In her articles, books and screenplays, Nora Ephron wrote with wit and candor about the most intimate of topics — her divorce, her parents' alcoholism, her small breasts.
In "Everything Is Copy," a documentary premiering Monday night on HBO, Ephron's son Jacob Bernstein picks up the mantle of disclosure, providing a new window into the feisty, funny feminist who wrote "Silkwood" and "When Harry Met Sally ..." and directed "Sleepless in Seattle" and "Julie & Julia." Taken from a credo of Ephron's mother, who was also a screenwriter, the documentary's title reflects the family philosophy that life's worst moments ultimately yield the best stories.
That message clearly has sunk in for Bernstein, a 37-year-old New York Times writer who, along with his younger brother, Max, is the child of Ephron and journalist Carl Bernstein. He began thinking about telling his version of Ephron's story as she was dying of leukemia in 2012.
"If you have an experience that's a big experience and you're a writer, you'd better take advantage of it in some way," Bernstein said. "I said to her when she decided to do the chemo, 'I'm gonna take some notes while you're in the hospital, because if this doesn't work out, I might want to write about it,' and she was fine about that."
Bernstein began the cathartic process of talking with Ephron's friends while she was sick for a New York Times Magazine story pegged to a play she wrote that premiered after her death called "Lucky Guy."
"Instead of finding the conversations pained, I found it strangely lovely," Bernstein said.
"There's a side to death that's unexpectedly beautiful, and so when she died, I didn't really want to stop having those conversations."
"Everything Is Copy" draws on those interviews — with Ephron's high-wattage friends, including Meryl Streep, Meg Ryan, Steven Spielberg, Gay Talese, Barry Diller and the late Mike Nichols — as well as home movies, audio clips and scenes from her films.
In an interview this month, it became clear that Bernstein shares some of his mother's signature qualities — a tart sense of humor, for one, and a love of good gossip. "Other people's mothers planned their bar mitzvahs. Mine planned movies," Bernstein said, explaining what it was like to grow up on the Upper West Side as Ephron was forging her filmmaking career.
He remembers an after-school visit to the bookstore Shakespeare & Co. during the filming of the scene in "When Harry Met Sally" where Ryan and Billy Crystal's characters collide in the personal growth section. His first job was at Eeyore's, the children's bookstore that helped inspire "You've Got Mail." As a teen, he moped on the Toronto set of "This Is My Life,"
Ephron's 1992 dramedy about a single mother, played by Julie Kavner, trying to become a comedian.
"At 14, you're looking to resent your mother," Bernstein said. "So bam! We convicted her of leaving us alone to go make movies. And there she was doing this film about a woman whose two daughters were convicting their mother for leaving them alone."
Bernstein was game to answer questions about what Ephron would make of the Hillary Clinton campaign (according to him, his mother never forgave her for sticking by Bill) or the current discussion about the lack of female directors in Hollywood.
"My mom felt that she was up against a lot of men who frequently said stupid things like, 'I don't understand what the movie is here,' which really meant 'What's this narrative that's solely not about a straight white guy?'" Bernstein said. "But I do think there was a kind of getting-on-with-it thing she felt women needed to do. At various points, she felt slightly boxed in, both because of her gender and because of the success of her romantic comedies."
Origins of documentary
Three months after his mother's death, Bernstein took an assignment to write a profile of filmmaker Lisa Immordino Vreeland, who had just made a documentary about fashion editor Diana Vreeland and was weighing her next project, perhaps a film on Peggy Guggenheim, she said, or one on Ephron.
"I said, 'Well, there might be someone in line ahead of you,'" Bernstein said. "I think it was the first time I said out loud that I wanted to do this."
Bernstein quickly secured financing with the help of Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, who has an executive producer credit on the film, and he began looking at the cultural documentaries he loved, in particular 2008's "Valentino: The Last Emperor," which tucks a tender love story into a profile of two larger-than-life characters. Bernstein ultimately hired that film's editor, Bob Eisenhardt, to help guide him through the process, including figuring out how much of himself to include or not include.
"It was very easy to see from the footage of me that I wasn't as interesting as she was," Bernstein said.
The documentary's most powerful interview is one it took the director two years to get — with his own father, Carl Bernstein, whose infidelity and 1980 divorce from Ephron inspired her to write the autobiographical novel and ultimately the screenplay for "Heartburn," the 1986 Nichols-directed movie starring Streep and Jack Nicholson.
"I went to see Mike Nichols," Jacob Bernstein said. "His advice was, 'You'd better be prepared to deal with this, because if you don't, you don't have a movie.'"
But Carl Bernstein, who had always resented the public spectacle of his divorce, wasn't eager to re-live that phase of life.
"My father was not thrilled with the idea of my doing this," Jacob Bernstein said. "He's in a happy marriage. He didn't enjoy being a symbol of caddism in the late '70s, early '80s. It was complicated."
The resulting tender scene, however, shows father and son discussing the effect of Ephron's decision to mine the era in her work.
Bernstein said there was an element of saying goodbye to his mother that didn't begin until the credits rolled on "Everything Is Copy."
"When this was done, it was like, 'Now what?'" he said. "It was a little bit — please have a sense of humor when you write this — but it was a little like my version of Jeremy Renner at the end of 'Hurt Locker' when he's in the frozen foods aisle and he's just looking at normalcy. I did not go to Iraq, obviously, but it was a lot. I think there was a little bit of magical thinking in all of this. You don't really think you can bring the person back, but you kind of keep them alive by watching them and researching them and being with them on a monitor all day long."
'Everything is Copy'
6 p.m. Monday