Meyers' 'give' Is Glittering Holiday Movie Gift
by Martin A. Grove
Glittering "Give." T.S. Eliot called April the "cruelest month," but if he'd been a Hollywood journalist he'd have slammed December instead.
After all, December's typically packed with unhappy movies about people wasting away from dreaded diseases or being slaughtered up close and personal. No wonder a sparkling, funny, glittering, dressy, glamorous, delicious, sophisticated romantic comedy like Columbia and Warner Bros.' "Something's Gotta Give" is such cause for celebration. Written and directed by Nancy Meyers, who also produced it with Bruce A. Block, "Give" opens today at over 2,600 theaters via Columbia. Starring are Jack Nicholson, Diane Keaton, Frances McDormand, Keanu Reeves and Amanda Peet.
While comedy may look like it's easy to do, it's really one of the toughest genres to pull off, particularly with as much style as Meyers exhibits here. Big fan that I am of "Give," I'd love to see Meyers, Nicholson and Keaton all find well deserved Golden Globe and Oscar nominations as Christmas stocking stuffers for this holiday season treat.
Having enjoyed Meyers' directorial debut "The Parent Trap" for Disney and her romantic comedy "What Women Want" for Paramount, which starred Mel Gibson and Helen Hunt, I was delighted to have the opportunity to talk to her Wednesday morning after seeing "Give" at its premiere Tuesday. Before she turned director, Meyers was a writer-producer working with her now ex-husband Charles Shyer on hits like "Private Benjamin," "Irreconcilable Differences," "Baby Boom," "Father of the Bride" and "Father of the Bride Part II." With Keaton having starred in "Boom" as well as both "Bride" films, Meyers had an advantage in being able to approach her early about "Give."
When I mentioned to Meyers that comedy is the genre people often think is so easy to do, she observed, "I wonder why it looks that way because it doesn't to me when I see someone else's. But then again, I know." Well, sure, when you do comedy -- and, particularly, as well as Meyers does -- you know what it takes to make it work.
As for the rigors of making "Give," she told me, "It was not an easy script to write for me, but I knew that I wanted Diane and Jack in it. I've never been like that before. I was absolutely determined that those two people had to be in the movie. I knew Diane, of course. This is my fourth movie with her. So I pitched the movie to her to see if she would like it and she was extremely enthusiastic. Jack was not as easy to get to. But I did manage (to meet him). Jim Brooks (writer-director James L. Brooks, who directed Nicholson in 'As Good As It Gets') introduced me to him. I went up to his house one day and I pitched him the idea. But I only had it up to the heart attack part."
The "heart attack part" Meyers refers to is the turning point early in the film when Nicholson's affluent bachelor character Harry Sanborn is dating Amanda Peet's beautiful young character Marin and has a mild coronary. As a result, he needs to recuperate at Marin's mother's to-die-for beach house in The Hamptons. That leads to Keaton as the mother, divorced playwright Erica Barry, unexpectedly winding up as the new object of Harry's affection. Things get complicated, to say the least, when Harry's doctor, played by Reeves, also becomes interested in Erica.
"I think what I said (to Nicholson) was, 'If you hate this kind of movie, could you tell me because I'm really thinking you'd be great (for it) and I don't want to think about you for the next year if you don't want to make something like this," Meyers recalled. "And he said, 'Oh, I've always wanted to be in a tuxedo comedy,' which was a great expression I have never heard before or since. He certainly didn't say, 'I'm going to be in your movie,' but he encouraged me to write it with him in mind and that he'd be open to it. And that's really all I needed."
That was in September 2002. "I'd just come back from a month in The Hamptons, where I was sort of coming up with a lot of ideas and letting this thing percolate in my mind," Meyers said. "I met with him in the fall and finished it the next summer. I handed it in in June. He committed right away, but he was still in the midst of 'Anger Management' when he read my script, so we didn't get going until February. I was just blessed in terms of the actors that wanted to sign on to this project. I was blessed with Frances McDormand in a small part (of Keaton's sister). She wanted to be in this movie, which was really very flattering to me. And Keanu also saw it as an opportunity and I will forever be grateful to that guy. He gives the movie so much, I think. Really perfect casting."
When she was originally trying to see if Nicholson might be interested in doing "Give," Meyers didn't tell him how the film would wind up, but she says now, "I knew they'd end up together. But I told him I honestly didn't know how I was going to get there yet. But I promised him I would get there. Because I didn't know him, at that first meeting, since he said 'I do like this idea,' I said, 'Could I come back and, maybe, we could spend a little time together?' just so I could get to know him a little outside of his movie characters. I went back, I think, the next week. We didn't specifically talk about the movie, we just spent time together. He was very generous. I spent an entire afternoon with him at his house. And we just talked about a million subjects -- one of them being dating younger women, one of them being falling in love, having children. We went everywhere. We talked about everything. He's one of the great talkers in the world, you know. There's no subject he's not willing to talk about.
"So that was it. I left. And that was in September. I sent him the script in June and I didn't have any contact with him. Five or six months after that, after I had finished my outline, which took me about six months, I sent him a note. I said, 'I think I have something. I figured it out. It'll probably take another four or five months and you'll hear from me.' And then I sent him the script through the proper channels. And he called me himself on the phone. It was very exciting. He told me how much he liked it and that he wanted to do it. It was one of the great days for me. At that point, if he had said, 'I really don't want to be in a tuxedo comedy,' after a year of work it would have just been not (good) for me. You know, it's the risk I took. I knew there was no obligation, but he was really terrific about it."
It is, of course, difficult to imagine anyone else playing Nicholson's part in the film. "That's what I thought, too," Meyers agreed. "I was glad that they (both) thought it was perfect for them."
Production started in February of this year on soundstages at Sony in Culver City. "We shot for three months and all of the interior house work we did there," she said. "Then we went to The Hamptons, where we had three weeks of rain and we snuck every shot the moment the clouds would open up. I just can't believe it when I see the movie. Honestly, we had no more than a few days of sun. Most of it was done, honestly, like, 'Run. Now. Quick. Hurry. The rain's coming back.' Then we went to New York City and did all the stuff in (the city) and all the opening montage (scenes) and Jack in his house. Then we went to Paris for three weeks. And we finished in July."
It doesn't sound like a bad way to work, does it? "I definitely don't see myself ever writing like 'EXTERIOR. SWAMP. NIGHT,'" she laughed. It's so not for me."
How easy or difficult was it to write this? "It was both because I had a lot to say on the subject," Meyers replied. "So it was easy. But it was difficult in that it took me a long time to figure it out in that I wrote too much, too long, too big a script the first time through. My first draft was well over 200 pages -- 250 pages -- which is not the length a script's supposed to be (more like 120 pages). It was like the Yellow Pages. It was huge. You know the brads they put through scripts (to hold them together)? The brads couldn't get to The End. It was not a good sign when I put the brads through and didn't make it. There's a reason they make them a (certain) size. Paring it down was the hard part. Writing it was (easier). I was not that dissimilar from the way she looks in the movie when she was sort of a rampage (and writing the play within the movie at full speed)."
In "Give" Keaton's playwright character does her writing while sitting in a beautifully decorated office in her Hamptons home with a glorious view of the beach. "You mean because she sits at a beautiful desk in front of a window?" Meyers asked. "I do that, too. You don't have to write by candlelight in a dark corner somewhere with no heat, you know. You're allowed to give yourself a nice writing room. It's okay."
Asked about wearing multiple hats as a writer and a director, Meyers told me, "I think I'm really a good friend of the director, but I think the director owes a tremendous amount to the writer. I try to be faithful to the writing. If ever I am feeling lost on the set, I always go to my chair and go through my script and read it very carefully because that person who wrote that was sitting quietly in a room -- a pretty room, actually, as you pointed out, in front of a window and that was clear thinking. That was the clearest anybody will ever be."
When she's directing, is she ruthless about changing what she's written? "Never," Meyers said. "Never, never, never. No, no, no. I don't betray the writer. The writer put me there. Really, honestly, I never betray the writing. I'm not the credited writer on 'What Women Want,' but I did a lot of writing on that movie. This is my first original screenplay that I've directed. 'Parent Trap,' which I was a credited writer on, which Charles and I wrote, was, of course, a remake."
While Meyers was used to working with Keaton, having done three previous films with her, this was her first time directing Nicholson. "Jack is a great force of nature," she pointed out. "He's a brilliant screen actor. He knows everything. There are times when I think that even with his eyes shut he knows where the camera is. He's technically brilliant. But, on the other hand, he completely lets himself go at the same time as an actor. He's so open and spontaneous. So he's got this tremendous combination of skills that's disarming at times. He services the movie in the best possible way. He knows the script backwards and forwards. He knows what's come before and what's coming afterwards. He has a sense of where the camera is and what the shot is and how the scene's going to be cut. He's technically incredibly savvy. There's a big filmmaker's brain in there. And he's completely at your disposal as an actor. He'll do anything."
Did she work differently with Nicholson than with Keaton? "You have to work differently with every actor," she said. "I read that Billy Wilder said that once. Some you have to be their best friend. Some you have to be firm with. Some you have to hold their hand. You really find your way with each actor differently. But I thought he and Diane had the most similar acting styles of any two actors I've ever worked with. They're very, very prepared and at the same time enormously spontaneous. They were perfect as acting partners."
Looking back at the film's time in production, the greatest challenges Meyers faced involved having to work indoors for a very extended period. "We were in the house (on a soundstage) for three months of shooting," she explained. "That presents challenges because we're not making a play. We never got outside for three months. (With the interiors of the) house in the Hamptons, the work in there, which is almost an hour of the movie, took three months to do."
That house, by the way, is virtually a character in the film. "Jon Hutman, our production designer, found it," Meyers said. "It's a house in South Hampton. It's a huge house. It's a nine bedroom house or something. We shot it in a way where you see a small part of the house so it looks like a big two bedroom house. We reinvented the inside to match that outside. All (the interiors were shot) at Sony. We all went to work in that house every day for three months. You have to constantly change the time of day (for scenes) and you begin to run out of angles after three months of work in four rooms. The crew would say, 'Oh, we're going into that part of the kitchen where we've never been' and get excited."
The production's final scenes to shoot were in Paris for a period of three weeks and posed some special challenges. "You've probably heard there was a strike in Paris when we were shooting," Meyers noted. "We were shooting on the bridge, the Pont d'Arcole. We had known about the strike when we were there because they had stormed into the Ballet one night and they went into a music festival and shut that down. But we thought because we were an American film company they weren't really going to affect us. We started shooting and we had a great night on the bridge. It didn't get dark until almost 10:30 at night, so we were very visible because we would light up that bridge at night. And right before our first shot on the second night I was in Jack's makeup trailer talking to him about the scene when (there was) a knock on the door and they said, 'You guys shouldn't come out.' I said, 'What do you mean, don't come out?' They said, 'Well, protestors have taken over the bridge.'
"In fact, 400 of these union workers had (come onto the bridge). Those bridges are like huge city blocks. They're very big. They really took it over from one end to the other. They climbed our scaffolding. They were sort of surrounding all of our equipment. They were very peaceful. They didn't want to do any damage to our equipment or anything, but they also didn't want us to shoot. So we sort of sat it out for an hour trying to figure out what to do and they made it clear they weren't leaving. So we left. We wrapped for the night. That was challenging. It was the middle of the final scene of the movie where they meet on the bridge at the end. It's not a scene you really want interrupted by anything."
Another key challenge came, she added, "when they were in bed together. The opposite of being on a bridge in Paris with protestors surrounding you. It was two people in a bed. It's challenging because it's intimate. It has its own problems. It felt like we were weeks in bed on this movie."
Keaton does her first on-screen nude scene in "Give," but it's not when she's in bed with Nicholson. "He sees her nude walking through her bedroom when she gets undressed one night," Meyers explained. "There wasn't real nudity in those scenes (in bed), but they are partially nude. And you're in bed with somebody. And you're the age you are. And you haven't done scenes like that in a long time."
Asked how she made the actors comfortable doing the in-bed scenes, Meyers replied, "I took a really long time to do it. It just took its time. Those scenes have their own pace. They were not like any other scenes in the movie. They were big dialogue scenes certainly, but they didn't move as quickly as the other scenes. We just sort of all felt this was going to feel a little different and we went with it. They took longer than expected, but I think that they did fantastic work. I just felt that the big challenge of this piece was to get these scenes right and I took my time and they took their time."
How much of herself is in the movie? "There's a lot of me in it," she told me, "because I think I write best when I can write a world I understand and situations I've been in. I did sort of want to say what it was like to be a woman of this age who's single, who's successful, who's a mother, who falls in love, who goes through these things. This is stuff that I found important to write about. But these specific things didn't happen to me. I thought I would lie for a while and say, 'Nothing's true except the Keanu part (where his handsome young doctor character falls head over heels in love with Keaton's character).' But the specifics aren't what's true. I get to write fiction, but I get to find the truth in it and put truth into it, I guess."