The four-way call in “When Harry Met Sally …” is so perfectly acted, you don’t realize how difficult it was for director Rob Reiner to pull off.
Sometimes, it takes 30 years to fully appreciate one scene amid the greatness of “When Harry Met Sally …”
The definitive rom-com has so much firepower, with pitch-perfect performances from Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan as friends turned lovers, and iconic moments such as the fake orgasm at Katz’s Deli.
But as the film marks its 30th anniversary Friday, respect must be paid to lesser-known genius moments, like the four-way call between Crystal’s Harry and his best friend, Jess (Bruno Kirby), about spending the night with Ryan’s Sally – as she’s talking to her best friend, Marie (Carrie Fisher).
The scene deserves constant YouTube replay.
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“On the surface, that scene looks like the simplest thing in the world – four people on the phone,” director Rob Reiner says. “What people don’t understand is that there is no way to cut away if someone makes even the smallest mistake.”
No green screen or camera cuts were used in the scene, which required three sets linked by real phone lines to allow each actor to hear the other’s voice for timing.
The group rehearsed intensely and spent the day shooting more than 60 takes of the four pages of dialogue before they nailed it.
One earlier take (Reiner estimates it would have been in the low 50s) went perfectly, but as the cast celebrated, a sound technician informed them that birds rustling in the studio rafters had ruined it. (“When Harry killed birdie,” Crystal joked when discussing the scene with Ryan and Reiner at TCM Classic Film Festival in April.)
The birds were shooed out of the studio and Take 56 seemed like it would be flawless, with each character hanging up the phone in order.
“But the last part of the scene is Bruno and Carrie in bed. And Bruno had the last line. And he blew it. So we had to go back to the beginning,” Reiner says. “You just start over. What are you going to do?”
Reiner estimates that Take 61 was the perfect combination, and the scene is pure enchantment.
“It’s like doing a magic trick: No one sees the trick because it doesn’t look like anything,” he says. “But technical people have always asked me, ‘How did you do that?’ “
The museum scene in “When Harry Met Sally …” features Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan at their best, and a furtive look away from the camera by Ryan.
The director discussed another “When Harry Met Sally …” secret that makes one classic scene even better. As Harry and Sally, still just friends, walk through the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Harry instructs Sally to speak in a ridiculous voice.
Sally agrees, but shoots a confused look away from the camera. The reason: Crystal hadn’t told Ryan the odd voice was coming to ensure a spontaneous response.
“Billy came up with the idea of that voice and Meg was thrown by it,” Reiner says. “You can see that in the scene: She looks over at me and I’m watching on the monitor, waving at her to keep going. And she went right back into it.”
The actors shot the scene twice more, but no take was as special and fresh as the first, which made it into the film. The lightness is in stark contrast to the awkwardness of the conversation that follows, as Sally reveals to Harry that she’s going on a date with another man.
“When Harry Met Sally …” will return to theaters nationwide Dec. 1 and 3 as part of Fathom Events’ TCM Big-Screen Classics series.
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