It made no sense to hire an indie director to make a movie about a doll, but Greta Gerwig and her crew provided $1.5 billion reasons why “Barbie” was a very good idea.
Greta Gerwig didn’t always think that “Barbie” was going to be made, and maybe that’s why the movie turned out to be so weird, so subversive and so successful. Long before the film’s grosses neared $1.5 billion, it was just an idea that didn’t make a lot of sense to the onetime indie actress whose directorial career was on a hot streak with “Lady Bird” and “Little Women.” And maybe the fact that it didn’t make a lot of sense and that star Margot Robbie had brought her the idea at a time when the movie business was reeling was a reason to take a shot at turning Mattel’s toy franchise into a film.
“It’s an object,” Gerwig said. “It’s a doll. There’s no character, no story. The very nature of Barbie is that it’s a toy to be projected onto. We would have to invent a character and a story that felt somehow part of it but had to go beyond it. It felt terrifying in that way. Also, she’s been around since 1959 and people love her, people loathe her and everything in between. It just felt like the exact kind of idea I like, which is just on the edge of ‘how is this even possible?’”
She laughed. “And then I roped Noah (Baumbach, her partner and co-writer) into it, and his reaction was basically, ‘Why are you making us do this?’ But then, as we got going, he said, ‘Oh, this is really fun.’”
But for a while, it was fun that seemed unlikely to be made. “We were in the middle of lockdown, the spring/summer of 2020,” she said. “In that moment, nobody was going to the movies. So there was this feeling that the world that we love of moviegoing and being together doesn’t even exist.” And that, in a way, freed them up to write a seriously wacky script that could find room for nods to everybody from Stanley Kubrick to Marcel Proust. “We thought, well, nobody’s ever gonna let us make this. So then it became, ‘Let’s (write) the greatest script nobody ever makes!’”
Warner Bros., though, wanted to be in the Gerwig and Robbie business, and Mattel was actually OK, more or less, with a script that acknowledged the divisiveness of their signature doll and made fun of their executives. So Gerwig assembled what she calls a “dream team” of collaborators and made a movie whose shooting she summed up this way: “It felt like going to a great party that you don’t really know how the night’s gonna go, but just when you think it’s over — nope, it’s fireworks!”
But “Barbie” was always meant to be more than just fireworks. Like Gerwig’s last movie, “Little Women,” it simultaneously tells a story and interrogates the way that story has been told in the past. “That’s true,” Gerwig said. “In ‘Lady Bird,’ too, there’s a way in which I was using the framework of a high school movie. With ‘Little Women,’ we had the framework that was not only from the past, it was fiction, and there’s a loss and loneliness embedded in that. With this one, it was going in all directions. And part of that was asking, ‘How has Barbie functioned in culture? What does this object mean? What do dolls mean?’ I kept coming back to the fact that our relationship with dolls is so strange. We’re so advanced — we have 5G, whatever that means, and yet we still take inanimate objects and have feelings about them and arguments about them. That seems almost mystical. We think of ourselves collectively as being beyond that kind of magical thinking, and yet we engage in it every single day.”
To slip those ideas into a major-studio movie is sneaky, and to have that movie turn into an historic blockbuster was, to Gerwig, thrilling. “It feels very connected to my childhood dreams,” she said. “I grew up in Sacramento, where it gets really hot in the summer. So you’d go to a dark, cold theater in the middle of summer and have a movie overwhelm you. I have a sense memory of being at a big movie theater with a lot of people in the summer. So not only do I get to make a movie about a doll that’s so intimately connected with childhood, to see audiences dressed in pink is like getting to enact a version of the excitement I felt going to movies in childhood.” —STEVE POND