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Greta Gerwig persisted in taking on "Barbie" movie, though partner Noah Baumbach tried to get them out of it

Greta Gerwig: The 60 Minutes Interview
Greta Gerwig: The 60 Minutes Interview 13:30

Acclaimed filmmaker Greta Gerwig, who said working on "Barbie" was a dream job, is now putting her stamp on "The Chronicles of Narnia." 

Helming reboots of the beloved C. S. Lewis classics is giving her nightmares, she said, even though her resume includes an adaptation of another classic, Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women."

Barbie doesn't come with a classic story, but Gerwig says she saw potential in the project of writing a script about the iconic doll. 

"You know, Barbie's been around since 1959, and everyone knows who she is, and everyone has an opinion, and she's run the gamut of being ahead of time, behind time," Gerwig said. "It felt like there was so much in it that was hot."

The writing of "Barbie"

Margot Robbie, who bought the rights to make a Barbie movie and plays the title role, enlisted Gerwig to write the screenplay. Gerwig signed up her partner in work and life, filmmaker Noah Baumbach, to write with her, but she neglected to tell him about it. He learned about their new job from a headline.

"I think I said, 'Apparently, we're writing a movie called Barbie,'" Baumbach said.

He was reluctant to sign on, concerned that there was no character and no story, Gerwig said. Barbie has never been known for her personality.  

"It's a doll," Baumbach said. "And then when I found out we were doing it, sort of actively tried to get us out of it."

It didn't work.

"Because Greta was persistent and Greta saw something," Baumbach said.

Greta Gerwig
Greta Gerwig 60 Minutes

They wrote the screenplay at their New York home during the pandemic, stitching together a story of Barbie's journey of self discovery after an existential crisis in Barbie Land sends Barbie and Ken into the real world. 

"We thought it might never get made," Gerwig said. 

Though they didn't know him, the pair wrote the role of Ken specifically for Ryan Gosling. 

"I basically was like, 'Listen. We've seen the future. You're in it. And you're Ken,'" Gerwig said.

Gerwig also said she never dreamed she'd be the one who ended up directing "Barbie."

Directing "Barbie"

Gerwig had only solo directed two movies before she was tapped to make "Barbie."

She made the biggest leap of her career from indie darling to breakout director with "Lady Bird." Her fearless approach earned the then 34-year-old Gerwig two Oscar nominations. Two years later, she got a third for her 2019 adaptation of "Little Women."

Then came "Barbie," with a budget more than 10 times that of "Lady Bird." The movie, bankrolled by Warner Brothers and blessed by toy company Mattel, had a $100 million production budget. It was dwarfed by the size of its marketing budget — a reported $150 million. 

Last month, at a theater in New York, Gerwig showed 60 Minutes correspondent Sharyn Alfonsi some of the old musicals that inspired her, including 1957's "Funny Face."

"Look at the way they're standing. That's not humans. Like, those are dancers." she said. "That's what I wanted all the Barbies and Kens to look like."

Gerwig convinced the studio to mostly forgo computer-generated special effects and build a pastel-colored soundstage. She was going for a look she calls  "authentically artificial." They used so much pink paint on set that it caused a shortage, the film's designer previously said. The "Barbie" set featured a painted sky and backdrop to give the movie a 2D effect. 

"It's about kids," she said. "It's about playing with toys. The language of play has to be part of it."

Gerwig, who admits to being a bit of a perfectionist, directed nearly 50 takes of the "Barbie" scene featuring a monologue by America Ferrera's character, a mom and Mattel employee. Baumbach says Gerwig goes into a kind of  "monologue mode" when penning the soul-baring soliloquies that have become a staple of her work.

All of Gerwig's work set the stage for her vision of Barbie Land: a feminist utopia, a world where Ken is just an accessory. 

Pushing back on the pushback against "Barbie"

Some people pushed back at the movie, describing it as anti-man. For Gerwig, the movie is a big-hearted, "even though it's poking fun at everyone."

"I thought, 'Well, this is not man-hating anymore than Aristophanes's 'Lysistrata' was man-hating,' which does not sound like a sick burn when you say it out loud like that," Gerwig said.

Name-checking an ancient Greek playwright to defend "Barbie" is pure Gerwig; her mind seems to percolate with literary references. Baumbach's take on the "Barbie" backlash was simpler.

Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig
Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig 60 Minutes

"I felt men could take it," he said. "I mean, come on."

Even with the pushback, "Barbie" smashed box office records and became Warner Brothers' highest-grossing film of all time.

The film's success wasn't a sure bet. Gerwig, like Barbie's permanently arched feet, pulled off an almost impossible balancing act: giving voice to both the iconic doll and to Barbie's fiercest critics.

"There were lots of questions about, like, 'Should we be saying this or walking into this stuff, or…' — but my feeling was, people already know it's a hornet's nest," Gerwig said. "We cannot make something that pretends to be other than that."

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