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Nora Ephron
Nora Ephron
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Nora Ephron Interview

Humorist, Novelist, Screenwriter and Director

June 21, 2007
Washington, D.C.

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  Nora Ephron

You've written that you learned from your parents' friends that at the age of 50, screenwriters' careers sometimes nose-dive. Was that what drew you to directing, the need to extend or protect your career as a screenwriter?

Nora Ephron: I think it was two things. It wasn't just that I wanted to go on writing, but I wanted to write about things that were hard to attach directors to, if you wanted to write about women in any way.

Ninety percent of the men directing movies have no interest in women in any real way, except as girlfriends or wives. They don't really want to make movies about them, and they don't. So the arduous task of getting someone to commit to something that had anything to do with my life was very frustrating. Then, when I did When Harry Met Sally with Rob Reiner, I wrote that script, and I thought, "Well, I don't really want to direct, but if I did direct, this would be a good movie to start with, because there aren't a lot of people in it, and there aren't a lot of people in any of the scenes, and it wouldn't be that complicated shooting it," and all of that. But then Rob did it, and he was so brilliant. He did such a brilliant job. He changed the script. He made it so much better than it was, and so I thought, "Well, I guess if I get to work with the Robs of the world, why direct?" And then my next movie I did with someone else who didn't make the script better. So, at about that time, I thought maybe I should think about directing.

If I became a director, I could at least get my own movies made, my own scripts made, and the sense that I would be interested in subjects that men might not be interested in. It's very hard to get people to direct your movies if you are a screenwriter. First, you have to write the script. That's almost the easy part.

Nora Ephron Interview Photo
Speaking of When Harry Met Sally, you've used Meg Ryan in several films to great effect. What was it about her as an actress that kept you coming back to her for those roles?

Nora Ephron: Well, Meg can do everything. Meg is both funny and smart, and you rarely get that in one person. She's a brilliantly gifted actress. She really is.

That script also got an Oscar nomination and is famous for a scene involving a fake orgasm. Did that come off as you wrote it?

Nora Ephron: I'd been working on this script with Rob Reiner, and Rob had told me all this stuff about guys, right? And how horrible they are and how unwilling they are to commit in any way, even to the bed of the person they've just had sex with for the rest of the night. So one day, we were sitting around, and Rob said, "You know, we've told you all this stuff about guys. Now you tell us anything about women that we don't know," and it was like, "I dare you, I dare you. You will never be able to tell me anything about women I don't know, but try." So I said, "Well, women fake orgasms," and he said, "Not with me." So I said, "Yes, with you," and he said, "No, no, no." I said, "Yes, yes, yes." Well he went completely crazy. He really did. I mean, he did a total Meathead moment and went thundering out to the bullpen at Castle Rock Pictures, where all the women were, and said, "Get in here," and they call came in." He said, "Is it true that women fake orgasms?" And this group of six completely terrified assistants all looked at him and went like this. It was just an amazing moment.

So we took that fact and put that into a scene. It was a very simple scene where Sally tells Harry that, and Harry says, "Not with me," and she says, "Yes, with you," and he says, "I don't believe it," and she says, "You better believe it." It was very simple.

We had a read-through, and Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan read the script, and at the end of the read-through, Meg said, "You know, I think this scene would be much funnier if it took place in a restaurant," and Rob said, "That's a great idea. Let's do it in a restaurant," and then Meg said, "And then I think at the end of the scene, she should have an orgasm," and Rob said, "Well, that's a really good idea," and Billy Crystal said, "And one of the customers can say: I'll have what she's having," and Rob said, "And I know just the actor to play that part: my mother." Now, you know, I had started out in the movie business thinking, "Oh please don't let them change my lines. Please don't let them do anything to me." And you know, you hear an idea like that, and you think, "I am so lucky to be working with these people." Thank God people believe in collaboration. Of course, I get all the credit for that line which I had -- well, I'd like to think I had something to do with it, because if I hadn't broken the news about faking orgasms, there might be millions of men still walking around the earth not knowing it, and they do know it because of that movie.

It was a brilliant performance by Meg Ryan as well.

Nora Ephron: It was, wasn't it? She's great.

You've said that despite the great success of When Harry Met Sally, you had a tough time getting financing for your first directorial effort.

Nora Ephron: It wasn't a really commercial movie. It would have been more commercial had it had a more commercial cast, but I didn't have a very commercial cast. In fact, I had Bette Midler who wanted to do it, and Jeffrey Katzenberg at Disney would not let her out of her contract to do it. I think the movie would have done better if Bette had been in it. I loved Julie Kavner in it, but I begged Jeffrey Katzenberg to let (Bette Midler) out of her contract, or for him to make it, and he simply had no interest in the subject matter of that movie and told me so. He had no interest in what it was about, which was balancing a career and work. It was about a woman stand-up comic, who had two children. It's a very funny script, and a good script, and Jeffrey isn't really interested in women. His wife is a housewife. He just wasn't there, and it was heartbreaking to me. I went through -- it seemed like forever -- trying to get it made, and then suddenly one day a guy named Joe Roth at Fox said, "I'll make this movie with Julie Kavner," and he did it.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

It was a wonderful movie.

Nora Ephron: Thank you.

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