Meg Ryan rethinks the rom-com genre in her new film 'What Happens Later'
JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:
Meg Ryan is the romantic comedy icon who could also be your best friend who you might also fall in love with.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WHEN HARRY MET SALLY")
BILLY CRYSTAL: (As Harry Burns) The first time we met, we hated each other.
MEG RYAN: (As Sally Albright) No, you didn't hate me, I hated you. The second time we met, you didn't even remember me.
CRYSTAL: (As Harry Burns) I did, too. I remembered you. The third time we met, we became friends.
RYAN: (As Sally Albright) We were friends for a long time.
SUMMERS: "When Harry Met Sally" has a happily ever after - a staple feature of the rom-com genre. But Meg Ryan's newest film, which she directs and stars in, goes beyond that - to imagine what happens later when a couple revisits what drove them apart decades after their split.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WHAT HAPPENS LATER")
RYAN: (As Willa) You left. You let go.
DAVID DUCHOVNY: (As Bill) This behavior - this is exactly why we broke up.
RYAN: (As Willa) So basically, my personality.
DUCHOVNY: (As Bill) Hey, yes.
RYAN: (As Willa) This is not at all how I imagined our reunion.
DUCHOVNY: (As Bill) Oh, you imagined this?
SUMMERS: That's David Duchovny as Bill and Ryan as Willa. Despite the characters' romantic history, Meg Ryan told me "What Happens Later" isn't really a rom-com.
RYAN: This is really a love story with romantic comedy elements, you know? It has banter. It has some of those things. But then it takes turns, I think, you might not necessarily expect.
SUMMERS: Ryan took a lot of what she understands about love stories from her long professional relationship with the late writer and director Nora Ephron. She says Ephron felt the best love stories reflect the realities of the time they take place in, so it feels natural that "What Happens Later" features a former couple trapped in an airport together. Ryan adapted the story from a play during the COVID lockdowns.
RYAN: I was wondering, you know, you're locked down with one person. If you had the opportunity, would you work out some of the things you hadn't worked out in the past with an ex, or would you let that opportunity go? And - so anyway, all those questions were swirling around when I first got the the play.
SUMMERS: I mean, there is dialogue that I really feel like could have almost been pulled from real-life conversations - like about him not connecting with his Gen Z boss, about rock music getting worse, about whether everything in society is getting worse. How much of this was drawn from real-life conversations that you were having during that period?
RYAN: Well, once we, you know, had the idea that he was a catastrophic thinker and she was a magical one, then we were off to the races in terms of setting up a conflict. And love stories are really about obstacles, right? So once we were able to polarize them like that, then it felt like real life could feed, you know, a lot of the characterization. Like - so he's a sort of, like, conservative pragmatist, and she's a kind of woo-woo thinker and magical thinker. And you could maybe say that those were some polarized opposites that we have now, too.
SUMMERS: The characters in this movie are in their 50s, and you don't normally see romantic comedies or romance movies that are about characters in that age. And they are not shy about talking about age and aging. What parts of aging did you want to show us on screen that often get overlooked or that we just don't see in our entertainment?
RYAN: I think it's really perspective, you know? Like, these two people are looking back on a life that they did not live together, and they're asking kind of cogent questions - like, summary questions about why - why didn't you love me enough? What did I get wrong? And their lives are a result of a lot of misunderstanding. They're reacting to each other for, you know, these 20 years, and they haven't had their facts straight. You know, she assumed that he was at fault, and she blames him. And then she learns otherwise, right? So it isn't necessarily about aging. It's about a perspective you gain as a mature person.
SUMMERS: I read somewhere that originally you weren't planning to play Willa, but then decided to step in after a funding issue. And the energy that she has is so different than the minute detail that a director has to focus on. Are there things that you did during the production of this film that made it easier for you to shift between these two very different mindsets?
RYAN: Really, it was about preparation. As a director, there's very specific stages where different things are required of you. There's preproduction, and you're super organized. And you're - you are trying to, you know, keep your crew inspired, have the set run in a way that it is a fun place to be, a light place to be. It's a comedy you're doing, after all. You're spending all this time setting the stage. And then you have the experience acting in it - like, 21 days of what felt like real freedom, especially with an actor like David, who's a real partner.
And then there's this whole after - you know, the postproduction, where you're handing the movie off, like, in stages to all these other artists. I cried when the movie was over. I had had such a good time. And so there's a marveling and a magic through the whole thing as you pass it off to different groups of people, and I feel like you can really feel it when you see the movie because it unzips you a little bit - like, it - in terms of your heart.
SUMMERS: I want to talk a little bit about romance stories and love stories, first of all because I love them, but one of the things that I've always thought must be sort of weird about starring in them is that you sort of wind up in a perpetual state of happily ever afters. You find love, and that's that. And we know that life is not like that in reality. How has playing these types of roles affected the way that you personally think about love?
RYAN: Well, I don't really think of it that way, actually. But I do think that there's a myth around happily ever after that is worthy of reexamination. And, like, in this case, they have an unresolvable or seemingly unresolvable back-and-forth. They're connecting and disconnecting and connecting and disconnecting. I've had that, so I understand that. But these guys were in a perpetual state of that. And leave it to them to mess up the end.
RYAN: And I just - I kind of feel like - about them that they will kind of screw it up in perpetuity. And that's the shape of how they love each other. And it's not logical. I recognize that, too - that love isn't logical. This movie sort of reimagines the broken heart, too. And when they first see each other in the movie, they don't want to. There's no - they don't even want a meet cute.
RYAN: They don't even want to meet 'cause they know. And they knew each other long ago. There's an essence that they have in common that they'll never not have in common. So whether or not that's resolvable with a traditional happy ending, I don't think so. I think it's a different - something different than we are used to thinking of when it comes to happily ever after.
SUMMERS: When I watched this movie, so much of it for me and what I took away was about being at peace with where you are in life and accepting what did and didn't happen for you and appreciating the things that did happen for you. And that is a peace that is not easily found. But watching this movie made me wonder if you feel in your life that you found it.
RYAN: I don't know. I don't know. I don't know. In some ways, some places, some aspects of my life, yes. My - like, I love my life right now, so - but my brother sent me this really interesting thing that Martha Graham said - that to be an artist, you're just never satisfied - that you, in fact, have a kind of divine dissatisfaction, and that is something that you can welcome because it keeps you marching and it keeps you more alive than the rest. And I feel that. And I like the company that you keep when you're with other artists who, you know, don't have answers but have compelling questions. That's a cool place to be and a peaceful place to be, actually.
SUMMERS: Meg Ryan - her new film is "What Happens Later." It's in theaters now. Thank you so much for joining us.
RYAN: Thank you (laughter).
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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