How They Write A Script: Nancy Meyers

Nancy Meyers was for many years part of the Meyers & Shyer writing team that produced numerous hit movies including Private Benjamin (1980), Baby Boom (1987), and Father of the Bride (1991). She directed her first solo writing effort Something’s Gotta Give (2003), which was a hit with critics and audiences alike, grossing $ 266M worldwide.

These interview excerpts are taken from “Backstory 4”, part of the wonderful series of books edited by Patrick McGilligan.

ON WHETHER IT TOOK A WOMAN TO WRITE A MOVIE LIKE “SOMETHING’S GOTTA GIVE”

“I don’t know. It took a woman, but I don’t know if it takes a woman. I mean, I haven’t seen any other scripts like this. I don’t know that a man couldn’t write a movie on the subject. I don’t think he would write one like this one because this movie is very much from Diane’s [Keaton] point of view as well as from Jack’s, and I would imagine if a man were writing it the woman would be more of a secondary character who came into his life, and he actually comes into her life.”

ON DIRECTING A MOVIE BASED ON A SCRIPT SHE WROTE

“I follow the script very, very carefully. I rarely deviate from how I describe how the scene takes place. I don’t write it as a blueprint and then improvise on that when I get there. I would. I’m not rigid about it. But I don’t just use it as a blueprint. I very carefully follow what I wrote because I’m the most sane about the script when I’m writing. Once you start directing, there are so many other things that come into your life every day in terms of just moviemaking, that when I look at the script and I see how I described she’s sitting in the chair and what her attitude is, it just locks me back into what the scene has to be. And I write those things in the script so I get them and they [the actors] do them. Everybody knows what’s happening in the scene.”

ON WRITING SOLO COMPARED TO WORKING WITH A PARTNER

“Well, it’s much lonelier. And when I worked with Charles, we talked and talked and talked for months, just talking. I sort of don’t know another way to do it; so I ended up just writing, and writing all the conversation, because I needed to say those things and I didn’t want to actually, obviously, talk out loud. I would write my side of our conversations–what would have been a conversation with a collaborator. And by doing that, it was really very helpful, because I ended up with an eighty-eight-page outline that turned into a script. So, it’s interesting writing alone, because you can never get off the hook. You can never toss the ball to somebody else, or you can never say that is a bad idea, hoping they’ll make it into a good idea. It’s like playing tennis with a wall. It just keeps coming back to you, so you’re pushing yourself all the time. There’s never anybody else to ease the load, and I found it exhaust ing actually. But you also get to have your own ideas remain in a purer way.

ON HOW SHE EDITED THE SCRIPT

“My first draft was exactly 250 pages. I didn’t have brads deep enough, long enough to get through the script. It took me about eight or nine drafts [to edit]. Just keep going, I think from the first draft to the second, I cut about seventy pages. It’s just like making the movie. I’m now editing it, and I thought, ‘How am I going to get two hours and forty-five minutes down to two hours?’ It was the same king of thing again. How do you do it? You just start tearing away at it, and you can’t do it all at once. It’s impossible to see what it is at first. You just keep taking away and taking away, and it begins to shape up. Story, you know–you just keep following the story.”

ON HER WRITING REGIMEN

“Usually I begin around ten, write till about seven. I put in a long day. I’ll take a walk, I eat at a certain time. This script was exhausting to me, because it is more personal, and I did fall asleep every day after lunch for about twenty minutes. And then I’d regenerate after that. I have a pretty rigid kind of schedule that I kept to. I did that for about ten months.”

ON WHAT DRIVES HER WRITING–CHARACTER, STORY OR THEME

“All of it, really. I don’t always know any of those things in the beginning. I don’t always know what the theme is. I have something I sort of want to say, but it evolves. It’s a process. It’s always interesting to see what it becomes, what it is I really do want to say. It isn’t always crystal clear in the beginning. And the characters of course have to evolve and help tell that story, so they all work together.”

ON WHETHER COMEDY HAS CHANGED SINCE THE 1980’s

“I don’t know that it has. I mean, my first movie was 1980: Private Benjamin. And I don’t really feel that the movie I just finished writing is very different comedically from it at all. There’s a lot of great people writing comedy now, but it’s different, I suppose. There are no restrictions on anything now, obviously. The There’s Something About Mary (1998) kind of comedy–which I thought was absolutely brilliant and hilarious–was not a movie that would have gotten made twenty years ago. I think it’s been very freeing, actually, to lose some of these restrictions. Is it the same as a Billy Wilder comedy? No, it’s different. It’s just different. There’s more jokes and less charm, I would say, in comedy over the years. It’s more joke-oriented, I suppose. Big ideas, big-premise ideas, big set pieces. But I think there ’s always room for a different kind of comedy.

“Over the weekend, I was watching Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987), and it was just so hilarious, so wonderful. There hasn’t been a movie like that in a long time–that kind of comedy. Splash (1984) was a great comedy from the eighties. Big (1988) was a great comedy. Broadcast News (1987) was a great comedy in the eighties. Pretty classy movies, pretty elegantly written. But I find American Pie (1999)–I haven’t seen the other two, but the first one–hilarious, just absolutely hilarious. But it’s different, obviously quite different.”

ON ADVICE FOR UP-AND-COMING SCREENWRITERS

“I think it’s a mistake to write something you think people will like, or a combination idea, or this year’s version of last year’s movie. I don’t think you’ll ever get noticed doing that. I think you’re only going to get noticed by following your own instincts and doing original work, and writing the thing that only you can write.”

Go Into The Story

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