6 Filmmaking Tips From Nora Ephron

By  · Published on June 27th, 2012

Nora Ephron on Set

Nora Ephron’s film career – despite three Oscar nominations and credit with re-inventing an entire genre – somehow doesn’t get the legendary status that it probably deserves. She only wrote and/or directed a few more than a dozen movies, but in those films she delivered iconic characters that achieved a sense of honesty that few filmmakers are even brave enough to approach.

She fought myopic views about her sex to build fame as a journalist, an essayist, a novelist, a screenwriter and a director. She got started in screenwriting because everyone else was writing scripts, her film school was being on set with Mike Nichols, and her work made a huge impact on popular culture and faked orgasms.

So here it is, a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from a comedy genius.

Someone Else’s Story Might Be Your Big Hit

“Sleepless was a script that had been written by three or four other writers before me, and it never really worked, but it had this amazing ending on the top of the Empire State Building that just worked, no matter what came before it. It’s kind of amazing, because the characters were sort of gloopy and unfunny, and yet you got to the end and you went, ‘Wow, this is amazing!’ And I needed the money.

I had done my first movie, This is My Life, which I had done for scale, which is not very much money, and I was completely out of dough, and my agent said, ‘Oh gee, here’s a rewrite,’ and it’s supposed to happen. It had a director. It had casting attached to it, and not Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, and so I read it, and I thought, ‘Oh, I can fix this. I can make this better.’ So I did a rewrite on it, and basically made it into a comedy, or made it into – not a comedy, but a movie that had laughs in it, which it didn’t at all. And suddenly, it was a ‘go’ picture, and the director who had been attached to it – who had no interest in making a comedy, I guess – bowed out of it. He was gone, and the actors were gone, because they weren’t really funny, and it was suddenly a script that a lot of people wanted to be in.”

Originality is a shining jewel, but it doesn’t have to come from a blank page.

You Can Screw Up As Well As Other Directors

Ephron spoke often of becoming a director because she wanted to protect her writing. One job necessitated the other, especially during a time when there was even less interest in stories about women in Hollywood. She got her start in feature writing with directors Mike Nichols and Rob Reiner, which is a hell of a way to get going, but in a few later movies, she noted that the end result was a butchered version of her work. Her response?

“I thought, ‘I could’ve screwed that up just as well as he did, so why am I not making the money to do this?’”

Exactly. Why not?

You Know Nothing About Screenwriting Until You Get Into Filmmaking

Combine Your Passions

From her novel “Heartburn,” to the food-fueled Julie & Julia, Ephron has explored the joy of cooking in all sorts of work.

“When I used to cook from Julia’s cookbook, I had long imaginary conversations with her. And I used to think maybe she would come to dinner, even though I had never met her, and never did.”

The women loved food, so it makes sense that it shows up as a theme so much in her writing. It’s the embodiment of the Write What You Know Rule that’s been chiseled into stone, but it also serves as an important reminder that writing starts with living. It’s a dual process of getting out into the world and discovering what turns you on followed by having the alone time to get it all down. Making movies cannot be your only love because you have to have something to fill your camera with.

It’s Not Going To Feel Like You’re Making Something Great

When asked if she could tell something magical was being made while writing When Harry Met Sally, Ephron remarked: “I don’t think you ever feel that with movies. You have your moments of delusion, but movies… I mean my very first script that was made into the television movie, I thought it was a really nice script, and it’s really not a good movie. That’s the first lesson. Now by the way, I think it probably wasn’t a very good script either.”

The worst reality of telling a story is that it’s impossible to know what will resonate and how much and with whom. It’s made worse with movies because of how far removed the writing process is from the filming, the editing and the release. Fortunately for us all, there are always delusions.

When You Write, You Own the Joke

What Have We Learned

What was most fascinating about researching her life and thoughts was the kinds of things she was asked about by journalists. Few and far between are questions about craft. Instead, it’s mostly conversations about her experiences and feelings. People who got the privilege of sitting down with her seemed mesmerized more by her frankness than by her abilities as an artist. Maybe that’s because her writing was so natural and breezy. Or maybe it’s because it’s so personal that asking about the process would be pointless.

Fortunately, her life and her writing are inexorably linked, and she spoke about both with stunning grace and humor. A ballerina on a banana peel.

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Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.