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Interview with Nora Ephron

By Bonnie Rothman Morris

This article was originally published in the New York Women in Film & Television newsletter, in April, 1998. New York Women in Film & Television is a nonprofit membership organization dedicated to helping women reach the highest levels of achievement in film, television and other screen-based media. Founded in 1978, NYWIFT now numbers more than 1,100 professional members. The organization serves as an educational forum for media professionals and a network for the exchange of information and resources. For more information on NYWIFT, visit its web site: www.nywift.org.

Bonnie Rothman Morris is a screenwriter and journalist who writes frequently for The New York Times. Recent screenplays include the comedy, "GUY AND DOLL," and the romantic comedy, "TAKING THE LEAP."

When Nora Ephron talks about making movies, she's diplomatic and opinionated, impassioned and circumspect, proprietorial and generous; she's also funny. She has to be, she's a director. But, she is, and always will be, a writer.

    "One of the main reasons that I love directing is because it's the best way I know to protect my writing," says Ephron, a three-time Academy Award nominee for her scripts for "Silkwood," "When Harry Met Sally," and the blockbuster "Sleepless in Seattle," which she also directed.

     Ephron swears she was never one of those people who said "what I really want to do is direct." Her experiences on the set: having to change the script to accommodate a director, or, worse, watching a script be "misdirected," planted the directing bug.

     "I thought, 'I could've screwed that up just as well as he did, so why am I not making the money to do this?'" said Ephron, sipping ginger tea in her cozy living room.

    While working on set with Mike Nichols on "Silkwood" and later with Rob Reiner on the quintessential comedy about if best friends can ever be lovers, "When Harry Met Sally," Ephron was encouraged to offer her comments, a privilege not accorded to all screenwriters. This was a sprung gate for someone in love with words and in touch with the feelings behind them. So she gave her opinion, as much as she dared.

    "You can't say it that often or the director would want to kill you, and actually I think Mike did want to kill me. Many times. And Rob did, too."

    Despite the threat of death, which would probably be bad for her directors because they wouldn't have had Ephron available to do the screenwriter's other job on set -- which is to rewrite scenes -- Ephron says she believes that her comments were actually very helpful. "But not always," she admits.

    She also used her time on set to learn about what a director does, which helped, but didn't altogether prepare her to direct her first movie, "This Is My Life," starring Julie Kavner.

    "I really honestly didn't have a clue. I knew nothing. I'm so embarrassed now about the things I didn't know." The film, about the struggles of a single mom who is raising two girls in Manhattan while trying to forge a career as a stand-up comic, was based on the book "This Is Your Life," by Meg Wolizter. During the shoot, Ephron felt a rush of satisfaction about her work that she hadn't previously experienced as a screenwriter.

    "There's a moment when the two little girls see their mother (on TV) and they started jumping on the bed. I was standing in the closet in that bedroom and watching them go in and out of frame on the monitor and I thought, 'Oh my God, you've done this!' And it was like a truth, like realizing I had told the truth about a thing which is called how kids feel when their mom or dad has a success. It was on the page but you could've missed it, you know?"

    What thrilled Ephron was that she had converted the written word, as intended, to the movie screen. She knew from experience that goal is not always so easily accomplished, especially when she's not at the helm.

    After watching the shoot of a hilarious restaurant scene in "When Harry Met Sally" (not the infamous Carnegie Deli scene), Ephron was elated. In it, Billy Crystal tries to fix up Meg Ryan with his journalist friend, played by Bruno Kirby and Ryan tries to fix up Crystal with her friend, played by Carrie Fisher. The plan backfires. Fisher quotes from a magazine article that Kirby wrote and Kirby, delighted, bubbles: "Nobody's ever quoted me back to me before." In a flash, Kirby and Fisher are rushing to share a taxi, leaving Crystal and Ryan alone on an empty street.

    "I was walking up Broadway and thinking, this movie is so wonderful, this movie is so great. And that night I went to the rushes and I came home and said to my husband: 'This movie is going to be a grotesque personal embarrassment for me.'"

    To avoid sleepless nights caused by seemingly abhorrent rushes, Ephron views hers in the middle of the day. That way, she says, "you can go home with the delusion that you've made up for your bad dailies." And, to further bolster her confidence on set, Ephron makes sure she's teamed with a screenwriter she trusts. For "This Is My Life," "Michael," and her newest project, a romantic comedy, "You've Got Mail," that's been her sister, Delia.

    "I'd deluded myself into thinking I'd been so helpful to my directorsthat I didn't want to direct without feeling that there would be somebody that helpful to me. Because (Delia) really can say virtually anything to me and I'm afraid she often does," says Ephron, flopping back into the sofa in her Manhattan apartment immortalized in the film based on her best-selling novel, "Heartburn."

    In that novel, the heroine, Rachel Samstadt, a thinly-veiled substitute for the author, complains that "the major concrete achievement of the women's movement in the 1970s was the Dutch treat." And, while "Heartburn," an hilarious, bittersweet chronicle of marriage and betrayal and pregnancy and friendship and food (not necessarily in that order), was an exact social chronicle of its time; it is the feminist "movement" that is partly responsible for putting Nora Ephron on the Hollywood director's map by putting more women in power in Hollywood.

    In 1983, when "Silkwood" was made, women's ranks within the studios were slim. "They were women that the men felt comfortable putting in the one slot that they knew they had to have a woman in, they really didn't pay a huge amount of attention to them," says Ephron. This opinion was recently echoed by her longtime friend, Lynda Obst, the executive producer of "Sleepless In Seattle," at a New York Women in Film and Television Power Player breakfast.

    Now, more women running studios enables Nora Ephron to make Nora Ephron movies, the most popular of which have been old-fashioned romantic comedies primarily aimed at women. Movies in which, as the ultra-articulate Ephron puts it, "people sit in a room and go blah, blah, blah."

    Ephron makes emotional movies, and she believes that the women executives who she's worked with, like Columbia studio president Amy Pascal and Universal co-president of production, Stacey Snider, respond in a visceral and emotional way to her stories, rather than "sticking her finger in the air to see which way the wind is blowing."

    Still, it was a man -- Joe Roth, who was then at 20th Century Fox -- who greenlit "This Is My Life," and Ephron, ever the diplomat, stressed that she doesn't believe that women are better than men at the business of Hollywood; rather, they're just as good as the men. And that is what is going to change the way men perceive their roles in the movie business in the future.

    "I truly believe that in ten years there's going to be a "Men in Film" organization and they're going to have this pathetic little luncheon every year where they give each other awards, because women now run almost half the studios in Hollywood, it's kind of amazing."

    Before every woman in the film business gets to her feet to hug the one next to her with this pronouncement, Ephron says even though more women's movies are getting made, it's still an uphill battle. With actioners like "Air Force One" and " Men In Black" topping the box office charts, the business still caters largely to teenaged boys, (unless the film stars Leonardo di Caprio and a great big sinking ship, thus appealing to teenaged boys and teenaged girls). Ephron suggests that there might be another reason for the dearth of "women's" films. Quite simply, "it's much more difficult to write a film with characters and plot," elements that women respond to in movies.

    About four years ago, Ephron was having dinner with the publisher of the paperback version of "Heartburn." He asked her when she was going to be getting back to her real work and her real writing. Ephron swore she didn't get defensive, but what she said was this: "Movies are the literature of this generation, and all subsequent generations. It's exciting to know that if you make a movie that in some way works, you're going to reach people, to become part of their autobiography. Just as you went to movies when you were a kid and got all your ideas about x or y from the movies, you can be part of that for people, you can give that."

    Now, Ephron is embarking on directing her fifth film (and her tenth feature screenplay), "You've Got Mail," a remake of the Ernst Lubitsch classic, "The Shop Around the Corner." The film reteams Ephron muses Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, and she's counting on the women audiences who made "Sleepless," such a hit to head back to the theaters for another smart, funny, shamelessly romantic comedy that has made Ephron's mark in Hollywood.

    Never one to play it safe, Ephron's got her next film all planned out -- a war movie entitled "Higgins and Beech," which she penned with Silkwood co-writer Alice Arlen. It's not a comedy, but it has funny stuff in it and, like all Ephron movies, it has characters and a plot. Despite the action, it will be a movie where people lie in a sleeping bag and dodge bullets and go "blah, blah, blah." It will be a movie directed by a writer who just didn't want her lines messed with too much.

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