How Greta Gerwig Brought Indie Spirit to Barbie

The filmmaker talks creating a Shakespearean Barbieland, subverting expectations, and using Mattel’s massive IP to realize her dreams.

by Tomris Laffly

Greta Gerwig on the set of Barbie
Jaap Buitendijk/Warner Bros

Barbies are cool again, thanks to Greta Gerwig’s soulful and sneakily emotional Barbie, one of this summer’s biggest cinematic events alongside the atomic bomb movie; though the only one of its kind dressed in happy heaps of magenta.

Or cool again is the wrong phrasing perhaps. Relatable for the first time feels closer to an accurate reading of this brilliant Barbie, starring an enchanting Margot Robbie as the stereotypical blonde (her fellow Barbies are portrayed by the likes of Issa Rae, Sharon Rooney, Kate McKinnon, Alexandra Shipp and Hari Nef, among others) and a hilarious Ryan Gosling, as Barbie’s generically beachy boy-toy Ken. After all, this is the first time in popular film when a wise writer gave the emptily pretty and unrealistically proportioned doll, once deemed antifeminist for making young girls feel bad about themselves, a grounded coming-of-age in the real world where women have flat feet and cellulite. And it certainly feels like the first time in a long time we’ve been made to reconsider all the ways that the Barbie doll, maybe—just maybe—wasn’t all that anti-woman.

Joining W over Zoom a few days before the theatrical opening of her latest film—which opened to the biggest box office of the year, Barbie director and co-writer Gerwig reflects on the emotions these toys stir: “I find that there's just such beautiful absurdity in the making of dolls, of inanimate objects. We're so scientifically advanced, we're talking to each other on machines. We're very knowledgeable about the world and the universe. And at the same time, we still make dolls and we still feel things about them, which feels truer [to who we are], but less advanced than we consider ourselves to be.”

Below, Gerwig discusses her personal attachment to Barbies, her directing style, making personal films in any budget and how her love of Shakespeare guided Barbie.

What are your earliest memories of playing with Barbie dolls?

Barbie was somewhat a forbidden fruit for me when I was a girl, because my mom did not like Barbie for all the reasons that someone wouldn't like Barbie. But I got a lot of Barbies as hand-me-downs from girls who lived in my neighborhood, with the haircuts and the missing shoes and mismatched outfits.

Margot Robbie, Ana Cruz Kayne, Greta Gerwig and Hari Nef on the set of Barbie

Jaap Buitendijk/Warner Bros

I loved Barbies when I was young, but I distinctly recall a phase of rejecting them because I wanted to be “cool” and “likable.” Same goes for the color pink. Was reclaiming these “girly” elements one of your starting points?

One thing we really did think deeply about with the set and costume design was exactly that: not diminishing a little girl that just loves the brightness and the sparkles and the too-muchness. Barbie-ism is maximalist. When eight-year-old girls play dress up, they put on everything. When I was a little girl, I loved Lisa Frank. I thought her art was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen. Then as you get older, you say, "No, I have adult taste, and I don't need sparkle dolphins." But there is still someone in you that loves a sparkle dolphin. You just have to let them out and play a little bit.

That maximalism comes out tastefully in your movie. How did you marry that with the more emotional and intimate things you wanted to touch on?

In no way am I comparing myself to this person—so please don't think that I'm doing that, that would be mortifying—but I always think about the architecture of what we have in this film and the ontology of Barbie [in relation to] what I love so much about Shakespeare's comedies. Stay with me. I'm not saying I'm Shakespeare. But I do think Shakespeare was a maximalist. There wasn't anything that was too far or too crazy that couldn't be worked through, and then there’d be something in the middle that felt quite human. I was thinking about it in those terms: a heightened theatricality that allows you to deal with big ideas in the midst of anarchic play.

Greta Gerwig on the set of Barbie

Jaap Buitendijk/Warner Bros

During Barbie, I found myself thinking about a moment in Little Women when Jo has an emotional outburst: “Women: they have souls, and they have ambition, as well as beauty.” Did you think of these two films in close proximity?

Yes, definitely. In some ways, all the movies I've co-written, written and directed are all talking to each other. It is almost a mystery to me when I'm in the middle of it. And then when I step back, I think, "Oh, you continue to be interested in women. This is something you're fascinated by." That ache of contradictions, of never being able to totally bridge that gap between adulthood and childhood, is present in this movie, too. It's this overflowing sense of joy, and then it's also, "I can never get back there."

Well, I cried during that scene in Little Women. And I cried during America Ferrera’s monologue about womanhood in Barbie. The latter took me by surprise. I noticed that my face was wet all of a sudden.

Oh, that's so beautiful. In Little Women, [it just comes] from everything inside you, and from the book. But Barbie is a bit of a sneak attack.

Ryan Gosling, Margot Robbie and Greta Gerwig on the set of Barbie

Jaap Buitendijk/Warner Bros

I found myself feeling protective of the toy that I once loved. In an interview we did for 20th Century Women, you said when you read a character and feel protective of her, that’s when you know you want to play her. Does the same apply to writing and directing?

I think you're spot on. I have realized I don't really write villains. Everybody in my films exists somewhere in the messy middle, and I feel empathy for them in what they are. Once the actors take it on, it adds another layer. I want to give them some sort of grace I feel we all deserve, but can't give ourselves.

Do you feel having a major acting career and speaking “actor” fluently make you a better actor's director?

I think there's an advantage to being an actor who’s directing. I know how vulnerable and how scary it feels. Margot said, “Just so you know, the week before we start shooting, I'm going to doubt that I can ever do this,” And I was like, “I totally know that feeling. You go ahead and have that feeling.” And she was like, “Once we're going, I'll feel more like, ‘Okay, now I'm in it. I know how to do it.’” I deeply empathize with that and try to figure out how to make them feel safe.

Greta Gerwig and Ryan Gosling on the set of Barbie

Jaap Buitendijk/Warner Bros

In another interview we did, this time for Lady Bird, you talked about why it took you so long to direct solo. “Courage doesn’t grow overnight” is something you’ve mentioned. In going from a career in the indies to a big studio scale, have you felt a similar reluctance?

Prior to doing it, I thought, “Well, once I've done it, then I'll feel like, ‘Yes, I'm a director.’” And then I didn't really have that feeling. I had all of the same terrors going into the second one. And I thought, “Well, but after the second one, then I'll surely feel I’m a director.” And then that feeling never came, and I realized, I don't think it's coming. You feel like a beginner to whatever project you're on. My experience on the first movie was, I'm going to have to do it before I feel like I can, because if I wait to feel like I can, I'm never going to do it.

I sometimes wonder if that ‘any day now’ feeling is a feminine one, or if men feel like that too.

I know a lot of male filmmakers, and I think they have it too. You would think that at a certain point they don't have that feeling. But every time, you have a sense of vertigo.

Ryan Gosling, Greta Gerwig, Simu Liu and Margot Robbie on the set of Barbie

Jaap Buitendijk/Warner Bros

Mattel is now developing different toy and IP-driven projects. On the one hand, it’s not your responsibility to think or worry about that. On the other, do you think about whether Barbie might have unleashed something Disney-like into the world?

I don't really know how to answer that in a larger sense. The thing that felt so peculiar and wonderful about this movie was that it felt like I got to make something deeply personal, attached to this thing that is completely impersonal. It was an opportunity to do these things that nod to my favorite soundstage musical; these days, nobody's really like, “Oh, could you hire a bunch of miniature artists and scenic painters and just go to town?” You have to find the right thing to realize that. So I got to live out a personal fantasy of something.

I went to a Catholic high school. There was creativity, but there were also extremely clear boundaries of what we were meant to do. You could choreograph a dance in liturgy, or you could write a sketch comedy for the pep rallies. It wasn't necessarily sanctioned, but you could sneak it in. It made you feel like you were getting away with something, which was also fun. That has always made me feel like there's not such a strong demarcation about, "Here's real art over here and here's not real art over here." It’s wherever you make it, wherever they'll let you go, wherever there's any kind of space or time. I think art can come up in the most unlikely places.

In terms of my own future, I definitely want the skill set to be able to tell stories of different sizes. I want to be able to make tiny movies, big movies, and everything in between. It just takes so long to make any given one. That’s the only thing I feel limited by. You only get to make so many.