EXCLUSIVE: Meg Ryan hasn’t really been on the screen in a major leading role in several years, but this week she is back, hitting the film festival circuit in Virginia and Georgia with her directorial debut Ithaca, a World War II-set coming-of-age drama about a young man delivering telegrams in a small town and based on William Saroyan’s The Human Comedy.
Ryan, one of the most in-demand female stars of the ’80s and ’90s, told me in a recent interview that the break was intentional. “I don’t know, I just wanted to live my life a little bit, and I have a daughter who’s 10. I love being a mom, and I just have had all these other kinds of adventures and traveling,” she said. “I’ve been a famous person since I was 18 in soap operas. I just had to get real, you know?”
Known for a period as the queen of the romantic comedy for films like When Harry Met Sally…, French Kiss and a trio of collaborations with Tom Hanks including Sleepless In Seattle and You’ve Got Mail, her move behind the camera actually reunites her with her old friend and co-star Hanks, who with his Playtone partner Gary Goetzman serves as executive producer of Ithaca as Playtone is the production entity the film. Hanks also reunites with Ryan onscreen (she has a supporting role as the widowed Mrs. Macauley) in the movie playing her husband in a rather moving cameo. She said Hanks and Goetzman were invaluable in getting the project going. They knew screenwriter Erik Jendresen loved the Saroyan book because they had worked with him on their HBO World War II miniseries Band Of Brothers, and Hanks also knew Ryan loved the book, so they kind of “godfathered” it along and put their name on the script when it was sent out which she says was unbelievably helpful.
Hanks shot his scenes in just one day she said, but at the end of it he got up and thanked cast and crew. “He makes a little announcement to the crowd and says, ‘Thank you for being here and helping out my friend,’ ” she recalls him saying. “I mean there’s so much good Capra-esque will in the making of it and obviously the way the movie looks and everything.”
Capra-esque is a good way to describe it as the film has the feel of those all-American style small-town Frank Capra classics which she says inspired her along with movies like To Kill A Mockingbird. “They were able to make these movies that really had not an ounce of cynicism in them, right? But somehow not sappy or overly sentimental. The sentiment is the denial of death, and this movie looks flat out at it, and it’s the experience of what it really feels like to lose something precious in your life,” she said.
Ryan says she actually got the inspiration for the movie when she read the book while going through her divorce (with Dennis Quaid) when her son Jack (who is also cast in the movie as Marcus, the older brother who goes to war) was 8. “I kept thinking, ‘How do you become a man? I mean is he going to be all right?’ And I remember reading all kinds of things, and I got to this book, and it’s about so many things…there was so many great ideas inside of it,” she said in talking about Saroyan’s 1943 work, which actually started as his story for a screenplay. He won a writing Oscar for the film which starred Mickey Rooney (Oscar nominated as Best Actor) as Homer Macauley, a young man who stays home in the small town in which he lives as his older brother Marcus goes to war. The story was novelized by Saroyan just before the film’s premiere.
Ryan has never seen that movie, and her version is far more lyrical and akin to an art film than the 1943 MGM production that was also nominated for Best Picture that year. For Ryan, it’s the book that that is the starting point.
She shot the film on a tight budget in Virgina, which is where she will premiering it this week at the Middleburg Film Festival, followed by a stop at the Savannah Film Festival in Georgia where she is being honored. If all goes well it could even turn up at the Berlin Film Festival early next year. Distributors will begin seeing the movie this week.
There was so little money they could only afford to light the main street for two nights, and the town’s movie house marquee has a fake film name (Yes To All Things) because they couldn’t afford to get a real movie’s name. Ryan also got help from her then-boyfriend John Mellencamp, who composed the entire score — even writing a song that would sound like a standard of the time. “Not one note of that is anything other than Mellencamp. He did everything,” she said gratefully. The cast includes Sam Shepard, Hamish Linklater and 17-year-old Alex Neustaedter who plays Homer.
The biggest regret Ryan actually has is in the scenes where she had to direct herself. “It’s a hard thing to do. I don’t know how people really do it. It’s really difficult to change from objective to subjective and I really think the scenes with me in them could be better directed,” she said, rather modestly considering she has really done quite fine understated work that will probably surprise her fans and critics alike. It’s certainly no easy task though in any way.
Need we remind you that even with a name like Ryan has for entree, women helmers accounted only for 7% of the top 250 films in 2014. But yes, she does want to direct again, but only with something that speaks to her like this material did. “I don’t want to do it as an exercise. It matters to me what gets said in this movie to kids,” she said. “There’s so much in the movie that’s hopeful in the face of inevitable, and it matters. It’s something tender that goes out into the world right now.”