The most successful female writer and director in Hollywood lives in a pretty stone house straight out of one of her own films. It’s surrounded by lavender and olive trees and filled with comfortable chairs, well-loved books, and vases of fresh flowers. Nancy Meyers’s success is striking not just because she is a rare woman director, but because she has produced a stream of hits about a subject Hollywood says no one is interested in: women in late middle age, discussing how they feel.
In Meyers’s new movie, The Intern, out September 25, the protagonist is younger (played by Anne Hathaway) and her foil is older (Robert De Niro), and it’s not a love story. But it is as radical in its insistent focus on the female experience as ever. We sat down with Meyers at her home and again at the Farmshop in the Brentwood Country Mart (which looks a lot like the place where Meryl Streep taught Steve Martin to make a chocolate croissant in It’s Complicated) for a conversation about what it’s like, and what it means, to occupy such a singular position in Hollywood at such a complicated moment.
In The Intern, De Niro plays a 70-year-old widower who goes to work as a lowly intern at a fashion website run by a 30-ish Anne Hathaway. Where did the idea come from?
I actually had the idea when we were shooting It’s Complicated.1 I was driving to work one day, and for the life of me I don’t know why, but I got this idea: What if an older person took a job as an intern? It just made me laugh. And then it became, well, who’s the guy? And then who would he work for? A woman just seemed like a logical good idea — never for a second did I ever want it to be romantic. And when I started thinking about interns, I started thinking about guys, about what’s happened to men.
What do you mean, what’s happened to men?
Well, the difference between this man and the millennials. I’ve seen it in my own life. I see guys in their mid-30s with their little boys, and they’re wearing the exact same outfit. They’ll wear like the same T-shirt, same kind of shorts, same sneakers, and I just remember when men didn’t dress like their 4-year-olds.
When my kids were growing up, they had Take Your Daughter to Work Day. It didn’t cross my mind that there was no Take Your Son to Work Day, because it was expected the men will grow up and go to work. I think my generation, brought up by Oprah Winfrey, really got behind girls in a great way, and I think the boys … the line in the movie is “Well, maybe they didn’t get left behind, but you know, there’s definitely some kind of gap.” I’m not talking about all men, of course. But I don’t think the Peter Pan quality is something women want in their men, that’s for sure. Like I said in my movie, men have gone from men to boys and women have gone from girls to women. It’s a problem. I can only imagine that that discrepancy and that dynamic must feel more than a little off if you are in the thick of it. And Hollywood has done its part in the last ten years of selling that guy as a leading man. And he’s not. The childish man who can still get the interesting, smart women? And people say I write aspirational.
Is that why you didn’t write a romance this time around?
I didn’t want to write another romance. I never wanted to write another scene in a restaurant between a man and a woman. I think David Mamet said, “There’s always the scene in a restaurant where the woman gets to talk.” I just didn’t have it in me to write one more of those things. And I felt sort of done with the romantic story. It just wasn’t what I was feeling. And I felt I’d covered that subject pretty well: to fall in love, and out of love, and be divorced, be Cameron Diaz’s age, or be Meryl Streep’s age. So I thought, A relationship between a man and a woman that’s not romantic, this is interesting. I’ve never done that. I think the age difference kind of really keeps the romance out of it. But I guess really, to be honest with you, if she were 60 or he was 35, I think they’d be wonderful together. But I think they’re both too cool and smart to ever have thought about it.
The Intern is quite a feminist movie. One of the things I noticed about Anne Hathaway’s character is that there’s no particular difficulty that she has in being a working mother. She’s off to work, and she loves her daughter, and she’s very confident in that. That’s something you don’t see depicted very often. It’s always that the working mother is a mess, she has on two different-colored socks…
You know, Baby Boom came out in 1987. My daughter was born that year. So, in that movie the mother was torn. It was hard on her. She was an employee. Being a working mother was difficult because of her commitment as a mother. This is 2015, and in 2015 I would not have thought of making her an employee. I wanted her to be the CEO. She’s got a stay-at-home husband, and some difficulty there, but there are no issues at work. To me, we have moved beyond that. I hadn’t done a woman-workplace movie since Baby Boom, and I was so happy at how different it was.
Not that sexism doesn’t exist in the movie. A character calls her company a “chick site.” Did you include that because people have called your movies chick flicks?
For sure. And somehow there’s a judgment attached to it, and that judgment is never applied to films that men also go to, though I don’t think my movies are just attended by women. I read it in reviews or just snarky comments you can read online. Over the years, it’s been hard to get male movie stars to be in a movie if a woman’s the lead, where a great, great movie star, a woman, will be in a movie where the man’s the lead. So there’s just not parity there, we’re not on equal footing.
This is a moment when all these issues are coming out. There was Patricia Arquette’s speech about equal pay at the Oscars;2Meryl Streep is starting a screenwriting workshop for women;3the ACLU has called for an investigation of the major studios for gender discrimination.4 You are one of the most consistently successful screenwriter-directors in Hollywood, and yet you are still called the director of chick flicks.
It’s more than Hollywood. And I’m not just talking about me. All of us. Is it less good writing, is it less good directing? These are really conversations about what’s going on in our world and how we see ourselves, how we as women see ourselves. And why isn’t there a lot of value put on that?
Have you followed this ACLU investigation? I mean, do you think it’s …
Surprising that more women aren’t hired? That only 6 percent of films are directed by women? It’s appalling. Then when you hear that people who are buying TV shows sort of feel there’s some kind of quota, like a “We already hired a woman this year” kind of thing, and then when you hear those kinds of things, it’s shocking.
You probably have been dealing with this your whole career.
I think filmmakers of my generation have — well, I’ll talk for myself anyway — blinders on. I don’t mean I’m blind to what exists outside. But my determination kept pushing me forward. And if a door closed I just found another door.
And did many doors close?
Well, not everybody wants to make every movie. I want to be clear about that. It isn’t like a guy goes out with a movie and every single studio wants to make it. But Something’s Gotta Give, for example, when I went to pitch that, I knew, I could just feel that these people are not making a movie with a 55-year-old woman at the center. And I went to Sony, and I pitched it to Amy Pascal5 and John Calley, and it was just a completely different meeting. I felt embraced, and I felt that Amy and John totally got it, and they weren’t afraid of it. Amy, being a woman, understood it.
You’ve had great luck with a lot of female executives. Sherry Lansing6 green-lit the first movie you wrote on your own.
Yes. I wrote with my ex-husband7 for 18 years. I had never written without him. I had written one script before Private Benjamin,8 but it was sort of like a practice script. When we broke up, I didn’t know honestly that I could do it by myself. It wasn’t like I said, “Wow, okay. Finally I get to …” It wasn’t like that. I moved into this house, which we had been building during The Parent Trap, and I thought, Well, okay, get to work.
Was this office built for you guys to write together?
Yeah. That’s why it’s kind of big. I love it, though. I’m extremely happy here. I have it all set up so when I’m looking at my computer, the olive trees are this way. Everywhere I look it’s kind of open and there’s nature. So I called my agent, and I said, “Maybe I should do a rewrite.” I thought it would be kind of like having a partner. It was What Women Want.9 I got to say a lot about what I was going through in my life. There are speeches and nuances that were pretty much what was going on with me. I spent six months on it, and I didn’t keep a lot of what was there. Once I was writing it, I knew I could do it.
And then you directed it.
A friend of mine said, “Why don’t you have Mel Gibson in it?” He’s great-looking, and seemed good for the part, but had never really been in a comedy. He was absolutely great to work with. And I must say, as a woman, directing this beautiful guy post-divorce was genius on my part.
He seems like he’d be a really big flirt.
He was. But he flirted in the nicest way. He didn’t make anybody uncomfortable. But on the last day, he did take me in his arms and kind of bent me over, like it was Clark Gable time. He gave me a really big kiss on the lips, but just sort of like a going-away thing. I did not see it coming, and I’m sure I froze. I was just so uncool. As cool as he was was how uncool I was.
You’ve done well on the bucket list of actors: Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, Diane Keaton, Jack Nicholson.
I love Jack. That’s a person who I have a complicated love relationship with on a movie. He’s challenging and he’s tough, but at the same time, he lets you be challenging and tough. He allows all that. He’s by far the most irresistible person I have ever been around. If you look at Bob, he’s been in comedies, he’s been in dramas, and my movies go both places. I need somebody that can go in and out of the scenes with ease in both worlds. That’s why I’ve made four movies with Diane Keaton. She’s great at both.
So is Diane Keaton sort of your muse? Your alter ego? You look alike.
Somehow that has morphed into being true. But if you saw me at 30 and her at 30, you wouldn’t say that. I love her. She is my friend. She’s a real asset to a person’s life. You know, she sort of doesn’t say that she’s been writing a book, and then, suddenly, a book comes out. I had dinner with her 20 times, and she never mentioned writing a book.10 She’s private but not secretive at all. We went for a walk a couple of weeks ago and we drove to the walk. She parked the car like Annie Hall. She’s just naturally so funny.
It seems like you’ve been writing about yourself since What Women Want. There’s a lot of you in Meryl Streep in It’s Complicated. There’s a lot of you in Diane Keaton in Something’s Gotta Give.
I’m basically the same age as all the women in my movies. On Baby Boom, I was a new mom, I was 37, and that was a movie about juggling and where do I go from here and how do I do it all?
And the Vermont-escape fantasy.
Yes, well, I do have that fantasy of living somewhere else that’s — well, I’m on Instagram, so everybody I follow is on the best vacation ever.
Why are they all in Formentera?
It’s amazing. They’re all eating the best food, and they’re all on a boat, and of course they’re all in cool sunglasses. I’m never on a boat. But it just delights me. It’s sort of my little fix for the day. Maybe it’s who I follow, I don’t know, but they have great lives. Have you ever looked up my Instagram?
I have, and I saw that you regrammed a group of young women who were having a Nancy Meyers–themed bachelorette weekend. They were all in turtlenecks and glasses, eating a roast chicken in the Hamptons.
And you started wondering why women like that movie so much?
People just want to be in your movies. Everybody wants to be at that dinner in It’s Complicated when she’s telling all her friends about her affair with her ex-husband. The pies look so good! And the friends are so nice! And it’s all so flatteringly lit!
Because it’s fun. I got a call from a guy I know, and he told me about the bachelorette party. And I said, “What? They’re doing what? I need to talk to them.” So I Facetimed with them, and they were all in their turtlenecks. They rented a house for the weekend. They made everything that’s on the menu. So there was roast chicken. And I think they tried to make lavender ice cream or something from It’s Complicated. They were adorable, these girls.11
These movies are talking about divorce and middle age, and yet it’s resonating with young women at a bachelorette party.
I think it’s because they see a really super-functioning, confident woman who’s made a life for herself, who bought herself this house. And they’re all starting their careers, and I think they must look ahead and say, “Yeah, I like that for my future.” And she’s a divorced woman, but she’s not an unhappy divorced woman. The women in my movies are not seeking romance. It happens when they’re not looking for it.
And let’s face it: It’s all happening in these amazing houses. If you type “Nancy Meyers” into Pinterest, you get a whole lot of home-décor inspiration.12
I used to not want to talk about this.
Well, because I thought that it takes away from us as filmmakers to talk about this.
But the houses have become like characters in your films.
That’s what I think, but there’s an awful lot of attention paid to these things and architecture porn and all that stuff. On this movie, I’ll talk about it. I know it’s there. I know I spend a lot of time on it. I like houses. You can see it from my own place. I even like paintings of interiors. If you look around my house, you’ll see there’s a lot of interior paintings. I like to visit houses. If I go to a city I’ve not been to before, I find out, who lives here? I go to their house. I love the Dickens house. I will check out people that I admire and I’ll see where they live and, when I go to that city, I’ll drive by. I don’t know what it is. I’m not alone in being fascinated by how people live.
The spaces also seem to be symbolic of a certain level of success, especially a woman’s success.
In Something’s Gotta Give, I imagined that she lives on the beach in the Hamptons, and I think she wrote the book to a successful Broadway show, and that’s how she got the money to buy this. And then it’s like, so, where’s the desk in her house? In Something’s Gotta Give, she did not build herself an office. She put the desk in her bedroom, right? Because the bedroom faces the ocean. And her desk is right in front. She has the view she loves, and also, it continues to tell the story of the fact that she was done with guys.
She built her dream house.
And in It’s Complicated, after her divorce, I think she bought this house. It’s not a terribly huge house. You can see the whole house from the living room. She broke down the walls, so it’s one room. It’s a dining room, and the back wall of it is the kitchen. And people said to me, “What was wrong with that kitchen?” Now, this is a woman that bakes and cooks for a living. Well, we made it very charming, probably too charming. Meryl came into the set, she went, “This is too nice.” I went, “Oh no, is it?” She said, “Let’s add water damage,” so we added water damage to the ceiling.
It seems like the current slate of movie heroines is very different from yours. They’re not living in the spoils of mid-career success. They are fuck-ups who could never get it together to buy a house like that.
Well, they’re playing the fuck-ups only sort of, not as purely as the guys did. They act somewhat slackerish at times, which always makes me laugh. But Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon ran a big network-TV show, Lena Dunham’s character is a writer, and Amy Schumer played a journalist in Trainwreck; Mindy Kaling is a doctor. They still have purpose and goals but they remain very original. It’s a new kind of heroine, and I find it really refreshing and exciting to watch them celebrate their confusion and angst through comedy. They’re so smart and funny. They’re redefining women onscreen, aren’t they? And I think they’re all influencing each other to keep going for it. They’re also relatable because they’re not perfect, not perfect-looking or perfect-acting, and their goals aren’t always traditional.
Tina, Lena, Amy, Mindy, Kristen Wiig — they’re all writers who have created their own shows and movies and have created a new kind of female lead. It’s only recently that women who are writers have been creating their own destiny as performers. They’re a bit self-destructive and self-deprecating, but they are also adorable — sorry if that’s a word that might offend, but to me they are. Yet that’s never the card they like to play. I’m so impressed with all of them. Girl power is coming back in a really great way.
Did you see Trainwreck?
I thought Trainwreck was good, very funny. I was happy Judd Apatow made a romantic comedy. I know he and Amy turned it on its ear by switching the roles — he falls in love, she can’t commit — and that was great, but it’s still a solid romantic comedy. The genre has been so maligned, and it took Judd to be able to get one made again.
What do you mean?
Well, I think for a while before Judd, there was a period that was a little dark with the rom-coms. They just weren’t stellar in their execution and their acting. You know, too many were getting made, with the same people. They didn’t really have the goods. So I think that sort of gave room to say, “Let’s do something else.”
Apatow deals a little bit with the thing that you were talking about with the men dressing like the 4-year-old boys, refusing to grow up, getting left behind.
In a way, he did it in Knocked Up. She has a career, and he was making videos of porn, or I don’t know what he was doing. It was funny. But I think Judd’s a fan of the genre, and I think he’s done some hilarious work. I really do. Yeah, I think his movies sort of moved in, and whenever anything is successful there’s more of those that get made.
Do you watch TV?
I love Homeland. And Mad Men, I absolutely loved the end of it. Thought it was brilliant. I just finished The Bachelorette. There is nothing more compelling. My friend said, “Oh, I had to fast-forward every time they talked about their feelings.”
I can’t get enough of when they talk about their feelings.
I know. I only fast-forward through group dates. The group date, I have to admit, I’m not that into. But the second they’re alone with the two shots, then I know it’s going to begin. There’s no chance I’m fast-forwarding. By the way, since when was falling in love so easily documented? “I’m falling, I was falling in love. I’m falling in love with two people.” Really?
Did you see when she dumped the guy on top of the cliff?
And a helicopter was waiting …
That was awful.
And he’s crying …
I love it when the helicopter takes her away.
And he said, “I just never see it. I just never see it.” I mean, it was a pretty spectacular performance.13 If there was some sort of Oscars of The Bachelorette …
How do these people know how to do it? How do these people ignore the camera so beautifully? When someone’s uncomfortable like Ben, who was the third runner-up, he becomes to me the most authentic, the best guy there. Because I could see it just did not come easily to him to be this open all the time with his feelings and kissing in front of the camera. I mean, have you ever kissed in front of a camera? It’s awkward!
In your movies, your heroines always fall in love. Is that like your life? Do you fall in love easily?
No. This is why I make movies. You do go through things your characters go through. It’s almost therapeutic. You do get to fall in love a little. Since you do have a sense of part ownership of the character, it’s fun when it’s happening to them, and then you feel it’s sort of happening to you. You know, you also get to straighten out some things in your life in that area. I felt bad after Something’s Gotta Give when part of me felt that it was based on a relationship I had with somebody. The essence of that relationship is the essence of me with somebody. You know that scene where she’s crying and typing and crying? That was me writing the movie. That was a lot of Kleenex. I would say in this new movie, in terms of my personal life, I really feel I’m embracing men in a way I haven’t before. I’m more forgiving. It has something to do with age. I’m forgiving, and I’m more appreciative.
You’ve lived your whole adult life in L.A., right?
I came here at 22. I was going to get married to a guy I knew in college. We were going to live in Philadelphia. I knew it was a mistake. The date was getting closer, and the wedding gown was hanging on the back of my door. I knew it was not going to last. We were mismatched. I canceled three weeks before a 500-guest wedding. I came here about six months later. My sister had moved out here, and I thought, I’ll come out because it’ll be a good thing to do. We got to her house in Coldwater Canyon. I just felt at ease here, and I’d never really seen anything like it. I felt like being a grown-up here was going to be better than being a grown-up in Philadelphia. More exploratory. I loved Paul Mazursky movies, and he made this movie, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,14 that took place in California. I was very impressed. Not by the fact that they all tried to switch. It wasn’t that part of it. It was the way this young couple … the way they lived in their house with tile floors and groovy dresses and fun parties, this was not a life I recognized.
I arrived on a Tuesday. I had a job on Friday. I was a PA on The Price Is Right. The fact that I got a job so quickly really hurt me, because I got put on hold for a while.
What made you think you wanted to write?
The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Movies seemed too big. I wouldn’t have even gone there. I got an interview with the story editor on the show because she read a spec script that I wrote. I couldn’t stop shaking. She was probably 28, but I thought this woman was at the top. I never ended up writing for the show, but they did encourage me to come and observe what they do. They let me watch a whole week of rehearsals and then the show. It was really a phenomenal week. After that, I went to work as a story editor for several producers. That job is now called a creative exec, and my job was to read scripts all day and work with the writers on scripts the producers had in development. From there, I said, “This is what I want to do.”
It’s such an optimistic story.
That’s what people do, right? They’re in the wrong job until they get the right job. I’ve been lucky. I’ve gotten a chance to make my movies. I know women, though, who have maybe had one picture that didn’t work. They don’t get another chance. Guys can have a flop and get another chance. Women who have a failure or a movie that doesn’t work for the audience, they very rarely get another chance. And they’re often not credited the way men are with their own successes.
What made you start directing?
You only want to be the passenger in the car for so long.
Why do you think there are so few women directors? Some have said it’s that women find it difficult to be assertive and be in that role.
I don’t think that’s true at all. I have never heard women have problems being assertive. Are you kidding? It’s a natural job for us. We get to be bossy with authority. Finally to have authority to be a boss. It’s a natural fit. It’s not a problem within women, that’s for sure.
Is part of the problem the studios’ reliance on big-budget franchises?
I’m not sure. I mean, I’m sure some women want to jump into those. I don’t. I can’t imagine it appealing to me. It’s a huge chunk of your life. It’s years that you invest in something. It’s not just a job. It’s intermixed so deeply. Because the work is so consuming that you really can’t turn it off when you walk in the door at home. I tried. When you have little kids, you have to. But you dream about it every night. Still, obviously these giant franchise Marvel-type movies are what every studio needs to have. I know how hard it was for me to get my movie made, just this movie.
Was this one particularly hard?
Oh, yes. Oh, harder than any other movie I’ve written.
My last movie was in 2009, and it’s just been a giant change between 2009 and 2015. I come along with a movie about a 70-year-old man working for a 30-year-old woman. You know, I can’t get Channing Tatum in this. And there are no really big women movie stars except for a couple of obvious ones that get movies made. The rest of them all fight for the same few parts. Anyway, it was hard. There’s only so much money the studios have, and they have to parse it out to the projects that they think are going to be the right ones. It’s a very competitive world, studio against studio. They met with me, we talked about it, but I didn’t get the green light. That went on for a couple of years. It was very frustrating and disheartening. I think Warner Bros. looked at their slate, and I think they felt that they needed a little diversity: “Let’s have one of these.” I felt I slipped in. I’m forever in their debt, because I was going to bury it in my backyard.
Actually bury it? With a shovel?
Yeah. I was going to get a little box for the script. I was going to buy a shovel and I was going to bury it in my backyard.
Are you writing now?
No. I’m always completely empty at the end of a movie. Did you see that Woody Allen documentary where he opens the drawer, and he’s got a thousand ideas on little pieces of paper? He’s got a million ideas. Every idea I have ever had you have seen. So I just wait.
Are you strict with yourself — at the desk at nine o’clock?
I am strict with myself. When I’m working on a script, I write from about 11 to 11. I’m not that good in the morning, so I don’t mind writing at night. I like the quiet of the night. My phone’s quiet. It’s like you’re writing and it’s daytime, and you look up — “Oh, it’s seven o’clock.” It gets like that. I stand and do those exercises you see online. Exercises you do at your desk. I don’t leave the room really for a big chunk. Sometimes I take a 20-minute nap in the chair in my office, which is really uncomfortable, but I do that on purpose so I can’t sleep long. Then I write and then maybe I’ll break for some blueberries or almonds. I’m rigid.
What do you spend your time on when you’re not working? Are you interested in politics? Are you a Hillary supporter?
All the way. First time too. It would thrill me to see her be president of the United States. You know, I like things to have an optimistic ending. I think that’s a great third act for all of us.
She’s a bit like a Nancy Meyers heroine.
I only met her once, at a fund-raiser. I was so taken by her warmth, her charm, and what appeared to me a really authentic conversation. She said she liked It’s Complicated. I hope that that thing that I saw for a second can come through more. I know you have to be more guarded when you’re making a speech or when you’re being interviewed or whatever.
If you had an hour alone with Hillary, what would you tell her?
I’d probably listen more than speak, but I can’t think of anyone who has a better chance of actually, for real, changing the way we think about gender equality. By being President Hillary Clinton, the message is undeniable. The impact so enormous. So, yeah, I want this to happen because she’s a woman but also because she’s this woman. And, I must say, I like that she’s a grandmother running for president.15 That just busts wide open every cliché about women. I guess if I had her ear I’d say, “Stay cool and weather all the storms ahead, because we need you.”
Do you think the sexism in Hollywood is changing?
I think there’s a shift in the tenor of the conversations going on right now in Hollywood about women — from the women. Women in Hollywood want to talk, or, should I say, want to be heard. They don’t want to sweep the gender issue under the rug anymore. And there is most certainly a gender issue. I can’t point a finger at anyone and say who’s responsible, but it’s the culture in Hollywood, which I guess reflects the culture — period. Big movies are reserved for the guys, no one says it, but that’s the way it is, right? Is it something about turning over $70 million to a woman or $50 million or $30 million or $150 million? I don’t know. But let’s be honest, that’s pretty much all they’ve been making for a while now.
I’ve worked in the studio system forever, and there were always these really smart women in the meetings whose job it was to translate what the big guy was saying. What he means is … Thank God, that’s over. That was painful. Women have moved up in the exec jobs more than in any other job in Hollywood. Do an equal amount run studios? No, but they are significantly represented. And with women doing so well right now in the executive ranks, I think we’ll see more movies about women. And the director problem? Even I was saying for a minute that maybe women just don’t want to direct the big-cape movies or tentpole movies because maybe they can’t really relate, but now I’m thinking that’s not even true. Let’s not assume women don’t want in on those kind of movies. Women can direct dinosaurs. Believe me.
*This article appears in the September 7, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.