By David Canfield
February 05, 2019 at 10:00 AM EST
Castle Rock/Nelson/Columbia/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

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Katz’s deli. “Baby Fishmouth.” The elaborate apple pie order that inspired thousands of elaborate apple pie orders. In the 30 years since When Harry Met Sally… was released, nearly every scene has become iconic, the stuff of rom-com legend. And from Billy Crystal’s genius improvisation skills to one of the most difficult phone-call scenes ever pulled off on film, there’s a story behind every one.

We couldn’t fit them all here. But director Rob Reiner took us through his favorites, revealing, in turn, how he, writer Nora Ephron, and an incomparable cast made magic together.

When Harry Meets Sally

Everett Collection

Harry (Crystal) and Sally (Meg Ryan) drive from the University of Chicago, where they’ve both just graduated, to New York. The ride is filled with bickering, musings about male-female relationships, and grape-spitting. “The thing about Billy is he comes off as this sweet guy,” Reiner says. “I wanted to make him a little bit rougher around the edges to start. So we came up with this idea of him eating the grapes.” Indeed, this detail wasn’t in the original script. “[Billy] said, ‘I can just be spitting the seeds out the window.’ That’s what gave Harry a little bit more abruptness. Billy and I just came up with that on set as we were doing it.”

Sally’s Apple Pie

Harry and Sally stop for some food while on their road trip, and it’s here where Sally’s infamous apple pie à la mode order was realized. (A snippet: “But I’d like the pie heated, and I don’t want the ice cream on top.”) “When [Nora and I] were working on the script, we went out to lunch one time and Nora ordered like that,” Reiner recalls. “I said, ‘I can’t believe the qualifications you have on how the dish should be served! Let’s put it right in the script.’ So we did.”

Joe and the Mexican Ceramic Tile

Harry and Sally go their separate ways, each meeting romantic partners; the third time they see each other (and decide to dine as friends), Sally has broken up with her beau Joe — and recounts what happened in a monologue delivered searingly by Ryan. “Meg gave that performance three or four times, and it was unbelievably perfect,” Reiner says. So good, in fact, that Ryan did it repeatedly in “one,” meaning without a cut.

“I’ll Have What She’s Having”

What to say about the Katz’s Delicatessen scene that hasn’t already been said? Not much, Reiner admits. Crystal and Ryan’s unique contributions were more evident here than anywhere else: Billy came up with the movie’s most famous line, of course, while Ryan nailed the “faking it” sequence. But…“for the first couple of times, she wasn’t as committed as she was when we eventually got it,” Reiner says. “She was nervous. In front of extras and the crew and everything, and you’re having to pretend to have an orgasm in front of everybody! She did it half-hearted the first few times. I kept saying, ‘No, you’ve got to really go after it. You’ve got to do it full-out.’ ”

Baby Talk

This largely improvised scene, where Harry and new couple Jess (Bruno Kirby) and Marie (Carrie Fisher) try to guess what Sally is drawing, is best known for Kirby authoritatively shouting, “Baby Fishmouth!” But the key to the sequence is the way Sally sketches “baby talk” just poorly enough to inspire the weirdness. “I [told Meg], ‘Do whatever you want to do,’ ” says Reiner. “There was nothing in the script; we just asked her, ‘How would you convey ’baby talk’?” He says of the final drawing: “It’s so perfectly unclear!”

The Sex Part

MGM

“This to me shows you how brilliant an actress Meg is,” Reiner enthuses. Sally asks Harry to come over after learning Joe is getting married; she’s a wreck as she opens the door and says, “Come on in” through tears. “We talk about comedy-anger — this is comedy-cry,” Reiner says. “The balance between real feelings of hurt and getting an audience to laugh is a very hard thing to do, and Meg did it perfectly.” As for what comes next: Well, let’s just say one of the photos above should give you a good idea…

The Morning After

Everett Collection

After Harry and Sally have sex, they call Jess and Marie, respectively, at the exact same time. The camera stays on Kirby and Fisher throughout. “It seems [like] the simplest scene,” Reiner says. “But you’ve got Billy on the phone with Bruno and Carrie on the phone with Meg. Sound people, when they look at it, they go, ‘How the hell did you do that?’ They can’t figure it out.” Reiner explains: “We had three different sets: [One] where Bruno and Carrie were; a separate set where Billy was; and a [third] set where Meg was. It was all on the same soundstage. It’s almost like doing a recording in a studio. The phones were all hooked up to each other, because there are no cuts, if you notice.… If somebody makes a mistake — and it’s a three- to four-page scene — you can’t cover it. You can’t cut away to anything. You have to do it over again.” So how many times did they try to get it right? “We shot it 61 times! If you remember at the end, they each hang up their phone — boom, boom, boom boom — in rhythm. It took forever to get it right. We did one I think 54 in, and we did it: They hung up the phones perfectly. Then Bruno blew his last line. So we had to start over again!”

New Year’s Eve

Harry and Sally break things off after sleeping together but reunite at a New Year’s Eve party, where he finds her and makes a passionate speech. Fittingly, much of it was in Crystal’s words. “Stuff like ‘I love the way your nose crinkles’ — that was Billy — [and] the great line ‘When you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.’ ” Sally replies with the most romantic “I hate you” in movie history. Says Reiner: “It doesn’t matter what she says because, if you turn the sound off, you can see Meg. She’s in love. She’s fallen in love, and she wants to be with him.”

The Alternate Ending

“Initially they weren’t going to get together,” says Reiner on what he and Ephron agreed would be the original ending. “We had it where time goes by, they run into each other in the street…and then they walk in opposite directions. I’d been single for 10 years after having been married for 10 years, and I just couldn’t figure out how it would work again.” But then Reiner met his future wife, Michele Singer, during filming. He found the happy ending he’d stopped believing in — and completed the film as we know it.

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  • 96 minutes
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