There’s a scene toward the beginning of Ithaca, Meg Ryan’s 1940s-set directorial debut, which sees a teenage boy returning home from his new job as a mail carrier. Having delivered a military telegram notifying a local woman of her son’s death, the boy, Homer (newcomer Alex Neustaedter), reassures his own mother (Ryan) of the goodness that still exists within him.
“Everything’s all right, mom… ” he begins, pacing as she knits in the corner. She echoes the sentiment from the sidelines, allowing her son to come of age in the space before her. “Everything’s all right, Homer,” she repeats. “It’s only that you’re becoming aware of a world in which you’ve been a child.”
Ithaca is a labor of love that came from Ryan’s protective instincts as a mother of two, one that symbolizes the trajectory of her career, in a way; just as Homer grows under the watchful eye of his maker, the film is the product of maturation, nurtured by Ryan’s days acting in major Hollywood romances like Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail and her feelings as a parent in the lead up to the Iraq War.
An adaptation of William Saroyan’s 1943 novel The Human Comedy, Ithaca, which premiered at the Middleburg Film Festival in 2015, also stars Ryan’s son, Jack Quaid, and features an epic cameo by her long-time costar, Tom Hanks. The film, the actress tells EW, is about Homer’s emotional journey as he awaits his older brother’s return from the frontlines of WWII, and has an important relevance to today’s world — especially given the contentious climate surrounding international conflicts in the Middle East.
“There was a day I thought, ‘Oh, man. I can’t protect my kid from everything.’ It’s a difficult moment,” the 54-year old says, recalling the run-up to the Iraq War as inspiration for directing the project. “I think it speaks to the complicated things happening [in the world], in the sense of community and cultivation of an individual’s integrity – what Saroyan believes are important antidotes. Hopefully Ithaca is about how fierce and frail life really is.”
Ithaca opens in limited release on Sept. 9. Check out an exclusive first look at the film’s theatrical poster after EW’s full interview with Ryan, below.
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ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: It’s great to see you back in movies and taking charge as a director. What was it, at this stage of your career, that made you want to make a film on the other side of the camera?
MEG RYAN: Honestly, it was the story; I just felt like I could tell it. I felt like it was a very simple story about complicated things and, given my novice status as a director, I thought if I could serve the story using the tools at my disposal — we only had 23 days and a limited budget — I could probably pull it off.
The whole run-up to doing the movie took place during the time George W. Bush was doing the run-up to the Iraq War. The world felt unsafe, and that’s when I discovered the book. My son was young and, as his mom, there was a day I thought, “Oh, man. I can’t protect my kid from everything.” It’s a difficult moment. I think it speaks to the complicated things happening [in the world], in the sense of community and cultivation of an individual’s integrity — what Saroyan believes are important antidotes. Hopefully Ithaca is about how fierce and frail life really is. I know it’s not a blockbuster; I recognize it’s this humble little offering, and maybe we never get to make something like it again because of the climate of the film industry [when it comes to] stories like this.
What I found as a director is that you’re really the conductor. You get to be in the processes of all these other artists. No matter how long you work in movies, [you’re] never really talking to the DPs every single day about light or in post talking to the sound guy and cultivating edged silence. […] This movie allowed me to sit around and talk to Sam Shepard about his life and his process, and all of it served the story. As much as I love being on a movie set, this compounded it for me because I started to deeply understand how other artists worked in the medium.
Do you think operating a set as a director will influence how you act in the future?
From being in the editing room and seeing what has real value on film as an actor is going to influence me next time because you see how much people can make mistakes and not hit their mark or forget their lines, but as long as they’re alive with a capital A, film reacts in a magical way.
Are there things you noticed other actors doing that don’t work from a director’s standpoint, that maybe you’ve done in the past but will correct in the future?
[Laughs] I don’t know about that. What’s so astonishing is every single actor on set — and there were a lot of kids — worked differently, and I thought, no matter what, except for the weather, two plus two equals four. You run the dolly track, it’s going to take this amount of time; you start a scene, you finish the scene. But, the magic that happens is with these actors, and the crew understands that. Everything is set up, at least on my set, for all of that magic to happen. Actors don’t even understand when [their performance] has a spark of life and when it doesn’t, you can’t always be in control of that.
I know it’s brief, but there’s a small reunion between you and Tom Hanks in this film that I think a lot of people are going to love. What did that mean to you, to have him on set for your directorial debut?
He’s just so dear. He so did not have to do that. It took him a day to [shoot his scene]. At the end of his time, he says to the crew, “All right, gather ‘round. Listen, I know we’ve gotten to know each other very well over the last 10 hours together, but I just want to thank you for being here for my friend Meg.” It was such an act of friendship. I love him so much.
When you decided to make this film, what was your perception of the types of roles you were being offered in the film industry?
I’d just taken such a big break. I’ve been doing so many other things in my life, and happily doing those things. I only cast myself because I foolishly thought, “Oh, at least I don’t have to worry about casting.” I knew I’d be on the set, I knew how I worked, but I would never do that again. It’s just too hard.
I found [Mrs. Macauley] to be an unbelievable character because she has to allow her son to come of age in this life. I felt, as a mom, that’s what my fastball for this whole bit of storytelling was. William Saroyan dedicates the book to his mother, and he shows gratitude and thanks for all the stories she told him as a child. He wanted to tell her a story that had the same combination of light and dark that she intrigued him with. This is a story I was happy to tell as a mom because there’s tenderness you form, especially with your son growing up — that’s the perspective I wanted to express.
Do you think people seem to be more critical of actresses when they direct movies, though? We saw a lot of negative reaction to Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken and By the Sea, which many people called “vanity projects.” We didn’t hear that phrase hurled at Ben Affleck when he directed Argo. Did you experience any sort of skepticism from anyone when you said you wanted to direct a film?
I think, for this particular bit of storytelling, it was important that a mother tell the story. That’s different energy than a father’s. Directing is all about perspective, and the great thing is when you get these perspectives, when you put a different pair of glasses on, you see the world through someone else’s eyes. Ithaca is a flawed movie, clearly, but these things are important to me. Where it fits in the world of how people appreciate our film or female directors, I don’t know. It’s just a labor of love from an important perspective I’ve cultivated in my life.