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‘Sleepless in Seattle’ at 25: Inside the Making of Nora Ephron, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan’s Classic Rom-Com

The Empire State Building finale of “Sleepless in Seattle,” the hit romantic comedy starring Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks celebrating its 25th anniversary on June 25, has become an indelible scene in pop culture.

It almost didn’t happen — but fortunately, Nora Ephron knew people.

Annie (Ryan), a writer from Baltimore, finally meets Seattle widower (Tom Hanks) and his young son Jonah (Ross Malinger) at the observation deck on the famed landmark on Valentine’s Day.

But producer Gary Foster recalled they weren’t granted permission to shoot there.

So, Foster told Ephron, who co-wrote and directed the film. “And Nora said, ‘I know somebody.’ It was a famous publicist who represented Leona Helmsley, who was in prison at the time. The man said I’m going to see her in a few days and I’ll bring her up.”

The publicist asked the Queen of Mean, who owned the building, for permission. “She said OK, but they can only have it for six hours,” said Foster.

And that’s how they got the helicopter shot, the lobby scene with Annie and Josh walking around the observation deck asking women if they were Annie.

The rest of the sequence where Annie and Sam finally meet on the observation deck at night on Valentine’s Day was shot in Seattle. But they almost didn’t get space to use as their sound stage.

“There were no stages in Seattle,” note Foster. “There was an old Navy base that was being shut down and we wanted to use one of their big hangars as our sound stage. The Federal bureaucracy was, you know, slow or saying no. Again Nora said, ‘I know somebody.”’

That was former Republican senator from Virginia John Warner, who had been married to Elizabeth Taylor and had been Secretary of the Navy. After she called Warner, the Navy suddenly said, “’Sure, you can come and use the hangar.’”

Ephron, who died in 2012 at the age of 71, informed Foster near the end of production that director Mike Nichols once told her “’no good movies come from a pleasant experience. I think we just proved him wrong.’ And we did.”

Even 25 years later, Foster is still friend with Ryan, Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson, who plays Sam’s good friend Suzy, as well as with Delia Ephron, the filmmaker’s youngster sister who worked on the final draft of the Oscar-nominated script and was associate producer and with Jeff Arch, who wrote the story and the original script.

Though there were big action movies in release such as “Jurassic Park” and “The Last Action Hero,” when “Sleepless” came out, the film more than held its own at the box office, earning $220 million worldwide. The soundtrack album, which featured the Harry Connick Jr.’s Oscar nominated “A Wink and a Smile” by Marc Shaiman and Ramsey McLean and such romantic standards as “As Time Goes By” and “Make Someone Happy” sung by Jimmy Durante, was also a major best-seller.

And “Sleepless” also introduced younger generations to the 1957 tearjerker “An Affair to Remember,” starring Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr as lovers who separate and agree to meet six months later at the Empire State Building, which is a favorite film of Annie’s, her friend Becky (Rosie O’Donnell) and Suzy.

Before the film was released, though, “Sleepless” went through several prospective directors and various performers attached to the project — from Ryan’s then-husband Dennis Quaid to Kim Basinger and Julia Roberts.

“Sleepless” changed Arch’s career. He had struggled for several years to sell scripts without any success. He was working as a high school English teacher, as well as owning a tae kwon do school in a small Virginia town when the birth of his son in 1989 convinced him to try again. “I made a declaration that I’m gonna write three movies in one year and ‘Sleepless’ was the second one.”

Arch was represented by a small agent who sent the script to Foster. “I was in my early thirties,” said Foster. ”I read everything. I’d get 25 pages in and if it was no good. I threw it down. But I remember with ‘Sleepless,’ it was a weekend afternoon. I had at least one or two little babies and they were sleeping. I sat on a little couch and I read this script and was crying at the end. You know I’m a hopeless romantic.”

He got Tri-Star interested; Arch’s script was acquired with Ryan and her then-husband Dennis Quaid was attached. “We did a little bit of work with Jeff Arch,” said Foster.

Arch’s original had humor but was more “wistful,” said the screenwriter. “It had emotions. It had the relationship with the boy and the father. It had all the beats.”

And it had “An Affair to Remember.”

He recalled he was in college in 1975 watching the movie with his girlfriend, ‘I was just about to turn to her and say ‘This is the biggest piece of expletive. I can’t believe what I’m suffering through.’ Before I opened my mouth, I saw her crying like crazy. I held my tongue. Though it was a hokey treatment, the thing about missed opportunity and all that stuff, it’s very, very real and very painful. “

Still, said Arch, his script “wasn’t funny enough. I learned a lot about the difference between humor and comedy.”

David S. Ward, who earned an Oscar for “The Sting,” was brought on for a rewrite and made a major change to the original. In Arch’s version, Sam feels sorry for himself and calls into the radio show and talks about his late wife and what love means to him. But Ward changed it to Jonah calling into the radio show and thereby forcing his father to pour his heart out while Annie — and seemingly every single woman in the U.S. — hears driving in her car in Baltimore.

“That was a big step forward for the script,” said Foster. But he felt something was missing. He loved Ephron’s script for 1989’s “When Harry Meets Sally,” so he sent the script to her in New York.

It wasn’t long before she called Foster back and told him “’This is Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. This movie is about the difference between men and women. I’m going to get you this script in two weeks.’ I was like I love this confidence. I said ‘Nora, would you be interested in directing this.’ And she said, ‘yes.’ A woman of very little, but powerful words.”

“It’s very rare that you have a romantic comedy couple who is matched as beautifully as Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks were then, though they’re barely in their scenes [together],” said Delia Ephron.

Her sister, she said, created a wonderful community on the set. “Everybody was really happy,” Ephron said. “Fun was really a big part of her life. Also, on that movie, there were a lot of people who stayed with us over the years. Nora promoted them.”

And it was Nora’s decision to hire Ingmar Bergman’s master cinematographer Sven Nyquist. “Sven loved to work,” Delia Ephron said. “He was born on a movie set and never left. He had a light in him. On another movie of ours, I used to sit with him on night shoots and he would tell me why he lit it one way or another. I just treasure those memories.”

Wilson recalled that Nora Ephron was “very adamant that everyone sticks to the script. She knew what they had written and knew that it worked. She wanted to actors to stay within the boundaries of the script.”

Still, Wilson noted, “she could come up to you and always kind of did [your direction] in a little whisper. She never really said hey, do this little thing over in front of the crew. We were always very intimate. She’d come over and say little things to me like ‘What if you used the napkin as a blanket on her leg’?’

And when she got everything in the scene where Suzy talks about the ending of “An Affair to Remember,” Ephron allowed Hanks and Victor Garber, who plays Suzy’s husband, to improvise that their special film was the macho 1967 WWII epic, “The Dirty Dozen.’’

“They were making fun of the fact she was crying over this romantic movie and they were crying over the ‘Dirty Dozen!,’” quipped Wilson.

Ephron wanted “Sleepless” to be an enduring movie. “When she was making it, she was like ‘it has to be a classic,’” recalled Wilson. “It has to be something that when you see it 25 years from now, you’ll still think the clothes look like you’re not quite sure what period it is.’ And she wanted the music to be reminiscent of a classic movie.”

Shaiman noted that he and Ephron shared a “love for the American Songbook. We tried to find interesting performers,” said Shaiman. “We certainly heard ‘Over the Rainbow’ a lot, but we never heard Ray Charles sing it very much. Nick Meyers, who was the music editor, was a very much a part of the team. We were all pitching ideas.”

But occasionally his own score was excised from the film. “I had a few heartbreaking moments scoring the movie,” he said.

“I’d written a scene for Tom Hanks’ memory of his wife that actually started the movie — on the hillside at the funeral. It was a beautiful thing. Nora loved it. But when she put the movie together, she just had to make that phone call to me saying ‘Marc, I think we should put ‘Stardust’ there. I was both heartbroken as the film composer, but other part of me, as the music supervisor/arranger was like ‘Well, yeah, ‘Stardust’ there’s nothing like that.”’

He has “wonderful” memories of Ephron visiting the recording studio. “When she didn’t love something, you sure did know it. But when she loved something — I have this very distinct memory of her waltzing around my studio in L.A. in happiness of just whatever the piece of music was.”

At one point, studio music executives wanted contemporary songs on the soundtrack. During the walk from the studio to an executive bungalow for a meeting, Ephron quietly turned to Shaiman and said, “’Please help me.’ I fell on the sword that day. I kept having to say, ‘I don’t think that’s really right for the movie.’’’

Shaiman used the actual soundtrack recording of “An Affair to Remember” at the end of “Sleepless” when Annie and Sam finally meet.

They painstakingly transcribed the orchestration of Hugh Friedhofer’s Oscar-nominated score. “We re-recorded it and tried our hardest to create that sound of that recording. But no matter how hard we tried, there was something about the way orchestras {played] back then. We couldn’t really capture it.”

So, they went into the vaults in 20th Century Fox to get the original audio tracks. But the vintage soundtracks had to be baked to get rid of the moisture, which made it difficult to play, rewind or wind the tracks.

“They put it up on the reel to reel and we captured the recording,” said Shaman.  “As soon as we finished the transfer, it crumbled.”

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment is celebrating the 25th anniversary of “Sleepless in Seattle” with a special Blu-Ray, set for release June 26, with four never-before-seen deleted scenes and other archival material.

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