Meg Ryan Reveals the Secret to Making a Great Rom-Com

The “You’ve Got Mail” star tells TheWrap about co-writing, directing and acting in “What Happens Later”

Meg Ryan
Meg Ryan in "What Happens Later" (Credit: Obscured Pictures/Bleecker Street)

It makes sense that Meg Ryan would want to direct a romantic comedy like “What Happens Later” — her performances in “When Harry Met Sally,” “You’ve Got Mail” and others just about define the genre. So she knows a thing or two about capturing that spark between two fledgling lovers.

Speaking with TheWrap ahead of the movie’s Friday release thanks to its SAG-AFTRA Interim Agreement, the rom-com icon said that the very best of the genre should center on characters that keep an audience “yearning.”

“You just want to root for them,” she said. “I want that feeling, to root for these two people, to know better than they do, as the audience, that they’re perfect together.”

“What Happens Later” marks Ryan’s second directorial effort following 2015’s “Ithaca.” The wintry feature stars Ryan as Willa and David Duchovny as Bill, two ex-lovers who broke up 25 years ago just to get snowed in at an airport before they can make their connecting flights to their respective destinations. The two characters — who both identify as W. Davis — originated in Steven Dietz’s play “Shooting Star.”

When it comes to rom-coms, Ryan boils the genre down to a particular feeling the story gives its viewers. She said that signing on to star in and direct “What Happens Later” was a matter of asking herself: “What movie do I want to see?”

“My daughter always talks about — when we watch rom-coms together, or any movie romances, together — she’s like, ‘Oh, I have that feeling. I love this feeling. It’s like a tingle,” Ryan explained. “I really like a romance like this that could just have all the different tones in it and sustain it. And then people that you really, you just want to root for them… You want to yearn for them. You want to have a yearning.”

When the W. Davises run into each other, they try to keep things to small talk, but they quickly pick up where things left off by addressing why they broke up. They alternate between annoyance and affection for each other before diving deep into their past as a couple.

Reflecting on the role, Ryan aligned Willa’s essence with Tom Petty’s “Swingin’.”

“It was like that and the idea that she needed him to ground her, and he needed her to fly. They were opposites that way,” she said. She added that Willa’s energy balanced out the responsibility of directing, which she admitted to being “nervous” about. “Directors have very concentrated, organized energy and Willa does not have that,” she said.

“When it was just ‘action’ and you had to be in the movie, it was a real freedom from all the crazy micromanaging that you have to have in your director brain,” Ryan explained. “I started to like being her because it was a relief from like, ‘Wait, did we get that?’”

David Duchovny and Meg Ryan in “What Happens Later” (Obscured Pictures/Bleecker Street)

As far as why now is the perfect time for a rom-com like “What Happens Later,” Ryan partially credited “Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour” with pushing her indie to a more wintry release — something like “Sleepless in Seattle” versus the fall rom-coms she like “When Harry Met Sally” and “You’ve Got Mail.”

“We’re so lucky because Taylor Swift’s movie came out on Oct. 13 and ours got pushed a little. It keeps getting pushed,” she said. “I really do actually think of it as a winter movie. Originally, it was slated to try to come out in the summer. I don’t know that it’s technically a holiday movie, but because it’s cold and because it’s magical reality and because of the snowstorm and all that, I picture you cozy up to it during your vacation around Christmas or when you’re all together for Thanksgiving.”

“What Happens Later” arrives in theaters on Friday.

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