Interview: Greta Gerwig on Barbie
This article appeared in the July 27, 2023 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here.
Photo by Jaap Buitendijk © 2023 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
Amid all of the discourse rustled up by Greta Gerwig’s Barbie—from pessimism about Mattel’s unabashed deployment of indie-film talent in service of product placement to both joy and exasperation at the film’s sparkly-pink, nudge-nudge/wink-wink representations of feminism and masculinity—one thing has seemed clear: that Gerwig is a director with a vision. Barbie is a beautifully crafted and exuberantly silly movie rife with the contradictions and inversions of a truly postmodern work. As Nathan Lee puts it in his review for Film Comment:
“Gerwig is shrewd enough to reject a facile dichotomy between the imaginary and the real worlds from which her characters, human and otherwise, pass back and forth. The “real” Los Angeles on display feels no less artificial than Barbieland, and if that comes with predictable jokes about the phoniness of Hollywood, the more striking consequence for the viewer is to be placed in a position from which, narratively speaking, there is no reality at stake. Which is to say that Barbie is less convincing as a pop feminist manifesto than as a treatise on representation.”
Last week, I caught up with Gerwig over the phone about writing the film with Noah Baumbach during the pandemic, seeking advice from Peter Weir, imbuing inanimate objects with feeling, and balancing cynicism and care.
I watched Barbie and thought: why does this remind me of White Noise? I wondered if it was the pop colors, the fact that both movies are a little camp… and then I realized, it’s the fear of death! That’s the kernel of both films. You and Noah worked on them at roughly the same time—did you sense that parallel, too?
It’s funny, you’re the very first person to pick up on that, though it feels extremely obvious to Noah and I. Both movies were born out of this surreal moment of being in lockdown in the midst of this global pandemic. I remember both of us being on separate Zooms. He’s working with his designers, and I’m working with my designers. We’re building these worlds simultaneously. And the thing we loved most—going to movie theaters, sitting with people, watching something and being transported—was not available at all to us at that time. I don’t want to speak for Noah insofar as White Noise is concerned, but Barbie came out of this overwhelming sense of, “Well, if they ever let us back, if we ever get to do this again, if there are even movies on the other side of this, let’s do something wild and anarchic and unhinged and joyful and filled with fear” [laughs]. I think we both desperately wanted to experience movies with people again.
The movie pits women against men, the Barbies versus the Kens. It made me wonder about the writing relationship between you and Noah. What distinct sensibilities did each of you bring to Barbie?
I think there was something extremely delicious in that conceit that we’d set out where everything is reversed and then reversed and then reversed again, so that actually locating what Barbie means, what Ken means, and how that grafts onto the world is very complicated in absurd turnings. That reminded me of when I saw Mark Rylance perform with his all-male Shakespeare troupe. He did Twelfth Night followed by Richard III, and they were the most wonderful two nights of theater I’ve ever experienced. It was extraordinary, especially because when Shakespeare was originally performed, it was all men doing it. It’s men dressing as women dressing as men dressing as women… You start getting so far from what feels “normal” that you feel lost in the heightened-ness of reality. I felt like what we were able to do with all of the turnings in Barbie was locate our identities as creators in really unsuspected places. It was made together in a gleeful whirligig where there wasn’t some sense of “He’s the Ken and I’m the Barbie.” I’m just as much the Kens as the Barbies, and we’re both Gloria, and my mom is Sasha, but I’m also Sasha. It had enough complication that what emerged was something much wilder than any sort of direct correlation.
It’s very postmodern—we’re all Barbies, and we’re also all Kens. We can fill these toys with whatever we want. I read in the press notes that you called Peter Weir, who directed The Truman Show, to ask about achieving that balance of emotion and artifice. What did he say to you?
He was so generous to get on the phone with me. He’s an incredibly lovely man in addition to being a great director whose movies span all different kinds of genres and tones but always stay human. We talked a lot about the execution, because I was still in the stage of figuring out how I wanted to realize this world from a practical standpoint. I knew I wanted Barbieland to be reminiscent of ’50s soundstage musicals, in part because Barbie was invented in 1959, so to ground [the film] in that interior-soundstage world of Vincente Minnelli musicals, Gene Kelly, Oklahoma!—where there’s an artifice that almost becomes more real in its fakeness—felt correct to me. But the largest stage in the U.K. is I think Cardington, and you need a lot of soundstages to execute something like that, and they have their own limitations. Because as big as they are, they’re only ever in a box.
That’s a nifty catchphrase for the movie!
Exactly, the box was part of it—it mirrored everything we were trying to do. What I was interested in talking to Peter Weir about was how there are moments in The Truman Show that clearly were shot on a soundstage—like the boat running into the wall, which is so outrageously beautiful, but it’s obviously an interior made to look like an exterior. But then there are other moments, like outside of the house with all the cars, where I thought: that’s too big, that’s not on a stage—but it feels like there’s stage lighting. The quality of sunlight is different from the quality of stage lighting, and those scenes felt molded by light. And he told me he did shoot a bunch of those sequences outside, but he set up stage lighting.
They were in Florida in the heat, and the lighting made it even hotter, so he said I probably didn’t want to do that—“That’s going to be a bit of a nightmare.” But the nuts and bolts of how he did it were the main content of the conversation. Anytime you’re on the phone with Peter Weir, try to get him to talk about how he made stuff.
Speaking of stuff, there’s so much of it in this movie. The press notes are full of details about the cars, the backdrops, and every little outfit, which were all painstakingly created. Your movies have tended to be very character-driven. What was it like to work with so many objects on this one?
I thought about that a lot while making the movie, and there are many other filmmakers you can use as an example for this, but the one that sprung to my mind was Wes Anderson and his constructed worlds. For him the objects are emotional, and the sets are emotional. There are the emotions of the characters, and then there are the emotions of the inanimate objects. That was something I wanted to tap into. Kids have tremendous amounts of feelings about inanimate objects. I can’t tell you how many kinds of little cars and vehicles my son has, and if he’s missing one, he’s like, “Where did my grabber go?” And I’m like, “You have so many, what do you mean?” And he’s like, “I know I put it there, and I was going to do this and this with it.” He has this whole narrative, and I realized, this is his emotional landscape. And so, insofar as Barbie is about dolls, which is a thing of childhood, it had to have that emotion in the physicality.
That’s what was so gorgeous about being able to make a movie like this. Sarah Greenwood was leading the production-design team, and we got to build these large-scale sets, these beautiful painted skies. Rodrigo Prieto the cinematographer and I got to look at photographs of something like 20 permutations of painted skies and blues with different clouds to see how they reacted to different photography. I mean, we took so much time with just the blue of the sky, and how it reacted if we lit it from below, because we wanted to do that old-film technique of making it look like twilight through lights hidden behind mountains, that kind of thing. We also had a miniatures department, which was building small versions of things that were large, and then expanding the world so we could photograph it and use it like they did in 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars, where you’re compositing the image with miniatures. I find miniatures to be very filled with emotion, because they’re beautiful, but it’s also the labor that’s put into them. I remember the day I saw these incredible palm trees they had built, with painted fronds, and then I saw them on the miniature set, and they were identical. It made me emotional, the care and also the tactile nature of it, which felt like an extraordinary opportunity for a kind of filmmaking that there are not many occasions for.
In Lady Bird, a character says, “Don’t you think maybe they are the same thing? Love and attention?” I remember you saying that line was inspired by Simone de Beauvoir. I was thinking about that while watching Barbie, and the act of critiquing and loving something at the same time. This film is trying to have its cake and eat it too, in a sense. There’s a scene where Gloria (America Ferrera) pitches a more realistic, sort of depressed Barbie to Will Ferrell’s Mattel CEO, and he says no. But then someone on his team crunches numbers and tells him it’s going to make money, and he immediately changes his tune. That scene undercuts the whole film, while still keeping the fantasy alive. It made me think about this ability of yours to be cynical while also recognizing that cynicism is a product of care.
Cynicism as a product of care… that’s so interesting. Gosh, I don’t know, that’s beautifully put. I mean, yes. To double down on the box metaphor, this film is looking at the constraints of the box, and then there’s me, the filmmaker, standing and looking at the box. But also, the film has to acknowledge that me looking at the box is inside of another box. To go back to the idea of the flipped and the re-flipped and the flipped again—these layers of inversion, with meaning becoming absurd, are only possible in something that’s already doing that at its core. It’s certainly not solving for it. It doesn’t answer it. I always think of Husbands, that great John Cassavetes movie. There’s a moment at the end where Ben Gazzara is gone, and the characters [played by Cassavetes and Peter Falk] have been drinking all night and are talking in front of this driveway, and the boom drops into the shot. Cassavetes kept that in the movie, and it’s great. It does not take you out of the raw emotion, the grief, that these men are feeling. You’re still with them, even though you’re in on the constructedness. That was also part of wanting to be in a staged musical world and drawing attention to it. I don’t have an escape plan to get out of the bigger box. But it felt important to keep turning it back on itself. And the truth is: it could keep going ad infinitum if you wanted it to, but it seemed that by acknowledging these layers of irony and cynicism, you end up with something that feels like sincerity.