The Secret World of Greta Gerwig and Her Art

Greta Gerwig makes me believe two things when it comes to screenwriting:

  1. That she is the only one who can do it.
  2. That I deserve to try.

I was first introduced to Gerwig and her work when a friend showed me Frances Ha. Gerwig plays Frances, a woman struggling with the ebbs and flows of life, friendship, and her career. She spends much of the film as an apprentice at a dance company. Eventually, she decides to accept an office job and choreograph her own work on the side. 

In one of the final scenes of the film, Frances sits in the darkness off stage as she watches dancers perform her choreography on stage in front of an audience. I always loved the image of her sitting in the darkness, biting her lip anxiously, watching her art move from private to public.

I immediately fell in love with Frances Ha, not knowing that Gerwig had collaborated with director Noah Baumbach as a writer on the project. I have since developed what many would identify as an unhealthy obsession with her writing. She puts so much care into every detail of a screenplay— even the parentheticals that nobody ever sees. To her, it is not just a playbook of how to create a piece of art; it is art.

Throughout the press tour for Little Women, Gerwig revealed that her focus in creating this adaptation was the concept of women and art and money. In Louisa May Alcott’s novel, our heroine, Jo, ends up married to an old German professor she met in New York because that is what the readers and Louisa’s publisher demanded. In Gerwig’s adaptation, Jo (maybe?) ends up with the professor— though he is young and dashing in this telling— yet more important to her and the story: she gets her book.

Gerwig has said that her goal with Little Women was to make the image of Jo’s holding her book the moment the audience didn’t know they were waiting for the whole time. It wasn’t a story of girl gets the guy; it was a story of girl gets her art. The final frame of the film isn’t just Jo holding her work, it is Jo holding one of many copies of her work that will be distributed, sold, read, and cherished.

I obviously saw Little Women on Christmas Day, but also miraculously got tickets to see a BAM screening at which Gerwig would be giving a Q+A after. Before the credits finished rolling, Gerwig and the Q+A moderator walked right down the aisle my brother and I were seated on. It was still dark in the theater. They stood at the bottom of the steps and Gerwig looked on at the final credits on her film. I was so moved by this image. It immediately reminded me of Frances looking on at her choreography and Jo holding her book. A woman releasing her art into the world.

So far, I have written only one screenplay (an objectively bad one, of course). In my struggle to begin a second, I have found that writing a screenplay is an incredible act of vulnerability. I want to bottle up the image of Gerwig looking on at her art and I want to chase that feeling, as terrifying as it seems.

There’s a brief monologue Frances gives in Frances Ha that people often quote:

“It’s that thing when you’re with someone, and you love them and they know it, and they love you and you know it… but it’s a party… and you’re both talking to other people, and you’re laughing and shining… and you look across the room and catch each other’s eyes… but – but not because you’re possessive, or it’s precisely sexual… but because… that is your person in this life. And it’s funny and sad, but only because this life will end, and it’s this secret world that exists right there in public, unnoticed, that no one else knows about. It’s sort of like how they say that other dimensions exist all around us, but we don’t have the ability to perceive them. That’s – That’s what I want out of a relationship. Or just life, I guess.”

This adaptation of Little Women is Gerwig’s creation, but it isn’t quite hers anymore. She’s shared it with the public. In the dark theater at BAM, the final credits of her film shone light onto her face, as if looking back at her.

It was the secret world Frances spoke of; only it didn’t go unnoticed. I think about it all the time.

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