Falling for Nora Ephron: We’ll All Have What She’s Having
A new book about the beloved late director’s re-invention of the romantic comedy shows how fun on the set of ‘Sleepless in Seattle’ translated into fun on screen.
With all eyes monitoring Nora Ephron to succeed, and Tom Hanks still settling into his role, Meg Ryan proved to be a steady, constant force on set—despite the fact that her life was in very real danger.
Janey Bergam picked up Meg every day and drove her to work in a Ford Explorer. She would fetch the actress lunch and take her back to her sweet rental home in town when the day was over. Every night, Janey ran into the front post in the driveway. The Seattleite, who received a credit as Meg’s assistant, had never driven a celebrity before this job. “Don’t ever worry about making a mistake,” Meg told the rookie movie-crew driver. “Because everybody is human.”
One time Janey kept missing the ramp to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, where Meg was to film Annie’s landing. The late arrival frustrated crew members. Covering for Janey, Meg got out of the car and explained they had to do recon. Couldn’t stop until the area had been scanned.
Meg’s excuse, by the way, made complete sense: she had a stalker and a bodyguard to protect her from him. The bodyguard manned Meg in Seattle and rode with her to work. The stalker, according to Jeffrey Townsend, “used to get ahold of call sheets and shooting schedules—no one knows how—and so she’d gotten used to having a bodyguard who was just out of frame (the fewest number of steps to be able to reach her) for every shot.”
An agent at the bodyguard’s security firm pulled Janey into a room and recommended she take special driving courses and maybe pack a gun. “If anything goes down,” he told Janey, “you’re last man on the totem pole. But we will send someone back for you.” Afterward, Janey informed her passenger-target.
“Meg, they want me to get a gun.”
It was terrifying. Meg kept calm and carried on. Jack and his nanny mostly stayed at the house. (Fans around the world would mail baby clothes to production; Meg donated them to charity.) The stalker later surfaced on the East Coast, but the vibe in Washington was low-key. Like Meg.
The woman Janey knew was wise, cool, and funny. A girl’s girl like Sandra Bullock. To her horror, Janey accidentally slept in one morning and rushed to Meg’s trailer, assuming she’d been fired. Meg shrugged off the gaffe: it happens.
Meg told Janey she had majored in journalism, acted to pay for college, and “never looked back.” When a local newspaper journalist asked to interview Janey about driving Meg, the actress advised her not to. “It can be misconstrued so easily,” she said. “Don’t do it.” When approached by autograph seekers, she griped: “It’s not about me. The experience is about them.”
When musing on fame, she pointed to the sky and said, “Janey, you know, the only stars are up there. The minute that somebody thinks otherwise, trouble begins.”
Colin Hanks seemed as if he was bored hanging around the set. So Maggie Murphy, second second assistant director, gave the 14 year old a walkie-talkie and told him to go get Tom from his silver Airstream trailer. Colin, on location with Tom, Rita, and two-year-old brother Chester, seemed to enjoy the assignment.
“Later, Colin was like, ‘Yeah, my dad said, “Don’t become a production weenie,'’” says Maggie, laughing.
As the second second “production weenie,” Maggie handled the actors. She learned some rules: don’t interrupt when they’re rehearsing lines. Don’t knock five times if they’re crying. Give them a moment before a hard scene. Be sensitive to their needs.
That requires finesse. First assistant director Jim Skotchdopole (who managed Sleepless in Seattle’s schedule) and second assistant Don Lee (who managed the daily call sheet) were tough and competent. Maggie had to be on her A game.
“Usually they give the girl the hardest job,” she says. “Because the girl has to work hardest to get ahead in the business. So the girl will not be lazy.”
Maggie Murphy was good at her job. Production weenie. She sensed Tom wasn’t totally happy to be there at the beginning. She knew him on screen as a comedian, but rather than being all ha‑ha‑ha, in person he’d been slightly cranky. Mean? Never. Diva-ish? Not his style. But definitely not warm, not at first. Later, Maggie saw that his mood lifted and “he was awesome.”
What changed? It might have been Tom’s discovery of Seattle’s finest export: great espresso. As production continued, Tom became hooked on the stuff.
“We lived in a house out on Mercer Island and a former Kodak Fotomat booth had been turned into a drive-thru coffee thing,” he says excitedly. “And I thought, ‘This is just the coolest thing on the planet Earth.’ And I drank way too much coffee. I drank so much coffee that they started sneaking me decaf without me knowing it. Because I was coming home amped up because the stuff was just so delicious. This was the first time that I had been exposed—and anybody really had been exposed—to something other than drip coffee from a Bunn coffee maker or something like that. With the hot milk in it? It was sensational. I drank it like hot chocolate. And I was coming home, wired on six or seven lattes in the course of the day. My wife will tell you that I got very cranky at some point. And I did. Because I was just jagged out on coffee.”
He wasn’t the only one. Starbucks flowed liberally on set.
One day, Nora looked at Gary and said, “We should just all invest in this. It will be a memory of Seattle.” Nora and Gary bought stock. Nora asked Mike Badalucco if he planned on investing. “Nah.” He laughed. “I’m a prop guy!”
Tom did not invest. Ross Malinger might have joined in, had he been old enough. Ross would “demand coffee” following Starbucks runs, recalls movie-babysitter Amanda Maher. While the big kids sipped lattes, he wondered: Where’s mine?
Prop guy Badalucco’s first impression of Nora: aristocrat. “She’s always well dressed,” says the stocky, boisterous Brooklyn native, one of many New Yorkers the director enticed to Seattle. “She presents herself in a nice way. I remember she’d wear these scarves. I thought, ‘This one might be a little snooty.’”
While Badalucco appreciated the finer things—opera, foreign films, a nice glass of prosecco—other guys in the crew lacked Nora’s sophistication. But Nora, who clearly liked big personalities and characters, valued their company and humor. Just don’t make a mess: keep it neat and organized. When some of the sloppier technicians crowded her set with gear, she’d say, “The quality of life, right now, is not very good.” To a gaffer or electrician, she’d go, “Do all these wires have to be here?”
Nora was civilized. Only the best craft service would do. Stale, generic-brand cheese cubes? Pass. How about hearty fried chicken, luscious Washington cherries, and double-chocolate brownies? Now we’re talking.
If something on the table fell short of her standards, it was gone in five minutes; and if service sucked two or three days in a row, the caterer was on probation.
“She loved to have a good time,” says Betsy Sokolow-Sherman, Sleepless’s in‑house publicist. “Like every day, the highlight is what we were going to eat, what was on the craft service table, what restaurants were around whatever location—and she was very inclusive, I think, sitting with different crew members during lunch. Unless there was a crucial studio note that had to be addressed, she was really part of the crew … I’ve been on so many movie sets where the directors eat in their trailers and are not intermingling like that.”
For Sleepless she threw on a shiny olive-green parka over a casual shirt and blue jeans, accessorizing with owl-shaped glasses and a blue-and-white scarf wrapped around her neck. (The blue was robin’s egg, not royal, from which Nora recoiled.)
A production assistant making $100 per day found it hard to keep up. Not that Nora expected her team to go broke splurging on expensive outerwear and the like. But she did, through sheer presence, foster an unofficial dress code: a budget-minded PA merely tried looking nice. Presentable. Leave the sweatpants at home. In other words, says Maggie Murphy, “Don’t be a slob.”
Running the show with a gimlet eye for elevating the experience of cast and crew—thus ensuring a smoother ride in a high-stakes production—Nora compelled a sort of best-behavior atmosphere: people mostly treated each other nicely. She mostly liked people, unless they got on her nerves. Or belonged to a “different food group,” as she’d dub someone who didn’t necessarily fit in. “There were times when she ran much too loose and friendly a set,” says film editor Bob Reitano. “She wanted to control the social situations and she wanted everybody to be happy. She wanted to please everyone and be pleased by them. If you did that, you became an obvious part of the making of the movie.”
Both Nora and her sister, Delia, loved loyal, dry-humored second assistant director Don Lee, who I’m told would prank younger staff by toting around a copy of The Art of War. Don, whose pre-Sleepless credits included Bull Durham and Born on the Fourth of July, worked hard and knew exactly what he was doing; Nora trusted him. He was a family man and serious foodie. He belonged in Nora’s food group.
Jim Skotchdopole, in his late 20s, earned the nickname the Big Youth because he had so much experience for his age. He had been assistant director on Days of Thunder, The Last Boy Scout, and What About Bob? He was tall, fair-haired, and widely acknowledged as good-looking. “She liked having handsome men on the crew,” says Reitano. “She liked being surrounded by handsome men … I could understand that Nora liked being around [Jim].” Nora was viewed by some as manipulative—wielding cleverness to get what she wanted—but, as one witness swears, Jim flipped the tables on the master. “He was working her, he had her number so down, he flirted with her,” says the witness. “She just loved it and lapped it up.”
If she harbored a workplace crush on Jim, it was extremely benign. They got along famously. He made sure she angled the camera to grab certain shots and slipped her notes the night before the daily production meeting so she was extra prepared.
Here are three Nora bon mots relayed to me that sum up the above:
1. “When you’re making a movie, it’s the one time you can control the experience.”
2. “I don’t want to work with anyone that I wouldn’t be willing to have dinner with.”
3. “Never walk barefoot on a hotel rug.” (Badalucco abides by this rule. Whether at the Four Seasons or a Holiday Inn, he’ll pay attention to quality of life. This means sporting flip-flops to ward off toe fungus.)
Excerpted from the book I’ll Have What She’s Having: How Nora Ephron’s Three Iconic Films Saved the Romantic Comedy by Erin Carlson, published by Hachette Books, a division of Hachette Book Group. Copyright 2017 Erin Carlson.