After Nora Ephron died in 2012, her son Jacob Bernstein knew he wanted to tell the story she never told. That mission became his first documentary feature, “Everything Is Copy,” which debuted at the New York Film Festival last year and premieres tonight on HBO.
Ephron’s life was famously well documented in her essays, books and even through certain biographical details that slipped into her films: the way Sally orders at restaurants in “When Harry Met Sally,” worshiping at the culinary altar of Julia Child in “Julie and Julia” and the sibling dynamics of “Hanging Up” — to name a few.
As Bernstein explains, this instinct to share intimate aspects of her private life in a public fashion can be traced back to a three-word mantra passed on to Ephron from her screenwriter mother, Phoebe Wolkind: “Everything is copy.” But when it came to the fatal disease that took her life, Ephron went radio silent. She didn’t even let many of her closest friends and colleagues know that she was near death.
Bernstein, who writes for the New York Times, tries to find an answer to that curious decision in his entertaining and illuminating documentary. He also corrals a star-studded line-up of subjects to help bring his mother into focus, including Meryl Streep, Meg Ryan, Tom Hanks, Lena Dunham, Rosie O’Donnell, Rob Reiner, Steven Spielberg and Kate Capshaw, Barry Diller, Bryan Lourd, Gay Talese, the late Mike Nichols and Bernstein’s own father, Carl (who was the subject of the film “All the President’s Men” and Ephron’s bitter post-divorce memoir “Heartburn,” made into a film directed by Nichols and starring Streep and Jack Nicholson).
What prompted the decision to make a movie about your mother?
I knew when she died that I was going to write about her in some way. And I was also self-aware enough to know that I wasn’t going to write a book that was better than any of the books she wrote about herself. I had seen this avalanche of great cultural documentaries, from “Bill Cunningham New York” to “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work.” It seemed to me the structure of one of those might be a good way to go about exploring who she was, while at the same time giving me some cover. She could be the star of it. I knew that she was the person people wanted to see.
Was there anyone you wanted to talk to who either couldn’t or wouldn’t talk for the film?
There were a few. My brother (Max) is not in the film, and I think he would’ve added to it. When I decided to make the film, my father wasn’t so enthusiastic about it, so that put my brother in a difficult position. (Neither is) my stepfather (author Nicholas Pileggi) — just the grief of losing her was palpable.
I didn’t turn into Patti Davis doing this, but it was complicated for people. Even with a well-intentioned, basically intelligent person, this could’ve gone all sorts of wrong. I don’t think there’s anything standard about people’s adult children having a clear-eyed view about who their parents are. People get very twisted around, both pro and con, about where they come from. That was always going to be a particular thing to work through and get around.
To that point, I know it really took a lot of arm-twisting to get your father in the film.
It was not a short conversation. It took two years, and a lot of psychological manipulation on my part. And a certain amount of basic reporter etiquette, saying, “This is going to be better for you if you cooperate.” I don’t think he would say that’s why he did this. I think he believes very much that he did this out of love for me. But people are complicated. My intentions and methods were not pure, and probably his weren’t either.
Inevitably you have to ask him about “Heartburn.” What was that like, especially since you both know you’re on camera? Was it the first time you discussed that?
No, it wasn’t. In fact, I think some of the other conversations I had with Mike Nichols, Meryl Streep, Bob Gottlieb and Marie Brenner were somewhat more unexpected. There wasn’t any pre-interviewing really. There wasn’t a long, protracted, Mexican standoff (before the other interviews). And there also wasn’t the intimacy that exists between my father and me.
I had always said there was a period in my life when things were strained between me and my father, and there was a period where it got better. But I don’t think I’d ever acknowledged that part of why I was upset with him was “Heartburn.” I think I always stuck to it that, as a kid, it was the affair itself and not the embarrassment of (the book and the movie) that was upsetting to me. When he said that thing about “I really felt that publicity was the thing that was going to ruin our relationship,” I thought, “He’s got a point there.”
I did go into this documentary with the belief that this should be about the tricky negotiation of the public and the private when a person is a writer or an artist. There’s almost no greater power than the ability to tell your own story and, at the same time, I don’t think you really tell your own story without somebody in it getting swiped. The most compelling stories all involve a victor and a victim. Someone is triumphant; someone gets f—ed.
How did you decide how much of the conversation with your father to include in the film?
The best stuff from that conversation is in the film. There were parts that were just enervating and not all that illuminating ultimately. At one point I had asked him about why he had had this affair. There was a real disagreement among everyone on our creative team about whether it should be in there. It was a tricky conversation. I had it in at one point, I was inclined to use it. And Sheila Nevins said: “This is not authentic. It seems like (something for) a different movie. You don’t need it.”
How do you answer the why of an affair? It’s the sort of question that Matt Lauer asks somebody, like asking Charlie Sheen, “Why do you take drugs?” Because he’s a drug addict. Why does someone have an affair? Because they felt like it. Because they were driven towards it, and self-control is an elusive thing.
We were interested in her personal life to the degree that it illuminated her creative experience and shifts. And we were interested in her writing to the degree they illuminated where she was personally. It became a thing of “Are we seeing the mirror here?”
You also interviewed Mike Nichols shortly before he passed away.
It was May of 2014. By the time he died we had shown a cut to Sheila that was almost done. The main outstanding thing (missing from the film) was my father. I feel sad that I didn’t go back to Mike to look at some stuff before he died. I would’ve liked his approval. And I will certainly always wonder what he would’ve thought of it.
I was struck by how honest and open you were about some of the harder edges of your mother. Some people might have wanted to sanitize that side of her, but it’s a stronger movie because that material is included.
(Nora’s sister) Delia said in an essay that she wrote about my mother shortly after my mom died, that my mom’s unsparingness was the talent and the terror of her. I think that’s true. In order to have the richest possible portrait of her, you have to explore both things. You don’t simply honor a life by having people speak in superlatives. You honor a life by building a biographical portrait that hopefully is as complex and nuanced as it can be. Certainly, I was aware of the optics of what it would look like if her son did a film that was too laudatory. I think that fear was a healthy thing to have.
Do you think it’s something you picked up from her and her openness and honesty throughout her life?
I think I picked it up from both of my parents. My father wrote about his parents. She wrote about hers. The stories we’re afraid to tell are usually the ones that are worth telling.
What would she think of the movie?
I think she would say it’s “almost good.”
Because perfection is elusive? Or would she suggest you should’ve done something differently?
I think she might feel I had gone slightly overboard in my attempt to show both sides. I think she would be a little bit upset that the films (she worked on) don’t get a bit more time up there than they do. But I think she’d be mostly OK with this. I don’t think she would feel dishonored by the way she’s portrayed. We didn’t have very difficult conversations with anyone in my family after I showed this to everybody. I think if I really had gone overboard in showing both sides, somebody would’ve said to me, “What are you doing?” There was more concern on my creative team about that than there was from my family. We knew who she was, and we knew that the thing that made her fearsome also made her fun. Once you know that, then you can relax and have fun with both.
Did she watch a lot of documentaries?
She watched the Joan Rivers movie. We watched the Fran Lebowitz documentary together. She was not a big Maysles brothers person; I think their stuff is a little too impressionistic for her. But she watched and read a lot of everything. I think part of what made her as nimble as she was about moving from one thing to another was that she consumed books and movies and plays and journalism voraciously. Food was a little different, she nibbled on everything. But the rest of it, she was voracious.
What discovery about your mother surprised you the most during this process?
The degree to which she got away with whacking people early on in her career. We now live in this very sanitized, stage-managed culture, where the interactions between journalists and subjects are tremendously well enforced in horribly disappointing ways. Reporters and their subjects actually exist on opposite lines of a rope. That’s a metaphor but it’s pretty literally what’s happened. Back when she was doing all of this you didn’t have to play nice to be able to play.
The feeling of saying I’m a reporter to people occasionally is complicated, and that’s insane. We need the Fourth Estate. Where does this idea come from that we should all be deifying the people we write about? And yet it’s become completely standard. I don’t think everybody gets deified but I think it’s very hard to satirize people now, and she satirized everyone: ex-husbands, the people at the New York Post… She went from the New York Post to Esquire to New York magazine and back to Esquire, and wrote about all of them. And wrote about what a bunch of nitwits they were. That’s something. You can’t do that now. You leave quietly. You go under the radar and talk about how thankful you were for the last job you had. It’s a different era.
Now that you’ve finished your first documentary, do you have ambitions to make more?
I’d like to do another, maybe two. And if you have at one point something like a million dollars I will tell you all about it.