For the last few years, Greta Gerwig has been one of those rare indie darlings who has managed to transition into the world of Hollywood without compromising their earlier ideals. Daryl Wein’s Lola Versus finally gives Gerwig a chance to be upfront and center in a medium-scale semi-studio movie playing Lola, a New York woman finishing her dissertation when her live-in boyfriend Luke (Joel Kinnaman from AMC’s “The Killing”) breaks up with her on her 29th birthday, leaving her floundering for help from her best friends Alice (played by co-writer Zoe Lister Jones) and Henry (Hamish Linklater) and her parents, played by Bill Pullman and Debra Winger.
Wein’s previous movie Breaking Upwards, in which he starred with Lister Jones, got them attention on the film festival circuit, and Lola Versus is definitely a bigger production. Making a movie that stars the alluring Greta Gerwig and shooting much of it in this writer’s neighborhood certainly gives Wein’s new movie a leg up in terms of winning our favor, so ComingSoon.net spoke with the filmmaker and his lead actress in separate phone interviews last week. We’ll start with the film’s director and co-writer.
ComingSoon.net: You actually shot a lot of this in my neighborhood on the Lower East Side, and I remember that when I first heard about this movie, I figured it was another small indie movie but I was shocked by all the trucks and cranes and everything else. It’s quite a big production compared to your previous movie, “Breaking Upwards,” so did you see it as a natural progression to write another movie with Zoe?
Daryl Wein: Yeah, I mean it was definitely natural for Zoe and I to work together again. We’re in a romantic partnership for eight years. We’ve been collaborating now for a few years, most commonly with “Breaking Upwards” but Zoe was also the producer on a documentary that I made before this called “Sex Positive.” After “Breaking Upwards,” we were trying to figure out what to do next, and we were on the festival circuit actually talking about our different experiences being single when we were in our open relationship, which was what “Breaking Upwards” was loosely inspired by, and we realized that Zoe had a much different experience being a single woman than I did as a man. She had a much more traumatic, difficult time meeting guys on the scene and we noticed that a lot of our female friends were going through similar experiences, trying to meet guys. It seemed liked this epidemic of smart, awesome women who were really struggling on the dating scene and we felt like we weren’t seeing that portrayed accurately or at all really on screen in film. We felt like we always see the more escapist, glamorized versions of women, like “Sex and the City” and “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” which revolve around a woman pining after a guy but we hadn’t really seen the grittier, more authentic and real version of that. That was kind of what catapulted us into wanting to write “Lola Versus,” to try and put an unapologetic, complex female protagonist at the forefront of what people perceive as a romantic comedy even though this is more of a dramedy, and have it be almost an “anti-romantic comedy” in that you’re not rooting for the guy and the girl to be together. You’re following them and you’re invested in their struggles, but it’s much more focused on “Is this girl going to be okay on her own? What’s it like for a woman to find her independence and not wrap it up with a bow at the end? Root for her to really be by herself.
CS: Was the title “Lola Versus” something you came up with very early on?
Wein: No, that was actually the original title. I think Zoe and I were lying in bed at 2 in the morning one night trying to come up with what the title should be, and I said “Lola Versus” trying to think what she would be up against, “Lola Versus What?” and we just realized in the pregnant pause that maybe we should just let the audience fill in the blanks, that she’s up against so many different things–herself, all these guys, love, sex–and it just seemed more interesting to leave it a little bit open-ended, so you could interpret it how you will. Then also, Lola’s a PhD student and she’s writing her dissertation on silence and the “verses” of poetry, and so there’s also that connotation, too, of the verses of poetry relate to the “versus” of her life, these kinds of verses that she’s going through as she’s turning 30. At one point, we thought of titling it with an “e-s” but we realized that would be too confusing (laughs) so we just stuck with the “u-s.”
CS: You said that this idea came up at 2 in the morning, so is your writing relationship with Zoe one where you have regular office writing hours or do you just end up writing together when you have ideas? How does that work in terms of the separation?
Wein: Yeah, I mean there’s no structure at all. It’s kind of a free for all. It’s like whenever Zoe and I are passionate or inspired to sit down and start writing, we go for it. It’s not like a 9 to 5 job and I’m not good at setting a schedule for writing, because that makes me feel like I can’t be spontaneous. When I know I have to do something, I don’t like to do it as much. When it comes to making art, it’s more fun to let the script process unfold organically and whenever we feel like it.
CS: How did you guys come up with Greta to star in it? She’s played quite a few women in dysfunctional relationships or trying to find themselves. Were you just a fan of her work and knew she’d be right?
Wein: We’d known Greta for a while, coming up on the independent film scene together, South by SouthWest, and we were looking for an actress that could portray the authenticity that we were striving for and Greta encapsulated that perfectly. She’s very naturalistic, very subtle and interesting in her delivery and more unexpected than the conventional romantic relationship movie ingénues that you tend to think of in this kind of role like Julia Roberts or women of that sort who are endlessly winning and sparkling and polished. We wanted a woman that was a little bit more real-seeming and that might sometimes make mistakes and be awkward and unconventional and she had all of those qualities, so she just seemed like she’d be the perfect Lola.
CS: How did the character of Lola change when she took it on or did she fit right into what the two of you had written?
Wein: In casting Lola, it was more important to find a more underexposed actress who could accurately capture an authentic, post-breakup downward spiral that was messy and unplanned. Greta, being a very naturalistic actress, possessed the right qualities to make Lola feel more real and unexpected in her portrayal. She has an interesting and enigmatic delivery, which felt appropriate given the tumultuous circumstances of Lola’s journey. In inhabiting the role, she wasn’t afraid to alienate you at times, which felt truthful to someone struggling to get back on their feet after a break-up. She challenges your expectation of a leading lady.
CS: I also was impressed by how Greta could differentiate between Lola’s different crying–making it comical sometimes and emotional others–and I was curious about how you decided which worked best at any given moment?
Wein: It completely depended on the script and what the given circumstances were when she was crying. We didn’t want to be gratuitous, but we also knew it was necessary and honest for her to be emotional at all these different point in the story. Tonally, we always strived to be truthful to the action of the scene. I never directed her to cry in a “funny” way, or cry in a “serious” way. The illusion of comedy or drama reveals itself under the circumstances of the scene based on the writing, the shot selection, the music, and a truthful performance. You don’t want to play a “mood.”
CS: Zoe ends up playing Lola’s best friend and you didn’t cast yourself in this one, so was that very deliberate not to play a role in this as you did in “Breaking Upwards”?
Wein: Yeah, I was just so overwhelmed while we were making “Breaking Upwards” and I was acting and directing at the same time. This time I really wanted to focus on directing, which is my true passion, so I definitely put my acting interests on hold, but we’ll see. In the future, if someone ever asks me to act in a cool project, I’d love to try to get back into it, because it is fun sometimes.
CS: Did you know earlier on that this would be a bigger project and you’d have a studio involved in making it and have bigger name actors?
Wein: No, no, not at all. At first, we figured it would be another micro-budget film and that Zoe would play Lola, but we got all this attention from “Breaking Upwards” and interest for what our next project would be and we managed to get a writing agent in Hollywood to send out our script. We got a bunch of interest from producers and that’s how we got Michael London, veteran producer who had done “Sideways” and “Win Win” recently. It was great to collaborate with him and have a major producer help get our project off the ground with a multi-million dollar budget and a studio behind it. It was definitely a surprise that ended up happening, but we were very fortunate to be able to collaborate with Fox Searchlight and Michael London, because we had all these resources that we normally would never have. We were able to shoot on film, which was fantastic, and I had a big union crew, so that was really exciting.
CS: I want to talk about the casting, because Joel Kinnaman hasn’t really done anything like this. He plays more tough guy roles. It’s interesting to cast him as Lola’s ex-boyfriend.
Wein: Absolutely. Yeah, Joel, again, we were trying to find interesting under-exposed, fresh actors who were intelligent and edgy, and Joel, he fits that bill perfectly. He’s such a great, cool actor and we saw him on “The Killing,” and you tend to think of him as this gritty dark guy, but in real life, he’s this jovial energetic dude. It was really fun to have him play in our comedy and he brings some Swedish drama to the role, which is nice, in that there’s also a lighter side that you don’t normally get to see. He’s just another natural actor that is really good at being authentic and grounded. He’s also very, very handsome, so he plays that heartthrob guy that every girl would find themselves pining over.
CS: I also wanted to ask about the casting of Bill Pullman and Debra Winger as Lola’s parents, because neither of them really do a ton of movies and they were interesting casting choices.
Wein: It was really great to round out the fresh cast with some veteran actors, and we’ve always admired Bill and Debra’s work as actors, and thought they both felt authentic to the NY world we had written. Debra has always been a favorite of mine from “Terms of Endearment,” and she’s typically in dramatic roles, but it was really fun to see her do something a little bit more comedic and poignant as a mother, and Bill Pullman has always been great and we always loved him in movies like “Igby Goes Down” and even “Newsies” the Disney musical and his kooky off-beat quality fit perfectly for our New York parents. Our producer, Michael London, reached out to their agents about the project after we decided creatively we wanted to move forward. Fortunately, when you have a studio and veteran producing team, it helps to move the process along quicker.
CS: Do you and Zoe have other projects that you’ve started developing now that this one is finished?
Wein: We are writing another script for Fox Searchlight entitled, “Motherf*cker,” about a guy who falls in love with his girlfriend’s mother. Other than that, I am always interested in reading other scripts to direct and seeing what is out there. Zoe and I tend to have a few balls in the air.
Next, we have Gerwig herself, a phone interview we actually did just before speaking to Daryl, though asking some of the same questions.
ComingSoon.net: It’s funny but you shot a lot of this movie in my neighborhood. I remember seeing the production in my neighborhood and all the trucks and cranes, and thought “This is a much bigger movie than I thought it would be.”
Greta Gerwig: Yeah, I mean it is actually. People keep saying, “Oh, you’re making indie movies” and to me, for my money, this felt like a big money, but that’s because I come from Ultra-Indie Land.
CS: Did you know Daryl or Zoe beforehand? How did they present the script to you?
Gerwig: It was sort of a longer process. I did know them beforehand from the film they had done before “Breaking Upwards,” which I really enjoyed. I was given the script to read and then I met with them and I liked them, but then it was sort of a longer process, a combination of Fox wanted me to do it and they wanted me to do it, and it was this sort of perfect storm at one point and then I got really nervous about doing it and then I did it.
CS: What made you nervous?
Gerwig: It’s a lead role, which is always sort of terrifying, and you just feel sort of exposed, you feel out there, but ultimately, that’s a good thing, that it was scary at the moment.
CS: What attracted you to it? You’ve played women in dysfunctional relationships before this, so what did you see in Lola that interested you and did you think there was a different way to approach her?
Gerwig: Well, it seemed to buck a lot of the romantic comedy cliché, and the tropes and what makes it more interesting is that it just doesn’t go where you think it’s going to go. I had that experience while I was reading it, and it was really gratifying to realize it was going to be something that felt more lifelike.
CS: There’s a lot of crying in this movie, but there definitely seems to be a big difference between the comical crying and more dramatic crying. Is that something you’re really conscious of while you’re doing it?
Gerwig: Yeah, I just try to cry realistically all the time, but I was certainly aware of when the intention was to be funny and when the intention wasn’t to be, but yeah, I felt like every single day I cried on that set, so I did a lot of crying. (laughs)
CS: I know you’ve done a lot of indie movies where you can shoot things in a certain order, but I can’t imagine that was the case with this one with so many different locations. Was it hard to create an emotional arc for the character with that in mind? Did Daryl shoot certainly locations in chronological order to make it easier to understand where you were in the story?
Gerwig: Yeah, it was mainly hard, because it was just a very short shoot. We had a lot to get through in a very short amount of time. We had six weeks I think, so it was difficult, but yeah, you start feeling shifts in the timeline when you’re shooting things. As an actor, I prefer to shoot things in order, but the reality is that when making a movie, part of your job is to get comfortable with it out of order. I find that the first few weeks are the hardest, and then it has its momentum, and you have to stop having to imagine the whole movie in your head. You all of a sudden have moments that actually play out and stuff like that.
CS: You have two very different leading men in Joel and Hamish, so can you talk about working with them and the different sensibilities when working with them?
Gerwig: Yeah, Hamish is like a teddy bear and very sweet and cuddly and funny and not I was going to say a wuss, but that’s not fair. He’s not a wuss. He’s certainly not a manly-man, but Joel is like a leading man. He’s like a serious actor and he’s cuddly but not in the same way. They’re both just very good at what they do and very different and have very different energies. I really liked working with both of them.
CS: I was surprised to see Joel in this because I went into it not really knowing the cast other than you. I guess I’m used to Joel being this Swedish tough guy, and this feels like a very different role for him.
Gerwig: I know, it is a very different role. He really was interested in doing it, because it’s a different kind of film than what he usually does.
CS: What about working with Daryl and Zoe, because she plays Lola’s best friend but she also co-wrote the script with him, so do they generally work as a team on set and is she there when not shooting her scenes? How do they work together?
Gerwig: Yeah, she was on set most of the time, even when she wasn’t shooting. They’re very collaborative as a team. They obviously write together and even though Daryl technically directs it, Zoe is very involved with the look and the feel of the movie and they’re very much a team that way, and they’re very open to input, which is nice.
CS: I also liked the casting of Bill Pullman and Debra Winger as your parents. I mean, the whole movie is really interesting casting, so I was curious how it was shooting scenes and working with them. They’ve both one lots of great movies over the years.
Gerwig: I look up to both of them a great deal. I think Debra Winger is a real kick-ass interesting woman who is obviously very talented and gifted as an actress. I loved shooting the scenes with her and Bill Pullman, and actually, my favorite scene in the movie are the scenes I share with Bill. They just have this quality to them that I like in films – there’s a sweetness to it but it feels real. There’s something about it that I really respond to, and I’m so honored that Bill Pullman chose to be in this movie, because especially Deborah doesn’t do anything she doesn’t want to do and she doesn’t do everything that comes along. Neither does Bill and they both have those incredibly long careers. I think working with older actors who really know their stuff is like going to school.
CS: You’ve appeared in a number of bigger studio movies and also a couple mid-scale indies like Noah Baumbach’s “Greenberg” and it’s interesting to me how the world is catching up to the stuff you were doing five years ago, such as Lena Dunham’s HBO show. Do you miss doing the smaller budget indie movies?
Gerwig: Yeah. I mean, in some ways, but in other ways, I’m just really happy that the world is acknowledging it. Lena Dunham is a good friend and I couldn’t be more proud of her and love her show more. It feels very vindicating that she and I and a bunch of other filmmakers had an ability to make the work that they really believed in and never developed the skill of compromising their vision and that’s very exciting. I think that makes very exciting and good work.
CS: What have you brought from working with someone like Woody Allen on “To Rome With Love”? Do you take notes when you work with a director like that or are you too busy focusing on the acting?
Gerwig: Yeah, it’s incredible. It’s really like getting to go to film school without going to film school. One of the benefits of being an actor is that you get to be on so many different people’s sets and you really get to learn a lot of different ways of doing things, which is really exciting.
CS: Have you had a chance to see Woody’s movie yet?
Gerwig: No, I haven’t seen it. I will see it but I haven’t seen it yet.
CS: When you’re part of an anthology like that, do you have an entire script so you know how it comes together or just your section?
Gerwig: Most of us just had our sections.
CS: I know that writing is also something you do, so have you been able to work on that and write some stuff for yourself that you might make soon?
Gerwig: Yeah, I’m always writing and I expect it will continue to be a huge part of my creative life and moreso in the coming years hopefully.
CS: Do you have anything that you might actually direct or a particular project you’ve been trying to get going?
Gerwig: I don’t have anything specifically right now, but yes, there’s a number of things that I’ve been thinking about that I’d like to direct, and in many ways, I might try to do them on a smaller scale, because it’s just easier to control everything.
Lola Versus opens in select cities on Friday, June 8.