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After a long hiatus from the big screen, actress Meg Ryan returns with her directorial debut, a World War II drama set in the fictional titular town of Ithaca.

Based on William Saroyan’s semi-autobiography, The Human Comedy (1943), Ithaca follows Homer Macauley (played by charismatic newcomer Alex Neustaedter), a teenage telegraph messenger who is working to support his widowed mother and his two siblings after his eldest brother, Marcus (Jack Quaid, Ryan’s real-life son), is drafted to fight in the war. Bicycling around town, delivering messages to locals, Homer is immediately faced with big life lessons that force him to mature beyond his 14 years.

Ryan, who plays Homer’s mother, also marks Ithaca as her fourth on-screen collaboration with Tom Hanks, whom she previously starred with in Joe Versus the Volcano (1990), Sleepless in Seattle (1993), and You’ve Got Mail (1998). Hanks, who plays the deceased Mr. Macauley, also serves as an executive producer.

Written by Erik Jendresen, and scored by John Mellencamp, the Odyssey-inspired Ithaca is an old-fashioned story about maintaining the innocence of youth during a time of conflict. Ryan, who is already working towards her sophomore directorial feature, guides the story with a maternal spirit that keeps it from getting too caught up in the unpleasant realities of war.

Ahead of Ithaca‘s September 9 release, in select theaters and on demand, ScreenPicks had the privilege of speaking with Ryan about adapting a classic, reuniting with Hanks, and discovering a new star. You can check out the full interview below.

ScreenPicks: I know that the film was shot two years ago, but you also have a longer history with William Saroyan’s story. Can you talk about when you first read The Human Comedy and why you wanted to tell it on the big screen?

Ryan: “Well, I read it — you know, I think a lot of people come to it in high school, but I didn’t read it till later. And I read it — it was the run-up to the Iraq war — and that’s what I remember about it. That time felt so unsafe and kind of dangerous; and you didn’t know how these decisions were getting made. I remember reading the book right then, and Saroyan has so many beautiful answers to those feelings of what happens when you have to navigate a world that feels unsafe like our main character, Homer. So I really came to it right then, and I found that, in the book, there were so many things I just wanted to share with my kids.

“All the characters are very flawed, of course, but they had a type of glisten. It’s so simple and beautiful. We have put it in the movie, in the voiceover, for Marcus’ voiceover — not just in that, but in the whole film, but we’ve woven it through. But it was those ideas, and I felt like it was a simply story about complicated things in a way the kind of movie like To Kill a Mockingbird is. It’s a simple story, but it’s about very complicated things. And I love the protagonist. I think that having this little 14-year-old boy be somebody who wants the impossible, which is to keep pain away from the people he loves. I think that’s such a lovely desire in a hero of a book, especially as an adult, reading the book, you just know that it’ll never happen. So, anyway, it was all those ideas.”

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ScreenPicks: While this film is set during World War II, it’s almost atypical to that genre because it focuses more on the civilians’ experience of the war rather than the solders’. And because of this time that Homer lives in, he has to face these harsh realities that are really beyond his fourteen years of life experience. But in spite of this, I still found it such an innocent film. How important was it to maintain that kind of childlike spirit and not make it too depressing?

Ryan: “Well, innocence is a very important part of it … it points, always so inevitably, towards this harsh reality, right? So casting it the way we did with those innocent faces was very important, and to have those kids — I don’t know if you remember, but in the movie, there’s always these little, there’s a pack of boys that’s always running around — kind of represent the distance that Homer is leaving from his own childhood. He’s dissociating from own his youth. It’s a maternal story, too. It’s not told from a paternal point of view. It’s a mother’s story, and that’s atypical to, I would say, the movies about that time, right?

“And it’s about what we lose when we lose a guy like Marcus, who thinks in the way that he does and is able to say things to his brother like, ‘Pay attention. You’re gonna make mistakes, you’re gonna have to forgive yourself, you know, war is foolish, even when necessary.’ I just love all of those ideas. So, in a way, it’s about America. Ithaca in the movie — it’s in somebody’s mouth in there that Ithaca isn’t his country. And it’s one of the times in our history where we’ve lost our innocence, one of the many times this country has lost its innocence. And the fact that our protagonist is losing his innocence at the same time, it all felt metaphorically correct.”

ScreenPicks: For this film you got to work with both veterans and first-time actors. When it came to communicating with these other actors, would you say that it helped that you’re also an actor over, say, a director who’s never been in front of the camera?

”I think so. It’s such a delicate experience on a set because the actors are bringing in the most mysterious thing of the day. Everything else is kind of quantifiable like the weather … but the mystery, the magic, that actors bring to the set is something sometimes they don’t even understand. And I learned a lot as an actor by being a director because a) I learned that everybody does it different, there’s no right or wrong, that people with experience are doing some things the same as people who are inexperienced sometimes. It’s the magic element of movie making, and I have a lot of respect for it. People on my set have a lot of respect for it, too.”

ScreenPicks: And among those veteran actors that you directed was, of course, Tom Hanks. I don’t want to spoil it, but he has a very small but memorable role. The scene you guys share is really different from anything you’ve done together before. So although you two have this history of films together, was it a challenge to film such an emotional scene like that, especially the context of it?

Ryan: “Not for him, obviously. He’s so great. But I don’t know how people direct themselves. I’m so bad at it. I couldn’t believe it. I don’t know if I’m bad at it, but it was really, as a director, I didn’t realize it was gonna be so complicated little couple of days. As a director, you have this objective experience. As an actor, you have a forced subjective experience. That’s the thing I remember about that scene, like, Oh my God, all of a sudden, I’m an actor again.” [laughs]

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ScreenPicks: I want to talk a bit about your lead star, Alex Neustaedter. First of all, I have to commend you for casting an actual teenager to play a teenager because authenticity is such an important element in the cinematic experience. What was it about Alex that you knew he was the right actor for this part?

Ryan: “Okay, like, everything. I saw in his face what just feels like such a wide open canvas that he … I felt the hope and the experience all in this one face. Sometimes I would look at him, ’cause he looked like such a child, and in the next second, he looked like a grown up. He was at this perfect moment of change, like a perfect day, in fall, where you kinda look to your left and it’s summertime. You look to your right, and everything’s red and gold. His voice was changing… But beyond that he is a very precise artist. He wanted to do well; he worked really hard.

“And the character is somebody who has a kind of renaissance. He comes through a sort of emotional awakening, and I thought Alex calibrated that performance so beautifully. He never is whiny, ever, about his experience. He’s always trying to tough it out. As a child, he doesn’t have certain capacities. As a sort of preternatural adult, he has other capacities. He’s a sophisticated, emotional thinker, and I really love being around him. He has a sweetness that is just — I mean, he’s so ridiculously handsome.”

ScreenPicks: I don’t know if you thought about this as well … I watched the film with my sister, and we both said that he looks kind of like Leonardo DiCaprio. [laughs]

Ryan: “Yeah.”

ScreenPicks: [laughs] So have you told him that?

Ryan: “I have him mashed up between Leo DiCaprio and Gregory Peck.”

ScreenPicks: From my experience of covering films so far, I’ve noticed that, more than any other war, World War II is the most prominent. There always seems to be a new film or a TV show set during that time. What do you think it is about that particular period that still resonates with storytellers today?

Ryan: “Well, rightly or wrongly, it’s associated in my head with a certain type of American innocence. And there’s this analog nature of the whole thing, obviously. And I say rightly or wrongly because I’m sure it wasn’t an innocent time necessarily, but it seems that way, obviously, compared to now. It’s a transition. It’s one of the times that America lost its innocence. I mean, even in our movie, there’s a music cue at the beginning that sounds like this jingoistic [hums the opening music], and we’re going off to war. You didn’t know the full measure of loss. There was all this hope. And then that exact same music cue is at the end, but it plays like a tap [hums another tune]. It’s the same music, but it plays differently because of the experience that you have between the beginning and end of the movie.”

ScreenPicks: So this is kind of a long shot, but I know that you’re gonna be directing The Book, a romantic comedy by Delia Ephron. Is there anything you can tell us about it?

Ryan: “No, I can’t say anything. I’m just hoping it happens. You never know until you’re getting on the set … it’s a miracle any movie gets made.”

(All photos are courtesy of Kent Eanes © Momentum Pictures.)