Nancy Meyers Spills Design Secrets of Her Movies in Keynote Speech

Meryl Streep It's Complicated Still Nancy Meyers Inset - P 2013
Universal Pictures

Meryl Streep It's Complicated Still Nancy Meyers Inset - P 2013

At the Westweek design-industry event, the director jokes that the kitchen layout of "It’s Complicated" was a failure and explains why Lindsay Lohan’s hair matched the furnishings in "The Parent Trap."

In an intimate talk Wednesday at West Hollywood’s Pacific Design Center, director Nancy Meyers delved deeply into something she rarely talks about -- the luxurious residences featured in her movies and the avalanche of attention they’ve received.

"It’s my thing. It’s something I like, though I think it overshadows the work a little bit sometimes," said Meyers. Indeed, countless bloggers have swooned over Diane Keaton’s lustrous white kitchen in Something’s Gotta Give, which has been called the most-copied kitchen of all time, while Meryl Streep’s sunny Spanish-style house in It’s Complicated set off a wave of interest in Santa Barbara, Calif., style. "It’s crazy. It’s a gorgeous kitchen, but it’s not the only gorgeous kitchen," said Meyers of Keaton’s Southampton, N.Y., kitchen in Something’s Gotta Give. It was the story, though, that gave the room life, explained the director. "It’s because there was an emotional response. Jack kisses her in that kitchen. They fell in love in that kitchen."

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As interviewer Bradley Bayou, an L.A. fashion designer and interior designer, led her movie-by-movie through clips and photos of her work, it was clear that the director pays an enormous amount of attention to set design (she puts together voluminous folders of inspiration shots before production starts) and that she takes equal pride in it. In a city full of filmmakers and interior designers, she’s one of the very rare people who creates both highly successful films and desirable onscreen houses.

The talk -- sponsored by The Hollywood Reporter as the opening keynote of design-industry event Westweek -- touched on her whole career, beginning with her first job as a production assistant on The Price is Right. She decided to quit and become a screenwriter after she got a spec script into the hands of a producer on The Mary Tyler Moore Show -- her dream series. The producer didn’t hire her, but told her she had talent. To support herself, she started a business making cheesecakes and wrote at night. She recalled living in a fourplex at the time and requisitioning all of her neighbor’s kitchens for the growing business.

By the late 1970s, she’d become a story editor in Motown’s film division, where she met and would soon-after marry writer/director Charles Shyer. Together with Harvey Miller, they wrote the script for and produced the classic 1980 comedy Private Benjamin, starring Goldie Hawn. It was on set one day that she had her first epiphany -- or perhaps minor meltdown – about the importance of set design in establishing character. Said Meyers: "i got into a fight with the set designer" when she saw the set’s childhood bedroom for Hawn, whose character has been called a Jewish-American princess. "There were all these photos of her playing hockey holding a hockey stick!" The photos came down.

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Meyers moved into the director’s role for 1998’s The Parent Trap, starring Lindsay Lohan as a pair of separated-at-birth twins. Working with production designer Dean Tavoularis, they created a Napa Valley house (the father’s) and a London place (the mother’s) fit for Architectural Digest. Tavoularis decided he wanted to paint the London residence pumpkin, a color Meyers resisted, until he went ahead and painted it. She loved it and came to see it as a subtle welcome for the twin who goes to London from Napa. “Lindsay’s hair color was similar. It was something that would make her feel at home and be comfortable there,” she said.

As she sees it, set design can add backstory to a film that may not be apparent to an audience but that deepens the experience of making the movie. For Mel Gibson’s apartment in 2000’s What Women Want, she used not only blue touches (to match his eyes), but also orange again. "We had a lot of Frank Sinatra songs in the movie, and I discovered that orange was one of his favorite colors. It added something."

The audience of around 300 applauded when a clip from 2003’s Something’s Gotta Give showing Keaton and co-star Jack Nicholson in that famous kitchen came on. "It’s a dream kitchen. I know that," said Meyers. For the exterior, a house in the Hamptons was used, but the interior -- an entire house that you "could walk through from room to room" -- was created on a Sony soundstage in Culver City, Calif. "I saw 50 houses in the Hamptons. No one would rent to us. So I took photos of everything and took ideas from the best of what we saw.” To create a beachy mood, set designer Beth Rubino sprayed suntan lotion into the air before the actors arrived. Even a pool was put in. "People would come visit me on stage and say, ‘Can we rent this stage for the summer?'"

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Following a clip of Kate Winslet in 2006’s The Holiday madly jubilating when she arrives at the house she’s swapped with Cameron Diaz (the pool! the gym! the huge TV!), Meyers talked about her second-most-famous kitchen, Streep’s in 2009’s It’s Complicated. In it, Streep plays a bakery owner who wants a much more fabulous kitchen at her house in Santa Barbara. "She wants the kitchen from Something’s Gotta Give," joked Meyers. But moviegoers fell for this kitchen as well -- even with its piece of furniture from Ikea and poorly constructed shelves. "This is where I failed in this movie. I wanted to give her a real crappy kitchen. But people said, ‘Why in the world does she need another kitchen?'" Her team on the film included set decorator Rubino, production designer Jon Hutman and Los Angeles interior designer James Radin, who has consulted on such things as furniture choices for her films.

So why does she expend such effort on the details of her characters' houses? As she has previously said: "If you’ve spent a chunk of your life writing a character and someone puts them in the wrong clothes or in a bed with sheets you know she would never own … it’s like somebody has added dialogue into the scene. Sometimes you pick up more from what you’re seeing than hearing.”

Next up for Meyers is an as-yet-untitled romantic comedy for Sony Pictures about an American girl living in London. As for the furnishings, all Meyers would say about them is that "it involves the royals, so there’s a lot of fancy stuff."