Comedy Queen

Goldie Hawn in Private Benjamin (1980).
Goldie Hawn in Private Benjamin (1980).

In his final report from Tribeca 2018, our West Coast editor Dominic Corry sat in on a conversation with legendary filmmaker Nancy Meyers, who has been writing, producing and directing modern American comedies since giving us Goldie Hawn as Private Benjamin back in 1980.

He was mopping his brow and I said ‘What’s the problem?’ and he said ‘Comedy’s so hard!’” —⁠Nancy Meyers on working with Jack Nicholson

Filmmaker Nancy Meyers began her career as a screenwriter/producer on the 1980 Goldie Hawn-joins-the army comedy Private Benjamin. Along with her then-husband and creative partner Charles Shyer, she wrote and produced films including the yuppie-inherits-a-newborn comedy Baby Boom (1987), the Steve Martin/Diane Keaton-starring Father of the Bride movies and the Julia Roberts/Nick Nolte throwback rom-com I Love Trouble (1994).

Following her split with Shyer, Meyers moved into directing with films including the remake of The Parent Trap (1998), What Women Want (2000) and modern rom-com classics Something’s Gotta Give (2003), The Holiday (2006), It’s Complicated (2009) and The Intern (2015), all of which she either wrote or co-wrote.

Meyers gave an illuminating talk at the Tribeca Film Festival last month in which she discussed her four decades in the film industry.

On coming up with her first screenplay, Private Benjamin:

Nancy Meyers: People always say “Where do your ideas come from?” and it’s a crazy question because I’ve never known. I know I was driving on the freeway when I thought “What if somebody joined the army thinking it would get them away from their problems?” That’s all I had. I was living with Charles Shyer, who was a writer, and I told him that and he said “Let’s write it together.” I was also ghost-writing a pilot for a friend of ours, Harvey Miller. And the three of us just starting laughing about the premise of who that could be and what that could be. It was a feminist film. It was 1979. It was a woman who does not walk down the aisle, but decks the guy at the alter.

On the sexism she faced as a producer on the film:

I was 29, I was one producer and Charles was a producer, he had worked as an assistant director so he had set experience. I didn’t have any experience, and neither did Harvey Miller, the other producer, but they put in my contract that I was not permitted to be on the set by myself. One of the other producers had to be there. Because why? I’m not sure. Because it was a different time. Now people at 29 are directing Star Wars. Or Jurassic Park or whatever. But then, I guess I seemed young, I was female. They probably thought I was [just] Charles’s girlfriend. It was pretty funny. I didn’t take it very seriously but it was in my contract. It’s horrifying when you think about it. But here’s the good news—here I am, where are they?

Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson in Something’s Gotta Give (2003).
Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson in Something’s Gotta Give (2003).

On comedy versus drama:

Jack [Nicholson] said to me when we were doing Something’s Gotta Give, he was between takes and he was mopping his brow and I said “What’s the problem?” and he said “Comedy’s so hard!” And the reason it’s so hard is because you have to get it right. Because we all know if it’s not funny, because you’re not laughing. In a big dramatic scene in a dramatic film, if an actor’s not completely spot-on, it’s still a pretty good scene. And I don’t think you’re judging the acting so much [in comedy]—you’re either laughing or you’re not.

On collaborating with Diane Keaton, with whom she worked on four films:

One of the great things about Diane is she can do everything. You’ve seen her in dramas like [Warren Beatty’s] Reds (1981), where she’s brilliant, but she’s also, she’s just naturally insanely funny, like Goldie is. They’re just funny women. There were times when we were making Something’s Gotta Give, and she would say exactly what I wrote, but she just had such an original way of saying things. She’s got some kind of comedy gene. It’s a thing she can do that a lot of people copy and they still can’t do it. She’s off-centre. Before a scene, sometimes she’ll spin to get herself off balance and then she’s ready to go. She doesn’t want to be exactly what you expect.

On the importance of architecture in her movies, many of which take place in very nice houses:

My movies get too much attention about how they look so I’m happy that we’re approaching it from the angle of why they look a certain way. To me it’s completely about character, like Diane’s house in Something’s Gotta Give. I had to draw it out because they were stuck in this house for so long—this room had to be here, that room had to be there, there’s a scene where they meet in the middle. So how it plays out is one thing. And I wanted that house to look like a decorator did it, because I wanted it to look like she had just made money from this Broadway show that she had written.

Nancy Meyers. — Photographer… Peggy Sirota
Nancy Meyers. Photographer… Peggy Sirota

On striking out on her own following her split with longtime creative collaborator and life-partner Charles Shyer:

I’d written with my husband for eighteen years and then we broke up and if you’ve seen any of my movies you know that [divorce], somehow that turned into a lot of work for me. Because it’s what I was thinking about. I was a little nervous in the beginning. My first job without Charles was a re-write, because I wasn’t really ready to make a movie and I didn’t have an original idea. So I did a re-write of a script I renamed What Women Want and then I ended up directing it. I liked the original premise—which was not mine—that a chauvinistic man can understand what it’s like to be a woman. And it really gave me a great vehicle to write things I feel about that.

On writing versus directing:

It’s really almost a different part of your brain. Sometimes directing is like math. It’s a technical job and it’s an artistic job and combining those two things at the same time is kind of hard. Because when you’re writing, you’re only really using one part of your brain. So the difference is writing is more freeing. It feels more personal. You’re alone. It’s you, the page, your words. It’s your fantasy. Everything’s perfect, the performances are great, the set’s beautiful.

Then you go into reality [to direct]. Can’t afford that. Can’t get that restaurant. That actress said no. It’s kind of like going through a maze because you just keep hitting walls. I think one of the reasons I have lasted this long is because I’m very strong-willed. I will just hammer away at something to get it the way I see it. So directing is a lot of negotiating. There are big highs to it.

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