When Nora Met Rom-Coms: A Dazzling Look At How Ephron’s Three Films Changed The Genre Forever
You can’t think “rom-com” without Nora Ephron. Just try. It can’t happen. The writer-director began her career as a biting journalist for publications like the New York Post, Esquire, and more, but it wasn’t until she penned a rewrite for All The President’s Men that went unused that her career as a screenwriter truly began. The rest, it seems, is history. The trio of classic romantic comedies Ephron remains best known for – When Harry Met Sally…, Sleepless in Seattle, and You’ve Got Mail – renewed our faith in love, gifted us with iconic duo Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, and reinvented a waning genre. Where would we be without hideous wagon-wheel coffee tables, dazzling twinkle-light covered houseboats, and charming Upper West Side bookshops? It’s difficult to imagine romance as we know it without her magic touch, even some five years after her death. The magical realism and unflinching truth of her work spoke (and continues to speak) to audiences all over the world. Nora Ephron defined the rom-com as we know it and forever changed the way an entire generation fell in love – an influence still heavily present in the genre today, and deeply explored in a way never quite done before in a brand new book.
“I’ll have what she’s having.”
Was there ever a line that better summed up the career of the rom-com legend? If you ask writer Erin Carlson, you’d be hard-pressed to hear otherwise. Like Ephron, Carlson’s career took flight as a journalist; over the course of her career, she’s written for The Hollywood Reporter, Associated Press, Glamour, and more, and even compiled penned a wholly delightful oral history of You’ve Got Mail for Vanity Fair in 2015. As a long-time obsessor of Ephron and the rom-com (she even gave a Nora Ephron romantic comedy walking tour of Manhattan a few years back) it only seemed right that Carlson’s first book serve as a love letter to the late, great legend – and that’s exactly what it does. The book – I’ll Have What She’s Having: How Nora Ephron’s Three Iconic Films Saved The Romantic Comedy – takes us backstage of the scenes we know and love and pays stunning tribute to Ephron, her work, and her legacy (all while staying personal, funny, and breathtakingly comprehensive on every page).
“I was a fan of Nora, but I didn’t really feel like I knew too much about her,” Carlson told Decider. “There’s her writing, everything you need to know about her is in her writing, but I didn’t know her as a person or a director.” Like so many of us, Carlson grew up on Ephron’s films and was swept off her feet by the cultural lightning strike that was Ephron, Hanks, Ryan, and the specific sentimental nature of her rom-com. “Tom and Meg came around at the right time, the right era, and were just so perfectly suited for each other that they – and these films – made an enormous impression on me,” Carlson explained. “Growing up I always used to rent two movies: Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail, and I watched them every single weekend.”
I’ll Have What She’s Having aims to cement Ephron’s place in Hollywood history, and it does just that – with every surprising, inspiring, and occasionally painful detail. “I was trying to write a book that she [Ephron] would want to read,” said Carlson. “A lot of stuff ended up on the cutting room floor, but I kept in a lot of the gossipy details that she might have kept in if she had written a book like this.” In the writing process, Carlson jokes that she became a Cast Away-era Tom Hanks – she buried herself in researching and connecting all the dots that presented themselves along the way.
“I had two goals: my first was to really write a book for fans. You know, sort of weave in references to Nora’s writing in the films, like kind of hidden little Easter eggs for fans to uncover, and also talk to everybody, basically, who was involved with these movies to get their insight into what it was like to work with Nora, work with Tom and Meg in their rom-com prime and really uncover those details that would be surprising to fans and hopefully kind of illuminate what it’s like to create these enduring romantic comedies and how serious people were about making them… And my other goal was to give Nora the same props and attention given to male directors.”
A Lone Reed
Carlson’s respect for Ephron leaps off every page of the book as she paints a thorough, fascinating portrait of Nora, “warts and all”. “I wanted to celebrate her but also show her as she truly was,” said Carlson. “There’s no such thing as the perfect feminist, but you know, she broke barriers and I wanted to celebrate that.” The shortage of documentation of just how influential a woman like Ephron was and remains also motivated Carlson when it came to writing I’ll Have What She’s Having. “There are books on everyone from Scorsese to Jim Cameron,” Carlson explained. “But there’s nothing really about Nora and her movies and what it was like to crack that glass ceiling.”
Carlson was adamant about staying true to Ephron and presenting her in the “critical light” that she deserved; there’s never a moment in I’ll Have What She’s Having that feels inauthentic or overly romanticized. Ephron was a particular, relentless, blunt individual, a woman who wanted things the way she wanted them and would settle for nothing less. Anecdotes sprinkled throughout the book recall moments like Ephron’s dissatisfaction with a kitchen painted the wrong color, her insistence on essentially buying up every string of twinkle-lights for sale to ensure a scene was just as dazzling as she intended, and an unwillingness to compromise when it came to the volume of Hanks’ hair in Sleepless in Seattle. Carlson deconstructs her cinematic genius in a way that’s never been done before, and sheds light on just how hard it is to make a romantic comedy – something often forgotten by critics and industry folks alike.
“It’s easy to say, ‘I could write a romantic comedy’ or ‘I could direct a romantic comedy’,” said Carlson. “But Nora has talked about this – it’s often harder to pull off a really great romantic comedy and certainly write one than it is to direct an action film. You have nothing to fall back on, you have no special effects, you just have your writing and your casting, and you have your characters.” Ephron never took her job lightly; Carlson’s book captures the extraordinary pressure Ephron fell under while making these movies as a woman, and all the headaches, heartbreak, and sacrifices that came with it. The magical romance of Sleepless in Seattle didn’t come without a price – and in the hands of someone other than Ephron, may have been forgotten altogether.
“Everything is copy.”
Ephron’s mother, also a screenwriter, never failed to stress the importance of tapping into one’s own experiences and traits when it came to her writing – and this is obvious in all of of Ephron’s work. “Everything is copy,” she’d tell her – and Ephron did just that. Characters across all her films were based on people she knew, and scenes often came together with the help of crew members, family, and friends who contributed their own memories (including the infamous Big “O” scene in When Harry Met Sally…, an idea originally suggested by producer Andrew Scheinman’s girlfriend’s sister and topped off with a line suggested by Billy Crystal that became the title of Carlson’s book). I’ll Have What She’s Having is full of these kinds of stories, and doesn’t skirt around the gossip that Ephron so famously indulged in – even some of the more scandalous notes.
Thanks to Ephron, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan became America’s (reluctant) sweethearts, and the significance of their roles in her story are never downplayed over the course of Carlson’s book. There’s the unexpectedly hilarious tale of Hanks’ vacation weight gain that affected the final scene of You’ve Got Mail (Carlson’s favorite), the agonizing truth of Ryan’s complicated relationship with being a celebrity and ingenue and Hollywood’s unwillingness to “forgive her for growing old”, the last-minute firing of the child actor originally hired to play Hanks’ son in Sleepless in Seattle, the surprising fact that Crystal was the last choice to play our beloved Harry Burns. (And these only scratch the surface – you may very well find yourself gasping, tearing up, or smiling from ear to ear at various-sized bombshells dropped throughout I’ll Have What She’s Having). Every sentence is a treat, and Nora’s New York comes to life with each enchanting chapter.
Carlson damn-near chatted with everyone who worked with Ephron in one way or another; from Ephron’s sister and collaborator Delia and Hanks and Rob Reiner to costume designers and the stylist of Meg’s infamous hairdo, as well as producers, assistants, and supporting players like the effortlessly charming Greg Kinnear and Bill Pullman. Each individual Carlson spoke with offers unique insight on the trailblazer who fought for every tiny thing she believed in, whose version of New York felt like a fairytale, on things like the respective crankiness of Hanks and Ryan on different sets and reluctance of some actors to take on certain roles, and the painstaking detail (and frequent arguments) that went into creating every shot the way Ephron wanted it. Ephron’s films and even Carlson’s book echo the evergreen advice – “everything is copy” – and that’s why it all feels so unfailingly genuine.
The Woman Saved Everything
There will never be another lady quite like Nora, but her legacy continues to inform the state of the genre as we know it. She inspired an entire generation of women, both in Hollywood and everyday life – and some of Carlson’s favorite recent rom-coms seem to boast a touch of Ephron magic. There’s Obvious Child – “funny, profane, smart, just perfect”, Top Five – “Chris Rock‘s Annie Hall“, and the “current, fearless” Silver Linings Playbook, which boasts a final scene Carlson called “one of the best of any romantic comedy.” Recent hits like The Big Sick also speak to Ephron’s everlasting influence. They’re all vastly different films, but they each owe something to When Harry Met Sally…, Sleepless in Seattle, and You’ve Got Mail – because these flicks changed the genre forever.
Carlson’s favorite of Ephron’s iconic flicks? It’s hard to pick, but the answer is clear: You’ve Got Mail. “Every time that movie comes on, you have to watch it,” Carlson said. “I love everything about it… it just touches me to my core still. Every time I see it, it’s just like wrapping yourself in a warm blanket and sitting next to a cozy fire… People keep coming back to it again and again because it’s comforting.”
“I wanted it to be you. I wanted it to be you so badly.”
Nora Ephron made us all believe that love could be uncovered in the most unexpected, complicated of places, helped us see that there’s often humor in misery, opened our hearts to unconventional setups and everyday connections that just might change our lives. All of this and more is captured in I’ll Have What She’s Having, a valentine to the feminist rom-com queen who lives on through her enduring films and unforgettable imagery.
Above all, Carlson sought to share the light, love, and laughter that Ephron’s work was built on. “I wanted to write a love letter to her and these movies that meant so much to me and other people,” she said. “I wanted to write a book about joy, the joy of creating something, and the joy of creating movies about love. And it’s really about that. I know it sounds totally earnest, but I wanted to create a book that would continue the joy of these films.
It’s safe to say that Carlson more than exceeds these goals in I’ll Have What She’s Having, and ensures you’ll want what she’s having, too; the book is warm, smart, funny, and relentlessly detailed – just as Nora would have had it.