A story that transcends generations and finds new resonance today, Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel Little Women receives its newest incarnation as a film written and directed by Lady Bird Oscar nominee Greta Gerwig. Putting a new spin on the material while honoring its spirit, the film represents a labor of love represented at a visit to the Academy by Gerwig, editor Nick Houy, composer Alexandre Desplat, actor Florence Pugh, production designer Jess Gonchor, and producer Amy Pascal.
Pascal had been involved in a new version of the novel for several years when, according to her, Gerwig "barreled into our office" and pitched the idea of writing and directing herself with a focus on "women and money and independence and freedom."
Gerwig herself describes the story as "the book that I loved over all books, and the character of Jo March in particular was my character. All of the girls, they felt like my sisters and my memories. I had it very deep in my emotional landscape, and then when I was 30, I reread the book and couldn't believe how modern it was, how fresh it was, and how it felt like it could have been written yesterday."
From the beginning, Gerwig wanted the film to feel epic. "Because girls deserved an epic movie about their lives," says. Pascal. "She said, 'I'm making it on film, and I want all the tools that all the boys get to make their movies.'"
For Gonchor, that meant location scouting where Alcott actually wrote the book and creating exactly the right house. "We found a great place in Concord, Massachusetts, probably a mile from the real orchard house, which was totally inspiring for myself and I think all the actors in the movie," he says. "We built the exterior of that house, and then we built all the rooms on a stage also in Massachusetts. Greta and I talked early about having this house. We felt it was like an old jewel box on the outside, an old worn in jewel box. Then when you opened it up, it was full of color and hope and faith and whatever the imagination is."
Greta said, "I'm making it on film, and I want all the tools that all the boys get to make their movies."
For Desplat, the process of creating the music was also collaborative and required a thoughtful approach to the material. "We thought that we needed the organic sounds of more ancient instruments," he notes, "because there is the presence of this 19th-century piano in the pianoforte in the film. Also, even though the theme is epic and the sound had to be epic, I didn't want the score to be playing huge, small, huge, small. The orchestra is not a big orchestra, because we're in the house a lot. I wanted this proximity with the four girls and something that you could really always be surrounded by, like in a bubble."
The nonlinear approach to the story also filtered through in the music, he adds: "There's some unexpected changes of chords or tempi or instrumentation, just that you feel that you're always on the move. It's not something that's safe and comfortable, like a boat on the river."
Coming directly off of shooting Midsommar, Pugh was enthused by getting to play the latest incarnation of Amy. "I think everybody is very excited by naughty characters," she says, "whether they read them or they watch them on screen. It's very fun to watch someone say exactly what it is that they are thinking because we don't do that. Being able to play her was just an utter delight because I got to be this wild, clever, witty little thing."
Gerwig's painstaking focus on dialogue cues proved a challenge for the cast. "You can imagine what it was like on the big days when they were about eight people in and everybody had a very specific cue to come," Push says. "It was like a sport. You had to have your coffee and be ready for the day."
That approach to tempo extended to the Huoy's editing process since, he says, "We were always trying to find the rhythm and the musicality of the scenes. Every line has to follow to the next in rapid motion so that the camera can pick up on the next person and the next person, the next person."
Gerwig found the approach highly rewarding, making the dialogue feel current without modernizing it. "It's exactly correct for the time," she says of the end result, "but yet it's got this energy of life that I think sometimes is difficult to achieve in period pieces because we sort of are very polite about them."
Watch the full discussion below.