on the first time the play’s really seen by lots of people and you, through rehearsal and stuff, you make sure that text is right but then that’s the text. And so then any other production, you’re either going to be doing the text, which is probably what you should do, or you have to say, “I’m going to alter this somehow.” With filmmaking, I’ve always found it sort of sad that you have your shooting script, which is what you go in with. But then that gets kind of lost in what the film becomes. And I’m always fascinated with knowing, what was the piece of writing before the film?

Kaitlin Fontana: Right.

Greta Gerwig: The piece of writing becomes the film, if that makes sense. And I always sort of wished that everyone, when they publish their screenplays, would publish… But could you give me the shooting script? Not like a transcript of what the movie is. I can watch the movie. I want to know, what did you go in with?

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah, yeah. I always want that too when you get that package from the Guild or whatever each year. I want to know what the… Where’s the rest?

Greta Gerwig: Yeah. I mean, I feel like as an actor, because I started as an actor professionally, I actually got the chance to read screenplays. Because sometimes, you’d get the screenplay if you are auditioning for something. I always took it as an opportunity to print out the whole script and then sort of study the script. And then I’d go to the movie later when it was out because I never got the parts. But then I go later and then I’d say, “Oh, that’s what they did with it.” So, in some ways, I learned about the page to screen transition, even from reading it, and then looking at it on the big screen. But I try to keep, when I send my scripts out, I try to keep it as close as possible to the shooting script as I can. If there’s glaring differences, I fix them but I try to keep all the stage directions the same. I try to keep it all the same. No one likes that though. They want it to just match, which I think if I were a writer, I’d want to know what you had going in.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah, yeah, I certainly do. I think it’s an interesting… It’s archeology in a certain sense, I guess too.

Greta Gerwig: Yeah. And it’s also then, you learn how to get there from here. What were the changes?

Kaitlin Fontana: Right. Yeah. So, do you consider rewriting then part of that tapestry process or is that another layer for you on top of that?

Greta Gerwig: That’s part of the architecture and the weaving like that… I don’t know. And when people say, “Oh, I did 19 drafts,” I have no idea, man, how many drafts I did. I did 400 drafts, I don’t know. I’m not good at keeping track of drafts, because I feel like I’m constantly rewriting and constantly shifting things around. But I suppose I learned how to rewrite from working with Noah Baumbach when I wrote with him, because I was not very practiced in rewriting before we started writing together.

Greta Gerwig: It just seemed like just trying to write anything at all, I was like, “What do you want me to do, take it apart now? I don’t want to take it apart. It took me so long to just get this out.” But he was a very rigorous rewriter, and that’s both watching him and working with him was how I learned to start the process of molding something and making it better, and it’s really hard. Oh, I feel like in some ways, directing is like your hall pass from having to write. You’re like, “I don’t have to do it. I’m directing. You can leave me alone.” And then as soon as you’re done with it you’re like, “Oh, no.” You have to write again. Even though, I mean, I love… It was just someone said, “I don’t love writing, I love having written,” which I understand. I wish I just adored it but I find it to be moments of intense pleasure, but a lot of just shaking your head and saying, “Oh my God, what am I, what is this?”

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah, there’s more doubt in the mix than you would think there would be.

Greta Gerwig: Yeah. Also, you’re alone, so it doesn’t help, because you can just question yourself all day. I feel like the main task of writing is turning off the judger, because the judger doesn’t want you to do your work. The judger wants to sit there and tell you everything you do is stupid, but you have to be like, “It’s okay, judger. I got this one.”

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah. So, I was at a screening the other day where, Amy Pascal, who’s a producer on this, said that in your pitch to her, you said, “This book is about money. Women have always been poor.”

Greta Gerwig: Yes.

Kaitlin Fontana: And it is a story about options or lack thereof. You said earlier, what do women geniuses in the 19th century do?

Greta Gerwig: Yes.

Kaitlin Fontana: I think a lot of people who are going to listen to this are going to be writers, they’re going to be women, they’re going to be people who are poor, are still, they’re facing that still every day. So I wonder if you could tell them, and me…

Greta Gerwig: Sure, sure, sure.

Kaitlin Fontana: The work of this life as a woman and a creative is one that faces that even now. And I wonder if you have thoughts on that.

Greta Gerwig: Yeah, well that comes from, when I read the book, from the beginning, it just jumped out at me so clearly. It was like, “This is all about money.” And then the more I researched about Louisa’s life, I realized, “Oh, her life was all about money.” I mean, she was an incredibly savvy businesswoman. The fact that she did keep the copyright for her book, which she knew to do, and she did negotiate 6.6% for herself, which is unheard of. And then she was able to renegotiate that once that was a hit because she’d kept the copyright. I mean, she was all over it.

Greta Gerwig: And the line that I give Saoirse in the movie when Friedrich criticizes her writing and then Saoirse says, “I can’t afford to starve on praise.” That is what Louisa May Alcott said after Henry James had written a pan of one of her books, which you just… And she would, she basically… He’s a trust fund kid. He never needed to earn any money. And she was making all the money that her family needed to live. So, “I can’t afford to starve on praise” was such a wonderful comeback that I wanted to include. But my fixation on this is, as part of the central question of this novel and of Louisa’s life, and by extension, this film, came out of the Virginia Woolf Room of One’s Own, which everyone remembers as “to write, you need a room of one’s own.” And it’s very romantic.

Greta Gerwig: But the thing that she said was, “You need a room of one’s own and money.” That’s what she said. And she said, because she was asked to speak on, why are there no great women writers? And she said, “That’s not the question. The question is, why have women always been poor?” Because women have been poor, not for 200 years merely but since the beginning of time. And poetry depends upon the intellectual freedom, and intellectual freedom depends upon material things. So, if they never had material things, she said they didn’t have a dog’s chance of writing poetry. And I thought, “Oh my God, she’s so right.” I think it’s that intersection of the artistic and the material that she was honing in on that Louisa was inherently addressing all the time in her work and is still present today. And I think, I don’t know what the answer is other than, keep going. I don’t know, keep going. Keep writing, keep making. But it is difficult. I mean, the other thing though about writing, which is so wonderful, is it’s the one part of the process you don’t need a bunch of money for.

Kaitlin Fontana: Right.

Greta Gerwig: You can actually just do it. You need time. But you don’t need everyone to give you money, initially. So, it’s the thing you can do ahead. I guess that it’s got it going for it but time is expensive, yeah.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah.

Greta Gerwig: So, I’m mindful of money.

Kaitlin Fontana: You either have time or you have money, you don’t usually have both. One of the two.

Greta Gerwig: Yeah.

Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah. What does it look like where you sit to write? Do you have a designated spot or are you just all over the place?

Greta Gerwig: I’m sort of all over the place. I wish I had a designated spot. I did for a while. I actually had a little studio apartment that was great, but they sold the building and they kicked us all out. Because I inherited it from someone, it was rent-controlled but it’s gone now. It’s gone the way of the rest of New York. No, I don’t really have a place. I’ve always wanted a place but I write on the go. I feel like I’m always writing in a slightly clandestine way. Like I’m stealing it from the world or I’m cheating on my life with writing. I mean, in strange coffee shops. I do it on the bus. But I think sometimes that comes from not wanting to look at it too directly because it can be a little scary if I look at it right in the eye. So, I always have to come at it from the side.

Kaitlin Fontana: I thought that might be the case based on how Jo is always standing somewhere.

Greta Gerwig: Standing, yes, yes, yes.

Kaitlin Fontana: Like she’s about to run away from it.

Greta Gerwig: Yeah. Well yeah, it’s very, I don’t know. I don’t know how other people write but I have to do all kinds of weird mind tricks to get myself to sit down. And then I always, I do end up going away with something for both Lady Bird and with Little Women. I spent time with all my notes and research and writing, alone and not reachable. Because I think at some point after all that running around, I have to get them, get them in a hotel room, see what’s going on.

Kaitlin Fontana: I love this extended allegory.

Greta Gerwig: No, I mean I do, I need to spend a while kind of… But it is, it’s like I need to confront it wholly but I need to do it in private. Because if I know that I’m reachable for dinner, I won’t really give over. I won’t give over to it and I need… It’s hard to talk about writing because it’s so strange and it feels goofy to talk about. It’s not unlike talking about acting but I do feel I… Tony Kushner said this, he said late in his writing, he feels like his center gets really loose and you can hear all the voices inside of him. He doesn’t like that feeling. And I know what that feeling is. But my feeling is also, when I really start getting the whole thing, when I start wrapping my arms around the whole thing, it’s almost like I can play the entire movie at once in my head and I can start seeing it three-dimensionally. I can start seeing if I shift this thing over here, now I’ve got to move this over here. It’s like I can see and anticipate the balance of it as a whole.

Kaitlin Fontana: It’s that Cubism thing again.

Greta Gerwig: Yeah and it’s weird. I start seeing it physically. It takes work to get to that place. And I have to really sink into it.

Kaitlin Fontana: Well. Greta, thank you for being here.

Greta Gerwig: Oh my God, thank you.

Kaitlin Fontana: This was so insightful to your process.

Greta Gerwig: I hope, I hope, I hope. I think it just… And I end up sounding like a crazy person.

Kaitlin Fontana: No, you sound great.

Greta Gerwig: Well, you know what this means now, I have to write again.

Kaitlin Fontana: Thank you.

Greta Gerwig: Thanks.

Kaitlin Fontana: That’s it for this episode. OnWriting is a production of the Writers Guild of America East. Tech production and original music is by Stockboy Creative. You can learn more about the Writers Guild of America East online at You can follow the Guild on social media @WGAEast, and you can follow me on Twitter @kaitlinfontana. If you liked this podcast, please subscribe and rate us. Thanks for tuning in. Write on.

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