A Movie Capra Would Have Liked: Meg Ryan on Her Directorial Debut, Ithaca

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A Movie Capra Would Have Liked: Meg Ryan on Her Directorial Debut, <i>Ithaca</i>

In the long and storied history of romantic comedy, there are a few names that become, for their generation, inextricably linked with the genre. For past generations those were names like Charlie Chaplin, Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. And anyone who lived through the 1980s and beyond can’t think of romantic comedy without thinking of Meg Ryan. Her effervescence, charm and wit enlivened classics like When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail, and many more. But like Chaplin, Grant, and Hepburn, Ryan’s talents extend far beyond the confines of the genre—she’s won acclaim in dramatic roles in films like Promised Land, City of Angels and The Women as well. This month marks her debut as a feature film director with the release of Ithaca, a movie with classicist roots that those earlier masters would have appreciated. Ryan joined us to talk about the film, about the darkness in Frank Capra’s work, and about beginning her acting career long ago with the director of perhaps the greatest romantic comedy ever, The Philadelphia Story.

Meg Ryan: Hi Michael!

Paste Magazine: Hi Meg! How are you doing?
Ryan: Good! How are you doing?

Paste: Doing very well, thank you so much for joining us today.
Ryan: Michael, where are you located— New York?

Paste: No, I actually live in Atlanta.
Ryan: Oh hey! My brother actually lives there.

Paste: I know! Your brother is one of my favorite musicians, actually [Andrew Hyra was half of the duo Billy Pilgrim, and his new band is here. I know his music very well—
Ryan: Alright!

Paste: We’ve met several times and Paste Magazine was an early backer of his and Kristian’s music. So uh—yes—
Ryan: Ah, that’s so great!

Paste: [laughs]
Ryan: He’s a stunner, right?

Paste: His voice, man. I mean, I love him as a songwriter and instrumentalist too. But his voice is just…wow, it will just blow you away!
[both laugh] He’s incredible.
Ryan: I’m gonna tell him we talked! That’s so great.

Paste: So I love your movie. Congratulations.
Ryan: Thank you.

Paste: As you know by now its quite an accomplishment getting to this point no matter what your connections or what your experience. Getting your directorial debut in the can is quite the bear, isn’t it?
Ryan: Oh my god, yeah! Yeah, I think for any movie it’s a miracle. I understand all of that now; any movie is a miracle. [Laughs] If it gets out of there, people agree to do it, the entire process is just—you know, a miracle!

Paste: [laughs] Yeah, you know another person we have in common, my friend Mark Ruffalo—
Ryan: Oh, he’s so great!

Paste: He told me when I started my first movie, “Michael, let me tell you what someone told me when I started Sympathy for Delicious, it’s really really really really hard to even make a shitty movie. So, if you’re gonna make a movie—you might as well make it a good one.” [both laugh]
Ryan: He’s totally right! He’s totally right, none of us are trying to make a shitty movie, we’re all trying to make a good one, but unfortunately some of them don’t turn out that great. He’s totally right about that.

Paste: Well you did not. You made a very good one.
Ryan: That’s really cool. Yeah, we did it in 23 days, we shot in Virginia, and we cut it in New York, and the whole thing is favors. Like every single second of it feels like a favor. Because it was so little and it was so short, and I mean we had an amazing DP and obviously incredible music—you know, John Mellencamp scored it—and then the amazing actors, and I mean everybody just did us such huge favors. Our sound guys, our music editors, I mean everybody.

Paste: Tell me about how you discovered the book by William Saroyan? I know you did the audio book, is that correct?
Ryan: I read it a really long time ago when my son was about 10. I think most people discover it in high school I guess through required reading. But, it’s such an interesting book, you know? Our movie is only a slice of that book, really. I don’t know if you know about the book; it’s about the immigrant experience .

Paste: Yes.
Ryan: But what I love is that it’s a simple story about complicated things. And I felt like there was a filmic equivalent to it, that we could tell this story really simply but everything that it’s talking about is, of course, is complicated. About transcending tragedies and growing up with integrity and how a community helped a young man do that. Every character in the film and in the story has to say “yes” to all things and has to accept things they don’t want, and in this Capraesque way, too. So yeah, it just felt like a story I could manage.

Paste: I love that you use the word Capraesque—because I would not have been able to put my finger on it, but that definitely resonates with me just having seen the movie yesterday. I would say there is a throwback sensibility to the movie, without it feeling like an old movie. I think Capra would have liked this movie, let me put it that way.
Ryan: Yeah, because I mean he made social commentary right? He did all of those movies with a light touch, but he also made movies about difficult things. It’s a Wonderful Life is a very intense, sort of a dark story in a lot of ways. But the thing that Saroyan did so well was actually the same thing that Capra did so well, which was they were interested in the paradox of life. That as much as things are dark and hopeless, they are light and hope-filled. I think both of those artists, manage to not be critical, and not be sentimental, you know? Like we can mistake Capra for a sentimental storyteller, but he really wasn’t because he was making stories, movies, about difficult things. And I think Saroyan really shares that with him. So, in the introduction to the book, in the dedication, Saroyan dedicates the book to his mom. And his mom, he says in the introduction, has a combination of light-hearted and the serious that all things in her storytelling turned on, and he hoped to offer her this book for paying her back for all of the wonderful stories that had that feeling in them. As a thank you to her. Isn’t that beautiful?

Paste: That is beautiful.
Ryan: Yeah.

Paste: You’re reminding me a little bit of a quote that someone—it’s really the flip side of that, that someone said about Flannery O’Connor and the darkness in her writing. And yet that she was such a devout religious person and had a lot of hope, but someone said that you have to know how bad the bad news is before you can understand how good the good news is.
Ryan: That’s really true. I mean this movie really isn’t about death, it feels like life, hopefully, because those kids, those tiny kids in the movie, they end up being such a little relief, you know? Those little faces! They have so much innocence and hope in them. I mean that little blonde boy! I feel like no mater how hard it gets you can count on that little ruffian spirit that he has. I mean he’s gonna go on—life is going to go on.

Paste: Go figure that your first directing film would feature a plucky little blonde person with an indomitable spirit. I think that’s not an accident, Meg Ryan…
[both laugh]
Ryan: And he’s so adorable, too, that kid, oh my God.

Paste: I wanted to talk to you about the pace of the file. Because I think it’s brave, especially for someone who has worked for decades extensively in a lot of quick-moving movies, like romantic comedies are famous for being very quick-moving. And I just love that you made this very leisurely paced film that we could all, as the audience, really settle into. But I feel like that took a lot of courage. Tell me about making that choice?
Ryan: You know, I like watching TCM. I love that channel and their little movies. And this being a period piece, it borrowed so many things from their movies—and pace was one of them. All I know is that the pace felt completely right for the movie. Just the way that you’re able to linger, it’s like a poem on a postcard. Being able to linger on these faces—it’s heavy! You know, it’s a heavy story. And I felt like we have less words and more feelings. I felt like it was like a poem. And it felt right in terms of the era—it borrowed from the pace of that era as well. And the things with the music, like the way the source and the score are woven through the movie, like there are people that are singing the song that’s in the score, that’s an old school thing as well from that time. So yeah I feel like it borrowed, that was a way that we showed it was a period piece. It was in the pace of a period piece.

Paste:That actually rings true as well. And you’re right in a wheelhouse of something that I’ve been thinking about for a couple of months. Which is how to take these old forms and these beautiful movies from a past age, and produce something that speaks to the current day but still feels like it’s from the former decades that I feel like we’ve lost…I’m not explaining this well at all, but—
Ryan: No but I know what you mean, I mean this story, it was 1942, but the world feels just as dangerous now as it must have felt back then. And I think that when we tell stories from that time, they resonate right now. And when I found this book, it was, believe or not, the run up to the Iraq war, and I mean this book is about integrity. And as we know now, there wasn’t a lot of integrity involved in that decision-making that got us into that war. My son was really young at the time, and in this book Saroyan answered one of the most important things I was concerned about then. And I think that innocence without being saccharine is a powerful force, and if it’s framed in the right way it’s not too saccharine. And I think when we tell those stories from that time it’s important to locate them in the right now of everything. Ithaca answers a bunch of stuff to me that feels so dangerous right now in our world, that feels so unsafe right now. This movie says a lot of difficult things are going to happen, but you do have the power of community. And not all adults are going to have the answer, but they’re going to try to help you out. I don’t know if I’m answering your point exactly—

Paste: No you did, absolutely. Also, I love that you also used voiceover. Voiceover seems to be for some reason very unfashionable in films now, but I adore it. Especially when you’re adapting a writer’s story—why would you throw the words out of the narrative away? Why couldn’t you incorporate that into the film? And I thought that you did that very well. Tell me about that decision.
Ryan: Well that happened after the fact, precisely to your point, actually. No matter what, this movie has a literary allegiance. Hopefully the pictures capture the poetry of the writing—because the writing is so poetic—but we felt that Marcus, that whole letter that he writes to his brother is the essence of his character. And the idea of somebody like Marcus, who when you look at him know he’s not a natural soldier, he’s a writer! He’s like a Jimmy Stewart kind of character. He is a poetic person, and has deep feelings that he’s intent on delivering to his brother. And a person like that with lots of personality like that is big. So, that was the point of that was to define that relationship further, to illuminate some of Saroyan’s ideas. Those ideas are beautiful. Like that war is foolish and unnecessary…and that if you could say anything to your kids you’re going to make mistakes and to forgive yourself…and pay attention. All of those things are beautiful. And I’m probably going to hear that people reading a Paste article are gonna go, “Oh my God that sounds so overly sentimental or preachy.” But in the context of the piece, it’s of a piece! You know? It’s a delivery system for those ideas, frankly, this movie.

Paste: Yeah, but I mean it’s not just a delivery system—because those characters live and breathe. I believe those characters. It’s not a purely didactic movie in that way.
Ryan: Well they’re all flawed. Every one of them. I love what Hamish says about his character. He just can’t move forward and is so frozen in adolescence, and this boy comes along and shows him that. And he played his disappointment in how he couldn’t get the approval of this man he’s worked with for so long, so beautifully. And he is a real throwback kind of actor, too—

Paste: He really is so soulful as an actor.
Ryan: Yeah, Capra would have cast him in everything I think.

Paste:Yes, Yes. And Sam Shepard, my goodness. Talk about immediately classing up any film. And speaking of great writing! Oh my God—
Ryan: Oh my God, oh my God..

Paste: Like, how do you even put a script in front of Sam Shepard knowing the words he’s written in his life. That’s crazy.
Ryan: I know! We were like, floored, when he said yes. [both laugh]

Paste: I’m sure.
Ryan: He was our first yes! And he really, really embraced that character. He brought things that I would have never—like that whole idea when he says to Homer, “You’re a man!” And gets mad at him?

Paste: Yes, yes…
Ryan: I did not imagine that scene going that way, but I’m so happy I let that guy run with it. Because according to Sam, there are men in young men’s lives who kinda slap you upside the head and say “Come on!” “Get on with it!” “Let’s go!”

Paste: Yep— like that scene in The Godfather, when Brando slaps Johnny Fontaine and says, “You can be a man!!” “You can be a man!!” [both laugh]
Ryan: You know, Sam was so cute because he really loved all of the slowness of Mr. Grogan. He really loved that thing about being able to walk out to the road and watch this boy go up the hill with a message. He just knows he’s forcing this kid into growing up. And by law he can’t tell him what’s in the envelope, right? So, [sighs] I just thought he did all of that so beautifully.

Paste: Yeah. Just last weekend we had our secret screening of my first scripted feature, and I was answering a question from the audience about the acting, and I touched on something that you were just talking about right now. What an incredible honor and privilege it is, you know, when you’ve been working on this script for such a long time by the time you get to rehearsal or by the time you get to set. And then an actor embodies that character and takes it in a direction that you didn’t even think of—and it’s like them giving you your own script? I can’t even express it. How incredible a moment is that when it happens?
Ryan: Yeah, I felt that all prep was preparing to set the stage for actors to make things live. And that’s so magical how actors do that. And every single one, what I learned on this movie, is that every one of them does it differently. [laughs] Every one of them—the beginners, the experienced people, the novices, every single person creates life differently. And it’s just so beautiful. The crew stands in a kind of reverence for that. Actors don’t even know if it’s gonna come. I mean they have their technique—but when the lights come, or when people say action is it gonna come? [laughs] It’s a big mystery.

Paste: It’s the film gods man, the film gods…[both laugh] This is a little bit off-topic from the direction that we’re going, but I just have to ask you because I love what your first film was. It’s incredible, with your decades of work in romantic comedy and working with different directors and such—who would have known that George Cukor directed the first film that you were in?! That’s incredible! [both laugh] I mean, we’re talking about all of these old-school things and a link to another era. Tell me about, how old were you, 18 working with him?
Ryan: [laughing] And who knew at the time, I was such an idiot, I would call him “Kucker” you know like “Mr. Kucker!” I mean, so stupid—but anyways…what luxury that guy is. And guess what else? Somebody gave me a first edition book signed by Saroyan to George Cukor.

Paste: Oh my gosh…oh my gosh. That is amazing.
Ryan: Isn’t that amazing?? I mean that’s real…

Paste: That is incredible.
Ryan: Yeah, amazing.

Paste: Well I think that if there’s ever been a better romantic comedy than The Philadelphia Story, I sure as hell don’t know what it is. With no disrespect to any of your amazing roles! It’s just so perfect to me that, not only The Philadelphia Story but many other great things he directed…but that the director of The Philadelphia Story would anoint you, who starred in so many romantic comedies going forward, it’s really beautiful.
Ryan: Well, he sure did set the bar didn’t he? My god!

Paste: Did you work enough with him to sort of absorb and pick up some stuff? Or was it more of a job that you just did and got out?
Ryan: Well you know, it was my first movie so I had no idea what was happening. But the thing that I still think about is when he said to one of the actors, “UGH! STOP ACTING! You don’t act…” And he was totally right. That has no place on a set.
[both laugh]

Paste: Oh, that’s beautiful! Well, thank you so much for taking this time.
Ryan: Good luck with your movie! What’s it called?

Paste: Thank you so much! It’s called 6 Love Stories and it’s a romantic comedy, actually.
Ryan: Oh great! Is it out in distribution yet?

Paste: Nope, we have our world premiere at the Portland Film Festival this weekend.
Ryan: Oh! Well, okay! Well, break a leg then.

Paste: Thank you so much, and congrats again on this film, and we’ll talk again soon.
Ryan: Thanks Michael, bye.

Paste: Thanks Meg. Bye.