'Sometimes Directing is Like Math': Nancy Meyers on Toggling Between the Page and Camera
The filmmaker behind some of the most popular romantic comedies of the past 40 years reveals what made them work.
Nancy Meyers' films have long provided multiplex audiences with a perspective rarely seen on-screen: a woman's. Heralded for her screenwriting work directed by then-husband Charles Shyer—Irreconcilable Differences, Baby Boom, Father of the Bride, and I Love Trouble—and her Oscar-nominated script for the Goldie Hawn-starring Private Benjamin, Meyers would eventually go on to direct her own screenplays, finding success with efforts ranging from The Parent Trap remake to What Women Want, Something's Gotta Give, The Holiday, It's Complicated, andThe Intern.
Raised in Philadelphia as a theatergoing child, Meyers was a fan Hollywood's brightest stars, having seen Lucille Ball in an out-of-town run of the musical Wildcat, and having written a letter to Frank Sinatra which read, "I'm only 12 but I would love to marry you and I would learn Italian for you." Even though Sinatra never wrote back, her love of performers only grew as she hoped to one day write for them. As apparent via her own films, Meyers worked with some of the most notable of her era.
As part of the 2018 Tribeca Talks: Director's Series, Meyers sat down with veteran film critic Carrie Rickey to discuss her career, how production design can enhance character, and whether comedy should be directed for the ear or the eye. No Film School was on the scene to learn more.
There's a long-gestating stereotype that comedy directors are less interested in visuals than their more "serious" colleagues. When directing comedy, is the eye or ear more important? "It depends on the kind of joke it is," Meyers surmised, "If it's a physical joke, it's the eye. If it relies on rhythm, it's the ear."
Admitting to playing a tune in her head while directing comedic scenes (it helps to set the right pacing), Meyers noted that the speed of a scene is incredibly important. "A slow comedy is not good," Meyers advised, "Actors can never go fast enough because they've worked on it, they're thinking about it, and they want to get it out there. Faster is almost always better."
One exception to the rule? Robert De Niro in The Intern, who was asked to slow down his delivery as he was "talking so fast during this really long speech, just dying to get it out!"
Directing is like math (and can serve as a strong dose of reality)
As Meyers is both a prolific screenwriter and director, she's more than qualified to evaluate the differences between the two. Directing is a particular challenge and, for Meyers, is about setting realistic production expectations once the script is exposed to the world. "Sometimes directing is like math," Meyers contemplated, "It's a technical job and an artistic job, and combining those two things at the same time is kind of hard. When you're writing, you're only using one part of your brain. It's more freeing and feels more personal. It's you, the page, the words, it's your fantasy, and everything is perfect, the performances, the sets, everything."
"It's like going through a maze because you keep hitting walls."
When you finish your screenplay and attempt to map out next steps, reality hits you. "You can't afford that, you can't get that house, you can't get that restaurant, that actor said no, the DP just took another job,'" Meyers listed, "It's like going through a maze because you keep hitting walls. It's a lot of negotiating, but there are some big highs to it. Meryl Streep is saying your lines, Jack Nicholson is falling in love, and Robert De Niro brings a humanity and gentle side to your movie that he hadn't done before."
Cast against type
Meyers often works with movie stars and, when doing so, attempts to show them in a different light than their personas are known for. As Rickey joked, casting Mel Gibson as someone who listens to women in What Women Want could be perceived as a bit of a stretch.
"It gains something fresh because these big movie stars are in a lot of movies and I don't know, I guess doing five Mission: Impossible movies is still fun."
Avoiding typecasting is gratifying for both the actors and an audience accustomed to their favorite stars portraying slight variations on the same thing over-and-over again. "It gains something fresh because these big movie stars are in a lot of movies and I don't know, I guess doing five Mission: Impossible movies is still fun," Meyers remarked, "but it's fun to see a new side of Jack [Nicholson], [Robert] De Niro, and [Meryl] Streep in a comedy. It's fun for me to work with them and it's something that's new and, ultimately, it's fun for the audience. But I don't do it consciously."
Character development via production design
Meyers' films have been described as "pretty," brightly lit with a glowing shine on their actors and their lush sets. Typically only brought up in reviews when painting a negative opinion of her production design, Meyers noted that a lot of thought and deliberate planning goes into crafting her film's aesthetic. "My movies get too much attention about the way they look, so I'm happy we're approaching it from why they look a certain way," Meyers noted when asked about this recurring auteurist trait. "It's completely about character."
"You don't just walk onto set and [it's all there]. You plan it based on your storyboards and then you're shown fabrics, etc."
"I wanted Diane Keaton's house in Something's Gotta Give to look like a decorator did it, because I wanted her to have just made money from this Broadway show that she wrote, and so, purposefully, there aren't too many personal things [around the house]. I wanted her desk to be placed in her bedroom because she had just given up on love and so she combined office and bedroom."
And while her team works to build out their director's vision, it's Meyers who ultimately makes the final decision. "Here's the thing—they come to every director and say 'do you like this or this? This or this? This sofa or this one?' You don't just walk onto set and [it's all there]. You plan it based on your storyboards and then you're shown fabrics, etc."
In some ways, Hollywood has changed for the better
"Explain what happened to you while you were co-producing Private Benjamin," Rickey asked mysteriously, "What happened to you on the Warner Bros. lot? Did you walk in as the producer by yourself?" The audience grew quiet as they attempted to understand specifically what Rickey was referring to. "Are you talking about what was in my contract?" Meyers asked. Indeed Rickey was, prompting Meyers to recount the incident where she experienced sexism in an astoundingly direct way.
"At the time of Private Benjamin, I was 29 and a producer on the film along with Charles Shyer, who had worked as an AD previously and had set experience," Meyers reflected, "I actually didn't have set experience, but even so, only in my contract did they put that I was not permitted to be on the set by myself. One of the producers would have to [accompany me]. Because why? I'm not sure. It was a different time."
"But here's the good news: here I am. Where are they?"
Imagine being a producer requiring male accompaniment to even be allowed on set? "I guess I seemed young," Meyers rationalized, "I was female, and they thought I was Charles' girlfriend..." "Which you were," Rickey stopped to point out. "You can be somebody's girlfriend and also co-produce," Meyers playfully retorted, and the message was clear: female directors shouldn't first be identified as being the wife of their male counterpart. For whatever their embarrassing reasoning, this was difficult for a lot of men in high-power positions to realize.
One needn't dig too far into recent news stories to confirm that sexism is alive and well in Hollywood. Even so, things have changed in numerous ways, and Meyers seemed both content and proud of the career that followed. "It was pretty funny and I didn't take it very seriously, but it was in my contract. It's horrifying when you think about it, but here's the good news: here I am. Where are they?"
For more, see our complete coverage of the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.