‘Little Women’ Director Greta Gerwig and Cast Reveal How They Reinvented a Feminist Classic

December 20, 2019, 5:30 PM UTC

When Oscar-nominated filmmaker Greta Gerwig (2017’s Lady Bird) unveils her take on Little Women on Christmas Day, the Sony release will mark the 20th or so occasion that Louisa May Alcott’s novel, first published in 1868, has been interpreted for the stage or screen.

So many previous iterations could have made for a daunting task were it not for Gerwig’s keen interpretation of Alcott’s autobiographical story—about four precocious sisters who pine for equality and independence while living with their mother during the Civil War—as an even-more-relevant portrait of young women who want more than they’re supposed to.

On Oct. 23, Gerwig sat down with Fortune for a live “For Your Consideration” Q&A event in Los Angeles with Little Women cast members Meryl Streep (Aunt March), Laura Dern (Marmee), Saoirse Ronan (Jo), Florence Pugh (Amy), and Timothée Chalamet (Laurie) for a spirited conversation about Gerwig’s refreshing take on Alcott’s text. (Hint: It’s all about money.)

Note: Cast members Emma Watson (Meg) and Eliza Scanlen (Beth) were not present. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Greta, your film opens not with the iconic Christmas-morning scene, but with a male editor telling Jo that her female lead character needs to die or be married by the end of her story. What was your overall vision for reinventing Little Women for a 2019 audience? Producer Amy Pascal has described it as “punk rock and Shakespearean.”

Greta Gerwig: I don’t think I’m punk rock. And it would be arrogant to call myself Shakespearean. But yes, married or dead, that’s how we like our women! [Laughs] When I reread the book as an adult, so much of it was about women, art, and money. But how do you make art if you don’t have money? It’s a theme throughout the book, so I spent a lot of time learning about how Louisa May Alcott saved her family economically. It also felt pressing to tell the story of ambitious girls who want more than the world wants to provide them. Amy saying, “I want to be great or nothing,” and Marmee saying, “I’m angry almost every day of my life”—that’s all in the book, too. And I’ll say one more thing about women and money, because I think about it a lot: I’d recently read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. She said, “To write you need a room of one’s own.”

Meryl Streep: And 3,000 pounds a year.

Gerwig: Yes. Intellectual freedom depended upon material things; and art depended upon intellectual freedom. For me, Little Women was the intersection of all of this.

Little Women DGA Event
From left: Timothée Chalamet, Meryl Streep, Florence Pugh, writer-director Greta Gerwig, Saoirse Ronan, and Laura Dern attend a “For Your Consideration” screening and Q&A event for “Little Women” at the Director’s Guild in Los Angeles on Oct. 23.
Eric Charbonneau

Saoirse, how did making this film feel familiar because of your previous partnership with Greta, but also totally new?

Saoirse Ronan: The difference here was we were both coming to this material for the first time, while Lady Bird was so personal for Greta. I was petrified every day that I was messing that movie up. Not that I wasn’t with Little Women! So many amazing people have played Jo; and she is Louisa May Alcott. I also was at the point as an actor—I’ve done this since I was 8—when I felt, “I’m gonna fuck this up a bit and see what happens.” And I wasn’t afraid, because I was with someone I trusted so much.

From Enlightened to Big Little Lies, Laura has played a lot of women who might also say they’re “angry every day.” What do you think is unique about the way anger manifests in Marmee?

Laura Dern: It all began with the history. We had the privilege of filming in Concord, Massachusetts, so I literally walked the path of Louisa’s memories; what it felt like to be a mother raising those girls. I’d always thought of Marmee as this angelic, omniscient being, but Greta broke her open and revealed what was in the book all along; that she was about empathy, tolerance, and revolution—and doing it without money or men in the home! It’s so bold; and punk rock and Shakespearean. [Laughs]

Meryl, what did you enjoy most about being directed by Greta?

Streep: She let me do whatever I wanted. [Laughter]

Actors love that, don’t they?

Streep: Actors really like that. She won me over immediately! No, we also talked a lot about all the underpinnings for my character, Aunt March, who is all about money. 

Little Women Behind the Scenes
Writer-director Greta Gerwig (right) films Saoirse Ronan, as Jo March, in a scene from Sony’s “Little Women.”
Wilson Webb—Columbia Pictures

It’s how she measures someone’s value.

Streep: Well, it’s how the world measures value. She is the reality check on all the airy-fairy, idealistic people who populate the family she basically underwrites. [Laughs] Women didn’t have agency during the Civil War. You could get a divorce, but everything, including your children and dress on your back, were your husband’s property. You’d leave with nothing. That’s why marriage was the only thing a woman could do to support herself. So Aunt March is thinking, “What’s gonna happen to these girls?” She’s picking winners, really. 

Florence Pugh: And I won! [Laughter]

Ronan: But Jo wrote a book!

Streep: [To Ronan] No, no. Jo definitely lost. Amy got the house. [Laughter]

Florence, you had the challenge of playing Amy from when she’s a young girl through her early adulthood. How did you work to both invent something new for her, but also stay true to how she was written?

Pugh: Amy is both the best and worst child. The best thing Greta said was, “I don’t feel like Amy ever had a moment to express why she felt the way she did.” I also had a fairly clear idea of who she was; her way of standing and speaking. I put that on my audition tape, and I’m happy to say what we did on set was pretty similar—one of those magical moments when everyone sees the character the same way.

You and Emma are both from the U.K., Saoirse is from Ireland, and Eliza is Australian. How did you collectively achieve the era’s very distinct early-American accent, but also cater it to these characters?

Pugh: We had an amazing dialect coach, and we’d talked a lot in the accent to each other off camera. But we also didn’t want to sound too uppity or like we were wearing corsets. We wanted it to be natural and raw. Also, the way Greta wrote our dialogue…there’d literally be lines on top of one another. I thought it was a mistake! “Ugh, Greta forgot to press the space button again.” [Laughter] So we had these accents, corsets, we’re all talking on top of each other…It was thrilling. Tim recently said that acting in this movie was a sport. It’s so true. You had to have your caffeine and be ready.

Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet worked together in Gerwig’s 2017 directorial feature debut, “Lady Bird,” before reuniting as the iconic pair Jo and Laurie in “Little Women.”
Wilson Webb—Columbia Pictures

Timothée, your character Laurie’s relationship with Jo is one of the most groundbreaking ever written because of its bucking of masculine and feminine norms. It it true that you and Saoirse swapped clothing during filming?

Timothée Chalamet: Yes. I think that was Greta’s idea. [Laughs] This movie was the first experience I’d ever had where I’d get to my trailer and have three clothing options waiting for me. [Costume designer] Jacqueline Durran would let us mismatch and create new combinations. There’s also an Easter egg in one scene where there’s an accoutrement on my wrist that later disappears because Greta came over and asked, “What the hell is on your wrist?” Jacqueline and I were like, “Do you think we can sneak this in?” Then Greta caught us. It was scary.

Was it an Apple Watch or some other modern accessory?

Chalamet: No. You’ll have to watch it again and see. [Laughs] But overall, playing Laurie for me was more about an absence-of than conscious choices. There isn’t a strict formula for him about what it means to be a man. When you’re young and figuring out your personality, you see yourself in the people around you. The girls are Laurie’s mirrors, and they’re teaching him who he is outside of whatever norms of masculinity existed back then.

Greta, you’ve cited photographer Julia Margaret Cameron as an inspiration for the look of the movie. In what way?

Gerwig: She shot women in England in the 1860s, and you can’t believe how modern the photos look: Their hair is messy, they have annoyed facial expressions and aren’t really paying attention to the camera. She captured immediacy, and we wanted that same feeling for the movie. Also, so much of the movie is nerdily footnotable: A hat that Jo wears is a reproduction of a hat in a Winslow Homer painting. The scene on the beach was also inspired by Homer. It was a pleasure to bring everyone into the research; at the same time, I didn’t want the actors to feel nailed to the floor. I wanted the movie to feel accurate, but also light on its feet.

You created a very warm, homey feel. Personally I wanted to live in their house.

Gerwig: Me too! It was hard to be the director because I can’t be part of the movie in that way. I’d suddenly realize, “Oh, I have to get up and shoot now.”

Little Women
From left: Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Saoirse Ronan, and Eliza Scanlen as Meg, Amy, Jo, and Beth March.
Wilson Webb—Columbia Pictures

What were your most useful on-set habits for getting into character?

Ronan: Meryl ate Wendy’s.

Streep: I was saving money! [Laughter]

Gerwig: Tim always tried to slip in even more costume changes. “Yo Wayne Gretzky, is it okay if I wear all these rings?” I’d be like, “Nope, take ’em off.”

Pugh: Saoirse and I would wrestle.

Ronan: We hit each other a lot, especially for the scene where Amy burns Jo’s story.

Pugh: We were excited because we’d wanted to fight for a long time—in a loving way. [Laughs]

Ronan: I went for it.

Gerwig: There was also a lot of eating. The scene when the Laurences give them the full spread of food—every time I looked over at Florence and Saoirse, they were shoving bowls of ice cream into their mouths. I would also say it was a very emotional set. Laura held us all together. 

Dern: I was just pretending. They were holding me together!

Gerwig: Then the peak of method acting was when everyone got strep throat, the precursor to scarlet fever. [Laughter]

Streep: [To Gerwig] The other thing was that you were pregnant, and none of us knew.

Pugh: I did!

Ronan: You found out on the last day, though.

Pugh: No, Greta thought I actually knew—that I had “caught” her—but I didn’t actually know. I’d only dreamed about it.

Ronan: [To Pugh] Then I was in your trailer and was like, “Do you think Greta might be pregnant? She’s wearing like seven layers of clothes.”

Streep: It was cold, but it wasn’t that cold. [Laughs]

Ronan: She kept it a secret the whole time.

Streep: Unbelievable. She wrote it, she directed it…

Ronan: She made a human! [Applause] She also ate a whole roast chicken every day. On Lady Bird, she’d only have like six packets of Cheetos. Then on Little Women I was like, “You’ve got a chef? Who are you?”

Gerwig: Everybody thought I was just getting really big. I got a text from the production designer when we wrapped saying, “I thought you had something up your coat.” [Laughter]

Little Women and Hustlers are the only movies this awards season with mostly female acting ensembles. Greta, to what degree do you think this something to bemoan but also to celebrate?

Gerwig: I think there’s never been a better time to be a woman who wants to write and direct. Girls who are 15 now: By the time we make their movies, the system will be completely upended. And Louisa made it possible to do what we do. She gave her life story space on the page; she taught us that women’s internal lives were worth something. It was a female utopia! And she didn’t really know how much she had accomplished. That’s how these things work, I think: Sometimes the future reaches back and pulls us forward.

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