On Story


Deconstructing Nora Ephron

Sleepless in Seattle. When Harry Met Sally. You've Got Mail. Julie & Julia. It’s undeniable that Nora Ephron was one of the greatest romantic comedy writer/directors Hollywood has ever seen. In this episode, Man Up writer Tess Morris and (500) Days of Summer writer Scott Neustadter discuss the impact of Ephron’s films and how her writing has influenced their own work.

AIRED: June 29, 2019 | 0:26:47

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- The best response you can have to a payoff in a thriller

is someone goes, "Oh, right, I forgot, of course..."

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From Austin Film Festival, this is On Story.

A look inside the creative process from today's

leading writers, creators, and filmmakers.

This week's On Story,

500 Days of Summer writer Scott Neustadter

and Man Up writer Tess Morris.

I think what she did so brilliantly was she managed

to make everything personal but universal,

which is the ultimate thing to be as a writer.

I look back now and think, I think whenever you find her,

that's your- that's your moment.

It's like that's your cute-meet with her.

[paper crumples]


[typewriter ding]

[Narrator] In this episode,

Scott Neustadter and Tess Morris

discuss one of the greatest modern romantic comedy

writer directors, Nora Ephron.

[typewriter ding]

- Nora's family motto was "Everything is copy."

If you've ever been a journalist,

you know what that means.

What she meant by that was that everything that happens to you,

the tragic and the beautiful,

the ridiculous, all of that is material.

She turned those things into When Harry Met Sally

and Sleepless in Seattle and Silkwood .

In other words, they continue to make us laugh, cry and think.

I think the first thing that I'd like to ask is,

where is that personal connection for you all?

- My first exposure was When Harry Met Sally .

I was 11 or 12.

I remember, I might get verklempt talking about it,

but I walked out of there and I was like,

that's my [bleep].

[audience laughs]

And I was a kid, and all my friends were into escapist,

Star Wars-y movies and all the Spielberg stuff,

and action adventure and I was not.

I realize what I liked was these personal stories,

that love of, just real people.

Movies that I could relate to and not the escapist things

that everyone else was into.

Anyway, that really began

where my voice was gonna be,

and I owe a lot to this movie, and to her writing for that.

- I came to her a little later in life, and then had that

exact feeling of like, oh, this is my [bleep].

This is what I've been trying to aspire to and write to

for a long time.

Also, the everything is copy thing that Greg--

obviously very famous quote, but whenever I pitch anything,

I always start to go, so there's this woman

and then I always go,

it's me.

Because it's just easier,

because it is usually 75% me.

I think what she did so brilliantly was she managed

to make everything personal but universal,

which is the ultimate thing to be as a writer.

I think once I realized, like you, like oh,

this is the stuff that people want to actually write about

and are interested in,

and I don't have to...

I was watching a lot of John Hughes movies

when Harry Met Sally came out.

I look back now and think,

I think whenever you find her,

that's your- that's your moment.

That's your cute-meet with her.

- She said, "I try to write parts for women that are as

complicated and interesting as women actually are."

I'm wondering if there are some women characters that we're

gonna look at today, that stand out for you as exemplary,

and if her writing about women has helped shape women

that you've created.

- The first time I saw When Harry Met Sally ,

I saw Sally Albright and finally felt like, oh, there I am.


There's like a slightly neurotic, kind of annoying,

but she's genuine with it all.

And I think obviously there's been a slight kind of

strange trajectory from that character,

but I also love Katherine Hepburn.

Whenever I see anything with Katherine Hepburn in it,

I think, oh yeah, she's another person that I, onscreen,

really responded to.

I think what Nora did so well is she always had

essential axiom in her movies.

She was always posing a question and obviously we all know

in When Harry Met Sally , can men and women be friends?

But from that, every single female character had an opinion.

They all had, in any scene, she's always coming,

you know that there's something behind everything

that they are talking about.

I think she was able to write women as people

and that's really, I think, the best way to write women,

because we are also people.

[audience laughs]

[typewriter ding]

- We fell in love in high school.

- Yeah, we were high school sweethearts.

- But then after our junior year,

his parents moved away.

- But I never forget her.

- He never forgot me.

- Her face was burned on my brain,

and it was 34 years later that I was walking down Broadway

and I saw her come out of Toffenetti's.

- We both looked at each other

and it was just as though not a single day had gone by.

- She was just as beautiful as she was at 16.

- He was just the same.

He looked exactly the same.

- When I was 11 or 12 and I saw it,

I thought they pulled people off the street.

It felt very documentary and real.

Then, obviously it's not.

When you get the script and you read the script,

she wrote all these things.

Of course she did.

I don't know why I didn't know that.

But why do that?

This is the thing I'm interested in.

The romantic comedy, which When Harry Met Sally definitely is,

there are obligatory scenes.

There are things that you know have to be in this movie.

This is a choice.

I find it very interesting.

I think it's really, really smart.

- Anyone who follows me on social media will know my

obsession and my friendship with Billy Mernit,

who wrote a book called "Writing Romantic Comedy".

He wrote--

If you are interested in writing romantic comedy,

you must read that book at all costs,

and we now have a podcast together, sidebar.

But, what he says which I always really love is that

when you meet two people, a couple, who have something

interesting going on, he always asks them how they met,

because that's what a romantic comedy kind of is.

It's the courtship.

These two people have a whole movie in them as well

that came before and comes afterwards.

I love hearing people's stories of how they met.

These sequences are a dream to me because they're clearly

based on real stories as well.

I think it's very smart and clever to do it in snapshots

as well because then you also know what this movie's

gonna be out now, and that's also very clever.

Subtly, she's saying, "Here's how these people meet.

Now we're gonna watch a movie about how two other people met."

It's thematic, it's contextual.

It's all the things that you need and also fundamentally

very, very funny.

That little squeeze at the end is like,

do I want to stay married?

[audience laughs]

The trajectory is you're now gonna see something

that's not simple.

- Exactly.

- And then think about to these guys.

You are watching this realizing, I bet their story

wasn't that simple either.

I bet you they've got a whole movie in them as well,

and it's like-

- She probably saw him across the room and thought,

I am never marrying that man.

- I think also the other thing that it does is these are not;

they don't look like movie star actors.

That's you, that's me, it's your parents,

it's your grandparents.

It's literally-

[Tess] Oh, I wish that was my parents.

- But doesn't that set you off on this,

you're gonna watch something and you're gonna relate to it.

These are you.

At the end, when it's Harry and Sally

and they're telling their story-

- Well, that's the ultimate payoff as well.

- It's amazing.

- You go, oh, that's why they were there at the beginning.

[typewriter ding]

- The Sleepless in Seattle template, by the way, is crazy.

It's a romcom about two people that don't meet

until the end of the movie,

so it's a big risk and I believe that while she was

directing it, towards the end, she thought,

"Are we actually going to get away with this?

"Are people gonna watch an hour and a half

of two people not meeting?"

This is a cute-meet that's a virtual cute-meet,

so that's why it's an interesting scene, I think.

- Marcia, are should I call you Dr. Fields still?

[on phone] Dr. Marcia.

- Dr. Marcia, I don't mean to be rude.

[on phone] Oh, and I don't want to invade your privacy.

- Sure you do.

[on phone] Go on, Sam.

I'm listening.


- We had a pretty tough time there at first.

But we're dealing with it,

and Jonah and I will get along just fine again

as soon as I break his radio.

[Dr. Marcia laughs]

[on phone] I have no doubt that you're a wonderful father.

You can tell a lot from a person's voice.

- You certainly can.

[on phone] But something must be missing if Jonah still

feels that you're under a cloud.

- Structurally, obviously they're having their cute-meet

on screen but not together,

and she does that very simply by, you know,

that feeling of when they say, yeah, you do at the same time.

There's the bing moment of "Oh, we said the same thing

at the same time."

That means we're destined to be together.

[audience laughs]

It's a very common assumption.

But what I think, watching it again, you realize also,

the choices she makes in direction

also really contribute to the structure of payoffs in it,

because they are both on the phone.

Someone else might have just written that scene.

He hands the phone to his son and then he can't hear,

but because they're both listening

and they're both aware,

they are forced to be much more honest

than they might have been otherwise.

She's giving us a lot of information there.

She's saying to us, this man--

she's managing to make bereavement funny,

which is also a real skill.

It's the ultimate way of introducing two characters

and giving us all the information.

She's a romantic.

He's a cynic.

It's the usual classic set-up.

Later on, they go on to, they both peel the apple

and all the different things.

Meg Ryan's character is with someone at this point as well.

There's all of that going on, and it just looks beautiful.

I love when they walk towards each other on the phone

like that; I think that's wonderful.

- Tess, I remember for a piece you wrote for "The Guardian"

about romantic comedies, you said, "I'm interested in

what makes people happy and what makes people sad."

You were writing specifically about romantic comedies,

but that's at the core of drama for us.

- Yeah.

I think that, I spent the last, ever since I wrote Man Up ,

I've become the defender of the romantic comedy

and guess what, guys, it's alive again.

[typewriter ding]

- I wonder if we could talk a little bit about something

like Sleepless in Seattle or When Harry Met Sally

and talk about structure and what Nora might have

to teach us about the second act

and how to get from this great beginning

and the meet-cute and whatever

to the great moment on the skyscraper at the end.

How do we keep the audience's interest while at the same time

putting up the stop sign and going,

"Hey, there's more stuff that has to happen?

- She was the master of the midpoint.

I think a good example of her greatest midpoint is the

orgasm scene because it's a metaphorical turning point.

It's not a huge big dramatic scene.

What it is is it's the first time that Harry sees Sally

in a sexual way,

so we don't really know quite what's going on.

Obviously, the famous story is that it was actually Meg

that said, why don't I actually do the orgasm?

Originally, it was scripted as just her talking about it.

Then, further to that, the famous,

"I'll have what she's having"

was actually Rob Reiner, Billy Crystal's line rather.

I love it for a turning the story in a totally different

direction, but not in a huge plot-driven way,

because we're often told you have to have these huge devices

that occur in the second act that send the story

in the opposite direction.

In the romantic comedy,

what you need is an emotional different direction.

I think the orgasm scene is the perfect example of that.

- Oh.

Oh, God.


- I'll have what she's having.

- What was your midpoint in 500 Days of Summer ?

- Technically...

it's told out of order.

I don't know if you've ever seen it.

- Yeah, I have seen it.

- The midpoint is really early, but the turning point

is they get tracked on a train together out of town,

which was not originally scripted,

and it was the one note we got from Fox Searchlight,

which was there's nothing in this that even

pretends to be a three-act structure.

I need to have- - Something.

- I need to have something here that teases that they

might get back together because that's what these movies do.

We came up with this idea of them being trapped on a train

going to a wedding where

they would only know each other really.

They were reminded of all the good in their relationship,

and he leaves there thinking, "I've got a chance."

The audience leaves there thinking,

"Oh my God, it's gonna happen."

Then, wow do we shut the door on that.

- Your ultimate quest or mission when you're writing a

romantic comedy is how the [bleep] do I keep these

two people together without getting them together,

so your job is to always be finding these things

because at any given moment, a character could go,

"I'm out," and then the movie ends.

You're always trying to find-

- Or worse, "I love you."

- "I love you" and then it's like, then the movie ends, yeah.

Although arguably you could start there and then...

there are structural ways you can mess with that.

- We'll talk about one of them.

- We will talk about them, Scott.

- It's an interesting...

it is keeping the yo-yo.

- Yes, exactly.

[typewriter ding]

- We've got a scene from Silkwood that we're gonna take

a look at, and this is the scene from early-ish in the film,

where we have the contamination in the nuclear plant.

It's super scary and one of the reasons that I picked this one

is it sort of stands in contrast to a lot of the things that we

think we know about Nora Ephron,

because this is a really powerful and dramatic film.

[equipment rolling down floor]


[sirens wail]

[sirens wail]

[dramatic music]

- This is all about the human part of the crisis,

and the catastrophe.

That's what she does so perfectly, which is these women

and just those scenes of them dealing are so much more

interesting and dramatic than the danger and the terror

that's going on around them.

- Whenever I re-watch that movie, I am always really

struck by the fact that she is such

an apologetic female character.

She is kind of unlikable many times during the movie,

and she still kind of takes no prisoners.

Really, it's from her point of view

pretty much the entire time.

When was the last time you saw a movie like that?

It's very unusual to have a female at the center of it

that's not that likable that no one believes as well.

She doesn't have children.

She's got a dysfunctional relationship and she lives with,

Cher is great in this movie, by the way.

I think when you...

It's a very good reminder of how, again, she is a person

in this film who is suffering from something that is...

Just the way that buzzer goes off and the way Meryl Streep

sinks down the wall.

Whether that was in the script or direction,

they gave her enough to even consider doing that.

The big Hollywood version of that would be a lot bigger.

It's such a quiet scene, and yet, it's the moment where

everything changes in that film.

[typewriter ding]

- Tess, you picked our next scene, which is the short

and really beautiful scene from Julie and Julia .

Could you tell us a little bit about it and what-

- Julie and Julia , it was her last movie.

I think it often gets forgotten in her canon.

She was quite ill when she was making it as well,

but carried on.

I think she died a few years later after it came out.

I think it's a forgotten kind of gem.

It's actually a very big glossy movie about food and everything,

but underneath it all, it's really a movie about a marriage.

The scene that I picked is an emotional scene that tells

a lot of story, but also gives you a really beautiful insight

into her relationship with her husband,

and that's really what the whole movie tracks.

There's all the cooking.

There's all the chicken.

There's all the Paris or whatever,

but really it's about those two.

- That is good, isn't it?

- Very.

From your sister.

- I'm going to send this recipe to Avis.

I'm very excited about it.

I think it's a breakthrough.

- Well, it tastes like it.

- Ooh.

Dorothy is pregnant.

- Oh.



isn't that wonderful?

- Mm-hmm, yes.

[Julia sobbing]

- Again, she's making a really sad thing about someone

who's not able to have children and has missed her window,

she's managing to make that emotional but also there's

humor and there's levity in it and it's not a big theme.

They're not saying, "Oh my God, I love you still."

It's just that little, even just the hug at the end,

and the, I'm very happy, is the perfect way,

and they don't have to go any further.

You know exactly what that scene is about.

- And Tucci is not doing- - I love it.

- I would imagine another actor

saying, "Can I have a line,"

or, "I want to add something,"

or, "Give me something to say."

He's really playing off it in the perfect sort of way.

- Also, it's really about her.

She had three marriages in total herself and this one is

very much like a love letter to her last and greatest husband

by all accounts.

- What can we learn from, this is a really short scene,

but it takes us across this whole range of emotions?

What we're just also hearing is it's not overplayed by any

means, so we get all of this stuff with a minimum of effort

seemingly, which of course means there's an incredible

amount of effort involved with it.

What can we learn from this scene about storytelling?

- Sometimes less is more.

- Yeah, and I imagine, I don't know about you,

but you would write the first version of this scene

which would have all the information,

and then you'd be like,

well, that's a little bit on the nose,

and then you'd write the second version

and be like, still a little bit too much.

Then finally, you'd be like,

"Oh my God, all I need to do is have her open a letter

and say her sister is pregnant and then a hug."

That's how I would like to think she got to it

and that's a really good way to sometimes work as a writer.

Write the most obvious thing at first,

because to get to the subtext immediately is a hard task.

- I think her husband is doing a lot of the heavy lifting

there, by just getting her.

Not asking questions.

- Exactly.

- Not having to press her for information.

Just know, like what does it say about their relationship

that he doesn't have to say anything.

[typewriter ding]

♪ Might never be cross ♪

♪ Or try to be boss, ♪

♪ But they wouldn't do ♪

♪ For nobody else ♪

♪ Gave me a thrill ♪

♪ With all your faults ♪

♪ I love you still ♪

♪ It had to be you ♪

- I've been doing a lot of thinking.

The thing is, I love you.

- What?

- I love you.

- How do you expect me to respond to this?

- How about you love me too?

- How about I'm leaving?

- It's a very classical set-up.

It's New Year's Eve.

He's running.

The music is playing.

She's in a gown.

The scene starts where most of them ends,

where he gets to finally say I love you.

In this case, that's where it begins and it's kind of like,


He has to sell what he loves about her,

and it's all the annoyances.

It's everything--

He's not complimenting her.

But then they have this amazing--

She doesn't say I love you back.

She says I hate you, which is awesome, but you know what

she's really saying, and they have their great moment.

Then, he goes right back to Harry [bleep] talking about

"Auld Lang Syne" and what does it mean and all that stuff,

and he's the guy he was in the beginning.

What does the song mean?

She doesn't really know,

but it has something to do with old friends.

And the last line of this movie is friends.

In a romantic scene, that's not a word you hear often.

But when I was watching it again, I realized you leave

the theater with such confidence that that relationship

is going to work, that they're going to be together forever.

- I'm not so sure.

- Really?

I really do.

The reason why I believe is because of the friend thing,

because that's what it is.

They're old friends and the relationship will work

because it's built on that foundation that we've watched

this entire movie.

Decades of getting to know each other and loving all the things

that you don't like about the person.

[Harry] The first time we met, we hated each other.

[Sally] No, you didn't hate me.

I hated you.

The second time we met, you didn't even remember me.

[Harry] I did too.

I remembered you.

The third time we met, we became friends.

[Sally] We were friends for a long time.

[Harry] And then we weren't.

[Sally] And then we fell in love.

Three months later, we got married.

- It only took three months.

- Twelve years and three months.

- We had a really wonderful wedding.

- It really was a beautiful wedding.

- We had this enormous coconut cake.

- Huge coconut cake with the tiers and this very

rich chocolate sauce on the side.

- Right,

because not everybody likes it on the cake

because it makes it very soggy.

- Particularly the coconut, it soaks up a lot of that stuff,

so it's important to keep it on the side.

[Narrator] You've been watching

Deconstructing Nora Ephron on On Story.

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