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Interview

PROFILE A Nose for Talent

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For Nora Ephron, bringing Bewitched to the big screen all began with the nose. When the writer-director famous for her female-friendly romantic comedies (You've Got Mail, Sleepless in Seattle) was asked in to help bring the 1960s sitcom back to life, she knew she was adapting the script as a project for Nicole Kidman. It was this inspired casting choice that gave Ephron the spark for the film's plot, in which a modern-day witch is cast in a TV remake of the classic series after her co-star (Will Ferrell) realizes she shares a common feature with the original actor. "The whole idea springs from the fact that she has Elizabeth Montgomery's nose," Ephron recalls. "[Columbia Pictures Chairman] Amy Pascal called me and said, 'Nicole Kidman's coming for a meeting tomorrow on Bewitched, and we don't have a plot. Can you think of one?' And I thought of it just like that, because of this nose idea—just the idea of someone who gets cast in this remake because she has the same nose, and no other reason." Asked why Ephron chose to reimagine the story rather than just retell the sitcom tale, she responds, "I don't know how you do it the other way. I mean, the truth is, what's the story? The story is how Darrin and Samantha met, isn't that the story, the prequel?"

While Kidman may not have seemed the obvious choice for a lighthearted romcom, Ephron believes audiences will be pleasantly surprised at the star's turn. "We've all seen her do these fantastic dramatic roles, but the truth is, this is what she's really like," praises Ephron. "Sometimes you meet with an actor and you think, 'They're not funny. They can't do this.' But when I met her, I thought, 'I don't know why she hasn't done comedies, because she has enormous lightness as a human being.'" Supporting Kidman is a standout cast of players from all walks of entertainment, including legends Michael Caine and Shirley MacLaine, Broadway star Kristin Chenoweth, and The Daily Show correspondents Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell.

Ephron cast the film with Francine Maisler, whom she praises for bringing her "the cream of the crop" for a final decision. And should actors be fortunate enough to find themselves auditioning for Ephron, the director has a few words of advice: "It's nice if they come in exhibiting a pulse for your movie in some way. It's nice to know that they didn't just get the pages Xeroxed this morning and they have no idea why they're there or what this is." In addition, Ephron appreciates it when actors dress the part. "It's great when that happens; I love it," she enthuses. "It gives you a way of seeing the character." One thing you don't want to do at her audition is change the dialogue. "I mean, every so often you might say to someone, 'Okay, now could you play around with it?'" Ephron says. "But since I'm the writer, as well as the director, I don't find it particularly amusing if they don't do the lines. Call me crazy. Of course once we get on to rehearsal, it's a whole other thing." Ephron cites the scene in which Kidman's character finally reveals she's a witch. "A lot of that scene was improvised," Ephron notes. "Nicole came up with most of that, and we used it in the final film."

A Direct Route

Ephron was an established novelist (she fictionalized her marriage to Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein in the bestselling Heartburn) and Oscar-nominated screenwriter (for When Harry Met Sally…) when she opted to make the transition to directing 13 years ago. Though she had never intended to pursue a life in the director's chair, she reconsidered for several reasons, including a negative experience working with director Herbert Ross on 1990's My Blue Heaven. "It wasn't that he wasn't a talented man," Ephron explains. "He just wasn't a nice man. I didn't have a nice experience. And what's ironic is that when you have a good experience with a director, you don't want to direct. You look at the movie and think, 'Well, I couldn't have done this as well.' But when you have a bad experience, you think, 'I could have done this just as badly as they did and made a huge amount of money.'"

Ephron also believes it's easier to get your scripts made if you're willing to direct them. "There's a certain moment where you're looking at a list of directors, and you think, 'I'm never going to get Martin Scorsese to direct anything I write, and Mike Nichols can't direct everything I write…'" she says. "So if I write a script about a woman who's not unlike me, why should I go looking?" As a female director, Ephron admits it was hard to break in but points out that it's hard to break in for anyone. "This is a tough business," she says. "I don't think that people have given me a hard time because I'm a woman. But people give you a hard time. You try to protect yourself against it by hiring people for whom it will not be a problem that you are a woman. So if there's some fantastic cowboy cinematographer from Australia who will not be happy unless he's riding a crane, [I] probably shouldn't work with him."

Having a comfortable atmosphere on-set is vital to Ephron, who claims to be "obsessed" with good catering. "You learn that when you're making a movie, the movie may not work, but people are giving you anywhere from a day to three months to a year of their lives, and the least you can do is feed them well during that time—literally and figuratively," she notes. "You try to make people know that they're in a safe place, and no one's going to bite their heads off. You hope that people will say, 'Oh, it was fun making that movie with her.'"

Which isn't to say that Ephron thinks actors need to be coddled. "You can have a miserably unhappy set with really horrible food and still get great performances because actors come to do what they have to do," she says. "If you're lucky enough to cast them right, you're going to get the work out of them even if you feed them gruel." Ephron has worked twice with Academy Award–winning director Mike Nichols—on Silkwood and the film version of Heartburn—and she praises him for letting her sit in on casting sessions. "I found out all this stuff that writers don't know about actors," she recalls. "Actors are not the enemy. Actors are friends of the script. And when an actor is having difficulty with a scene, it probably means there's something wrong with the scene."

Collaborative Act

Ephron co-wrote Bewitched with her sister Delia—an accomplished screenwriter (Hanging Up, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants). According to Ephron, the two work in the same room together when collaborating. "We outline. And we outline. And we outline," she says. "And one of us types, and then the other person goes into the kitchen." Ephron also welcomed Delia to rehearsals and to the set "as much as she wants to."

With Bewitched in theatres, Ephron is busy considering future projects and being barraged with questions about the recently revealed identity of Watergate player "Deep Throat"—a revelation she claims to have tried to tell people about for years. "I was quoted all the time about it, and no one paid any attention to me," she says with a laugh. "Even now, people aren't giving up on their theories. I just saw someone saying it was a composite and, I'm, like, 'Get over it!'"

Although she admits it's easier for her to get romantic comedies made, given her track record, Ephron has written scripts in other genres—most of which are sitting in a drawer. And although it's hard to believe someone as in-demand as Ephron still struggles with such frustrations, she tries to keep things in perspective. "I have scripts that I have written that have never gotten made," Ephron says with a shrug. "It's a screenwriter's life, you know?" BSW

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