Culture June 25, 2018

How 'Sleepless in Seattle' and Nora Ephron changed romantic comedies 25 years ago

Meg Ryan, as Annie Reed, and Tom Hanks, as Sam Baldwin, in a scene from "Sleepless in Seattle."

Before this latest rebirth of the romantic comedy, there was the pioneering writer-director Nora Ephron, who breathed new life into the genre with her films "When Harry Met Sally," "You've Got Mail" and "Sleepless in Seattle," which celebrates its 25th anniversary today.

"Nora Ephron did not invent the romantic comedy, but she did change it in so many different ways," Erin Carlson, the author of "I'll Have What She's Having: How Nora Ephron's Three Iconic Films Saved the Romantic Comedy," told ABC News.

Ephron, a New York City journalist turned filmmaker, brought back the happy ending while creating edgy, funny and relatable characters.

More significantly, she did it at a time when women's voices were often disregarded and few women filmmakers worked in Hollywood.

"Her legacy is a little like how RBG is a feminist icon for young women lawyers," Carlson said, referring to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. "For young women writers, Nora Ephron's sheer existance was a revelation. She offered a path on how to do it and how to do it without apology, with a rejection of gender barriers."

She added, "She has inspired literally every woman who wants to write a romantic comedy or who cares about films about real people and not super heroes."

Harry Hamburg/NY Daily News via Getty Images
Author and screenwriter Nora Ephron in her Manhattan apartment.

Carlson said Ephron has become so associated with the romantic comedy genre that she is even given credit for "When Harry Met Sally," a film she wrote that Rob Reiner directed.

Reiner brought Ephron on to help write Sally's character after realizing he needed help creating a woman's voice, Carlson said. Ephron had already written the screenplays for "Heartburn" and "Silkwood," for which she received an Academy Award nomination.

Following the success of 1989's "When Harry Met Sally," she made her directorial debut with "This is My Life," based on Meg Wolizer's novel. The film earned only lukewarm reviews and did poorly at the box office.

That did not dissuade Ephron. After she was brought in by producer Gary Foster to rework the script for "Sleepless in Seattle" and, in turn, brought in her sister Delia to help, Ephron insisted that she was the one to direct it. She called up Meg Ryan, whom she'd made friends with on the set of "When Harry Met Sally," and got her to sign on.

And so began the making of "Sleepless in Seattle," the story of a kid who plays matchmaker between his widower father and a woman having second thoughts about her fiancé. Starring Ryan, Tom Hanks, Bill Pullman and Rosie O'Donnell, the 1993 film was both a critical and commercial hit, grossing more than $220 million worldwide.

Keep reading to learn how Ephron made the film and revitalized the romantic comedy genre.

Feeding frenzy

Once word got out about Ephron's script, it sparked a feeding frenzy. Madonna and Demi Moore were among those expressing an interest in playing the role of Annie Reed, a Baltimore Sun reporter, Carlson said. But Ephron wanted Ryan.

Rosie O'Donnell, as Becky, left, and Meg Ryan, as Annie Reed, in a scene from "Sleepless in Seattle."

Sam Baldwin

When it came to casting Sally's love interest, Sam Baldwin, Ryan's husband Dennis Quaid was in talks to co-star opposite her. But Ephron didn't think he was funny enough, Carlson said. She convinced Ryan to star in the film without her husband. And then she went after the guy she really wanted, Tom Hanks.

Hanks needed a hit

Hanks and Ephron met for the first time at the Beverly Hill's Polo Lounge. Carlson said at the time Hanks was in a bit of a career slump, tired of playing the goofy guy who could never grow up and looking for more meaningful roles. Like Sam, who was looking for love after losing his wife and becoming a single dad to his 8-year-old son, Hanks needed a second chance.

But Carlson said Ephron wasn't entirely convinced that Hanks could measure up to Cary Grant, the star of the classic "An Affair to Remember," the film that inspired "Sleepless." Once she sat down with him, Carlson said, any doubts Ephron had that Hanks was not leading man material were washed away by "sheer force of his personality."

Meg Ryan, as Annie Reed, and Tom Hanks, as Sam Baldwin, in a scene from "Sleepless in Seattle."

Second thoughts

But after Hanks arrived in Seattle for the filming, Carlson said he began to get cold feet. She said Hanks told Ephron that Sam sounded too wimpy and that even his son, Jonah, had better lines. Ephron invited Hanks to help her rewrite the character, which resulted in a grumpier, funnier Sam. It was also the start of their creative collaboration, Carlson said. Hanks would go on to star in Ephron's "You've Got Mail" and her Broadway play "Lucky Guy."

Two Jonahs

The next big obstacle Ephron faced was when the first young actor playing Jonah, Nathan Watt, didn't work out. "He froze across from Hanks," Carlson said. "Nora unfortunately had to let him go." Fortunately, she remembered Los Angeles kid Ross Malinger from auditions and brought him in. "He was effortless working with Tom," Carlson said. "He would go in and do his lines. Norah would yell cut and he would go off and play. He was just a natural."

Empire State Building

Just like in "An Affair to Remember," New York City's Empire State Building figured prominently in the plot of "Sleepless in Seattle." Unfortunately, the production was having trouble securing it. So Ephron called on an old New York City contact, the publicist for the building's owner, Leona Helmsley. He reached out to Helmsley, who was doing time in federal prison for tax evasion, and she agreed to let the crew film inside the building and observation deck for one afternoon.

It's the film's final scene on the observation deck where Sam and Annie finally meet for the first time. "It's a testament to the chemistry of Tom and Meg that even though they don't have any other scenes together, you still feel like they did," Carlson said.

Jimmy Durante

For the film's final scene, Sony Pictures studio boss Peter Guber wanted Celine Dion's duet with Clive Griffin of "When I Fall in Love."

"Norah was adamant -- absolutely not," Carlson said. "So she went over Peter Guber's head." Ephron had decided on the classic Jimmy Durante song, "Make Someone Happy," and instead of running it past Guber, she simply put it in during the edit and waited to see how the test audience reacted. They loved it.

"She put Jimmy Durante back on the map," Carlson said. The soundtrack, which also featured Nat King Cole, Carly Simon, Harry Connick Jr., and, yes, Celine Dion, went on to be a big seller.

Like the soundtrack, Ephron managed to create a film that was both "contemporary and timeless at the same time," Carlson said.