Shop Talk

A behind-the-scenes peek at the delivery of You've Got Mail

It's why screwballs comedies from that era are so great; it's the unrelieved sexual tension that drives the characters and makes them contentious, neurotic and funny. They can't make love, so they throw vases and insults at each other.

In modern times, with no societal constraints to provide sexual tension, other obstructions have to be invented. Annie Hall broke new ground by using the character's own neuroses to keep them apart, which of course happens all the time in life but is difficult to dramatize successfully. Sometimes these obstructions become outlandish or gimmicky. In Object of My Affection, it's because one of the characters is gay. In My Best Friend's Wedding, it's ostensibly the fact that the man is getting married, but it's more about the Julia Roberts character's inability to resemble a real human; instead, she uses problem-solving skills learned from old I Love Lucy episodes. This makes for an ultimately unsatisfying story. Nora Ephron herself took the "keep 'em apart at any costs" maxim to its extreme in Sleepless in Seattle, where the characters don't even meet until the final scene.

In Shop, Lubitsch and Raphaelson present an ideal setup: two people who hate each other externally, not knowing they were really in love. But a modern remake would have to do something about that pen-pal conceit, which is now old-fashioned. It must have seemed that way even in 1949, when Shop was remade as In the Good Old Summertime, a pretty bland musical starring Judy Garland and that great musical-comedy star Van Johnson. The writers -- Albert Hackett, Frances Goodrich and Ivan Tors -- chose not to update it at all but instead set it at the turn of the century.

So Hollywood avoided remaking Shop because nobody wrote letters anymore. But technology would advance and provide the perfect solution. And that's where I got involved.

In mid-1993, I got a call from Amanda Nelligan, a friend of mine who started as my agent's assistant; worked at Disney as a creative executive; then moved on to Baltimore Pictures, the company formed by director Barry Levinson and his producing partner, Mark Johnson. Amanda was smart, nice and once had a job testing condoms in her hometown -- but that's another story. Anyway, Amanda had decided to become an independent producer, and in her call that day she asked me if I had heard of the film The Shop Around the Corner.

I, of course, waxed eloquent on the film, and basically told her everything I've stated in the preceding paragraphs. "What would you think of remaking it?" she asked. I replied that I'd been thinking about that myself lately, how the timing was perfect because you could use -- "E-mail," she chimed in. So Amanda was actually the one who broached the subject. As happens so often in Hollywood, we came up with the E-mail idea separately, but equally. But an idea and two-fifty will get you a cup of espresso. When dealing with remakes, you need the rights to the original film.

This is where Amanda had done her homework (or at least thought she had, but we didn't find that out for a long time). Her research showed that the play Parfumerie was in public domain. That meant that anybody -- even us! -- could base a remake on the play itself and not Shop, and this would be perfectly legal.

Hot damn. As far as she knew, she was the only person aware of this. "You're sure?" I asked her. Yes. Her lawyer was working on it, etc., etc., just to clear up a few final points, but as far as she knew, we held the keys to the kingdom. She was also working on getting a copy of the play sent from Hungary and translated.

How could I resist? I'd always wanted to make a movie like it. Why not make one just like it? It would be a chance to pay tribute to the original film and have fun reworking a great premise. Besides, if I didn't do it, somebody else would and maybe do a lousy job.

We started working on a pitch. For about six months, we met occasionally and fleshed out an updated story. I set the remake in a costume shop in New Jersey and we reversed the genders. In our version, the woman, Ellen, would be the one who already worked in the shop; the Jimmy Stewart character would come in to help his ailing grandfather, who owned the business. I based the shop on Robert Schmidt's Costumes, the South St. Louis landmark that's been renting costumes for more than 50 years, and Mr. Schmidt himself was the model for the grandfather character. Schmidt's shop was wall-to-wall fantasy, the perfect romantic setting and a good backdrop for a movie about people pretending to be something they're not. In our version, the Stewart character, called Brad, would be going behind his grandfather's back to try to sell the shop and reopen it as a restaurant. He doesn't know he's been corresponding with Ellen via E-mail after they meet in a wine newsgroup.

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