What's next for Barbie's Greta Gerwig, the first woman to direct a $1bn movie?

From indie darling to blockbuster record breaker, she is blazing a trail for female filmmakers

Actress, writer and director Greta Gerwig. AFP
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It must’ve been a phenomenal birthday celebration. On Friday, Greta Gerwig, the director of Barbie, turned 40. Over the weekend, she made history, becoming the first female director to direct a billion-dollar movie, as Barbie continues to dominate the global box office. Only the animated adventure The Super Mario Bros Movie has grossed more this year ($1.35 billion) and that record looks under threat, as nostalgia-craving fans of the Mattel dolls are continually flocking to cinemas.

For Gerwig, the actress-turned-director has successfully helmed one of the 21st century’s biggest movie phenomenons. Barbie, which stars Margot Robbie in the title role, hit the $1 billion milestone in only 17 days, making it the fastest film in studio Warner Bros history to do so – beating Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2’s previous record by two days.

While it was certainly aided by the "Barbenheimer" phenomenon, as people got excited about the simultaneous release of Barbie and Oppenheimer, Gerwig’s film has far outstripped the Christopher Nolan-directed biopic’s albeit impressive box office tally. And Nolan’s films are rarely left in the dust.

To put it into context, Gerwig’s previous two solo-directed films, Lady Bird (2017) and Little Women (2019), made $79 million and $210 million respectively across the globe. In no way failures – the films also collectively netted her three Oscar nominations – but nothing that would prepare you for the Barbie bonanza.

The question is what happens next? Warner Bros will naturally want a sequel to Barbie, but neither Gerwig nor Robbie have signed on yet for a follow-up. In the director's case, her agency wisely decided to hold fire until the film was released, putting her now in a cast iron position to negotiate a huge payday should she decide to spearhead the sequel.

It was little under a year ago that Gerwig pitched up at the Venice Film Festival for White Noise, her partner Noah Baumbach’s Netflix-backed film, an adaptation of Don DeLillo’s novel, in which she co-starred with Adam Driver. Gerwig, of course, has worked on and off with Baumbach since 2010’s Greenberg, which starred Ben Stiller as the titular adult slacker. After that, she and Baumbach became a couple, co-writing the brilliant Frances Ha (2012) and Mistress America (2015), which he directed and she took the lead role in. Gradually, they became American indie movie darlings.

Their experience of working together must have helped smooth their time on Barbie, with Baumbach and Gerwig co-writing an ultra-smart script. Even White Noise, the absurdist story of a suburban family thrown into chaos during a mass evacuation, felt like a forerunner to the pink-hued, feminist-friendly Barbie.

“The poppiness, the lightness, the vibrancy of this, certainly, I could see the connection,” Gerwig told The National during Venice. From the garish production design to the musical number during the end credits, it surely fed into Barbie.

“When we were doing Barbie, it felt a very natural outgrowth of [White Noise],” Baumbach added, “and in some ways, I feel like they are related movies. And Barbie didn't feel like...‘Oh it’s a studio film.’ I mean, outside the character and the world, we approached it the same way we would approach anything that we were doing.”

At the time, it was a few weeks after the internet went into meltdown when an image of Robbie and her co-star Ryan Gosling, as Barbie and her beau Ken rollerblading in luminous pink and green outfits went viral. “If it made us smile, we were like, 'Maybe it'll make other people smile too,’” Gerwig said.

That proved to be spot on, although not in her wildest dreams could Gerwig have imagined that her and Baumbach’s meta take on the Barbie universe could tap into the public consciousness so deeply. It’s even more remarkable when you consider Gerwig’s background. To begin with, she was the Parker Posey of her generation, appearing in a string of low-fi independent movies, including Baghead and Hannah Takes The Stairs. Dubbed "mumblecore", due to their naturalistic, dialogue-driven nature, these films made Gerwig the poster queen for arguably the last significant US indie movement.

And now? Whether or not Gerwig does make a Barbie sequel, it will have to fit around her commitment to working with Netflix on two movies based on CS Lewis’s timeless fantasy Chronicles of Narnia. Some critics bemoaned the idea that this indie mainstay was going mainstream, but Gerwig’s success will surely lead to other women directors smashing Hollywood’s glass ceiling. As for Gerwig, it seems that life truly begins at 40.

Barbie is in UAE cinemas from Thursday

Updated: August 08, 2023, 12:00 PM