This year marks the 20th anniversary of the release of While You Were Sleeping, a Christmas-set romantic comedy that helped to launch its young star, Sandra Bullock, to Hollywood megastardom. The film, which co-starred Bill Pullman and Peter Gallagher, was a huge critical and commercial success, grossing $183 million worldwide. BuzzFeed UK spoke to Fred Lebow, one of the movie's two writers (the other being his long-term professional partner Daniel G Sullivan), about his memories of writing and making WYWS.
1. Its working title was Coma Guy.
"For a year or two, Dan and I were known in LA as the 'Coma Guys'. Dan had a buddy who was a composer, named Mike Himelstein, and he was the one who came up with While You Were Sleeping.
2. The story was inspired by a throwaway joke about Fred's miserable dating life.
"I remember at the time Dan was married, and I was having trouble getting a date. I said something like, 'I'm such a loser, I couldn't even get a date with a woman in a coma'. Dan started laughing, and we started picking at that idea."
Fred Lebow, pictured with his German shepherd, Master Chief.
3. Originally, WYWS was going to be about a man pretending to be engaged to a woman in a coma.
"We pitched it to Meg Ryan's production company hoping we'd get interest from Meg to star in it. Her development executive said to us, 'Firstly, why would Meg want to do this movie if she's in a coma for most of it? And secondly, you guys are creeps! It's kind of predatory with this guy telling this comatose woman's family that he's engaged to her. Why don't you flip it around – let the woman be the one fabricating the story. Then it's no longer predatory, it's funny.'"
4. Still, even with the gender reversal, Fred concedes the idea is slightly creepy.
"I guess with a woman it's less threatening. The set-up was very important – it being a comedy, you give it some leeway to tread on that line. If it wasn't a comedy, it'd be very creepy!"
5. Fred says WYWS wasn't necessarily his and Dan's best screenplay, "it’s just the one that got made."
"We either sold or were commissioned to write 14 screenplays, and WYWS wasn't in our top three or four. All our other stuff is just gathering dust on studio shelves. It's sad, but it's part of the industry."
6. WYWS isn't their first movie screenplay set at Christmas time either.
"The first script we wrote together was a Christmas story that sold in the early 1990s to Bruce Willis (he still owns it). In a nutshell, a New York cab driver's wife dies on Christmas morning, but then he goes back in time to Christmas 1969 to prevent the chain of events that later caused his wife's death. It's like Paper Moon meets It's A Wonderful Life.
7. And while we're on the topic, WYWS wasn't originally supposed to be a Christmas movie.
"We didn't set it at Christmas while writing – it evolved into that. The studios wanted it set during the holidays as it would be easier to sell."
8. The action originally wasn't set in Chicago either.
"It was initially based in Brooklyn, but Disney and the director (Jon Turteltaub) wanted to do it in Chicago. That's why it has this real New York Italian character, Joe Jr, who is so Brooklyn, but nobody really questioned the weirdness of him being in the middle of Chicago!"
9. The script sold "for mid-six figures", according to Fred, but it was a very bittersweet success for him.
"My biggest fan was my dad. He'd been in bad health for some time. He used to watch all the entertainment shows on TV, and he'd always give me pep talks, saying, 'Someday I'll be watching news about you on these shows.' He died the night before I sold WYWS. Everyone wanted me to do interviews and so on, so it was very hard. It felt quite empty at the time. Dan had the opposite experience: His wife had just had a baby, and his brother won a couple thousand dollars in the lottery!"
10. Demi Moore was the first star to express interest in playing Lucy.
"The person who was initially meant to do the movie was Demi Moore. They couldn't agree on a contract, so that fell apart. We were very excited when he heard Demi wanted to make it – she was Hollywood's biggest star then – and she had never done a comedy, so it was a big deal. But it might not have been the same movie then."
11. Julia Roberts also turned down the role.
"Lots of big actresses passed on it. I think to this day Julia Roberts says that was one of her most regrettable decisions."
12. In another universe, Dennis Quaid or Patrick Swayze would have played Bill Pullman's character, Jack.
"I know at the time Patrick Swayze was considered for Bill's part. I think we had Dennis Quaid in mind when writing that part. But Bill was one of everyone's first choices. In retrospect, no one could have played it better than him."
13. And the role of comatose Peter could have been played by...James Bond.
"It's true, we had Pierce Brosnan in mind for Peter when writing the script!"
14. A then largely unknown Sandra Bullock read the script while filming Speed in 1994.
"Sandra contacted the studio and said it was just the kind of thing she wanted to do, that she could relate to so much of it – especially the loneliness, the importance of family. And at the time she wasn't that well known. Even when Speed was released, she wasn't a huge star – I think she even considers WYWS her 'breakout' movie, the one that launched her career."
Sandra Bullock, pictured at the 1996 People's Choice Awards.
15. Indeed, that aching portrayal of loneliness is one of the things fans love most about WYWS.
"How that evolved was, once we flipped the 'coma girl' to a 'coma guy', and we were no longer 'creeps', we realised a female character would be softer than a male character in that role. On the way to a meeting at one of the studios to pitch the story, we had to figure out quickly what Lucy did for a job. We just randomly started rattling off obscure jobs in Brooklyn, and came up with a token booth attendant in a subway. Once we did that her character came to life: someone stuck all day in a glass bubble watching the world go by around her, which led to her being in her own isolated world, alone without family."
16. Despite the huge success of WYWS, Fred and Dan never had another movie made from one of their collaborative scripts.
"Two days after WYWS sold we were getting meetings with studio presidents. We met the head of Disney, and before we could even open our mouths, the executives started pitching us ideas! They told us to just pick which ones we wanted to do. For instance, Hugh Grant and Elizabeth Hurley approached our agency to do one idea they were working on. We talked about it for about 20 minutes and we were hired! After WYWS, for a period of three to five years, we could do anything we wanted. But then if another movie isn't made, you can fall off the radar. For me and Dan, we feel blessed it afforded us an incredibly solid career, and we made some good money."
17. Fred and Dan no longer write together.
"I haven't written an original script in about 10 years. I can't speak for Dan, but I feel like I've said everything I wanted to say. There were 8 to 10 scripts that really came from my heart – there was something I wanted to say and I said it. Dan kind of also stopped writing a few years ago. We really don't correspond much any more. It's sad because he's truly like a brother to me. I was blessed to have written with Dan for over 25 years. He's such a gifted writer, and I truly believe he was the mastermind on most of the screenplays we sold to studios, including WYWS. To use Gladys Knight and The Pips as an analogy, he was more Gladys Knight and I was more a Pip."
18. There was never any realistic discussion about writing a sequel to the movie.
"At the time, they immediately said we had to come up with a follow-up. We said there is nowhere to go. One of the studio people said that if we came up with a good angle for a sequel he'd buy us both a car! We could have written a stupid sequel, but we didn't think it merited one. It got dropped after that. Maybe other writers could have done it, but they didn't pursue it."