Gerwig: Little Women still a timely tale for the modern woman
Read by gas lamp in the 1860s and on mobile devices today, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women is that rare thing: The book that outmanoeuvres time, mesmerising generation after generation.
When US writer-director Greta Gerwig, known for her own razor-sharp portrait of girlhood in the Oscar-nominated 2017 film Lady Bird, heard there was interest in making a fresh, modern version for these times, she knew without a doubt it could be something special.
The film opens here on Jan 16.
“When I heard that a new Little Women was going to be made, I flung myself at it with everything I had,” recalls Gerwig.
“I had a very specific idea of what the book was really about: It’s about women as artists and it’s about women and money. That is all there in Louisa May Alcott’s writing, but it’s an aspect of the story that hasn’t been delved into before on screen. For me, it was something that felt really, really close to the surface and even now, this movie feels more autobiographical to me than any movie I’ve made.”
At the core of Alcott’s Civil War-era story of four spirited sisters, Gerwig saw a timeless vision of how young women forge their own stories of who they want to be as adults.
Rather than start with Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy March in the blush of innocent youth, Gerwig’s version starts with the sisters as adults trying to manage their marriage, careers and expectations.
From that vantage point, they are able to look back on their childhood as a magical time, full of laughter, heartbreak and moments of indelible joy, when they were free to aim at being great writers, actors, musicians and artists.
For producer Amy Pascal, Gerwig’s script brought out an immediate and alive feeling from the story.
Gerwig had achieved what Pascal most hoped to see: She had built a bridge between Alcott’s 19th-century world and our own, homing in on such current themes as sisterhood, identity and creating a satisfying life no matter the limitations.
“Part of what feels so right about this Little Women in this moment is that Greta has made it about striving for a world where the power and art of women can come to the fore and all people can be okay with who they are,” says Pascal.
This is also what drew the film’s star-studded cast.
They latched on both to the modernity and the wide-ranging, candid emotions that Gerwig brought to the fore.
Saoirse Ronan takes the lead as the iconic tomboy and writer Jo, along with Emma Watson as eldest sister Meg, Eliza Scanlen as sensitive pianist Beth and rising star Florence Pugh who brings out the self-questioning side of the famously headstrong baby of the family, Amy.
They are joined by screen veteran Laura Dern as the March’s loving matriarch affectionately known as Marmee, and legendary Meryl Streep brings out her comic side as the sisters’ wealthy and opinionated Aunt March.
From the start, Gerwig knew she wanted Ronan to play her personal heroine Jo.
It was a thrill just to imagine Ronan, who recently received her fourth Oscar nomination for Little Women, bringing that same winning mix of naturalness and emotional transparency to a character who has inspired writers for 150 years.
“Saoirse is just such a genius. I don’t know how she does it exactly. But I feel very blessed that she’s worked with me twice,” says Gerwig.
“Saoirse is unparalleled,” says Pascal. “Watching her perform, you are gobsmacked constantly. She’s the most naturalistic, intelligent and emotionally nuanced actor.”
Ronan found she could easily relate to Jo’s dilemmas between devotion to family and the pursuit of her own burning dreams of being a novelist.
“I think the story feels more relevant than ever now,” Ronan says.
“It explores young women finding the confidence to take their own paths. Jo to me is similar to girls that you see in this day and age. She’s very modern, right down to the way she moves and the way she speaks.”
Gerwig and Ronan used Alcott herself as the model for Jo’s confidence, insight and defiance of the rules.
In many ways, after Little Women became a runaway success, Alcott became the J.K. Rowling of her time. She smartly kept control of her own copyrights and, despite growing up relatively poor, became the rare 19th-century American woman to amass significant wealth without having to marry.
Gerwig notes: “These are things that are still coming up right now, which you see in (US pop star) Taylor Swift deciding to re-record her back catalogue so that she can own it.”
Though she resists the idea of marriage, Jo is chased romantically by two very different men: Her neighbour and long-time friend Laurie (Timothee Chalamet) and the heady professor she meets in a New York boarding school, Friedrich Bhaer (Louis Garrel).
Still, for Ronan, the greatest love story that Jo is a part of is “the one she has with her sisters and mother. The heart of the story is about young people finding their way in the world, doing what we’ve always done as humans, trying to connect, which is something we can all relate to.”
Each actor grappled in their own ways with how to make the story come alive in 2020.
“I think Little Women is about something people of all generations still need to hear: That you can be your true, deep self, and don’t let anyone talk you out of your sass, your anger, vulnerability, sensuality, humour or grace. That’s who you are,” says Dern.
Gerwig determined that her Little Women needed a truly lived-in feeling.
Her hope was to bring audiences deep into the feeling of the March family home, crackling at once with humour, competitiveness, playfulness, shared sorrows and love.
She wrote overlapping dialogue to echo how real siblings talk in a family setting.
She explored Alcott’s own family home in Concord, Massachusetts, where some of the film was shot. She also placed a big emphasis on the film’s lush design, drawing inspiration both from the vibrant new art and photography of Alcott’s time and contemporary moviemaking.
The costumes became a passion.
Gerwig collaborated closely with Oscar-winning costume designer Jacqueline Durran to come up with an individual style to define each sister. Pieces of fabric are used again and again, the way they really would be in a family with a hand-me-down economy.
The final look for Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy emerged from a mix of archival research, imagination and the actors’ input into their characters’ personalities.
Each sister is seen in her own range of colours: Jo in fiery red, Meg in romantic shades of lilac and green, Beth in tender pinks, and Amy in fresh tones of light blue.
But perhaps the greatest influence came from Gerwig asking her actors to spend lots of quality time together, like any strong family, to seal those bonds to the point that they are palpable on screen.
Says Gerwig: “I spent a lot of time trying to get real laughter and real joy on the screen. I wanted to create the space for the actors to actually enjoy themselves, because when you get that, it’s priceless. Those real emotions are what allow the audience to really enter, and live in, this world of the March sisters.”