Sleeping In Seattle

When Nora Ephron's film crew came to town, they found what they were looking for and ended up staying for most of last summer making the Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan romantic comedy.

If not for Sand Point Naval Base, writer-director Nora Ephron's "Sleepless in Seattle" would not have spent most of last summer here.

"It was always set in Seattle," said the movie's producer, Gary Foster, speaking by phone from Los Angeles. "But when we were looking for locations, we couldn't find a warehouse large enough for one set. Without permission to shoot at Sand Point, we couldn't afford to spend much time in Seattle. It was a key consideration."

The $25 million romantic comedy, which stars Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, goes into national release Friday. Almost $4 million of that budget stayed here: $1.3 million went to Seattle labor, $1 million for hotels and meals, and about $450,000 to local vendors.

"Seattle has the potential to be a full-service town, and I think it wants to be," Foster added. "The other consideration is the labor pool. It costs money to import labor, to put the crew up, to pay their air fare. If the crew is already there, it keeps costs down.

"There's a nice pool of talent in Seattle. Nora was looking for someone like Shelley Duvall for one role, and we were at the Gravity Bar when we saw this waitress, Amanda Maher, who had that quality. We asked her to audition and she turned out to be so natural, so real, that she got the part. She also gets some big laughs wherever the picture's been shown."

The project began several years ago as an original screenplay by Jeff Arch. David S. Ward, who won an Academy Award for "The Sting," did a rewrite, then Ephron got involved. According to Foster, she de-emphasized the story's sentiment, and almost all the dialogue is hers. Nominated for screenplay Oscars for "Silkwood" and "When Harry Met Sally . . .," Ephron ended up directing the film as well.

The original director, Nick Castle, bowed out because "he didn't feel comfortable with the direction Nora took it in. Nora is not the most sentimental person. She brought to it an edge, and a concern with social issues that wasn't in it before." Castle went on to direct "Dennis the Menace," which also goes into national release Friday.

"As soon as Nora's draft of the script got out, the phones wouldn't stop ringing," said Foster, adding that Julia Roberts and Sharon Stone were interested in Ryan's role. "Nora directed it almost exactly as I wanted it.

"The story was always about two people living on opposite sides of the country who come together. I don't think Jeff had ever been to Seattle, so at first it was more about the title than it was about the city. That is, until we got closer to the city, and it became very clear that Seattle was an important location. `Sleepless in Generic' is not what it's about."

There's nothing generic about living on a houseboat, as the Tom Hanks character does. Among the locations that give the movie its authentic Seattle look is, of course, the Pike Place Market: the Athenian Inn, the Inn at the Market, and several First Avenue shops. Several scenes were shot at the Sorrento Hotel as well.

Seattle moviegoers also will recognize Alki Beach, the Fremont Bridge, SeaTac airport, the Dahlia Lounge, Gove's Cove on Westlake Avenue. And of course, the rain.

Vancouver, which stood in for Seattle in "Stakeout" and several other films, was briefly considered. But Foster, who spent some time in Vancouver while his producer-father, David Foster, was working on "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" 20 years ago, preferred not to use it.

"I'm going to get in trouble with the Canadians for saying this, but it feels like any city. It's not as bohemian, not as diverse as Seattle. I can see the difference between an American and a Canadian city, and Vancouver doesn't feel American."

On the other hand, Foster thought a house on Queen Anne Hill suggested Baltimore enough to stand in for the Baltimore home of Ryan's parents. Ironically, the Sand Point space in Hangar 27 was needed to create a replica of the observation deck of the Empire State Building. The real thing was unavailable for filming.

This New York touch recalls the tear-jerker finale of the romantic 1957 Cary Grant/Deborah Kerr classic, "An Affair to Remember," and snippets from that film are used to pay homage. "Affair" is being considered for a full-blown remake with Warren Beatty and Annette Bening, but Foster wonders if that's possible now.

"It may be difficult to do that because there's such a connection to that movie within our movie," he said. "I know that Warren has seen `Sleepless in Seattle,' but I don't know what he thinks."

Originally scheduled for an early-April release, "Sleepless in Seattle" has ended up in competition with the summer blockbusters because Tri-Star executives think it can be a romantic hot-weather hit. They believe that, like "Ghost," "An Officer and a Gentleman" and "When Harry Met Sally . . .," it will attract women who aren't interested in Schwarzenegger, Stallone or prehistoric terror.

Early reviews have been encouraging. Variety's Brian Lowry wrote that the movie "delivers ample warmth and some explosively funny moments in its quest for `sleeper' status," although he added that "it's so self-consciously what Hanks' character calls `a chicks' movie' it may limit box-office potency."

Sassy magazine's Margie (Sassy acknowledges no last names in its movie reviews) recommended it while nothing that "other reviewers are gonna say it's a `date movie,' but it isn't, because no actual boy can compare to the magic of the movies, which is why we like the movies, which is one of the points this movie makes."

"We thought this had the potential to play for months and months," said Foster. "If it had come out in April, we would already have spent the bulk of our marketing dollars by the time `Cliffhanger' and `Jurassic Park' arrived. You have to spend enough to get people to know you're there. This kind of counterprogramming in the summer seems to work."

A benefit premiere of "Sleepless in Seattle" has been set for 7 p.m. Thursday at the Cinedome. Proceeds go to the Pike Place Market Foundation. Ephron and Foster are scheduled to attend. Tickets are $20 for the movie, or $75 for the film plus a post-screening dinner at the Dahlia Lounge. For information, call 682-7453.