Posts Tagged ‘Nora Ephron’

‘I love the script I wrote for Erin Brockovich. But even more, I love the movie. I love what it started as, and I love everything that was added to it by all the bright, talented people who came onto the project after me.”
Susannah Grant
Erin Brockovich: The Shooting Script (Newmarket Press)

“Film is, of course, a collaborative art and yes, sometimes those collaborations are like shotgun weddings of mismatched souls; the whole thing goes awry and everyone walks off in a huff vowing never to talk to each other. That can definitely happen.

“But what can also happen is that you end up working with enormously gifted collaborators whose input elevates your writing above and beyond what it would have been had you just been working on your own. Nora Ephron had a great analogy for this, and since I wouldn’t dream of trying to improve on Nora Ephron I’ll simply paraphrase her. She likened it to making a pizza.

“She said the screenwriter makes the dough, the sauce and the cheese and says ‘look I made a pizza’. The director comes along and says ‘hey that’s a great pizza, I wonder what it would be like if we added some pepperoni’. And you add the pepperoni. And then a couple of actors come along and they say ‘you know what else would be really good – some tomatoes and maybe some peppers’. And it goes on like that.

“I have been very lucky to have had some great condiments added to my pizza over the years. I want to share with you one of my favorites, it’s a scene from Erin Brockovich.”
Oscar-nominated screenwriter Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich)
2013 BAFTA and BFI Screenwriters’ Lecture Series
(Below is the scene–from 0:00 to 2:21— Grant showed at her lecture. And the quote below is how she drove home her point.)

“Okay, arguably not a poorly written scene. However Aaron Eckhart’s falling to his knees and then on his face at the end, to me, is my favorite moment in the [movie] and that was all him. That is what you get when you work with [talented] people.”

I don’t know if the idea to have Eckhart fall forward came from Eckhart, the director Steven Soderbergh , Richard LaGravense who did uncredited work on the script, or someone else on the crew—but it was a super way to visually show how he’d been shot down by the no nonsense Brockovich. And a nice way to tie up the scene with a touch of humor.

BTW—I found this article where Nora Ephron talks about collaborating and pizza making and gives the flip side of the story, which is sometimes the ingredients added make the pizza worse.

P.S. Last year George Johnson writing in Slate reflected back on the now 20 year old events surrounding PG&E and Hinkley, California stating:

“The Erin Brockovich incident, one of the most famous, is among the many [environmental contaminants] that have been debunked. Hexavalent chromium in the water supply of a small California town was blamed for causing cancer, resulting in a $333 million legal settlement and a movie starring Julia Roberts. But an epidemiological study ultimately showed that the cancer rate was no greater than that of the general population. The rate was actually slightly less.”

The truth is out there somewhere.

Related posts:
David O. Russell on Characters & Theme “I always look for amazing characters who I find are fascinating, charming, flawed, romantic and in trouble.”
Writing ‘Erin Brockovich’
Emotional Autobiography (2.0)
Scriptshadow Secrets Touches on character introductions with Erin Brockovich as a good example.

Scott W. Smith


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“The problem with romantic comedy is really—what keeps two people apart? What insurmountable problem keeps two people apart? And in the modern times it’s very hard to know what that could possibly be since there’s no rules about manners, and if people are married they can get divorced. There’s no class problems the way that there used to be that fueled endless numbers of movies like Stella Dallas all these kinds of  films that turned on things that you can’t turn a movie on anymore. And [Sleepless in Seattle] is a movie in which the two people don’t know each other and that’s how that problem is solved. And it’s actually a very funny way to solve that problem. In You’ve Got Mail they can’t be together because he owns a bookstore that is going to put her out of business— that is a big problem. In many movies people are just engaged to other people, which I always think is a very easy way out of this problem. But Sleepless is kind of amazing, it just assumes that these two people live on other ends of the county and don’t know who the other person is and that’s why they can’t be together. I like that. I think that’s simple & fun. “
Writer/Directr Nora Ephron
Sleepless in Seattle director’s commentary

P.S. Nora Ephon also mentioned a reference film she watched before directing Sleepless in Seattle and how it inspired her to link the Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan characters before they even met. “One of the movies I looked at before we shot this was a movie called  And Now My Love by Claude Lelouch. Which is about two people who also don’t meet until the very end of the movie. And what he knows in that movie is that’s he’s going to fall in love with someone who takes three lumps of sugar in her coffee. And what we were trying to come up with was a way that you would know—because of some thing that linked them— how destined they were for each other. And this apple is it as you’ll see later.”

Here’s the first apple scene. (Note the simplicity of this two-minute scene. One actress and one take.)

That scene later connects with a scene where Tom Hanks’ young son says of his dead mother, “I’m starting to forget her.” Hanks hugs him and says, “She could peel an apple in one long curly strip. The whole apple.”  I think that would qualify as what T.S. Eliot called an objective correlative. (And when that scene ends with the Joe Cocker version of Bye, Bye Blackbird it’s one powerfully emotional scene.)

No one seems to love or understand me
And all the hard luck stories they keep handing me
Where somebody shines the light
I’m coming on home tonight
1926 song Bye, Bye Blackbird
Composer Ray Henderson/ lyricist Mort Dixon

Recommended reading: Writing the Romantic Comedy by Billy Mernit

Related links:
40 Days of Emotions
Making Sleepless in Seattle

Scott W. Smith

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“The odds are stacked against everyone. Beat the odds and write a great script.”
Writer/director Jeff Arch

This afternoon at I’m going to be doing a filmmaking workshop for high school teenagers at Wartburg College. They’d probably rather talk about the upcoming release The Dark Knight Rises rather than a movie like Sleepless in Seattle that was released almost 20 years ago. But I’m in a Sleepless state of mind these days.

Of course none of those students were born when the movie Sleepless in Seattle came out in 1993. Most of them I bet have never seen Sleepless in Seattle or heard the name Nora Ephron who directed and was co-writer of the film. And I doubt any of them will recognize the name Jeff Arch—the original screenwriter of Sleepless in Seattle. But the reason I’m going to talk more about Jeff Arch than Batman is Arch is a  great example of someone who wrote a script while living outside of Los Angeles and hit a home run. So at least for today put it down as Screenwriter 1—Superhero 0.

When Arch was in his early 20s he was living in Los Angeles and actually worked as an assistant for the great Oscar-winning director of photography Conrad Hall (Road to Perdition, American Beauty, Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid). When he was thirty he wrote an off-Broadway play that sold out three weeks of preview shows before critics hammered the show and it ended with such a disappointment that he gave up writing for three years. On an interview on the Dr. Laura Ciel Show  Arch said what prepared him to succeed is,”I had already failed in every way you can.” He moved to Virginia and took up Karate where he learned about “Desire. Enthusiasm. Stamina.” He became a black belt and opened a martial arts studio.

If you came across Arch at that point in his life there isn’t much chance that you bet on him writing a screenplay that a few years later would gross over $250 million and earn him an Oscar nomination. But that’s what happened.

I found an interview of Arch where he was asked, “Did you have any idea that Sleepless in Seattle would be such a major hit?”:

“This is going to sound arrogant, or something like arrogant if not exactly that – but the night I got the idea, the story sort of all dropped down into place piece by piece. And then, the minute I thought of the title, I knew it.  I remember thinking to myself, if I pull this off it’s going to be a monster.  I just had this really strong sense that the right people were going to come along and steer it, and that also the wrong people were going to show up too, but the thing would be strong enough to shake them off.  And that if any negative elements remained, they’d be like barnacles on a ship – a hassle, and something that needs to be dealt with, but nothing that can stop the momentum. “

How about that? This guys had short runs in LA and New York and then walked away from writing when the title Sleepless in Seattle pops into his head. And it’s a great title. A memorable one. A rare one with built-in conflict.  It made me take a look at the AFI list of 100 great movies and see how many of those had titles that had built-in conflict. Only 15% of the titles had what I qualified as inherent conflict. 

Raging Bull (4)
Psycho (14)
The Grapes of Wrath (23)
High Noon (27)
To Kill a Mockingbird (25)
Apocalypse Now (30)
Intolerance (49)
Jaws (56)
Raiders of the Lost Ark (66)
Who’s Afraid of Virgina Wolf? (75)
Saving Private Ryan (71)
The Silence of the Lambs (74)
In the Heat of the Night (75)
Twelve Angry Men (87)
The Last Picture Show (95)

And I’m not even sure Jaws qualifies because without the poster of the shark is it really conflict? An interesting sidenote about the above list—and toss in Sleepless in Seattle—is that the conflict is implied in negative terms. Years ago an author told me that a writer would sell more books if he wrote “What’s Wrong with America?” rather than “How to Make America Better.” The old journalism axiom (stated in the movie Up Close & Personal)  “If it bleeds, it leads.” Something to think about when you’re coming up with a title.

But let’s go back to that night and hear how Arch says he had his cinematic epiphany;

“This all happened in the space of about an hour or two, on a freezing cold January night.  I was living in Virginia at the time, and I was looking up through a skylight and the stars were just amazing that night.  And I told myself, ‘for every star in the sky there’s a good idea.’  And then, I am not kidding, it was like one at a time, these shooting stars would come right down through that skylight and land in another part of the story.  I have never had a single experience as exciting as whatever was going on that night.    ‘Exciting’ can’t even begin to describe it.   And then later on, for the entire time I was writing the movie, that same feeling was there – something was going on that was way bigger than I was.   I know I’m making this sound like I had discovered the Theory of Relativity or something, and obviously this was a lot less world-shaking than that.   But I’m not Einstein, and for me this was just as big.   I felt so lucky to be the one that got that idea – I felt like anybody else that had been up that night might have gotten it instead if I hadn’t been there – but as it was, I had this sense that I was being trusted with something, and that I had better not mess it up.   Where my head was at the time, I wanted to send a valentine out to the whole world.”

He wrote the first draft of Sleepless in Seattle in four or five weeks. And he was right, it became a monster hit.

Currently Arch is working on the musical version of Sleepless in Seattle—The Musical which is set to debut in June of 2013 at the Pasadena Playhouse.

Looking at the locations where people just yesterday read this blog, my guess is tonight that there will be sleepless writers in Singapore, UK, USA, Canada, India, Austraila, Brazil, Thailand, France, Norway, Russia, Germany, Israel, Turkey, Fineland, Japan, Sweden, Italy, Spain, Mexico, Poland, Palistan, Belgium, Jamacia, Uruguay, Ireland, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Cameroon and the Isle of Man (need to look that last one up and see where that is)— writers who perphaps like Arch have “failed in every way you can” who still have the courage to write.

Even if you don’t take up karate, memorize these three words: “Desire. Enthusiasm. Stamina.”

Related posts:
Movie Titles (tip #21)
Choosing a Title for Your Script
Making Sleepless in Seattle
The 99% Focus Rule (Tip #70)

P.S. According to Wikipedia, “the Isle of Man is a self-goverining British Crown Dependency, located on the Irish Sea between the island of Great Britian and Ireland, within the British Isles.” Check out how cool their flag is:

Scott W. Smith

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“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 SeattleAfterall 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.”
Nora Ephron

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.”
Nora Ephron

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.

Related posts/ Nora Ephron:
Nora Ephron on Hollywood, Hookers & Nuns
Nora Ephron, Voice-over & the Mafia
Screenwriting Quote #165 (Nora Ephron)
Nora Ephron (1941-2012)

Tom Hanks:
“Big” Emotions
Toy Story 3’s Ohio Connections

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 :

Scott W. Smith

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“I see myself as a shadow of Nora Ephron’s, but…I can aspire to that.”
Diablo Cody

“It was her journalist’s curiosity that made Nora [Ephron] the directing talent she was. Her writing was always voice and detail. I once sent her a piece I was trying to write, and her response was three words: “Voice! Voice! Voice!'”
Tom Hanks
Time article 6/27/12 

Nora Ephron had a voice. A voice honed over the years as a journalist. Keep in mind that when she graduated from Wellesley College in 1962 that there weren’t a lot of options for female journalists. Yet, three years later she interviewed Bob Dylan* at a peak in his early career. (Shortly after he had recorded Like a Rolling Stone, which decades later Rolling Stone magazine named as the #1 Greatest Song of All Time.)

And though she started writing (and selling) screenplays in the 70s, she did not see one of her feature scripts produced until after she was 40-years old (Silkwood/1983). In the 90s, and then over 50, she added being a film director to her resume. She had a voice mixed with persistence.

So I thought I’d round out the week where I started it, remembering her voice.

“The hardest thing about being a woman director is becoming one.”
Nora Ephron
Rolling Stone interview with Lawrence Frascella

“It’s important to eat your last meal before it actually comes up….When you’re actually going to be having your last meal, you either will be too sick to have it or you aren’t going to know it’s your last meal and you could squander it on something like a tuna melt.”
Nora Ephron
2010 Interview with Charlie Rose 

“In my own business, in the movie business, there are many more of us [women] who are directors, but it’s just as hard to get a movie made about women as it was 30 years ago. And it’s much, much harder than it was 60 years ago. Look at the parts the Oscar-nominated actresses played this year—hooker, hooker, hooker, hooker  and nun.”
Nora Ephron
1996 Wellesley commencement speech

Related posts:
Making “Sleepless in Seattle”
Nora Ephron, Voice-over & the Mafia
Screenwriting Quote #165 (Nora Ephron)
Nora Ephron (1941-2012)

P.S. I believe the hooker, hooker, hooker, hooker roles Ephron was talking about were Leaving Las Vegas (Elisabeth Shue), Mighty Aphrodite (Mira Sorvino), Casino (Sharon Stone)—though technically an ex-prostitute, and not sure who the fourth hooker was— and the nun was in Dead Man Walking (Susan Sarandon).

* Dylan quote from the 1965 interview with Ephron (and Susan Edmiston):
“Great paintings shouldn’t be in museums. Have you ever been in a museum? Museums are cemetaries. Paintings should be on the walls of restaurants, in dime stores, in gas stations, in men’s rooms. Great paintings should be where people hang out. The only thing where it’s happening is on radio and records, that’s where people hang out. You can’t see great paintings. You pay half a million and hang one in your house and one guest sees it. That’s not art. That’s a shame, a crime. Music is the only thing that’s in tune with what’s happening. It’s not in book form, it’s not on the stage. All this art they’ve been talking about is nonexistent. It just remains on the shelf. It doesn’t make anyone happier. Just think how many people would really feel great if they could see a Picasso in their daily diner. It’s not the bomb that has to go, man, it’s the museums.”

Scott W. Smith

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For all those who say you should never use voice-over narration in your scripts:

“How can you be afraid of voiceover? You certainly can’t expect people to read what’s on the computer. I just love voice-over. I adore it. It’s great, especially when it’s right for the movie. I mean, I’m married to Nick Pileggi. Didn’t you see Goodfellas?
Three time Oscar-nominated screenwriter Nora Ephron (Silkwood, Sleepless in Seattle, When Harry Met Sally…)
Best of Creative Screenwriting Volume 2 

Related posts:

A Couple Voice-Over Votes (Alexander Payne/Jim Taylor)
Is Voice-Over Narration Dead?

P.S. A few years ago I interviewed Michael Franzese in Los Angeles for a TV program. Fortune magazine once listed him as number 18 of the “Fifty Most Wealthy and Powerful Mafia Bosses.” (He even used some of his wealth to be an executive producer on a few movies in the 80s.) He wrote a book called Quitting the Mob and you can read about his journey on his website.

Scott W. Smith

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“The fundamental thing that’s true of both [journalism & screenwriting] is that there’s a beginning, a middle, and an end. What I really understood as a magazine writer was when the beginning had to start to end, and the middle had to begin, and when the middle had to start to end and when the ending had to begin. And if you know that, you’re halfway to being a screenwriter. People who go to those seminars…and they know there are, let’s say, seventy-six ‘master scenes’… I don’t even know if a ‘master scene’ is an expression! But it’s all broken down mathematically, and I don’t understand any of that. I don’t do it. I never have done it. All that stuff that you learn about act structure, and scene structure, that every scene has three acts, all that stuff…I knew very instinctively from magazine writing.”
Nora Ephron
Interview with Kathryn Borel in The Believer  

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Nora Ephron (1941-2012)

“For years, I just wrote scripts that didn’t get made.”
Nora Ephron

“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.”
Nora Ephron

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 & Phoebe Ephron were two of the writers on the WGA-nominated Carousel and the Oscar-nomimated Captain 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.”
Nora Ephron

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.”
Nora Ephron
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 film 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 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.”
Nora Ephron
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.”
Nora Ephron
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.”
Nora Ephron
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 despite having grown up in Beverly Hills and having parents who were screenwriters.)

Scott W. Smith

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.


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Every time it’s an Olympic year there are great stories of men and women who basically sacrifice their whole lives up to that point in order to have a moment in the spotlight. It’s inspiring when they win gold. Heartbreaking when they fall short. It’s amazing sometime how close these world-class athletes are in times and scores.

In the men’s Super G race yesterday the time between the Gold winner and the next seven spots was less than half a second. The top three got medals, and the rest as close as 200th of a second apart went home empty-handed. It’s no secret that the Olympics are very hard and very competitive.

The same can be said for screenwriting and filmmaking. And what’s nice about the book Tales from the Script, edited by Peter Hanson and Paul Robert Herman, is it’s full of screenwriters who share the ups and downs of a career in screenwriting.

“I think the most important thing you have to know is that it’s a very,very hard business, full of rejection and setbacks. If you don’t want to succeed really badly, you won’t. But, of course, if you get a movie made and it works, there’s nothing like it. Nothing.”
Nora Ephron (When Harry Met Sally/Julie & Julia)
Tales from the Script
page 269

“There’s a giant group of people who want to be writers, and a smaller group who actually write, and an even smaller group who are actually going to strive so hard that someone’s going to pay attention to them…I was obsessed at one point. I took every course, I read magazines, and I just kept going to movies. I remember at one point, I sat down and wrote down (copied) Rocky beat by beat.”
Steve Koren
(Bruce Almighty)
Tales from the Script
page 273

Scott W. Smith

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Billy Mernit has a book called Writing the Romantic Comedy as well as a blog called Living the Romantic Comedy.

“A strong theme is the backbone of one of the 1980s’ most enduring hits, When Harry Met Sally, Rob Reiner’s helming of Nora Ephron’s script is a success largely due to its relentless plucking at the same string—the question, a cultural hot point, of whether men and women can be friends and whether a romance can be founded on friendship.”
Billy Mernit
Writing the Romantic Comedy
Pages 44-45

For more on thoughts on writing from theme read the post Writing from Theme (tip #20).

Scott W. Smith

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