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
"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
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
"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.