'It's Always Personal': A Chat With Jacob Bernstein On Nora Ephron and Everything Is Copy

Illustration for article titled 'It's Always Personal': A Chat With Jacob Bernstein On Nora Ephron and Everything Is Copy

Almost three years ago, Jacob Bernstein announced his plans to make a documentary about his late mother, Nora Ephron. In a quick blog at the time, I wrote that it would “make all of us cry.” After seeing it this past Tuesday, I can report that my prediction was correct.


Everything Is Copy, premiering Monday night on HBO, takes its name from a philosophy Ephron inherited from her mother, and is a lovely and unexpectedly profound exploration of how she lived her life. I chatted with Bernstein, a features writer at The New York Times, about the long process of making the film—as well as coming to a deeper understanding of its title—on the phone this week.

Without seeing the trailer, I didn’t know exactly what to expect from the documentary, to be honest—you know, whether it would be more Stories We Tell or Bill Cunningham. You had all this content from your mother, but what was the first step in assembling it? How did it begin to take shape?

Do you want the long version or the short version?

The long version works.

The last 24 hours before she died, I began to call her friends. And rather than finding those conversations impossible or stilted, I thought that it was a strangely cathartic experience. I don’t believe in closure. I think that’s a really stupid concept. But I do think experiences can be cathartic and I think that after keeping that secret for as long as we did, I certainly had a need emotionally to discuss her, to discuss what had happened, to not be in a bunker about what happened to her, and to all of us as a result of it. And I was obviously aware that, as a writer, it was getting time for me to do something larger than the newspaper or magazine pieces that I had done. And I knew that I wasn’t going to write a book about her that was better than any of the books she wrote about herself. That seemed totally obvious to me. So I had seen Joan Rivers, I had seen Bill Cunningham... there had been this rich spate of cultural documentaries, and it seemed to me that this was a sort of ideal way to approach this because it would allow her to be the character at the center of it—to be at her most vivid. And at the same time, I could use it as a way to ask questions about what it means to be a writer, and how she shifted and transformed over the years. So, that summer I was out at our house and realized she had done those books on tape.

So you hadn’t known she’d recorded the books on tape herself until then?

I knew there were books on tape—I figured they had to be out there—but she never would have said, “Oh, I recorded a book on tape last week.” I read her in print. I never listen to books on tape because I don’t drive, and I think if you don’t drive, you almost never listen to books on tape. Though I guess some people do them on the treadmill or Stairmaster. But I don’t do cardio! So there you go.


At any rate, that September, Alexandra Jacobs, who’s an editor at The New York Times, sent me to do a piece on Lisa Immordino Vreeland, who had done the Diana Vreeland movie. And at the end of the interview, I said, “What are you doing next?” And she said, “Well I’m doing a Peggy Guggenheim film, but there’s one other person I’m interested in.” I said, “Who is that?” And she said, “Nora Ephron.” And I said, “Well, I think there may be someone in front of you.” I had already heard Susan Lacy was interested in doing something, and so it seemed both like, why not just do it myself, and if you don’t do this, someone else is going to try to. And some of them may be connected to—if not us, her family—then certainly some of the bigger collaborators that she worked with. I’ve been a journalist for 15 years. I’m aware of how easy it is to get scooped. So I thought, you might wanna move quickly and get there first.

When Frank Rich’s piece came out on my mother, I didn’t love it. And part of what I didn’t love it was that I thought there was a little too much “why weren’t we told” in it. But I also think I didn’t love that he got there before I did! You know? There is power to being first. We have to know that as journalists. I did know that there was a clock. And beyond that, I do believe that, as writers, if we don’t take the experiences that we have and process them creatively, you’re sort of wasting them. My mother certainly made use of hers. That is the long version.


Well, expanding from that, a lot of these people in the film were people you had known in some capacity for most of your life. Maybe all of your life. But apart from calling them after your mother passed away—


It’s fine to say “died.”

I’ll go with “died,” then. Had you discussed her death with those people before filming?

With most of them, those conversations did not occur first.


That’s how it reads.

Meryl spoke at the memorial, and there was an email exchange that we had, but that interview with Meryl was the first and only significant conversation I have ever had with her about my mother. Tom [Hanks], same thing. George Wolfe, he and I never had a real conversation about her—including, by the way, when she was dying. Delia [Ephron], obviously we spoke a fair amount about my mother—we’re really close—but most of them were new. My father [Carl Bernstein], though, there was quite a lot of lead-up to that talk.


How long was that talk?

You mean how long was our Mexican standoff?

Haha. Yes.

I would say that it began in May of 2013, and we shot in 2015. So two years.

At what point between those two Mays did he agree? When did the sign-off happen?

I would say about six weeks before we did it, it became clear that he kind of had come to accept that he should maybe do this. There was quite a lot of psychological pressure placed on him along the way. He had reservations, as I’ve said. We’re all aware of how exhibitionistic some of these endeavors are now. We live in an era of reality TV—some of which is pretty good! But that also wasn’t something he wanted to appear in. He wasn’t thinking, when his ex-wife died, may I revisit this in another movie?


I know your brother [Max] chose not to appear in it, but was there anyone else who ultimately agreed who was initially hesitant to involve?

Bryan Lourd, her agent, took forever. I love him to pieces, but Bryan is not a person who loves doing interviews. I think part of why he may have done it was because Mike Nichols had died at that point, and Mike was also his client. Kate Capshaw said to me at some point—and they came near the end, Kate and Steven [Spielberg]—and Kate said that it felt like she was going in to have her teeth pulled. I feel bad about that, but I get it. If you’re eager to do an interview like this, you’re perhaps the person who’s least valuable to that undertaking.

So you started screening this last fall?

We screened it at New York Film Festival in September, but some people saw an early cut of it in December of 2014, before my father signed on. And we were in OK shape by that point, but we still would have had to have a photo of him in the center of the screen, kind of moving across as my voice talked about his unwillingness to participate. And his not participating required a different sort of explanation than the ones for, you know, my stepfather and my brother, who in some ways, I don’t think you needed in the film. With my father, it was essential. It was the middle. The pivot-point of the movie.


Did he see one of those earlier cuts?

No. No, no, no. I would not have shown my father a frame of this until it was done and locked. He saw it after Amy [Ephron], Delia, and Nick [Pileggi, Nora’s husband]. I love my dad to pieces, but giving him the control to give input on my movie would have been a big mistake.


You mentioned not believing in closure earlier, and during the screening Tuesday that you said felt like this process felt more like “continuance.” Did that topic ever come up with your mother when she discussed the death of her parents?

Yes. Well, her mother was one of the few things that she wasn’t totally consistent on. You know? Because there was the mother that she had in the first part of her life, and then there was the mother she had from 14 through her 20s. So my mom felt disappointed by Phoebe, my grandmother. But I think at the end of her life—as my mother kind of softened some—she was more nostalgic in admiring her. You can see that in that essay about Lillian Ross and saying, “How do you manage it all?” and her mother throws her out. I think it becomes clear that she realized, at the end, that her mom was someone she admired more than she knew. For a long time I didn’t get that sense. For a long time I just got the sense of them as drunks. When her father died, she just kept going. There was no pause for him. She was angry at him, and by the way, he was a terrible grandfather. He was a total narcissist. He wrote a memoir and it was one of those memoirs that has no reason for existing beyond the that there was sort of a success somewhere in the middle. And there is no honest exploration of what happened to my grandmother, and her death from cirrhosis.


At the end of the movie, there’s this very lovely revelation about “everything is copy”—that she didn’t really mean everything, only everything she’s lost. To me, it came out of nowhere. Maybe I wasn’t being analytical enough while watching it, but when did [that realization] come to you?


I don’t know! There are certain things that I can look at and think, “OK, I know when the realization was for this.” But I know that towards the end of the movie, my crew interviewed me. We were sort of looking to get some extemporaneous stuff and I said all of that [part of the film’s closing narration]. Maybe it was then. I certainly knew going into this that there were a number of things that were left off the table with my mother. She didn’t write about me in any real way. There are a couple of things in the last essay collections that come close, but barely. So it wasn’t as though everything had been used. I think some of this was slow rather than the light bulb going off.

It was a moment that took it from a great memorial to your mother to a brilliant documentary? That’s not to speak less highly of it in in the form that I assumed it was taking based on the first three quarters, but when that happens and I realized how everything was coming together—with the title, specifically—I kept wondering when it all occurred to you.


My father had been shrieking this. My father had really believed that the whole “everything is copy” thing was a schtick. I don’t agree with him about that. But I think she was able, at a certain point, to differentiate between the things that she wanted to keep as her own, and the things that were expendable and ephemeral and had left—the things that were gone.

It’s easy to assume “everything is copy” is a schtick! I think the movie does a good job of convincing you that it’s not.


Yes, I don’t think it was. One of the realizations that I had was that I think it was a schtick to my grandmother. I don’t think it was a schtick at all with my mother.


That’s the sense that I got. It read to me that she even thought it was a schtick and eventually decided that it wouldn’t be for her.

Yes! That’s completely right. You look at the stuff she wrote about Dan Greenburg [Ephron’s first husband]. And there was that piece she wrote about everyone she knew getting crabs. She really did go quite far out there at a point when self exposure was hardly the standard or the norm.


Do you find yourself saying it, even half seriously? Or is “everything is copy” for your mom and Phoebe?

No, it’s really not my life. My life as a journalist is about writing about other people. That said, I think the best pieces that I’ve done—even for The New York Times, where they’re third person as opposed to first person—are stories where I find something about myself or my interests in the story that I’m telling. Whether it’s the old New York of Donna Summer’s era, which was an early piece I did, or some of the pieces that we’ve written about gay men and aging and this epidemic of suicides which relates to a lot of what I’m seeing in my friends who are in their late 30s to late 40s and are grappling with what it means to get older.


You know, I think the best stuff is always personal in one way or another. I did a piece on Nile Rodgers in November. I was obsessed with those old records that he had done for Chic and Diana Ross and Madonna, and he recalled the city of my childhood again. It was another example of that. A time when there were still nightclubs and there weren’t publicists everywhere and hedge fund managers didn’t invade restaurants six minutes after they opened. It’s all personal. It’s always personal. And if it’s not, it doesn’t make sense to me.

Staff Writer, Jezebel | Man


Bobby Finger

Here’s the passage Jacob referenced from Ephron’s essay “The Legend”: