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By Nora Ephron
Published: 20:14 EST, 31 August 2014 | Updated: 21:14 EST, 31 August 2014>
The late Nora Ephron was one of Hollywood’s wittiest and wisest screenwriters — and the Mail is exclusively serialising a new collection of her best work. Today, in our second extract, she tells of the hilarious true story that inspired the film When Harry Met Sally...
This screenplay has my name on it, but it was very much a collaboration, and before I write a word about the movie itself, I want to write about how it got started. It began in October 1984, when I got a call from my agent that Rob Reiner and his producing partner Andrew Scheinman wanted to have lunch to discuss a project.
So we had a lunch, and they told me about an idea they had for a movie about a lawyer. I’ve forgotten the details. The point is, it didn’t interest me at all, and I couldn’t imagine why they’d thought of me in connection with it.
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'I'll have what she's having': Megg Ryan in the 'faking it' scene from When Harry Met Sally
I remember being slightly perplexed about whether to say straight off that the idea didn’t interest me or whether to play along for an hour so as not to have that horrible awkwardness that can happen when the meeting is over but the lunch must go on.
I decided on the former; and we then spent the rest of the lunch talking about ourselves. Well, that isn’t entirely true: we spent the rest of the lunch talking about Rob and Andy.
Rob was divorced, and Andy was a bachelor—and they were both extremely funny and candid about their lives as single men in Los Angeles.
When the lunch ended, we still didn’t have an idea for a movie; but we decided to meet again the next time they were in New York.
And so, a month later, we got together. And threw around some more ideas, none of which I remember. But finally, Rob said he had an idea—he wanted to make a movie about a man and a woman who become friends, as opposed to lovers; they make a deliberate decision not to have sex because sex ruins everything; and then they have sex and it ruins everything.
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And I said, let’s do it. So we made a deal, and in February, Andy and Rob came back to New York and we sat around for several days and they told me some things. Appalling things. They told me, for instance, that when they finished having sex, they wanted to get up out of bed and go home.
(Which became: HARRY: ‘How long do I have to lie here and hold her before I can get up and go home? Is thirty seconds enough? . . . How long do you like to be held afterwards? All night, right? . . . Somewhere between thirty seconds and all night is your problem.’
SALLY: ‘I don’t have a problem.’) They told me about the endless series of excuses they had concocted in order to make a middle-of-the-night getaway.
(SALLY: ‘You know, I am so glad I never got involved with you. I just would have ended up being some woman you had to get up out of bed and leave at three o’clock in the morning and go clean your andirons. And you don’t even have a fireplace. Not that I would know this.’)
Nora Ephron was told that the reason men and women could never be friends was because a man always wanted to sleep with a woman - any woman
They also told me that the reason they thought men and women couldn’t be friends was that a man always wanted to sleep with a woman. Any woman.
(HARRY: ‘No man can be friends with a woman he finds attractive. He always wants to have sex with her.’
SALLY: ‘So you’re saying a man can be friends with a woman he finds unattractive.’
HARRY: ‘No. You pretty much want to nail them, too.’) I say that these things were appalling, but the truth is that they weren’t really a surprise; they were sort of my wildest nightmares of what men thought.
Rob and Andy and I noodled for hours over the questions raised by friendship, and sex, and life in general; and as we did, I realized—long before I had any idea of what was actually going to happen in the movie itself—that I had found a wonderful character in Rob Reiner.
Rob is a very strange person. He is extremely funny, but he is also extremely depressed — or at least he was at the time; he talked constantly about how depressed he was. ‘You know how women have a base of makeup,’ he said to me. ‘I have a base of depression. Sometimes I sink below it.
When Harry Met Sally started shooting in August 1988, almost four years after Nora's first meeting with Rob and Andy
Sometimes I rise above it.’ This line went right into the first draft of the movie, but somewhere along the line Rob cut it. A mistake, I think, but never mind. Here’s another from Rob on his depression: ‘I think I’m not ready for a relationship.
When you’re as depressed as I am . . . If the depression was lifted, I would be able to be with someone on my level.
But it’s like playing tennis on a windy day with someone who’s worse than you are. They can do all right against you, they can win a couple of games, but there’s too much wind. You know what I mean?’ I have no idea what Rob was talking about, but as I wrote those words in my notebook I knew that I would use the lines somehow. And I did, and
they were cut, and it was a mistake, and never mind.
The point is that Rob was depressed; but he wasn’t at all depressed about being depressed; in fact, he loved his depression. And so does Harry.
Harry honestly believes that he is a better person than Sally because he has what Sally generously calls a dark side. ‘Suppose nothing happens to you,’ he says in the first sequence of the movie. ‘Suppose you live there [New York] your whole life and nothing happens. You never meet anyone, you never become anything, and finally you die one of those New York deaths where nobody notices for two weeks until the smell drifts out into the hallway.’
Harry is genuinely proud to have thought of that possibility and to lay it at the feet of this shallow
young woman he is stuck in a car with for eighteen hours. He is thrilled to be the prince of darkness, the master of the worst-case scenario, the man who is happy to tell you, as you find yourself in the beginning of a love affair, that what follows lust, inevitably, is post-lust: ‘You take someone to the airport, it’s clearly the beginning of a relationship.
That’s why I’ve never taken anyone to the airport at the beginning of a relationship. . . . Because eventually things move on and you don’t take someone to the airport, and I never wanted anyone to say to me, ‘How come you never take me to the airport anymore?’’
So I began with a Harry, based on Rob. And because Harry was bleak and depressed, it followed absolutely that Sally would be cheerful and chirpy and relentlessly, pointlessly, unrealistically, idiotically optimistic. Which is, it turns out, very much like me. I’m not precisely chirpy, but I am the sort of person who is fine, I’m just fine, everything’s
‘I am over him,’ Sally says, when she isn’t over him at all; I have uttered that line far too many times in my life, and far too many times I’ve made the mistake of believing it was true. Sally loves control—and I’m sorry to say that I do too.
Nora Ephron said that many of Sally's best moments went into the script after her Rob and Andy began work on it together
And inevitably, Sally’s need to control her environment is connected to food. I say inevitably because food has always been something I write about—in part because it’s the only thing I’m an expert on.
But it wasn’t my idea to use the way I order food as a character trait for Sally; well along in the process—third or fourth draft or so — Rob and Andy and I were ordering lunch for the fifth day in a row, and for the fifth day in a row my lunch order—for an avocado and bacon sandwich—consisted of an endless series of parenthetical remarks.
I wanted the mayonnaise on the side. I wanted the bread toasted and slightly burnt. I wanted the bacon crisp. ‘I just like it the way I like it,’ I said, defensively, when the pattern was pointed out to me—and the line went into the script.
But all that came much later. In the beginning, I was more or less alone—with a male character based somewhat on Rob, and a female character based somewhat on me. And a subject. Which was not, by the way, whether men and women could be friends.
The movie instead was a way for me to write about being single—about the difficult, frustrating, awful, funny search for happiness in an American city where the primary emotion is unrequited love. This is from my notes, February 5, 1985, Rob speaking: ‘This is a talk piece. There are no chase scenes. No food fights. This is walks, apartments, phones, restaurants, movies.’
'Here is what I always say about screenwriting. When you write a script, it’s like delivering a great big beautiful plain pizza, the one with only cheese and tomatoes'
Also from my notes, Rob again: ‘We’re talking about a movie about two people who get each other from the breakup of the first big relationship in their lives to the beginning of the second. Transitional on some level. Who are friends, who don’t have sex, who nurse each other and comfort each other and talk to each other and then finally do it and it’s a mistake and recover from it and move into second relationships.’
Here’s a scene from the first draft; it bit the dust early, too self-conscious, but I toss it in partly because I can’t stand to waste anything, and partly because it perfectly sums up the movie I was trying to write:
SALLY: I think we should write a movie about our relationship.
HARRY: What’s the plot?
SALLY: There are only two plots. The first is, an appealing character strives against great odds to achieve a worthwhile goal, and the second is, the bluebird of happiness is right in your own backyard. We’re the first.
HARRY: An appealing character—
SALLY: Two appealing characters strive against great odds to achieve a worthwhile goal. Two people become friends at the end of the first major relationship of their lives and get each other to the next major relationship of their lives.
HARRY: I don’t know anything about writing movies.
SALLY: Neither do I.
HARRY: But on the face of it—I don’t want to be negative about it—
SALLY: Sure you do. You love being negative, it’s who you are,
HARRY: —but it seems to me that movies are supposed to be visual. We don’t do anything visual. We just sit in restaurants and talk, or we sit on the phone and talk, or we sit in your apartment or my apartment and talk.
SALLY: In French movies they just talk.
HARRY: Do you speak French?
SALLY: Not really.
HARRY: What happens to the friends when each of them gets to the next major relationship of their lives?
SALLY: They’re still going to be friends. They’re going to be friends forever.
HARRY: I don’t know, Sally. You know what happens. You meet somebody new and you take them to meet your friend, and you want them to like each other as much as you do, but they never do, they always see the friend as a threat to your relationship, and you try to stay just as good friends with your friend but eventually you don’t really need each other as much because you’ve got a new friend, you’ve got someone you can talk to and f***—
SALLY: Forget I mentioned it, okay?
They smile at each other.
HARRY: I love you. You know that.
SALLY: I love you too.
HARRY: When I say, ‘I love you,’ you know what I mean—
SALLY: I know what you mean. I know.
Nora Ephron wrote: 'When you write a script, it's like delivering a great big beautiful plain pizza, the one with only cheese and tomatoes'
When Harry Met Sally started shooting in August 1988, almost four years after my first meeting with Rob and Andy. In the meantime I wrote a first draft about two people who get each other from the breakup of the first big relationship in their lives to the beginning of the second.
Rob went off and made Stand By Me. We met again and decided that Harry and Sally belonged together. I wrote a second draft. Rob went off and made The Princess Bride. And then we all went to work together on the next (at least) five drafts of the movie. What had been called Just Friends and then Play Melancholy Baby went on to be called Boy
Meets Girl; Words of Love; It Had to Be You; and Harry, This Is Sally.
To name just a few of the titles. Mostly we called it ‘Untitled Rob Reiner Project.’ Rob suggested that we try inserting some older couples talking about how they met. How They Met was another title we considered for at least a day. And gradually, the script began to change, from something that was mostly mine, to something else.
Here is what I always say about screenwriting. When you write a script, it’s like delivering a great big beautiful plain pizza, the one with only cheese and tomatoes. And then you give it to the director, and the director says, ‘I love this pizza. I am willing to commit to this pizza. But I really think this pizza should have mushrooms on it.’ And you say, ‘Mushrooms! Of course! I meant to put mushrooms on the pizza! Why didn’t I think of that? Let’s put some on immediately.’
The screenwriter said that When Harry Met Sally is really about how different men and women are
And then someone else comes along and says, ‘I love this pizza too, but it really needs green peppers.’ ‘Great,’ you say. ‘Green peppers. Just the thing.’ And then someone else says, ‘Anchovies.’ There’s always a fight over the anchovies. And when you get done, what you have is a pizza with everything. Sometimes it’s wonderful. And sometimes you look at it and you think, I knew we shouldn’t have put the green peppers onto it. Why didn’t I say so at the time? Why didn’t I lie down in traffic to prevent anyone’s putting green peppers onto the pizza?
All this is a long way of saying that movies generally start out belonging to the writer and end up belonging to the director. If you’re very lucky as a writer, you look at the director’s movie and feel that it’s your movie, too. As Rob and Andy and I worked on the movie, it changed: it became less quirky and much funnier; it became less mine and more theirs.
But what made it possible for me to live through this process— which is actually called ‘The Process’, a polite expression for the period when the writer, generally, gets screwed—was that Rob and I each had a character we owned.
On most movies, what normally happens in the course of The Process is that the writer says one thing and the director says another thing, and in the end the most the writer can hope for is a compromise; what made this movie different was that Rob had a character who could say whatever he believed, and if I disagreed, I had Sally to say so for me.
And much as I would like to take full credit for what Sally says in the movie, the fact is that many of her best moments went into the script after the three of us began work on it together. ‘We told you about men,’ Rob and Andy said to me one day. ‘Now tell us about women.’ So I said, ‘Well, we could do something about sex fantasies.’
And I wrote the scene about Sally’s sex fantasy. ‘What else?’ they said.
‘Well,’ I said, ‘women send flowers to themselves in order to fool their boyfriends into thinking they have other suitors.’ And I wrote the scene about Marie sending flowers to herself. ‘What else?’ Rob and Andy said. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘women fake orgasms.’ ‘Really?’ they said. ‘Yes,’ I said. There was a long pause. I think I am correct in remembering the long pause. ‘All women?’ they said. ‘Most women,’ I said. ‘At one time or another.’
A few days later, Rob called. He and Andy had written a sequence about faking orgasms and they wanted to insert it at the end of the scene that was known (up to that time) as the andirons scene. He read it over the phone. I loved it. It went into the script.
Billy Crystal played Harry in Nora Ephron's When Harry Met Sally
A few weeks later, we had our first actors’ reading, and Meg Ryan, who by then was our Sally, suggested that Sally actually fake an orgasm in the delicatessen at the end of the scene. We loved it.
It went into the script. And then Billy Crystal, our Harry, provided the funniest of the dozens of funny lines he brought with him to the movie; he suggested that a woman customer turn to a waiter, when Sally’s orgasm was over, and say: ‘I’ll have what she’s having.’ The line, by the way, was delivered in the movie by Estelle Reiner, Rob’s mother. So there you have it—a perfect example of how The Process works on the occasions when it works.
I don’t want to sound Pollyannaish about any of this. Rob and I disagreed. We disagreed all the time. Rob believes that men and women can’t be friends (HARRY: ‘Men and women can’t be friends, because the sex part always gets in the way’). I disagree (SALLY: ‘That’s not true. I have plenty of men friends and there’s no sex involved’). And both of us are right.
Which brings me to what When Harry Met Sally is really about — not, as I said, whether men and women can be friends, but about how different men and women are. The truth is that men don’t want to be friends with women. Men know they don’t understand women, and they don’t much care.
They want women as lovers, as wives, as mothers, but they’re not really interested in them as friends. They have friends. Men are their friends. And they talk to their male friends about sports, and I have no idea what else. Women, on the other hand, are dying to be friends with men.
Women know they don’t understand men, and it bothers them: they think that if only they could be friends with them, they would understand them and, what’s more (and this is their gravest mistake), it would help. Women know they don’t understand men, and it bothers them: they think that if only they could be friends with them, they would understand them and, what’s more (and this is their gravest mistake), it would help.
Women think if they could just understand men, they could do something. Women are always trying to do something. There are entire industries based on this premise, the most obvious one being the women’s magazines— there are hundreds of them, there are probably five of them in darkest Zaire alone—that are based completely on the notion that women can do something where men are concerned: cook a perfect steak, or wear a perfect skirt, or dab a little perfume behind the knee.
‘Rub your thighs together when you walk,’ someone once wrote in Cosmopolitan magazine. ‘The squish-squish sound of nylon has a frenzying effect.’
When a movie like When Harry Met Sally opens, people come to ask you questions about it. And for a few brief weeks, you become an expert. You seem quite wise. You give the impression that you knew what you were doing all along. You become an expert on friends, on the possibilities of love, on the differences between men and women.
But the truth is that when you work on a movie, you don’t sit around thinking, We’re making a movie about the difference between men and women. Or whatever. You just do it. You say, this scene works for me, but this one doesn’t. You say, this is good, but this could be funnier. You say, it’s a little slow here, what could we do to speed it up? You say, this scene is long, and this scene isn’t story, and we need a better button on this one.
And then they go off and shoot the movie and cut the movie and sometimes you get a movie that you’re happy with. It’s my experience that this happens very rarely. Once in a blue moon. Blue Moon was another title we considered for a minute or two. I mention it now so you will understand that even when you have a movie you’re happy with, there’s always something—in this case, the title—that you wish you could fix. But never mind.
- Extract from The Most Of Nora Ephron by Nora Ephron, to be published by Transworld on September 11, priced £20. To order a copy, go to mailbookshop.co.uk, P&P free for a limited time only. To read the unabridged version, go to MailOnline.
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