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If you like Nora Ephron's story, you might also like:
Francis Ford Coppola,
Joan Didion,
Louise Glück,
Ron Howard,
Carol Shields,
Tom Wolfe and
Robert Zemeckis

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Nora Ephron Interview (page: 6 / 8)

Humorist, Novelist, Screenwriter and Director

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  Nora Ephron

At what point did you first think about writing for film and television?

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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.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation


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."

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This page last revised on Dec 06, 2013 13:12 EDT
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