How David Bowie shaped a young Greta Gerwig’s creative vision

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One of the most memorable scenes in 2012’s Frances Ha sees star and co-writer Greta Gerwig galloping through the streets of Chinatown, weaving in and out of cars, skipping along crosswalks and even launching into the occasional pirouette, her casual choreography punctuated by the sounds of David Bowie’s ‘Modern Love’.

Like the rest of the film, the scene is shot in black and white, but the musical accompaniment and Gerwig’s genuine love for it transcend greyscale. The scene almost feels technicoloured. With Gerwig’s involvement in the film traversing the writers’ room and a starring role, Bowie’s inclusion does not seem accidental. Gerwig’s acting contains a joy that seems to stem from her own passion for Ziggy Stardust.

Long before she became the first female director to make $1 billion at the box office, a young Gerwig was struck by Bowie’s artistry. “I truly think if David Bowie hadn’t existed, I wouldn’t have made anything,” she stated during an appearance on Desert Island Discs. While the influence of the glam rock legend on her work post-Frances Ha is slightly more subtle than a ‘Modern Love’ needle drop, it’s still present throughout her work. 

As a late teen, Gerwig discovered The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Bowie’s fifth full-length offering, first released in 1972. The future director happened upon the record aged 18 and suddenly felt seen. “When I heard this album, I felt like it was made just for me,” she told KCRW, “I felt like I was an alien. I felt like I was a man from Mars.”

Noting the balance between the personal and the performative, as well as Bowie’s confidence and self-invention, Gerwig found herself enamoured by the record and scrawled lyrics from it on anything she could. “I just had this sense of it speaking right to me and it was the first time I really wanted to merge with an artist and merge with a piece of art,” she concluded, “and David Bowie in that album was that for me.”

Though many of her stories are far quieter and more intimate than the otherworldly sounds of Ziggy Stardust, Gerwig’s own endeavours have been bolstered by this creative direction. With Barbie, she walked the line between extravagance and emotion, while Bowie directly influenced the score for 2019’s Little Women, which contains its extravagance into hopes and dreams.

Speaking about his collaboration with Gerwig, composer Alexandre Desplat noted that her brief named Mozart and Bowie as influences. “There’s a youth about Mozart, because we know Mozart was a child all his life, and for Bowie, there’s something extravagant about him that we see in their characters – they want to be different, they all want to be artists, except for Meg maybe,” he explained to Billboard.

Though Gerwig has yet to tackle an alien story akin to Ziggy Stardust or the glam stylings of Aladdin Sane, Bowie’s creative vision had a lasting impact on her filmmaking.

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