It’s Complicated's Nancy Meyers chats about scripting characters for Meryl, Jack, and Alec and why writing films with older protagonists can be a risky business.
Written by Denis Faye
In the 30 years she’s been writing comedies, Nancy Meyers has examined relationships from almost every possible angle, from the family relationships in films like Baby Boom (co-written with Charles Shyer) and The Parent Trap (Screenplay by David Swift and Nancy Meyers & Charles Shyer) to the romantic entwinements in Something’s Gotta Give and The Holiday. But with her new film It’s Complicated, she had a chance to examine a whole new perspective: Her own.
“I had a lot of fun writing this one because I am divorced," admits the writer-director-producer, "and, having an ex-husband, I could feel the familiarity between them. She’s not me, and he’s not my ex-husband, but I understood how there’s a way of communicating.”
A writer having fun? Is there actually a veteran scribe out there who finds the craft easy? “I found it fun and not tiring at all,” Meyers concedes. Then she’s quick to add, “but no, nothing is too easy when you write.”
The Writers Guild of America, West Web site recently caught up with Meyers to discuss the pleasure and pain of her process, the reason Hollywood doesn’t make more movies with older protagonists, and why you may think you know Alec Baldwin, but you just don’t.
As the title suggests, there are a lot of complex emotions going on in this movie. How do you write something like that without actually experiencing it?
I’ve not been in that situation, but I do have an ex with whom I have a long history. We were together 20 years, and we’ve been apart 10 years, and in that time, I’ve obviously given it a lot of thought. Ten years after a divorce is an interesting time because a lot of the little things that made you mad in the beginning have kind of gone away, and you can look at that person differently.
When we’re in a situation, like a graduation or something like that, there is a definitely awkwardness to it, and I started to think about that comedically. You’ve got a lot of feelings and, honestly, I thought, What if they had an affair? was a very creative premise, because after all this time, it’s quite different than had it just been four months after. I thought there was a lot of comedy inherent in the relationship, a comfort in the way they spoke to each other, how he would talk her into it, how she got into it, what he wanted, what she wanted, the confusion of it, not having the kids find out.
So, in other words, you were riffing off of a true moment.
I was riffing off of a true time in my life. Let me make this clear; this has never happened to me.
Sure, but the moment in the beginning, where Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin are forced together at a social event, that’s happened.
Photo: © 2009 Universal Studios
Alec Baldwin and Meryl Streep in It's Complicated..
That absolutely has. The movie gives the ex-couple a chance to have intimate conversations, which I think gave us what I like to see as our happy ending for her. She got some things off her chest about herself, she found out things about him, and got to get close to him.
How do you avoid all the standard clichés when writing a romantic comedy, a genre especially rife with them?
I try not to force it, try to make it natural. But there have been a lot of movies where the exes get back involved. There’s a reason. There’s an immediate connection and chemistry. You’re already in the second act of writing the relationship. You’ve already skipped the first act. You just have to catch the audience up.
It’s good shorthand?
Why do you think there aren’t more movies with older protagonists?
This is a question that I’m asked all the time and I wish I knew the right answer. I think studios have their pressures; they have their bosses – the corporations. They want certain kinds of movies made and that all gets filtered down. So who’s going to write a movie like this? What kind of father or mother wants to spend close to a year writing the type of script that gets made once every three years? I can understand that. I think we as writers want to have unique voices, but we also want to feel there’s hope that the film we’re doing can get made and if it’s got a part for Matt Damon or Brad Pitt, your chances have just gone up for getting your movie made. If you write a part for Diane Keaton or Meryl Streep or even one of the older guys, you have less slots available to get your movie made.
It’s risky to write a movie like this. For me, I pitched it ahead of time. I don’t think even I would have written it had I not sold the idea – and I’m one of the people who’s had success writing a movie about older people. I went in and pitched it in detail with the actors in mind that I ended up making the movie with. They were all for it. I was thrilled. I think they probably felt a little safer doing it with me because I’d done it before.
You’ve worked with some very distinct personalities. Dealing with Meryl Streep is one thing because she can take on a role and become that character. She’s a chameleon, but then you take a Jack Nicholson or an Alec Baldwin, with all due respect, they tend to maintain their personalities. How does that influence your creative process?
It helps me. It helps me a lot. When I thought of Meryl when I was writing, it propelled me to be a little braver with the choices I made for her character. Now, whether or not I was going to get her was another thing, but I took advantage of thinking of her.
Because you knew she could rise to the occasion as an actor?
Because I knew the kind of woman she plays, even though when I was writing it I hadn’t met her. Just knowing her work and seeing her on talk shows and things, I knew she has a very strong persona. She’s a very feminine, strong woman. I needed someone strong to propel the ideas I had and when I thought of Meryl doing them, it always made me laugh. It always made me feel I was on the right track, so I kind of used her as a guiding light.
And Alec, everyone says Alec is Alec, but he’s not at all like the guy in my movie. Jack’s the same. People think because they’re not playing someone like the guy in The Departed [Screenplay by William Monahan], they’re playing themselves. If they play regular or normal it doesn’t mean it’s their own personality.
I guess I didn’t mean personality as much as mannerisms and such.
It’s going to be performed; I’m not writing a novel, so I attach an actor to it and imagine how they would do it, but I’m not doing something in the style of Alec Baldwin. I really wouldn’t even know what that is. He’s been in a thousand movies. Nor do I really know what a Meryl style is. It’s just what they bring to their parts. They both bring a lot of experience and to have those two strong willed people as an ex-husband and wife was good for me to work from.
How’s the creative process different for you as an established writer-director-producer, as opposed to what Joe Scribe goes through?
I can’t believe that the process is any different. I’ve been writing for 30 years and each time I start out, it’s the exact same feeling: that feeling of being absolutely overwhelmed. How will I ever perform? How will I get there? How will I know what to do? Then I just start the process.
I always start with the characters. Who are they? Until I know who the characters are, I can’t imagine the way they talk or what they’re going to get themselves into.
I had an idea in my head – that an ex-husband and wife are going to have an affair and he’s married to a younger woman and he’s now getting re-interested in his older ex-wife. I started with that, but then I figured out who were these people that would allow this to happen. What’s their history? Why did they break up? How did they meet?
There’s no easier solution just because I’ve had more movies made than someone else. The only thing I think I know now that I didn’t know then is just kind of keeping the script tight, not repeating information. Things I know from having made movies. But the real nitty-gritty, it’s the same.