It’s a “Barbie” world. We’re all just living in it.
After a year and a half of hype, a whirlwind press tour and stellar advance reviews, Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie” finally hit theaters this past weekend, smashing box-office records with a $162 million debut, the biggest of the year. That’s the highest-grossing opening weekend ever for a film directed by a woman, and though Gerwig had high hopes for “Barbie,” she can’t quite believe how well her unique spin on the Mattel doll has connected with a mass audience.
“I wanted to make something anarchic and wild and funny and cathartic,” a gob-smacked Gerwig told me over the phone on Tuesday, “and the idea that it’s actually being received that way, it’s sort of extraordinary.”
Few blockbusters these days have as much on their minds as “Barbie”; it is actually, to borrow a quote from “Clueless,” “way existential.” Underneath its candy-coated exterior, “Barbie” tackles issues like sexism and self-determination with aplomb, while never forgetting to supply its stars Margot Robbie (as Barbie) and Ryan Gosling (as Ken) with surprisingly witty jokes, some of which border on the arcane. (Who would have expected a punchline about the ’90s rock band Pavement in the “Barbie” movie?)
Gerwig is just happy she got away with all of it. “I think it was a particular ripple in the universe that allowed it to happen,” she told me from her home in New York City, where Harold, her 4-year-old son with Noah Baumbach, her co-writer on “Barbie,” interrupted the call to bring Gerwig’s press cycle to a definitive close. “He made a cake for me that was pink and had a ‘B’ on it, and he said, ‘This is how we say goodbye to Barbie,’” Gerwig said with a laugh. “I thought, ‘Oh, you’re done.’”
Here are edited excerpts from our conversation.
This interview contains spoilers for “Barbie.”
You just had one of the most consequential weekends of your life. How are you feeling?
I’m so grateful. I’m so amazed. I’m at a loss for words, really. I’ve been in New York City and spent Thursday and Friday just spot-checking different theaters, listening to the levels and making sure the picture looked nice and trying to relinquish control, which is difficult. But honestly, it’s been amazing to walk around and see people in pink. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine something like this. It’s just … it’s … sorry, I’m just disintegrating into noises.
What specific things helped you get a grasp on how much the film was resonating?
I think part of the reason I was so fixated on volume levels was because it was a thing I could concentrate on. But mostly, it’s been running into people on the street who are excited and happy and exuberant, because so much of this movie was an attempt to create something that people would want to experience together. So it’s the little things.
My producer David Heyman sent me an email from someone who lives in a tiny Scottish town, and there’s a movie theater there that has been struggling, and they had sold-out shows all weekend for “Barbie.” He was like, “The town is showing up!” And my brother and his sons and his wife all went in Sacramento and sent a picture, then they sent a text saying their oldest son was going back the next day with his friends. These 15- or 16-year-old boys from Sacramento are sending me texts saying, “It was great! We loved the Porsche joke!” Those are the things that feel so amazing. I’ve never quite had anything like this.
The thing I keep hearing from people in Hollywood is “I don’t know how she got away with it.” When a theatrically released movie is made at this budget level, anything idiosyncratic or challenging often gets whittled down by studio notes. How were you able to preserve your sensibility the whole way through this process?
I was originally meant to just write it with Noah, and then we finished the script and that was the thing that made me want to direct it. It felt so clear to me: If they didn’t want to make that [version], I didn’t need to make it. Margot, as the producer and star, was really the first person to line up and say, “I want to do it her way.” And then as we started adding collaborators and gathering more cast, suddenly there was a large number of people who were excited to do something that was this, excuse the pun, out of the box.
Part of me thinks that because it was all so idiosyncratic and so wild, it was almost like no one really knew where to start taking it apart. Like, where are you going to start hacking away at how strange it was? Maybe because there was this sense of sheer joy behind it, it was this hard thing to say, “Oh no, we don’t want that thing that’s sheer joy.” People wanted it to exist, in all its weirdness.
Even the movie’s inciting incident is pretty heady. I’m trying to imagine how the executives reacted when you told them, “Well, things really kick off when Barbie starts having irrepressible thoughts of death.”
I know! We had the idea of the movie starting off like this whirligig, and that line becomes something where she almost breaks the movie. And what do you do after you’ve broken the movie? Her character tries to just keep the movie going normally again, but there’s no way to do it. But yeah, I don’t know that anyone totally knew what the tone of this was going to be until it was all done. I mean, within the group of people who were deeply making it, we knew, but it was truly an act of faith for everyone else.
The first time I ever screened the movie for an audience, that line — “Do you guys ever think about dying?” — got a big laugh, and everybody who had been holding their breaths for a year and a half finally exhaled. The way it played was something I could always kind of hear in my head and see in my mind’s eye but outside that group that was there, it was a little bit of white-knuckling.
It’s been reported that Mattel executives flew to the London set to try to convince you to take out the scene where Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt), a teenage character from the real world, calls Barbie dolls sexist and fascist. True?
I will say, that’s always sounded so dramatic: They were coming anyway, so it wasn’t like, “Stop everything, we all have to go to London!” But with that scene in particular, my awareness of Barbie as a thing in the world completely corresponded with me knowing the arguments against Barbie. I didn’t think there was any way to do this without giving that real estate and having well-articulated, correct arguments from a really smart character given to Barbie against Barbie. Also, I grew up with a mom who was kind of against Barbie, so that’s how I knew all that. If you don’t give voice to that, then you’re nowheresville.
It wasn’t like I ever got the full seal of approval from [Mattel], like, “We love it!” I got a tentative, “Well, OK. I see that you are going to do this, so go ahead and we’ll see how it goes.” But that’s all you need, and I had faith once it was in there and they saw it that they would embrace it, not fight it. Maybe at the end of the day, my will to have it in was stronger than any other will to take it out.
That scene leads to one of my favorite unexpected jokes, when Barbie protests that she can’t be a fascist because she doesn’t control the railways or the flow of commerce.
There were several jokes where I was like, “This might be for three or seven people, but I will keep it in for them!” Here’s something else that will stick with me: When I was checking in on different screenings this weekend, there was another joke like that: “Remember Proust Barbie? That did not sell very well.” And there were, like, two people in this screening who died at that joke. I was like, “Yes! It was for you, and you got it. I’m so glad that I was here to see that work in the wild.”
When people ask whether “Barbie” is for kids or adults, those lines remind me of how when I was young, if I didn’t understand a joke that my parents laughed at, it sparked my curiosity.
I’ve never had such a sharp delineation in my mind between things that were made for adults and things that were made for children. I had parents who, blessedly, took me to and showed me lots of things, and sometimes there was even a double pleasure in things that were beyond me because it felt like a window into a world I was just starting to piece together. I always liked that feeling, so I thought it didn’t seem like a hindrance to a younger audience enjoying it.
One of the scenes that gets the biggest audience reaction is America Ferrera’s monologue about the tightrope that women have to walk in this society. What did you want out of that moment?
I always hoped that America would do this part, and I feel so lucky that she said yes. Over the course of a long time prepping it, we really embroidered it with her own specificity and talked about her experiences and her own life, and three takes in, I was crying. Then I looked around, and everyone was crying — even the men were tearing up. I suddenly thought that this tightrope she’s explaining is something that is present for women in the way that she’s describing it, but it’s also present for everybody.
Everybody is afraid they’re going to put a foot wrong and it’s all going to come crashing down, and in that moment of doing that monologue, she was giving people permission to step off that tightrope. I don’t think I realized until then that’s what that moment was for. She had a piece of the puzzle in her as an actor and collaborator and artist that explained it back to me.
Did you anticipate the degree to which right-wing pundits are bashing the movie as being “woke” and burning their Barbies?
No, I didn’t. Certainly, there’s a lot of passion. My hope for the movie is that it’s an invitation for everybody to be part of the party and let go of the things that aren’t necessarily serving us as either women or men. I hope that in all of that passion, if they see it or engage with it, it can give them some of the relief that it gave other people.
When did you know you’d figured out the final scene of the movie, where the now-human Barbie marches up to a real-world receptionist and announces that she’s there to see her gynecologist?
I wasn’t really certain until I was in rehearsals and reading it with Margot. I had a feeling of what I wanted it to be, but then she did it, and there was something so incredibly winning and hilarious and empathetic about the way she said that last line. I was like, “That’s it!” It’s so utterly sincere and silly at the same time.
In your mind, is this movie the start of a franchise, or do you feel “Barbie” is a complete story with a definitive ending?
At this moment, it’s all I’ve got. I feel like that at the end of every movie, like I’ll never have another idea and everything I’ve ever wanted to do, I did. I wouldn’t want to squash anybody else’s dream but for me, at this moment, I’m at totally zero.