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Ephron adds to her resume

She gave us Heartburn and allowed moviegoers to eavesdrop When Harry Met Sally. Now director/co-screenwriter Nora Ephron has reinvented the romantic comedy with Sleepless in Seattle, the summer's best date movie and a joy to behold.

The film, which opens Friday, stars Tom Hanks and Ephron's favorite female actor, Meg Ryan, as a couple whose love affair is in the cards, even if the deck is stacked against them. He lives in Seattle, she lives in Baltimore, and their fateful encounter-to-be is traced wittily by Ephron, who claims she doesn't believe in the same sense of romantic destiny that Sleepless in Seattle embraces.

"But even people like me reinvent and modify our theories about destiny," Ephron said recently during interviews in Los Angeles. "Everyone starts out thinking that somewhere out there is the right person for me, if I could just find him. Then you realize that you could marry all sorts of people . . . and you do. Ha, ha."

Ephron's sarcastic laugh and inside reference wasn't lost on the reporters. Her bitter breakup with journalist Carl Bernstein inspired her novel Heartburn and she adapted the movie script for Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep. That was the start of a Hollywood career that led to an Oscar nomination for her When Harry Met Sally screenplay and a first directing assignment, last year's This Is My Life.

Sleepless in Seattle was to be a quick paycheck, a three-week rewrite to pay bills. Jeff Arch's original story and script wasn't funny or cohesive and at one time the project was to be scrapped by Tri-Star Pictures. "It needed to be fixed and I knew how to fix it," Ephron said with typical confidence.

Other problems arose. Director Nick Castle was fired because of the usual "creative differences" with executives, then several Tri-Star heads rolled. Producer Gary Foster asked Ephron to step in as director. She gave him what she called "a Cuomo no," meaning there was a possibility of accepting.

When Ephron gave in, another obstacle popped up. Julia Roberts was signed for the Ryan role, but her contract meant that producer Ray Stark would step in for producer Foster. According to Ephron, Stark "doesn't like my style" and problems would be inevitable. Eventually, Roberts dropped out, taking Stark with her. Ryan joined Hanks and filming began with a director still unaccustomed to those duties.

"I couldn't believe how much I learned every single week that I didn't know before," Ephron said. "You go from making a basically low-budget movie _ $9-million _ to making a $25-million movie where the producer says: "Well, it's supposed to be New Year's Eve . . . should we have fireworks?' It's like, oh, please, let's have fireworks.

"You go from having a nice cinematographer on my first film, to making my second film with (Ingmar Bergman's favorite) Sven Nykvist. It was thrilling to have a cinematographer who can do anything and has done everything. This was my second movie and it was his 102nd."

Whatever Ephron lacked in experience, she compensated for with an obsession with making Sleepless in Seattle as rich in romance and wit as possible. At its heart, the film is both a tribute to the classic tearjerker and an observation on how movies direct our love lives. Ephron even uses the 1957 weeper An Affair to Remember as a recurring theme. She wanted her movie to be something to remember.

"The thing that I drove everyone insane about during this movie was the word timeless," Ephron said. "If we got away with what we were doing here _ making fun of all those movies about love, then end up being one of them _ this would be a movie that people will go back to 10, 20 or 30 years from now. When I saw the movie, I knew that we hit it out of the park."

Ryan, whose two best performances now have come compliments of Ephron, agrees.

"When a good piece of writing comes along _ which doesn't happen very often _ you jump up and down," said Ryan. "Nora happens to be an amazing writer. I love being around her and I can't believe she likes me in any way.

"Nora's the star of this movie. It's her tone, her sensibility and, really, it's her fantasy."

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