Greta Gerwig proved herself a formidable talent behind the camera with her first solo outing as a director, 2018’s poignant and charming comedic drama Lady Bird. The movie garnered five Oscar nominations including Best Director, making Gerwig the fifth woman ever nominated in that category and inspiring conversations about the two-steps-forward, one-step-back state of progress for women in Hollywood.
Lady Bird, with its semi-autobiographical narrative and love letter to Gerwig’s hometown of Sacramento, was certainly a passion project. But before she’d even called “action” on that set, she had her heart set on another passion project with roots that go even further back than her high school years: Gerwig long dreamed of adapting Louisa May Alcott’s iconic novel Little Women. Following the success of Lady Bird, she was given the keys to Alcott’s 19th-century Massachusetts kingdom, and license to put her spin on characters that have inspired readers, women and girls in particular, since the book’s first installment was published in 1868.
The movie, out Christmas Day, marks a transition for Gerwig from the world of low-budget indies, where she’s spent so much of her career as a performer and filmmaker, to studio movies (with a turn by Meryl Streep). It also sees her reuniting with several members of her cast from Lady Bird—Timothée Chalamet, Tracy Letts, and most notably Saoirse Ronan as the fiercely independent literary heroine Jo March. Gerwig’s adaptation, the latest in a long line that includes George Cukor’s 1933 film starring Katharine Hepburn and Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 version with Winona Ryder, emphasizes the aspects of the novel which feel especially relevant today, and in particular the themes of “women, ambition, art and money.”
Gerwig talked to TIME about Little Women‘s astonishing modernity, her own childhood heroines and how women behind the camera fared in 2019.
TIME: Do you remember when you first encountered Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women?
Greta Gerwig: It must have been read to me, because I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know who Jo March was. I don’t know if I wanted to be a writer, which is why I liked Jo March, or Jo March was a writer so I wanted to be a writer too. But I did the thing you can only do with books as a child, where your own autobiography and the contents of a book merge.
It’s been adapted many times. What made you want to adapt it now?
When I heard they were interested in making it, I said to my agent, “You have to get me a meeting because I have to make this movie.” I had not made Lady Bird yet. And he said, “I don’t think they’re ever going to hire you for this.” And I said “Well, they have to.” Then I was able to go talk with them about my ideas, and they did hire me to write it, and it was after Lady Bird had come out that I heard that they would like me to direct it, and did I want to do it? And I kind of had that—”Would I? I’ve been waiting 30 years!”
I reread the book as an adult, and I was bowled over by how modern it was, how much it was about women, ambition, art and money. There were lines that could have been written yesterday. It was a chance to address things that were so personal, and also to do something radical with it. I think you have license with material that is beloved, because you can start with a common language.
Speaking of modern, there’s a scene in the movie when Laura Dern’s Marmee says, “I am angry nearly every day of my life.” It sounds like a nod to female rage in 2019. But that was in the book?
I am having them say the dialogue with such controlled chaos and choreographed cacophony that it comes across as having just been written by me, when in fact every word is either from the book or Alcott’s journals, letters or another book she’s written. If you strip away this pre-Victorian morality, what you have is ambitious, passionate, angry, sexual, interesting women who don’t fit into the boxes the world has given them.
Did Alcott have amazing foresight?
I think she was one of the people the future spoke through. I don’t think she necessarily knew what she was accomplishing by telling the lives of girls and women as if they were important, because they are important. I think narratively we are still figuring out how to tell stories about women that involve more than marriage or death.
Of all the sisters, Jo is the one most readers’ choose as their heroine. How did you approach some of the other sisters who might be harder for girls today to idolize?
Meg’s story does not end when she gets married. She wants to be married and have children, but she is feeling like maybe she has made the wrong choice. That’s just as real a journey as anybody else’s. So I got to explore the most interesting part of Meg, which is what do you do after you get the happily ever after? I found Amy to be utterly compelling and modern. From the time she’s a little girl, she’s able to stand inside of her own desires: I want to be the best painter in the whole world and I want to marry rich and I want a mansion. For so many female characters, and for women in general, the idea that desire and ambition are shameful is everywhere.
The book offered new models of what girls could be in the 1860s. Were there texts or films that gave you models?
Truly, Jo March was a model for me. At some point she says, “I don’t know what I’m going to be, but I mean to astonish you all some day.” I know how that feels, that sense of, I can’t wait to get out into the thick of the world of makers and doers. But I had my own collection of women that excited me. Twyla Tharp was one. She had written a book about choreography, about creativity, that I pored over. There was a section where she describes her and her father used to go out to this desert when she was a child and shoot rattlesnakes to blow off steam. I thought, that’s a great hobby. But no one would do that with me.
When you became the fifth woman nominated for an Oscar for Best Director, for Lady Bird in 2018, you were held up as an example of how far women behind the camera have come and still have to go. What was that like?
I live really close to the New School and New York University, and these younger women come up to me and say, “I saw your film and I want to make my own films.” Being recognized by my peers in the Academy, and then having that translate to young women directly—it’s the reason I do it.
There are many great films by women in contention this awards season, and they tend to be discussed as a group. Is that helpful or harmful?
It’s a banner year, and we should feel good about that and try to repeat it. I personally know and have friendships with a lot of these directors. [A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood director] Marielle [Heller] and I both live in New York, and she showed me an early cut of her movie and we’ve talked about everything, I’ve asked her how she does it with a child. I’m friends with her and Lorene [Scafaria, director of Hustlers]. She was making movies before I was making movies. Her success is amazing.
It feels that there is both a sisterhood, which is wonderful because nobody wants to be at the dance party on their own, and also that their films are being put alongside great male filmmakers’ without an asterisk. I’m happy for it to be special and not special at the same time.
You filmed Little Women while secretly pregnant. Some people are amazed when they hear of a woman accomplishing something great while pregnant. Others say it treats it as a condition to be overcome. What do you think?
I feel very lucky that I was able to direct this movie while pregnant. I don’t want anything to be used as another way that women can feel bad. I’m amazed at women who have kids, who don’t have kids, who keep working, who step back. We are just figuring out how to have this conversation—for directors, for doctors, for all kinds of women. We’re just at the beginning of it.
You’re reportedly attached to direct a Barbie movie starring Margot Robbie. Anything you can tell us about that?
All I can say is I love Margot Robbie and the reason that I was psyched is Margot. I wish I had more to tell you. That’s the problem with things being reported on and then they become a thing before they’re a thing. I mean it’s not not a thing. It doesn’t exist yet. It could be 10 years before we could actually look at anything. But maybe in 10 years we’ll be talking.