During a few scenes in It’s Complicated, the latest comedy from writer-director Nancy Meyers (What Women Want, Something’s Gotta Give), I laughed so hard that tears came out of my eyes.
Meyers is an unabashedly commercial filmmaker of mainstream glossy comedies for women. Her clout comes from being both writer and director. She makes her movies her way (with a nod to Hollywood’s classic screwball comedies), and has final cut. It’s Complicated throws ex-spouses Meryl Streep and Alex Baldwin into an extra-marital affair that is sexy and hilarious. Baldwin’s Oscar co-host Steve Martin plays Streep’s other love interest, as her two 20-something daughters are caught in the ensuing maelstrom. The movie earned an R-rating due to pot-smoking that fuels its most unroarious scenes.
With It’s Complicated, Meyers is in top form.
1. Was your goal as you were writing the script and directing and editing the movie to make audiences laugh as hard as possible?
NM: I know my agenda. I know what I want to accomplish every day, what I want to execute. My script is locked. Like, that’s what we’re there to do, bring it to life, keep pushing, making it great. We don’t improvise, change words or rethink things. It did come together really well. As a director I have gotten stronger. It’s a job I continue to learn how to do.
2. What have you learned?
NM: It was such an experience working with Jack Nicholson. I came out of it better. On the commentary with him on Something’s Gotta Give, I picked his brain through the whole thing. He’s never been on TV or a talk show. That interview is like a great documentary about acting. He lets you in on his process as an actor, the way he beats down a scene. Something I remember in Something’s Gotta Give: he picked up a dark rock and tumbled it in the air and handed it to Diane Keaton. He made me see it. He said, ‘If you give me a prop, I’ll make sure you see it.’ On this movie, Steve Martin gets two movie invites. Thinking of Jack, I said, ‘do something when you pull them out.’ Steve brought the tickets out and fanned them. The entire audience at every screening goes, ‘awww.’
3. Why so funny this time?
NM: I felt my last two movies [The Holiday, Something’s Gotta Give] were emotional ones for me to write, make, edit, and watch 1000 times. With this movie, I wanted to do a comedic turn. I tried to go to laughs whenever I could. I wanted to push myself comedically.
4. Was it autobiographical?
NM: Being at a friend’s child’s party across from the person you spent 20 years with, you’re there most times by yourself with the kids, and you look across a room. It’s great that you can all be together, but it’s weird, that connection, that odd way I felt. None of that is funny, but no part of me wanted to write a drama. We split, broke up in 1998; we were together 20 years. I have a really good relationship with Chuck [Shyer]. We don’t hang out, but we talk a lot. I see him with our daughters when they’re home from college. I wanted to say, we’ve all been there. I was reading a piece on Hillary Clinton when Chelsea went to college, walking around the White House and looking in her room. It’s another thing we have to go through, we have to let them go. But having to let them go doesn’t mean you want them to go.
5. Do you go away to write?
NM: I did go to the Hamptons on Somethings Got to Give. I write here in my house. I took a year off after The Holiday. It felt like a month. I’m not the kind of filmmaker who plans ahead. Then I have to recover. I normally think I’ll retire at the end of the shoot. For me, it’s such an intense process. This one was not as arduous, seven months as opposed to ten to twelve. I put in a big day. I don’t go out to lunch. I’m writing all day. Writing to me means sweats in chair, not rsvping to anything.
6. Did you write it for specific actors?
NM: Meryl and Alec. I saw the two of them in my mind when I was writing. It’s helpful to attach my writing to another voice. It’s dangerous when you don’t get them: then you don’t get it the way you saw it. I’m a big fan of Alec from 30 Rock, I started writing when the show was newish. I didn’t know he was that hilarious. I like guys who are tough like that, funny. He’s got sex appeal.
Alec brings an enormous amount. He’s great with dialogue, can say it fast and funny, be inventive. He used his eyes, his whole body. He was almost naked, he had on little briefs. I hope he doesn’t retire. He loves politics, philanthropy. He lives a big life. I don’t think acting is everything for him. It’s just one part of his life.
7. What makes Streep so good?
NM: Meryl is exceptionally prepared; she has a global view of a scene that few actors have. Most are there thinking about their character, but she can keep her eye on the scene. I’m aware that she’s aware. I can see her getting going to the door, or she pays attention to knowing where the camera is, or pushing the swing with her foot, subtley. She’s so smart about movies, which gives the scene focus and helps a lot.
So many women of our generation want to go to the movies. Meryl gets these leads in movies, while most people still don’t have the opportunity. She’s wonderful. Audiences want to see her, time and again. It’s so much fun for audiences to watch her being so fabulous as she gets older. And a new generation has discovered her, from The Devil Wears Prada, who didn’t know she was so funny.
8. She was willing to make fun of her drooping eyelids?
NM: She’s so beautiful, it’s a really fun scene. I brought the camera close on her eyes. It was the second day of shooting. She’s comfortable with herself.
9. My friends and I covet her wardrobe.
NM: Movie wardrobe is not an art anymore, unless you’re doing a period movie with great costume designers. Otherwise it’s a lot of shoppers. Everyone looks the same, there’s a whole generic look to the way people look in movies. I wanted to present her differently, to see her standing in a house with a tile roof, not in Connecticut looking like Streep. I wanted to see her in Santa Barbara. I loved her wardrobe, it looked real. And the two girls looked like they were living out of a suitcase. I tracked down Sonia Grande, the Spanish designer of Vicky Cristina Barcelona, who didn’t speak English. I met her with a translator, and liked her immediately. I brought her pictures of the look I wanted for Meryl. She was collaborative, at the end of the movie she spoke English.
10. Why does she live in such a grand house?
NM: We were mostly inside the house, kitchen, living room, dining room. 70% of the screenplay takes place inside these three rooms, 70 pages. I was building a house, what I wanted it to look like. I get into it, it’s an extension of character. Something’s Gotta Give was a simple summer house. In this house there are things– baskets, pictures. It’s where she really lives, not a weekend house. I’m trying to think about the audience and give them something to look at, a vase, orange flowers. It’s what I do in my own house. I don’t think the movie would be any better if she lived worse. I’m doing what I think I would do. The bakery is how I think she would live. I like to cook, I like my kitchen and everything kitchen-related.
I was near to finishing the script when I found out that Meryl was playing Julia Child. ‘Oh no, we’ll never get her, cooking is such a big part of the movie.’ But she agreed to do it. We never brought up that she was going to play Julia Child. That was cool.
11. Why the pot-smoking?
NM: I thought this woman was in a place of being adventurous, she went along with the affair, she was so not herself. The pot was the external release she needed. Alec brought [the pot] over, she put it in a drawer, wasn’t looking for it, took one little hit and gets really stoned. I saw the humor in it. I thought it would be funny for her to show up at the party stoned, having the ex there who she’s having sex with, during a date with someone else.
12. Which man were you rooting for Streep to wind up with?
While I’m writing I want it to work with Alec. I write it that way. But the truth of his character is coming through. She’s aware of the signs of who he is. Getting the truth out of him is hard. Streep, while filming was under way, wanted it to be possible. The character has been there, she divorced him, little things come creeping back. To me it’s not about which guy. The movie ends with her and Alec, to me that’s the emotional end of the movie. This other guy shows up and wants to know her. That’s great for her and she deserves it.
13. Are you aiming this at women?
NM: I think Alec is a draw and so is Steve, men seem to like them a lot. There’s an audience, I don’t think it’s strictly a women’s audience, it’s driven by women. But movies don’t get to numbers of Mamma Mia! and Sex and the City just with women.
14. What genre is this film?
NM: Call it a relationship comedy, but the genre has been twisted. Most movies are fantasies in some way, that’s why they exist. That’s why we go see them. They are altered: more good-looking, more thrilling, more romantic, more scary than real life. The romantic comedy has gone through some hard times. People are unfair to them. If it’s a real fantasy, real people are relating to it. If it’s romantic and comedic, it’s an OK thing if it’s pulled off. They don’t brand male genre movies as fantasies. When and how does that happen in life?
[Here’s the NYT’s long Meyers magazine profile.]