On the Front Lines With Nora Ephron

Rolling Stone's 1993 Q&A with the writer and director of 'Sleepless in Seattle'

nora ephron
Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage
Nora Ephron and Nicholas Pileggi attend the premiere of 'Sleepless in Seattle' in Century City, California.
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This story is from the July 8th, 1993 issue of Rolling Stone.

With the release of Sleepless in Seattle, Nora Ephron is poised to become one of Hollywood's leading women directors. Still, it's ironic that the author of the novel Heartburn – a small masterpiece of romantic disillusionment – stands to attain box-office clout with a cozy date film. Back in the Seventies, Ephron was a journalist famous for her prickly wit, acid observations and brutal honesty. Always an independent thinker, she shocked feminists by writing a piece in which she admitted to having rape fantasies. And she developed a habit of hitting back in print at everyone from fellow journalists to former bosses. This tendency reached its apotheosis with Heartburn, which chronicled the story of her divorce from Carl Bernstein, Watergate reporter and father of her two sons. Heartburn contains everything that is best about Ephron's writing: her urbane edge, her militant domesticity, her taste for revenge. And to this day, it seems that Ephron cannot brush against the subject of Bernstein without her throat tightening. As it turned out, Heartburn marked the end of her journalistic career. After her divorce, Ephron made a shift from essays to screenplays. She earned Oscar nominations for Silkwood (co-written by Alice Arlen and directed by Mike Nichols) and When Harry Met Sally ... (directed by Rob Reiner), and she wrote the movie version of Heartburn (with Nichols directing again). In the late Eighties, she had a short string of flops with My Blue Heaven and Cookie, two mobster comedies most likely influenced by her current marriage to journalist and screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi (GoodFellas). In 1992, Ephron broke through Hollywood's gender barrier to direct her first movie, the modest This Is My Life, starring Julie Kavner. The stage seemed set for a series of small, personal directorial projects. But with characteristic push, Ephron, 52, now finds herself on the brink of a huge hit. Sleepless in Seattle – a very romantic comedy with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan – is touted as the sleeper of summer '93. Though her switch from caustic critic to purveyor of modern romance might suggest she's mellowed, during a discussion in her apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side, Ephron was full of frank opinions on a wide range of subjects.

Unlike most of your films, Sleepless in Seattle is not an original script of yours. How did you get involved with it?
I'd just finished cutting This Is My life, and I was looking for a cash infusion. My agent sent me a couple of things that needed rewrites, among them Indecent Proposal. I was dying to work with [director] Adrian Lyne. I had made the mistake of foolishly turning down a rewrite on Fatal Attraction. But they chose another writer over me for Indecent Proposal. If I had directed that movie, I could never have taken it all so seriously as he does.

There's definitely a gravity to it.
Yes, absolutely. Are you going to have yourself say "gravity" in the story? Because it's very good.

I was told you'd try to write this story for me.
Right. Anyway, there I was, having been passed over for Indecent Proposal. And then I read the second draft of Sleepless by the third writer, David Ward.

What did you like best about the script?
It had all these weird, wonderful ideas to play with, including all this stuff about what the movies do to your brain and how so many of our notions about romance are based on the movies that we've seen. I have a sense that the romantic comedy was probably killed by sex. After all, words are the sex of the romantic comedy. Now it's gotten trickier to have sex, and it's gotten trickier to show sex in movies. So what is there for people to do but go "blah blah blah" at one another?

In a recent quote, you called the Nineties generation very unromantic, saying they value work over relationships. Are you concerned that Sleepless won't play to this audience?
The younger persons that I know, especially the ones in California, I don't even think they have sex. They have business dinners and business breakfasts, sometimes two business breakfasts. But I believe very strongly that underneath all of that is just a bunch of romantic stuff. Everybody's got it. That's one of the reasons Tom Hanks's character moves to the Northwest. He goes from Chicago, which is your modern, work-driven urban environment, to Seattle, which is – let me tell you, after three days there with my husband, Nick says, "This is a city where people have chosen lifestyle over work." And he's right. There are cities like this all over America, full of people who are kayaking and living the good life.

In Sleepless, your two lovers, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, don't really meet until the final scene. That's a pretty risky move. Yet you did an effective job of creating visual and emotional connections between them.
One of the themes of the movie is the global village – we all live in one place, and it's called the United States, and it's connected by airplanes, 800-number radio shows, the same jokes and statistics. By the time Tom and Meg are out on their respective piers sitting on their respective benches, you feel like it's a love scene even though they are 3000 miles apart.

You have Ryan going in one door in Baltimore and Hanks coming out another in Seattle.
And we used the same door. We really went for that one. We actually shipped that door from one city to the other.

Do you think Sleepless will be criticized for being too sentimental?
Some people will think so, but I don't. We're trying to have our cake and eat it, too. We're trying to be smart, sophisticated and funny about movies like this, but we want to be one, too.

Is that why the characters in Sleepless keep making references to the 1957 Cary Grant tear-jerker An Affair to Remember? In an almost postmodern way, you appropriate that film, down to the theme musk and the big scene on top of the Empire State Building.
I had seen that movie as a kid. My mother took me to a screening in Westwood, and I just lost it. There I was, a hopeless teenage girl awash in salt water, and we stood up to leave, and my mother introduces me to Cary Grant. I blubbered that this was the greatest movie I'd ever seen. I now look at this movie and say, "What was I thinking?" But I could play the last ten minutes of that movie for you now, and we'd be crying. Well, maybe you wouldn't be crying.

How do you manage to remain such a true believer in romance after three marriages?
If I weren't a romantic, why would I keep doing it? There's no one who's more romantic than a cynic.

Is it hard being a woman director?
The hardest thing about being a woman director is becoming one.

Did you run across a lot of sexist attitudes on the part of your crew?
Well, you don't always know everything that's going on on your set. I'm sure there are people who have problems with it, and maybe I'm blocking it in the Pollyannaish haze that I have put on this movie. There are cinematographers I wouldn't go near – and not just because I'm a woman, but because I'm really inexperienced and they would try to eat me alive. I would be very wary of the Australians. But I could be wrong about them.

Was it frightening to go from the introversion of writing to extroversion of directing?
No. One of the biggest surprises you have when you come to screenplay writing from journalism, as I did, is that film is such a collaborative medium. I was in a state of shock during Silkwood, the first movie I wrote. I couldn't believe what Meryl [Streep] wanted to wear as Karen Silkwood. And the first day Cher improvised a line, I practically had to take five aspirins. The point is that by the time I got around to directing, I'd lived through the process many times. Although the "process" is just another name for that period when the writer gets screwed.

How did you learn to direct actors – which is a separate art in itself?
I learned a lot from Mike [Nichols], who basically uses metaphors to direct actors. He'll say, "It's like when you were in high school and nobody would choose you." This gives an actor a way to connect to his character through some mutual experience. Between Mike and Rob [Reiner], I had three movies where I got to watch. It was the most amazing film school you could ever go to.

In your life, you've gone from journalist to critic to screenwriter to director. Do you feel a need to change careers every decade or so?

There's no question that changing careers is the good result of a bad quality I have, which is a short attention span. But originally I went into movies not because I was burnt out on journalism but from economic desperation. When my marriage broke up, I had two kids and I figured I'd better get my act together because nobody else was going to help. That's a realization a woman comes to very late in life: It's just me. So I started doing scripts because everyone was doing it. It saved me from having to live in the country or some fate worse than death.

Did it have to do with your parents, Phoebe and Henry Ephron, being screenwriters?

No. In fact, I projected not being a screenwriter. I became a journalist to do the opposite of what my parents do. That was my idea of a rebellion.

Since you're a woman who's famous for her strong opinions, what do you think of, say, Roseanne Arnold?
I have a big crush on her. I'm dying to meet her. I absolutely love her show, and I don't watch a huge amount of television.

How do you feel about Hillary Clinton?
I love her even more than Roseanne. I think it's a miracle that she's there. I watch things like The Capital Gang, and I see people like Robert Novak having a nervous breakdown from her. I see lots of people having nervous breakdowns from her, but mostly they're antediluvian males who really don't get it at all. Look how smart she is. She took the worst job in America – not first lady, that's a great job. But health care, that's a very bad job.

What did you think about Husbands and Wives, with Woody Allen and Mia Farrow?
He's not a close friend, but I do know him and her. I found Husbands and Wives very painful to watch and not in the way it was intended. I couldn't separate it from what was happening in real life. I saw a whole other level of cruelty on his part. One watches it thinking, "Did she say that line knowing what was going on?"

Journalists love to picture you as the "having it all" kind of woman: successful husband, two kids, big-time career, all in a good balance. Is that a concept you resent?
When I think of women who have it all, I tend to think of someone like [columnist] Anna Quindlen, who is married to the father of her children. It seems I have a messy version of having it all.

Are you mellowing?
My friends think so. It's not quite a compliment. When people say you've mellowed, it's like they're saying that you used to be sort of horrible.

You do have a reputation for being a control freak.
Not as much as I used to. Now that I'm a director, I get paid to be a control freak, so I can ease up in the rest of my life. But maybe I am. In When Harry Met Sally..., when Harry is mystified at the complicated way Sally orders food, she says, "I just like it the way I like it." To me, that's perfectly logical.

Does it ever occur to you that between 'When Harry Met Sally...' and 'Sleepless in Seattle,' you may be remembered less for your spikier writing and more as some queen of romance?
What a hilarious notion that it would be me! But I don't really think it's a risk.

 

From The Archives Issue 660: July 8, 1993
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