Authors: Nora Ephron
This screenplay has my name on it, but it was very much a collaboration, and before I write a word about the movie itself, I want to write about how it got started. It began in October 1984, when I got a call from my agent that Rob Reiner and his producing partner Andrew Scheinman wanted to have lunch to discuss a project. So we had a lunch, and they told me about an idea they had for a movie about a lawyer. I've forgotten the details. The point is, it didn't interest me at all, and I couldn't imagine why they'd thought of me in connection with it. I remember being slightly perplexed about whether to say straight off that the idea didn't interest me or whether to play along for an hour so as not to have that horrible awkwardness that can happen when the meeting is over but the lunch must go on. I decided on the former; and we then spent the rest of the lunch talking about ourselves. Well, that isn't entirely true: we spent the rest of the lunch talking about Rob and Andy. Rob was divorced, and Andy was a bachelorâand they were both extremely funny and candid about their lives as single men in Los Angeles. When the lunch ended, we still didn't have
an idea for a movie; but we decided to meet again the next time they were in New York.
And so, a month later, we got together. And threw around some more ideas, none of which I remember. But finally, Rob said he had an ideaâhe wanted to make a movie about a man and a woman who become friends, as opposed to lovers; they make a deliberate decision not to have sex because sex ruins everything; and then they have sex and it ruins everything. And I said, let's do it.
So we made a deal, and in February, Andy and Rob came back to New York and we sat around for several days and they told me some things. Appalling things. They told me, for instance, that when they finished having sex, they wanted to get up out of bed and go home. (Which became: HARRY: “How long do I have to lie here and hold her before I can get up and go home? Is thirty seconds enough? â¦ How long do you like to be held afterwards? All night, right? â¦ Somewhere between thirty seconds and all night is your problem.” SALLY: “I don't have a problem.”) They told me about the endless series of excuses they had concocted in order to make a middle-of-the-night getaway. (SALLY: “You know, I am so glad I never got involved with you. I just would have ended up being some woman you had to get up out of bed and leave at three o'clock in the morning and go clean your andirons. And you don't even have a fireplace. Not that I would know this.”) They also told me that the reason they thought men and women couldn't be friends was that a man always wanted to sleep with a woman. Any woman. (HARRY: “No man can be friends with a woman he finds attractive. He always wants to have sex with her.” SALLY: “So you're saying a man
be friends with a woman he finds unattractive.” HARRY: “No. You pretty much want to nail them, too.”) I say that these things were appalling, but the truth is that they weren't really a surprise;
they were sort of my wildest nightmares of what men thought.
Rob and Andy and I noodled for hours over the questions raised by friendship, and sex, and life in general; and as we did, I realizedâlong before I had any idea of what was actually going to happen in the movie itselfâthat I had found a wonderful character in Rob Reiner. Rob is a very strange person. He is extremely funny, but he is also extremely depressedâor at least he was at the time; he talked constantly about how depressed he was. “You know how women have a base of makeup,” he said to me. “I have a base of depression. Sometimes I sink below it. Sometimes I rise above it.” This line went right into the first draft of the movie, but somewhere along the line Rob cut it. A mistake, I think, but never mind. Here's another from Rob on his depression: “I think I'm not ready for a relationship. When you're as depressed as I am â¦ If the depression was lifted, I would be able to be with someone on my level. But it's like playing tennis on a windy day with someone who's worse than you are. They can do all right against you, they can win a couple of games, but there's too much wind. You know what I mean?” I have no idea what Rob was talking about, but as I wrote those words in my notebook I knew that I would use the lines somehow. And I did, and they were cut, and it was a mistake, and never mind.
The point is that Rob was depressed; but he wasn't at all depressed about being depressed; in fact, he loved his depression. And so does Harry. Harry honestly believes that he is a better person than Sally because he has what Sally generously calls a dark side. “Suppose nothing happens to you,” he says in the first sequence of the movie. “Suppose you live there [New York] your whole life and nothing happens. You never meet anyone, you never become anything, and finally you die one of those New York deaths
where nobody notices for two weeks until the smell drifts out into the hallway.” Harry is genuinely proud to have thought of that possibility and to lay it at the feet of this shallow young woman he is stuck in a car with for eighteen hours. He is thrilled to be the prince of darkness, the master of the worst-case scenario, the man who is happy to tell you, as you find yourself in the beginning of a love affair, that what follows lust, inevitably, is post-lust: “You take someone to the airport, it's clearly the beginning of a relationship. That's why I've never taken anyone to the airport at the beginning of a relationshipâ¦. Because eventually things move on and you don't take someone to the airport, and I never wanted anyone to say to me, âHow come you never take me to the airport anymore?'”
So I began with a Harry, based on Rob. And because Harry was bleak and depressed, it followed absolutely that Sally would be cheerful and chirpy and relentlessly, pointlessly, unrealistically, idiotically optimistic. Which is, it turns out, very much like me. I'm not precisely chirpy, but I am the sort of person who is fine, I'm just fine, everything's fine. “I am over him,” Sally says, when she isn't over him at all; I have uttered that line far too many times in my life, and far too many times I've made the mistake of believing it was true. Sally loves controlâand I'm sorry to say that I do too. And inevitably, Sally's need to control her environment is connected to food. I say inevitably because food has always been something I write aboutâin part because it's the only thing I'm an expert on. But it wasn't my idea to use the way I order food as a character trait for Sally; well along in the processâthird or fourth draft or soâRob and Andy and I were ordering lunch for the fifth day in a row, and for the fifth day in a row my lunch orderâfor an avocado and bacon sandwichâconsisted of an endless series of parenthetical
remarks. I wanted the mayonnaise on the side. I wanted the bread toasted and slightly burnt. I wanted the bacon crisp. “I just like it the way I like it,” I said, defensively, when the pattern was pointed out to meâand the line went into the script.
But all that came much later. In the beginning, I was more or less aloneâwith a male character based somewhat on Rob, and a female character based somewhat on me. And a subject. Which was not, by the way, whether men and women could be friends. The movie instead was a way for me to write about being singleâabout the difficult, frustrating, awful, funny search for happiness in an American city where the primary emotion is unrequited love. This is from my notes, February 5, 1985, Rob speaking: “This is a talk piece. There are no chase scenes. No food fights. This is walks, apartments, phones, restaurants, movies.” Also from my notes, Rob again: “We're talking about a movie about two people who get each other from the breakup of the first big relationship in their lives to the beginning of the second. Transitional on some level. Who are friends, who don't have sex, who nurse each other and comfort each other and talk to each other and then finally do it and it's a mistake and recover from it and move into second relationships.” Here's a scene from the first draft; it bit the dust early, too self-conscious, but I toss it in partly because I can't stand to waste anything, and partly because it perfectly sums up the movie I was trying to write:
Â Â Â Â I think we should write a movie about our relationship.
Â Â Â Â What's the plot?
Â Â Â Â There are only two plots. The first is, an appealing character strives against great odds to
achieve a worthwhile goal, and the second is, the bluebird of happiness is right in your own backyard. We're the first.
Â Â Â Â An appealing characterâ
Â Â Â Â
appealing characters strive against great odds to achieve a worthwhile goal. Two people become friends at the end of the first major relationship of their lives and get each other to the next major relationship of their lives.
Â Â Â Â I don't know anything about writing movies.
Â Â Â Â Neither do I.
Â Â Â Â But on the face of itâI don't want to be negative about itâ
Â Â Â Â Sure you do. You love being negative, it's who you are, embrace itâ
Â Â Â Â âbut it seems to me that movies are supposed to be visual. We don't do anything visual. We just sit in restaurants and talk, or we sit on the phone and talk, or we sit in your apartment or my apartment and talk.
Â Â Â Â In French movies they just talk.
Â Â Â Â Do you speak French?
Â Â Â Â Not really.
Â Â Â Â What happens to the friends when each of them gets to the next major relationship of their lives?
Â Â Â Â They're still going to be friends. They're going to be friends forever.
Â Â Â Â I don't know, Sally. You know what happens. You meet somebody new and you take them to meet your friend, and you want them to like each other as much as you do, but they never do, they always see
the friend as a threat to your relationship, and you try to stay just as good friends with your friend but eventually you don't really need each other as much because you've got a new friend, you've got someone you can talk to
Â Â Â Â Forget I mentioned it, okay?
They smile at each other
Â Â Â Â I love you. You know that.
Â Â Â Â I love you too.
Â Â Â Â When I say, “I love you,” you know what I meanâ
Â Â Â Â I know what you mean. I know.
When Harry Met Sally
started shooting in August 1988, almost four years after my first meeting with Rob and Andy. In the meantime I wrote a first draft about two people who get each other from the breakup of the first big relationship in their lives to the beginning of the second. Rob went off and made
Stand By Me
. We met again and decided that Harry and Sally belonged together. I wrote a second draft. Rob went off and made
The Princess Bride
. And then we all went to work together on the next (at least) five drafts of the movie. What had been called
Play Melancholy Baby
went on to be called
Boy Meets Girl; Words of Love; It Had to Be You;
Harry, This Is Sally
. To name just a few of the titles. Mostly we called it “Untitled Rob Reiner Project.” Rob suggested that we try inserting some older couples talking about how they met.
How They Met
was another title we considered for at least a day. And gradually, the script began to change, from something that was mostly mine, to something else.
Here is what I always say about screenwriting. When you write a script, it's like delivering a great big beautiful
plain pizza, the one with only cheese and tomatoes. And then you give it to the director, and the director says, “I love this pizza. I am willing to commit to this pizza. But I really think this pizza should have mushrooms on it.” And you say, “Mushrooms! Of course! I meant to put mushrooms on the pizza! Why didn't I think of that? Let's put some on immediately.” And then someone else comes along and says, “I love this pizza too, but it really needs green peppers.” “Great,” you say. “Green peppers. Just the thing.” And then someone else says, “Anchovies.” There's always a fight over the anchovies. And when you get done, what you have is a pizza with everything. Sometimes it's wonderful. And sometimes you look at it and you think, I knew we shouldn't have put the green peppers onto it. Why didn't I say so at the time? Why didn't I lie down in traffic to prevent anyone's putting green peppers onto the pizza?