Fill Your Inbox With These Secrets From You've Got Mail

You've Got Mail and we've got all the secrets about Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan's timeless 1998 romantic comedy, written and directed by Nora Ephron.

By Tierney Bricker Dec 18, 2023 8:00 AMTags
Watch: Red Carpet Rewind: Tom Hanks

Do you hear that sound? It's your dial-up connecting you to AOL and its chat rooms.

Yes, we're taking you back to a time before WiFi. Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan's 1998 romantic comedy You've Got Mail came out 25 years ago on Dec. 18, 1989—and we'd send you a bouquet of newly sharpened pencils to commemorate, if only we knew your name and address. 

While it's easy for some to knock the Nora Ephron film for its now-outdated technology (RIP AOL) or maybe being a Sleepless in Seattle quasi-sequel, You've Got Mail is so much more than that. And, it far outlives the tech used to help tell the love story of the Joe Fox (Hanks), the Fox Books heir, and Kathleen Kelly (Ryan), the owner of The Shop Around the Corner. 

It's not only a love letter to New York but also one to independent bookstores (and now, somewhat ironically, for the big bad chains that put them out of business). Essentially, it's the love letter to all love letters.

Meg Ryan's Best Rom Com Roles

Come on, this is the movie that inspired Mindy Kaling to throw a themed dinner party at Christmas, because as any true You've Got Mail fan knows, it totally counts as a Christmas movie. (Never. Enough. Twinkle. Lights.) In fact, she loves the movie so much she even paid homage to it on The Mindy Project, naming a bar after the "so stylish in that really understated hot Manhattan librarian way" Kathleen Kelly.

Yes, Ryan's wardrobe is a true star of the movie. And so is Ephron, who directed the movie and co-wrote it with her sister, Delia. Ephron, who passed away in 2012, was a journalist-turned-screenwriter-turned-director credited for saving the romantic comedy genre with her signature brand of wit and wistfulness. She loved love but was also practical. She could make caviar funny and flour floating into the air romantic.

And now, we're uncovering some of the best secrets from the classic, which is the rare movie that happens to be so era-specific (they met in an over-30s chat room!) yet so timeless...

1. Nora Ephron was notoriously a very specific director, with a love for little details to add authenticity, especially when it came to establishing New York City, one of the great loves of her life.

During the infamous "that caviar is a garnish!" face-off between Joe and Kathleen (Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan), Ephron, a foodie herself, insisted on a lavish spread, and even was upset that the avocados weren't Hass. "'Oh, that is so sad,'" script supervisor Dianne Dreyer recalled the director saying. (That caviar garnish bit was not in the original script, by the way, with Ephron adding it in on set because she found the word garnish funny. She was right.)

She even made sure to have the same extras in the background of various scenes to make the Upper West Side feel like a little community; she wanted it to feel really lived-in.

"The extra who is playing the florist [in the beginning of the film] is pregnant," Ephron revealed on the DVD commentary. "We put a little pad in her tummy. And one of the things you will see later in the movie is when Meg is buying flowers at that florist, there's a little sign in the window that says, 'It's a girl.'"

2. The film was originally titled You Have Mail and was only changed because a consultant hired by Warner Bros. discovered AOL hadn't trademark "You've Got Mail," the infamous greeting by Elwood Edwards from 1989.  (Elwood's agent tried to get him a voice credit in the movie...which was denied.)

A legal issue the movie couldn't avoid, however? They had to ask the woman who had the username Shopgirl to give up the name so they could use it for Kathleen's handle. As Ephron revealed, "She actually worked at an autobody shop."

3. In order to portray bookshop owner Kathleen Kelly, Ryan, along with her co-star Heather Burns, trained in an actual book shop. "We worked...[in a] children's bookstore for a week," she told Vanity Fair. "We learned the register so we would look natural when we got in the store."

In the original script, Kathleen's name was actually Betsy, a nod to Elizabeth Bennett from Pride & Prejudice (which also factors into the storyline). Ryan had it changed, as it was the name of her character on As the World Turns. She also suggested adding in the twirling memory for Kathleen and her mother (We. Cry. Every. Time.) and the scene when Kathleen ends up pointing a knife at Joe after learning his identity at the book party.

And when it came to Kathleen's now-iconic librarian-chic wardrobe, Ryan had one piece she insisted be used: That Marc Jacobs dress she wears in the final scene of the film. The costume designer, who was avoiding high-end pieces in the character's very feminine-yet-utilitarian wardrobe, relented—but did add a sweater over it. 

"That saved the dress for me," Albert Wolsky said in Erin Carlson's book, I'll Have What She's Having.

4. While it's obviously very dated now, the movie was pretty of-the-moment when it came to computers, chat rooms and all that jazz. However, one of its stars was a bit hesitant to embrace technology. Ryan didn't have a personal computer until she received a Mac PowerBook on set. Her first email was sent to Hanks.

She never attempted chat rooms, though. As for Hanks? He once checked out a 2001: A Space Odyssey chatroom. Alas, no one else was in it. 

Fortunately for Ryan, she had quite the instructor in Internet 101 ahead of production. Kevin Feige, the man responsible for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, was just a production assistant when You've Got Mail was made. His biggest responsibility? Teaching Ephron, Ryan and Hanks how to use email and America Online. After giving Ryan almost three days worth of lessons, he was thrilled when she said hi to him on set: "I thought, she remembered my name."

5. Just like Jennifer Aniston's iconic hair on FriendsThe Rachel—Ryan's hair was a big f--kin' deal in the '90s. The messy shag was created by Sally Hershberger and quickly became both the star and the hairdresser's calling card. But Ephron wasn't sure about the edgier look for Kathleen Kelly, wanting a "cleaner" look, per I'll Have What She's Having

And a crisis emerged shortly after filming began with the stylist hired for the movie just couldn't replicate Hershberger's work. "Meg was uneasy because her hair was becoming iconic," Matthew Shields, Hershberger's then-protege who was brought in to save the tresses and the movie, admitted

He made the infamous 'do a bit more Kathleen-esque by adding some fullness on top, and trimmed it every three weeks. He obsessively took photos for continuity and became Ryan's secret spy as he would go watch the dailies, giving her feedback on her performance.

6. Leave it to Hanks to improvise one of Joe's most charming moments. When he's leaving The Shop Around the Corner after his first introduction to Kathleen, he accidentally closes the shop door on the balloons he was holding for his brother and aunt. "Good thing it wasn't the fish!" he said, as he was holding the fish they had won at the fair earlier. Hanks came up with it on the spot, and Ephron liked it so much she kept it in.

7. Before filming the final scene—when it's finally revealed that Joe Fox is in fact NY152—Hanks had gone on vacation and gained a few lbs. Relatable, right? "You can see it in the movie. He came back all chubby," producer G. Mac Brown told Carlson in her book. "In the end, when they find each other in the park, he's got nice little roll. Very cute." But it was noticeable on camera, and Ephron wanted him to drop the four to five pounds. And a very awkward phone call was made to Hanks.

8. For Joe and Kathleen's respective so-wrong-for-them loves, the Ephron sisters pulled inspiration from real people. Patricia, played to perfection by indie darling Parker Posey, was based on Judith Regan, a major power player in the New York publishing scene. We assume she also made coffee nervous. 

Frank Navasky (a role Conan O'Brien auditioned for BTW!) was based on critic Ron Rosenbaum, who did not love the movie…or the homage to him, calling Greg Kinnear's type-writer obsessed culture critic "a benign caricature." He criticized the movie for its "chirpy sentimentalizing of terminally insipid emails by tragically insipid stars" Ryan and Hanks. So yeah, a Frank Navasky review if we've ever heard one!

Meanwhile, Joe Fox was named after another one of Nora's ex-boyfriends, a book editor who died in 1995.

9. After turning down a role in Forrest Gump, a move he regretted after it became an instant hit, comedian Dave Chappelle, then 24, was keen to play Kevin, Joe Fox's business partner and dating guide. Ephron gave Chappelle free rein to improvise any and all of his lines. "I don't think there was anyone else on the list," script supervisor Dreyer said in I'll Have What She's Having. "He proved to be a delight and everything she thought he was." 

10. Sara Ramirez played the cashier in the cash-only line at Zabar's. The scene was based on something that happened during production on Sleepless in Seattle, where a mystified Ephron watched as her first AD on that film had a similar impact on a concierge at the airport.

Oh, and it was the first and last time Zabar's has ever let a movie film inside the iconic grocery store. And they weren't the only New Yorkers who weren't exactly thrilled with the massive production taking over their city.

During one shoot in a restaurant on the Upper West Side, a man started banging on the window, yelling, "Nora Ephron! Nora Ephron! I thought you loved this neighborhood? Why are you f--kin' with us?!' per cinematographer John Lindley. She was eventually able to calm him down.

11. Chris Messina, who would go on to play Mindy Kaling's love interest (and the Internet's boyfriend, Danny Castellano) on The Mindy Project, actually had a small role in the movie. He played the clueless sales associate working at Fox Books who needs Kathleen's expertise when it came to "The Shoe Books" series by Mary Noel Streatfield.

12. When the movie came in way too long, many sub-plots had to be trimmed down. 

So long, Christina's dating adventures! Peace out, George dating a detective he believes might actually be the Rooftop Killer! Goodbye all but one of Deborah Rush's scenes! (Nora promised she owed her one. And did pay her debt, giving her a role 10 years later in Julie & Julia.) In case you can't remember her YGM character, she was the author Veronica Grant who got stuck in the elevator with Joe and Patricia, and her dog was actually played by Nora's real-life Chihuahua, Lucy. (A book event Patricia hosted for Veronica was one of the trimmed scenes.)

Plus, in the original script, Joe and Kathleen's exes, Patricia and Frank, end up getting together. 

Another scene that was cut from the film included a mysterious novelist played by Michael Palin making a pass for Kathleen after he comes out of hiding to try and help her save The Shop Around the Corner. The scene proved rather predatory though, which included the novelist trying to kiss her before she kicks him in the shin and runs away. "I thought it was oddly broad," Palin explained in I'll Have What She's Having. "I didn't know if I could quite deliver it in a sort of debonair way."

13. Kathleen's charming children's bookstore, which was opened by her late mother, Cecilia, was based on Books of Wonder on West 18th St., as the Ephron sisters had been shopping there since its opening in 1980. "We grew up loving children's books more than anything," Delia Ephron told Vanity Fair. While it wasn't shot in a real book store, the fictional Shop Around the Corner housed 7,000 real books. Books of Wonder is still open and houses some props from the movie.

Fox Books, of course, was based on Barnes & Noble, though the book retailer wouldn't let them film in a location as they did not want to shut down the store to their customers. Instead, a Barney's department store had just shuttered, so production took over and built Fox Books from scratch. I'll Have What She's Having estimates 25,000 books from over 30 publishers were trucked in, with Ephron requesting that all the books were stocked in their proper sections. There was also a real coffee bar.

14. On The Late Show in 2015, Stephen Colbert confessed his love for the movie during an interview with director Quentin Tarantino (also a noted defender of the film). As Colbert raved, "I wept through the entirety of You've Got Mail—that's my confession."

A version of this story was originally published on Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2018 at 3 a.m. PT. 

Peacock is live now! Check out NBCU's streaming service here.