00:00:00 HARRY BURNS: I love that you get cold when it's 71 degrees out. I love that it takes you an hour-and-a-half to order a sandwich. I love that you get a little crinkle above your nose when you're looking at me like I'm nuts. I love...
00:00:10 ALICE WINKLER: I would never play you a movie clip that revealed the very end of a movie. That would be obnoxious, normally, but if it’s When Harry Met Sally, you’ve absolutely, definitely already seen it, so no need for a spoiler alert. If you haven’t seen it, well, shame on you anyway. Put down this podcast, go rent the movie, and then come back to listen.
00:00:31 SALLY ALBRIGHT: You see? That is just like you, Harry. You say things like that, and you make it impossible for me to hate you! And I hate you, Harry. I really hate you.
00:00:45 ALICE WINKLER: When Harry Met Sally is one of the best romantic comedies of all time, written by one of the best and funniest writers of all time, Nora Ephron. She started out as a journalist but went on to write essays, novels, plays, movies, basically anything that allowed her to put pen to paper. Her parents were both Hollywood screenwriters, so she was born to it. Her mother’s constant refrain was, "Everything is copy."
00:01:14 NORA EPHRON: If you came to her with a tragedy, she would — and God knows, children have a lot of tragedies — she really wasn't interested in it at all. You know, 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'll 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.”
00:01:48 And 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. And it basically is the greatest lesson I think you can ever give anyone, and I always worry I didn't teach it well enough to my own kids because I was so — I was such a good mother. I always said, "Oh, honey, tell me what happened to you," you know?
00:02:32 I'm kind of mystified that she didn't because it really is weird and sort of against human nature, practically, but that was just who she was.
00:02:44 ALICE WINKLER: Nora Ephron, who died in 2012, is the subject of this episode of What It Takes, a podcast about passion, vision, perseverance, and this week, humor. What It Takes comes to you from the wondrous and wonderful audio vault of the Academy of Achievement, and it’s my honor to bring it to you, one great interview at a time.
00:03:07 I’m Alice Winkler.
00:03:09 OPRAH WINFREY: "Hattie Mae, this child is gifted," and I heard that enough that I started to believe it.
00:03:15 ROGER BANNISTER: If you have the opportunity, not a perfect opportunity, and you don't take it, you may never have another chance.
00:03:21 LAURYN HILL: It all was so clear. It was just, like, the picture started to form itself.
00:03:25 DESMOND TUTU: There was no way in which a lie could prevail over the truth, darkness over light, death over life.
00:03:33 CAROL BURNETT (quoting CARRIE HAMILTON): “Every day I wake up and decide, today I'm going to love my life. Decide.”
00:03:41 JOHNNY CASH: My advice is, if they're going to break your leg once when you go in that place, stay out of there.
00:03:46 JAMES MICHENER: And then along come these differential experiences that you don't look for, you don't plan for, but boy, you’d better not miss them.
00:03:59 ALICE WINKLER: In 2007, Nora Ephron gave a really funny, inspiring speech to student leaders from around the world who’d come together for the Academy of Achievement Summit. I’ll play you some of that speech in a few minutes. But that same weekend, Ephron also sat down to record an intimate conversation about her life and her work. She started by explaining why she was so determined to be a New York writer, even though she grew up in the bosom of Hollywood.
00:04:28 NORA EPHRON: Oh, well, 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?"
00:05:08 ALICE WINKLER: She knew she was constitutionally a New Yorker, and she knew she would grow up to be a reporter, even though her parents wrote screenplays for movies, famous movies, like Carousel and Desk Set and There’s No Business Like Show Business. They were unusual parents, even for Southern California.
00:05:30 NORA EPHRON: You know, 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. I mean she literally drove to the studio and drove back every day.
00:05:57 But 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. When I became a screenwriter, I could never — 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."
00:06:31 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, you know, 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, you know, meeting Fred Astaire and people like that.
00:06:57 And for a long time, you know, I mean I had a very — I thought it was kind of great that they did this. My mother, of course, 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.
00:07:25 You know, 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.
00:07:52 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's 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.
00:08:19 ALICE WINKLER: Her mother just wasn’t that interested. She wasn’t a conventional mom, and their household wasn’t a conventional household. Nora Ephron and her three sisters all became writers. One of them once compared the family dinner table to the Algonquin Round Table, complete with verbal jousting. Ephron said she wouldn’t go that far, but...
00:08:40 NORA EPHRON: It was true that at night, one of the things you did is that 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.
00:09:12 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 try to make it a little bit entertaining.
00:09:27 ALICE WINKLER: Her parents laid all the groundwork, but her muse — as she told the audience listening raptly to her speech at the Academy of Achievement Summit — her muse was Lois Lane, love interest of Superman and girl reporter at the Daily Planet. By high school, Nora Ephron’s path was clear.
00:09:47 NORA EPHRON: And so I took a class in journalism, and I had the greatest teacher that I ever had, and I want to tell you about what happened to me in that class because it changed my life. It was the first day of class, and if any of you have taken journalism, you know that what they do is they teach you how to write a lede. They teach you how to start writing the story, and they go to the blackboard, and they write, “who, what, where, why, when, and how” on the blackboard.
00:10:16 And that’s what has to be in the first paragraph of any decent newspaper story. And then what they normally do and what Mr. Charles Simms, my journalism teacher, did is that he dictated a set of facts to us, and then we were supposed to go and write the lede to the story. So he said something like this: "The principal of Beverly Hills High School" — that’s where I went to school — "announced today that the faculty of the high school will travel to Sacramento on Thursday for a colloquium in new teaching methods."
00:10:55 "Speaking there will be anthropologist Margaret Mead, University of Chicago President Robert Maynard Hutchins, and some third person, blah, blah, blah." So we all sat at our typewriters, and we kind of inverted the story, and it went, you know, “Margaret Mead, Robert Maynard Hutchins, and a third person will address the faculty Thursday in Sacramento at a colloquium on new teaching methods, the principal announced today.”
00:11:24 And we all were very proud of ourselves, and we turned in our ledes, and Mr. Simms threw them in the trash and said, "The lede to the story is, ‘There will be no school Thursday.’"
00:11:43 It was the electric light going on in the cartoon. I just fell in love with journalism at that moment. I thought, "Oh, my god. It’s about the point."
00:11:59 “Who, what, when,” and “why” and “how” and “where” and all of that stuff, forget it if you do not get the point of the story. And I cannot tell you — you know, the fun of journalism, the joy of journalism, in addition to the fact that it takes you into worlds that you would never, ever go into, is that you are constantly having to puzzle out what this all means. What is the point of it?
00:12:31 And I became a journalist; I became a newspaper reporter and then a magazine writer, and I was in love with the point. I was in love with the truth. I believed in the truth. I was like a — if I had a religion, that was it.
00:12:50 ALICE WINKLER: And she would stick to her orthodoxy for years, though not forever, as you can guess, given her later career as a novelist and screenwriter. But let’s not jump ahead of the timeline. First, we’ll pick up with her college years at Wellesley, about as fine a school as a young woman might aspire to in the 1950s. Three decades after she graduated, Ephron delivered the commencement speech at Wellesley. Standing in the pouring rain, which you can hear in this clip, she reminisced in not-so-loving terms about the era in which she had gone there.
00:13:27 NORA EPHRON: My class went to college in the era when you got a master's degree in teaching because it was something to fall back on in the worst-case scenario, the worst-case scenario being that no one married you and you actually had to go to work. As this same classmate said at our reunion, "Our education was a dress rehearsal for a life we never led." Isn't that the saddest line? We weren't meant to have futures; we were meant to marry them.
00:14:06 We weren't meant to have politics or careers that mattered or opinions or lives. We were meant to marry them.
00:14:14 Well, you know, I went to college in 1958. I was the Class of '62. It was an unbelievably bland time. 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 you were — if you were interested in medicine, you were supposed to marry a doctor.
00:14:57 ALICE WINKLER: But Nora Ephron, raised by a working mother, wasn’t buying it. Instead, after graduation, she applied for a position at the White House and got it.
00:15:07 NORA EPHRON: Yes, 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.
00:15:32 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.
00:16:06 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, or however it worked.
00:16:47 So this helicopter's making this terrible noise, and I am standing there with this whole group of people, and we think he is going to come out of the White House itself, but instead, he came right out of his door — the Oval Office door — and right past me and turned around, and the helicopter's 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.
00:17:22 ALICE WINKLER: With that impressive experience on her resume, her next stop was Newsweek for her first job in journalism — kind of.
00:17:30 NORA EPHRON: I was hired as a — 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, which, the men wrote these stories, and then the women checked them. That's how it worked in those days.
00:17:51 ALICE WINKLER: And then...
00:17:52 NORA EPHRON: I got a job at the New York Post because 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, and 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.
00:18:25 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. It was fantastic. I covered everything there was to cover. I covered politics and murders and trials and, you know, movie stars and presidents' daughters' weddings, and it was a very small staff.
00:18:57 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.
00:19:21 ALICE WINKLER: It wasn’t until Nora Ephron was well into her 30s that she thought about going into film. By that point, she was a columnist at Esquire magazine and a pretty well-known one. When someone came to her with the idea of writing a screenplay based on the real-life story of Karen Silkwood, she figured, "Why not?” Everyone in New York City at the time, she said, was trying to write a screenplay, but it was an idea that spoke to her.
00:19:48 Silkwood was a lab technician at a plutonium plant in Oklahoma who had spoken out against dangerous conditions at the plant and had died suspiciously as she was driving to hand over evidence to a New York Times reporter. The story had made national news and had become a sort of cause célèbre. Nora Ephron got her friend Alice Arlen to help her write the script, and pretty soon they found themselves in a collaboration with revered director Mike Nichols. That was when her real education in film began.
00:20:21 NORA EPHRON: He let us be in the room when the actors came to meet Mike Nichols, the greatest, you know, 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 — you know, who don't understand that an actor makes your scene work. Actors aren't the enemy, which a lot of screenwriters think.
00:20:54 Actors are what make it happen, and you know, 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’m a genius. I'm fantastic." Or else the right actor would nail it, and you would think, "Oh, this scene's 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.
00:21:25 PAUL STONE: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Look, Karen, it's the X-rays that are really important. Now I'm going into the contract negotiations, and we want to get the guy from the Times down there in mid-November. That's three weeks.
00:21:35 KAREN SILKWOOD: I know, I know, I know. I'm getting the stuff. It's just not that easy.
00:21:42 ALICE WINKLER: Of course, the fact that Meryl Streep starred in Silkwood, along with Kurt Russell, Cher, and Ron Silver, made easy work of falling in love with actors, but that was not even the most important thing she learned from Mike Nichols. That lesson would come when they were hashing out part of the storyline. Remember, it was based on real events, but Nichols suggested, as an exercise, that they each write down who in the story they thought was culpable and in what order. Turns out, each of them came up with a different list.
00:22:15 NORA EPHRON: And that was the second major light bulb in my life as a writer. That was the moment when I realized it’s not about the truth. It’s about the story, and everybody tells the story differently. You know, when you’re a journalist, you truly delude yourself that you are writing the truth, and I hear journalists talk about “the truth, the truth, the truth.”
00:22:43 There is no such thing. It is a rare story. It’s a rare set of facts that there’s only one good lede to — “There will be no school Thursday.” Everybody has a different way of telling the story. Everybody tells it differently, and that was the thing that propelled me into realizing and loving that I could make things up, that I didn’t have to stay in the world of truth. I could go elsewhere.
00:23:24 ALICE WINKLER: When her work on Silkwood was over, Nora Ephron decided to try her hand at writing a novel. It was fiction, but fiction based on her very public and very ugly divorce from her second husband, journalist Carl Bernstein.
00:23:38 NORA EPHRON: Well, yes, you know, my second marriage ended in this very melodramatic way — melodramatic if you weren't involved with it and dramatic if you were — and 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.
00:24:13 And it was a novel that I knew — 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.
00:24:42 So I started writing a novel that became Heartburn, and that was the thinly disguised version of the end of that marriage. I think there were many men who were made very nervous by it. 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 I knew what the book was. It's a funny book, and I was very happy that it sold a lot of copies.
00:25:19 ALICE WINKLER: And it must have been cathartic, right? That's the question interviewer Gail Eichenthal asked.
00:25:25 NORA EPHRON: 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's 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..." You know, where you really don't want people to feel sorry for you.
00:26:08 ALICE WINKLER: Heartburn became a movie, again directed by Mike Nichols, again with Meryl Streep as the lead. Jack Nicholson co-starred as the philandering husband.
00:26:18 RACHEL SAMSTAT: And the dream breaks into a million, tiny little pieces, which leaves you with a choice. You can either stick with it, which is unbearable, or you can just go off and dream another dream.
00:26:30 ALICE WINKLER: Heartburn came out in 1986, and then came the film that would secure Nora Ephron’s status as the master of romantic comedy, When Harry Met Sally. For sure, its most famous scene, still, 30 years later, is the one that takes place in Katz’s Delicatessen. You know the one. Well, it wasn’t in Nora Ephron’s original script at all. Here’s how it came about.
00:26:56 NORA EPHRON: Well, I had been working on this script with Rob Reiner, and Rob had told me all this stuff about guys, right? And how horrible they are and how unwilling they are to commit, in any way, even to the bed of the person they have just had sex with, for the rest of the night. And so, one day, we were sitting around, and Rob said, "You know, we've told you all this stuff about guys. Now you tell us something about women that we don't know," and it was like, “I dare you.”
00:27:31 “I dare you. You will never be able to tell me anything about women I don't know but try.”
So I said, "Well, women fake orgasms," and he said, "Not with me." So I said, "Yes, with you," and he said, "No, no, no." I said, "Yes, yes, yes." Well, he went completely crazy. He really did. I mean he did a total meathead moment and went thundering out to the bullpen at Castle Rock Pictures, where all the women were, and said, "Get in here!"
00:28:02 And they all came in, and he said, "Is it true that women fake orgasms?" And this group of six completely terrified assistants all looked at him and went like this. It was just an amazing moment. So we took that fact and put that into a scene. And it was a very simple scene where Sally tells Harry that, and Harry says, "Not with me," and she says, "Yes, with you," and he says, "I don't believe it," and she says, "You’d better believe it." It was very simple.
00:28:34 And we had a read-through, and Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan read the script, and at the end of the read-through, Meg said, "You know, I think this scene would be much funnier if it took place in a restaurant," and Rob said, "That's a great idea. Let's do it in a restaurant."
00:28:55 HARRY BURNS: Get out of here!
00:28:56 SALLY ALBRIGHT: Why? Most women, at one time or another, have faked it.
00:28:59 HARRY BURNS: Well, they haven't faked it with me.
00:29:01 SALLY ALBRIGHT: How do you know?
00:29:04 HARRY BURNS: Because I know.
00:29:05 SALLY ALBRIGHT: Oh, right. That's right. I forgot. You're a man.
00:29:11 HARRY BURNS: What is that supposed to mean?
00:29:12 SALLY ALBRIGHT: Nothing. It's just that all men are sure it never happened to them, and most women, at one time or another, have done it, so you do the math.
00:29:19 HARRY BURNS: You don't think that I could tell the difference?
00:29:22 SALLY ALBRIGHT: No.
00:29:22 HARRY BURNS: Get out of here.
00:29:24 NORA EPHRON: And then Meg said, "And then I think, at the end of the scene, she should have an orgasm," and Rob said, "Well, that's a really good idea." And Billy Crystal said, "And one of the customers can say 'I'll have what she's having,'" and Rob said, "And I know just the actor to play that part — my mother."
00:29:49 OLDER WOMAN CUSTOMER: I'll have what she's having.
00:29:51 NORA EPHRON: Now, you know, I had started out in the movie business thinking, "Oh, please don't let them change my lines. Please don't let them do anything to me." And, you know, you hear an idea like that, and you think, “I am so lucky to be working with these people. Thank God people believe in collaboration.” Of course, I get all the credit for that line, which I had — well, I'd like to think I had something to do with it because if I hadn't broken the news about faking orgasms, there might be millions of men still walking around the earth not knowing it, and they do know it because of that movie.
00:30:28 ALICE WINKLER: With all the wild success of When Harry Met Sally, Nora Ephron still had a hard time getting her next film financed. It was a story she decided to direct herself about an aspiring stand-up comedienne, a mom, trying to balance her career dreams with family life.
00:30:47 NORA EPHRON: If you wanted to write about women in any way, you know, 90% of the men directing movies have no interest in women in any real way, except as girlfriends or wives. They don't really want to make movies about them, and they don't. And so the arduous task of getting someone to commit to something that had anything to do with my life was very frustrating.
00:31:17 And so, you know, really, that's what — both the sense that if I became a director, I could at least get my own movies made, my own scripts made, and the sense that I would be interested in subjects that men might not be interested in, so...
00:31:36 ALICE WINKLER: So, direct she did, including two of the biggest hits of the 1990s, Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail. Sleepless in Seattle was a script that had been hopping around from writer to writer with no success. Nora Ephron only agreed to take it on as a rewrite because she needed the money and because she knew she could make it better by adding laughs. Within a matter of months, it had new actors attached, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, and a new director, Nora Ephron.
00:32:08 NORA EPHRON: What was it like to direct it? Well, I have no idea what it was like to direct it because all my experiences as a director are filtered through food, and the food was great in Seattle. That's all I can tell you. Unbelievable crab and cherries and peaches, and it was great. And the sun was shining all the time because it was summertime in Seattle. We had to actually, of course, have some rain in the movie, and we had to bring in water trucks, and everyone got really angry with us because there was a drought, and we were wasting water, making rain in the movie.
00:32:43 ALICE WINKLER: All right, Nora Ephron did actually remember a few things about directing Sleepless in Seattle besides the rain controversy and the food at the market. Mostly, she remembered just how brilliant the actors were — so brilliant that she brought them back together for the next romantic comedy hit she wrote and directed, You’ve Got Mail. It came out in 1998 and was one of the first movies to portray life and love in the age of the Internet.
00:33:11 KATHLEEN KELLY: If only you could help.
00:33:14 JOE FOX: Oh. Is it about love? Please say no.
00:33:19 KATHLEEN KELLY: No. How cute is that? My business is in trouble.
00:33:24 JOE FOX: Well, I am a brilliant businessman. It's what I do best. What's your business?
00:33:32 ALICE WINKLER: Perhaps it’s not surprising that Nora Ephron was one of the very first bloggers for the Huffington Post. As long as she was writing stories, the format didn’t really matter. It also makes perfect sense that the final movie she wrote and directed was Julie & Julia, about the lives of two women writers, a blogger and a beloved cookbook author.
00:33:56 JULIA CHILD: All I think about all day is food, and I dream about it all night!
00:34:04 ALICE WINKLER: It’s worth noting, if you didn’t pick up on it, that that was Nora Ephron’s third film with Meryl Streep. Anyway, Ephron was already at work on the script for Julie & Julia when she sat down for this interview with the Academy of Achievement, though, at the time, she wouldn’t reveal what that new project was. She did have a recent book of essays out at the time, though, which she was more than happy to talk about, a book that only Nora Ephron could write, with the fabulous title I Feel Bad About My Neck.
00:34:36 NORA EPHRON: You know, I had been reading all these books about getting older. I had looked at all these — you know, 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 60s, there were all these books about how fabulous it was to be older, and how you're going to have the greatest sex of your life in your 60s, which I finally realized, you know...
00:35:12 I mean I don't know why people write things like that because they're just lies, you know. But then I thought, "Well, there might be a circumstance that you could have the greatest sex of your life in your 60s, if you had never had sex until then, maybe.” But you know, 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?”
00:35:38 And I thought, "Oh, I see, there's a book here. There is 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.
00:36:09 It wasn't — you know, and then there are all sorts of things that aren't about aging, like my summer in the White House when President Kennedy didn't sleep with me.
00:36:19 ALICE WINKLER: I really should end there. It’s a great last Nora Ephron line, but there is one more thing, the advice she offered to young, aspiring writers. And I want to end this episode, instead, with that because I have to admit, her answer surprised me.
00:36:36 NORA EPHRON: I mean my advice to everyone is, “Become a journalist. Do it!” I think everyone should be a journalist. Now that’s 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 are a journalist, either when they've just been killed, or when they're just about to win the Oscar, or they've just written a really wonderful book, or they’ve just demonstrated against something worth demonstrating against. I mean it's truly a way of getting out of whatever narrow world we all grow up in.
00:37:28 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 questions 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'll know so much.
00:37:59 You know, when we were doing Silkwood, there's a scene in Silkwood that's a union meeting at this plutonium factory that Karen Silkwood worked at. Well, obviously, I've never worked at a plutonium factory, but I had worked at the New York Post. I did know what people talk about when they work in an office. I know what they talk about the next day. They talk about what they saw on television the night before. That's not a big deal, but if you didn't work in a place like that, you wouldn't know it.
00:38:27 Well, anyway, we're 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, you can't do that. It's a union negotiation. It's got to be a rectangular table."
00:38:57 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. You know, that's the kind of stuff you have to know. You can't just — if you want to go into the movie business, what are you going to write a movie about when you are 22 years old?
00:39:25 I will tell you what you're going to write about. 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.
00:39:45 ALICE WINKLER: That’s journalist, novelist, essayist, screenwriter, and director Nora Ephron. You’ve been listening to What It Takes from the Academy of Achievement. If you loved this episode, subscribe to What It Takes on Apple Podcasts. That way, you’ll get new episodes as soon as they’re available. I’m Alice Winkler.
00:40:09 Thanks to the Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation for funding What It Takes, and thanks to you for listening.
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