“For years, I just wrote scripts that didn’t get made.”
“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.”
Last Tuesday after I finished setting up for a video shoot on the Upper West Side of Manhattan I walked past a restaurant on 83rd Street and took a quick iPhone photo of restaurant that caught my eye because of the lights on the trees. Only later did I learn that just a couple of miles away on the Upper East Side, and just an hour earlier, writer/director Nora Ephron had died. And the restaurant, the Cafe Lalo, just happened to be where one of the scenes from Ephron’s movie You’ve Got Mail was shot.
A serendipitous moment of fate that characterized much of Ephron’s work. Including her best known scripts When Harry Met Sally… (1989), Sleepless in Seattle (1993), and You’ve Got Mail (1998). A most incredible ten year run by the way. According to Box Office Mojo, movies from scripts she worked on grossed over $700 million.
Her screenwriter parents Henry & Phobe Ephron were two of the writers on the WGA-nominated Carousel and the Oscar-nomimated Captian Newman, M.D. (1963). At the time of her death, Nora was married to screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi who (along with Martin Scorsese) won an Oscar for writing Goodfellas. And she wrote You’ve Got Mail with her sister Delia. That’s a lot of talent connected to one family.
She grew up an avid reader and graduated from Beverly Hills High School, and later Wellesley College. She had an internship at the White House with Pierre Salinger, who was the Press Secretary for President John F. Kennedy.
“I realized many years later that I was probably the only woman who had ever worked in the White House that Kennedy didn’t make a pass at.”
In the early 60s she started out “mail girl”/”clipper”/”researcher” at Newsweek and worked her way up to being a journalist writing for the New York Post, and eventually wrote for The New York Times Magazine and Esquire magazine. The 70s were a time of transition for Ephron as she got married, had kids, and got divorced (twice). It was her writing that allowed her to pay the bills and raise children:
“I was very lucky I was a writer, but if you’re a lawyer or a doctor or you work in a factory, you have hours, you don’t have freedom. They don’t care that there’s a school meeting in a lot of places. So I was very lucky. Had I had a full-time job, I might not have anything near the ability to be the kind of mother I was for the first ten or eleven years of their lives.”
Academy of Achievement
When the bumpy ride was over in the early 80s she was a screenwriter. Though she had sold scripts and had some TV work produced, Ephron was over forty when her first feature was produced. I was in fim school when I saw that film Silkwood (1983). It was powerful stuff, and much more serious drama than what she is known for now. She and co-writer Alice Arlen were nominated for an Oscar for the script. Over the years Ephron was nominated three times for scripts that she worked on.
“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.”
Rolling Stone interview with Lawrence Frascelia (July 8, 1993)
Silkwood was directed by Mike Nichols (The Graduate) who taught Ephron a lot about writing.
“One of the things that Mike teaches you is he’s constantly asking, ‘What’s the story about? What’s this scene about? What’s this section of the movie about?’ Just forcing you to understand that if you have a bunch of scenes and they are all about exactly the same thing, at least two of them are superfluous.”
Academy of Achievement
Though journalism jobs are harder to come by these days, Ephron spoke of writing 4 or 5 years of journalistic stories about how people live their lives as great preparation for being a screenwriter.
“If you want to go into the movie business, what are you going to write a movie about when you’re 22 years old? I’ll tell you what. You’re going to write your coming-of-age movie, and then you’re going to write your summer camp movie, and then you’re going to be out of things, because nothing else will have happened to you. So, I think it’s very good to become a journalist.”
Academy of Achievement
And writing a blog called Screenwriting from Iowa, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Ephron directed John Travolta, Andie MacDowell, and William Hurt in Michael (1996) which was shot in Iowa.
Over the weekend I re-watched Sleepless in Seattle and When Harry Met Sally… and it dawned on me that she was a writer like Aaron Sorkin or Woody Allen. Writers who aren’t terribly interested in writing visual stories, because the strength of their dialogue is so sharp. A fitting end to this post is to show the scene from You’ve Got Mail that was shot inside the Cafe Lalo. (At the 2:49 mark you can see the lights in the background that are on the trees that first grabbed my attention of the cafe. I wonder if those lights were always there, or placed there by cinematographer John Lindley.)
Related post: “It’s a very, very hard business…” (Advice from Ephron depite having grown up in Beverly Hills and having parents who were screenwriters.)
P.S. Nora Ephron’s 2010 New Yorker essay My Life As An Heiress is a good read on why having more money won’t make you a better writer.