Ephron’s Legacy

Diablo Cody on How Nora Ephron Blazed a Trail for Female Filmmakers

Now filming her directorial debut, Diablo Cody, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Juno and Young Adult, says she wouldn’t be directing today if Nora Ephron hadn’t paved the way. As told to Marlow Stern.

It’s really sad for everybody.

I think it’s safe to say that, as a filmmaker, Nora Ephron has been a godsend to any aspiring woman in this business. Her body of work is an eternal reply to the questions “Are women funny? Can women direct?” Everything she did was unbelievably elegant, hilarious, and warm—basically everything anyone aspires to when they’re writing a romantic comedy, but I don’t think anyone will ever do it as well as she did. I don’t know if there is an heir to Nora Ephron working today; she was singular in that way.

When I think about Sally from When Harry Met Sally, we’ve seen the archetype of the uptight, neurotic woman in romantic comedies before, but Sally is real. That’s the difference. There’s an intelligence there and she doesn’t just function as the uptight foil to Billy Crystal; she’s a multidimensional character with her own story and desires. I think that movie’s a masterpiece. There’s that amazing scene where Billy Crystal goes in to comfort her, and she says, “I’m going to be 40!” The way she’s sobbing, the scene is just so well-directed because it’s screwball comedy the way Meg Ryan’s playing it, but at the same time, it’s just so unbelievably funny and real.

There’s an elegance and a fluidity to her writing, and it never feels contrived or forced. The amazing thing was that she never had to resort to cheap jokes. So many scripts now rely on gross humor or pop-culture references—which is fine, and god knows I’ve relied on it—but she really didn’t have to.

I always wanted to be a writer, but at the time I don’t think it ever occurred to me to write movies. When I first saw When Harry Met Sally, for me, it was just pure entertainment; there was no sense of the filmmaker, which is the best kind of film. You believe the people are real, and you are completely lost in their relationships. When I first started writing screenplays, her work was something to aspire to. The best possible version of a scene is “the Nora Ephron version.”

Like everybody, I went to the theater and saw all her movies. It seemed like the highest sophistication—good, grownup humor—yet still not boring for a 15-year-old girl. With Sleepless in Seattle, I mean, everyone loved that movie. The pairing of Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks alone is probably the closest thing our generation has to the classic Cary Grant/Katharine Hepburn pairings from the golden era of filmmaking. And that’s all Nora and her instincts.

Just as a humorist in general, as an author, I was a huge fan. That collection of essays she had a few years ago, I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman, was so hilarious. It was one of the few things that both my mother and I were able to read and enjoy. I think all women can relate to the idea of reflecting on your flaws and stressing on them in a way that men don’t necessarily do—which speaks to another thing that was really cool about Nora Ephron: she was unabashedly a woman and never made any efforts to mask her femininity to be part of a boy’s club. I really admire that. I meet a lot of women who feel they need to blend in and “masculinize” themselves in order to succeed, and I don’t agree.

It’s such a ripple effect, though, the impact she had. I don’t think I’d be directing now if it wasn’t for Nora. Absolutely not. Unfortunately, women have to work a lot harder to prove themselves, and it’s very helpful when you have an example like Nora Ephron. Hollywood is willing to take risks, or what they perceive as taking risks, on female writer-directors because of the success of people like Nora Ephron.

I never had the opportunity to get to know her, though, and that’s a shame. That sucks. I see myself as a shadow of Nora Ephron’s, but … I can aspire to that.

—Interview by Marlow Stern