Tribeca: Nancy Meyers Talks Signature Look of Films, Attributes Long Career to "Strong Will"

Peggy Sirota /Warner Bros. Entertainment

The writer-director also talked about her long-term collaboration with Diane Keaton and why she made her directorial debut at the age of 48.

Nancy Meyers always starts at the beginning — at least when she’s starting a  screenplay. And during the Tribeca Talks event Wednesday night, film critic Carrie Rickey started at the beginning of the filmmaker’s career, from Meyers' first feature, Private Benjamin, all the way to Robert De Niro making her cry on the set of The Intern.

But even before she started working in film, Meyers gravitated toward entertainment. Growing up in Philadelphia, she was a theatrical child and enjoyed putting on shows. Her family would go into New York to see Broadway shows, as well as touring productions that would come through town. She recalls being amazed by Lucille Ball in Wild Cats, and her grandfather snuck her down a back alley to meet Ball. 

She moved to Los Angeles on a Tuesday, and by Friday, she was working on a game show. She was on The Price Is Right for a while, and her time there taught her about a good work ethic. “I saw how hard people worked,” she says. “Even at that level on a daytime game show, they worked their asses off.”

Meyers’s dream was to work on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and she ended up submitting a script for the series. Although the script didn’t make it to the screen, she did get a job working on the set and would often observe the show in action.

She wrote Private Benjamin with her then-boyfriend/soon-husband, Charles Shyer, and Harvey Miller. “Everyone in town turned us down,” Meyers said of the film, which proved a big hit for Goldie Hawn. “I knew we were on to something.”

Meyers, Shyer and Miller all served as co-producers on the film, but Meyers was the only one who had it in her contract that she was not allowed on the set without another producer present. 

“It was a different time,” she says. “But here’s the good news: Here I am. Where are they?”

Rickey and Meyers also discussed the scribe-director's longtime collaboration with Diane Keaton, who has starred in four of Meyers' movies. Meyers shares that sometimes Keaton spins around before a take to get ready. “She comes at things in a surprising way,” Meyers said. “She can do everything.”

Meyers takes a lot of inspiration from her own life in what she chooses to write. “With Baby Boom, I was living it,” the director says about the movie about a female executive who inherits a baby. “I was a young mother. … I don’t think there had been a movie like that.”

She delayed her directorial debut, a remake of The Parent Trap, until she was 48 because she had been focused on raising her family. “My youngest girl was 10,” Meyers said. “I put her in the movie because I just didn’t want to be away from her.”

When Meyers and Shyer got divorced, her subject matter shifted into stories like Something’s Gotta Give and It’s Complicated. “Somehow, that turned into a lot of work for me,” she said of the split.

Rickey also discussed the signature look of Meyers’ films. “My movies get too much attention for how they look,” she said. “To me, it’s completely about character.”

She explained that the Hamptons house in Something's Gotta Give reflects Diane Keaton’s character’s newfound income from her Broadway play, and the house should have the look of something a decorator put together. “Why it looks pretty? It just does,” Meyers said. “It’s how I pick things. It turned out nicely.”

Meyers also discussed the intergenerational family stories in her movies. “People tend to write movies about families where nobody gets along,” she said. “I don’t find that to be the case.”

As far as her longevity in her career goes, Meyers says she didn’t have a grand plan and just followed stories that interested her. “One of the reasons I have lasted this long is I have a very strong will,” she said. “I will hammer away at something to get it the way I see it.”

During the audience Q&A, an attendee asked Meyers what her advice is for setting priorities and goals in life. “I don’t think there’s a formula for anybody’s life. You have to do what feels right to you,” she said, then added: “Just follow your gut. Good things happen out of where life takes you.”