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A Sisterhood of Writers

Siblings and writing companions Nora and Delia Ephron talk about romance, cynicism and 'You've Got Mail,' their new film collaboration that updates Ernst Lubitsch's classic 'The Shop Around the Corner.'

November 08, 1998|JOHN CLARK | John Clark is a regular contributor to Calendar

NEW YORK — Sisters Nora and Delia Ephron are sitting in Nora's kitchen discussing their latest collaboration, "You've Got Mail." On the table is cold ham and strawberries, which they produced with practiced teamwork. Outside is the familiar sound of jackhammering.

The atmosphere is maternal and professional, and the movie they made, which opens Dec. 18, reflects who they are: Nora is smart, acerbic, unabashedly romantic; Delia has the same qualities, but in different proportions.

Nora, 57, first gained notice as a journalist, then as author of "Heartburn" (a thinly disguised account of her marriage to Watergate hero Carl Bernstein), and finally as a screenwriter, first for others' movies (Mike Nichols' "Silkwood" and "Heartburn," Rob Reiner's "When Harry Met Sally . . ." ), then for her own ("This Is My Life," "Sleepless in Seattle," "Mixed Nuts," "Michael").

Delia, 54, has co-written most of Nora's films and is an essayist and novelist ("How to Eat Like a Child," "Hanging Up").

Together they are part of a writing Ephron dynasty that includes their parents, Henry and Phoebe, who were screenwriters in the '40s and '50s ("Desk Set"), and their novelist siblings, Amy Ephron and Hallie Touger.

Nora and Delia's "You've Got Mail" carries on this glittery, sophisticated tradition. The film is a remake of Ernst Lubitsch's 1940 classic "The Shop Around the Corner," which featured Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan as warring clerks who are conducting an anonymous courtship through the mail.

In this update, Tom Hanks is part of a huge, family-owned bookstore chain that threatens to swallow Meg Ryan's small children's bookstore. Though they can't stand each other, they are, unbeknownst to them, soul mates online, a bond they keep from their respective partners (Parker Posey, Greg Kinnear).

Between bites, Nora and Delia discuss bookstores, e-mail, Joni Mitchell and "The Godfather." Nora may be big sister, but Delia holds her own.

The Times: Did you write the script with Tom and Meg in mind?

Nora: We always do. I don't know anybody who writes a romantic comedy that isn't writing for the two of them.

Q: Really?

Nora: How do I know? I'm not anybody else, but . . .

Q: I understand this was producer Lauren Shuler Donner's idea.

Nora: We came into this through Amy Pascal, who was at Turner, which owned the rights to "The Shop Around the Corner." [Pascal is now president of Columbia Pictures.] There's a woman named Julie Durk, who works for Lauren Shuler Donner. It was her idea to do it, and it was Lauren's idea to use e-mail. But we first heard about it when Amy called and said, " 'Shop Around the Corner' using e-mail."

It was just one of those things that you heard and you went, "That's a great idea, and I wonder how you do it, and I wonder how you solve the problem of the movie." It's always had a problem, which is that it was always a play. It never escaped from the shop itself.

Q: So how did you get to where you had to go?

Nora: Here's what I remember. I said to Delia, "I have no idea how to do this," and Delia said, "Oh, it's very simple. The Upper West Side, bookstores, and they each live with other people."

Q: Just like that.

Delia: Yeah. It seemed logical that it would be in a bookstore. But you know the other problem with a romantic comedy, which is that it's very hard to have stakes that keep people apart now. It used to be that class kept people apart or that you weren't allowed to say what you felt in all those English movies, so that could keep you apart forever. . . . It's like, why aren't these people together? Why doesn't one just say to the other, "I want to be with you"? So the question is, what could keep two people apart?

Nora: Besides not knowing one another. And not liking one another.

Delia: Right. Because even not liking is not enough anymore.

Nora: Then you automatically know that you're going to be with the person. There's so many movies where people who don't like each other end up together.

Delia: So then bookstores give you this thing. She has this big stake in that children's store. Also Nora loves bookstores. It's always good if you're working out some passion.

Nora: One of the things that I think is so interesting is this thing that the Barnes & Noble bookstores are a part of, these kind of gigantic "third places," as they're called by the sociologists, these sort of multi-functional things, like the gym where you can exercise, fall in love, have dinner and get your dry cleaning done. At Barnes & Noble you have coffee, fall in love, buy books and do your homework. It's a) very hard to compete with those places and b) to be 100% right if you think they're bad, because they aren't. They're just not what those of us who are readers imagine a real bookstore is.

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