The most commercially successful female filmmaker ever, Nancy Meyers, recently called in to Yale Podcast Network’s To Live and Dialogue in LA, for what would be her first time on any podcast. Meyers, who arguably dominated the romantic comedy for decades, spoke with host Aaron Tracy about rom-coms, of course — her own and other, older classics — and shared lively stories from her many years in the business.
The episode is filled to the brim with behind-the-scenes details and a number of Jack Nicholson stories, so the entire thing is a must-listen. Below, though, are some of our favorite moments from the conversation — not so much “lessons” in writing, but anecdotes from a living legend to perhaps inspire you to work a little harder and dream a little bigger.
1. That Time She Remade a Movie She Didn’t Like
Meyers’ Father of the Bride script was a remake of the 1950 Spencer Tracy-Elizabeth Taylor vehicle of the same name. Turns out, Meyers isn’t a huge fan of the original. But alas, she and her writing partner (and husband at the time) Charles Shyer were tasked with working on the project. It was a job — how to make it work?
Meyers needed to look at the story in a new light in order to find inspiration. “I didn’t love the original and I also wasn’t sure I wanted to make a movie about a wedding because I’m not so sure I believed in that… the whole wedding thing was not my thing, so I struggled with that,” Meyers admits. It was a learning lesson for her — how do you power through something like this? Not only a project based on a movie you didn’t really like but also a story with a plot that revolves around an institution in which you don’t have much faith? “I was a fairly new mom,” Meyers continues. “So when I read the original I looked at it from the father’s point of view and what it’s like to lose your child and that hooked me into it. That your child’s not going to live with you anymore.” She found a way to make something that at first seemed impersonal, personal.
2. The Rule-Breaking She Learned From Billy Wilder’s The Apartment
“Rule-breaking” may be stretching it a bit, but many a screenwriting book and screenwriting workshop will tell you to avoid using parentheticals. You don’t want to piss off your actors, right? Meyers doesn’t care — she uses them anyway. Gladly. And her use of them can be attributed to her great love of Billy Wilder’s (and one of the greatest rom-coms ever) The Apartment. Meyers had the pleasure of meeting Wilder and hearing his stories and advice, which she details further in the episode. She also studied the script for The Apartment thoroughly. There’s a scene in which Jack Lemmon’s protagonist, C.C. Baxter, finds out his crush is sleeping with his boss. He’s devastated. And Wilder uses a parenthetical before Baxter’s line: “Every word hurts.” Meyers loved that. But do her A-list actors love her use of acting cues?
“They’ve never said anything,” she says simply. But she concedes, “When I know Meryl’s going to be in the movie or Bob [Deniro]’s going to be in the movie, I may take a couple out of the script but I’m never going to take it out before they read it the first time… because it’s how I see it and I want them to know it’s how I see it.” And if you come up with parentheticals as good as “every word hurts” you might as well use them.
3. What Happened When She Gave Her Script to James L. Brooks
Obviously, being as successful as Nancy Meyers comes with many perks. But, as a storyteller, one of the bigger perks for her has to be the ability to get her scripts read by and receive feedback from creative geniuses like James L. Brooks. When Meyers gave an early draft of Something’s Gotta Give to Brooks to read, he had complimentary things to say and your general notes requesting clarification here and there. But, Meyers says, there was one note, one simple note, that changed everything.
“He had one note that I thought was so smart because there’s this running kind of bit in the movie where Diane Keaton dresses in turtlenecks and it’s the middle of the summer and Jack [Nicholson] confronts her about it — why do you wear turtlenecks, you know, it’s a whole thing — and basically she’s not a character who wants to reveal too much and that’s why she wears turtlenecks and she’s getting older and she likes the way she looks in them… so Jim said to me, “How does that character take her clothes off?… Don’t you think there’s a scene there?”… I guess I had them already making love… he said, “How do those clothes come off? Don’t you want to see that?” It was just a simple question but it was all Meyers needed for the light bulb to pop on. “He didn’t have a solution but he wasn’t there to have a solution — he wasn’t writing with me… but the question of how do her clothes come off… I said okay, bye, and closed my front door and sat with that for a while till I came up with it.”
4. The Time Jack Nicholson Helped Her Be More… Romantic
Meyers details a scene from Something’s Gotta Give in which Jack Nicholson’s character has a heart attack. She says, in the earlier scene, “Jack starts rubbing his heart because, in the next scene, he has [the] heart attack. And, you know, as an actor, he’s very aware that perhaps before a heart attack you’re having some chest pain.” Meyers continues, “When I talked to him about it later, he said, ‘You know what I think? I think he has a heart attack because it’s love at first sight with Diane [Keaton’s character].’ And that’s what almost kills him. Because he just never experienced it before… Love at first sight, gives him a heart attack.” And she’s quick to own up that that idea was, “Absolutely never my intention.” But she loved it as soon as Nicholson said it. It made sense to her. A total “yes, yes, yes” moment. She’s clearly still wowed by it, hearing her talk. Jack Nicholson helped add some romantic depth to a Nancy Meyers rom-com. Who woulda thought?
There are plenty of more juicy tidbits as well as a great dose of infectious Nancy Meyers energy in the entire episode. It’s a great listen just to hear a talented writer talk and tell stories. Sometimes the inspiration gained from simply hearing a legend tell Hollywood war stories is all the screenwriting lesson you need.
Travis Maiuro is a screenwriter and freelance film writer whose work has appeared in Cineaste Magazine, among other publications.
Photo credit: Peggy Sirota /Warner Bros. Entertainment