In 1994, Gillian Armstrong broke and mended an entire generation’s hearts with her adaptation of Little Women, a warm little snow globe of a movie with an absolutely stacked cast: Winona Ryder as headstrong Jo, Susan Sarandon as a particularly melty Marmee, Kirsten Dunst as a salty Amy, Christian Bale as sweet Laurie, and Claire Danes as chin-quivery Beth. Initially underestimated by executives as holiday fluff, the film went on to make $95 million worldwide against its tiny $18 million budget, becoming a much-beloved classic. Armstrong received offers for more films about iconoclastic young women writers thereafter but refused to repeat herself, instead choosing more eclectic work — period dramas like Charlotte Gray, a WWII biopic starring Cate Blanchett, and documentaries based in her native Australia. Ahead of Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, I Skyped with Armstrong to discuss her favorite memories from set, what it was like to be dismissed and then celebrated by male executives with the money, and why one of the highlights of her life was making a room full of men cry.
Do you remember how you first heard about the possibility of a Little Women remake?
Denise Di Novi, the producer, contacted me via my agent and and wanted to know if I was interested. And my initial response was that, actually, it felt too close to my first feature film, My Brilliant Career — also about a young woman, set in the 1800s, who wanted to be an author. But Denise is very persistent! I was working at the time on a couple of other projects, and I think one of them was close to going and then it fell over, and so Denise came back again to say, “Would you have another look at this?” I’ve got to give her full credit for not giving up.
She said two things: One, that My Brilliant Career had been over ten years ago, so there’s another whole generation of young women who would probably be very affected by the story. Secondly, that My Brilliant Career was about a young woman who wanted to be a writer, and Little Women was about a young woman who discovers she wants to be a writer, but it’s also about family and about her sisters. After I reread the book, I thought, This really is a timely story worth retelling.
The final part of putting it together for me was, obviously, “Who is going to play Jo?” At that time, Winona [Ryder] was attached, so I said, “Well, I really should meet Winona.” I was obviously a huge fan of hers, but I needed to be sure in my heart that she could be Jo, because most of her earlier work, she played characters that were more introverted or frail. But when I met Winona, I could see that she would be a wonderful Jo — that she had an incredible passion and hadn’t been given the chance to play a woman that was that strong and alive and funny.
What did you talk about when you met?
We had lunch together, and we talked about all sorts of things — there was this whole other side to Winona, who, I think because of her haunting beauty, had been slightly typecast in a lot of the other films. Actors complain about it a lot: We’re judged by the roles that we play, and often, we’re more than that, and that’s why we often get typecast. Which is sort of what I was saying about me as a director. I did a period film about a young woman who wanted to be independent, and everyone wanted me to do a million others. I’ve been offered a million other films about women achievers for the last ten years, which is why my second film was a pop musical.
But, I’m digressing from Winona. First of all, she comes from a family of book lovers. She was so intelligent and passionate and thoughtful about life, and she can be very funny. All those qualities I think are important for Jo; Jo should be able to laugh at herself. She’s also got a great sense of justice — all those things are definitely part of Jo.
What was your relationship like to the book before you were offered the film?
I read the book as a child, and I’ve still got my original copy. I just opened it up, and it says, “For Gillian, 1961, from Anne,” and I can’t even remember who Anne was. It must have been my 11th birthday.
When you read the script, what was your initial reaction to it? Did you have anything you wanted to shift, or did it seem like it was ready to go in your eyes?
I was sent a script that Robin Swicord had been working on. They were waiting for a director to be involved. I loved much of Robin’s script, but she and everyone said, “We know it’s too long and it needs shaping and so on.” When I went back to the book, of course I remembered that there was a great sadness to the story, but it was only rereading it as an adult that I realized that Louisa’s observations are actually really contemporary. In my memory, it was this sort of nice book from the past, but reading it again, I realized that all of these girls were so alive and flawed and naughty and funny. Then I did an enormous amount of research about Louisa and about the book and the process — and I found out that it was really radical at that time, because most childhood books idealized children, especially girls. Little Women had been really quite shocking at the time: They’re mean to each other, they’re jealous of each other, and they’re confused. She really captured young girls growing up, and I think that’s why it’s stood the test of time.
I’ve read that they shopped it for 12 years before they got it made. Did you know that before coming on?
I didn’t know that it was 12 years. Denise Di Novi, Amy Pascal, and Robin were really the [shepherds]. Amy at that time was a junior executive at Sony Columbia, and she’d always loved the book. She’d been named Amy Beth after two of the characters in the book. She and Robin Swicord were longtime friends. Amy realized that Sony Columbia didn’t have a family Christmas movie, and as a very smart young executive, she pitched Little Women as a family film. It was very clever. But you don’t get a film up without a star, and they’d thought about Winona, the hot young actress of the day. They knew that Denise Di Novi had a close relationship with Winona because of Edward Scissorhands and Heathers. So they went to Denise, who then went to Winona. Then they all decided on hitting on me.
Were you at all intimidated to take on this sort of classic?
My Brilliant Career was an Australian classic. It was sort of our Little Women in Australia. But, yes, taking on an American classic — I loved it, so I wanted to do my best, but I absolutely did make sure that I knew everything about Little Women, Concord, the Alcott family, the philosophers at that time. Every actor who came to audition for us all had a story about it — they remembered when they read it or their grandmother had read it to them. So I was well aware that there could be some sort of backlash: “What does this Australian know about doing the story?”
The studio initially referred to this as a “needle in the eye” movie — a movie men would rather get a needle in the eye than see. What was the first challenge that you came up against in this vein?
Money! Our budget was minuscule. We were making a little girl’s film. That affects every single thing: Where we can shoot, how many days we have, how much money we have for every department. We were forced to go to Vancouver, because it’s cheaper [to film there]. Vancouver has hardly any period buildings at all. It turned out there are like, literally two period houses that you could shoot. So we built the Little Women house, and in the second period house, we shot London in one room and the ball in another room. We shot three different places around the world in one house.
I’d be very interested to know what the latest budget is for Little Women [laughs], ’cause I’m looking at the trailer, and it looks like five times our budget. I have to say we didn’t ever expect that we would get such a wonderful cast [on a small budget]. Susan Sarandon, Eric Stoltz, Gabriel Byrne. We knew there were going to be young girls that wouldn’t be very famous, but we got a wonderful surround cast, which meant we started getting little articles in all the Hollywood papers: “Hot cast coming together for Little Women!” That did lift our stakes a touch in the studio, but in the end, there was still the feeling that we’re making a little girl’s film.
When we had to finally screen the director’s cut, we had this screening in a theater on the Sony lot and there were ten men in suits. I think Amy may have been the only female executive in those days. This is a room full of men, and when the lights came on at the end, many of them were wiping away a tear. They came up to me and said, “We’ve got to tell you, we were actually dreading that we had to all go and look at this little girl’s film, and we absolutely loved it, and we see it is more than a film for little girls.” That’s when they said, “We’ll give you some extra money toward the music, and we’ll give you some extra money so you can send a second unit back to shoot.” And then they really put their heart and soul behind the marketing … That was one of the highlights of my life, making that room full of men cry.
But the funny thing they said was, “We think men will really love it, but the biggest issue about getting men in to see the film will be its title! ’Cause no man would want to be seen walking into a cinema that has a title up there saying Little Women.”
Oh my God.
When we did our first marketing test as well, we did have mostly women. But we had to fight: They were going to fill the audience with 10-year-olds, and we went, “No, no, no! This is for adults as well,” and then we did get a certain percentage of men. The marketing test card had a question: “Would you recommend this film to your friends?” And all these sweet men anonymously wrote, “Well, I couldn’t tell my friends I really liked Little Women!”
Did that attitude that the studio initially had upset you at all, before they came around?
No. I can tell you many, many stories about how tough it is to be a woman director. You have to work harder. You have to do more prep. No tantrums. You don’t get offered a multimillion-dollar feature on the strength of one rock video! Your second films have to succeed. You’re judged more harshly.
What’s the happiest memory that you have from shooting?
I was so thrilled with how well my cast bonded. It was something that Winona and I had talked about from the very beginning. She’d said, “I hope that there won’t be some sort of difference because I’m the star.” She was a sort of superstar at that time, with groupies trying to find out where she was staying.
But there were a number of things that worked in our favor. Christian and Winona had to learn to ice skate, so we got them lessons, early on, and they started doing that in L.A., even before I moved to L.A. to do the film. So they were already buddies. Winona knew Trini [Alvarado] a little bit, who played Meg. And Trini was newly married, and she was up there with her young husband that she’d met on Godspell. I knew Trini was going to go to some friends’ [house] for pizzas or spaghetti. So I said, “Oh, could Winona come along as well?” Then I saw Christian wandering around the hotel with his skateboard, and I said, “Could Christian come?” They apparently had a great time, ended up all playing charades and things, and they were friends from that night. So there was a lovely sense of camaraderie.
Kirsten, who’d literally come from Interview With the Vampire in London, flew in with her mum and brother, and she met all the girls for the first time in rehearsal. On the very first day, she knew all her lines, and Winona looked at me and said, “Right! Uh, looks like we’re all going to have to up the ante here.” The next day, everyone knew all their lines as well. But my strongest memories are, as each of them wrapped, we’d say, “Today is Trini’s last scene,” or, “Today, it’s Claire’s last scene,” and they would all cry. I’d say, “You can see each other again! It’s all right. It’s not over forever.”
What other sorts of things did you do to make the relationships feel real and lived in?
I had them all doing knitting lessons, though I think in the final cut, you only see Trini knitting, ’cause she was the most adept at that. They also had to do singing and dancing lessons, especially Christian and Winona, who had to go to that ball and do that funny dance. All these things brought them together — singing Christmas carols and so on. I also made them rehearse in their period clothes — quite often in period films, people don’t look like they live in their clothes, and it was really important that they were really comfortable.
Winona has talked about how she and Christian developed a very similar dynamic to their characters off-screen, and I’m curious what other sorts of fun dynamics arose. Were there any crushes or romances?
I think she said, “We were like brother and sister, but there was no romance.” Winona was up there with her boyfriend at the time; she and Christian were buddies. But no, there were no romances — that I know of!
Considering their ages, and considering that they were buddies, probably the most awkward scene [for the two of them] would’ve been the kissing scene. I don’t think Christian had kissed too many people onscreen before. It was a genuine blush from Christian.
How about the famous ice-skating scene. How did you pull off such a scene on a small budget?
We had to create all the snow around the Little Women house — and during the ice-skating scene, because we were shooting through spring. It was, you know, probably 75 degrees or something? We did a huge [amount of] research, and Jan Roelfs, our production designer, found out that people do ice-skating demonstrations with this portable plastic board. It’s like a Teflon — like cutting boards, you know, that you have at home. And so that’s what we made and then dressed all our false snow around the trees. Then we cut a hole and had a hot tub [there], so when Amy falls through the ice, she actually fell into a hot tub. And she loved it. She said it was such fun. It was not real ice at all, and it was all built up on a platform. That was an extra expense, but the studio did cough up for that.
Did anything that they did during rehearsals or anything they improvised themselves make it into the film?
There wasn’t much improvisation, because it’s tightly and carefully written. I think Susan sometimes tried improvising a few things, but the language doesn’t have the right rhythm. Robin has the ability to write beautiful dialogue that has a sense of period without it feeling fussy or clumsy. And if you try and throw in some of your own words, they really stood out.
But Claire was not scripted to sob when she saw the piano. We had rehearsed the little family show-and-tell without her, and when we shot it and they revealed the piano, she literally broke down and sobbed. We all cried too — I could hardly call cut through my own tears. I had to race to shoot the reverse, as all the cast were genuinely crying and I wanted to catch it. People now know Claire’s agonizing sobs, but this was the first we’d experienced.
The only other one that sticks in my mind, because it was such a horrendous thing: I had to reshoot the dying scene, because we had a technical issue with the lab. We spent a whole day on that scene, and I had to go and tell Winona and Claire the bad news — that it was unusable and we were gonna have to do it again. I did say, “Well, who knows, when we do it again, maybe we’ll come up with something that will make it better!” And actually, the way I initially directed it, I had Winona reaching out to Claire, and I realized it should be the other way around. That even though Beth is dying, she’s the stronger one. And there was just a tiny change in how we played that scene: I got Beth to reach out and touch Winona’s face. And actually, it is better. The person that’s dying was always the wisest one of all the girls — she knew that it was going to be harder for the people left behind.
How’d you keep that scene from feeling maudlin or manipulative?
From the beginning I said, “This is about the book, and I’m making the book for this era.” I’m sure it’s been the same principle with Greta. Sometimes, American films overdo the music, so you’ve got to be very, very careful to not say to an audience, “This is sad, this is sad. So you will cry!” That will just pull people out of it.
Claire, who’s only 15 or something, literally came out of the makeup room with her pallor, and she was already in character. Being made to look sick, I think she sort of felt it. People were helping her into the bed, and everything was very hushed. I did play music on set to create a mood for everybody, and a couple members of my crew who’d had friends recently die from cancer and so on said they had to leave, they couldn’t watch me shoot the scene. I think Denise had to leave.
By the time we called cut, most of the crew had tears in their eyes. Then it was my duty to edit it in a way that would retain that and not kill it. And one of the strongest parts of that is Thomas Newman’s music. He really did the most extraordinary score. To this day, if I hear the Little Women music, it gives me tingles down my spine. He should’ve got an Academy Award.
Speaking of the Academy Awards, what do you remember about them? What sticks out to you? Did you feel snubbed at all that you weren’t nominated for Best Director or Best Picture?
It was a big honor that we had the three nominations: Winona, Tom [Newman], and Colleen Atwood [for costume design]. I don’t think we had any expectations. I can’t even remember who the other people were against Winona. But the key thing that was said to me by the marketing people at that time was, “Most of the Academy voters are men, and we don’t know whether they’ll watch it.”
My big joke is, now there’s diversity in Academy voting, I want a revote! [Laughs] There were only like, one-eighth female voters in the year that we came out.
How do you think it might be received if it came out now? Is there anything you’d do differently if you were making it in 2019?
It’s very hard for me to look back at my films. There’s a million times where I go, “If only I had done that or that.” I went to a screening of it for the first time in a long time a month ago, in Sydney, because of its 25th anniversary. I thought, Oh, it’ll be a cinema full of old gray-haired ladies. I shouldn’t be denigrating about that because they are still the best cinemagoers in the world. But, actually, it was a 30-something audience with men and women. Some young men put their hands up and said, “I’d never seen this film before, but I was really, really moved by it.”
I do remember that we had a terrible time finding some of the background young men for Little Women because everyone was working out, and they were too muscly and too broad-shaped. And also, no one should have a suntan. All our main kids were told, “Don’t go into the sun, wear your hats! And there will be no lip gloss, there will be no blush!”
When did you first hear about Greta’s remake, and what was your reaction?
I heard, I suppose, 18 months or two years ago. I suppose I was a bit surprised, because for me — and you’ll feel like this one day when you’re my age — it feels to me like I only made it like eight years ago or something. I’m like, “What? They’re making another one already?” But then I actually checked the dates and went, “Oh, wow! It’s been more years than I thought.” So, yeah, fair enough. And I’m a huge fan of Greta’s, I have been since Frances Ha. I love her onscreen, and it’s fantastic that there’s going to be another Little Women for this generation. And I can’t think of a better person than Saoirse — who I worked with when she was 11 in a film called Death Defying Acts— to be Jo.
Do you think you’ll see it before it hits theaters?
I don’t know. The Australian distributor hasn’t contacted me yet to see if I’m going to be invited to a special preview, but that’d be nice. It’s probably going to be up for the Academies, and as an Academy voter — I’m one of the people that helps with diversity — I’ll probably will get invited to a special Academy preview.
It will be hard, because I know it so well, so it’ll be tough for me to sit through it. But I accept it, and I’m happy to see Saoirse do anything. And it’s Louisa’s book, not Gillian Armstrong’s, even though I feel it is, because you spend so much time making these films and they become your babies.
Well, when you made your film, it was the first time the story wasn’t considered “just for little girls.” So in a way you’ve made this one possible.
I feel very proud. I think my husband pointed that out: “You’re the one that made it bankable, it’s no longer just this little girl’s story.” It’s fantastic that we broke down that barrier.
Can you talk a little bit about the choices that you made as a director after Little Women? You’ve spoken a bit about how you didn’t want to be pigeonholed.
What did I do after Little Women? Have you got my CV there? [Laughs.]
After you did Little Women, you did Oscar and Lucinda.
This was sort of the breakthrough film for this up-and-coming actress called Cate Blanchett. Then I did Charlotte Gray, and The Last Days of Chez Nous with Kerry Fox and Bruno Ganz? Oscar and Lucinda was the Booker Prize–winning novel Peter Carey wrote, which I’d been wanting to get up for a long time. The success of Little Women helped us make that, and we did it with Fox Searchlight, who were really supportive. It had a darkness, but it never quite worked out. It wasn’t as commercially successful I suppose [because] it wasn’t such a feel-good film. But I’m very proud of that. Then Cate was attached to Charlotte Gray, wanted me to do it, and that was also great. Then I did a couple of Australian films; Love, Lust & Lies is sort of my 7-Up, following the lives of three 14-year-old girls who are best friends for 40 years. And I’ve done them at 14, 18, 26, 32, and 45.
Around that time, fewer studios started backing fewer and fewer human-drama-type films, the sort of films that I like. The sort of films that I wanted to make are harder and harder to make and were not being backed. It was basically rom-coms, revenge dramas, or all the money started going into the big action films.
So I did some documentaries: Finding Florence, which was accepted for Sundance, an incredible true story about a woman who was a wallpaper designer who was murdered. And then after that, I did Orry-Kelly. Orry was an Academy Award–winning costume designer who did Some Like It Hot and American in Paris. Each of those docu series were over a year’s work, but I just felt that I had much more freedom on those documentaries than on the last few dramas I’d done. As an artist, I want creative freedom. At the time, my American screenwriter friends were all moving to HBO and Showtime and so on. And now there are fantastic dramas being made on all of the streaming services. But at the time, there were no drama scripts I was interested in making.
I’ve just reached a stage in my life, about 10 years ago, like, “I don’t want to make a crap film.” I’ve been so blessed that I’ve actually only made films that I really loved. Sometimes they’ve taken off, and sometimes they haven’t, but I’ve been so lucky. It’s so hard to make a film about something you don’t care about and don’t believe in.