Boldface Life: Jacob Bernstein’s ‘Everything Is Copy’ pays tribute to his famed mother, Nora Ephron

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Jacob Bernstein hardly hails from mild-mannered reporters—his father, Carl, toppled a President with his Watergate reporting for The Washington Post, and his mother, Nora Ephron, regularly duked it out in print with her publisher, Dorothy Schiff, at another Post (the New York one)—so it is perhaps not at all surprising that his first attempt at cinematic truth-telling is so even-handed, objective and honest.

He is so conscientious and thoroughgoing a journalist that occasionally during our meeting he’ll go off-record to fill in his interviewer on the backstory and then resume the printable narrative. Obviously, he comes from good ink-stained stock.

What is surprising is that he achieves this feat when the subject of Everything Is Copy, his debut documentary, is his own mother. Who’s objective about their own mother?

The film’s title is his family mantra/modus operandi, and Bernstein is the third generation to put it into effect. He got it from his mother, who got it from her mother, Phoebe, who believed all life experiences are fair game to write about—all.

When Henry Ephron asked Phoebe to marry him at the end of their first date, she didn’t say yes—she said, “Can I read your work?” Together, they wrote the screen adaptations of Carousel, Desk Set, Daddy Long Legs, There’s No Business Like Show Business, On the Riviera and What Price Glory? and they produced four daughters, all writers (Nora, Delia, Amy and Hallie) who apparently have followed Mom’s edict.

Nora managed to do it in more disguises. Her letters home from college prompted her parents to write the play Take Her, She’s Mine (Elizabeth Ashley won a Tony as the 22-year-old Nora; Sandra Dee did the movie version). She broke into journalism by parodying Leonard Lyons’ showbizzy column in the Post during a newspaper strike, prompting Schiff to bring her aboard as a regular reporter at strike’s end.

Ephron then blithely turned satirist and essayist in Esquire, declaring the Post “a terrible newspaper. The reason it is, of course, is Dorothy Schiff.” While married to Bernstein, she assisted him in “improving” William Goldman’s screenplay for All the President’s Men. Their rewrite wasn’t used, and Goldman won the Academy Award, but her efforts opened the door for her to do TV scripting. From that, it was just one giant step to writing Mike Nichols/Meryl Streep vehicles (Silkwood, Heartburn) and the hit When Harry Met Sally…, before launching her own directing career (Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail, Julie & Julia).

When their marriage came to a ballistic end, she got a bestseller and a hit movie out of it, both of which Carl Bernstein labored in vain to halt—for fear, as he acknowledges in one of the documentary’s rawer moments, it might affect his son’s feeling toward him. “For a while, it did,” quickly and candidly responds the son on camera.

Young Bernstein started feeling the heat of his parents’ bust-up at Dalton School. “That’s where I found out about it,” he says. “Kids came in and talked about it. Their parents had read the book. Boys and their fathers, and girls and their mothers are complex enough, but if your father betrays your mother, that’s a whole other story.”

It was no easy thing talking his dad into reliving the breakup all over again—a third time in public, if we’re counting. “That’s exactly how he felt, and understandably. He was extremely reluctant about doing it, but at the same time I think that, as writers, we have a right to tell our stories. If you’re a writer and you have a significant experience, part of not wasting it is figuring out how to channel it in a creative way.”

Co-directed by Nick Hooker, Everything Is Copy premiered at the New York Film Festival last fall to a warm reception, won the Audience Prize for Documentary Feature at the Palm Springs International Film Festival in January, and starts airing March 21 on HBO, for which Ephron was writing a series at the time of her death. (It will also be released in select theatres this month.)

“This is a movie about how comedy exists at the intersection of Bravery and Ruthlessness,” the neo-director said at the New York Film Festival launching. “I just wanted to dance in the middle of that.” And dance he does, catching his mother’s easy charm and cutting wit along with her contradictions and imperfections—the whole magilla.

In a sense, this is a pretty precise definition of Ephron’s writing style. “The thing that made her journalism remarkable in that first phase of her career was she had fun with people. She was very gifted at the backhanded compliment. She pointed out in that Helen Gurley Brown piece in Esquire that what made Helen Gurley Brown kind of appalling was the very same thing that made her great and made her successful.

“I think we’ve made a movie that honors who my mom was and does it without deifying her. The tendency among children of successful people is sometimes to lose sight of their parents’ shortcomings and humanity, since they’re always being told how terrific their parents were. To discuss anything that contradicts that is hard.”

When Ephron died on June 26, 2012—from pneumonia, a complication resulting from acute myeloid leukemia, which she had suffered with silently for six years—it came as news to almost all her nearest and dearest. Rosie O’Donnell said it was so sudden it was like losing someone in a traffic accident. All felt shocked. Some felt betrayed.

And that provided Bernstein with a structure—a unifying theme—a mystery to be solved—for his visual obituary: How could a woman who professed that all of life was material for her to write about deny access to her last and greatest battle?

Liz Smith, succinct sage that she is, said it was because Ephron was a control freak, and this was something she couldn’t control or diffuse with self-mocking laughter.

“I did know, from the beginning, even before we went to work on it, that Everything Is Copy was going to be the title,” Bernstein admits. “After my mom died, I was still interested in somehow maintaining a dialogue about her because I couldn’t talk with her, and this movie gave me the opportunity to do that, to explore how these people she didn’t tell about her illness felt about that—because it had obviously been a point of real confusion, why this woman who seemed so willing to turn everything in her life into copy would decide to go out in the most private way possible.”

As a vehicle to investigate this, a documentary seemed to him the perfect way to go—the best of both of Ephron’s worlds. “We’re in the golden age of documentaries right now, so—instead of writing memoirs—many of us are doing docs instead. I thought it a very fitting way to pay tribute to her and to explore who she was as a writer.”

Recruiting the talking-head testimonies from the immediate family was toughest for Bernstein. As if his dad wasn’t reticent enough, his Aunt Delia—Ephron’s sister and most frequent collaborator (You’ve Got Mail and Off-Broadway’s long-running Love, Loss and What I Wore)—was slow to board the project. “When someone dies, people don’t just wake up and go, ‘Let’s do an interview on her,’ right? These things can easily become reality shows. They’re saying, ‘Well, what’s it going to be?’ and you’re saying, ‘I’m not exactly sure what it’s going to be,’ which doesn’t make it easier.”

Delia, the most Nora-esque of the sisters, made the leap happily and is the warmest presence in the film. At one point, she begins a story with “Two days before we died,” catches herself and says in dismay, “We died…can you believe that?”

Conspicuously absent from the film: Bernstein’s brother, Max, and Nicholas Pileggi, the Wiseguys author who was, for more than 20 years,Ephron’s third and last husband.

“My brother’s a musician. He’s not in the business. He had a private relationship with my mother, and he wanted to keep it that way. For Nick, it has been a real grieving process. He wasn’t being difficult. He was cooperative in all sorts of other ways. He wasn’t comfortable going onscreen and talking about her. He felt it was a piece about her legacy, and he didn’t need to be there. He wasn’t a character in that.”

Mike Nichols also was reluctant, and his appearance is a complete testament to his affection for Ephron. “I think he was having a difficult time figuring out how he was going to talk about her and how he was going to talk honestly to me about that period, given that I have loyalties to my father. Mike, after all, was the messenger that my father was ready to shoot, so the situation was quite complicated.”

Nichols speaks eloquently but seemingly with difficulty and looks fragile, compared to his appearance in Becoming Mike Nichols, last month’s HBO special, which was filmed two months after Everything Is Copy and four months before his death.

“I have a walkup, and we actually shot it in my apartment. I remember he had trouble getting up the stairs. It was totally wrong of me to bring him there. But he seemed to get better over the next couple of months. We went to ‘Saturday Night Live’ one night after we had seen Hedwig, and he was in pretty good spirits.”

Nichols, who canned a crewmember on his first film for saying in front of him, “It’s only a movie,” would probably have applauded Ephron’s tendency to fire people for a single infraction. And now Bernstein knows where she was coming from, just on the basis of his first experience as a filmmaker. “If you’re working on something with 50 people, odds are there’ll be ten who are incompetent,” he explains. “Things aren’t as good as they could be the first time you do it. You often need to do it again.”

A handy case-in-point is the trailer HBO recently delivered for his documentary. “I said, ‘It’s not where it needs to be to go out,’ so then the person you are saying that to is annoyed at you for a day. You’re difficult because you’re the person who said, ‘You need to go back and do a second pass on it.’ That’s sort of what being the boss is, in some way, and I think a lot of people are uncomfortable with it, but she wasn’t.

“There’s no question that she had idiosyncrasies and requirements that were confusing to people, particularly when they were lazy. There’s this story about shooting This Is My Life in Toronto—a scene that took place in a Jewish deli, and she said, ‘There has to be Dr. Brown’s Cream Soda.’ She made it very clear that nothing else would suffice, and when the prop people went out and got generic cream soda, she lost her cool. But that’s also good direction, and good direction is specific.”

Unlike most biographers, Bernstein had the decided advantage of knowing who his mother’s pets were, and he plucked from that inner circle generously. The crème de la crème poured forth in droves, but he was nevertheless judicious about it. “We didn’t want to fall into the trap of having celebrities merely for the sake of having celebrities. I think that’s one of the mistakes these documentaries sometimes make.

“The thing that makes Meryl’s appearance so beautiful, as far as I’m concerned, is that quote that she says at the end, how my mother achieved a private act in a world where the most superficial parts of the most private celebrity are sold to the public. That reflected a real understanding of who my mother was and how she changed.”

Bernstein believes he has more documentaries in him—but nothing this personal, please—and he has been shopping around a few ideas for future development. For the present, however, he is wholly content to be a member of the Style section of The New York Times. It was The Times that opened the door just a crack to this documentary world. Back when he was freelancing for the paper, he interviewed Lisa Immordino Vreeland about a film she had done on her grandmother-in-law, Diana Vreeland. “At the end of the interview, I asked her what she was going to do next. She said, ‘I’m going to do a documentary on Peggy Guggenheim—and there’s something else I’m really interested in doing.’ I said, ‘What’s that?’ She said, ‘Nora Ephron.’ And I said, ‘Well, I think there’s someone in front of you for that one.’

“It was actually the first time I’d articulated I would do the documentary myself.”