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Bringing My Mother Back From the Dead: Jacob Bernstein on Nora Ephron and "Everything is Copy"

She made a considerable dent in the glass ceiling as a journalist, gave us insightful and pointedly witty essay collections, penned three Oscar-nominated scripts and directed two of the most popular romantic comedies of our time, “Sleepless in Seattle” and “You’ve Got Mail.” But while Nora Ephron’s mantra “Everything is copy” (a phrase ingrained in her since childhood by her famous screenwriter mother Phoebe Ephron) gave her license to mine the foibles of her personal life as material for her work, she contradicted herself by leaving behind a mystery when she died from complications caused by leukemia at age 71 in 2012.

Although her illness was first diagnosed in 2006, Ephron went to great lengths to hide the fact she had the disease from even her closest confidantes, save for her immediate family. Why did this woman, who turned her own contentious public divorce from Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein into fodder for both a 1983 novel and 1986 film starring Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson, remain so secretive about what would result in the final act of her life?

The answers can be found in HBO’s “Everything is Copy,” which premieres tonight at 9pm ET. The tender yet tough portrait of the widely influential and famously outspoken wordsmith is written and directed by someone who knew her intimately: her older son, Jacob Bernstein. In an interview with RogerEbert.com, the 37-year-old New York Times staff writer and novice filmmaker revealed his reasons for doing a documentary about his mom—a companion piece to his 2013 tribute that ran in the Times’ Sunday magazine—and how he got his reluctant father to open up on camera.

Probably many reporters who have interviewed you about the documentary have a Nora Ephron story or two that they share with you.

Do you have one?

Of course. When I worked at USA Today, I had the pleasure of covering what would be the last movie she did as a director, 2009’s “Julie & Julia,” which was inspired by the great chef Julia Child. I spoke with her as well as the film’s stars, Meryl Streep and Amy Adams, at the renowned Blue Hill at Stone Barns restaurant, a half-hour or so drive away from New York City. I asked your mom what was her least favorite food and her favorite one. She said she didn’t like filet mignon—“too mushy”—but she loved grilled cheese.

That was one thing we shared. We had different favorite Edith Wharton novels. She liked “The Custom of the Country” and mine was “The House of Mirth.” It says something about our different world views. In “Custom,” the main character gets everything she wants. In “Mirth,” the main character ends up dead. But we had the same taste in food. To me, filet mignon is sort like rich New Jersey. You get money and you speak French. Think Rosanna Arquette living in that house in Fort Lee in “Desperately Seeking Susan.” Her husband would order that.

As a first-time documentarian, you do a masterful job of capturing your mother, both her public side and her private one. “Everything is Copy” is a richly told act of love—not unlike the plots of many of her films—but also an investigative piece that reflects your dad’s specialty. It is packed with priceless perceptions and anecdotes shared by collaborators and friends such as Tom Hanks, Rob Reiner, Steven Spielberg, Gay Talese, Barry Diller, Liz Smith, Meg Ryan and Streep, as well as TV clips of your mother being interviewed by talk-show hosts Dick Cavett, Charlie Rose and David Letterman.

That is somewhat true. But I would say, in her defense as a journalist, much of her early articles and even her essays were incredibly well reported. She was as good as a reporter as she was being an analyst. Most people are inclined towards great reporting but aren’t great as analysts. What she did have was this incredible ability to take the most seemingly trivial detail about a person that told you everything about them. There is a line in her Helen Gurley Brown essay for Esquire that no matter what she wore, there was always something a little out of place, like her lipstick being smudged. She was a basket case helping other women to be less of a basket case. That was what made her writing so delicious. It was the perfect left-handed compliment. 

You wrote this lovely 2013 Sunday magazine piece on your mom for the Times that was pegged to the posthumous opening of her Tony-nominated play, “Lucky Guy.” Why did you want to do a documentary as well? I noticed that you have an IMDB page that lists you being an assistant on your mom’s “You’ve Got Mail” that came out in 1998 and also for 1997’s “In & Out.” This is a big leap in responsibility, even if you had an assistant director.

I worked on “You’ve Got Mail” for about a half-second. I took jobs as a location scout when I was in college for films like Joel Schumacher’s “Flawless.”

That was Philip Seymour Hoffman’s first lead role that came out in 1999. He played a drag queen.

I was the resident gay guy on the set and I knew the downtown club scene. I had them check out drag clubs. I also location-scouted for “In & Out” and Cameron Crowe’s “Vanilla Sky.” Doing a documentary is really completely different than those movies. With a film, you take over a space. You don’t take over anything with a doc. It’s a totally different scale.

How did you come up with the idea to do a documentary on your mother?

I had seen the Joan Rivers movie [“A Piece of Work”]. I really loved that. Also, “Bill Cunningham New York,” “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” the one about Valentino [“The Last Emperor”]. Usually, the formula for telling the story of a cultural person is rise, fall and comeback. That works really well. After my mother died, I knew I would write about her when the play opened. But I wanted to do something larger. Doing a book seemed like it would be incredibly difficult and not all that fruitful, because what people wanted was to see her. I also thought there was more to be said after reading Frank Rich’s New York Magazine article when he expressed the anger over her not disclosing her illness to her friends. I thought it was interesting talking to survivors and how they processed this death of hers. I had written pieces on other people’s deaths: a therapist who committed suicide and one on Whitney Houston for The Daily Beast. It was fascinating. I was not consciously thinking about bringing my mother back from dead, but she kind of stayed with me when I did this.

How did HBO get involved?

When I began to think about doing it, a documentary about Diana Vreeland came out and I interviewed the woman director, Lisa Immordino Vreeland, who was married to Vreeland’s grandson. I asked her what she was thinking about doing next and she said she might do a film on art collector Peggy Guggenheim. But then she said there was one other project she was considering: Nora Ephron. I told her, "Well, I think there might be someone in front of you." She thought I meant Susan Lacy [of PBS’ “American Masters”]. It kind of went from there. I was at a Super Bowl party at Alessandra Stanley’s house and she said you should go see [Vanity Fair editor] Graydon Carter, who suggested taking it to HBO.

How long did it take you to actually put together all those interviews that you conducted and edited for “Everything is Copy”?

It was about two years. My father was the big holdout. I understood. Look what happened with “Heartburn.” It was not a fun experience. Thirty years later, he is in a marriage and quite happy. He hasn’t been the paragon of playboys for quite a long time. But he changed his mind. I think he became less concerned about my intentions than how the thing would be executed. Would it be artfully done or would it be a well-intentioned but slightly misguided attempt by a son to insert himself in his mother’s death? It could have been bad. Lots of personal films are. How would I fit into this and not make a fool of myself? Every now and then, a documentary gets screwed up. Like the J.D. Salinger one that came out a couple years ago. It was destroyed by the critics. This guy spent ten years making it—it was heartbreaking. He ended up having to put a lot of celebrities into it and re-creations. I did learn from it. Use your celebrities sparingly. Be careful about putting people in there who don’t belong. I thought about asking Tina Fey or Amy Poehler to appear in it, since my mother influenced them. But they did not know her.

I am glad that your dad relented and agreed to participate since it results in probably one of the most honest and touching exchanges in the film. It’s when you are talking together on the couch about “Heartburn” the movie, which caused a delay in your parents’ divorce proceedings and a protracted custody battle over you and your brother, Max. He says he was worried that the film would affect how you thought of him and you reply, “And for a while, it did.”

I certainly had always been more on her side than his when it came to “Heartburn.” There is a tremendous power in telling your own story. You cheat on your wife when she is pregnant and you don’t get to dictate the terms. I think her comedy sits in this little space of bravery and ruthlessness. It’s great that we have a great comic novel about divorce that she wrote for the good of the world that also recognized the human toll involved.

Although you say in the documentary that unlike many in your family, you strive to keep yourself out of the stories you write. But I think with this documentary, you have definitely joined the “Everything is copy” club.

Yes, you are probably correct.

Max, who is 36, is a touring musical director and guitarist for Ke$ha and has his own band. But it probably was inevitable that one of you would join the family business. Besides your parents and grandparents, all three of your mother’s sisters—Delia, Hallie and Amy—are successful writers. You tend to write a lot about fashion and celebrity gatherings for the Times.

When it comes to parties, a lot of the time there is sort of nothing there. But sometimes you can get some great social commentary out of it. I covered the CFDA [Council of Fashion Designers of America] Fashion Awards where Kayne West presented a fashion icon honor to Pharrell Williams and they gave these 15-minute speeches as if they were having an Oscar moment. It was all about self-absorption.

Max and Nick Pileggi, your mom’s third husband who wrote the biography that “Goodfellas” is based as well as the adapted script, did not want to participate in the documentary. What were their reasons?

Nick had a slightly different reason than my father initially had. He was the rainbow at the end of my mother’s life. He saw himself as the end to her drama. He was not going to be on camera breaking down. As for my brother, he had a very private relationship with her. He is never going to part of the “Everything is copy” club.

Journalist Marie Brenner, who helped introduce your parents to each other, shared that beautiful quote about how obsessed your mom was with you when you were a baby. “I just stare at Jacob all day long. He is a dish of ice cream.” What kind of mother was she to you and Max? Did it make a difference that she waited until she was in her mid-30s to have children?

I think she was probably a little less neurotic about being a parent. She delighted in it but also was unsparing with us. There was a certain amount of “I told you so.” She didn’t coddle. I think that when you have parents who were really successful doing the same thing as you do, you can’t be unaware of what they accomplished. But you can somehow acquire something through osmosis and circumstances. That is why the movie had to be good. I wasn’t going to be Bobby Kristina Brown and fall apart.

She told you and your brother about her illness and obviously the rest of her family. But did it bother you that she kept it from the rest of the world? Did it make you feel like a co-conspirator?

I didn’t feel like co-conspirator. But the secret is part of the reason of why I was driven to talk about it for two-plus years. I realized that other people might be more articulate on this subject than me. It was a moment when self-analysis fails, when you are trying to explain something slightly unexplainable. And I do think I wanted to keep talking about her and what happened.

There is this lovely song that is crooned over the end credits, “Love Is the Sweetest Thing” by Ray Noble that came out in 1932. Was that your idea?

I take no credit for it. It was Graydon Carter’s idea. It fit well as a last song that was foisted on you by your producer.

Do you have the filmmaking bug now?

Yeah, I want to do another documentary. But it will be harder to get financing, despite people responding well to it. I want to stick with documentaries and maybe do one or two more of these. I am not running to jump into narrative film. They cost money and I’d like to be ready for it. There is nothing bad about taking my time. Documentary filmmaking feels like a good extension of what I have done as a journalist.


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