“A word that was very important to me when I was making the movie was timeless.”
Director Nora Ephron on making Sleepless in Seattle
“While my informal and unscientific Twitter poll revealed that When Harry Met Sally might be Nora’s most beloved film, I think Sleepless in Seattle is my favorite. I often think about it as a reminder that we can be creative and clever with structure.”
Script reader Amanda Pendolino
Writing Advice from Nora Ephron
Even if you don’t like mainstream Hollywood romantic comedies, there is much to appreciate about Sleepless in Seattle. Afterall it not only made more than $250 million back when it was released in 1993, but it’s listed as one of AFI’s top ten romantic comedy of all-time. A list that includes City Lights, Annie Hall, The Philadelphia Story and When Harry Met Sally. (That last film was co-written by Nora Ephron, the director/co-writer of Sleepless in Seattle, reminding us of how talented she was.)
After her recent death, I revisited the director’s commentary of Sleepless in Seattle and it’s a great example of the collaborative filmmaking process. So in just under 1,500 words here are some take aways from Nora that I hope will make you a better writer and/or filmmaker.
Nora is very open on the Sleepless in Seattle commentary that she was “one of several screenwriters who worked on it.” The original script written by Jeff Arch, then an English teacher in Virginia, was a romantic drama. That script found its way to producer Gary Foster, who in a 1993 LA Times article said, “I got choked up a few times and was real touched by it. I took it to TriStar and we were lucky enough to get it optioned.”
Oscar-winning screenwriter David S. Ward (The Sting) was brought on to do a version and the third credited writer on the script was Nora. But according the commentary, after the film was greenlit Nora brought her sister Delia (credited as Associate Producer) in to punch up the comedy in the script, the kids roles, and improve the Tom Hanks character.
And even that isn’t the end of it as Nora mentions how Hanks himself, and actors Victor Garber and Rob Reiner, all used improv to add more humor. Nora even credits the producer Foster with writing the baseball/Baltimore bit about, “Everyone thinks Brooks Robinson is the greatest.” (A nice subtle touch of credibility for those who remember the Baltimore Orioles third baseman whose nickname was “The Human Vacuum Cleaner.”)
A standard practice in Hollywood is to team a new director with a seasoned director of photography (DP). This was Nora’s second feature, but her first bigger Hollywood-budgeted film. The DP for Sleepless in Seattle was Sven Nykvist. He was born in Sweden in 1922 making him 70-years-old when he shot the film. By then he had long been considered one of the greatest cinematographers of all time. (In his 2006 obituary in the New York Times it stated that Nykvist, “became the first European cinematographer accepted into the American Society of Cinematographers.)
He had won a couple of Oscars for his work on two Ingmar Bergman films, Fanny and Alexander (1982) and Cries & Whisper (1972). But he also shot Crimes and Misdemeanors (directed by Woody Allen), Chaplin (directed by Richard Attenborough), Pretty Baby (directed by Louis Malle) Star 80 (directed by Bob Fossee), The Tenant (directed by Roman Polanski) and Bergman’s Persona. Again even if you’re not a fan of romantic comedies you can appreciate what Nykvist brought to the party. (Watch the film with the audio off to help you appreciate the cinematography.)
The very first thing that signaled to me that there was some weight to Sleepless in Seattle was the opening shot at the cemetery when a standard funeral scene turns visually stunning when the camera cranes up and exposes the skyline of Chicago. (Nora said that that shot was an attempt to do a version of Saul Steinberg’s famous cover of The New Yorker where New York City dwarfs the rest of the world.)
Nora points out one scene that was shot at Tiffany’s, “Sven amazingly took about half an hour to light the whole thing with two big 10Ks. It was kind of amazing.” (Heck, I’ve taken an hour to light a simple interview.)
Tom Hanks. Meg Ryan. As one critic said about them together they, “should win a Nobel Prize for chemistry.” But it wasn’t just chemistry, it was talent. Talent often acted out in non-verbal subtext by just the expression in their eyes.
Keep in mind that Hanks’ next two roles after Sleepless in Seattle won him back to back Oscars for best actor (Philadelphia, Forrest Gump). And his next two after those (Apollo 13, Toy Story) weren’t too bad either. Nora points out one scene where Hanks’ is juggling a small stack of mail:
“That little thing of letters that falls off the pile of Tom’s is something that the first time it happened I thought, ‘Oh, he dropped the letters,” the second and third time he did it I realized that he did it on purpose. And one of the reasons he did it is Tom knew better than I did that the scene needed something to end it. Even if it was a little noise. And that little package of envelopes that drops gives the scene what you call a button and helps tremendously where the writing fails.”
Nat King Cole, Jimmy Durante, Carly Simon, Gene Audrey, Tammy Wynette, Ray Charles, Joe Cocker, Harry Connick Jr, Celine Dion and Louis Armstrong. Something for everyone. But with a twist. As Nora put it, “Standards sung by unlikely people.”
Editor Robert M. Reitano helped shape the film after it was shot. (The opening and the close of film had to be restructured in post. In the first act the Meg Ryan character actually had a long backstory that included her also living in Chicago at the same time the Tom Hanks character did. It wasn’t only written into the script, it was shot. Nora simply said, “That little idea of mine didn’t work.” ) There are other things Nora picked up from the Emmy-winning Reitano including a big argument between Hanks and his son (Ross Malinger) at a key turning point at the end of the second act:
“My first movie (This is My Life) had a big fight in it and my editor Bob Reitano was cutting it and very gently pointed out to me that the next time I had a fight scene I ought to move people around a little bit. So this was the next time to shoot a fight scene and I really paid attention to what he said. People just bounce all over the place in this fight.”
Shot in Seattle, Baltimore, Chicago, New York. The story is dialogue driven, but those four cities in one film make for a visually interesting backdrop.
There’s a lot more depth to this film that I won’t go into beyond saying there are some solid supporting actors, graphics (Milton Glaser/Walter Bernard) and production design. In fact, in wanting to connect Hanks and Ryan together early in the film they have a shot of Ryan walking out a door in Baltimore and do a match cut to Hanks walking out the door in Seattle. According to Nora they didn’t just find a similar door in each city but they shipped the door to both cities. That wasn’t a happy accident, that’s production design at its best showing attention to detail in pre-production.
There are films I’ve seen just this month that I’ve already forgotten the titles of, who’s in them, or what they were even about. But Sleepless in Seattle is a title that rolls easily off the tongue and is a movie that has stayed in the hearts of many for the past almost 20 years now. I don’t think Nora Ephron set out to make a modern day classic in her second film out of the gate, but sometimes the right elements come together in a film and create magic.
Update: Just after I posted this I learned that today just happens to be Tom Hanks’ birthday. A fitting ending to a post about a movie about fate. Happy Birthday Tom Hanks.
P.S. And because I doubt I’ll ever have a reason to mention Brooks Robinson again on this blog about screenwriting—and to preserve my man card— here’s a fine 3-minute tribute to Robinson by Roy Firestone :