Tom wasn’t quite Tom Hanks at that moment. Tom and Meg had already done a movie together, and it had been a big flop, Joe Versus the Volcano. So basically, I thought, “Well this is great.” We had this fantastic apartment, my husband and I, a block from the Seattle Pike Place Market, which is one of the Seven Wonders of the World as far as I’m concerned. Unbelievable crab and cherries and peaches. It was great. It was an unbelievable experience, and the actors were fantastic. Rosie O’Donnell, who has been a friend of mine ever since, was just starting out. She’d just been in A League of Their Own, and is one of the funniest people that ever lived. Every time we would shoot, she is so shockingly brilliant, she would say — you would say your name, and she would sing a song about you, rhyming everything, using your name, using whatever she knew about you. She was a rapper in some way that was so brilliant. I couldn’t believe it. She’s great at everything she does. It was an amazing experience. David Hyde Pierce, we had such an extraordinary cast, looking back on it.
You talked about balancing career and family while making This Is My Life. It doesn’t seem, from what you’ve said, that it was a source of great agony to you as a mother. It sounds like you were always able to do that, but for some of those years, you were a single mom.
Nora Ephron: Well, you’re always a single mother if you’re divorced from the father of your children, even if you’ve married a great guy, which I did. Being a writer is easier than having a full-time job. You can make your own hours. So by the time my kids got home from school, I was probably pretty well burned out as a writer for the day. So it wasn’t like, “I’m busy. I’m working. Get out of here.” I think that when I went off to direct This Is My Life, when the kids were ten and eleven — or eleven and twelve, I can’t remember exactly which — I think they were slightly shocked, because they hadn’t really had the experience of having a working mother. I was home. I was always available. I did bake cookies. I did do all that stuff at the school. I went on class trips. So even though they knew I worked, and they knew that I was a writer, it hadn’t cost them in any way. When I went off to do that first movie, I think they were really surprised that their mother actually worked. That was the first true knowledge they had of what that meant.
Movie hours can be pretty exhausting.
Nora Ephron: Looking back on it, I thought, “Well, they’re old enough to handle this,” and by the way, they did handle it. But the truth is, it was harder for them than I thought it was going to be. But I didn’t care. I’m sorry, but I didn’t. It was time for me to do this, and I thought, “We have a good support system in place. They have a stepfather. They have a father. They have a great nanny, and they’ll come visit me every other weekend. We’ll all get through this.” But it interested me later, when they complained about it, that I hadn’t quite been sensitive to it, because it was time for me to do this. I had to do it, and it was only ten weeks.
That’s refreshing to hear. You’re not agonizing like a lot of women do about these questions.
Nora Ephron: I was very lucky because I was a writer, but if you’re a lawyer or a doctor or you work in a factory, you have hours, you don’t have freedom. They don’t care that there’s a school meeting in a lot of places. So I was very lucky. Had I had a full-time job, I might not have had anything near the ability to be the kind of mother I was for the first ten or eleven years of their lives.
We’ve read that while you were a student at Wellesley, all you could think about was being a writer in New York. Can you tell us about your desire to be a writer in New York? Why New York?
Nora Ephron: I was born in New York, and I was really happy for the first four years of my life, and then my parents moved to California, and as far as I was concerned, my life was over, ruined. I had an absolutely clear sense of it, even at the age of four or five, and one of my earliest memories is that I was now in California. The sun was shining. I was at nursery school surrounded by happy, laughing children, and all I could think was, “What am I doing here? How can I ever get out of this place and get back to where I truly belong?” I know I absolutely believed that, and I don’t think that’s unusual with kids, not necessarily with the same — obviously — the same story I had, but I think a lot of people have a very strong sense early on that they are in the wrong place and that they belong somewhere else, and I knew I belonged in New York.
I wanted to be a journalist. It didn’t really cross my mind that someday I would actually think of myself as a writer, but I wanted to be a journalist, and there was a lot of journalism in New York. That’s where you wanted to end up if you were a journalist. So it was a perfect marriage of those two things.
When did your other siblings come along? Did you already have your next youngest sister when you moved to L.A.?
Nora Ephron: Delia is three years younger than me, and Hallie is five years younger than Delia, and Amy is three years younger than Hallie.
So there were two of you by the time you moved to Southern California?
Nora Ephron: Yes, yes.
Did that have anything to do with your negative feelings about California?
Nora Ephron: Not at all.
What was your impression of the writing life of your parents, who were screenwriters?
Nora Ephron: Well, they went off every morning in their respective cars to the same office, which was about four blocks away from our house. In fact, my mother drove a Studebaker for about five years, and when she traded it in, it had something like 9,000 miles on it. She literally drove to the studio and drove back every day. We knew that they went there and they wrote movies, and that they wrote together, and they were basically contract writers in the old studio system, and they wrote a movie and it got made. It was different when I became a screenwriter.
For years, I just wrote scripts that didn’t get made. I got paid for them, but I thought, “Am I ever going to get a movie made?” And I looked at my parents who had 14 or 15 credits, and thought, “This is never, ever going to happen for me.” It was a completely different time. But you know, I didn’t have a sense of them as much as writers as I did as screenwriters. They were very much in the movie business. Most of their friends were other screenwriters. They were very active in the Screenwriters Guild, and every so often we got to go to the set and meet somebody who was in one of their movies. That was very exciting, meeting Fred Astaire and people like that.
For a long time I thought it was kind of great that they did this. My mother was almost the only working woman that anyone knew in Beverly Hills, until at one point one of my friends moved to Beverly Hills and her mother worked, but her mother had to work because she was divorced.
My mother worked out of choice, and she was really the only woman in that community who did, and went through quite a lot in the way of sort of competitiveness, from the other women, who didn’t work, and I think were extremely irritated that my mother managed to work and have four children, none of whom was flunking out of school, quite the contrary, and all of that. But I think she was very defensive about being a working woman in that era, and every so often, there would be something at school, and I would say, “There is this thing at school,” and she would say, “Well, you will just have to tell them that your mother can’t come because she has to work.” And it was years later that I realized that she could have come. She wasn’t punching a time clock at 20th Century Fox. When I had children, I had no problem getting to the stuff at school. I just don’t think that she wanted to go to school and be perceived as that kind of mother, but I can’t ask her about it now.
I think it was one of your sisters who described the family dinner table as like the Algonquin Round Table. Was there a lot of verbal jousting?
Nora Ephron: It was not, I’m sure, at all like the Algonquin Round Table, even though one of my sisters did describe it that way, but it was true that at night, one of the things you did is people asked you — your parents said — “What did you do today?” and you told them. And unlike my experience with my children, where if I asked them what they had done that day and they said, “Nothing,” I was kind of — that was the end of that. That was not the end of that in our house. In our house, it was very much you were expected to kind of be entertaining and tell a little story about what had happened to you. They really taught us, I think, how to be writers, because we learned at the dinner table to take whatever mundane thing had happened to us and tried to make it a little bit entertaining.
Was there any dynamic there that was particularly telling, being the oldest of four? One of our interviewees wrote a book saying that birth order is very significant.
Nora Ephron: Birth order is so significant that you don’t have to read a book about it. If you’re the first, you absolutely know what it means to be the first. You get all the good stuff, it seems to me. Being the first is the best. First of all, I had the normal things you have as a firstborn child. Also, when my parents got genuinely crazy later in life, I was the one who had had most of the good years with them. So I was very lucky in that way.
Nora Ephron: Crazy drunk. Very difficult. All that fabulous, sunny, perfect life dissolved in alcohol.
Did that have to do with their careers waning as well?
Nora Ephron: No. Because alcoholics are alcoholics. In those days, you liked to think that people became alcoholics because X, Y, or Z. They had a broken heart or something. Now we know that alcoholism is just a disease, and they had it, and it didn’t really come into full bloom until they were well into their forties.
Going back to yourself as a child, did you like to read? Were there books that you really remember loving as a kid?
Nora Ephron: Yes. I was an early reader. My first memory of my mother, which of course came up very easily when I was in therapy, was of her teaching me to read. Your first memory of each of your parents is a kind of key to many things about your life, and mine is: I am sitting next to my mother, and she is teaching me to read and I can read, and she is so happy. So imagine what that is to a child. I mean, all you want to do is read because you know it will make your mother happy, and of course, reading is so great. So I was an avid reader, just constantly reading, reading, reading, reading. Television really didn’t come into our lives until I was about nine or ten, by which time I had already read hundreds and hundreds of books. I was already hooked on the Oz books and the Betsy-Tacy books. You name it, I had read it. Mary Poppins and all of Nancy Drew. Junky books, great books, I read everything. Beverly Hills Public Library was a very short bike ride away, and I would go over there and take three books out and go back two days later and take three more books out.
What about teachers? Were there teachers who were pretty important to you?
Nora Ephron: Yes. I had a couple of great, great teachers. The teacher who changed my life was my journalism teacher, whose name was Charles Simms. I always tell this story. I love it. I had already decided that I was going to be a journalist. I didn’t know why exactly, except that I had seen a lot of Superman comics. Lois Lane and all of those major literary characters like that, but Mr. Simms got up the first day of class, and he went to the blackboard, and he wrote “Who, what, where, why, when, and how,” which are the six things that have to be in the lead of any newspaper story. Then he did what most journalism teachers do, which is that he dictated a set of facts to us, and then we were all meant to write the lead that was supposed to have “who, what, where, why, when, and how” in it.
He dictated a set of facts that went something like, “The principal of Beverly Hills High School announced today that the faculty of the high school will travel to Sacramento, Thursday, for a colloquium in new teaching methods. Speaking there will be Margaret Mead, the anthropologist, and two other people.” So we all sat down at our typewriters, and we all kind of inverted that and wrote, “Margaret Mead and X and Y will address the faculty in Sacramento, Thursday, at a colloquium on new teaching methods, the principal announced today.” Something like that. We were very proud of ourselves, and we gave it to Mr. Simms, and he just riffled through them and tore them into tiny bits and threw them in the trash, and he said, “The lead to this story is: There will be no school Thursday!” and it was this great epiphany moment for me. It was this, “Oh my God, it is about the point! It is about figuring out what the point is.” And I just fell in love with journalism at that moment.
I just fell in love with the idea that underneath, if you sifted through enough facts, you could get to the point, and you had to get to the point. You could not miss the point. That would be bad. So he really kind of gave that little shift of mind a major push. I just fell in love with solving the puzzle, figuring out what it was, what was the story, what was the truth of the story.
What was your parents’ reaction when you told them you wanted to be a journalist?
Nora Ephron: I don’t have any memory of telling my parents I wanted to be a journalist, but they would have been completely happy about it. They absolutely wanted us to be writers. I can’t imagine, if I ever said, “I’ve decided to be a journalist,” they wouldn’t have said great.
Why did they want you to be writers?
Nora Ephron: I think they thought we were writers. I think that there are many kids who are not writers. We were writers. I think they wanted us to be writers so that we wouldn’t make a mistake and be things that we weren’t. Had I said I want to be a lawyer, that probably would have been okay, too. I could easily have been a lawyer, but they would have known it wouldn’t have been as much fun to be a lawyer.
So they felt writing was fun?
Nora Ephron: Well, writing is a great life if you can make it work. What’s more fun than that, you know?
How did you decide to go to Wellesley?
Nora Ephron: I think the decision to go to Wellesley was just a very simple one. First of all, my mother had laid down an edict in the house, which was that we were not allowed to go to any school that had sororities. I don’t know why. That’s a perfectly good edict, by the way, but I don’t know if she laid it down because she hated sororities, which I’m sure she did, or whether it was a very simple way of directing us to a very small number of colleges, all of which were very good, the seven women’s colleges in the East at that time and Stanford. So I applied to all of them. And I went to Wellesley because I had gone to a slide show, and it had a really beautiful campus. It was one of those things. Nobody got on a plane and visited colleges in that period. Wellesley was one of the best places you could go to, and most of the very bright women in the United States went to Wellesley or Radcliffe or Stanford. So I chose Wellesley.
You used some devastating language when you made a graduation speech at Wellesley some years later. As bright as everyone was, it was still understood that a woman’s degree was just a backup, in case you couldn’t find a husband.
Nora Ephron: It was called “something to fall back on.” I went to college in 1958. I was the Class of ’62. It was an unbelievably bland time in America. It was the end of the ’50s, the happy homemaker. Betty Friedan was about to publish The Feminine Mystique, and the women’s movement was about to begin, as well as quite a few other social movements in the ’60s. Everything was about to really break free, but we didn’t know that in 1958. It was a very, very, very — you were supposed to go to college, you were supposed to get your B.A., and then if you were interested in medicine, you were supposed to marry a doctor.
You had an internship at the White House. Can you talk a little bit about that experience?
Nora Ephron: I had this fantastic internship, I thought. I interned for Pierre Salinger, who was the Press Secretary for John F. Kennedy, for President Kennedy, and I was beside myself getting this internship. Six weeks in the White House! It never crossed my mind that I would have almost no duties whatsoever, much less even a desk. I had really nothing to do, but to sort of hang around and eavesdrop and look through files hoping to find secret documents, which I did find several of, by the way.
Nora Ephron: Well, nothing that would seem that exciting, but you had to be there. At the time, I thought, “Oh my God, look what I have just stumbled onto!” Anyway, I spent most of the summer hanging out, watching the press corps come in to the Press Secretary, going to all the press conferences. A lot of those jobs, if they give you any work to do, which they really didn’t — I mean, there was a woman in Salinger’s office whose entire job was autographing Pierre Salinger’s pictures. That was not full time, although she had a desk at least, and was paid to be there five days a week, but they didn’t have anything worse than that to give out, and I didn’t have much to do. But in retrospect…
I realized many years later that I was probably the only woman who had ever worked in the White House that Kennedy didn’t make a pass at. It kind of sort of made me sad at a certain point, as one person after another revealed herself to have had an affair with the President, and I thought, “Well, why not me?” But then, of course, I realized why not me, which is that I had had a really bad permanent wave that summer, and I didn’t look really great, but it was sad.
I did meet the President. He did say hello to me the first day we were introduced, and about four weeks later, I would have to say the high point of my entire summer came. I was standing out at the Rose Garden on a Friday afternoon, along with everyone else in the White House, watching the President leave. It may not seem like much to do, but everyone went out to do it, and they were all standing there, and the helicopter had landed to take the President to — I guess to Hyannis Port or to the plane to Hyannis Port, however it worked. So this helicopter is making this terrible noise, and I’m standing there with this whole group of people, and suddenly — and we think he is going to come out of the White House itself, but instead, he came right out of the Oval Office door and right past me and turned around, and the helicopter is going around, and he goes, “How are you coming along?” And I said, “What?” And that was it. That was my entire relationship with John F. Kennedy, which someday I am sure the Kennedy Library will ask me about, and I’ll tell them, because I don’t know how anyone could write a book about that Presidency without knowing that.
Shortly after that, you did get your first job in journalism.
Nora Ephron: I was a mail girl at Newsweek. You know, “We don’t have women writers, but if you want to be a mail girl, or a clipper…” I was promoted to clipper after I was a mail girl, and then I was promoted to researcher. The men wrote these stories and then the women checked them. That’s how it worked in those days. Then I got a job at the New York Post. There was a newspaper strike in New York, and some friends of mine put out a parody of a couple of the New York newspapers. Calvin Trillin worked on it, too. I worked on the New York Post parody, and he worked on the Daily News.
I wrote a parody of one of the columnists, and the people at the New York Post were very angry about it. They thought that the Post should sue, not that there was anything to sue. There was no entity to sue, but nonetheless, they were all ranting and raving about how someone should be sued for this. This is before people really understood what parodies were. And the publisher of the Post, Dorothy Schiff, said, “Don’t be ridiculous. If they can parody the Post, they can write for it. Hire them,” and so I got a job as a reporter there.
What was that job like?
Nora Ephron: It was a great job. It was fantastic. I covered everything there was to cover. I covered politics and murders and trials and movie stars and President’s daughters’ weddings. It was a very small staff. There was a lot of news. You were allowed to write very much with a sense of humor and a certain amount of derision even. We were not The New York Times, and we knew that, and it was a great way to become a writer because you could really find your voice.
How long were you there?
Nora Ephron: Five years.
And during this time, did you have your first marriage?
Nora Ephron: It was the tail end of it. Yeah.
You seem to be attracted to marrying men who write.
Nora Ephron: I do, I know. How pathetic is that? But they’re interesting. You know, Superman is the key to everything. Lois Lane didn’t know that Clark Kent was Superman, but I did. Writers are interesting people.
Did you find sexism at the Post in those days?
Nora Ephron: No. The New York Post, with its tiny staff, had way more women writing there than The New York Times with its huge staff. They simply had no sexism at all there, none. When I became a freelance writer afterwards, there was not a lot of sexism per se.
There were magazines that didn’t have a lot of women writing for them, but if you wanted to write for them and you were any good at all, you could. But The New York Times Magazine, the first assignment I got from them in 1968 or ‘9 was a fashion assignment, and I had never written about fashion in my life. I knew nothing about fashion. I cared less, but I thought, “Well, I’ll do this. I’ll write this, and then they’ll see I can write for them, and then I won’t have to write about fashion anymore,” and I never did.
At what point did you first think about writing for film and television?
Nora Ephron: I didn’t think of going into film until I was well into my thirties. I had been a — I had been a columnist at Esquire for several years and was fairly well known, and someone came to me with the idea of writing a screenplay, and I thought, “Well, why not?” Everybody was trying to write screenplays at that point. Everyone was trying to get into the movie business, and I thought, “Well, this will be fun and interesting.” You don’t consciously do these things, and yet, I look back on my life, and I realize that about every ten years or so, I sort of moved laterally, or every eight years. I was a newspaper reporter. Then I became a magazine writer, and then a columnist, which was a different version of it, and then I started writing screenplays. So it wasn’t that I said, “Oh, it’s time for me to do something different.”
At a certain point, you get to a place where you kind of know what you’re doing, and you kind of know that you’re going to be repeating yourself if you go on doing it much longer. So when the chance to do something else comes along, you go, “Well this might be fun. This might be interesting.” And it was interesting, ’cause I really didn’t know what I was doing, writing screenplays. I wrote quite a few before one got made. I didn’t have a screenplay made until Silkwood was made, and that was — I was 40 or so, about 40 or 41, and until I worked with Mike Nichols on that screenplay — it wasn’t that Alice Arlen and I hadn’t written a good script, but then I got to go to school by working with Mike, because he was so brilliant at working with you on script, and the realization that I had known so little and was learning so much working with him was amazing.
How did you come together with Alice Arlen on Silkwood?
Nora Ephron: Alice was a friend of mine. She was at Columbia Film School, and she was a good writer. I had read a screenplay that she had done. I was, by then, divorced and a mother of two children, and I had been offered Silkwood, and I couldn’t figure out how I was going to go to Oklahoma and do all this stuff and have these two children. It was very complicated, and I thought it might be fun to do it with somebody and not have quite the burden. As it turned out, Alice and I went to Oklahoma together, but what was great was that we worked together and had a huge amount of fun doing it. She is very brilliant at screenplays and at structure, so that’s how the idea came up. I just thought, I’ll ask Alice to do this with me, and she said yes.
How did Mike Nichols sharpen what you had done together? Was it in the area of dialogue?
Nora Ephron: Mike teaches you many things. One of the things that Mike teaches you is he’s constantly asking, “What’s this story about? What’s this scene about? What’s this section of the movie about?” Just forcing you to understand that if you have a bunch of scenes and they are all about exactly the same thing, at least two of them are superfluous. At the same time, if you are in a section of the movie that is about whatever it is about, that section of the movie had better be about that thing or else it too… et cetera.
So he taught us a lot about that, and then I got to watch him cast. He let us be in the room when the actors came to meet Mike Nichols, the greatest actor’s director, and there I learned all this stuff you would never know, and the number of screenwriters who don’t know this, because directors aren’t generous enough to let them in the room, who don’t understand that an actor makes your scene work. Actors aren’t the enemy, which a lot of screenwriters think. Actors are what make it happen, and you would watch three or four actors read a scene, and you would think, “Oh, this is the worst scene I have ever written! This is so embarrassing, I’m going to crawl under the couch!” And then the right actor would come in and nail it, and you’d go, “Oh my God, I am a genius! I am fantastic!” Or else the right actor would nail it, and you would think, “Oh, this scene is a little long. I got a little bored right there, better fix that.” So all of those things were things that I learned from Mike.
He has an affection for actors, too, doesn’t he?
Nora Ephron: Well, anyone smart who directs has an affection for actors, because they’re amazing. They’re completely amazing.
You once wrote that your mother wanted you and your sisters to understand that the tragedies of your life have the potential to become comic stories one day.
Nora Ephron: What my mother always said was a little bit more neutral, which was, “Everything is copy.” If you came to her with a tragedy — and God knows children have a lot of tragedies — she really wasn’t interested in it at all.
She wasn’t one of those mothers who went, “Oh honey, tell me what happened to you at school. What did the bad girls do to you?” No. She just would say, “Oh well, everything is copy.” And all she meant was that someday you will make this into a funny story, or a story, and when you do, I will be happy to listen to it, but not until then. I think she basically taught us a very fundamental rule of humor — probably of Jewish humor if you want to put a very fine definition on it, although she would not think so — which is that if you slip on a banana peel, people laugh at you, but if you tell people you slipped on a banana peel, it’s your joke, and you’re the hero of the joke. It basically is the greatest lesson I think you can ever give anyone. I always worry I didn’t teach it well enough to my own kids, because I was such a good mother. I always said, “Oh honey, tell me what happened to you.” I’m kind of mystified that she didn’t, ’cause it really is weird and sort of against human nature practically, but that was just who she was.
It’s very empowering to get the message that someday you can laugh at this and make copy out of it.
Nora Ephron: I’m always horrified at — especially the women I know — who go through things like divorces, and five years later, they’re still going, “Oh, look what he did. Look what the bad boy did to me.” Right? Get over it! Turn it into something. Stop being a victim. That is one of the most important lessons of “everything is copy,” is you must not be the victim of what happens to you. You must own it. You must get above it. It’s just an unbelievable lesson in terms of how to live your life, especially if you’re a woman. Espcecially. It was always one of my most fundamental irritations with the women’s movement, in my era of it, was how quickly they embraced victims and victimization and still do.
You know, a huge number of things, like these women who get goosed in the office and then file a lawsuit instead of just telling whoever did it to jump off a cliff. “Oh, you can’t do that because they’ll fire you!” So what? So get another job. But they won’t really. They don’t fire you. That’s the interesting thing, especially in this day and age. I’m very old-fashioned in that way. I just don’t get that rush to embrace the victim role instead of just saying something clever or witty, or even lame.
It’s not only empowering, but it also sends the message that you won’t be defeated by this temporary setback or this temporary tragedy. It won’t defeat you because you’re going to own it.
Nora Ephron: Yes. It does reinforce that thing that writers have, which is that “third eye.” Whatever horrible thing is happening to you, there is always this other thing thinking, “Hmm, better remember this. This might be a story someday.”
Could you tell us about Heartburn, where you did, in fact, rather publicly turn the downfall of a marriage into a somewhat comic novel and movie?
Nora Ephron: My second marriage ended in this very melodramatic way. Melodramatic if you weren’t involved with it, and dramatic if you were. I was pregnant, and my husband had fallen in love with this extremely tall woman who was married to the British ambassador, and it was very painful and horrible at the time. But then a few months later, I found myself at a typewriter working on a screenplay, and instead I wrote the first eight pages of a novel, and it was a novel that I knew if I could — you know, when I was going through the nightmare of the end of the marriage, I absolutely knew that there was — if I could ever find the voice to write it in, that someday it would be a story, someday it would be copy. But at the time, I was way too distraught to ever feel that. But you know, time heals, especially if you had a mother like mine. So I started writing a novel that became Heartburn, and that was the thinly disguised version of the end of that marriage.
That must have been rather cathartic.
Nora Ephron: Well, no. Actually, people think that. People think that when you write something it’s cathartic, and I had written a lot of personal articles at Esquire, and people always say, “Oh God, it must have been so great when you finally wrote about having small breasts.” No. You get through that, and then you write it. It is not the writing that is the catharsis. The catharsis has happened, and it in some way has moved you from the boo-hoo aspect of things to the “Oh, and wait until I tell you this part of the story! Wait until you hear this, if you want to hear what…” where you really don’t want people to feel sorry for you. I have such a strong sense of that, that I did not ever want people to think, “Oh, poor Nora!” You know?
What was the reaction to Heartburn?
Nora Ephron: Well, it sold a lot of books. I think there were many men who were made very nervous by it. I think that men were allowed to write about their marriages falling apart, but you weren’t quite supposed to if you were a woman. You were just supposed to curl up into a ball and move to Connecticut. But you know, it didn’t really matter because, as I said, I knew what the book was. It’s a funny book, and I was very happy that it sold a lot of copies.
It became an amazing movie, with Mike Nichols involved again.
Nora Ephron: Yes, my second movie with Mike. And my second movie with Meryl Streep.
Tell us about the casting of Heartburn. Were you involved in that?
Nora Ephron: No. I got to see the auditions, but the main casting was done by Mike. Meryl wanted to do a comedy. She wanted to work with Mike again. Here it was, and it was great for all of us.
What was the reaction of your ex-husband to the book and movie?
Nora Ephron: He was very irritated by the book and the movie, by both things, and I think secretly thrilled, because he could now be the victim. He could now walk around saying, “Look what she did to me! Look what she did to our children! She wrote this book!” Our children couldn’t read at that point, but nonetheless, he thrilled to be the “good” parent.
In your commencement speech at Wellesley, you gave some statistics that were pretty depressing about how few female directors there still were in Hollywood, even in the mid to late ’90s. Has that improved much now?
Nora Ephron: Yes, it’s improved. It is still not great, but it’s improved, and it will continue to improve. Someday there will be more of them, but there still won’t be enough.
Nora Ephron: I think there are a lot of reasons. One is the movie business, which is very much driven by the young male audience that goes to the movies. This is why you see a lot of women in television and not in movies. Television is a business that is very much driven by women viewers, so it’s wide open for women. That’s part of it. That’s just a little Marxist explanation, but there are many, many, many more women in television now than there were in the movie business, and there are many more women running studios and working at studios. So all of that is evening out. The director thing, I don’t think is going to even out, or the screenwriter thing is going to even out, until women drive the marketplace as much as men do. I’m not sure that’s ever going to happen. In about 20 years, if not sooner, I don’t even think people will go to the movies the way they do now. So that will be different.
If you were talking to a young female writer who is watching or reading your interview, what advice would you have for somebody who is looking at journalism or writing as a career?
Nora Ephron: What advice would I have? Do it. My advice to everyone is: “Become a journalist.” I think everyone should be a journalist, and that is totally narcissistic on my part, but I think it’s the most amazing way to learn about how people live. I mean, to be able to dip into other people’s lives at the unbelievably ludicrous points you get to when you’re a journalist, either when they’ve just been killed, or they’re just about to win the Oscar, or they’ve just written a really wonderful book, or they just demonstrated against something worth demonstrating against. It’s truly a way of getting out of whatever narrow world we all grow up in. We all grow up in the most narrow worlds, and then we go to another narrow world, which is college, where no matter how different everyone is, they’re all the same. Suddenly, they’re all wearing the same thing suddenly, and reading the same books suddenly, and thinking about the same philosophical question suddenly. You know, if you have a chance to be a newspaper reporter for three or four years — before you do whatever you want to do — do it, because you will know so much.
When we were doing Silkwood, there’s a scene that is a union meeting at this plutonium factory that Karen Silkwood worked at. Obviously, I’ve never worked at a plutonium factory, but I had worked at the New York Post.
We were shooting this scene in Texas, where we were shooting it, and I arrived at the set, and Mike Nichols — who is a brilliant man, but doesn’t know everything — had put all the people in the scene — the union people and the management people — at a round table, because he wanted to shoot at a round table, and I said, “No, no, no, no, no. You can’t do that. It’s a union negotiation. It has got to be a rectangular table.” Now, that’s a very simple thing, but we would have looked foolish, and I was the only person on a set of 60 people who had ever been in a union negotiation, because I had been on the Newspaper Guild negotiating committee at the New York Post. That’s the kind of stuff you have to know. If you want to go into the movie business, what are you going to write a movie about when you’re 22 years old? I’ll tell you what. You’re going to write your coming-of-age movie, and then you’re going to write your summer camp movie, and then you’re going to be out of things, because nothing else will have happened to you. So, I think it’s very good to become a journalist.
Lately, your book about your neck has gotten tremendous attention and has sold a lot of copies. Here again, you seem to be taking something almost taboo — a woman’s aging — and turning it upside-down and making it very, very funny and cathartic, at least for your readers. Was that a difficult book to contemplate?
Nora Ephron: No, no. I had been reading all these books about getting older. When you go through menopause, there are all these books out there called things like “The Joy of Menopause,” and you think, “What is this book about? What relevance does this book have to anything I am familiar with?” None whatsoever. And then ten years later, as I went into my sixties, there were all these books about how fabulous it was to be older and how you are going to have the greatest sex of your life in your sixties. I don’t know why people write things like that, because they’re just lies, but then I thought, there might be a circumstance that you could have the greatest sex of your life in your sixties — if you had never had sex until then, maybe. This stuff was all out there, and I kept thinking, “Why are people writing this? Why are people saying this? Don’t they have necks? Don’t they look in the mirror?”
One day, someone — an editor at Vogue — called me and said they were doing an issue on age and was there anything that I wanted to write about, and I said, “Yeah. I want to write about my neck.” It wasn’t anything hard, and I just wrote this funny thing called “I Feel Bad About My Neck,” which everybody read, a huge number of people. Most people, you don’t expect, when you have a piece in Vogue, to have a huge — you know, people don’t buy Vogue necessarily for the articles, but this was an issue all my friends read, and a lot of people said, “Oh, that was really funny,” and I thought, “Oh, I see. There’s a book here. There’s a book about getting older,” and I started making a list of things that I thought could be written about that no one had written about, like maintenance, which is a full-time career for those of us who are getting on in years, just sort of keeping your finger in the dike, so that you don’t look like a bag lady. So I made a list of things and then wrote most of the book and sold it. And then there’s all sorts of things that aren’t about aging, like my summer in the White House when President Kennedy didn’t sleep with me.
You must have had quite a response from women, thanking you for telling it like it is.
Nora Ephron: Yes. Yes.
Well, you look marvelous.
Nora Ephron: Well thank you, darling.
Sometimes we ask our honorees to talk about the American Dream. Do you have a concept of that?
Nora Ephron: I’ve always had a very clear sense — since I was a kid, reading books about people who didn’t live in the United States — about how lucky I was to live here. There’s no place like it. I remember, after 9/11, there was a lot of foolish talk about, “Where we would go if we had to leave this place?” which I just thought was so idiotic. I couldn’t believe it, because where could you go? Where could you possibly go? Nowhere. There is no place like this, no place that offers what this country does.
In terms of freedom?
Nora Ephron: In terms of everything. It’s no big deal that I’m a writer; my parents were writers. But it’s a big deal that they were writers. It’s a big deal that they went to college. They were first-generation Americans, first-generation college graduates, and they became screenwriters. I was a child of privilege, but my husband, Nick Pileggi, is first generation, first generation B.A., and he became a writer. He and I are one generation different, not in our ages, but in our parents’ experience. That wouldn’t have happened to him in another place, and it almost didn’t happen here, by the way, because he was in junior high school and was assigned — got his schedule in junior high school — and he was in all vocational classes. And he went to the guidance person and said, “Why am I not in English classes? Why don’t I have any classes like my friends have?” and they said, “Oh, you’re Italian American. You’re not going to need this kind of thing. You’re not going to go to college.” That was New York City! But he fooled them and switched out of it, but the point is you still hear stories like that, stories from people like Mario Cuomo, or Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who couldn’t get a job after she graduated from law school. There’s still a lot of that stuff, and yet, compared to anyplace else, this is by far the best place you could be.
Obstacles can be significant in growth and progress. What have your occasional failures taught you?
Nora Ephron: I wish I had learned more from failure than just mortification. I don’t think you learn much from success, and I don’t think you learn much from failure, unfortunately. It’s one of the sad things. You certainly learn that it’s more fun to have a hit than a flop. That’s one thing you truly learn.
What keeps you going after a flop?
Nora Ephron: Well, I’m a writer, and I’m very lucky because I don’t always have to write the same kind of thing. I know how to write in more than one way, which is one of the luckiest things about my life, but I think failure is very hard, because you don’t really know. You really don’t know. People see things that don’t work, and they think, “Didn’t they know that wasn’t going to work?” Well they didn’t! They really didn’t. They really thought it was going to be fabulous and great, and everybody working on it thought it was, and then it comes out, and it doesn’t work. It really doesn’t work, and you go, “Hmm, too bad that didn’t work.” But you don’t learn. I wish one learned more. It certainly doesn’t keep you from failing again, I’ll tell you that.
What are the differences between directing your own writing, and writing for projects that you don’t direct?
Nora Ephron: The good thing about directing your own writing is you have no one to blame but yourself, and I’m a big one for that. I would much rather blame myself than have the alibi of saying, “That wasn’t my idea.” That’s the greatest thing. Also, when you write something, you really do hear how you want it said. Sometimes it isn’t said that way. It’s said much better, because you have a really great actor saying it, and they come at it in a completely different way. And sometimes you have a really great actor who missed the joke, and you have a chance to say to them, “No, no, no. I think the word here you’re missing is this,” or you can at least be there on behalf of the script as the director. But you have a very clear idea when you write something of what you want it to look like.
I’m writing something now that I know I’m not going to direct, and there’s a great freedom in that. There’s a great freedom in not always having to know everything about what’s going to happen in the scene, and knowing that if it gets made, it will be someone else’s problem what the room looks like, what the improv is at the beginning or the end of the scene, all of that stuff.
What are you writing now? Can you talk about what it is?
Nora Ephron: Oh no, because it probably won’t happen.
With your track record, maybe it will. Thank you for the great interview.
Nora Ephron: Thank you. It was great.