Meyers' witty pics muse on love, draw boffo B.O., expose contempo mores

Here’s what someone at the studio actually whispered aloud back then: “She really shouldn’t be there alone on the set.” He was talking about Nancy Meyers, the then-29-year-old co-screenwriter on “Private Benjamin.”

To some extent that movie’s wide-eyed but spunky heroine, played with unstinting gumption by Goldie Hawn, was a reflection of Meyers herself.

“The character played by Goldie left a way of life she knew, and the Army opened up a new world for her. I, too, was a Jewish girl from Philadelphia. OK, I didn’t join the Army, but I did come to Hollywood,” Meyers says.

It was her first film in Tinseltown and her first project with writing partner and then-husband Charles Shyer. And it became a hit.

“Still, it was quite an ol’ boys’ network back then, even if it was 1980,” Meyers recalls.

To that extent, probably not all that different from the Army, only the pay was somewhat better.

Now a triple-threat hyphenate writer-director-producer, Meyers betrays nary a hint of resentment over the difficulties of that era, as she is one who simply got it and got on with it. She has over the last 25 years written, directed and/or produced (first in tandem with Shyer or others, then solo) a dozen movies.

Meyers struck out on her own in 2002 when she set up her own company, Waverly, and began work on “Something’s Gotta Give.”

Taken together, Meyers’ oeuvre has grossed more than $1 billion at the worldwide box office.

“Financially speaking, Nancy’s movies are more than a good bet,” says Sony Pictures chairman Amy Pascal, for whom Meyers has penned, produced and helmed her latest creation, “The Holiday.”

Not that Meyers herself thinks about the moolah all that much.

“When they called me about this (interview), I said, ‘Are you sure? Someone needs to check.'” Still, she admits, having financial success “enables you to continue working.”

And that she’s done on an almost clockworklike basis for 25 years — and working in a genre that is increasingly tricky to mount.

“To my mind, romantic comedies are harder than ever to get right,” Pascal says. “The ones where you’re rooting for all the characters rather than feeling manipulated, well, they’re few and far between. When they work, it’s first of all because of the writing.”

The Sony honcho puts Meyers in an elite contempo category — writers like Jim Brooks, Nora Ephron, Richard Curtis.

“More than anything, Nancy gets to the crux of male-female relationships,” Pascal says, in describing what she most appreciates in Meyers’ work. “She instinctively knows where the story is.”

For her part, Meyers is acutely aware of how the genre has morphed over the last few years.

Romantic comedies have largely been superceded by comedies featuring two men, she points out. Pics like “Wedding Crashers” and “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” — both of which she says were “fun” and “thoroughly enjoyable” — have taken over from traditional boy-girl comedies.

Meyers also thinks today’s crop of male comic actors feels less “comfortable” paired up with female stars. “Think of Cary Grant: He had dashing good looks as well as comic timing. He could pull off both funny and romantic scenes, even in the same movie,” she notes. Few are adept at that nowadays.

Golden Age inspiration

Not that Meyers is a nostalgist. She was inspired by and still relishes the movies of Billy Wilder and Ernst Lubitsch and the plays of Kaufman & Hart — in fact her screenplays are largely in that witty writerly tradition — but she also relates to what’s being put onscreen today.

When she saw “School of Rock,” Meyers was impressed with Jack Black’s screen presence, how funny and accessible he was.

“I fell hard for him and thought he’d be great in ‘The Holiday,’ ” she says. (He got one of the two lead male parts in her upcoming picture.)

Greater pressures

In discussing the difficulties of working in Hollywood, Meyers thinks the pressures, on the studios and on the creators, are probably greater than ever.

“It’s hard to get a movie made, for anybody nowadays,” Meyers says, not really buying into the idea that intelligent, grown-up movies are more difficult to put together than blockbusters or arty Oscar contenders.

“I really don’t try to think of the next big idea. Rather, I write about the stuff I know about,” she says. “A large part of myself, of what I worry about, of what I like, is in these movies.”

In other words, there’s nothing, she insists, “calculated” about her tapping into the collective psyche or the popular zeitgeist of the moment. No boning up or consulting of the trendmeisters.

“Take ‘Baby Boom,’ for example. I was working, I had a 7-year-old, and I was pregnant. I didn’t invent the image of the woman with a baby and the briefcase,” she says.

On the other hand, the movie was one of the first to deal with that particular issue, and it clearly resonated with a sizable audience.

Ditto with “What Women Want.” Only by that time, Meyers points out, there were many more women in positions of power at the Hollywood studios that she could pitch such a project to.

On that project, she directed from a screenplay by Josh Goldsmith and Cathy Yuspa. Disney put it into turnaround, another studio (also run by a woman) passed, but, she recalls, “Sheri Lansing at Paramount so locked into it she wouldn’t let me out of her office till a deal was done.”

Having moved her company, Waverly, from Disney to Sony four years ago, Meyers has similarly positive things to say about the woman in charge there.

“Amy (Pascal) does a terrific job. She sets the standard and the tastes on the lot.” And to be successful, those tastes have to be by necessity varied: These women are in charge of and must champion a variety of movie genres and styles.

“Sometimes, though, they get to wear their woman’s hat,” Meyers says.

Currently Meyers is in the throes of putting the finishing touches on “The Holiday,” which will be released by Sony in early December.

Perhaps because she came up through the writer ranks and has been on film sets for almost three decades, her appreciation for studio demands and shooting dynamics is finely tuned.

“It’s about balance. I’m heavily aware of the financial responsibilities on my back,” she says, “but I also know I can’t do well unless I’m loose and in a state where I can maintain my writing and directing focus.”

Whereas screenwriting for her is “enjoyable” and allows her to lead a fairly normal life — “I see my children and friends, go out to dinner, do normal things” — directing a movie for her means “going into a cave for a year.”

Essentially, “you disappear,” she says. “You’re off the map: You don’t show up for parties, and eventually they stop even inviting you.”

As for her approach to the actual filmmaking process, Meyers says she favors the written word over pure improvisation.

“I stick very close to the script. We say the lines that are written. I don’t throw things up in the air, as it were, though sometimes something does occur or come up (on set) that hadn’t been foreseen.”

For instance, while shooting in a videostore in Brentwood, a well-known actor dropped by, since he was having lunch nearby. “He hung out for a while and so I asked him if he wanted to be in the scene. He was game, and I put him in. It was all totally unexpected — and the result may end up being one of the biggest laughs in the movie!” Meyers says.

Meyers has directed four films and says that at this point, she now understands the job, even if she’s unsure she’ll continue on that track.

One thing Meyers has had to acquiesce to on the last weeks of “The Holiday”: a small dose of caffeine.

During the phone interview, she calls out to assistants for an iced Americano with half caffeine and a plate of scrambled egg whites — dry.

“I never drink coffee, but now the days are so long, well, a little I have to have.”

Collaborative

She largely credits the pic’s lead actors — Cameron Diaz, Kate Winslet, Jude Law and the aforementioned J
ack Black — for making the whole process “easier and more collaborative.”

“The Holiday” represents the first time that Meyers has tackled multiple storylines and multiple locations. She won’t be drawn on the budget, saying only that “other studios will overestimate the costs; the ones who made it (Sony and Universal) will underestimate.” Other sources estimated the budget at between $60 million and $70 million.

Despite her Hollywood savvy (she started her career as a story editor for producer Ray Stark), Meyers says she doesn’t much register on the Hollywood social circuit. Most of her limited leisure time is spent with family, including her two daughters, who right now happen to be in Los Angeles and living with her.

As for an “entourage,” she doesn’t seem to get the question. She has the same agent she signed with in 1979 (ICM’s Jeff Berg) and the same lawyer (Melanie Cook) hired a few years later. What she’d really like now: a physical trainer, for when she can steal back to her “normal” life.

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