“Do you think I look like I come from Sacramento?”
That line arrives early in “Lady Bird,” Sacramento native Greta Gerwig’s solo directorial debut, and immediately hits home – at least in her hometown.
And that’s the point. No matter where the film’s spirited titular character (played by Saoirse Ronan) goes, the place where she grew up always will be with her, part of her core being and psyche. Sacramento informs her being and shapes her world view, even as Lady Bird can’t wait to leave.
The same can be said about Gerwig, 34, who has created a beautiful and thoughtful coming-of-age movie, peppered with gorgeous snapshots of places very familiar to anyone who has lived here. “Lady Bird,” which opens in local theaters Nov. 10, follows the senior year of Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson as she experiences young love, argues with her caring yet overbearing mother (Laurie Metcalf) and plots her escape to college – preferably somewhere sophisticated on the East Coast.
Gerwig, best known as an actress in such movies as “Frances Ha” and “Mistress America,” said she worked on the project for about three years.
“I wanted to make a love letter to Sacramento as seen through the eyes of someone who can’t appreciate how beautiful it is until she’s going away to someplace else,” Gerwig explained in a phone interview. “That’s very true of 17 year olds. You don’t realize how beautiful a place is until you step away.”
As the film’s writer and director, Gerwig, who grew up in River Park, used some of her favorite Sacramento locations as “Lady Bird” settings: The McKinley Park rose garden, the Fabulous 40s neighborhood, the river walk near Tower Bridge. (Even the Tower Theatre gets a cameo.)
There are many parallels between Gerwig’s fiction and her real life, too. Lady Bird’s given name is Christine (the same as Gerwig’s mom). Lady Bird’s mom is a psychiatric nurse; Gerwig’s mom was a longtime OB/GYN nurse. Both Gerwig (St. Francis) and Lady Bird (the fictional Immaculate Heart) went to Catholic all-girl high schools and dreamed of attending college in New York City. (Gerwig graduated from Barnard.) The 2002 setting is just a couple of classes removed from Gerwig’s own senior year.
But Gerwig insists that the film is not a roman à clef, and that Lady Bird is her own unique young woman. As embodied by Ronan (“Atonement” “Brooklyn”), she’s a memorable character with whom real Sacramentans instantly will identify.
Gerwig, who held a special premiere of her film in Sacramento at the Tower this past week, explains the role of her hometown in this edited interview:
Q: As a teen, did you feel about Sacramento the way Lady Bird did?
A: In a way, I knew I lived in a really nice place. I had a magical childhood there. Many of my best friends have been my best friends since first grade. I knew this was a special place, but its physical beauty – the tree canopy, the wide streets, the neighborhoods, the river – I didn’t realize how wonderful they were until I moved to a vertical city like New York. Sacramento is just so lovely.
Q: How much of Lady Bird is you?
A: Actually, I was not like Lady Bird. I never made anyone call me a different name. I never dyed my hair bright red. (Instead of confronting authority), I was very much a people-pleasing kind of kid. I wanted gold stars on my work.
But in a way, writing her (character) let me say something I was not able to do in my teen years. I could create this fluid complex young woman and give her a voice. I could give her all these terrible and wonderful things to say.
Saoirse and I – Lady Bird is our creation. She created the look, the walk, her way of talking. She embodied exactly what I was looking for.
Q: What about Lady Bird’s relationship with her mom?
A: (She laughs.) The crux of the (movie), this is a love story between mother and daughter. That bond is so strong and deeply felt. I know my mom is the best and I gave her hell. I feel so guilty now. Every day of my adult life, I keep realizing, my mom was right about everything.
The mom in the movie is not like my mom, but the reason there’s so much love and so much conflict is because mother and daughter are essentially the same. They’re built the same way. That’s why that mother-daughter bond is so conflicted. The very thing that annoys you about yourself annoys you about them, too.
My mother and I are different but we’re built the same way, too. When we’re together, there’s no question who belongs to each other. We even talk like each other.
Q: How did Saoirse like Sacramento?
A: She really really loved it! She had a real sense of the place. When she read the script, she said – even though she’s from a small town in Ireland – she knew this story in her bones. She was instantly so perfect. She got the whole idea immediately.
Q: What did your crew think of Sacramento?
A: It was so amazing. It was like introducing a boyfriend to your parents; you want him to make a good impression. This is a place I love, where I grew up. I wanted Sacramento to make that good impression. And the crew, they couldn’t believe it. They got out their phones and started checking the Zillow app for real estate prices (and asking) could they commute from Sacramento to Los Angeles to work? It was really wonderful. They all thought Sacramento was beautiful.
We were shooting in October (2016) and that’s a beautiful time to be in Sacramento. The leaves are still on the trees and that’s part of that verdant feel. When you live here, you kind of shrug off those kinds of things. But when you’re not ... you’re blown away.
Q: What was it like making a movie in your hometown?
A: We were shooting around town and everyone was so accommodating. The police and sheriff’s (department) were so incredibly helpful. In every neighborhood, people were so nice.
It was so sweet. All these kids would show up after school with their dogs and bikes, just to watch what we were doing. My crew asked, “Is this the 1950s?’ Scenes like this still exist in Sacramento.
The truth is, in a way, this is what I hoped always would happen. I brought a group of people home and, like that boyfriend, Sacramento showed them its best, most beautiful, charming self.
Q: While fantasizing about a home in Sacramento’s Fabulous 40s neighborhood, Lady Bird says she comes “from the wrong side of the tracks.” What neighborhood did you have in mind?
A: That’s kind of fictionalized. It’s not a specific neighborhood. There are train tracks all over Sacramento. (While writing), I was thinking of the light-rail tracks that cut off East Sacramento just on the other side of T Street.
Q: Was the entire film shot in Sacramento?
A: I wish I could, but because of financial concerns, most of the interiors were shot in L.A. It’s complicated to shoot an entire movie in Sacramento.
In Southern California, there’s the same architecture as Sacramento and I could find the same style of house. I must have looked at 50 homes in L.A. to find the right house (for Lady Bird’s home). I was looking for very specific things and it’s so hard to find a home that’s not been renovated. (Lady Bird’s “Sacramento” home is actually in Burbank.)
I had this vision of the kind of California home I wanted, like specific wide colorful tiles in the bathroom and kitchen. The chairs, the pillows; I had very specific things in mind – and they weren’t always easy to find.
Like the chair in Lady Bird’s room. She has a fan-style wicker chair, a peacock chair. My grandmother had a chair like that. I became friends with (Sacramento author) Joan Didion and she had a chair like that, too. I wanted one for Lady Bird.
There’s a painted cross on the mantlepiece from South America; that’s a very specific California thing to have (as a knickknack) in your living room. I decorated the home with paintings by David Lobenberg. He’s a local artist (from Sacramento). Lots of little details, I was layering on.
I was creating this world in a particular time and I wanted it to be so rich and specific. The main thing I really tried to convey was this was a very specific time and place. There’s been movie after movie of teens growing up in some vague and general place, but nobody has a vague and general experience growing up. It’s all very specific.
Q: How do you describe Sacramento to people who don’t know it?
A: Watch the movie! I tell people it’s the best place you’ve never been. It’s a wonderful place to grow up and raise a family, but I don’t want the secret to get out too much.