In 'Everything Is Copy,' Nora Ephron's Son Tries Her Philosophy Jacob Bernstein named his documentary about his mother after an Ephron family saying — "everything is copy," meaning that anything and everything that happens to you is fair game to write about.
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In 'Everything Is Copy,' Nora Ephron's Son Tries Her Philosophy

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In 'Everything Is Copy,' Nora Ephron's Son Tries Her Philosophy

In 'Everything Is Copy,' Nora Ephron's Son Tries Her Philosophy

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.


MEG RYAN: (As Sally) I'd like the chef salad, please, with the oil and vinegar on the side and the apple pie a la mode.

KIMBERLY LAMARQUE: (As waitress) Apple a la mode.

RYAN: (As Sally) But I'd like the pie heated. And I don't want the ice cream on top. I want it on the side. And I'd like strawberry instead of vanilla if you have it. If not, then no ice cream, just whipped cream, but only if it's real - if it's out of a can, then nothing.

LAMARQUE: (As waitress) Not even the pie?

RYAN: (As Sally) No, just the pie, but then not heated.

LAMARQUE: (As waitress) Uh-huh.

GROSS: That's Meg Ryan in a scene from the 1989 film "When Harry Met Sally," which was written by the late Nora Ephron. A new HBO documentary about Nora Ephron called "Everything Is Copy" was directed by her son, my guest Jacob Bernstein. Bernstein is the child of two famous parents. His father is Carl Bernstein who, with Bob Woodward, broke the Watergate story. One of Nora Ephron's best-selling works was her novel "Heartburn," a fictionalized version of the breakup of their marriage, which she adapted into a film. Nora had a successful career in Hollywood and publishing.

She co-wrote the movie "Silkwood" and wrote and directed "Sleepless In Seattle" and "Julie & Julia." Nora's best-selling book "I Feel Bad About My Neck" was considered a candid and funny series of very personal essays about getting older. But there was something fundamental she didn't reveal in that book. She had a serious blood disease that developed into leukemia. She died in 2012 at the age of 71.

Jacob Bernstein writes for The New York Times. His documentary, "Everything Is Copy," which debuted on HBO earlier this month and is available on demand, features interviews with family, friends, and people Nora worked with, including her sister Delia Ephron, Carl Bernstein, Mike Nichols, Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks. Let's start with a clip of Nora Ephron being interviewed and then reading from one of her essays. She's telling the story that gave Jacob Bernstein the title of his documentary. It's a phrase that was used by her mother who was also a screenwriter.


NORA EPHRON: We all grew up with this thing that my mother said to us over and over and over and over again, which was everything is copy. You know, you'd come home with some thing that you thought was the tragedy of your life - someone hadn't asked you to dance or your - the hem had fallen out of your dress or whatever you thought was the worst thing that could ever happen to a human being. And my mother would say everything is copy. I now believe that what my mother meant is this - when you slip on a banana peel, people laugh at you. But when you tell people you slipped on a banana peel, it's your laugh. So you become the hero rather than the victim of the joke.

GROSS: Jacob Bernstein, welcome to FRESH AIR. Why did want to make...

JACOB BERNSTEIN: Well, thank you for having me.

GROSS: ...This movie about your mother?

BERNSTEIN: I think that I was interested in what the life of a writer is and how the personal becomes public and what all of that is, you know. I write for The New York Times, but I write much less personally, generally, or less autobiographically at least, I think. I certainly had not written about, you know, my family or my own life explicitly. And so, I was curious about what that had been like for her.

And I had been - you know, my parents had gotten divorced when I was very young. And it had inspired this book that she had written. And I wanted to know a little bit more about what that was like. And I wondered whether she had been ambivalent about sort of spilling all of these secrets, I wondered what the experience of that was like. I didn't get an enormous sense of my mother's vulnerability growing up. And I always sort of wondered if that was there. I would not say that, during the course of this documentary, I found a huge amount of vulnerability. I think my mother was fundamentally different than the rest of us were in some way in the family. She was relatively unencumbered by the kind of ambivalence that often fells people and keeps them awake at night.

GROSS: Your mother was Nora Ephron. Your father is Carl Bernstein. It took you a long time to convince your father to participate in your documentary about your mother. And the book that you referred that was about her divorce was a novel called "Heartburn" that she adapted - she wrote the screenplay adapted from her book. And in the movie version of "Heartburn," Meryl Streep played the character that Nora Ephron is based on. Jack Nicholson played the character that your father, Carl Bernstein, is based on. The book and the movie were great things for your mother, not so much for your father. He was really angry about it, he didn't come off really well on it. And so it took a long time for you to convince your father to be part of your movie. Why was he reluctant to participate?

BERNSTEIN: Well, you know, my father is in a very happy marriage at this point. It's been 30 years. And so, you know, when my mother died, I think there was a part of him that thought - maybe the kids will now spend Thanksgiving with me. I don't think he was thinking my son is going to be going through my divorce records from 30 years ago. There was no script for him to look at. You know, I wasn't showing him the footage. We hadn't edited anything. I mean, there was a lot of sort of - please do this movie without saying exactly what it was. He didn't know if he was being put on trial. He didn't know what it would become. And we're in a very exhibitionist era. So I think it was tricky, even among people who one love one another.

GROSS: But you convinced him?

BERNSTEIN: I did. A lot of arm-twisting and no, I'm not coming over for dinner, you know. I mean, there was just...

GROSS: Seriously (laughter)?

BERNSTEIN: Yeah. I mean, there was a lot of psychological manipulation. And in fact, a lot of that stuff that reporters do with subjects whom they have no relationship with - where you say it's going to be better for you if you cooperate. I mean, you do what you have to do because I didn't know how badly we needed him. And I needed him psychologically, too. I mean, I did - I was tremendously worried about what would happen to our relationship if he wasn't in it. And I was very worried about what the movie would look like without him. And I didn't think it could be complete.

GROSS: It sounds a little bit like you developed some of these skills about writing about family (laughter) or doing a film about family from your mother because she...


GROSS: ...That. She disguised it in fiction, but not always. She wrote a lot of essay, too. And she wrote a lot newspaper columns. And she hurt a lot of feelings along the way. So do you feel like you picked up this sense from your mother that feelings might be hurt if you're a writer? And that's kind of unavoidable, and you deal with it.

BERNSTEIN: Yes. My mother wrote about her parents' alcoholism. You know, she wrote about her mother right after she died. Her father was still around. She wrote about the first husband. She wrote about the second husband. She wrote about Dorothy Schiff at the New York Post after she left there. And then she went to New York Magazine and - she went to Esquire and then New York Magazine. But she wrote about each of those at various points and not flatteringly.

So I certainly was aware that one's experiences - if you're not writing about your experiences at some point, you're wasting them. And with her death, I was deeply aware of the finality of it. And I was aware as well that my Aunt Delia is a very good writer. I knew that she was going to approach this subject. I didn't want to lose the opportunity to reach people about it at a point when they were still interested in it. I mean, I know that that sounds a little bit cannibalistic. But of course, my mother often said writers are cannibals. And I think we are.

GROSS: So my understanding from what you said before is that your mother didn't write much about you. Am I right about that?

BERNSTEIN: Yeah. That's correct.

GROSS: But in writing about herself, she was writing about you indirectly in the sense that she's your mother. So everything that she does reflects in some way on your life and on what friends and their parents and the public project onto you. Can you reflect a little bit about how her public presence and her opening up of her life and using the stories of other people's lives affected your sense of self?

BERNSTEIN: Well, I think that comedy exists in this thin line between bravery and ruthlessness. And part of what I was after with the film...

GROSS: That's good (laughter).

BERNSTEIN: ...Was the belief that it's both. And that it's possible for the kind of cannibalism that writing is to be both a tremendous source of self-actualization and something that's also a little unseemly and, you know, unfair to other people. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about Zelda and her descent into madness in "Tender Is The Night," which was, you know, a book I read actually shortly before making this film. All sorts of people have kind of stumbled across this question at one point or another, you know. I mean, Philip Roth's mother did not have an easy go of it when her son became a writer, right? But that's what it is.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jacob Bernstein. And he's directed a new documentary about his mother Nora Ephron. And it's called "Everything Is Copy." It's playing on HBO and is also available for viewing on demand. Let's take a short break then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Jacob Bernstein. He's a journalist who writes for The New York Times. And he has directed a documentary about his mother, the late Nora Ephron. The documentary includes his father, Carl Bernstein. It's called "Everything Is Copy." It's an HBO film. It's playing on HBO and is also on demand. How old were you when you read your first book or saw your first film by your mother and what was it?


BERNSTEIN: We saw "Silkwood" when it came out, you know...

GROSS: The movie based on Karen Silkwood's life?

BERNSTEIN: Yeah, and I do remember being in Los Angeles when she drove herself to the Oscars 'cause she had been nominated with Alice Arlen for the screenplay that she wrote. And in fact, it was a sort of interesting memory. There was something very casual about the way that she did that. It was not made into a big event. She just got in a rental car - not a particularly glamorous one. She had on what I believe was an Armani suit with too much shoulder padding...

GROSS: (Laughter).

BERNSTEIN: ...And off she went. And that was that. And it was a great window into her, you know, that for somebody who made so much of her life material, she was very undramatic in certain ways.

GROSS: So "Silkwood" is one of the things that is not based on her life. It's about somebody who was a whistleblower. So when did you start reading things that were based on your mother's life that offered insights about things that maybe she didn't talk to you about as her child? There's plenty of things parents don't share with children that would end up in a memoir or in a novel.

BERNSTEIN: Well, I read a number of her essays as a kid, you know, from Esquire or New York Magazine. And I guess when I was 14 or 15, probably, I read the breasts essay. I didn't stumble upon her essay about getting crabs until doing this movie (laughter). And...

GROSS: Let's back up a second - the breasts essay you're talking about is her talking about what she doesn't like about her breasts and how that's affected her. And it's funny.


GROSS: It's a humorous essay.

BERNSTEIN: Yes it is. And...

GROSS: But that's kind of awkward right there, right? A son (laughter) reading an essay about his mother's breasts. I mean, it's the kind of thing you run into when you're a writer. You want to write about certain things and then, you know, it can be awkward.

BERNSTEIN: But I knew it was good.


BERNSTEIN: You know, the humor of her made all of it less awkward. And the fact that it really didn't feel solely exhibitionistic the way that so much for what passes for self-examination today does. You know, she had this comedic voice where she wasn't writing about sex in a pornographic way, she was writing about it as comedy. So it's a little different. And I think it was easier to process from that angle. But going back to one of your earlier questions about how, you know, we were affected by her writing about us, there's no question that as a teenager, when I reached my time to get angry at my mother place, that her having written "Heartburn" was a little thing and her being off directing movies was a little thing.

And it wasn't until I was sort of about 17 or 18 that I kind of went, well, you know, other people's mothers that I know were sort of professional bar mitzvah planners. I mean, they kind of lived on Park Avenue and were just about consumption in some way, and she wasn't. And she did really interesting things. And it was interesting too to go from being a family that had an OK amount of money to being one that there was a tremendous amount of pride in what she did because she earned it. I think my mother was pretty cool.

GROSS: You say in the film that for decades, your mother put her personal life front and center, including writing about aging, but she stayed silent about the blood ailment that killed her. And she had Myelodysplastic syndrome, which destroys the body's ability to make healthy blood cells and ward off infections, and that became leukemia. One of the riddles that kind of stays a riddle through the movie is why did she stay silent about this illness that became a terminal illness when she wrote so openly about her life and about aging and she wrote memoirs, she wrote fiction? And I suspect that one of the reasons why you made the film was trying to answer that question. But when did she tell you that she was sick?

BERNSTEIN: She told me in 2006, which was shortly after she had been diagnosed - a few months.

GROSS: A few months, OK.

BERNSTEIN: A few months - she certainly waited. And, you know, at the beginning, they told her that she had 6 months to live, you know, and she went to Seattle hoping for a bone marrow transplant. And the guy said that not only was she not a good candidate but that basically she was going to be dead no matter what he did. She didn't tell me until she thought that she had a shot. I think that obviously had she wound up in the hospital dying, she would've told me. But I think she hit pause. I think she didn't want to come to me while she was feeling vulnerable or hysterical about it, you know? I know that they got back - she and my stepfather got back from Seattle, where she had seen this doctor, and she really broke down from what Nick (ph) said.

But I never saw her breakdown over her illness, just as I never really saw her breakdown over anything. And I think that probably was one of the things that I was interested in with this movie was how often did that happen? Not so often as, you know, I came to find or not find.

GROSS: There were a lot of people who she did not tell that she was sick, including a lot of people in the movie world that she worked with. Were you expected to keep a secret for several years before she told people?

BERNSTEIN: Yes, and I did. We were all aware that her life would change completely if everyone knew. I mean, some of the considerations for why she didn't tell people were pragmatic. You know, I don't think that she could've gotten ensured on a movie if people had known what she had. Her agent, Bryan Lourd, knew that there was a thing with her blood, and I think he did a little bit of willful blindness on her behalf, you know, as he sort of got her one project after another. But basically people didn't know.

And so there was this pragmatic component. The other component was philosophical, you know, that for her, this everything is copy philosophy was really a means out of victimhood. It really was the belief in being the heroine of your life and not the victim. And how do you not become the victim if people are walking up to you and saying how are you? Are you OK? She didn't want that. So it was a secret that allowed her to move throughout the world in control.

GROSS: My guest is Jacob Bernstein. His HBO documentary about his late mother, Nora Ephron, is called "Everything Is Copy." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is Jacob Bernstein. His HBO documentary about his late mother, writer and director Nora Ephron, is called "Everything Is Copy." In your film it's discussed how therapy was very important to your mother and that she learned in therapy that one doesn't have to become one's parents, which was important to your mother because her parents who were both screenwriters were also both alcoholics. Her mother died of cirrhosis. What were your mother's fears about becoming her parents? Was she afraid that she'd become literally an alcoholic or that she would - like, what was she concerned about?

BERNSTEIN: Well, I'm not my mother's therapist, so I'm not sure exactly what she said to Mildred Newman...

GROSS: Sure.

BERNSTEIN: ...Who, you know, was her guru in the 1970s and '80s. But I do think that my grandfather was having a number of affairs. And my grandmother, contrary to her assertions about "Everything Is Copy," kept those secrets ultimately. And I think that my mom was very aware that there was a cost to keeping secrets for other people. You know, if you look at some of what she wrote about Hillary Clinton over the years, I think that part of the reason that my mom thought Bill Clinton's affairs were so distasteful was not because of sex per se or the betrayal of the romantic relationship, it was because she believed that it forced Hillary to lie on his behalf, to sublimate herself, to become a diplomat for her husband and to fight a battle for him that he ought to have been fighting himself. You know, she was I think aware that having to lie for your husband is almost never a feminist position.

GROSS: That so interesting because your mother did the opposite in writing "Heartburn..."


GROSS: ...After she divorced her father, Carl Bernstein. So she just went - she just put it out there in fictional form. But getting back to the idea that her therapist told her, you don't have to become your parents. Did you have any fears like that yourself? I think, like, so many people do.

BERNSTEIN: I think that I feared more not being like her. I think that...

GROSS: Not being as smart and funny and...

BERNSTEIN: Not being as smart and funny and not being as productive as her. I mean, she was, you know, - she could've run Foxcon or something. I mean, she was formidable and productive. And she just didn't get waylaid by the kind of emotional baggage that frequently accompanies artists and writers. And I think that the most difficult thing in some way about being around her was both that she could be unsparing about other people but also that she was just a tremendously powerful example of propelling oneself forward. And so sometimes that was hugely inspiring. And sometimes it was kind of stupefying and just difficult to keep up with, both in principle and in practice.

GROSS: So you describe your mother as having been unsparing. Ken Auletta, the media writer in your movie, describes her as having a razor in her back pocket (Laughter). So when you started writing, did you want her to see what you were writing? Or did you want to kind of protect yourself from her unsparing gaze?

BERNSTEIN: Every now and then I allowed my mother to kind of look at a longer piece that I had written. And she could be very helpful with suggestions, though she was - she not only had a razor back pocket, she had - she sort of had one in her mouth, as well. You know, it was like - you know, and she - it was almost always a version of cut - you know. It was almost always, you've written more than you need to here, although sometimes it was, you ought to have done more reporting on this. I heard that, too. But, you know, she was a tough crowd.

I think I also had a bit of a razor in my back pocket as a writer. And I don't know whether that was because that was sort of impressed upon me by her or that was genetic - I don't know. But certainly I would say that in my 20s at least I shared a little bit of her desire to occasionally have fun at other peoples' expense.

GROSS: Did you get the opportunity or feel that it was even necessary to have the kind of final conversation in which you both, you know, like, declare your love and say the things that have been unsaid and, you know, say goodbye and all that stuff that sometimes people get a chance to do and sometimes they don't and sometimes there's no need for it because it's already been said?

BERNSTEIN: We had a version of that conversation. But I don't believe in closure in any fundamental way. I think that closure is a very overrated American concept. I think that doing the movie in a certain way rather than being closure was continuance. It was getting to stay with her in some way from looking at her on a monitor and reading her old essays and reading "Heartburn" again. And even, you know, the Johnny Carson book and the old New York Post pieces - there was her voice, you know, loud and clear.

GROSS: So if you don't believe in closure, how does that apply to how you're processing your mother's life and death and your relationship with her?

BERNSTEIN: I think that I looked for a way to make it continue. You know, now I'm sort of done with that. And it's sort of time to...

GROSS: You mean through making the movie?

BERNSTEIN: Yeah, I mean, now - I think the hardest thing in some way was the moment when it was done. And we went to New York Film Festival in the fall, where it sort of screened for the first time, and the reviews were good. We were as lucky really as you can be. And about 24 hours later I just felt this kind of piercing quiet - you know? The joke I kind of make of it sometimes is that it was a little bit like - you know that scene in "The Hurt Locker" where Jeremy Renner goes to the supermarket and he's standing in front of the breakfast cereal and he doesn't quite know what to do with himself because...

GROSS: It's so fluorescent and there's so many choices about so many trivial things.

BERNSTEIN: Yeah, exactly. And, you know, obviously I didn't go to Iraq. I just made a movie and a small one in terms of scale. But it felt like the biggest possible thing that I could do to process her death and to look at where I came from. And now it's time to find another thing.

GROSS: I want to thank you so much for talking with us. Congratulations on the film.

BERNSTEIN: Well, thank you.

GROSS: Jacob Bernstein's documentary about his late mother, Nora Ephron, is called "Everything Is Copy." It will be shown again on HBO next Wednesday and is available on-demand. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like this week's interviews with comic and actor Ray Romano and with Peggy Orenstein, the author of "Girls And Sex" about the issues girls face coming-of-age sexually in the era of social media and Internet porn, check out our podcast.

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