Filmed in 1989, director Rob Reiner had less access to movie-making technologies as seen today. Central characters, Harry Burns (Billy Crystal) and Sally Albright (Meg Ryan) finally sleep together after a decade-long friendship. They panic from their individual homes and call their coupled-up friends, Jess (Bruno Kirby) and Marie (Carrie Fisher).
The screen shows Harry on the phone on one side of the screen with Sally at home on her phone on the other side. Sandwiched in the middle are Jess and Marie. The phone conversation had to be orchestrated perfectly because it was collaboratively shot. As a result, the scene ended up being finally completed in 61 takes.
Rob Reiner said one mistake meant the entire scene had to be re-shot
Reiner recalled shooting the scene when the film turned 30 years old in 2019. “On the surface, that scene looks like the simplest thing in the world – four people on the phone,” Reiner told USA Today. “What people don’t understand is that there is no way to cut away if someone makes even the smallest mistake.”
Rather than Reiner shooting each person separately and editing the scene together, he created the set as one large room so the actual call could take place. This allowed the actors to respond quickly and naturally to each other.
The actors dug into the scene, which included intense rehearsals that covered the four pages of dialogue. As seasoned thespians, Fisher, Kirby, Crystal, and Ryan were ready to attack the scene, but it still required endless takes.
Birds and line flubbing led to 61 takes
Reiner recalled how the actors would flawlessly complete the scene, but something would also go wrong. By take number 50 the cast and crew felt that they confidently completely the scene. But a sound technician had to break the news that a flock of birds in the rafters in the studio muffled the sound.
Six more takes and the cast, once again thought the scene was close to being ready to wrap. But during the last moment, Kirby ended up squashing 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 remarked “You just start over. What are you going to do?”
Reiner mused how what appeared to be a simple scene ended up being complex to film. “It’s like doing a magic trick: No one sees the trick because it doesn’t look like anything,” he said. “But technical people have always asked me, ‘How did you do that?’ “