Shop Talk

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

Amy loved the idea. She didn't like me. Not that she had anything against me; she was at my wedding, for God's sake (she wasn't actually invited but was a friend of the hostess, and she did bring a bottle of Dom Perignon as her part of the potluck), but business is business, and a high-profile project like this needed an A-list writer. Being, at the time, somewhere near the bottom of the Bs, I was obviously not that person, and Lauren informed me that I was off the project.

I tried to be stoic about it. I knew that I could have been given the bum's rush the second the rights issue came up. The assignment was going to Wendy Wasserstein. If you're going to be brushed aside, it's nice to be replaced by a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. I tried to console myself by thinking that at least the precious Shop would be in good hands. But still ... I kept thinking about the movie, my movie, that would now never be made. Those great scenes in the costume shop, the wonderful revelation scene I had planned ...

For reasons I suspect were motivated more by legalities than loyalty, Lauren arranged to have me paid a fee for signing away the rights to the ideas I had brought in. I was paid what in Hollywood is referred to as "chump change" but in these parts of the world would make a down payment on a pretty decent house. There would also be a bonus if the film were ever made.

Amanda and I commiserated about our fate. Hers was worse; she didn't get a penny. She was very apologetic about the whole rights debacle, but I didn't hold it against her. In fact, I took her to lunch. I went on to other things. But for a long time I couldn't watch The Shop Around the Corner.

TIME GOES BY
I didn't hear anything about the movie for the next few years. I figured that E-mail was no longer a novelty and that the project had been forgotten about. Amanda and I got together and tried to resuscitate our idea, putting it in the backstage-TV arena without E-mail. It didn't seem to work.

In the meantime, I wrote and directed a short film; worked on a Sesame Street movie and on a modern-day Paul Bunyan project and several rewrites that got shelved; wrote a cable movie; and, as part of the LA experience, was in an earthquake, an armed robbery and an auto accident, had my house shot at and, not coincidentally, got ready to move back to St. Louis.

While I was packing last fall, Amanda called to tell me that Nora Ephron had picked up the project, with Lauren Shuler Donner still producing.

I heard the film, first called You Have Mail, started shooting last winter with Sleepless in Seattle's Hanks and Ryan reunited.

Then, in July of this past summer I received a package from the Writers Guild containing the final shooting script and the statement of proposed credits. This is the usual process: All the writers involved have a chance to agree with the proposed credits or to request an arbitration. In this case, because sisters Nora and Delia Ephron were both writers and producers, an arbitration was automatic. As a "participating writer," I was included in the process.

I was surprised; I didn't even know I was a participating writer, but because I had received payment for material, my name was alongside Wendy Wasserstein, the Ephron sisters and the writers of In the Good Old Summertime. I had the chance to protest, if I so desired, the proposed credit: "screenplay by Nora Ephron & Deliah Ephron, based on the play 'Parfumerie' by Nikolaus Laszlo." I did protest, but not because my name wasn't proposed. Where was Samson Raphaelson? His name wasn't even included as a participating writer.

The accompanying letter from Warner Bros. explained that in 1940 Raphaelson's script was not subject to the Writers Guild agreement; therefore, he could not be listed as a participating writer and Shop can't be considered a source of the new remake.

I was livid. I knew I wouldn't get credit, and didn't deserve it, because nothing in the script was mine other than the E-mail idea. But Raphaelson! Being dead, he couldn't even defend himself. So I called the Guild's credits department and protested for him. There was nothing they could do; the only possible way for Raphaelson to receive credit would be if the filmmakers and studio, out of courtesy, decided to acknowledge him.

Because studios have never been motivated by courtesy, I gave up the cause as lost. But, as the lesson in You've Got Mail tells us, people can surprise you. Nora Ephron has been very generous in paying homage to Lubitsch, talking about the old film and naming the bookstore in the new movie the Shop Around the Corner. Her magnanimity even extends to the opening credits, which do indeed contain the credit "based on a screenplay by Samson Raphaelson."

It's only fair. At least two scenes in You've Got Mail are almost word-for-word from Shop. The Ephrons must have realized they couldn't improve on the revelation scene -- when Hanks discovers that his E-mail pal is actually Ryan -- and decided not to change it. I'm told that at a recent screening the biggest laugh of the night came from the exact same line that draws the biggest response in the original. Samson Raphaelson, 15 years after his death, is still making people laugh.

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