With “Julie & Julia” set to open sometime soon, I thought it might be fun to go back to 1992 and writer-director Nora Ephron’s first directorial effort, “This is My Life,” which opened the Sundance Film Festival that year. In anticipation of the festival’s opening night, I interviewed the filmmaker via telephone – she was in New York City.
I have to add that talking to her on the phone was like watching one of her movies: delightful. She’s just a great interview, couldn’t have been more relaxed and generous; it doesn’t hurt that she was a journalist, and apparently that she’s just a good human being, too, from all indications.
Anyway, here’s a transcript of most of the phoner.
DP: THE PAST FEW YEARS WE'VE BEEN HEARING MORE AND MORE ABOUT THE LACK OF GOOD ROLES FOR FEMALES IN FILMS. BUT YOUR FILMS SEEM TO ALMOST ALWAYS HAVE STRONG CENTRAL CHARACTERS WHO ARE FEMALES. HAVE YOU EVER HAD TROUBLE SELLING THE NOTION THAT FEMALES AS THE FOCUS OF MOVIES ARE A REALLY GOOD THING?
NE: “Well, I think one of the reasons I wanted to direct, finally, is that it's unbelievably hard to get a movie made if it's about a woman. Because you see what happens is you write a script and then you have to get someone to direct it. And the most amazing thing about this is that what happens is you go into your agent's office and he says to his assistant, ‘Bring in the directors list.' And the assistant brings in the directors' list and it is A PIECE OF PAPER. It's not even that big a piece of paper -- well, it's 8x14, but it's not FULL. And on it is a list of, I'd say, 80 or 90 names. Out of which, never mind how many are women -- although more this year than last year -- but the point is, out of which you can rule out 90 percent of the people on the list because they don't make movies about women. Or they don't make comedies. So you're left with 10 names, let's say. And some of those names are people we'd all love to make a movie with, but GET IN LINE. Sydney Pollack makes movies about women ...”
BUT HE MAKES A MOVIE ABOUT EVERY FIVE YEARS.
“... well, even if he made one every year it might not be yours. So you get to a certain point where if you're someone like me who likes to write about women, you kind of think to yourself, ‘Well I might as well direct this. I know as much about this as anybody they're going to get to direct this.' And of course particularly with this project which I came onto as a writer to direct it. It was close to my life in terms of the fact that I'm a single mother and my parents wrote about me and I'm a sister and I think I spend a lot of time thinking about what it's like having a career and being a mother and blah, blah, blah. All those things were things were things that were so familiar to me I couldn't imagine why I shouldn't direct it.
“But I think it is very hard to get movies made where the women have the main parts. It just is.”
I WAS WONDERING IF ANOTHER REASON WAS THAT YOU WERE TIRED OF SITTING BACK AND WATCHING WHAT OTHER PEOPLE HAD DONE TO YOUR SCREENPLAYS?
“Sometimes you sit back and watch other people do things to your screenplays and you're completely thrilled with it.”
YOU'VE HAD GOOD AND BAD LUCK WITH THAT.
“I've had both. I really think Rob did the most spectacular job on ‘When Harry Met Sally ...' There's no way I could look at that movie and say I could have done that, you know? I couldn't have.”
SOMETIMES IT EXCEEDS YOUR EXPECTATIONS?
“Yeah. If you work with Mike Nichols you don't delude yourself for one minute into thinking you can do what he does. But every so often you look at a movie of yours that didn't work out so well and you think to yourself, ‘Gee, I could have done just as bad a job as that person did -- and at least it would be MY movie.'”
I DON'T KNOW HOW WILLING YOU ARE TO TALK ABOUT SOMETHING IN PARTICULAR, BUT I WAS WONDERING ABOUT, WHEN I SAW YOUR NAME ON THE CREDITS OF “MY BLUE HEAVEN” I WENT IN EXPECTING ... MORE THAN I GOT.
“Well, there it is. You make a movie like that and, in a way, you're almost grateful because it's one of the things that makes you think, ‘I'll become a director.'”
I JUST DISCOVERED, AND I HAD NOT KNOWN THIS BEFORE, THAT YOUR PARENTS WERE SCREENWRITERS. IS THIS SOMETHING YOU'VE ALWAYS BEEN ANGLING TOWARD?
“No, not at all. In fact, one of the reasons I left Los Angeles as quickly as I did and went into journalism was that I had no interest whatsoever in being in the movie business. I wanted to be a journalist.”
SO HOW DID IT HAPPEN?
“Well, how it happened was ...” (long pause)
LIKE EVERY OTHER JOURNALIST DID YOU GET TIRED OF JOURNALISM?
“That hadn't quite happened yet. It was about to happen, but I didn't know it yet, right? But I was a newspaper reporter and then I became a magazine writer and then I became a columnist, OK? And around that time, someone -- this is a long story, and it may not be interesting, but you're stuck with it.”
THAT'S OK, GO AHEAD.
“Someone came to me and said, ‘Let's do a women's caper movie.' And I got very excited because I had a plot for a caper movie and I hadn't figured out what to do with it. From being on the fringes of Watergate, which, you know, I was ...” [referring to her marriage to reporter Carl Bernstein]
“I had heard this story, which I hasten to tell you is not a true story, but it was one of the many rumors of Watergate. The rumor was that Jimmy Hoffa had bribed Maurice Stans [the finance chairman for the Committee to Re-elect the President] to get a pardon from President Nixon and had delivered a huge amount of cash in a suitcase to Maurice Stans at the Pierre Hotel in New York. And the night they delivered the cash, the Pierre Hotel safe was robbed -- of course, by the Teamsters. Now, Nixon had to pardon Hoffa because he had collected the bribe, and they couldn't say it was stolen from the safe because what were they doing with all the money, right?
“So I thought, this is the perfect crime. I wonder what I could do with that? So what I did was I wrote a script and became a television movie; it was made as a TV movie.”
THE ONE WITH LAUREN BACALL? [“Perfect Gentlemen,” from 1978]
“Yes. And it was not a good movie, I must tell you. It was not a good movie at all. However, I had had a movie made, you see? So then someone came to me to do another one. And I had just started doing them when -- I saw ‘Perfect Gentleman’ when I was pregnant with my first kid, and I'd just started getting work as a screenwriter when my marriage broke up. And, basically, I was kept alive by the movie business, because the last thing I could do with two very small kids was to go off and do the kind of long reporting stuff that I liked to do. I could sit at home and do screenplays and still be a mom. So the movie business sort of saved my life at that juncture, because I don't know how I would have supported everybody if it hadn't been for that.
“But meanwhile, looking back on it, it's quite clear that I was ready to stop doing journalism and start doing something else. I'd kind of gotten to the point you may or may not recognize, depending on how long you've been in the business, where some of what you're writing seems a little familiar to you and it's because you've written it before.”
YES, I CAN RELATE TO THAT. AND THE SAD THING IS I HAVEN'T BEEN AT IT THAT LONG.
“So it was a good time for me to make that move into the movie business. And of course you learn a HUGE amount writing screenplays; you learn a tremendous amount about structure and how to tell a story in a very economical way. And then if a movie gets made you learn three times more than you learn by just writing it. And it's probably the most fun of anything you can do, being around a movie. So by the time my first movie was made, I was pretty hooked.”
SO YOU KNEW WHY MOM AND DAD DID WHAT THEY DID?
“Yeah, I did.”
YOUR CAREER SEEMS TO HAVE BROKEN DOWN INTO PHASES, AS YOU'VE ALLUDED TO, AND MAYBE THIS IS TOO EARLY TO TELL, BUT DO YOU FORESEE A TIME MAYBE WHEN DIRECTING WON'T HOLD A FASCINATION FOR YOU?
“Yes. And then I plan to become an actor. (Rim shot!) [She laughs loudly, as do I.] Listen, I'm hoping I get to direct a second movie, at this point. I can't wait to do another.”
THE CONVENTIONAL WISDOM IS IF YOU FAIL, YOU FAIL UPWARD. SO IF YOU'RE A SUCCESS, THEN WHAT HAPPENS, I GUESS, IS THAT YOU NEVER WORK AGAIN?
“We'll see about that.”
YOU WERE A JOURNALIST FOR SO LONG, HOW DOES IT FEEL TOO BE THE SUBJECT OF SO MUCH JOURNALISM?
“One of my first books is called ‘Wallflower at the Orgy.’ I don't know if you ever saw it, but in the introduction to it I wrote something -- and I happen to have it right here, so I'm just going to pull it out, OK?”
When she was a journalist, she confesses, she grew weary of telling other peoples' stories and longed to do something that spoke of her own feelings and experiences.
“I look back on this and think that I must have been INSANE to have ever thought that. I much prefer doing what you do -- at this moment. Given the choice, I'd rather be the person asking the questions. And that's one thing that you do as a screenwriter or a director: It's not talking about yourself, it's finding out how you can make something work and how you can help an actor get to a certain point so that they feel what the scene is about. The last thing in the world I want to do is talk about myself. BUT, as Truman Capote once said, ‘A fella has to push his book, right?' I mean, so here I am.”
THAT'S THE WAY IT'S DONE NOW.
ALSO, I WAS WONDERING IF HAVING BEEN A SCREENWRITER FOR A TIME BEFORE DIRECTING, IS DIRECTING THAT MUCH MORE FUN, THAT MUCH MORE SATISFYING?
“Yes, it is. You know, one of the things that's the most frustrating when you are a screenwriter is it's not that you don't want credit for the words -- you do -- it's sort of continually ... Let me back up and start that sentence again. One of the biggest shocks I had when my first movie was made – ‘Silkwood,’ I mean -- nothing prepares you for how much it's the director's movie. NOTHING. As involved as you are, and as I was lucky to be on my movies, a director makes a movie and every single decision in the movie, virtually, is the director's: what the people are wearing, the lighting and what the set looks like and where the house is built and it's just, it's so extraordinary. There's no way, until you have a movie made, that you can begin to grasp how little a screenwriter has to do with what a movie finally is.”
THAT'S KIND OF A DISHEARTENING THOUGHT.
“Well, it is and it isn't, in that it's still fun to be in the movie business. But you really do know when a movie works and it's your screenplay that you may have done a good screenplay but the reason it's working is the director -- it's not you. One of the things that's absolutely fascinating when you go into the movie business is how much the movie is the director's, and not the writer's. Then, of course, it makes you insane that everyone doesn't understand that.”
WAS IT DIFFICULT ADAPTING SOMEONE ELSE'S BOOK TO THE SCREEN?
“Well, I think it's a lot easier doing it with someone else's rather than your own. Usually, when you decide you want to do a movie -- at least for me -- I never respond to material unless I can see a beginning, a middle and an end to the movie. When I read that book, the particular story of our movie is not in the book.”
“The book takes place in period, I mean 20 years ago. Dottie's already successful. But there was an illusion to the fact that she moved out from Norm and that they'd moved in with Aunt Harriett. And I just immediately saw how we could take those characters and make up a story to go with them that would work as a movie. And, it's almost like an improvisation on the book. We used a lot of wonderful things that were in the book ... but when I read it I thought: We start it when she moves out and when we end it she's about to become successful, but she's still not huge. It's just a year of her life. ... Once you have that (the beginning, middle and end) it's not HARD. I don't know how to say this. That's the hard part, finding the beginning, middle and end.
“And, of course, this book had the thing that's a dream in any project, which is three people. Scenes with three people are more fun to write than anything you can do. We had the same thing in ‘Silkwood.’ ... Because three in a scene is always two against one, and then it always changes. You always change the configurations, and you can do a scene where the configurations change three, four or five times. ...”
YOU MUST HAVE A PRETTY GOOD WORKING RELATIONSHIP WITH YOUR SISTER.
HOW DID YOU GET STARTED WRITING TOGETHER?
“From reading this book. ... What I always thought was that if I ever directed anything I would want a collaborator on the script because, for two reasons: one, when you're shooting a movie every so often you have to write something, and you can't do it when you're directing a movie. You just can't, you can't do both jobs. I know that there are people who do, but I'm not one of them. And I felt, of course -- and please understand that I'm saying this with some sense of humor – that I had been so unbelievably helpful to the directors that I worked with, and I wanted someone there who was going to be as helpful to me. So when I read the book it was obvious that Delia and I should do it, because it was our life and we were sisters and the relationship between the two girls in the book is so close to our relationship. I mean, the girls in the movie, that thing between them is us. So I just thought it would be perfect to do it with Delia.”
WILL YOU BE DOING ANYTHING AGAIN WITH HER?
“Oh, god, I hope so.”
ARE YOU WORKING ON ANYTHING RIGHT NOW?
“Well, we've done a script we hope were going to do. So far, we don't know when.”