The Cultural References Behind Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird

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Saoirse Ronan and Greta Gerwig on the set of Lady BirdPhotography by Merie Wallace, courtesy of A24

From Joan Didion’s Sacramento, to Justin Timberlake’s Cry Me a River

Saoirse Ronan is, by her own happy admission, somewhat monogamous when it comes to making movies. “When I’m doing a job, I can’t think about anything else, I can’t look at anything else, I’m just not able to do that,” she explains in AnOther Magazine S/S18. And yet when it came to making Lady Bird, the Greta Gerwig-directed bildungsroman which has been nominated several times over this award season, she was able to let her guard down somewhat: “With Greta sending me all these snippets of the world we were going to be in, it began sinking into my subconscious.”

It’s to our delight that it did; the film is a satisfyingly authentic rite of passage, set in early 00s Sacramento, and traces nuances of pop culture which are at once disconcertingly familiar and yet utterly alien – from vodka-soaked high school parties soundtracked by crooningly nostalgic pop ballads, to fragments of poetry devoured by generation after generation of aspiring teen auteurs. Here, Hannah Lack recalls four such references from her interview with Ronan – the actress of the moment, and, presumably, many more moments to come.

1. King of the Teen Movie, John Hughes

Molly Ringwald showing up to prom in a home-sewn, polyester frankenfrock in Pretty in Pink; eating carrots in the hope of expanding her cup-size in Sixteen Candles; or languishing in Saturday detention in The Breakfast Club… To give Saoirse Ronan a crash-course in American high school life, Greta Gerwig suggested she indulge in a John Hughes movie-marathon. Ronan herself never had to endure the adolescent obstacle course of secondary education; after primary years at a tiny, rural County Carlow school she was home-tutored between film roles. “One time we went over to Greta’s house in New York and went through her photo albums from when she was a kid,” Ronan remembers. “I didn’t really do school in a conventional way, so it was great for me to see Greta in a big high school sweatshirt with her hair all messy, see photographs of her onstage in the school musical, just getting the look of that world.”

2. Justin Timberlake’s Cry Me a River

“What can I say? You’re Justin Timberlake. You were the soundtrack to my adolescence. Your rise corresponded exactly with my very awkward puberty…” begins Gerwig in her charm-offensive letter to the pop-superstar, requesting the rights to use 2002’s Cry Me a River in her directorial debut. “Between *NSYNC and your solo work every year of my growing up was defined by your sound. I pretty much wouldn’t be an adult without you.” To the disbelief of the goofy teen still lurking inside her, Gerwig was granted her wish. In the film, Timberlake’s passive-aggressive break-up ode to Britney plays at a house-party as Lady Bird and her clove-smoking, Howard Zinn-reading love-interest get, in Gerwig’s words, “hot and heavy by the tanning bed”. “Greta sent me a playlist on Spotify – Alanis Morrisette, Dave Mathews, Justin Timberlake, Joni Mitchell,” says Ronan. “By her sending me all these snippets of the world we were going to be in, it just sunk into my subconscious.”

3. Joan Didion’s Essays on Sacramento

Lady Bird opens with a lethally perfect sentence from that clear-eyed chronicler of Californian moods, Joan Didion: “Anybody who talks about California hedonism has never spent a Christmas in Sacramento.” Gerwig’s discovery that she and the impossibly elegant Didion – captured in a famous photograph leaning out of her Corvette Stingray, lit cigarette in hand – shared a deeply unglamorous hometown was a revelation for the director growing up. She gave Ronan a collection of Didion’s essays, with their unfaltering eye for detail, to help Ronan get a feel for the particular atmosphere of that West Coast upbringing: “She said Joan Didion would give me a sense of where Lady Bird comes from.”

4. Lunch Poems by Frank O’Hara

O’Hara’s pocket book of poems is steeped in the rhythm and romance of Manhattan: honking cabs and muggy streets, languid hangovers, coffee and cigarettes. Published in 1964 by Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s revolutionary City Lights imprint, these wry, nimble glimpses of city life helped Ronan conjure Lady Bird’s dream of escape to New York and adulthood: “Greta said the Lunch Poems are where she feels she’s destined to be, or the life she’s destined to live.”

Lady Bird is in selected cinemas February 16 and nationwide February 23, 2018.

The full Saoirse Ronan story originally features in the Spring/Summer 2018 issue of AnOther Magazine, which will be on sale internationally from February 15, 2018.