Prior to her guest appearance at the VCU Massey Cancer Center’s sold-out 20th annual Women and Wellness event Feb. 3 — which raised $330,000 for women's cancer research — Hollywood A-lister Meg Ryan talked with Richmond magazine by phone from New York City, where she was editing Ithaca, the movie she directed in the Richmond and Petersburg areas last summer. The film is based on the William Saroyan Pulitzer-winning 1943 novel The Human Comedy.
Here's what the the star of such enduring romantic comedies as When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle — among many other well known films — shared with us.
Richmond magazine: How did you choose this area to film Ithaca?
Meg Ryan: We looked at a lot of different states and a lot of potential locations. For the most part, we shot in Petersburg – which is used a lot in movies, so there’s a kind of infrastructure there. It’s a community where people don’t mind having their lives invaded by movie people. [Laughs] There’s this unbelievable Demolition Coffee, which we made our home. We camped out at the tables there; we all got our usual coffee concoctions and I got my same sandwich every single day. Petersburg was great to us. I know Lincoln shot there and Turn sometimes shoots out there, and Sycamore Street is just a beautiful street. It sort of arches up, and we were able to take it over for a couple of nights and a couple of days and send it back to 1942. There were a couple of buildings we could mask, but nothing terrible that we had to spend a lot of money on to take the 1970s back to the ’40s. Things were built in the ’10s and the ’20s and the ’30s. For period reasons, it really worked for us, and we’re a really low budget movie. There are all kinds of parts of Petersburg we discovered that became part of our fictitious Ithaca. We took over the top part of the old Globe Department Store and we built our main set in there, which is supposed to be a postal telegram office, and we spent a lot of days in there. That’s a place that has doll-making classes and cooking classes, and it’s this little part of the community, and we took it over and made it an old-time telegraph office for a while. I just loved being there. I loved it.
RM: The town is supposed to be in California, right?
Ryan: We’re not pretending it’s California; we’re just saying it’s a small town in America. In the book it’s very particularly Northern California, so you're right in thinking that. But we couldn’t afford to go there. Virginia made it really great, though, and the film commission made it easy for us to be there. It reminded me of when Austin, Texas – which is a place where a lot of people shoot -- kind of got discovered about 20 or 25 years ago. We all used to go down there — beginning actors and actresses — and do small movies there. Richmond has the same feeling. It has the same feeling of discovering it. The architecture’s beautiful, and it hasn’t been over-shot — the tall ceilings, the nice volumes of rooms and interiors — and you can go to great restaurants. I liked the whole farm-to-table community. A foodie can be happy in Richmond.
RM: You mentioned the film being low budget. Can you say what the budget is?
Ryan: Mid-$4 [million], which I guess in the indie world is nice and substantial. I mean, people are making movies now for like $100,000. It’s not a huge budget, but these days, you can make a movie probably in your basement.
RM: Being a director for the first time, what are some of the surprises and challenges you found?
Ryan: Absolutely everything. I couldn’t believe how much I didn’t know, and then I couldn’t believe how much I did know. I’ve made 35 movies or something, and I kept thinking to myself, “Oh, this is what everyone’s been doing all along.” There is so much mastery and craftsmanship and smarts, and everybody telling the story out of loving to be there and loving to tell stories. You have these people who are experts in color or carpentry and they’re there until 3 a.m. and back again at 7 a.m.; there’s so much manpower, work and love that goes into it. When you’re a director, you get to see how all of that is operating to the movie. And it’s a really cool thing to witness — to watch how hard everybody works and how much expertise they have. So that part was great, and I just felt like I was drawing on every single part of myself, everything that I’ve ever done; like how being a mom is important, being in renovation in your house is important, being an actress is important, trying to write is important. All these different things. You have a little bit of knowledge, and then you’re surrounded by people who know a lot about those particular things. It’s a really great job for a curious person. That’s the thing I guess I really liked the most about it. And I love that it’s a collaborative art form; there are very few of those, you know? We all need each other when we’re making a movie, and everyone’s as important as anybody else. Most times, creating art is a solitary pursuit, but not movies. We all need each other, and it’s just cool.
RM: You play the mother of the main character, Homer, and your son, Jack, is also in it. Does he play the son who’s gone to war?
Ryan: He plays another son. The kid who plays Homer is Alex Neustaedter, and this is his first starring role. We get to say we’re introducing him and he’s just so dear and great. I play the mom [Mrs. Macauley]. She’s a widow in the beginning of World War II, and she has one son that’s just gone off to war, and three children still at home.
RM: What was it like doing the acting as well as the directing?
Ryan: Well, I just don’t ever want to do that again. [Laughs.] It was too many hats. I know that those were such distracted actor moments for me and they were combined with being a distracted director on that day. We tried to do all my stuff — I’m not in the movie very much, thank God — in like three days. I don’t know how people direct themselves. It just made me feel like these people who start directing when they’re in their 20s and 30s — they are very impressive people. You just have to know about handling people and bringing out the best in people and having a good environment for people to work in, all while making your movie. There are so many things to know about and I am newly amazed at everything. I watch every movie differently now. I look at life differently. I literally look at the world differently, having spent all this time with my DP, whose job is to see light and frames and pictures, and for a while, everything I looked at in Richmond, it was like, “Can we use that? That’s a good doorway.” [Laughs.] It just teaches you how to see and hear and pay attention in life a whole different way. Mike Nichols said it’s a job that he loves because every time he did it, he felt like he was reborn. I understand what he means. You come out with your senses all tuned up.
RM: It sounds like you wouldn’t mind directing again.
Ryan: I’d love to do it again because I learned so much on this one. Also, I made so many mistakes. I didn’t get certain coverage, or I didn’t ask for a certain thing or I didn’t have enough of [something] — but I don’t mind making mistakes. I just don’t want it to cost anybody else. Anyway, I’d like to do it again because I’d like to use what I know and learn more.
RM: I read that Tom Hanks plays a cameo role in the movie. What was it like working with him again?
Ryan: I’m just so overwhelmed by his generosity and his friendship. He didn’t have to do what he did. This is how gracious he is — he thanks everyone else for letting him come to be there. I mean, he is just such a gift to everybody, and it was wonderful to be around him. He’s worthy of all of our admiration and our love.
RM: Had you worked with Jack, your son, before?
Ryan: No, but what was amazing is that when I was there with him on the set, I thought about how this is just one more step from what it’s been like to be around him his whole life. I’d be at my house and out of one door would come one of his friends dressed as some strange cereal box character and out of another door somebody else comes out. and they’re shooting a little video about the invasion of the world by the Trix rabbit! Jack is so odd and great and creative. His whole life, he’s been writing and, in a way, directing and acting and having so much fun. He came to our set right after doing an HBO series that Martin Scorsese is doing with Mick Jagger. So, Jack came to me after he had just been on a very prestigious and cool set. Here, he’d just worked with Martin Scorsese and we got him next. It was so cool to see him have that much fun. The thing he’s doing for HBO is a period piece in the ’70s [about the rock ’n’ roll industry], so he had to come down and shave off his lamb chops and an enormous amount of hair so that he could become a period soldier in 1942.
RM: And how about Sam Shepard [who plays Willie Grogan, a philosophical telegrapher]? Have you ever worked with him before?
Ryan: No, and he is everything you’d hope Sam Shepard would be. He is such a refined and powerful actor. He’s an intelligent man but he’s so funny and he’s really fun, and when you sit next to him between takes, he’s talking about the play he’s writing. He’s to be admired for so many things and rightfully so. He’s one of our great American playwrights. And he’s a blast to talk to. He’s deep and funny and kind.
RM: Did you have him in mind, going into this?
Ryan: He was our first choice, and he said yes. It was amazing.
RM: It looks like the film is scheduled to come out at the end of the year, is that right?
Ryan: You know, I don’t know. We’ve got to get distribution and all that. I hope so. That’s our dream.
RM: You’ve talked a lot about working in Petersburg already. Is there anything else you’d like to mention about the experience of filming in Richmond?
Ryan: Oh, what’s the name of that really great natural food store way out on the end of that road?
RM: Ellwood Thompson?
Ryan: Yes! I love that place and they have the greatest juice bar, fresh juices I couldn’t find other places. I was always there.
RM: How did people respond? I’m sure they recognized you when you were in there.
Ryan: They were funny and great and easy — treated me like everybody else in the world with a little wink, and it was nice.
RM: What is the most fun you ever had in a film role, or is there a character you feel especially connected to in movies that you’ve done?
Ryan: You want to know something funny? I haven’t done a movie in like eight years or something. So they’re not immediately coming to mind. I've had fun with every one of them and I haven’t had — I am so lucky to be able to say this — any kind of terrible experience on a movie. I’ve worked with people who are helping me now. I can call old directors of mine, or actor friends, and have them see cuts [of the film] and talk to them about the process.
RM: Aside from working on this project, do you have anything on the horizon?
Ryan: What I really think I’m going to be doing coming up, and sort of starting now, is just development. I think you have to really put your head down and develop material with an eye now toward directing more. Directing teaches you about everything. It teaches you a lot about writing, about acting, and obviously about film editing. Now I want to try to use what I’ve learned. That’s what’s in store for me right now.
RM: I also wanted to share with you that I was mentioning to some people in my office that I was going to talk to you today and one young woman who’s in her 20s said she had just watched When Harry Met Sally for the first time with a bunch of girlfriends and they loved it. And another colleague brought up Joe Versus the Volcano, and he thought you should have gotten more credit for that for playing all those roles.
Ryan: I love that movie. It’s such a deceptively simple movie. It was so fun to do that one, too. I played three characters in it, but the guy who wrote [Joe Versus the Volcano] and directed it is an unbelievable playwright, John Patrick Shanley, who then wrote Doubt later, he won an Oscar for Moonstruck. He’s just a really, really talented guy, a really fun guy to be around, too. And I think that movie is, in fact, a union fairy tale. It’s a really interesting movie on a lot of levels.
RM: Any final thoughts?
Ryan: I can’t wait to come back. I felt like I wasn’t done with Richmond when I left, so I’m really happy to go back and see a lot of people I was there with. That whole local crew and the people I worked with down there were fantastic. That was such a great surprise. A lot of those people work on Turn and they worked on Lincoln. It’s a surprisingly deep well of talented filmmakers down there.