Movies

Jacob Bernstein Discusses The Very Personal Documentary He Made About His Mom, Nora Ephron

Tonight, Monday, March 21, HBO will air a documentary on the late Nora Ephron titled, Everything is Copy — Nora Ephron: Scripted & Unscripted. It’s an intimate, moving look into the life and intensely private death of one of the America’s most notable writers and filmmakers. Early reviews have largely praised the film; the New York Times called it “beaming and blunt in equal measure,” while Variety noted that “it nimbly captures, in both words and images, the spirit of Ephron.”

The film was made by Ephron’s son, journalist Jacob Bernstein, and features interviews with many of the people who knew her best: her three sisters, Delia, Amy, and Hallie Ephron, writers like Gay Talese and Marie Brenner, film industry colleagues like Tom Hanks, Rob Reiner, Meg Ryan, Steven Spielberg and Meryl Streep, and, somewhat surprisingly, Bernstein’s father, journalist Carl Bernstein (of Woodward and Bernstein fame), Ephron’s second husband, whose philandering inspired her to write Heartburn. (Ephron’s husband at the time of her death, writer Nicholas Pileggi, declined to participate.) The film also features Ephron narrating much of the documentary in her own words, thanks to recordings she made for the audiobook versions of her essay collections.

We spoke to Bernstein, a writer for the New York Times, about the film, how he cajoled his father into participating, why his stepfather opted not to be interviewed, and how his mother — the creator who brought us films like When Harry Met Sally, Silkwood, You’ve Got Mail, Julie and Julia, and Sleepless In Seattle —  was always willing to give her time to young writers, among other things.

Where did this project come from? Did you start thinking about making a documentary about your mom before she passed or after?

It was after she died. It is also fine to use the word “died.” We are atheists in my family. We’re okay talking about death. That said, she went into the hospital for chemo in May of 2012, and I thought that if it didn’t work out, that if she died, I would want to write about her in some way. I spent 33 years with her, at that point. She was an important person to me. I don’t know if she was the most important person in my life, but she was my mom. I also knew after she died that I wasn’t going to write a book about her that was better than any of the books she had written about herself.

Now, I had seen the Bill Cunningham documentary [Bill Cunningham New York]. I had seen Valentino: The Last Emperor. I had seen Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. Then over the summer, I was in the Hamptons in our house and I stumbled across the audio recordings of her last two essay collections. I hadn’t realized that she had narrated them herself. Once I did, it came to me that we could use those to kind of help narrate the film. It came to me that a documentary was the ideal way to do this because I was watching all these old clips of her. I found these recordings. Basically, I thought that if I did a doc she can be kind of the star at the center of it and people will actually get to experience the person that they’re really hungry for more of.

So when you heard those recordings of her reading her work you immediately thought, “Oh I have something here”?

Yeah. A light bulb definitely went off. Then in September, I went to see the Diana Vreeland movie [Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel]. The following Monday, coincidentally, one of my editors, Alexandra Jacobs, asked me over to her desk and she said, “Can you go do a piece on this woman who did the Diana Vreeland movie?” So I go to interview Lisa Immordino Vreeland, who is married to the grandson of Diana Vreeland. I said to Lisa at the end of the interview, “Well, what are you doing next?” She said “I’m doing a thing on Peggy Guggenheim, but there’s one other thing that I’m interested in.” I said, “What’s that?” She said, “Nora Ephron.”

Ha!

She had this kind of adorable look on her face. I said, “Well, I think there’s one other person who might be in front of you.”

So you beat her to it.

Yeah, it kind of went from there.

I was really kind of surprised, pleasantly surprised, to see that you were able to convince your dad to be a part of it. I know that reliving the chapter of his life with your mom that inspired her to write Heartburn had to be very difficult for him. Was it difficult for you to get him to be a part of this?

It took two years.

Oh wow.

It involved a lot of arm-twisting and psychological manipulation. He had understandable reservations about what this was going to be.

Certainly.

There are all sorts of ways this could have gone. He’s in a very happy marriage at this point. I don’t think he was thrilled thinking that his son was going to be combing through his divorce records from 30 years ago. It was complicated.

To say the least.

I think everybody was worried about if I would be able to be objective about her. Would I turn this into a slightly misguided celebrity party where you don’t quite have a movie, you kind of have a bunch of people delivering accolades, or sort of empty platitudes about a person? Then you have this child at the center of it saying, when I was 11, I was on a movie set and Meg Ryan told me I was cute. I think that it could have gone very wrong. Thankfully, I watched a lot of movies and some of the trap doors seemed obvious. Then the question became how to not fall into them and if we’ve fallen through some sort of thing in the floor, how to climb back out of it.

A noticeable absence in the film is Nick [Pileggi].

My stepfather.

If this is too personal for you to discuss, I understand.

No, no, no, no. It’s a personal film. I’ve got to be able to answer personal questions.

Obviously, you talked to him about appearing in the film but he was not willing to participate. What were his reasons for not wanting to?

Nick didn’t think he needed to be on screen and he felt that he was going to break down talking about her. There’s a lot of grief there.

Sure.

Nick has been at all of the screenings. He was immensely supportive of the endeavor. It’s funny, my father was totally apprehensive of the endeavor and ultimately participated, while Nick was not remotely apprehensive about the endeavor but didn’t participate. I think that’s sort of the deal.

That’s very interesting. Frankly I wouldn’t have been surprised if it had been the other way around.

The truth never lines up completely.

I went back and reread the Times magazine piece you wrote about your mom, I guess it was about six months after her death. You made reference to something that becomes even more glaring in the film, and that’s that she was sort of dropping clues here and there that she was sick.

Yes, she was.

Going back and re-reading I Remember Nothing now I’m like, “Oh wow.” There are things that I see now that I didn’t see before when I read it prior to her dying. It’s kind of downright powerful that she did that. She was sort of putting it out there but not putting it out there at the same time, if that makes any sense at all.

I think that that’s exactly right.

How many people actually knew that she was sick, roughly?

I would say that 16 or 17 people knew.

It’s amazing that for six years that she was able to, as a person well-known for writing about the intimate details of her life, to keep it that close to the vest. That’s really astounding to me.

You’re not alone.

Your mom was a writer I really looked up to. There were a couple of times when I saw her out and about on the streets of New York. I think one of the big regrets of my life will be that I never, on those occasions where I did see her, had the courage to stop her on the street to just say, “Hey I’m a big fan” or maybe even ask her to have coffee with me or something like that.

She would have done it. She was willing to meet with any young journalist. But if you were someone who approached her to ask for an autograph she would have…

Recoiled in horror?

Yes. I don’t think she would have been shocked. I think she would have been just mildly uneasy.

HBO will air Everything Is Copy on Monday, March 21, at 9 p.m. ET.

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