WHEN NANCY MEYERS was considering who to cast for the two female leads in her latest film, The Holiday, she was inundated with calls from agents and managers pitching their clients.
'I know how many women wanted this part, and that's always a good indication to me of what they're being offered and what's out there,' says Meyers.
The writer-director, 57, is known in the industry for her authentic renderings of strong female leads. Before The Holiday, she gave Diane Keaton a new lease of life - and helped her win an Oscar, for her part in Something's Gotta Give, which also starred Jack Nicholson and Keanu Reeves. In What Women Want, which she directed based on a screenplay by Cathy Yuspa and Josh Goldsmith, she gave Helen Hunt's ad-executive character depth and vulnerability. Before that, she wrote the Disney family comedy The Parent Trap and Father of the Bride and its sequel.
Meyers looks like the Hollywood powerhouse she is, striking a balance between sophistication (an A-line charmeuse skirt, grey cashmere, slim gold bangles) and West Coast trendiness (wedge-heeled boots, a great hairdo). In conversation, she's as smart, funny and honest as the women she writes about.
In The Holiday, the two main female roles went to Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz. They play alter-egos, to some extent. Amanda (Diaz) is a high-flying, neurotic, successful movie trailer editor who lives in a big mansion in Brentwood and has just found out that her boyfriend (a brief role by Ed Burns) has cheated on her.
With the holidays approaching, she finds a home-exchange website where she comes across a bucolic English cottage owned by Iris (Winslet), a writer of wedding announcements at a big British broadsheet who has just discovered that the man she's been in love with for years is getting married to someone else. The two swap homes for the holidays, men are met, affairs are begun ... and a romantic comedy is born.
Meyers says choosing Winslet and Diaz was easy. She had to fight off a succession of American stars who wanted to play Iris, but chose Winslet because of her authenticity and the way audiences like her.
The requirements for Amanda's role were different. 'I wanted a character that was stereotypical - jumps up and down, has temper tantrums and all the big gestures,' says Meyers. Although she hadn't seen much of that from Diaz, after talking to the actress she decided to give her a try. 'She's a really gifted comedienne,' says Meyers. 'I adored working with her.'
The admiration is mutual. Diaz described Meyers as 'awesome, funny, smart and honest. She writes fantastic dialogue. I couldn't adore her more.'
That camaraderie comes through in the film, which is stamped with Meyers' signature warmth. The romances are cinematically dreamy, but realistic at the same time. Diaz hooks up in the film with Iris' brother Graham (Jude Law), who has some secrets of his own.
On the other side of the pond, Iris meets a musician Miles (Jack Black), who has relationship issues he's trying to work out. 'He's really cute,' says Meyers of Black, adding that in an all-female focus group a couple of weeks earlier, Black had come out ahead in popularity.
'He's what a lot of people look like,' she says. 'And there's some kind of goodness about him. And he's hilarious, too.'
Some of the movie was inspired by Meyers' own life, including having once browsed through a home exchange website (although she didn't go through with it). She's also partial to 1960s-style montages, and inserted one on the spur of the moment between Diaz and Law.
The female characters represent friends, and she's been through similar dilemmas in her life. Winslet's character pines for a man she can't have, while Diaz has serious commitment issues.
'They're both real,' Meyers says of the women in the film. 'I really fell for somebody in a big way once who kept me in his life, but not as his girlfriend. It's the most awful thing ever, the most terrible relationship to be in.'
Meyers has mined cinematic gold from the experiences, something more women writers and directors should be doing. For two decades, Meyers has been asked questions about women in Hollywood and the role they play behind the cameras, as well as in front of them, and she's always vocal about her views. But she says that, over the years, nothing really has changed.
'Yes, there's a lack of women's roles. A lot of movies that get made are written by, and mostly directed by, men. There's a shortage of really rich, full-bodied people for women to play.' She says that most roles for women are one of two types: 'the really depressing crazy women in these small indie films, where they're not functioning people, or they get the very flighty girl in a guy's movie, a secondary part'.
'A lot of comedies now are mostly two men. You look forward to the two-man movies, but we used to look forward to a man and a woman in a movie together.'
Meyers sighs when asked about change. 'I know women have never been more powerful in Hollywood. They run almost every TV network and a lot of studios. Amy Pascal [co-chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment] has done three movies this year [including The Holiday] with women directors. There's something screwy about it as women aren't getting the opportunities to direct as much as men, even though other women [are in charge]'.
Meyers says the reason women directors in Hollywood are still thin on the ground may be a practical one.
'I think that some women realise, 'Forget it, it's an impossible task, I'm going to become a producer or an executive'. When you see [women in film magazines] they're all executives and entertainment lawyers. They do great, but they need to, and I'd like them to infiltrate my kind of work more, to be cinematographers and directors.'
Despite being so outspoken, Meyers doesn't have a problem with terms such as 'chick-flick', even though she recognises they can be derogatory. 'I don't care about it,' she says. 'I look at my last movie and that was called a chick-flick. It did very well, so that's a lot of chicks, and some men must have been there, too. Certainly, nobody calls The Departed a guy flick or whatever, but they're allowed to make a movie that doesn't have a woman in it and get away with it.'
The Holiday opens today