Shop Talk

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

Dec 16, 1998 at 4:00 am

Ernst Lubitsch's The Shop Around the Corner is just about the perfect romantic comedy. For those unfortunate among you who have never seen it, it's the story of two combative co-workers, played by James Stewart and the enchanting Margaret Sullavan, unaware that they are also pen pals who have fallen in love through their correspondence. Eventually the Stewart character discovers the truth, gains a new appreciation for Sullavan, and uses what he's learned in her letters to win her over before revealing himself. Set in a small department store in Budapest, it's funny, romantic, sophisticated and pure Lubitsch. Indeed, along with Ninotchka, it's the film people usually mean when they cite "the Lubitsch touch."

In the new version, You've Got Mail, the reluctant lovers are played by Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, who meet on-line and correspond through E-mail. What they don't know is that they're business rivals; he's the owner of a megabookstore trying to put her small children's bookshop out of business.

Why remake a film that Pauline Kael called "close to perfection"? I suppose if anybody should have to answer this question, it should be me, because it was my idea. Though you won't see my name in the credits, I was the one who originally brought the idea for an E-mail remake to the producers.

This sounds like a pretty obvious choice now, but four years ago -- an eon in cybertime, when AOL stock was in single digits and Prodigy (remember them?) was the leading on-line service provider -- it was a pretty cutting-edge idea. In fact, some studio executives shied away from it because they thought the general public wouldn't know what E-mail was.

So what was going on in my head? Why remake a film that was so good the first time around?

Let me start at the beginning.

It's said that you shouldn't inquire what goes into sausages -- that if you know how they're made, you'll never want to eat them again. For 14 years, I've been watching what goes into movies, and it's almost been enough to make me stop watching them. Sometimes I long for the time when all I did was buy a ticket, eat popcorn in the dark and happily lose myself in a movie.

Occasionally this still happens. Some small, beautiful film comes along, like The Sweet Hereafter or Red, or even a studio film like Good Will Hunting, that gets me excited and reminds me why I wanted to start making movies in the first place.

The Shop Around the Corner was one of the first movies to affect me this way. I was only about 12 or so when I first saw it, on the old Bijou Picture Show on what was then KMOX-TV. If Parker Wheatley didn't put you to sleep with Eye on St. Louis, you were rewarded with at least two late-late movies every night.

A lot of what makes Shop so special is the chemistry between Stewart and Sullavan, who are perfectly matched. As Leah Rozen noted in her recent tribute to the film in the New York Times, they brought out the best in each other; he's more direct, and her quirkiness seems attractive rather than potentially neurotic as it does in her other films. The two were old friends; she at one time was married to his old roommate, Hank Fonda, and Stewart may have harbored a longstanding crush on her. (They made several other films together, including The Mortal Storm, another film that kept me up late in my adolescence.)

But in addition to the performances and Lubitsch's sparkling direction, Shop owes much of its success to its screenwriter, Samson Raphaelson. Raphaelson was a playwright known mostly for The Jazz Singer, and his extensive film credits also include Hitchcock's Suspicion. But his best work was for Lubitsch, for whom he wrote the musicals One Hour with You and The Merry Widow as well as the wonderful Trouble in Paradise and Heaven Can Wait (the Don Ameche, not Warren Beatty, version).

Shop was based on a Hungarian play Parfumerie by Nikolaus Laszlo. It's a dark story whose message is the antithesis of what Shop would become. The hero never musters the courage to reveal himself to the girl, and with good reason -- she's not very likable. So he keeps his secret, and the two remain enemies.

In the hands of Raphaelson, however, the play became a sparkling romantic comedy with a wonderful message -- that the self people present to the world isn't always the full picture; that if your hidden waters run deep, there are other people in the world like you, and someday you'll meet someone who appreciates you for what you are.

This message still speaks to me just as it spoke to that adolescent boy addicted to old movies. Watching Shop for the first time, I thought, this is what I want to do. I want to make something like that -- that romantic, that honest, that funny, that emotional, that smart.

A word or two about romantic comedies in general: The man and woman should never, of course, get together until the end. This goes back to the earliest days of filmmaking, when D.W. Griffith stated the rule, "There is no drama like that of delayed coitus." In the '30s, the height of American romantic comedy, it was the sexual constraints (and sometimes class restrictions, as in Our Man Godfrey) that kept the lovers "delayed"; after all, they couldn't fall into bed until they got married, and that could only come after a long, preferably conflicted and entertaining romance.

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.

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.

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.

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.

This is not to take away from the Ephrons' work; they've produced a very nice piece of writing. The script (which all of these comments are based on; I will leave judgment of the film itself to others in these pages) is funny, touching and literate. It actually improves on the original by putting the characters in competing businesses, heightening the external conflict. Letting us in on their correspondence lets us see how the two pen pals affect each other even before they're aware of their identities. The Ephrons' traditional talkiness fits the subject perfectly, as two people fall in love through language. They also tried to raise the stakes by adding competing love interests for both main characters, but this works less successfully. I can only think that two stars with the appeal of Hanks and Ryan -- who look great just sitting and typing -- will make You've Got Mail a big hit.

If you read the publicity material for You've Got Mail, you'll find that Lauren Shuler Donner takes credit for coming up with the E-mail idea. I'm sure she honestly believes this, and, in a way, it's true. Just as Amanda and I had been thinking along the same lines, so, perhaps, was Lauren. Besides, she paid me off, so I guess she can say anything she wants.

For my part, I got my bonus and am finally able to watch Shop again without any pangs of regret or bitterness.

In fact, several weeks ago I watched it for the first time in years with my screenwriting class, 10 young men who had not seen it before. I didn't know what to expect. For the most part, they loved it. I was thrilled, and very happy to watch one of my favorite films again. I even look forward to seeing the remake. Sometimes, even if you know how a sausage is made, you can still enjoy it.