The chick flick world lost an icon last month when Nora Ephron, writer of rom-com classics like “When Harry Met Sally” and “Sleepless in Seattle,” passed away. In her honor — and, okay, because it rained all weekend and I couldn’t go outside — I popped in my DVD of “Sleepless” last Sunday and re-watched it for the I-don’t-know-how-many-th time.
What struck me about it was…well, not the plot. Ephron wasn’t known for Hitchcockian twists. When you watch one of her movies, you know what you’re going to get: boy meets girl >> complications ensue >> love and happy endings triumph — sometimes at the expense of believability. Honestly, “Sleepless in Seattle” could have actually been uber creepy. I mean, Meg Ryan basically stalks Tom Hanks. If a guy I'd never met wrote me letters, had a private investigator take pictures of me and then flew across the country to follow me around for a couple of days, I'd file for a restraining order, not welcome him into my family.
But that’s where Ephron’s talent came into play. In less capable hands, her movies would have been formulaic and unrealistic, but she sold them to us — making them go-to films that women (and many men, though they probably won’t admit it) can relate to. According to IMDB, “Sleepless in Seattle” grossed $227 million worldwide…and this was back in 1993.
How did Ephron do it? In a word: dialogue. Take, for example, one of my favorite scenes in "Sleepless." Tom Hanks’ widowed father character talks with his friend, played by Rob Reiner, about how he should ask out an interior designer for the first time.
Reiner: What do you mean how do you do it? You call her up, you say, "Let's look at swatches."
Hanks: Call her on the phone? Say, "Let's look at swatches"?
Reiner: Yeah, you know, color schemes.
Hanks: She's not gonna see right through that?
Reiner: You don't do it like I do it. You do it in your own suave way. Think Cary Grant.
Hanks: Cary Grant would call up and say, "Come over and look at my swatches"?
Reiner: How do you know? Maybe he did.
Hanks: “Gunga Din”?
Reiner: “Gunga Din” is not a swatch kind of movie. Who knows what he did in real life?
Hanks: He did that with Dyan Cannon?
Reiner: "Hello Dyan, come take a look at these swatches."
These lines aren’t essential to the plot; we already know Hanks’ character is nervous about dating again. Their purpose is more subtle than that. Ephron’s characters talk like we talk. They speculate about celebrities. They make fun of things. They’re people we could be friends with.
And that’s why, when Hanks’ fictional 9-year-old son hops a plane to New York and hangs out on top of the Empire State Building all day, we’re able to suppress realistic questions (like, isn’t he hungry? Or, why does no one notice a 9-year-old kid wandering around a crowded landmark alone, asking women if they're named Annie? Or, how did he pay for that taxi cab?) and just go with it.
Believable dialogue is key — and anyone in sales should take this lesson to heart. I’ve talked to agents, read books, sat in conference sessions and even published articles about lines that “sell” insurance. I’ve met many who claim the canned phrases they use are incredibly effective. Though I’m not sure how, because most of the time, those obvious lines just make me cringe.
If agents want to convince an increasingly skeptical audience they need adequate life insurance coverage, I’m not sure stilted, “I just read this in a book” sales lines are the way to go. I’d be much more willing to buy from a producer who takes a page from the Ephron playbook and discusses needs and options with me like…well, a regular person.
And if you get nervous deviating from a script, just think Cary Grant.
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