Some time ago I fell in love with a comic novel called Masters of Atlantis and managed to convince its supposedly reclusive author, Charles Portis, to let me option the film. Portis was largely forgotten in the Film Biz at that time – it had been years since his most famous book, True Grit, had been filmed with John Wayne and his other work was barely in print. After adapting a screenplay, I came across an article in Esquire which extolled Portis as America’s least read comic genius and reported on his coterie of ardent fans, one of whom was Nora Ephron. I somehow conjured up an address for Ms. Ephron’s production company and sent her a letter. This was in 1999, when she was basking in the success of You’ve Got Mail and had clearly ascended to A-List writer and director.
A few days later, the phone rang. “Hi, it’s Nora Ephron.” It took me a few moments to get over the shock, and a few more to get myself to sound like a bona fide producer who could converse nimbly with someone who actually made the kind of movies I would pay to see. After comparing notes about Portis, who she actually knew from her days in journalism, she wondered what I was doing to get the movie made. We talked about actors who might be good for the roles, and I mentioned Robin Williams. “Call his agent!” she said. “Call his manager! He has people who read scripts for him.” Sure, I thought, Robin Williams’ manager would return your phone call. Without sounding too lame, I tried to explain that I was on the opposite side of the candy store window from her. She was nice enough to give me a couple of contacts at major productions companies she had worked with, and I did manage to get the script read.
Masters of Atlantis was a tough sell then (and still is), although I continued working with the script until I eventually lost the film rights, but I never forgot Nora Ephron’s kindness, or her moxie, her expectation that you could actually get things done in this business. A few years later, in 2005, I attended the Key West Literary Seminar. It’s theme that year was comic writing, and the lineup was a Murderer’s Row of comedic talent: Calvin Trillin, Carl Hiaasen, Molly Ivins, Bruce Jay Friedman, Roy Blount, Jr, the poet Billy Collins, Gary Trudeau, Roger Rosenblatt, among others. And Nora Ephron, who was there with her husband, Nicholas Pileggi. She remembered me from our Portis encounter and couldn’t have been more gracious. Being around her, I actually felt like I might belong in that group.
Nora spoke on several panels, but my favorite comment of hers was about the recent Presidential election. This was in January of 2005, only a few months after George Bush had defeated John Kerry. As she related it, all her friends were dumbfounded by the results. All of them had voted for Kerry. How could this have happened? How, they all asked her, could the Democrats have lost a second election to George W. Bush? “One word,” said the director of Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail. “Casting.”
Like everyone else, I was shocked to hear of Nora Ephron’s passing. She just seemed too bright and engaging, had too much more to say, to be gone. And, from my brief encounter, too nice of a person as well.