Enter: “While You Were Sleeping.” Set in Christmas-y Chicago and swaddling a fresh-faced Sandra Bullock in enormous sweaters, Turteltaub’s foray into the genre arrived as a soothing tour-de-force on April 21, 1995.
Its zany plot — a lonely woman (Bullock) convinces the family of a beautiful stranger (Peter Gallagher) that she’s his fiancee after he falls into a coma, until she ultimately ends up with his brother (Bill Pullman) — could have easily slid into farce territory. Instead, it triumphed as a touching tale of loneliness and earned Bullock her first Golden Globe nomination.
In honor of the film’s 25th anniversary, The Washington Post spoke to the cast and creatives to find out how it became an unexpected classic.
Co-writers Daniel G. Sullivan and Fredric Lebow first pitched the idea of a man falling in love with an unconscious woman.
DANIEL G. SULLIVAN, co-writer: Nobody liked it. We went to Meg Ryan’s company and the development person there said, “Why would Meg Ryan want to do this movie? She’s unconscious the whole time.” So we decided to flip it, and once we made that switch, everything worked. When a guy is sitting next to a brain dead woman, it’s very predatory. But when you put a woman next to a guy, it’s sweet. We started calling it “Coma Guy,” but everyone still passed until we took it to a producer named Arthur Sarkissian.
ARTHUR SARKISSIAN, executive producer: I thought it was terrific, and I had known them to be good writers from another script we worked on together that never got made.
SULLIVAN: We were broke, so he paid us $10,000 for an option. That gave us the freedom to sit down and actually write the script.
In 1994, Disney’s Hollywood Pictures snapped up the finished script. Director Chris Columbus and stars Harrison Ford and Geena Davis were among those initially considered.
JON TURTELTAUB, director: I believe Columbus got iffy on the project, and Roger Birnbaum [then-head of Disney’s Caravan Pictures] called me and said, “You know how we’ve been waiting for a really good director? We’ve decided we don’t want a really good director. We want you.” After directing “3 Ninjas” and “Cool Runnings,” I was trying to get out of family movie jail. To get a romantic comedy was the dream.
ROGER BIRNBAUM, producer: I just went with my gut. I liked the script, and I liked Jon Turteltaub.
TURTELTAUB: What’s funny is the minute I got it, Harrison Ford backed out. Geena Davis backed out. This movie had taken a huge step backwards in budget and prestige when they hired me.
Still, they approached a longlist of A-list actresses to play Lucy before Bullock, who had just filmed her breakout supporting role in “Speed.”
TURTELTAUB: I had a meeting with Demi Moore, and we came very close to Nicole Kidman. But in the back of my mind, I was thinking that they were way too pretty. It’s hard to de-beautify Nicole Kidman.
SARKISSIAN: There was Julia Roberts. There was Meg Ryan. There was Demi Moore. They were very big at the time, and I just couldn’t see any of those superstars being a person working in a toll booth. You just wouldn’t believe that.
SANDRA BULLOCK, who played Lucy: I was an auditioning actor. This was the one thing that came along that I wanted so badly, not as a desperate actor, but just because the story was so sweet.
CATHY SANDRICH, casting co-director: There are a few auditions in your life as a casting director that you really remember, and Sandy’s was one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever seen. We were all crying. She did the monologue at Peter’s bedside where she first explains everything, and it was just so beautiful.
TURTELTAUB: Sandy has that overwhelming charm that makes her so irresistible. As soon as she left the room, [producer] Joe Roth stood up and said, “That’s our girl.”
BULLOCK: I believe it’s because Demi Moore couldn’t do it, I got it. So, I’m grateful to Demi Moore every single day.
Several actors were called back for the role of Jack and did chemistry reads with Bullock.
TURTELTAUB: There was no question Bill Pullman was the right guy for the part, but the other guys in the waiting room were James Spader, Dylan McDermott and a guy who was unbelievably charming and attractive: a brand-new Matthew McConaughey. But he had a Texas accent and none of us could rewrite this movie to take place in Texas or explain why he was in Chicago at that point.
SARKISSIAN: He did say he could change the accent, but I don’t think anybody believed him.
Pullman had co-starred in 1993’s “Sleepless in Seattle’’ as “the other man” whom Meg Ryan leaves for Tom Hanks. This was his moment to shine.
SANDRICH: Bill had an innate sweetness and a nice working-class feel. He had not been perceived as a romantic leading man before.
BILL PULLMAN, who played Jack: I didn’t really think of romantic comedies as my turf. At that point, I was embarrassed about the preciousness of it. But I read the script, and I was like, wow, this is a classic story.
TURTELTAUB: I know it mattered to Bill to finally not be the goofball tool, to actually show that he’s attractive and sexy.
Peter Gallagher was offered the role of Jack’s mostly comatose brother, Peter.
SANDRICH: He was perfect because he was gorgeous and the kind of person you could fall in love with just because of his looks.
PETER GALLAGHER, who played Peter: For a period of time, I seemed to fit the mold of the yuppie a--hole very, very well. They called him Peter Callahan, for God’s sake, so I think they were thinking of me. It would be nice to be the guy who gets the girl, but that was never really my thing.
With a $17 million budget, the filmmakers shot on location in Chicago, a more affordable city than the script’s original New York locale.
TURTELTAUB: We shot in the fall, and everyone promised us that in Chicago all the leaves would be off the trees by Halloween. Of course, that year was unseasonably warm. We had to bring in fake snow and make people wear heavy coats when it was 75 degrees out, until it finally got cold in the last couple weeks.
PULLMAN: The scene that seems to have gotten really classic is when we slip on the [acrylic] ice in front of Lucy’s apartment. I remember a couple times going, “Geez Sandy, did you hit your hip?” They weren’t staged falls, but she never complained.
TURTELTAUB: If we spent any time shooting on the street, a crowd would gather to see Sandy. She kept saying, “Don’t get excited. It’s all 13-year-old boys who saw ‘Speed.’ ”
Peter’s brush with death involved Bullock and Gallagher filming on the actual train tracks at the now-demolished Randolph/Wabash “L” station.
TURTELTAUB: Safety was a huge thing because if you stepped in the wrong place, you’d explode. And if Sandra Bullock exploded, I’d be in a tremendous amount of trouble and the movie would be hard to finish.
We realized you could shut down a section of the tracks with no electricity, and then make a train so long that the back end was on the electric part and could push the front end.
BULLOCK: We were laying on the tracks, and I was really concerned about, will this become active accidentally while we’re shooting it? I’m a dooms-person. I think everything’s gonna go wrong, and I thought that somehow the tracks would ignite.
GALLAGHER: At one point, Sandra was [in character] expressing great concern over my condition and cradling my head in two hands, and then she got distracted and completely let my head go. I hit the round head of a railroad spike, and I remember thinking I can’t tense up or it’s gonna look like I’m conscious. You’re just gonna have to eat this.
TURTELTAUB: There were hours and hours of conversation about how to make their roll off the tracks safe, and I said, “Guys, why don’t you just move the train backwards? And as soon as it’s gone, have them roll the other way out onto the tracks, and then just show it backwards?” So that’s what we did. Now when you watch the movie again, you’ll go, “Yeah, that does look a little funky.” But it worked.
With Peter in a coma, most of Gallagher’s scenes involved him actually sleeping on the constructed hospital set.
GALLAGHER: I just have to believe that your face looks a little different when you’re lying there pretending rather than lying there drooling. I wouldn’t get out of bed between takes, and I never stayed out late because I was worried I could fall asleep so deeply, I wouldn’t wake up. That could be very embarrassing. God knows what kind of noises I could be making.
TURTELTAUB: It looks like the easiest acting job of all time, but it isn’t. You can’t move. You can’t itch. For an actor to just lie there and not talk is soul crushing.
BULLOCK: And then you had us, the motley crew, surrounding him. Do you think that we were able to get through a scene and keep a straight face? No. We were all unruly children who would start giggling. The poor guy was probably thinking, “Just finish the f---ing scene, so I can go home and stretch my body.”
Some of the most memorable moments in the film, such as Peter’s basketball injury and the squirrel backstory, were inspired by the writers’ real-life experiences.
SULLIVAN: The pencil in the pocket incident [that caused Peter to lose a testicle] actually happened to a friend of mine. You can’t make that up. And there was a squirrel nest in the woods behind our house growing up that my brother and I threw rocks at and knocked down. Somehow, they put my brother’s picture in the paper as a hero taking care of these squirrels that ended up dying. He’s never been happy that I put that story in the movie.
Turteltaub encouraged the actors to ad-lib and bring their own elements to their characters.
TURTELTAUB: I wanted to give them room to be creative. It was Sandra’s idea to have Lucy dip an Oreo in her cat’s milk at the dinner table. She’s a genius.
BULLOCK: Lord knows what comes out of my head. I’m highly allergic to cats, so all my cat work is when I’m heavily medicated on Benadryl.
GALLAGHER: The moments I was awake, I was allowed to explore the reality of someone who was pretty convinced they had amnesia. Jon’s favorite line in the movie was, “Do I like jello?” and that’s something I improvised.
Unlike many romantic comedies, “While You Were Sleeping” doesn’t give its heroine a dramatic makeover and eschewed trendy outfits for more practical winter looks.
BULLOCK: Dressing like Lucy was very similar to dressing like me. I like to hide every single aspect of my body, and then I feel like I have a good suit of armor on and I feel comfortable and safe. The only time I get into sexy-time clothes is when I’m doing press.
TURTELTAUB: That coat that Lucy’s wearing is the coat her dad wears in the opening scene. That’s why it’s so big on her and the sleeves are all bunched. It reminded Sandy when she put the coat on what was going on inside of her character.
BULLOCK: I just wanted her to be a normal human being. There wasn’t anything flashy about her, so the person who would love her would be someone who didn’t need her to be that way, either.
TURTELTAUB: The fairy tale gets overblown in romantic comedies. Yes, it’s nice to see someone get a diamond necklace and all that stuff. But that’s never what this character wanted. She wanted a family, and it was the warm embrace of a family that had always eluded her.
The supporting actors playing the Callahan family included Hollywood legends like “Mary Poppins” actress Glynis Johns (Elsie), two-time Oscar nominee Jack Warden (Saul), and a pre-“Everybody Loves Raymond” Peter Boyle (Ox). Characters such as Lucy’s landlord’s son, Joe Jr., and Peter’s actual fiancee, Ashley Bartlett Bacon, also made an impact.
BULLOCK: You had these classic Hollywood actors who were professional to a level that we didn’t understand. We still use Glynis’s line if someone hands you a drink, you go, “I’m sorry, I don’t drink anymore. I don’t drink any less either.”
TURTELTAUB: Whether it was Joe Jr. or Ashley Bartlett Bacon or the guy in the hospital bed next to Peter, we didn’t overlook any of these people. Everyone got a moment.
ALLY WALKER, who played Ashley Bartlett Bacon: I had these delicious lines like, “Go ahead and marry her, you one-balled bastard!” Even though Ashley’s not really in the movie much, it’s just such great s---.
MICHAEL RISPOLI, who played Joe Jr.: I was only supposed to be there for a week, and I ended up shooting for three weeks because Jon added more scenes. People still ask me to sign, “It looks like he’s leaning” and “I love black underwears.”
The cast and crew bonded during their downtime in Chicago.
PULLMAN: I remember being down in the fitness room at our hotel with Sandra, and we were counting crunches with each other. That’s the first time I remember thinking, wow, she’s something else. She’s got that side of her that’s like a good camp counselor where she’s like, “Come on, we can do this. Let’s go.”
BULLOCK: It was the most fun I have ever had on a film. When we got off work, we would all find a local salsa [dancing] place or place to eat. We would slide dance and have Scattergories parties or just do crazy stuff. I go, where did I get the energy? I don’t think I ever slept. Everything about that experience was magical.
WALKER: Sandy was lovely to me. I had originally wanted her part, so at first I was like, “I’m so jealous of you,” and then I met her and was like, “Oh, I love you.”
GALLAGHER: Peter Boyle and I just hit it off. I think it was an Irish Catholic thing. We were both knuckleheads threatening to get into all sorts of mayhem and, of course, terrified to do anything wrong. And boy, did we laugh.
PULLMAN: One of the most stunning moments was on our last day. All of a sudden, Jon took Sandra’s hand and my hand, and he just said, “Run.” And we ran way out into a cornfield near where we were shooting and put our heads really close together. He said, “I just want you to know that no matter what response to the movie we get, this experience has been so filled with joy, and I love you people.” It was so impulsive and beautiful.
TURTELTAUB: When I read stories about people making movies, I don’t want to hear how wonderful it was. F--- you and your wonderful job. Only in this case, I had been surrounded by brilliant, talented, funny people, and I was relieved.
“While You Were Sleeping” opened at No. 1 at the U.S. box office, taking the top spot from “Bad Boys,” and ultimately made more than $182 million worldwide.
SARKISSIAN: At the time, I don’t think Disney knew what they had. The movie was just thrown out there.
BULLOCK: Did anyone expect us to make money? I don’t know. I was so new to the business. I was just happy to be there.
TURTELTAUB: We opened right before “French Kiss” with Meg Ryan and “Forget Paris” with Billy Crystal, and we did great. I thought, wow, I’m not as big of a fraud as I thought.
Some of the cast kept elements of their wardrobes and wore them in real life.
PULLMAN: My wife always says, “Is that the jacket from ‘While You Were Sleeping’?” I still have it. It’s reversible. Denim on one side and khaki on the other. I wear it mostly with khaki. It’s a little bulky, so you can put a lot of layers on with it, and I just love that it’s holding up.
GALLAGHER: I didn’t keep my scarf, but I had that coat for a while. It just got too long to wear.
BULLOCK: All I kept was the back of the director’s chair where they put your name. I didn’t realize I could keep anything else! My wardrobe in the film was basically my wardrobe in real life, so it wasn’t like I needed to double up.
One debate still follows the film: Is it a Christmas movie?
TURTELTAUB: It does bug me a little that it’s not considered a Christmas movie. One of the advantages of being a Christmas movie is that it airs every year at Christmas. Instead, you’re more likely to see “Jingle All the Way” and “The Santa Clause 3” than “While You Were Sleeping.”
PULLMAN: I never thought of it as a Christmas movie. But without being cloyingly about Christmas, it’s just enough to make sense, I guess.
GALLAGHER: I’ve always assumed it was a Christmas movie, but that could have just been the scarf.
Twenty-five years later, the film still resonates with fans.
TURTELTAUB: The best compliment I ever got was a woman told me, “I went to that movie with my boyfriend, and by the end of the night he was my fiance.” That’s when you know you’ve done something right, when you can get inside a person’s soul a little bit.
PULLMAN: Usually people say, “My mom was in love with you.” My son Lewis is an actor now, and he’s really good with the YouTube stuff. By accident, I saw that he had saved two scenes from “While You Were Sleeping.” That was the most touching thing.
BULLOCK: I think it’s time to make my kids watch it. In this next week, I’m going to watch it with them. I avoid looking at myself, like all actors, but when I see it through my kids’ eyes, then I can enjoy it.
GALLAGHER: I like to judge by the delight in the eyes of the people who have felt the need to tell me it’s their favorite movie. If you can contribute to a movie that’s made people happy for all these years, that’s pretty much what you hope to accomplish, especially in times like these.