Shop Talk

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

There were other characters, such as a high-school boy who has a crush on Ellen and an assistant in the shop who's been having a supposedly clandestine affair with the grandfather for years that everyone knows about. One of my favorite parts was a scene where Ellen and Brad are forced to go to a high-school production of Guys and Dolls, expecting to be bored silly but instead being charmed; it's what breaks the ice between them.

After several months of polishing, faxing back and forth, many lunches, and working on our other separate projects, we finally felt we were ready to take our little idea out into the world.

Our plan was to take the idea to studios and, in some cases, other producers who had clout at those studios. The meetings were set up by agent Brad Gross, who got us in to see first-rate people. I must have pitched that story at least 20 times -- in offices, at lunch and at breakfast at the Four Seasons (I recommend the $8 bowl of granola) -- to the point where I had the 20-minute spiel perfectly memorized.

Everyone loved it. Everyone was a fan of the original movie. Everyone was surprised that the play was in public domain. A few people, as I said, were confused. How exactly does this E-mail thing work? How will we explain that to an audience? Wouldn't it be boring to see people sit at a computer and type? We assured them we'd come up with ways to make it interesting -- voice synthesizers, graphics. I think this just confused them further.

One of our meetings took us to Donner/Shuler Donner, which sounds like a law firm but is actually a production company run by the director Richard Donner and his wife, Lauren Shuler Donner. She was a well-respected producer before marrying Richard and was one of my first supporters when I started writing. Back in the mid-'80s we discussed remaking another great old romantic comedy, The Awful Truth, but never quite found a way to do it. At one point, being young and naive, I actually got her to sit down and watch an old Bob Hope movie I love, That Certain Feeling, in hopes of remaking it. In spite of this, we were still on friendly terms.

Amanda knew that by going to another producer she would be taking a backseat, but we felt that Lauren was someone who could get this project going and therefore worth being in business with. Our first pitch there was to Julie Durk, now a VP at the company. As luck would have it, Shop was also one of her favorite films, and she'd been thinking about proposing a remake to Lauren. She liked the E-mail idea. She gave us a few notes, we made the changes she requested, came back and pitched it to her boss, who also liked it.

We were in hog heaven, or whatever the Hollywood equivalent is. We had a couple of production companies and studios wanting to do business with us; we were leaningcontinued on next pageMAILcontinued from previous pagetoward Tri-Star and Warner Bros., where Donner/Shuler Donner was set up in a production deal. Of everyone we talked to, Lauren and Julie were the most enthusiastic and seemed to have a real love for the original material. Everything was going great.

And that's when, as my Uncle Ernie used to say, the other shoe hit the fan.

Amanda's research had been wrong. Although Parfumerie was indeed in public domain in the U.S., it was not in Europe. This meant that any remake could not be released outside the country, which meant that no studio would want to touch it, which meant we were, in the common parlance, not AOL but SOL. Tri-Star had to pull out, as did all the other studios we had gone to.

A remake, if one were going to happen, would have to be made by the owner of the rights to Shop, Turner Pictures, which had purchased MGM's library and which, at the time, was its own ministudio. Unfortunately, they didn't need us to do it. Whereas the day before we were two bright kids with a great idea, we were now superfluous.

Lauren Shuler Donner decided to press ahead and take the pitch to Turner. At this point she could have jettisoned both Amanda and me and simply taken the idea there herself. And, in fact, she basically did cut Amanda out; Lauren, like some of the other folks we had gone to, was somewhat upset that Amanda had messed up the rights issue. Amanda was no longer invited to meetings or included in discussions. I had qualms about proceeding without her, but she assured me it would be all right.

Lauren, Julie and I kept working on the story, the setting and the characters. Julie and Lauren didn't like the costume shop and suggested some other ideas -- a boutique in Beverly Hills, backstage at a TV series, even a bookstore (which, I must confess, I didn't like). When, after several revised outlines, they felt that the pitch was ready, we took it to Amy Pascal, then the head of Turner Pictures. This was in mid-1994.

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