'Barbie' director Greta Gerwig explains how the movie deconstructs a toy icon
Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie” takes on the iconic doll and all her issues — with a bit of seriousness and a whole lot of camp.
It might seem like a departure for Gerwig. The director and co-writer’s previous films reveal the harsh realities of being a woman in the modern world. “Lady Bird” and “Little Women” question social conventions and institutions.
And yet with “Barbie,” actor Margot Robbie asked Gerwig to work on a film about a wildly successful series of dolls, that are owned by the corporate giant Mattel.
But Gerwig says Barbie is chock-full of contradictions, which she says drew her to the project.
“I’m interested in how life is complicated and messy and that there is nothing that’s either or, either good or bad, but it’s mostly it’s both,” Gerwig says. “It can be all these things at once. And I think that felt like a rich place to start from.”
Just like the toy, Barbie is always on her toes in the film’s imaginary Barbieland. There, all the money, power and dream houses belong to women. But when Barbie finds her signature high-heeled feet flattened and can’t escape morbid thoughts, she heads to the real world to find out what’s going on.
Margot Robbie, who plays Barbie, has said the film is “for everyone,” whether it’s little girls who play with dolls or their middle-aged dads laughing at references to “2001 Space Odyssey,” the Indigo Girls and Robert Palmer.
And Gerwig wants viewers to experience laughter and joy, but also feel emotional and challenged.
“I want the movie to make people feel somewhat relieved of the tightrope. We ask ourselves — not just as women, men too — that we walk this impossible tightrope of being perfect,” Gerwig says. “Barbie has always been a symbol of this thing that you could never reach because she physically couldn’t stand up if she were a human being. So I wanted it to almost invert that formula and find a way that it gave you permission to just be yourself and know that that’s enough.”
Barbie’s owner Mattel expressed worries and feedback throughout the process of making the movie, particularly about how the film addresses the criticisms the brand faces. But ultimately, Gerwig says, they supported her decisions.
Ryan Gosling, Margot Robbie and Greta Gerwig on the set of “Barbie.” (Courtesy of Jaap Buitendijk)
And the film isn’t just about Barbie’s journey. Mattel introduced Ken as Barbie’s boyfriend in 1961, two years after Barbie hit the scene.
Ken is just an afterthought to folks in the movie’s real world, especially for Will Ferrell, Mattel’s fictional CEO.
But Barbie’s male counterpart doesn’t have any other purpose — which creates a psychologically interesting story for Ken, Gerwig says.
Two of the Kens, Ryan Gosling and Simu Liu, consider their predicament in an incredible dream ballet sequence.
And Gerwig says the film’s song and dance numbers incorporate elements of the musical soundstage of the 1950s, including Vincente Minnelli’s “An American in Paris” and “Gigi.” To give the scene a heightened surrealness, the dream ballet set was inspired by Stanley Donen’s “Singing in the Rain.”
Margot Robbie, Alexandra Shipp, Michael Cera, Greta Gerwig (foreground), America Ferrera and Ariana Greenblatt on the set of “Barbie.” (Courtesy of Jaap Buitendijk)
But while “Barbie” fills the senses with musical numbers and a plethora of bubblegum pink, Gerwig says the film also needed a serious moment.
That comes when star America Ferrera gives an impassioned speech about the expectations placed on women’s appearances, careers and responsibilities at home.
“Barbie as an idea, as a brand, had this mission statement of inspiring girls to be whatever they wanted to be as adult women,” Gerwig says. ”And then I think it’s very important to have an adult woman talk about all of the kind of impossible contradictions.”
A three-guild member of the Directors, Writers and Actors Guilds, Gerwig is promoting “Barbie” while its stars are on strike.
“I am in full support of everything that’s being asked for, and I think that it’s important for survival moving forward,” Gerwig says. “I love the film industry, so this is incredibly important.”
With the whole country drenched in pink for “Barbie,” Gerwig says she’s pinching herself as the film sparks a moment uncharted by her previous projects.
“I’ve had many people call me who have been in the business for longer,” she says, “and they say, ‘Kid, Enjoy it. It’s never gonna happen again.’”
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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