In the presence of Meg Ryan, the word “uncertainty” is not likely to cross your mind when it comes to her work. The Golden Globe-nominated actress was remarkably poised and cheerful in her demeanor as she took her seat on the Hill School stage last weekend. That Saturday marked the world premiere of her directorial debut, Ithaca, at the Middleburg Film Festival (MFF) in Middleburg, Va.
“What am I [as a woman] doing here, making a story about boys?” she asked Sam Shepard one day at the set. The renowned playwright and actor replied that she shouldn’t worry, because women make men after all. Indeed, Ryan has much to be proud of with her new film, which was shot at an exhilarating pace (a mere 23 days!) in Petersburg, Va. Ithaca centers upon a coming-of-age story about Homer Macauley, a boy who starts his first job as a telegram delivery boy. The drama is an adaptation of William Saroyan’s The Human Comedy and takes place during World War II.
Producer Janet Brenner joined Ryan at the Hill School for a Q&A with Susan Koch, Executive Director of the Middleburg Film Festival. (The Friday screening featured a discussion with Ryan and lead actor Alex Neustaedter.) For both ladies, casting was one key element, coming down to their list of “dream actors.” The cast came to include Jack Quaid (Ryan’s son) as Homer’s brother out at the war front, as well as Hamish Linklater and Sam Shepard as Homer’s supervisors. Another standout actor is the youngest in the line-up: Spencer Howell as Homer’s lovable younger brother, Ulysses. Howell’s “tender” and cute face even served as Ryan’s screensaver as she worked through the meticulous post-production process, an ordeal she’s not sure if she will tackle again.
As one audience member pointed out, at times there is very little dialogue in a scene. Ryan agreed, emphasizing the impact of the cinematography. “The frames are so communicative, so evocative,” she explained. For Ryan, the camera lens “barrels over” or directly addressed the themes of death and grief, wrestling with them genuinely.
Ithaca also marks the on-screen reunion of Ryan with Tom Hanks, a subject that piqued the curiosity of the audience. Ryan animatedly recounted the story of her co-star’s departure from the set on his only day of filming. It’s easy for one to picture Hanks standing before the crew and solemnly declaring, “I think we’ve gotten to know each other well in the last 10 hours.”
Ryan provided a lot of advice to aspiring actors and filmmakers in attendance. “Don’t wait to be hired,” she said, recommending YouTube as a platform for getting a portfolio started. Technology and accessibility are factors that have brought changes to the film industry, she went on, predicting that someday the Academy Award for Best Picture will be given to a film shot entirely with a smartphone.
What’s next for Meg Ryan? “Sleeping,” she joked. In reality, Ithaca has only just begun its journey through the film festival cycle. In early November, it will be screened at the Virginia Film Festival in Charlottesville, Va.