Anne Before you became a world-famous director of film comedies like Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail, but after you graduated from being the most famous female journalist of your generation, you were a screenwriter. You wrote the movie Silkwood about a real-life corporate whistle-blower. So when Time named three women Persons of the Year for their whistle-blowing, I thought of Karen Silkwood. What attracted you to that story?
Nora What made Karen Silkwood a movie was that she was such an unexpected sort of whistle-blower. She was a real piece of work: complicated, difficult, and a bad candidate for industrial espionage, which is what she was engaged in at the time of her death. Sometimes the most unlikely people turn out to be heroes. That's Karen's story, in one of those one-sentence nutshells that studios love so much, and it's what made me want to write about her.
Anne Would any of the recent real-life whistle-blowing stories make a good film?
Nora So far, I haven't read anything that would make me think that their stories were movies as opposed to television movies, which are, of course, different things. Compare Karen Silkwood with Coleen Rowley [of the FBI], for in-stance, whose whistle-blowing is consistent with the way that she has lived her entire life. From a screenwriter's point of view, you don't have the sort of character development that you've got with Karen Silkwood.
Anne In 1996, when you gave the commencement address at Wellesley College, you admonished the young women to be the heroines of their lives. What did you mean?
Nora I didn't mean "heroines" in an epic sense. I meant heroines as protagonists, not supporting actors in the story of their own lives — women who understand that they have choices and who have enough advantages that there's no one but themselves to blame if things don't turn out the way that they'd hoped. Someone very smart once wrote that the hardest thing for women to give up when they begin to achieve equality will be the habit of an alibi.
Anne We're not postfeminist — we're post-alibi! You've worked in male-dominated professional worlds: journalism during the 1960s and 1970s and Hollywood during the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. How did those fields and eras differ in allowing women to be heroines?
Nora Journalism today is very different for women. When I started out at the New York Post in 1963, there were only two women reporters at the New York Times — well, maybe three, but the point is that there were hardly any. The movie business has also changed dramatically in the past 10 years. There are many, many more women executives, producers, and agents. And while the number of women directors is small on a percentage basis, there are many more women directing.
Anne Given that you don't make "big" movies, is it more difficult than it was a decade ago for you to make the films that you want to make?
Nora It was hard 10 years ago, and it's even harder now. A studio would much rather make a $110 million action movie with a big star than a $10 million movie with a little one. I wish this weren't also true for the theater — but it is. Bigger and dumber is better. And it's even true for publishing.
Anne Because big profits in blockbuster-sized tranches of cash are the obsession of the entertainment conglomerates.
Nora The dirty little secret of the movie business is that there are no profits. In fact, italicize that: There are no profits. The entire movie business is a Ponzi scheme that's set up to allow a small number of people to live lavishly. And those people — many of whom went into the business because they wanted to make good movies — after a few years, they just want to keep their jobs. They're sort of like Al Gore: They want to stay in office so badly that they've forgotten why they wanted the job in the first place.
Anne Al Gore syndrome: Preventing that chronic illness is something that we all need to do in our professional lives.
A version of this article appeared in the May 2003 issue of Fast Company magazine.