Nora on Hollywood: In Her Own Words

At an American Film Institute talk in 1993, she described how Dawn Steel helped her get into directing, what to know about male auteurs and why she turned down the "Fatal Attraction" rewrite.

After When Harry Met Sally... was a hit, I was in a position to try and direct something. It had nothing to do with its being good or bad, it just made a lot of money. As Tom Hanks says: "You have a hit, every day is Christmas. You have a flop, every day is Vietnam."

I knew When Harry Met Sally … was the kind of script that would work for someone to direct as their first movie because it was a two-character piece and a fairly simple movie. But after Rob Reiner made it so much better than I ever could have, I thought, "Well, I don't really have to direct."

But then Dawn Steel, whom I had gotten to know when Heartburn was at Paramount, became the head of production at Columbia and decided I should direct something. She was looking for creative filmmakers and was seeing a lot of people who were, let's say, about as good as I was and giving them a chance, so she thought, why not? And, of course, she was a woman and I'm a woman. So Dawn said to Lynda Obst [producer of Flashdance and Adventures in Babysitting], "Let's find something for Nora to direct."

They found this Meg Wolitzer novel called This Is Your Life and sent it to me, and I immediately wanted to make it into a movie. I also knew I wanted to do it with my sister Delia, who is also a writer. I very much wanted to have a collaborator because there's a certain moment when you have to start directing, and if a scene isn't working, it's very hard to continue writing when you're shooting. The material was very much our meat: Delia and I had grown up with parents who were screenwriters, where everything that happened in the house ended up in a screenplay.

About that time I had My Blue Heaven made, which didn't come out as we had hoped. If you make movies with Rob Reiner and they're big hits, you don't necessarily want to direct, but when a script of yours that you liked is just destroyed in your opinion, the writer always thinks he or she had nothing to do with it. I looked at My Blue Heaven and thought, "Well, I could have screwed that up just as badly as Herbert Ross did, and he got paid 2½ million dollars, so I might as well think about directing."

Meanwhile, of course, I was writing this movie about women. One of the real nightmares is, men don't want to direct movies about women. A director wants to direct something he connects to. It takes a year of his life. I use that pronoun because most of them are guys. One of the things you have to do as a screenwriter is to make the director want to direct your movie -- to invest the director in your script. So when the director says to you, "You know, this scene reminds me of something that happened when my second wife and I were breaking up," you would be a complete idiot not to stick it right into the movie. When you develop a script with a director, part of what you're doing is putting enough of the director's ideas in so that he will feel he wrote. That's what it means to invest the director in the movie.

So I wanted to do this movie This Is Your Life, which became This Is My Life. Was I going to get to direct it? It was my life already -- I'm the right person. So suddenly I went from being someone who doesn't much care whether I directed to someone who had to make this movie. By that time, Dawn had been thrown out of Columbia, so we spent a horrible year in turnaround. Eventually, Joe Roth, who made a lot of people's first movies in his brief time running Fox, said he would make it for $9 million. It didn't make a nickel, but I got my second movie from it.

After doing This Is My Life for Directors Guild scale, it wasn't enough to keep me going for a year, so I took on this Sleepless in Seattle rewrite. I'd made a horrible financial error years earlier when I refused to do the production rewrite on Fatal Attraction because I thought it was a disgusting, sexist movie. Then I saw it and realized I was completely wrong, that it was basically a male nightmare and quite a brilliant movie in its own disgusting, sexist but brilliant way. I could have put my children through college with the deal I could have made on that one.

When I looked at Sleepless in Seattle, it was a very gloopy script. It was nothing like the movie you saw. It was not a comedy. Sometimes the studio will say that it just needs "character," when the truth is, all it is is a character piece, so the main thing it's missing is the thing it is. Neither of the characters existed in any way. Even though the screenplay wasn't particularly good, the last scene, on the Empire State Building, was great. So I thought, "I know how to make these people into people and how to give the things some drive." I turned the screenplay in … and it was like a teeny weeny explosion. In 48 hours, every agent, every actor in Hollywood wanted to be in this movie. When the dust settled, they offered it to me to direct.

Excerpted from Conversations at the American Film Institute With the Great Moviemakers: The Next Generation (2012), by George Stevens Jr.



HER BEST HOLLYWOOD BON MOTS: Ephron's career lasted more than 26 years, from 1983's Silkwood to 2009's Julie & Julia. During that time, she was one of the most astute observers of the industry.

On happy endings: "Movies spent more than half a century saying, 'They lived happily ever after,' and the following quarter-century warning, 'They'll be lucky to make it through the weekend.' Possibly now we are entering a third era in which movies will sound a note of cautious optimism: 'You know, it just might work.' "

On screenwriting: "I don't care who you are. When you sit down to write the first page of your screenplay, in your head, you're also writing your Oscar acceptance speech."

On other kinds of writing: "You better make them care about what you think. It had better be quirky or perverse or thoughtful so that you hit some chord in them. Otherwise, we've all read pieces when we thought, 'Oh, who gives a damn?' "

On directing: "One of the best things about directing is that there's no confusion about who's to blame: You are."

On women in Hollywood: "Nobody has an easy time getting a movie made. And I can't stand people complaining. So it's not a conversation that interests me. Those endless women-in-film panels. It's like, just do it! Just do it. Write something else if this one didn't get made. It's my ongoing argument with a whole part of the women's movement."

On flops: "My experience is that if you are shooting a movie where the crew is falling on the ground laughing, where the camera operator has to stuff Kleenex into his mouth to keep from ruining the take from laughing so hard, you may be making a flop."

On screenwriters who head directly to Hollywood after college: "A lot of college graduates approach me about becoming screenwriters. I tell them, 'Do not become a screenwriter, become a journalist,' because journalists go into worlds that are not their own. Kids who go to Hollywood write coming-of-age stories for their first scripts. Then they write the summer camp script. At the age of 23 they haven't produced anything, and that's the end of the career." 

-- Compiled by Rakshita Saluja



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