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The brain behind ‘Barbie’: inside the brilliant mind of Greta Gerwig

One of Hollywood’s most talented directors spent the past few years in… Barbieland. Greta Gerwig goes very, very deep on the pinkest movie ever

By Brian Hiatt


When Greta Gerwig was in preproduction on her Barbie movie (out July 21), executives from the brand’s owner, Mattel, paid her an inevitable visit. She gave them a preview of the movie’s look (very, very pink) and feel (Elf-y magical-realism ramped up a thousandfold). Then she hit them with a monologue: stuff like the influence of spiritualist painters, how Barbie is like an ancient religious myth, references to The Red Shoes and Stairway to Heaven and Heaven Can Wait. “I think at that point, when I was in hour three of talking,” Gerwig recalls with a small laugh, “they all realized no one has thought more about this. They saw I wake up every morning and panic about proportions and color saturation. And they were like, ‘We don’t have to panic. She’s already panicked about this.’ And I think that gave them a sense of comfort.”

On a sunny late-May morning, Gerwig is sitting at a conference table in the rented Manhattan office suite where she’s finishing postproduction, in one of the denim boiler suits she started wearing every day during the making of the movie (today’s is black), her hair in a loose bun. It’s 10:30, and she has a three-month-old baby at home (plus a four-year-old and a 13-year-old stepson), so she’s just now getting to breakfast, which she takes down as she embarks on two more hours of erudite Barbie talk.

Well before Barbie, Gerwig had one of the most fascinating careers in 21st-century Hollywood. First, she brought a new kind of daffy comedic naturalism to screen acting, from early mumblecore triumphs like Hannah Takes the Stairs to a string of brilliant collaborations with her partner, Noah Baumbach, including Greenberg, Frances Ha, and Mistress America. She co-wrote the last two movies before shifting gears to auteurdom in 2017, writing and directing the exquisite coming-of-age comedy Lady Bird, and 2019’s revisionist take on Little Women.

Barbie, which stars Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling (and was co-written with Baumbach), is her biggest and most mainstream project. But she insists it doesn’t feel that way. “I’ve never been part of anything like this,” she says. “But in a funny way, it feels like the fundamentals are the same. Even though it is Barbie and it is an internationally known brand, the movie feels very personal. It feels just as intimate as Lady Bird or Little Women.

I know you tend to resist autobiographical interpretations, but when Barbie says, “I don’t wanna be an idea anymore,” something about that really reminded me of your transition from a much-discussed actress to a writer-director.

You know what? It’s so funny. That did not occur to me at all. But now that you say it, of course! When you’re directing something, you have to be a bit stupid about yourself, or a little bit unconscious. And, yes, you’re totally right. And also, I had no idea. But that’s true. It’s completely true.

There are things like I grew up in Sacramento, and Ladybird takes place in Sacramento. But so many of the things that are personal that come through your movies are never the things that are the most obvious to you. The things where you really feel unconsciously seen are things like that, where you realize, “Oh, man, I didn’t hide anywhere.” And that’s always part of the joy of making art for people, is sometimes they understand it more than you do, which is unsettling.


No, but it’s good.

How did you come to decide on Barbie’s arc in the movie?

I hope two things made that journey feel surprising but inevitable. I started from this idea of Barbieland, this place with no death, no aging, no decay, no pain, no shame. We know the story. We’ve heard this story. This is an old story. It’s in a lot of religious literature. What happens to that person? They have to leave. And they have to confront all the things that were shielded from them in this place. So that felt like one thing.


There’s a lovely scene where Barbie sees an older woman — a sight she’d never encountered in Barbieland — and tells her she’s beautiful.

I love that scene so much. And the older woman on the bench is the costume designer Ann Roth. She’s a legend. It’s a cul-de-sac of a moment, in a way — it doesn’t lead anywhere. And in early cuts, looking at the movie, it was suggested, “Well, you could cut it. And actually, the story would move on just the same.” And I said, “If I cut the scene, I don’t know what this movie is about.”

Yeah, I kind of thought that was an absolutely key moment for Barbie’s journey.

That’s how I saw it. To me, this is the heart of the movie. The way Margot plays that moment is so gentle and so unforced. There’s the more outrageous elements in the movie that people say, “Oh, my God, I can’t believe Mattel let you do this,” or, “I can’t believe Warner Bros. let you do this.” But to me, the part that I can’t believe that is still in the movie is this little cul-de-sac that doesn’t lead anywhere — except for, it’s the heart of the movie.

Margot said when she first saw the screenplay, she loved it, and was positive that the powers that be would never let you make it. How do you think you got it all through?

The movie in its conception and even from the script stage was always a wild ride. But I think that in the execution of it and the directing of it, it allowed me to go even farther, and to make it even more like a candy-colored explosion of things that people didn’t necessarily think would be the Barbie movie. But, yeah, I can’t account for it. But I’m thrilled to bits that they let me do it this way.

It’s definitely a blast of color, which is refreshing after years and years of increasingly color-desaturated summer blockbusters.

I never wanted my adult taste to override what I loved as a kid. When I was eight years old, I loved the biggest, brightest, loudest, sparkliest thing that I could find. And I need to honor that even though I want the movie to be beautiful and delicious. I don’t want it to be overwhelmed with adult good taste, because that just feels disingenuous to what the task is. So we were picking these bright, saturated colors. The result was that the set was like a dopamine generator. People would walk in and smile.

It’s easy to underestimate what it took for Margot to manifest what we saw onscreen, especially when she’s just being the Barbie-est Barbie she could possibly be. How did that performance evolve?

Margot and I talked a lot about finding this place where it’s not that she isn’t smart, but that she doesn’t, at the beginning, have an interior life. Finding that sort of transparency as an actor was the baseline of where Barbie started. And then the discomfort of feeling disconnected from the environment, from feeling something coming up inside of you that’s not the same as everyone else.

She’s such a technical actor. But as Barbie changes, she allows the audience to see her experiencing something pure without performing. She’s allowing herself to be vulnerable. And it’s crazy because she’s playing a doll, and yet it’s such an exquisitely human performance. It’s not something where you can stick the landing. It was something where she had to just allow it to happen. She’s a person who can stick landings — and I think it was finding another gear inside of her.

Tell me about what it took to get Ryan Gosling as Ken, and to push him to be the most ridiculous version of Ryan Gosling imaginable.

Well, it was only ever Ryan Gosling, and it was a long journey. Margot and I just wouldn’t take no for an answer.

From the moment that Margot came to me and I knew we were making this for Margot, I equally knew we were making this for Ryan. And I did not know Ryan at all. I’d never met him. I just was sure, and as soon as I thought of it, it made me so happy. Who else could do this? It’s some combination of Marlon Brando meets Gene Wilder meets John Barrymore meets John Travolta.

He’s never been quite this funny onscreen.

I’ve always thought of him as a secretly comedic actor. His comedy goes back to taking it incredibly seriously as an actor, where he never is doing it just for the laugh. And the way we talked about Ken was as in-depth character work as I’ve ever done with anyone about anything. When they were shooting their last scene together, in the bedroom where they’re kind of coming to a place of understanding, and when he turns around and says, “There is no just Ken, it’s Barbie and Ken,” and he’s exhausted and his face is stained with tears — I’m like, if what actors do is perform empathetic acts for our benefit, I don’t know that anyone has ever invested more in making people understand the plight of this man. It was extraordinary. I felt with both of them that I might direct movies for a long time and never see anything that uniquely and gloriously unhinged.

How did you craft the moment where Barbie finally learns that some women in the real world hate her and find her oppressive?

It felt like we had to give the counterargument to Barbie, and not give it short shrift, but give it real intellectual and emotional power. And Mattel was incredibly open to it. I said, “We have to explore it, because it’s a lie any other way. And we can’t make it a lie.” I think they heard it.

The feminism in this film comes out so naturally, just by placing Barbie and Ken in the real world. It starts the moment they arrive in Venice Beach. Ken feels that people are suddenly looking at him with respect, and Barbie doesn’t have the words for it, but she feels she’s being objectified. Did that flow out as naturally as it seems?

I think of the film as humanist above anything else. How Barbie operates in Barbieland is she’s entirely continuous with her environment. Even the houses have no walls, because you never need to hide because there’s nothing to be ashamed of or embarrassed of. And suddenly finding yourself in the real world and wishing you could hide, that’s the essence of being human. But when we were actually shooting on Venice Beach, with Margot and Ryan in neon rollerblading outfits, it was fascinating because it was actually happening in front of us. People would go by Ryan, high-five him, and say, “Awesome, Ryan, you look great!” And they wouldn’t actually say anything to Margot. They’d just look at her. It was just surreal. In that moment, she did feel self-conscious. And as the director, I wanted to protect her. But I also knew that the scene we were shooting had to be the scene where she felt exposed. And she was exposed, both as a celebrity and as a lady. To be fair, Ryan was like, “I wish I wasn’t wearing this vest.” [Laughs.] But it was a different kind of discomfort.

When I hear you use the word “humanist,” I feel like I need to gently push back on behalf of the fans who are going to love this movie and perceive its message as unabashedly feminist.

Of course, I am a feminist. But this movie is also dealing with [the idea that] any kind of hierarchical power structure that moves in any direction isn’t so great. You go to Mattel and it is really like, “Oh, Barbie has been president since 1991. Barbie had gone to the moon before women could get credit cards.” We kind of extrapolated out from that that Barbieland is this reversed world [where Barbies rule and Kens are an underclass]. The reverse structure of whatever Barbieland is, is almost like Planet of the Apes. You can see how unfair this is for the Kens because it’s totally unsustainable.

Was the idea of Kate McKinnon’s character — the Weird Barbie who’s been played with too much — from your childhood experience?

We grew up in a neighborhood where there were a lot of girls older than me. So I had a lot of hand-me-down Barbies that had already gotten a haircut by the time I got them. It was like, “Well, we have to do that.” It felt almost like a spiritual conduit to the world of play through that Barbie. Remember that book The Giver, by Lois Lowry, where the giver has all the colors and the feelings and stuff? That’s sort of what I thought about Kate’s character. She would be like the giver in a way like she had the knowledge that everyone else didn’t have.

There are clips online of you and Kate onstage together in a production at Columbia University.

We lived together, we were in an improv group together. I always thought Kate was the funniest, most talented person I knew. But then you have this moment where you think, “Well, maybe that was just college.” But I was right!

When I was casting and I called her, we laughed the whole time because I think we both had the same experience at that moment. For whatever reason, with the direction that our lives led us, I’m actually directing this movie, and she actually is a comedic genius who was recognized as such. And now we’re adults, and I’m saying, “Do you want to come do this?” It was like, we’d gotten into a time machine when we were 18 and came out at 39. The reality is, we’re still the 18-year-old kids who are making musicals. We actually didn’t get more sophisticated than we were at 18.

Now that you’ve entered this world of big franchises, how will you balance your directing career going forward, between huge commercial films and smaller ones?

I think probably every director has a fantasy baseball league in their head of what movies they want to make. And there’s some movies I’d like to make that require a big canvas. At the same time, I’ve seen so many directors move between bigger movies and smaller movies: Chloé Zhao doing Nomadland and making Eternals. Or Steven Soderbergh, or even my weekend buddy Chris Nolan. He made the Dark Knight trilogy — and they’re wonderful — and then made The Prestige, which is not a tiny movie, but it is also not the same thing. I want to play in lots of different worlds. That’s the goal.

There’s footage out there of you directing the garden scene in Lady Bird, and you seem so joyous. It feels like you love being a director.

I love it so much. I love every part of making a movie, soup to nuts. And Margot is the same way. For us, it’s Disneyland every day. I honestly can’t believe I get to do this.

You’re a member of the Directors Guild, the Writers Guild, and the Actors Guild. The Writers Guild is already on strike, and the other guilds don’t seem too happy, either. There are whispers of a tri-Guild walkout.

I’m really proud of being a union member. I’m in support 100 percent of however we come at this.

I’m living through this moment like everybody else is, especially in terms of the AI thing, which is terrifying and exciting. I don’t know what to say about it. I guess it’s clearly a tool that hopefully can be used to help. I think it’s incredibly important to protect creative people — writers and directors and actors — because I don’t think what they can do can be replicated. We have to set some very firm ground rules moving forward. Because otherwise, we’re looking at a world that becomes a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy.

This feels like it would have been an insane question before Barbie, but would you want to do a superhero movie, or an action movie?

Yes, of course. It would have to be something I had a feeling for and a relationship to. A well-shot, well-executed action movie is just incredible. It’s a dance. I’ve never done anything like that. But even in a small way, working with the stunt coordinator who did fight choreography on Barbie, he was just fascinating. It was so fun to talk to him.

I think Barbie, in a way, is already a superhero movie?

[Laughs.] Yeah, in a way. It’s iconic in the same way. And it’s sort of mythic in the same way.