For all of the classic and memorable romantic comedies that Meg Ryan starred in, how fitting is it that in reality she is, in fact, a true romantic. I don’t necessarily mean in the sense of ‘boy meets girl’ romance, but more in her beliefs and love for storytelling.
On the brink of the fall season and the premiere of her directorial debut, I spoke with Ryan about her career turning point in the world of film. As soon as our conversation started, her passion for movies immediately radiated. With every question about filmmaking, she grew more and more enthusiastic, and it was then that I realized: Meg Ryan is exactly where she wants to be.
In front of the camera, she was the epitome of the ‘girl next door’ and the face of the ingénue in the 90’s. “When Harry Met Sally,” “Joe Versus the Volcano,” “Sleepless in Seattle,” “French Kiss;” in all of these films and beyond, Ryan gave hope and the idea of ‘true love’ to women around the world. Her performances put the ‘hopeful’ in ‘hopeful romantic.’
But, as much as the camera loved her, Ryan told me that she’s “always felt like a better observer than an actor.” And so she’s taken a different route, stepping behind the camera to develop her talents as a director. In her first directorial effort, Ryan has brought novelist, William Saroyan’s writing to life in the film adaptation of “Ithaca.” The coming-of-age story follows Homer Macauley, a young man who takes a job as the town telegraph messenger during the summer of 1942. With his brother off to war and soldiers being lost every day, Homer comes face-to-face with the realities of life; coping with loss and death.
Beautifully shot, Ryan gracefully directed the short, yet sweet film with an incredible ensemble cast, including herself, Tom Hanks, her son Jack Quaid, Sam Shepard and newcomer Alex Neustaedter.
For someone who loves storytelling as much as Ryan, directing movies is the perfect move at this point in her career and she proves her ability to do so with “Ithaca.” Decades of acting allows her to understand and easily work with the actors in her film, whereas decades of movie-watching helps her to understand what the audience wants and needs in a silver screen experience.
As someone who is a great admirer of Meg Ryan’s work and her characters that I’ve come to know and love from my favorite films, there is nothing more rewarding than having a conversation about cinema with the one and only…
Before your incredible success as an actress, you studied journalism. Was it always your passion to tell stories, whether through writing, performing and now directing?
I always felt like a better observer than an actor, actually. I used to think when I was acting that ultimately I had to make use of it, but I really felt like – if you’re a curious person – there are similar aspects to journalism. You go out and investigate a character or a story, a place or a time and you would metabolize it and it would come out as a performance. It’s the same way that you guys go out into the world in this investigative way and it comes out in writing; there are a lot of similarities in the process.
What was it about William Saroyan’s novel that made you decide that this would be the story to jumpstart your work behind the camera?
I loved the novel and I felt like it was a filmic novel. I felt that it was perfect for adaptation in that, it was a simpler story about complicated things. It would have a film-like equivalent. We weren’t going to have a lot of money for cranes and we shot in 23 days. Most of the shots are tableau. We weren’t moving the camera a lot so we had to be judicious. We moved our trucks like once and shot in a fixed location outside of Richmond.
‘Ithaca’ has beautiful imagery, almost like a postcard. The look of the film is very reminiscent of Norman Rockwell’s paintings. Is that what you were going for?
Yes, all of those American realists… There are a couple shots in particular that are directly inspired by Norman Rockwell, Walker Evans; with the density and the intensity of the colors. It’s not a super realistic film. There’s that ‘once remove-ness’ about it. The DP (Director of Photography, Andrew Dunn) was just wonderful.
Over the years, you’ve worked closely with many directors, from Rob Reiner to James Mangold and of course the legendary Nora Ephron, did they inspire or teach you anything about the world of directing?
I learned from every single one of them. There’s something you can take from everyone and almost every movie; there’s something to learn from it. It’s such a complicated culture. It’s a living, breathing thing that’s actually not living and breathing! What you’re creating is a feeling inside an audience member. You’re not even creating a thing, you’re creating a feeling. It’s such a gossamer thing and everything you do matters. To me there are some directors who really ran a fun and calm set and that was really important to me. Some directors were better at talking to actors than others. Jane Campion helped me a lot. I called her right before I started shooting and she gave me advice. With directors, once you say to someone “I’m going to direct my first movie...,” the only other experience I’ve had in terms of people wanting to come to your aid with advice is when I was pregnant. They say: “You gotta do this and you gotta do this.” It’s cool and a great confederacy.
Meg Ryan directing on the set of "Ithaca." (Credit: Kent Eanes © Momentum Pictures)
Alex Neustaedter was a great Homer Macauley. Can you talk a little bit about putting this great ensemble cast together, from Alex to Sam Shepard and Tom Hanks?
Sam Shepard was the first person to say yes. When someone like that says yes, a lot of people follow. There’s a kind of legitimacy. We were really lucky that someone like Sam wanted to play Willie Grogan. Hamish (Linklater) came on board and then the kids started lining up. We were so lucky all the way around. Jack (Quaid) had just finished working with Martin Scorsese before he came to our set. Alex Neustaedter was brand new to Hollywood and had only been in LA for something like 8 months, fresh from Kansas City. I thought, “Wow, this kid has so much Kansas in him, right?” He’s so stoic and nuanced. I loved all of his emotional reserve. He’s a very precise actor and I so appreciated that. For someone that young, it’s so rare to be able to hold a screen. He has so much power just standing there. And then there’s the little blonde boy, Spencer Howell with so much character.
The original score by John Mellencamp of the film is beautiful and really flows nicely throughout the film. Were you involved with the creative process of composing the style of music for ITHACA?
We talked a lot about it but it’s his kind of music. It’s definitely his forte with that American Roots music. He loves movies too. I read him the script once and he gave us half of the music, literally. We wanted it to be that the score wove throughout the movie. It’s a very old school thing to do and was something they did in movies in the 30’s and the 40’s, more often than they do now. It was important to me. Every single note is John. The music on the radio, to the background; he wrote all of that. He is a sophisticated songwriter, but he really understands film.
What stories inspire you as an actress and filmmaker?
So many… I love old movies and I love watching Tarantino. I love watching Howard Hawkes and I love watching Soderbergh. It’s such a fantastic art form and when you’re involved in it even in the smallest way, it makes you go back and thing “Oh my God, I could look at everything again, over and over.” The masters: Scorsese or Spielberg. It’s a major thing to pull off.
Alex Neustaedter, left, and Hamish Linklater, right, in “ITHACA
Do you write, as well? And what is your next departure in directing?
Yes, I do write. I’m looking like everyone else. I’m reading a lot of novels because I love that process. I think it’s such a treat in a way; you can read a novel and sort of see it in your mind’s eye.
For so many women, you are the hero/heroine in our favorite and the most classic romantic comedies. Would you ever want to direct or even write a romantic comedy?
Delia Ephron is writing a romantic comedy that I’m attached to direct with a working title. She worked so much with Nora and most of the movies I worked with her on. Delia’s writing right now…
After the long days of shooting and work, what does Meg do when she needs to decompress?
Lately, I’ve been just riding my bike. I’ve been out all summer long on Martha’s Vineyard. I love it so much. On the bike path you can go for like 20 or 30 miles and get that music going… I love it!
"Ithaca" In Select Theaters and On Demand / Digital HD on September 9, 2016
Los Angeles -- Laemmle Music Hall
New York City -- Empire 25
Atlanta -- Stonecrest Mall 16
Dallas -- Irving Mall 14
Denver --Westminster Promenade 24
Houston-- Katy Mills 20
Kansas City --Town Center 20
Phoenix -- Arizona Center 24
San Francisco -- Deer Valley Stadium 16
Seattle -- Cascade Mall 14