First Film Loves

At the 55th New York Film Festival, Greta Gerwig, Luca Guadagnino, Todd Haynes and Julianne Moore reveal childhood movie influences and favorite films about love.

They were films that were always maybe a little beyond my reach” —⁠Todd Haynes

There’s nothing like a good coming of age film, as the Letterboxd community has recently demonstrated. From Rebel Without a Cause to Stand By Me to Boyhood, there’s something about the transition from youth to adulthood that gets us right in the feels. (Get it perfect and you’ll hit the Academy in the feels, too: hello, Moonlight.)

Greta Gerwig—Lady Bird

Gerwig’s first film as the sole writer-director, Lady Bird stars Saoirse Ronan as the title character, a spirited Sacramento high schooler who feels destined for greater things on the East Coast (“Lady Bird” is the fanciful name she gives herself; her parents know her as Christine but humor her nevertheless).

Although Lady Bird features many of the tropes familiar to American high school movies—prom, losing one’s virginity, best friend fights, wrong-side-of-the-tracks class comparisons—they’re handled in a fresh way, a deft balance between comedy and drama. Inspired by, but not directly drawn from, her own upbringing, Gerwig says, “It was a love letter to Sacramento, and I felt like what better way to make a love letter than through somebody who wanted to get out and then realised that they loved it.

“In a way it’s secretly the mother’s movie as much as it is Lady Bird’s movie. Somebody’s coming of age is somebody else’s letting go. And I was just as interested in the letting go as I was of the young people’s stories.”

Like many of its coming-of-age predecessors, such as Pretty in Pink and Blue is the Warmest Colour, Lady Bird has a strong class narrative running through it; a purposeful inclusion by Gerwig, who greatly admires English filmmaker Mike Leigh.

“Class is a very difficult thing in America,” she says. “We’re uncomfortable with class and how that works but I think it’s something that’s an invisible force that shapes a lot of people’s lives.

“Life is not fair, and resources are not divided fairly, either in talents or in economics. […] One thing that I wanted to explore is: Lady Bird’s always looking up at other people, and people she thinks have more, and have it all together, and meanwhile those people are looking up at other people. And she doesn’t see how much she has, because in a culture of ‘more more more’ and ‘I always need to get to the next level’, there’s no way that you can appreciate what you have.

“It’s that disease of always looking up and never being where you are.”

On the challenge of directing, Gerwig says her acting experiences stood her in good stead: “One of the reasons is that most directors only ever are on their own sets! They don’t actually know how anyone else does it. And I’ve been on a lot of sets, and I’ve seen a lot of different ways of working and a lot of different ways of relating to actors and crew, and I’ve sort of seen what works and what doesn’t work, and I took all these ideas that I’d been gathering over the years.

“And they could be as little as things like having your crew wear name-tags every day. Which sounds small, but… if you switch out camera operator and [the actors] don’t know who the new person is, and you know, because you’ve talked to them, but they don’t know. I stole that from Mike Mills on 20th Century Women. So I felt like that was helpful.

“My greatest joy is working with actors and watching them bring life to these things that I’ve put on the page that are essentially dead until they bring their spirit and their artistry to it. So I adore them, and I think they know that, and I have a lot of empathy for what I’m asking of them. Because I’ve been there. And it’s hard. I try to bring sensitivity to it.”

FYI: Lady Bird broke American box office records on its opening weekend.

Luca Guadagnino—Call Me By Your Name

Guadagnino (whose first language is Italian, hence the idiosyncrasies in the quotes to follow) says he was attracted to the adaptation of André Aciman’s novel Call Me By Your Name because, “I always found myself restless as an audience member towards films that tells the coming of age that are […] basically relying on the cliché, on what is the assumption that the narrative has to deliver in order to get there.”

Asked which cliché he wanted to avoid in particular, Guadagnino says, “I think for instance that there is the idea that there is a contrast against the lovers, is something that is so artificial. You know? That there has to be somebody who is gonna contrast them, and then the lover will triumph. And in the gay canon it will triumph or maybe it will be bittersweet, it will not triumph.”

Call Me By Your Name brings the teenaged Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and graduate student Oliver (Armie Hammer) into each other’s orbit via a long, hot summer at Elio’s family’s Italian villa. Clocking in at over two hours, it has a languid, unstructured feel, a narrative pattern directly inspired by Maurice Pialat’s À Nos Amours.

“That was very, very, very dear to me. What is great about Pialat’s cinema is the capacity that he has always had to really the avoid the traps of a narrative and to be very at the center of his characters, and to really be letting live the flesh and blood and bone and sperm and every other kind of biological fruits of these characters, in a way that is really connected to his audience members because we are like the people in the screen.

“I wanted to prove that I could tell the story from the perspective of someone like Pialat instead of from the perspective of a three-act script.”

See the trio of films about love that Luca Guadagnino chose for Letterboxd.

At the time of writing, Call Me By Your Name is sitting at the top of Letterboxd’s ‘Unofficial’ Top 50 for 2017, based on weighted ratings for the year to date.

Todd Haynes—Wonderstruck

Haynes directed the big screen version of Brian Selznick’s novel Wonderstruck, which Selznick himself adapted. It’s an epic story split between two children in two different time frames, both confronting deafness and looking for family. Julianne Moore stars in two roles, one a silent-movie star.

As well as a tribute “to the endurance of New York, to the history of New York”, Haynes says Wonderstruck is also about “the imagination of young people, the language of cinema… and the theme of deafness”. Haynes said in planning this film, he thought a lot about the films he saw as a child, “the films that kind of entered my mind and bloodstream and changed the way I saw things. They were films that were always maybe a little beyond my reach.”

We asked Haynes, Selznick and Moore to share their memories of the films that changed the way they saw things as children. Haynes chose Mary Poppins, Romeo & Juliet and The Miracle Worker as his key childhood movie memories. Visit the Letterboxd list to learn why.

Selznick, who also wrote the novel Hugo, which Martin Scorsese adapted, says he “mostly loved monster movies” when he was a kid. “I was really into The Phantom of the Opera, the Lon Chaney silent movie. I grew up in New Jersey, so there was the ‘creature double-feature’ in the afternoon when I got back from school. Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, and King Kong.

“I’m distantly related to David O. Selznick who produced King Kong and Gone With the Wind and Rebecca, so there was also an added thrill of seeing my last name at the beginning of all of these movies that I really loved! Even though they were from the California movie-making side of the Selznicks, and I am from the New Jersey dry-cleaning side of the Selznicks. Successful dry-cleaner though, I have to say.

“And then, every year, looking forward to seeing The Wizard of Oz on TV when it was ever the holidays. And that moment, which I think is one of the great moments in cinema history, when Dorothy opens the door from her black and white world in Kansas into Oz.”

Meanwhile, Julianne Moore’s childhood movie memories are of the eclectic films programmed in a tiny Alaskan cinema, which ultimately transformed her approach to acting.

“When I was in fifth grade, my family moved to Juno, Alaska, and there was a movie theater in town that my sister and I went to every Saturday, no matter what. But because the population was so small in Juno they changed the movie every single week, so sometimes we’d go and see The Aristocats, and then one week it would be like One Day in the Life [from the novel by] Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. And then Minnie and Moskowitz, which is a Cassavetes film! And they let us in! Every Saturday! I didn’t know what I was watching half the time. I really didn’t, not until years later.

“It wasn’t until I would see movies in a revival house in Boston when I was in college that I kind of drew a connection to these movies I saw when I was in fifth grade … and it was just this sort of different, very, very human point of view. So if you’re Ivan Denisovich and you’re in prison and you reach down and you pull up a fish eye in your soup—I remember that very distinctly!—you know, that creates a different kind of experience to you right away, and you’ve done that visually with a fish eye in a spoon.

“It was something that kind of honed my interest in behavior, in performance, so I became interested in less in a theatrical kind of performance and more of a cinematic one because of this guy who owned a theater in Juno, Alaska.”

Further Reading


Share This Article