From Indie Icon to Famous Filmmaker: The Inspiring Story of Greta Gerwig


| LAST UPDATE 07/30/2023

By Evelyn Martinez

Although Greta Gerwig has been directing films for only 6 years, she's one of the most famous filmmakers of all time. How did the indie icon go from low budget actor to the most successful female director ever?

City of Trees

Born in Sacramento, CA, Gerwig was born to Gordon and Christine - the main character's birth name in Lady Bird. With two younger siblings, Gerwig was constantly vying for her parents' attention. 

Greta Gerwig Childhood lifeGreta Gerwig Childhood life
A24 via Youtube

Despite not having much money, Gerwig's family always supported her dreams. They encouraged her to pursue her interests in writing and theatre, even if it meant she had to work hard to make ends meet. Gerwig has said that she is "very grateful" for her family's sacrifices.

Mother Dearest

Gerwig has said that while the characters have some similarities, namely their ability to raise children in financially challenging environments, Marion and Christine are very different overall. She has said that her real mother always encouraged Gerwig's creative ambitions and helped her get to college. 

Greta Gerwig Theatre SchoolGreta Gerwig Theatre School
David Bischoff via St. Francis High School

In Lady Bird, Marion argues with her daughter much more than Gerwig and her mother ever did. Much like Marion in Lady Bird, Gerwig's mother was a nurse. However, unlike Marion, Christine Gerwig was calmer and far less biting. Greta told the Rolling Stones, "Laurie Metcalf's character [Marion] is nothing like my mother."

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Holy Education

For her school education, Gerwig attended an all-girls private Catholic high school. While studying, Gerwig was highly involved in her school's theatre productions, namely Into the Woods and Pippin. She developed a love for playwriting and a desire to make it her career. Gerwig graduated in 2002.

Greta Gerwig acting SchoolGreta Gerwig acting School
WatchMojo via Youtube

While Gerwig considers Lady Bird a 'semi-autobiographical' film, she had said that she and Christine were opposites when she attended school. In a conversation with the Hollywood Reporter, she said, "Lady Bird is the opposite of how I was in Catholic school. I was a real rule-follower and a people-pleaser and a gold star-getter."

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Brain on Hyperactive Mode

In an interview with the Guardian, Gerwig said that she was always a "talker" and a "doer" and found it challenging to sit still or focus on one thing for too long. The Barbie director was only diagnosed with ADHD as an adult but believes she may have always known as she has seen the world differently since she was young.

Greta Gerwig ADHD DiagnosisGreta Gerwig ADHD Diagnosis
W Magazine via Youtube

Gerwig has said the disorder has been a blessing and curse for her, making her creative and imaginative but easily distractible. While the writer-director was a hyperactive child, she told Entertainment Tonight, "I never made anyone call me by a different name or dyed my hair bright red when I was in high school."

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Ballerina Baby

As a child, Gerwig was intensely interested in fencing but was forced to give it up due to financial reasons. As an expensive sport that required gear and training, Gerwig needed something else. And, as if the stars had aligned for the hyperactive creative, ballet entered her life, and she couldn't get enough.

Greta Gerwig fencing actingGreta Gerwig fencing acting
Vanity Fair via Youtube

Gerwig absolutely loved ballet, but the style was too intense for her body. She joined a hip-hop dance troupe called Touch of Style in high school. Gerwig loved the energy and creativity of hip-hop and found she preferred dancing for enjoyment rather than as a profession.

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Barnard Sees Potential

After many rejections, Gerwig was finally accepted by Barnard College. In a press junket, Gerwig later said, "I was instantly drawn to the place and the women." Despite missing the early admissions deadline, Gerwig contacted admission, "If I don't get in, save my application because I'll be applying as a transfer next year."

Greta Gerwig acting studiesGreta Gerwig acting studies
Sony Pictures Classics/Kobal/Shutterstock

At Barnard, Gerwig studied a B.A. with theatre majors - fitting for the soon-to-be actress-writer-director. Her lecturer, Patricia Denison, has said, "She was so intellectually curious. She was so remarkably creative." Looking back, Gerwig believes her college experience shaped her into the creative person she is today.

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Playwright First

Wanting so badly to be a playwright but not knowing how, Gerwig looked at what kind of career she would be able to carve for herself. However, when she examined the writers that had struck success in such a small scene, she noticed a recurring theme: they were all men.

Greta Gerwig film industryGreta Gerwig film industry
Marcus Brandt/EPA/Shutterstock

She told her Barnard professor that she would never be taken seriously as a playwright because she was a woman in a man's game. In the early 2000s, Wendy Wasserstein was the only female playwright she had heard of. Gerwig's professor, thankfully, told Gerwig off and showed her how big the scene really was.

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Funniest Roomies Ever

It is a fun fact but absolutely telling that Gerwig, SNL comedian, and actor Kate McKinnon went to the same college and shared a dorm. McKinnon told People magazine, "We sort of lived in a dorm together." The two actresses must have had some of the best laughs.

Kate McKinnon Greta GerwigKate McKinnon Greta Gerwig
Jim Ruymen/UPI/Shutterstock

On top of that, after being rejected by the main improv groups during college, Gerwig and McKinnon founded their own group, the Tea Party. Gerwig later said, "We would hold our shows simultaneously so that people would have to choose who they wanted to be friends with more. It was hilarious. I love Improv."

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Their Mistake

After completing her time at Barnard, Gerwig decided the next step was to become a trained playwright. While the Little Women director dreamed only of attending New York University, Yale, and Juilliard School in their master's programs, she wasn't getting the results she might have expected

Greta Gerwig Independent FilmGreta Gerwig Independent Film
Hannah Takes The Stairs (2007) IFC Films via IMDb

She spoke with Catie Lazarus about her experience. "I really thought highly of myself. I applied as a playwright to Yale, Juilliard, and NYU and just got like a universal, 'No thanks.'" Depleted but not worn out, Gerwig decided to write her own story. And so she began to act in small, independent films.

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Beginning of Gerwig

Although her career took off post-college, Gerwig appeared in Joe Swanberg's LOL. This micro-budget film was well received by critics and put her name on the independent film map. Through her collaboration with Swanberg on LOL, Gerwig was trusted with more responsibility as an actor and writer.

Greta Gerwig Mumblecore FilmGreta Gerwig Mumblecore Film
Nights and Weekends (2008) IFC Films via IMDb

In Hannah Takes the Stairs, Gerwig plays the eponymous title character, a young woman struggling to find her place in the world. The film was almost entirely improvisational, and Gerwig was even co-credited with writing. Gerwig's performance is raw and honest, and it helped to launch her career as an actress.

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Mumblecore It Girl

Gerwig began to be associated with the 'mumblecore' movement, a type of filmmaking that is low-budget and features naturalistic performances, improvised dialogue, and mundane or everyday life stories. With the success of Hannah Takes The Stairs, Swanberg and Gerwig teamed up again to create Nights and Weekends

Greta Gerwig Actor BarbieGreta Gerwig Actor Barbie
Moviestore via Shutterstock

Shared with Swanberg, the film was Gerwig's first directorial credit. Gerwig joked in an interview with UWC, "I really adore the chaotic and stressful atmosphere that is created while trying to direct my films." While the film didn't break even, she had cemented herself as the 'It Girl' of mumblecore, and she could only go up.

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When Noah Met Greta

Next up in her burgeoning career, Gerwig was cast by Noah Baumbach in Greenberg, with Ben Stiller slated as lead. Baumbach told NYT, "Greta is a brilliant writer and an extraordinary actress. She's also one of the funniest people I know." Baumbach couldn't help but hire her even though "she wasn't right for the part."

Greta Gerwig Noah BaumbachGreta Gerwig Noah Baumbach
The Late Late Show with James Corden via Youtube

When Gerwig and Baumbach collaborated on the film, the Meyerowitz Stories director was still married to Jennifer Jason Leigh. However, Leigh filed for divorce shortly after the film wrapped production. Not long after that, Gerwig and Baumbach started dating. Sometimes, when you know, you know.

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Slow to Rise

In an interview with Guardian, after Gerwig made Greenberg, she assumed her life would change. Sadly for the actress, the film didn't succeed, and anyone who saw it didn't really notice her. She wasn't contacted for new roles even after being in an anticipated film. Gerwig struggled to find work for almost all of 2010.

Greta Gerwig Ben StillerGreta Gerwig Ben Stiller
Marcus Brandt/EPA via Shutterstock

Gerwig said, "I wish I had taken that time and written more, but it felt like acting was happening for me, and I went back to acting classes." With only a few appearances on TV, Gerwig was making just enough to get by. So when luck didn't come her way, she decided to make it herself.

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Frances Ha

To avoid investing time in a film that doesn't get noticed, Gerwig and Bambauch wanted to do the opposite of what they created in Greenberg. For Frances Ha, they chose to make a lighthearted and funny film. The film was shot entirely in black and white as an homage to Woody Allen's Manhattan.

Greta Gerwig Frances HaGreta Gerwig Frances Ha
Moviestore via Shutterstock

Unlike other films that made Gerwig recognizable, she and the other actors were to stick closely to the script, with a strict nonad-libbing rule. With a low-budget setup, the camera crew could quickly, cheaply, and effectively move around. No one expected the film to be successful, least of all Gerwig. 

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A Timeless Classic

The film grossed $11 million dollars on a $3 million budget, making it a rare independent success. Reportedly, after the film screened and was received with open arms, Baumbach turned to Gerwig and said, "Thanks for giving me a hit." Not only was it commercially successful, Gerwig's script and acting received critical acclaim. 

Greta Gerwig Film SuccessGreta Gerwig Film Success
Mistress America (2015) RT Features via IMDb

The film was awarded the Golden Bear at the 65th Berlin International Film Festival. It was nominated for four Independent Spirit Awards, including Best Actress for Gerwig. An NYT review said, "A small film with a big heart. A film about friendship, love, and self-discovery, and it will stay with you long after you've seen it."

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Still Acting

The next few years of Gerwig's career were defined by more minor roles in big-budget or highly-marketed films. In particular, she appeared alongside Natalie Portman in No Strings Attached and Jackie and in Woody Allen's To Rome with Love. As her biggest inspiration, working with Allen was Gerwig's most incredible thrill.

Greta Gerwig Woody AllenGreta Gerwig Woody Allen
To Rome With Love (2012) Medusa Films via IMDb

Gerwig told the Hollywood Reporter, "He's an amazing director. He's very collaborative and gave me a lot of freedom to improvise. It was a really special experience." She also said that both she and Baumbach "idolize Woody Allen." However, Allen's film was not recognized by critics or audiences. 

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Diamond of the Stage

Gerwig made a splash with her off-Broadway performance in The Village Bike, which received rave reviews for her performance. She even received a Best Leading Actress nomination for an Outer Critics Circle Award, she may have lost to the effervescent Helen Mirren, but Gerwig's success had just begun.

Greta Gerwig Broadway TheatreGreta Gerwig Broadway Theatre
MCC Theatre via Youtube

Gerwig later made her Broadway debut in Our Town. The actress played Emily Webb, a young woman who comes of age in a small town. While Gerwig's performance was praised for its depth and emotional range, it wasn't recognized in the awards season. Luckily, Gerwig only stuck to the theatre for a short time.

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The Evolution of Lady Bird

Finally, Gerwig decided she wanted to do something new; and was ready to solo direct. The film is deeply personal and reflects Gerwig's love for her hometown, Sacramento. With a 350-page script called Mothers and Daughters, Gerwig began to peel her screenplay back and create characters for her words.

Greta Gerwig Lady BirdGreta Gerwig Lady Bird
BRWC via Youtube

Gerwig wrote the screenplay for Lady Bird over two years. With some help from her partner Baumbach, She drew inspiration from her experiences growing up in Sacramento. Greta was finally ready to send it off to producers, and, to her surprise, they were desperate to make it.

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The Perfect Fit

Now started the search for Christine, and she worried about explaining the script. Very quickly, Gerwig realized Irish actress Saoirse Ronan was the only one who could do it. The actor and director met in a hotel and read the entire script together. After that, Gerwig knew "she was Lady Bird."

Greta Gerwig Saoirse RonanGreta Gerwig Saoirse Ronan
A24 via Youtube

"We didn't do any improvisation on the movies I had made and co-written with Noah Baumbach, and that has been the way I like to work best," she said to ScreenDaily. "I think it comes from my first love being theatre, where the playwright is king. You don't change those words; you figure out how to make them work."

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I Am Greta

Gerwig told Screen Daily, "None of the events in the movie are the events of my life." She told TimesTalk that Lady Bird is "the girl I wished I could've been." In a conversation with CBS Sunday Morning, she said, "I don't like the implication that it's not an act of imagination because it is 100% an act of imagination."

Greta Gerwig Lady BirdGreta Gerwig Lady Bird
Lady Bird (2017) A24 via IMDb

Ronan also agreed that Christine was not an accurate reflection of Gerwig. "For both of us, one of the things that we identified with when we both got to know Lady Bird was that she's the person we wanted to be," Ronan said. "We're both more people-pleasers and rule-followers, so we really admired her gutsiness."

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A Success

Lady Bird was a critical and commercial success, grossing over $79 million worldwide against a budget of just $10 million. The film was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. Gerwig won the award for Best Original Screenplay, becoming the fifth woman to win the prize.

Greta Gerwig Golden GlobesGreta Gerwig Golden Globes
WatchMojo via Youtube

The success of Lady Bird was a significant turning point in Gerwig's career. She was already a respected actress, but Lady Bird also established her as a talented director. Not only did this propel Gerwig to stardom, but the film also helped increase female directors' visibility in Hollywood.

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The Noah to Our Greta

By the time Lady Bird was released, Gerwig and Baumbach had been together for seven years and were absolutely devoted to each other, romantically and creatively. In an interview with Vogue about their relationship, Gerwig said, "He's an incredibly important collaborator and influence on me. The most important." 

Greta Gerwig Noah BaumbachGreta Gerwig Noah Baumbach
E! Insider via Youtube

At the Golden Globes, where Gerwig received the award for Best Picture, she forgot to thank Bambauch." I had an entire speech that I was going to give, and I got up there, I looked at Oprah, and I was like, 'It's gone.'" He wasn't too upset because they welcomed a surprise less than a year later, but more on that later.

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Give Her A Chance

Gerwig had to fight for her spot as director, "I was not on anybody's list to direct this film," she said to ScreenDaily. "It was something I wanted to do because it was the book of my youth, of my childhood, of my heart, of my ambition, of what made me want to be a writer, and also what made me want to be a director.

Greta Gerwig Pregnant BabyGreta Gerwig Pregnant Baby
The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon via Youtube

As a creative struggling to be taken seriously in a 'man's industry,' her story felt uniquely similar to Jo March. She said in the BTS video, "The young woman trying to sell a story and figuring how much she needs to change it to be economically viable could have been me, yesterday, talking to a studio head."

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Working on Little Women

Emma Watson, star of Harry Potter who played the eldest sister, Meg, said in a BTS video that it was "such a relief" to work with Gerwig. She continued, "The fact that Greta has been an actor and knows what it's like to be an actor means that she gets it, and she wants you to feel complete within the performance."

Greta Gerwig Little WomenGreta Gerwig Little Women
Sony Pictures Entertainment via Youtube

While shooting some scenes, she famously wore outfits that suited the time period. She told EW, "I know some directors like to run their sets based on fear, but I wanted to create an environment where people can come and talk to you and not try to hide or throw someone else under the bus."

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Motherhood Suits You

In March 2019, Gerwig and Bambauch welcomed their first child, Harold Ralph. Even though the writer-director was six months pregnant by the time shooting wrapped in December 2018, W Magazine reported that the cast had no idea Gerwig was expecting, even though she "didn't intend for it to be that."

Greta Gerwig Pregnant MotherGreta Gerwig Pregnant Mother
Vogue via Youtube

Gerwig was in the editing room up until she was about to burst. She revealed to Vogue that she submitted the Little Women rough cut to the producers and delivered her son 24 hours later. She said, "I knew that as soon as I did that, some part of me would relax, and then the baby would come." 

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A Snub for The Ages

While Little Women was recognized by the Oscars for its screenplay, acting, and film overall, Gerwig was left out of the Best Director category this time. The Academy's decision received widespread disapproval. Gerwig commented, "I think that the directors' branch could probably stand to bolster its lady numbers."

Natalie Portman Greta GerwigNatalie Portman Greta Gerwig
John Salangsang/BEI via Shutterstock

Natalie Portman, whom Gerwig collaborated with on Jackie, famously wore a custom Dior dress with all the names of female directors snubbed from nominations at that year's Oscars. Gerwig was one of eight names left out of a purely male-nominated category. Natalie certainly knows how to make an entrance.

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What About Barbie?

What intrigued Gerwig about the Barbie project was the "chock-full of contradictions." According to the writer-director, Barbie is a symbol of female perfection that no person can ever maintain, and she wanted to tackle the idea of being 'perfect' when such a thing doesn't exist.

Greta Gerwig Barbie FilmingGreta Gerwig Barbie Filming
iHollywoodTV via Youtube

Gerwig told WBur, "Barbie has always been a symbol of this thing that you could never reach because she physically couldn't stand up if she were a human being. So I wanted it to almost invert that formula and find a way to give you permission to just be yourself and know that that's enough."

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Barbie Buzz

The anticipation of the film's release created the term Barbie Buzz. People were literally buzzing about the movie because of Gerwig's involvement, Robbie's casting, and the absolute dedication to marketing the film. With the film's release, fans are dressing up in pink and flocking to the cinema. 

Greta Gerwig Barbie BuzzGreta Gerwig Barbie Buzz
iHollywoodTV via Youtube

When Ryan Gosling tells Jimmy Fallon Gerwig's script is "the best script [he's] ever read," heading to the cinema is the only thing to do. And head to the cinema they did; the film grossed $380 million in its first week of screenings on a $135 million budget, making it the most successful opening of any female director. Ever.

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More Than an Indie Girl

In defiance of the Film Experience's review, "urbane American indies are plainly where she does best," Gerwig is ready to move on to bigger things than indie film. As someone who got her start in mumblecore and low-budget films, Gerwig is appreciative of her humble beginnings. However, she doesn't want to let it define her.

Greta Gerwig Steven SpielbergGreta Gerwig Steven Spielberg
Stephen Lovekin via Shutterstock

A source told the New Yorker, "Her ambition is not to be the biggest woman director, but [rather] a big studio director." The Barbie director co-wrote the Disney blockbuster remake of Snow White, starring Rachel Zegler as the title character. She will also direct two films in a reboot of the Narnia series for Netflix.

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Inspiring the Next Generation

While Gerwig has been credited for inspiring a new generation of female filmmakers, Gerwig's films are not just for young women. Her films are a refreshing change from the tired stereotypes that often surround female characters in the film. Gerwig has nailed combining the authenticity of mumblecore with large-scale cinema.

Greta Gerwig story careerGreta Gerwig story career
Anthony Harvey via Shutterstock

Gerwig told NYT in 2017, "I want to make films that make young women feel seen and heard. I want to make films that make them feel like they're not alone." With a filmography as flawless as hers, we're confident that Greta Gerwig will deliver a great film no matter what she chooses to direct next.

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