Though she’s been working in film for over 30 years now, Meg Ryan has largely appeared in front of the camera in beloved films like “Sleepless in Seattle” and “When Harry Met Sally.” After taking a break from acting for the last six years, Ryan now finds herself in the director’s chair for her feature debut, “Ithaca.”
The film, based on the William Saroyan novel “The Human Comedy,” features Ryan onscreen once again with her beloved co-star Tom Hanks, as well as acclaimed writer and director Sam Shepard and Hamish Linklater. “Ithaca” tells the story of 14-year-old Homer Macauley (played by relative newcomer Alex Neustaedter) as a young telegram messenger whose family has been strained by the passing of his father and the drafting of his older brother. As Homer plays surrogate protector to his widowed mother, older sister and four-year-old brother, he soon finds that some messages are harder to deliver than others.
Earlier this week, “Ithaca” had its world premiere at the Middleburg Film Festival, and director and star Meg Ryan joined producer Janet Brenner and star Alex Neustaedter to talk about its stunning source material, the discipline of directing and why Tom Hanks is the sweetest man in Hollywood.
On “Ithaca’s” Familial Roots
“Janet and I both loved the big ideas in this movie,” Ryan said. “We thought it would be most effective if we could streamline it to Homer’s story, this very particularized coming-of-age story. I found the book when I got divorced, and my son was eight years old. And I was like lost, I thought it was going to be so hard. Who is going to look to, how is he going to be a man? When I read it, I found that there were so many people in Homer’s community who are invested in his integrity. My first in to the material was as a mom.”
Fittingly, Ryan’s own son, Jack Quaid, is featured in the film as Marcus, the older brother serving in the war. “He’s doing a series now for HBO and he came from Martin Scorsese’s set to mine, so we were kind of lucky to get him,” she laughed. “One of the things I love about Marcus is that he has such an expressive voice and his voiceover is so beautiful. We gave him Saroyan’s wisdom and we let that poetic voiceover define a boy on the cusp of manhood who is the most unlikely soldier. It’s a great loss to lose a poetic brain like that.”
The Film’s Teenage Star
While Ryan worked with many children on the set of “Ithaca,” Alex Neustaedter was particularly interesting to collaborate with. “We needed Homer to have soul and dignity. What I love what Alex did is that Homer never feels sorry for himself, and that’s the same with Alex. He’s so refined and precise,” Ryan gushed. “I remember him telling me he was either going to be an actor or a baseball player. Everything about him, he has such a natural integrity. I love talking to him, he’s a really deep person. He turned 16 the day we wrapped.”
Neustaedter revealed that he was excited about such a meaty role. “I originally just responded to the casting call. I was coming from a baseball game and I saw the breakdown and I was taken aback by it. I was so passionate already just reading it, I didn’t know if I even had a chance of getting it. I sent in a tape at 1AM and two weeks later I got a call to go to New York, and that’s when I met Meg and Janet.” Apparently the two were so impressed by Neustaedter that the next day they met over pie to discuss the role. “We talked about everything that Homer was about, everything we were trying to tell with his story about becoming a man.”
Ryan helped Neustaedter find classic touchstones to refer to when working on his character. “Oh, ‘East of Eden,’ ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ films told very simply with big ideas. I said, ‘Man, you should check out Marlon Brando and James Dean.’ Just the classics, really. Turn on TCM.”
Being a First-Time Director
“I always thought about directing but I’m so glad I didn’t do it until now. It takes so much of you,” admitted Ryan.
Though initially worried about her work, she found she had important strengths. “I have a lot of slow pitches, but I also have a couple fastballs and those are that I understand actors and I understand frames. It was important that this particular story be told in a forthright way because it’s such an honest story. I wasn’t going to do these fancy camera moves and I’m capable of not fancy,” Ryan said. “So I thought that form and content could marry each other well with me directing this piece.”
“The satisfaction of directing is completely comprehensive,” she explained. “You feel so responsible, because you’re the emotional conduit, it’s very important the story gets felt.”
On Acting in Her Own Film
Acting in a film is not without its pitfalls. But producer Janet Brenner was quick to point out that while Ryan was busy in front of the camera, the film was in good hands. “In Meg’s case, she had a close-knit team with our DP Andrew Dunn and with the first AD, and I think Meg was ready to be an actor in her own scene because everybody around her knew what she was going after and what she wanted. So when she stood on the other side of the camera, it seemed natural.”
“I would look at the DP and he would go, ‘Ugh, no,’ if I needed another one,” Ryan explained. “He was my own little director.” Though Brenner wanted Ryan to appear in the movie from the beginning, Ryan was less convinced. “I didn’t always want to be in it,” she revealed. “But it helped us get the money [laughs].”
On Tom Hanks’ Role
“He so did us a solid. Tom showed up for a day, and then after 10 hours of shooting, he pulled the crew together and he said, ‘We’ve really gotten to know each other in the last 10 hours and I just want to thank you for being here for my friend.’ So how can you not love that guy?,” Ryan shared.
The Impact of “Ithaca”
Though she was at first worried what the reaction of the crowd at Middleburg would be, above all, Ryan was passionate about her project. “I think the movie has a beautiful message, as well as being beautiful to look at. I’m proud of what it has to say and I’m glad it’s out in the environment now without a note of cynicism in it. It’s so tender. I love that we’re putting that out there.”
“Ithaca” is currently looking for distribution.