This might be the most iconic four-way phone call scene in all of cinema.
Most of the film’s genius relies on the character’s dynamics and quick dialogue that feels authentically human. Nora Ephron's writing is witty and fun, giving us many memorable quotes and iconic scenes. However, the film’s standout moment has to be its one-minute and twenty-five-second unbroken take of a four-way phone call after the two title characters have slept together. The phone call is between Harry (Billy Crystal) and his best friend, Jess (Bruno Kirby), and Sally (Meg Ryan) and her best friend, Marie (Carrie Fisher).
Director Rob Reiner’s approach to filming this four-way phone call is wild and seems difficult to pull off. Check out the scene and then I will break down how this long take was shot.
Rather than shooting each person separately and editing the scene together, Reiner created a set as one large room so that the calls could take place in real time. The three sets were linked by real phone lines that allowed each actor to hear the other’s voice for timing. The scene had to be well rehearsed and demanded perfection from the cast and crew.
In an interview with USA Today in 2019, Riener reveals that the four-way phone call was done in a single take.
“On the surface, that scene looks like the simplest thing in the world… What people don’t understand is that there is no way to cut away if someone makes even the smallest mistake.”
The group rehearsed intensely and spent a day shooting more than 60 takes of the four pages of dialogue. The cast had nailed the take earlier on in the shoot, but a sound technician informed them that birds rustling in the studio rafters had ruined the take. After the birds were shooed from the studio, Take 56 seemed promising.
Take 56 looked like it was going to be flawless until it came to the final line of the scene.
“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 start over. What are you going to do?”
Reiner believes it took 61 takes to capture the perfect scene.
“It’s like doing a magic trick. No one sees the trick because it doesn’t look like anything. But technical people have always asked me, ‘How did you do that?’”
As filmmakers, we know that we have done our job when it goes unnoticed by the average movie watcher. Reiner created a visual that fits perfectly into the language and tone of the film. Even if the pause between conversations can seem a bit awkward, the pacing and character interactions create a compelling and engaging scene that is difficult to replicate.
Most films with a three-way or four-way phone call will choose to take the path that doesn’t require shooing away birds or 61 takes, but Reiner created something comically human that adds another great layer to this iconic rom-com.
Let us know what you think about the approach to this scene in the comments below!