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Meg Ryan has quietly emerged from her self-imposed Hollywood hiatus to appear in Ithaca, an adaptation of William Saroyan’s 1943 novel The Human Comedy that also marks her directorial debut. The drama follows a young boy named Homer (Alex Neustaedter) who works as a bicycle telegraph messenger during World War II. In addition to Ryan, the cast also features her son Jack Quaid, as well as Sam Shepard, Hamish Linklater and Playtone producer Tom Hanks.
Ahead of Ithaca’s release — it’s opening in limited theaters and on VOD today via Momentum Pictures — Ryan tells The Hollywood Reporter what she learned from her own directors Nora Ephron and Jane Campion, how more women can “give permission” to themselves to jump behind the camera, and why she’s looking forward to helming a romantic comedy.
Why direct this adaptation?
[Directing] has always been in the back of my mind. [William Saroyan’s novel] wasn’t required reading in my high school classes, so I found it when my son was young. I felt moved by the idea that it’s a simple story about complicated things. Playtone knew that [screenwriter] Eric Jendresen also loved the book so they put us together, and we loved that thing for maybe eight years before we got it made.
The story’s so filmic; I don’t often read a script and go, “I can see this.” Of course, it doesn’t turn out anything like what’s in your mind’s eye, but something happens to your body where you go, “I gotta tell this story.” The opportunity was to streamline it as a coming-of-age story — to have it be Homer’s story, and to have the three telegrams he delivers be how we strung the narrative along. There’s a lot of wisdom in that book — a lot of good things getting said, particularly in that voiceover, that are potent and beautiful.
Which of your previous directors influenced you on set?
Jane Campion [who directed 2003’s In the Cut] — the way she ran a set was so wonderful. She told me before we started shooting, “No matter what, you’ll be very tempted to involve yourself with technicalities about light and focus and how fast the camera’s gonna move, but make sure that when you’re sitting there and watching the actors, that that’s when you’re the artist too and you really allow yourself to feel your way through every single take.” That was really good advice — to have that kind of freedom right then, to have the freedom to feel what the actors were doing. I love that.
And Nora Ephron [who directed 1993’s Sleepless in Seattle and 1998’s You’ve Got Mail] — she was so smart and fun, but her intellect gave her authority. There was never any screaming around or anything ridiculous like that; it was always intelligent, and I appreciated that example. And as an actor, I like when directors keep things quiet; I don’t like to be directed over a loud speaker or a bullhorn, so I made sure not to do that.
Meg Ryan on the set of Ithaca. Photo credit: Momentum Pictures
What part of filmmaking surprised you most?
It never surprised me when I didn’t know — I assumed I would know nothing — but it surprised me what I did know. That, by osmosis, movie sets teach you lots of things. I hadn’t been around a movie set in a really long time, and oh my god, I had so many opinions. It surprised me how fierce I was in my own self. I mean fierceness about protecting the artists, protecting the story, loving the story.
Technically, I loved finding the shots and talking to the actors — that was such a pleasure — and being in on the creative discovery of all these different kinds of artists, that was incredible. To whisper around with somebody like [cinematographer] Andrew Dunn about light, or talk to [sound editor] Ron Bochar about silence, or talk to Sam Shepard about his process, that is such a privilege to be in that. I really felt like a conductor. It was a great surprise to see how every single actor worked completely differently than another actor, particularly the kids who’d never even done a movie.
The part of that was the “Uh, I gotta get this” was post. The edit is fun because it’s like writing again, but you also struggle around with these microscopic things, and that surprised me. “We should start that music cue halfway through the blink, not all the way through the blink.”
You reunite with Tom Hanks onscreen. What was it like directing him, after all these years?
Tom was only there for a day, but he asked such great questions — pertinent, smart, not fussy questions about how his character was serving the story. Just exactly spot on and easy and fun — and a great favor he did me by showing up there, my god.
Hollywood is lacking in female directors. What advice would you share to those helming their first film?
I was sitting on set one day, and I thought I was talking to myself, but Sam Shepard was sitting next to me. I was like, “What am I doing? This is a story about a boy becoming a man. I’m surrounded by men on this movie. What do I know about that? Why would I choose to tell this story?” And Sam goes, “Meg, what the hell’s wrong with you? Women are the making of men. Women make men men. Of course, you’re going to tell the story. Who else is going to tell it? Sam Peckinpah?!” And I just love what he said because that’s the permission we should give ourselves: it’s a feminine perspective, it’s different from a male perspective. And I don’t know how, and I don’t know exactly how to quantify or qualify that, but it’s true. My experience as a mom was the part that I felt the most confident in making the movie. So it’s not just telling stories about women, it’s telling stories as women.
Sam Shepard and Alex Neustaedter in Ithaca. Photo credit: Momentum Pictures
What do you hope is the film’s standout message?
Gosh, I really hope that what people take away from it is the true value of one life. It’s such a desensitizing time in our world, and hopefully this movie just sensitizes people to what loss really is. And there’s a power in innocence that we often wish away, and it’s a visceral thing. In movies, we trade so often in violence and sex and quick cuts and shoot-em-ups and loud, loud, loud, but quiet is visceral too. Quiet is moving; innocence, you can have that kind of reaction as well. I love the quiet smallness of it — it’s like a Sunday night movie. That’s what I hope: an audience would watch it on a Sunday night.
What have you loved about taking a hiatus from acting?
I’ve had like a ten-year breather! I loved it. It wasn’t a plan or anything like that, but I really discovered myself more as an artist in these last ten years than when I was an actor. And it just has to do with feeling like my hands are on the wheel. No matter what, I’m taking full responsibility for it. For better or worse, I like that.
Who are some directors you look up to?
Soderbergh, Scorsese, Spielberg. Orson Welles and Peter Bogdanovich. John Huston. Wim Wenders. Oh my god, there’s so many incredible artists, right? That’s just a few of them.
How are you choosing what to direct next?
Now I’m like everyone else, right? Who just got the bug? You gotta find the project and find the money. I’m just reading. What I understand now, having done it, is you just have to love the story, because in the process you’ll hate it, you’ll be frustrated by it, you’ll love it again, you’ll be blinded again. Telling that story has to resonate.
Delia Ephron is writing a [romantic comedy] script that I’m set to direct for Working Title. That’s the thing we have in hand, however in hand anything actually ever is.
What excites you about directing a rom-com?
Unlike Ithaca, which is purposefully slow, the romantic comedy, I love the clickety-clack of that. I love language and I’m a big fan of those old movies like Philadelphia Story and Bringing Up Baby and My Man Godfrey, all of those. What I’m hoping is that it’s just so fun [because] it’s so fun to be in the cultivation of a comic moment. Trying to figure out what’s funny or how it’s funny, that’s a great way to spend your time. Although I always loved Hugh Grant, he said, “Being in a comedy is like being a balloon in a room of pins. But at least you get to be the balloon, right?”
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