There’s a strange kind of art imitating life going on with the film, Home Again. Reese Witherspoon’s character has a deceased filmmaker father, who specialized in a narrow genre. His Lincoln Center retrospective would have apparently been thick with classics about “truth in the bedroom, the agony of love, and the humor of it all.” First-time writer/director Hallie Meyers-Shyer freely admits, though, that these are the kinds of movies she herself aspires to make. Of course, they’re also the kind many associate with her mom, Nancy Meyers.
At some point in the past decade or so, romantic comedies seemed to have all but disappeared from the box office. Even before then, many of them had begun to degenerate into something close to self-parody. Nancy Meyers’s movies, however–like Something’s Gotta Give and The Intern–are cut from a different cloth. They transcend genre. They resonate. They navigate complex emotional spaces while remaining funny and sweet enough to hit viewers like a warm blanket on a cold day. And now, following in the tradition of Meyers, who produced Home Again, Hallie Meyers-Shyer has also made a film with loftier ambitions than the standard-issue rom-com.
“The movies I write aren’t necessarily romantic comedies,” she says. “But they are rooted in relationships. Relationship comedies are always my favorite movies.”
This particular relationship comedy has an unwieldy plot, so buckle up.
In Home Again, Reese Witherspoon plays Alice, a creative recently separated from Michael Sheen’s Austen. She’s just moved with her two young children into her deceased auteur father’s house in Hollywood, while reinventing herself as an interior decorator. During a crazy night of blowing off some 40th birthday steam, Alice and some pals befriend three younger men, and Alice intimately befriends one of them. Due to circumstantial factors, she ends up inviting these men to stay in her guest house while they finish the film deal they’re in the middle of making–one that will deliver them financial independence. Not-quite-ex-husband Austen doesn’t exactly love this idea.
Like Alice, Hallie Meyers-Shyer is also Hollywood royalty. (Aside from Meyers, her father, Charles Shyer, is also a filmmaker.) The emerging director didn’t set out to make a film about someone with her own background, though. She was inspired by L.A.-based cinema of the ’70s, like Shampoo, and she wanted a Peter Bogdanovich-type figure to factor into her story somehow. Once she thought of making Alice’s father an auteur of that ilk–glimpsed in pictures, he looks like Francis Ford Coppola–she instantly felt closer to the character. That’s mainly where the similarities between Alice and her creator end, though. Meyers-Shyer is 30 years old, for one thing, and growing up with show business parents had a vastly different impact on her than it did Alice. It made her infatuated with the family business.
As a child, Meyers-Shyer lived for set visits and screenings. By the time she made it to high school, she was writing films of her own. These early efforts were mostly just practice, though. Her first exposure to the process of actually writing a movie arrived when Charles Shyer asked her to collaborate on a project–an adaptation of the children’s book Eloise. (She was 20 years old at the time.) The prodigal daughter learned a lot from the experience and continued writing her own scripts more seriously afterward while attending film school.
Meyers-Shyer had been playing around with the idea of Home Again for some time before she told her mom about it. Once she did, though, Nancy Meyers loved the idea and encouraged her to continue pursuing it. After trading notes back and forth on subsequent drafts, Hallie eventually asked her mother whether she’d ever consider producing the film with her. She said yes right away.
You may be wondering at this point whether Nancy Meyers gives great screenwriting notes. Her daughter was delighted. If not surprised to learn that yes, in fact, she does.
“My mom has a really innate sense of pace and structure,” Meyers-Shyer says. “I’ve gone to film school and I’ve read books, and she’s never read any of those, but she just has an inner clock, like ‘this should start happening around here.’ If you’ve seen any of her films, she really holds your hand throughout the experience of reading one of her scripts. They’re very well structured and they’re sound. So, working together on this, she really helped me with pace and with layering the characters.”
Layered characters are a Nancy Meyers specialty. The tics, quirks, and idiosyncrasies of people like Meryl Streep’s conflicted divorcee in It’s Complicated are part of what elevates Meyers’s movies beyond the realm of rom-com. Meyers-Shyer strived to give the people populating her debut a similar level of distinction. She went through 30 drafts of her screenplay, diving deeper into her characters each time out.
“Sometimes I’d read a draft as George, and then I’d read it as Teddy, and then I’d read it as Alice,” she says. “It was a way of making sure each character has something to do in each scene and represents themselves by saying the thing that they would say.”
Once the script was in shape, there was still the matter of directing. Although Meyers-Shyer had grown up on film sets and been around the movie business most of her life, she still had no direct insight into taking the reins herself. (“If you’ve been a passenger,” she says, “you don’t automatically know what it’s like to drive a car.”) Meyers-Shyer was floored by the sheer amount of questions that needed her attention at any given moment. The most important thing she did was hire an incredibly experienced team, so she could lean on them for on-the-job training.
One thing she enjoyed about directing that she hadn’t anticipated, though, was placing Easter eggs in her movie. During the opening, for instance, viewers see a poster for a film starring Alice’s mother (Candice Bergen), and it’s called Lola In Between. That’s the name of a script she wrote in high school. It’s a joke for maybe 10 people on the planet.
“When you’re the director, your movie is like a personal photo album,” she says. “You put a lot of yourself into it.”
Ultimately, Meyers-Shyer may have indeed succeeded in making a movie about “truth in the bedroom, the agony of love, and the humor of it all.” Home Again is a romantic comedy that’s not necessarily about finding a relationship, but about figuring out who you are. Although the genre hasn’t made a full comeback just yet, films like this one and The Big Sick appear to be revitalizing it. Perfect timing, too, since people on dates may need romantic comedies now more than ever.
As Meyers-Shyer puts it, “I don’t think going to see Thor is gonna get you in the mood.”