The words “For Nora” end Meg Ryan’s new film “What Happens Later.”
It was a no brainer to dedicate it to the late Nora Ephron, though it did require an extra layer of approval from the Directors Guild. Ephron and Ryan were responsible for some of the culture’s most enduring and beloved modern romantic comedies from “When Harry Met Sally,” which Ephron wrote, to “Sleepless in Seattle” and “You’ve Got Mail.”
And this film was not just a romantic comedy, but one that Ryan co-wrote and directed too. She co-stars with David Duchovny in a kind of fairy tale about two exes stuck in an airport together for 24 hours during a snowstorm. Though it might sound slightly gimmicky on paper, the result is anything but — it's smart, charming, a little whimsical and a very welcome return for Ryan, who hasn't been in a film for eight years. It opens in theaters Friday.
“It’s hopefully a movie that just unzips you a little bit like in terms of your heart,” Ryan said. “It’s not a cynical movie at all. It's vulnerable. But maybe around the holidays, people are more open to seeing movies like that."
Ryan and Duchovny did not really know each other before “What Happens Later," but you’d never know it to watch them on screen or hear their off-camera rapport. They spoke to The Associated Press this week about the film, Ryan's hiatus, the false promise of fame and their kids following them into the business.
Remarks have been edited for clarity and brevity.
AP: This movie is just your characters and an omnipresent voice on the PA.
DUCHOVNY: I’ve always been kind of on the fence with the voice of the airport. But (watching it last night), as the voice started to get involved in their particular story, I felt very warmly about it. Somebody cares about them.
RYAN: I love that part. I think it shares some DNA with some of the movies Nora did. In her movies, she had a belief in kismet and destiny. And I feel like this benevolent container that these two people are in is going to have them connect.
AP: It’s assumed that it’s a celebrity voice – people have guessed Tom Hanks and Billy Crystal for sentimental reasons. He’s credited as Hal Liggett and has an amusing bio in the press notes (stage work includes “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” and "on any given day Hal is between 5’10” and 6’2”, whatever it takes to ‘look down on the note’”), but it’s a riddle I can’t figure out.
RYAN: I wrote those.
DUCHOVNY: All right, we’re going to give it away right now. Are you ready? Got your pen? It’s Morgan Freeman.
RYAN: No, it’s Scarlett Johansson. I’m just going to say, when Hal said he was going to do it, I walked up and down my driveway 10 times.
DUCHOVNY: How long is your driveway?
RYAN: Pretty long.
AP: You have such lived-in banter and chemistry, it’s surprising that you two didn’t really know each other before this.
DUCHOVNY: I’m thankful to Meg for giving me the opportunity to work in a movie like this. It’s something I wanted to do, a tone or genre that I wanted to exist in.
RYAN: It was so easy to entrust you with all of it. You have all this dexterity. He can turn on a dime and be hilarious and then heartbreaking and be hilarious again and so, so frustrated with her and so in love with her and so hating.
DUCHOVNY: I forgot to tell you, somebody said yesterday that they were sure they were dead and in purgatory because they’re in white.
RYAN: I mean, you can read it that way.
DUCHOVNY: It’s better than hell.
RYAN: Better than hell.
DUCHOVNY: It’s one of those stories where you’re in a liminal space and you have to learn a lesson before you move on.
RYAN: That’s exactly what it is.
AP: Meg, a lot has been made about your big return to the screen after eight years. Was that hiatus a conscious decision?
DUCHOVNY: I’ll answer for Meg.
DUCHOVNY: Meg’s an artist and Meg was feeding. She was just laying fallow. She was off feeding and living and creating. Meg is very interested in many different aspects of moviemaking, but there’s also other parts of her life with interior design and all that.
RYAN: You sort of have to sort of unplug a little bit. But I know that nothing like that was ever intentional on my part. And remember, COVID was three years of that. I was hanging around, writing this. I don’t know, I can’t account for myself.
DUCHOVNY: I don’t know if this is part of Meg’s journey. It was definitely part of mine. But when you become famous, it’s harder to observe things because people are observing you, and you’re kind of changing rooms that you walk into because people start acting differently. And really the heart of any art is observation and humanity. And you’ve got to get yourself back to a place where you can do that.
RYAN: That is really true. And again, it’s not even necessarily intentional. I feel like I had this like moonshot for a while there, and I just wanted different experiences. Again, that’s making all these years sound very intentional, which they haven’t been. But in retrospect it seems like it made sense.
AP: It resonates with Matthew Perry’s observations fame not being fulfilling.
RYAN: That he told that story about the emptiness of the pursuit and finding after six months on that show that he didn’t see the value anymore – that’s a gift to the world to make an observation like that.
DUCHOVNY: I went to the dog track and they have a little mechanical rabbit that the greyhounds chase. I was talking to a trainer and I said, “Has a dog ever caught the rabbit?” He said, “Yeah sometimes.” I said, “So what happens after they catch the rabbit?” He said, “They can’t race anymore because they know.” That’s kind of like fame.
RYAN: It’s such a beautiful story in a time when there seems to be so much chasing of that as a goal. It’s hard to see its value when you, however fleetingly, possess it.
DUCHOVNY: I’m also anti-dog track.
AP: You both have children who have chosen to pursue acting, and while there’s a lot of talk about nepo babies, it does also seem so hard to follow in the footsteps of very successful parents.
RYAN: It dismisses their own talents and efforts and work ethic.
DUCHOVNY: It’s just an easy shorthand that I hope goes away soon.
RYAN: I think both of our children are very grateful for the privilege that they have. And so both things are true. They have privilege and they work hard and they have talent. But it’s a culture that doesn’t accept paradox that easily.
DUCHOVNY: You know where the word nepotism comes from right?
DUCHOVNY: He was the last emperor of Rome. He oversaw the destruction of the empire. It wasn’t his fault. I’m going to google that to make sure I’m right.
RYAN: He’s fact-checking.
DUCHOVNY: I know the dog track is true.