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Why Making Movies Is Still Tough for Million-Dollar Filmmaker Nancy Meyers

Once Hollywood's most successful female filmmaker, Meyers remains a bankable director whose films bring the star power and audience dollars. As she tells IndieWire, it's still hard to get things made.

Although filmmaker Nancy Meyers appears to be on familiar ground with her latest feature, “The Intern,” the popular writer and director of romantic comedies starring a wide cast of well-known Hollywood stars has put a twist on her own formula. Despite her notoriety for making romances, Meyers has long been interested in the intersection of the personal and the professional in her feel-good films. She did, after all, write “Baby Boom,” a forward-thinking comedy about how one woman (Diane Keaton, of course) juggles sudden motherhood with her career ambitions. “The Intern” combines both those elements in a new way.

Anne Hathaway stars in the film as Jules Ostin, the founder of a successful internet clothes retailer who’s mostly unable to juggle her personal commitments (husband, daughter, friends, down time) with her strong drive to make her company great. Enter “senior intern” Ben Whittaker, played by an uncharacteristically warm and fuzzy Robert De Niro. Like Jules, Ben is defined by his work, and he joins her company as an intern because he’s been pretty lonely — and feeling pretty useless — since his retirement and the death of his wife. The two take a while to bond, but when they do, it makes for one of Meyers’ most satisfying on-screen relationships yet.

Meyers has never been one to churn out a film a year, but the break between “The Intern” — which cycled through plenty of casting changes, including an early version set to star Tina Fey and Michael Caine — and her previous film, 2009’s “It’s Complicated,” has been a long one. Once Hollywood’s most successful female filmmaker (thanks to the big box office earn of “What Women Want”), Meyers remains a bankable director whose films bring both the star power and audience dollars. But, as it turns out, making movies can be tough, even for Nancy Meyers.

IndieWire sat down with Meyers to talk about why it took her film so long to get made, what’s next for the filmmaker and why she’s never making a film without a studio again.

IndieWire: Everyone in this movie is so nice.

Nancy Meyers: Is that a complaint?

It’s a compliment, you don’t see that that much. Everyone’s so sweet, you’re really cheering for them.

He’s [Robert De Niro’s character, Ben] a very kind person and I did that on purpose. I’ve written a lot of kind of rascally guys and I wanted to celebrate a different kind of man. That’s an interesting takeaway. I’m not that aware that everybody else is nice. Everyone always wants to know, “Where did this idea come from?,” but it’s the frame of mind of the writer. I knew his character was a gentleman, and not just as a facade. He really was a gentleman.

You went through a lot of different iterations of casting for this film.

It took a lot of time to get the movie made, and when you take a couple years for the project, people become available and then they take a movie. They’re not going to stay available to me because they just don’t. Bob De Niro stayed available for me for a long time.

When did he first sign on?

It was a long time, it was probably a good year or so that he stayed available for me. We had a gentleman’s agreement. [Laughs]

Was Jack Nicholson attached at one point? That’s a persistent piece of trivia that’s out there.

Early on, there were talks with him, but his issue was retirement. It’s really weird how these things happen. I thought to myself, “Why with all my other movies — I write them, hand them in, I get them made — a couple of things were different about this one.” I didn’t write it for anybody, which if you have the opportunity to write a script for a studio, I think it’s best because they’re invested in it with you. Because it took a while for this one to get made and the cast kind of evolved, it landed in the best possible place. Maybe if it had happened like this [snaps fingers] it would not have turned out like this. Maybe it was meant to be with these people.

Although you’re not someone who writes and directs a movie every year, there was a longer break than usual between this film and “It’s Complicated.” What happened? 

It took a while because I did not set it up at a studio. I feel that was probably not the best thing for this project, because when you’re writing and they’re calling you saying, “Hey, where is it?” I didn’t have that for this one, it was a choice to not have it. Another reason I didn’t set it up was that it was very clear that the landscape had changed in movies, and budgets of any size weren’t really given to movies I make anymore. I thought I should package this movie ahead of time, rather than be a part of something, and it backfired.

It wasn’t an immediate go for anybody, but it was always worth thinking about. I kind of got down the pipeline at a lot of places but I didn’t get anyone to pull the trigger because, honestly, when was the last time you saw a movie like this from a studio? Because they’re not making it, they didn’t make it. I sort of didn’t see what was happening as clearly as I thought, but I understood in a way that they have an agenda, they need to make these tentpole movies, they want to be in the franchise business and I come along with a story about a 70-year-old man and a woman running a startup. These are not things they’re making movies about, so it was a hard decision but I kept trying. In between, there were some big life events. My daughter got married, which was a big joyous occasion, and was really like making a movie. There was the prep, the event.

“Father of the Bride” taught me that at a young age.

[Laughs] It was a big deal! It was at my house like in “Father of the Bride.” It was like Marty Short says in “Father of the Bride”: “It’s perfect, we’ll change everything.” Suddenly everyone you ever met is coming to your house. If I hadn’t already written “Father of the Bride,” I would have wanted to write another movie like that.

So in between these big life events, I would take the movie out and then it happened. Tenacity is a really big factor of staying in the movie business and I hadn’t really faced this before. I’d been very lucky. It was a new challenge to have to fight so hard and I made one last effort at the end before thinking, “Maybe this one isn’t going to get made,” and Warners put on their cape and rescued me.

Your movies are successful, and that you still have to be nudging and fighting for that—

Everybody does, if you’re not making that movie that everybody wants. It happened and it took a while, but what can I do? It took a while but I’m happy to make it.

There are two scenes in the film where a female character cries at work, and you treat it very respectfully, which isn’t something we typically see.

I’ve cried at work.

I’ve cried at work.

I cried at work making the movie! To me, I don’t have a problem with it, but I don’t want anyone to think it’s a tearfest at work. [The character] Becky even says, “I hate women that cry at work!” I think in that work environment in particular — you know, when I cried making the movie I kind of hid — but that work environment is so open and relaxed, she did it right out in the open. Jules didn’t do it in the open, she turned her back to everybody and only one person saw it.

So many of your films are about women with enviable jobs and great homes that are also having relationship issues. Are you actively trying to engage with the question of if can women” have it all”?

Well, I make movies about people, not events. Mine are people and relationship movies. It has to have a problem or we don’t have a movie, it’s that simple. There has to be something going on that’s dramatic, even in a comedy. I have to create what the thing is.

The source of drama in this film seems smaller than what you’ve used before.

That’s because the issue is at work and the issue in her personal life is not the through line of the movie. The through line of the movie is Jules and Ben. The Jules-Ben relationship doesn’t have a problem and I kind of did that on purpose. I didn’t want to give it the earmarks of a romantic comedy where they have a falling out, and then she has to race to him at midnight to get him back. That doesn’t happen. It’s challenging to have the core relationship of the movie be problem-free, but there are problems around them everywhere. I think that’s what you’re feeling. The core relationship is one that builds and builds and builds in a good way.

The one time they do have an issue, she realizes what she’s done and she apologizes and he forgives her and they move on.

Well, what’s he going to say when someone apologizes? Isn’t the right thing to forgive?

He’s such a good person, of course he’s going to.

And she admits everything, she takes the wrath: “You did nothing wrong, it was me, I’m better than this, I hope you’ll come back to work for me, and I want to bring you up into my team.”

Their relationship does have some the hallmarks of a rom-com, though. Jules has the sort of intimacy issues we’d typically see in a male lead. 

In the beginning, yes, because she’s got a lot going that she doesn’t really want to share. If someone’s driving you, I mean for example, I was in the car coming from the airport two days ago, and I was on a call about work and there was an issue I was trying to discuss and I said, “Alright, so that’s the plan, that’s how we’ll fix it,” and I hang up, and I swear to God the driver says, “I agree with you, you’re absolutely right.” [Laughs] And I said, “Oh, I didn’t know you were listening,” he said, “Well, of course I’m listening.”

Of course he’s listening, but he’s not supposed to say that. 

Yeah, so that’s why that’s there. She has a lot going on and she says to him, the moment he gets in the car with her, she says, “You’re going to hear a lot and this is strictly confidential.” And he says, “Goes without saying.”

You seem to have a few things coming up — including “The Chelsea,” a movie written by your daughter, Hallie Meyers-Shyer. Is that still happening? 

She wrote a wonderful script. And it’s not gotten made yet, and she’s gone on to another script, and now she’s actually writing a pilot with Nate Bargatze. He’s the stand up. He’s so funny. He’s been on Fallon a few times. So I think what’s going to happen for her is, if the pilot goes, then she’ll have more credit for her screenplay. She was probably 24 when she wrote it. Very young. Also it’s a movie that’s in the same world that I write in, and it’s very hard to get those movies made now. And it’s hard to get actors to be in them, it really is.

The film is about a group of people who live at the Chelsea Hotel, correct?

I have friends who live at the Chelsea Hotel. And she’s been to their home with me and it’s such an unusual [place]. Now they’ve been renovating everything, but you know the history of the place. And the child, they have a kid who’s grown up there. So, it’s not a modern day “Eloise” like it sounds, it’s really not that. But she was really taken by the fact that their daughter grew up there. And so it’s really a script about the parents.

She’s an interesting girl, she’s very young and she never writes about people her own age. So it’s really a script about the parents, and their relationship and break up. And she calls it “The Chelsea” because it involves some people who live in the building.

I’m very proud of her, she’s really the best writer in our family. And she’s getting some breaks now, so I’m happy for her.

I’m imagine you’d be thrilled make it together. 

Well, it would be really great. But she should direct it because I think there is a moment of talk where I was going to direct it and I really was trying to get “The Intern” made, at the same time trying to get that one made. And like I said, it’s hard to wrangle movie stars to be in smaller movies. You know what, she’s all of 28 now, it may still happen. I think there’s still time. I didn’t get a movie made until I was 29, she’s in good shape.

“The Intern” opens on Friday, September 25.

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