Little Women: 10 Decisions That Turned It Into a Modern Movie Classic
Greta Gerwig took a big swing on her first studio feature. From Florence Pugh to shooting in 35mm, here’s how she hit a home run.
It seems obvious now, after the 2018 success of auto-fiction “Lady Bird” — which earned five Oscar nominations, including the fifth nod for a woman for Best Director — that Greta Gerwig was the perfect match to write and direct Sony’s latest movie adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 19th century classic “Little Women.” But back in 2015, Gerwig was best known as a New York actress who starred in the giddy New York romantic comedy “Frances Ha,” which she wrote with partner Noah Baumbach.
Here are the key decisions that turned “Little Women” from a gleam in the eye of then-Sony chairman Amy Pascal, who eventually produced the movie, into the well-reviewed Oscar contender that opens nationwide on Christmas Day.
1. Greta Gerwig got into the room to pitch.
When Gerwig’s agent told her that Sony was developing another “Little Women” movie, the actress begged for a meeting. Gerwig had recently reread the children’s classic for the first time since she was a child, she told me: “I saw things I didn’t see the first time.” She connected the book’s themes about women, money, and independence with Virginia Woolf’s feminist essay “A Room of One’s Own,” which also makes the point that intellectual creativity is attached to financial freedom.
So, Gerwig burst into Pascal’s Sony office — “You know I haven’t done anything,” she said — passionately pitched her take on the story that would weave two storylines in different time frames with the four young women as adults and adolescents, adding elements of Alcott’s biography.
In real life, the writer was wretchedly poor, almost starving one winter on a vegan commune. Often sad and depressed, Alcott started selling penny dreadfuls as a teenager to support her family. (She was ambidextrous, switching hands that were tired from sewing all day and writing with quill pen and ink at night.) And it was she who volunteered as a nurse during the war —Alcott gave that storyline to her father. She contracted typhoid fever and almost died. And, unlike Jo, she never married.
Gerwig said she wanted “to explore authorship and the distance between how you fictionalize something and what actually happens. Alcott was using Jo as an avatar to do things that she didn’t do. Weaving together that with all the things we love about ‘Little Women’ made it exciting for all of us.”
2. Pascal gave Gerwig a script deal.
“She wanted to do a movie looking back on what it’s like to remember your childhood,” said Pascal, who believes the Alcott novel endures because it’s “both conservative and progressive, it moves forward and backward at the same time. The book is sophisticated and funny and satirical and resonant. It continues to touch people. Marmee says, ‘I’m angry every day of my life.’ Women are still not allowed to be angry.”
Pascal encouraged Gerwig to distinguish the movie not only from Alcott’s original text but the ur-text of the seven movies (plus television productions, plays and operas) that followed. From the start, she said, Gerwig “knew how to make it modern and relatable.”
Gerwig opens up the movie with a moment from Alcott’s life: grown-up Jo (“Lady Bird” star Saoirse Ronan) sells stories to an editor (Tracy Letts) who buys them — only because his daughters like them so much. Gerwig follows the two timelines in the book, which was published in two parts. After the first was a hit, fans wrote in asking “who are the little women going to marry?” said Gerwig. “She felt like it should have been called ‘The Wedding March.’”
In the earlier time frame of 1861, the four young girls are still play-acting at home with their genteel but poor mother (Laura Dern) while their father (Bob Odenkirk) is volunteering for the Union Army. Eight years later, the older Jo is trying to make it in New York as a self-sufficient author, while her sister Meg (Emma Watson) struggles to raise her twins on her husband’s meager teacher’s salary; Beth (Eliza Scanlen) is fighting illness at home; and Amy (Florence Pugh) studies painting in Paris with wealthy Aunt March (Meryl Streep).
“The audience is nostalgic for the same things they are,” Gerwig said. “The book is the golden snow globe of childhood and memory. The movie’s not so much a flashback as everything is moving forward together. I wanted it to feel heightened, like you’re opening a jewel box, you’d want to live inside of it and eat it, there was magic to it, like the world was right in this coziness. It’s one way to tell the audience that the film is in control, it’s not just an intravenous experience of the story; something else is going on. All artists preserve the moment by writing it down. Whether it’s ‘The 400 Blows,’ ‘Amarcord’ or ‘Fanny and Alexander,’ they’re capturing this thing that is already gone.”
3. After she saw “Lady Bird” in 2017, producer Pascal asked Gerwig to direct.
“Would you like to direct?” said Pascal. “Would I!” said Gerwig. “‘Here’s my stack of research!’ She went from finishing “Lady Bird” into prep on “Little Women.” When filming wrapped, she was six months pregnant. That was a Sunday; she started in the editing room on Monday. The movie’s twisty structure was not easy to get right. “It took a long time to calibrate everything.”
In March 2019, 48 hours after she showed the studio her cut, Gerwig gave birth. Gerwig fine-tuned through the summer, knowing that Baumbach would cover the fall festivals with “Marriage Story,” while she had more time, thanks to Sony’s prime-time Christmas release. Eventually, they were both on the awards circuit, baby Harold in tow.
4. Gerwig hired top casting director Francine Maisler.
Maisler cast the actress when she was 25 in Baumbach’s “Greenberg,” opposite Adam Driver. “I always wanted to make something with her,” said Gerwig. who relied on her to cast her sprawling ensemble, from “Lady Bird” stalwarts Ronan and Chalamet to Meryl Streep, who was eager to jump in.
“She was a fan of the book,” said Pascal. “She wanted to be the practical voice that tells it like it is. She’s the spokesperson of what the whole thing is about.”
5. Gerwig held up production to get Florence Pugh.
As the powerful and angry “worst” youngest sister Amy, who burns Jo’s manuscript in a childish fit of pique, Gerwig wanted an actress who could stand up to Ronan. “She’s one of my favorite characters,” said Gerwig, “but we never got to see the fullness of what she is. She says, ‘I don’t pretend to be wise, but I am observant.’ She sees everybody. Amy uses femininity to get ahead in the world. She puts it on like a garment. To be feminine is to not wear your ambition, to see the way the world works, to use that to get what you want.”
Gerwig wanted to cast “Lady Macbeth” breakout Florence Pugh, who recently starred in smart-horror hit “Midsommar.” “I knew she could punch in the same weight class as Saoirse, someone with a low center of gravity, who can’t get knocked over,” she said. “That’s Florence. I had to move the whole shoot for her [but] I knew she would be the ballast. And she came on like gangbusters. I can’t believe how young and self-possessed she is.”
Pugh relished playing Amy, who “is in this sweet spot, nearly being an adult and being a complete child,” Pugh said at a guild Q & A. “I got to step on this set and be this most delicious naughty hungry little flirt. She was so much fun.”
Added Chalamet, “Florence’s brilliance flowered in front of all of us.”
6. The movie scored two weeks of rehearsal.
By studio standards, $40 million is not a lavish budget for a period production. (However, it was $30 million more than Gerwig had for “Lady Bird.”) The cast was grateful for the luxury of two weeks’ rehearsal, as they struggled to capture the overlapping lines of dialogue (written theater-style, with slashes) and to make their words and movements feel authentic and colloquial. Gerwig studied Robert Altman for inspiration for how to execute her noisy group dynamics. “She worked with the actors to get it to feel as natural as possible,” said Pascal.
“We were able to find the flow and the dynamics of the family,” said Ronan at a Q&A. “The whole set was very physical, myself and all the girls and Laura were on top of each other all the time. We were always together holding hands and sitting on each other’s laps.”
7. Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux shot in 35mm.
While it was expensive to shoot on location in Concord, Mass., Gerwig said it was crucial to be close to the Alcotts’ Orchard House, with trellises of flowers painted on the walls. “Imagine a family who let their children paint on the wall,” said Gerwig. “How hippie they were.”
Another expensive reason that the film looks so good: Gerwig shot on film. “Nobody thinks girls’ stories are important enough to be shot on film,” said Pascal. “Greta wanted to tell the story with all the bells and whistles the business has to offer. My job as a producer was to remind her of what her ambition was, know she could do it, and support her.”
For the swirling shots in the glowing family sections, Le Saux’s camera was like “a fifth sister,” said Gerwig. “It was like a dance around the room, not a SteadiCam. He’d follow the girls through the shots. It was like a game of hot potato: If someone missed, the shot fell apart. We’d go through 11 pages of dialogue very quickly.” For the adult sections, Le Saux took a more formal approach and locked the camera down.
8. Jo and Laurie’s exuberant dance takes place outside.
Gerwig wanted her leads to break into the book’s “wild” opening party dance, but could never find the perfect hallway space to stage it. On a night scout, she realized that Ronan and Chalamet could dance on an exterior porch with the interior cotillion on full view. “It’s about having a secret world with someone,” said Gerwig.
They executed the choreography against the music of David Bowie, with the Alexandre Desplat score laid in later. “She wanted it to feel like they were teenagers dancing and moving,” said Pascal. “Nothing was improvised.”
9. Jo and Laurie bend gender stereotypes.
From Katharine Hepburn to Winona Ryder, Jo was always the tall and gangly alpha who was sorry she wasn’t born a boy. But Gerwig and makeup-free, fresh-scrubbed Ronan (with bird’s-nest hair inspired by Julia Margaret Cameron’s period photos) pushed further with Jo, who comes on so strong that she overwhelms Chalamet’s callow dandy. Laurie doesn’t gain masculine heft until he romances Amy in Paris. “Laurie has the ennui of a wandering city dweller,” said Gerwig. “It’s all over the book that he’s into fashion, buys too many neckties, likes to dress up.”
Ronan said she learned about period etiquette, and then developed a character who disregarded all of it. “I gesticulated and shook everyone’s hand and threw my arms around.”
Gerwig embraced the role reversals. Jo is a boy’s name, Laurie is a girl’s name. She had Ronan and Chalamet actually trade clothes. “Saoirse could knock Timmy down,” said Gerwig. “When they’re fighting, she’s bigger than him. He allowed himself to love all these girls the way Laurie does. That’s the reason we all love Laurie.”
10. Gerwig created a shooting bible.
To execute this complex time-bending period drama, Gerwig created an elaborate shooting bible. “She had it mapped out, what every single scene was going to be, like that Winslow Homer painting for the beach scene,” said Pascal. “When we were making the movie, it was insane trying to get the day finished. But we went back to the bible and we had done exactly what we planned.”
In order to keep the audience clued into the interlocking time frames, Gerwig’s team altered the lighting, costumes, set dressing, hairstyles, and score. The younger girls wore their hair down with rosy cheeks and bright dresses, then grew into updos, pale complexions, and drab clothing. Production designer Jess Gonchor moved from messy, colorful clutter to a more austere home decor, removing furniture and hangings after the young women moved out. And Desplat simplified the orchestral score, paring it down to fewer instruments.
It was also important to Gerwig to embrace cinematic sweep. For the ending, “we needed big romantic music and cymbal crashes,” she said, “to play with a rain machine as she chases after the guy [Louis Garrel]. This is what I wanted. I didn’t want it to make fun of everything. I wanted it to be the thing.”