Nancy Meyers: The rom-com queen

She's the most successful female director in Hollywood and she's just chalked up another hit at the box office. What's Nancy Meyers' secret?

Driving through the streets of Los Angeles, it's almost impossible to avoid Nancy Meyers' name.

She's there on every billboard, nestled just beneath a giant picture of Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin in bed. Turn on the television and within 10 minutes her name will be boomed across the room at you too. Because while you might take a moment to register why you know that name, in Hollywood, Nancy Meyers is a powerhouse and her new film, It's Complicated, is big business.

As a writer, producer and director, Meyers, 60, is at that elusive level of success where her name on a film poster will be as much of a pull for audiences as her actors. She is responsible for the most successful film ever directed by a woman – 2000's What Women Want, which took $183m at the box office – as well as having written, produced and directed such box-office friendly fare as The Holiday (2006) and Something's Gotta Give (2003). In a town dominated by men, Nancy Meyers reigns as the queen of the romantic comedy.

"I've always been blessed with confidence," she tells me in her Santa Monica office. "I am a glass-half-full person. My first movie, Private Benjamin, got turned down by every studio until the very last one, but I just kept thinking, 'Why are you people not seeing that this is a hit movie? What is wrong with you?'"

Meyers' latest offering, It's Complicated, sees her tackling the same fiftysomething generation she centred on for Something's Gotta Give. It's an unusual demographic for an industry so obsessed with youth, but it worked with Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson, and if its top-four position in the US box office is anything to go by, it's working again with Streep and co.

"With both Something's Gotta Give and It's Complicated," she tells me, "I pitched the movie sitting at a table almost exactly like this, with me on one side and the studio brass on the other, and both times they went with it. There weren't a lot of other movies like that, but they didn't say, 'can't the characters be in their forties?' That fiftysomething audience is under-served, no doubt about it, but I don't set out to say 'nobody's making a film about a 58-year-old woman'; it's just where I go. With The Holiday, the girls were in their thirties, and they weren't married and didn't have kids, but the issues they had in relationships were timeless."

It's Complicated stars Streep as a divorcee navigating single life, torn between an affair with her ex-husband (Alec Baldwin) and her architect (Steve Martin). As a divorcee herself, Meyers says the film came from her own experiences of life after love.

"I am divorced and my ex-husband (the producer Charles Shyer) remarried," she tells me. "Every once in a while, at a Christmas party or a kid's graduation, there he is with his wife. You're across the room from somebody you spent 20 years with, except that person is married to somebody else and it's natural and unnatural at the same time. Living that experience made me want to write about what that was like for me."

Meyers was raised in Philadelphia, but moved to Hollywood in 1972 after falling in love with the city during a trip to visit her sister. Her first job was as a story editor for the producer Ray Stark (Annie, Steel Magnolias), and after taking night classes, she began to hone her own writing. "I wasn't the kind of kid like Spielberg or Lucas who knew to go to film school," she says. "I didn't know at 12 what I was going to do; it took me until I was about 23. I studied journalism in college, but after school, I got a job in public television and I never worked as a journalist for one moment. Then, once I landed here, I started taking some classes. I was young and I just started writing."

Private Benjamin was the first commercial success for Meyers, but despite having secured Goldie Hawn for the film's lead role before Benjamin had a backer, making the film was not an easy experience. "It was 1979 and Goldie had been this bikini-clad actress on the television," she explains. "At the end of the movie, she hits the groom in the face and then walks away from the wedding. People didn't want to see her in that part. In fact, one studio executive told her the film was a career ender. There was real resistance to it on a deeper level than just they didn't like this script."

Despite her huge success, Meyers still confesses to battling with every script. When I tell her that Jack Nicholson said of Something's Gotta Give that it was the first perfect script he'd ever read, she seems genuinely touched and later presses me for information on the reaction to It's Complicated from an early screening I attended. "Writing is a bitch," she smiles. "Movies don't look hard, but figuring it out, getting the shape of it, getting everybody's character right and having it be funny, make sense and be romantic, it's creating a puzzle. Yes, having been a writer for so long, I have an awareness of when things are going awry, but it doesn't mean I know how to fix them."

Nowadays, Meyers has gained the complete trust of the studios that commission her work. She takes a year off between films and swears at the end of each one that it will be her last. "It takes so much out of me," she says. "I don't have a drawer full of ideas. I actually don't have a thing going on in my head at the end of a movie, and I like to keep it that way for as long as possible. It's such a giant endeavour. It's not a pet project. I have to turn this into something that is going to make a profit. And also I want to do it right and be true to myself and I feel responsible to the actors that signed on to do it and believed in me. It's a lot of pressure."

There is no doubt that she is a perfectionist, a workaholic even, but perhaps her complete dedication to her craft (she sees every last piece of marketing and advertising for each film before it is signed off) is what has made her succeed where other women have not.

"Women are the workhorses in this industry," she says. "Women run a lot of studios, but look at how many films get made and then how many have actually been written or directed by women. Last year was a great year for female directors, though, and not just boutique films that don't get an audience. The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow) and Nora Ephron's movie Julie and Julia and An Education (Lone Scherfig). It's exciting. Every time this happens, I keep thinking things will change. But this time, I think things might change because there are so many films by women that people like so much."

While she's understandably proud of the women that have achieved success in film, Meyers would rather just be known as a film-maker, regardless of gender. "We don't want to be our own niche," she says of her fellow female writers and directors. "We're film-makers like everybody. How many years in a row are we going to talk about the fact that we make films and we are women? Enough already."

OK then, Nancy Meyers: Hollywood superpower. Box office cert. Industry icon. In the words of Meyers, do we really need to add "female" on to any of those?

'It's Complicated' is on general release

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