Meg Ryan’s directorial debut, Ithaca, based on William Saroyan’s autobiographical The Human Comedy, is decidedly old-fashioned. There’s a honeyed, sepia-toned look to this 1942-set period piece, which depicts rural America during World War II, when telegrams were delivered on bicycles. At the story’s center is ambitious 14-year-old messenger boy Homer (Alex Neustaedter), whose older brother, Marcus (Jack Quaid, Ryan’s son), is off fighting the war. Throughout the film, Homer learns a series of life lessons as he delivers telegrams announcing the death of soldiers to local women. Ryan, who appears in the film as Homer and Marcus’s mother, and who cast Tom Hanks, her Sleepless in Seattle co-star, in a small role as the boys’ father, wrings poignant results from her use of voiceover, dream sequences, and music. I sat down with her to discuss this modest independent production and the serious themes that resonated with her as a daughter and a mother.
What made William Saroyan’s The Human Comedy, a coming-of-age story about a teenage boy during WWII, the source for your directorial debut?
It’s a simple story about complicated things. I was really moved by the boy as a protagonist and his wonderful desire to want to keep pain from the people he loves. There’s a lot of wisdom and humor in Saroyan. I read the book running up to the Iraq war and I related to the story of the parent. I have a son and a mother, and I know you can’t protect your children from everything. The book was dedicated to Saroyan’s mom in return for all the wonderful stories she told him. So he hoped this [story] would hold a candle to those. It’s a maternal perspective, and a natural fit for a female storyteller.
Homer is a messenger, and you, as a director, are a messenger. Back in the era of Ithaca we had telegrams. Today we have Twitter. What do you think your film says about how communication has changed us?
I think it’s paradoxical. Even with so much connectivity today, we still have so much loneliness. It’s hard to reconcile. That’s the phenomenon we’re observing. Homer is as altered by each message as the women he’s delivering them to. He’s affected by what he delivers. I read this piece on the New York Times on Sunday and what you do when you deliver that kind of news to a mother, and it’s unimaginable.
There are important themes of paying attention and looking around at the beautiful, senseless world, and feeling compassion for all things. Can you speak to Itacha’s coming-of-age elements and story of innocence, represented by Ulysses, versus experience, represented by Marcus?
Those ideas from the book are my favorite: pay attention; you’re going to make mistakes; forgive yourself; trust yourself; and so on. When the young boy [Ulysses] is feeling the rain, his openness and the depth of his purity is so beautiful and powerful, and Spencer [Howell] has such a pure face! And the love Marcus has—to communicate his ideas, and tell what he knows about life—is such a lovely thing. Saroyan is writing about the power of innocence. Homer has such precision to hold all these feelings. I love how Alex [Neustaedter] calibrated his performance. He was the right age. He looked like a kid one moment and an adult the next.
Various characters experience fantasies, memories, and nightmares. What decisions did you make about the way you portray realism and its opposite in the film?
We didn’t have a lot of money [laughs]. That was a definitive thing. In the book, there’s a little more going back and forth between what’s reality and a dream. I don’t know that we captured that, but the dreams didn’t stray far from our realities. I thought that was necessary because the material was difficult. Sentiment is the denial of death, and this film is about barreling toward the inevitable.
There’s a very moving line in the film: “The best part of man stays with you, forever.” Who is someone you miss and think about often?
Oh [pauses]. I had a best friend who died of AIDS, and he was part of Rock the Vote early on. I think of him often. My grandmother is another. She was very funny. My brother and I always quote her. She was a Rockette long ago!