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The Almosts and What-ifs of ‘Sliding Doors’

20 years after its release, the Gwyneth Paltrow movie lives on as a piece of pop psychology. Writer-director Peter Howitt explains how ‘Sliding Doors’—the film and the phenomenon—got made.

Getty Images/Miramax/Ringer illustration

Why did Peter Howitt, the writer and director of the 1998 film Sliding Doors, cross the street? Well, to get to the phone box on the other side. “I was walking down a very famous road in London called Charing Cross Road, towards Leicester Square,” Howitt told me when I called him at his current home in British Columbia. “I had to phone a friend of mine about some play we were doing, and I saw this phone box on the other side of the road and for whatever reason, what I call the cerebral flipping of the coin—we make a thousand of these decisions a day—I came down on phone him now. I obeyed that instruction and just walked straight into the round without looking where I was going. And I nearly got hit square-on by a car, which screeched to a halt within an inch of me.”

Howitt couldn’t resist the hypothetical. “Now, what would have happened if he had hit me? Any number of things could have happened just because I decided to cross the road. Of the two choices I felt like I had, I only knew one version of that moment. In that instant I thought: That’s a great idea for a film. You take an everyday occurrence like crossing the road or running for the train, split it in two, and follow them both. And that’s why Sliding Doors exists. Simply because of that one moment.”

Sliding Doors, the film that resulted from Howitt’s near-death experience that was released 20 years ago this week, begins by introducing us to Helen (Gwyneth Paltrow), a public relations executive with bangs, brown hair, and a bad boyfriend, Gerry (John Lynch). Poor Helen gets fired suddenly on a Monday morning and has to leave her office immediately. She leaves for the train, which is pulling into the station just as she’s running down the stairs, and we see in a single moment Helen’s life split into two versions: In the first, she catches the train and sits besides James (John Hannah), and in the second, she misses it and finds that there are no more trains running on that line.

The film follows both versions of Helen’s story, in which overlapping and parallel conflicts rise and fall. Helen’s boyfriend is cheating on her (to add insult to injury, he does this while pretending to be a struggling novelist—this character never had a chance at our sympathies) with Lydia (Jeanne Tripplehorn), the evil brunette to the sunny blonde bob cut Gwyneth gets after the first version of her character arrives home and catches them in bed together. In this life, there’s a makeover montage, a small-business loan application that gets approved for her own public relations firm, and the prospect of love with sweet, charming James. An entire romantic comedy arc unfolds in this life—until she crosses the street too quickly and is killed by a car.

Meanwhile, the second Helen is having a terrible time: no makeover montage, no meet-cute with a cute man. She misses catching her boyfriend cheating on her and struggles with unemployment, taking on multiple part-time jobs as a waitress and wearing her hair in pigtails. This Helen becomes unexpectedly pregnant, too, but before she can tell Gerry, she catches him cheating with Lydia after all. In the resulting confusion, she trips down a flight of stairs and has a miscarriage. The Helen who lives bumps into James in the elevator as she leaves the hospital, where she’s now single, smarter, and very much alive.

Both of these scenarios are unexpectedly morbid, and it’s best not to think too hard about what the moral or message might be. Sliding Doors had a high-concept premise favored by studio executives of the 1980s and ’90s—in her book Is That a Gun in Your Pocket?: The Truth About Female Power in Hollywood Rachel Abramowitz says the hallmark is a film that “can be described in two sentences or less, simple melodramatic premises such as fish out of water (Beverly Hills Cop) or underdog makes good (Top Gun, Flashdance).” Even among this landscape, Sliding Doors is particularly remarkable for its casual cleverness, blending secular spirituality and magical thinking without lapsing into weighing it down in theory or thought. There is no explanation for how or why Helen, out of all the women running for her train in all of London, gets to experience these two lives. There is no fairy godmother or Virgin Mary to thank—no ghosts of Christmas past, no good witch with a magic spell. The film trusts the audience completely to understand this is wish fulfillment in its purest form: the desire to check in with all our parallel selves, to see those near-misses and almost-was and what-ifs given back through movie magic and nothing more.

And so Sliding Doors remains a cultural touchstone, burned into so many brains for so many reasons. Pop psychology, in particular, has embraced the idea—search the film’s title, and you’ll find all kinds of therapists from relationship counsellors to life coaches writing blog posts urging their clients to consider their own “sliding doors” moments, as well as various spiritual and religious leaders, who see the hand of God shaping the course of their followers’ lives in every small moment. Recently, as part of The Cut’s series called “I Think About This a Lot,” Ashley Fetters wrote about how often she remembers the sliding-doors moment from the film, saying she considers herself an evangelist for the basic premise, “a rom-com with a built-in anxiety spiral for afterward.” In 2016, the comedy website Splitsider pointed out that the sliding-doors concept appears in multiple television sitcoms, notably with an episode of Frasier titled “Sliding Frasiers.” Bob’s Burgers, The Mindy Project, and Jane the Virgin have all had episodes inspired by Sliding Doors, and most recently, Broad City used the concept in its Season 4 premiere, using a missed train to demonstrate how Abbi and Ilana were fated to be best friends.

Howitt told me that Sliding Doors is still the film he’s most proud of, and he notices every reference or allusion when they occur—which happen frequently, but still feel like an unexpected and welcome surprise. Like the audience members who love his film, Howitt is sensitive to superstitions, as well as other kinds of time-oriented and ordinary magic. When I suggest we speak on the phone that coming Friday—which happens to be Friday the 13th—he says that’s only fitting, given that they started shooting on April Fools’ Day. Lots of things have changed since 1998, but Howitt still fondly and vividly remembers all the almost-was and what-ifs of making Sliding Doors, the lines that had to be cut and the compromises that had to be made. Twenty years later, he’s still thinking about all the movie moments that could have been.

What was the process of getting Sliding Doors made like, from the moment you walked to the phone box and had the idea?

In terms of proper, grown-up films, Sliding Doors was my first. Before that, I’d been acting for about 20 years, and I had a bit of success in television in the late 1980s. There was a fair amount of paparazzi-style stuff that came with that, which I didn’t really enjoy. I always had an inkling that I would stop acting. I wanted to make films from the other side of the camera.

I did end up walking to the tube station after I called my friend that day, and went the seven or eight stops home, watching various people getting on and getting off, seeing somebody run to miss the train and just miss it, which you see every day without giving a second thought. I knew that would be a good place to start—you could do the split with a train. I thought, “Sliding doors is a good cutoff.” It’s like an editing point: like you’re editing a life. Cut there, one of you is on the outside of the train, and the other you is inside the train.

The character was always a woman for some reason. It was never a man. I remember the next few days very vividly, as I was thinking about who this person was—Helen—and why she was on the train, and what happens in those 10 minutes you lose or gain depending on if you catch or miss your train. I immediately thought, you could see something you didn’t want to see when you get home, like catching somebody in the act of being unfaithful. I liked it because it was both poignant and simple. The woman who misses the train also misses vital information she needs in her life—now, she’s going to get it later on, but when’s the best time to have bad news?

In truth, because I had never written anything properly before, I just let the next thing happen. I introduced the character James in the beginning—after she’s fired she drops her earring in the elevator, and he picks it up, but she’s too preoccupied to register him besides saying thanks. In the version where Helen catches the train, she happens to sit besides James, and he’s a chatty person, bit like myself. He’s based on me, you know [laughs]. If I think there’s anything clever about the film at all, it’s the fact that if you’re meant to meet someone, you’re going to meet them. That’s just fate or destiny, which I think is a nice romantic notion … whether it’s true or not, I don’t know. But I believe that it is, and I think a lot of people believe in that kind of ultimate destiny.

In the scenes that immediately follow the two Helens, both versions go to Bertorelli’s, a café/restaurant off Tottenham Court Road. These are the scenes where the audience really has to think about what’s going on: There’s one Helen, drowning her sorrows after she discovered her boyfriend’s infidelity, meeting up with her friend Anna, and bumping into James, who recognizes her from the train. And then there’s the other Helen, who missed the train and missed catching the boyfriend, who takes her to the same bar that night, where she stands beside James and they don’t notice each other. Quite often, if you end up with somebody, you’ll find yourself having conversations like, “Oh, I used to go to that bar! Oh, I was at so-and-so’s party!” You realize you’ve been in the same place at the same time before you actually met. I like that as well—I do believe in that romantic serendipity. You realize that these moments don’t affect the singular person. There’s a domino effect. Anyway, I’m not going to bore you with the whole movie. You’ve already seen it [laughs]. You’re thinking, “Please don’t tell me anymore.”

No, no, I’m not! [Laughs.]

“What if he shut up? That would be great.” The last thing I’ll say is that I kind of just wrote it—I let it fall out without planning too much. I didn’t think, “Oh, I know what would be really clever.” I liked the idea of this happening in our normal lives and we feel it without knowing why. There’s a scene where Helen is walking by the river with her friend Anna, and a boat race goes by with rowers, and she mentions that she finds that really weird, she felt like she already knew there would be a boat race happening that day. Why is that? It’s because you’re still part of the other life, the one you’re not physically living. It’s like getting a shiver down your spine, or a feeling of déjà vu. I didn’t want it to become a psychological essay so much as a romantic suggestion.

I remember having dinner one night when I was about 80 pages into the script, and I said to my girlfriend at the time, “I don’t know how I’m going to end this.” And [she] said, sort of flippantly, “Well, you’re going to have to kill one of them.” And I knew that was exactly right. I’m going to have to bring one of these lives to an end so we realize it was just an exercise in seeing what if. At the end of the day, we’re only one person. The film asks: Was she meant to catch that train? And the answer is no. But was she meant to meet James? Yes, she was, but through different circumstances. There’s a logic to this ending—I did put both Helens in life-threatening situations toward the end, because if they both died at the same time, then you would never have been able to say with any kind of degree of certainty whether she was meant to catch the train or not, whatever “meant” means. But because one of them dies, you know this was the path she was meant to take. There’s only one person after all, and her life is continuing. It’s a happy beginning rather than a happy ending.

I did want to talk to you about your ideas of fate—mostly, I wanted to know if you think of Sliding Doors as being a science fiction or a fantasy movie?

Oh … I’ve never been asked that. No, it’s neither. It’s just a love story. Sydney Pollack, who produced it—and him getting the script is my “sliding-doors moment,” which I’ll tell you about in a minute—told me that every good film, at its core, is a love story, which is his rather romantic take on life. Even if it’s science fiction, or fantasy, or horror, or thriller, at the core there’s a love story going on between someone that you’re rooting for. But I certainly don’t think of it as science fiction. I didn’t even think of it as a romantic comedy. Maybe I’d call it a fantasy romance, but I don’t really like genre titles. I think they’re a bit of a shame, that people need to put things in boxes. What would you describe it as?

I would agree with Sydney Pollack, but also, when I watch it, it does seem like there are some rules in this movie universe that don’t align with the rules of reality.

I remember doing interviews when it first came out. … I’m not religious at all, but I went on a few radio shows that were quite religious, and they were all convinced I had been touched by God. I said that I did feel differently now, that I had given myself over a little bit to fate and destiny. It didn’t mean I could get lazy, but that I could think, “Look, if something’s meant to be it will be meant to be.” And of course the interviewer said, “Well, that’s because of God.” I’m completely atheist, but there were people who were convinced that it was religious or spiritual. I didn’t personally feel that way, but they’re entitled to their opinion, and there are certainly suggestions of that.

It was probably 20 years ago to the day—that would be eerie if it was—when I was doing interviews in Phoenix. Miramax was distributing the film, and they had me going all over America. There was a group of journalists asking me questions about fate, serendipity, why things happen, what-ifs, all that. And there was this one particularly cynical journalist who said, you know, “I don’t believe in all this—fate, things happen for a reason.” And I said, “Well, fair enough. But let me just say something that might make you think about that. Five years ago, you didn’t know who I was. I was walking down the road in London and decided to cross the street, and because of that, you’re sitting here with me today. If that hadn’t happened to me five years ago, where would you be today? It’s affected your life, whether you like it or not.” He couldn’t say anything. There’s no argument to that.

I do want to briefly touch on something you mentioned, about how Miramax distributed the film. How do you look back on that relationship with Miramax now, after the stories about Harvey Weinstein were published in The New York Times and The New Yorker?

I’m as appalled as anyone. No one in their right mind is not utterly appalled by the revelations or allegations, whatever you want to call it. It’s hard to say. I’d never encountered anything like that from Harvey, but that doesn’t make any difference now. It’s been the nature of our business for many, many years, I’m afraid, and it should have been dealt with many, many years ago. I’m glad that it’s come out and is being dealt with, and I hope that it never has to happen again to any actor or actress, or anyone in any industry. It’s not just our industry—we have to be careful not to be too self-centered. It’s the people who work in the banker’s office, or the local store. That kind of predatory behavior has to stop everywhere.

I noticed that when Helen gets fired, there a few immediate implications it was motivated by her gender: She calls attention to the fact that she’s the only woman in the room and suggests that the men have been trying to push her out for some time. You mentioned earlier that you always wanted this character to be a woman—did you think of Helen as having a political dimension when you were writing her?

I’ll be honest with you—no, I didn’t. Not at all. And that might be because I wasn’t intelligent enough to add that dynamic to her character. I didn’t really come from that kind of thinking. When I knew she was going to be a woman, I wrote this wonderful speech for her to say after she got fired, which unfortunately we had to cut. She systematically destroys every single man in that room. I really wanted it to be in there because it was a room full of these self-indulgent, misogynistic, idiot men … but unfortunately, you have to kill your babies when you’re making films.

There was another line in the script that we ended up cutting. James is trying to explain to Helen that she’s wrong about him, when she mistakenly thinks he’s still married, and she says, “Here was a man who I thought was different from men, but it is clear that I made a mistake. You are, all of you, different shapes and sizes of the same prick!” So I put it in the first cut, and we took it to New York to the first preview. It’s a very important scene, and I wanted it to get a big laugh. But the next day we went back to the Miramax office, and the first thing Sydney Pollack said to me was: “We gotta cut that line about the prick on the bridge.” When I fought him by saying it got a huge laugh, he said, “That’s the wrong laugh. You don’t want people laughing at that moment in time, when they’re concerned about this make-or-break, boy-loses-girl moment.” And I thought, “Oh, fuck you, I hate you, you’re right.” It was a lesson in filmmaking.

1998 was really Gwyneth Paltrow’s year—that’s when she starred in Shakespeare in Love, she was in Great Expectations.When you were shooting, did you have any inclination about where her career was headed?

No, I had no idea at all. She made Shakespeare in Love after Sliding Doors, I think she went and did it straight after. I’m thrilled she won the Oscar, I’m just sorry she didn’t win it for Sliding Doors. But no, I had no idea her career was about to go through the roof. I did know I wanted her to be in it when I saw Emma. This was when I was just some sad person with a script that I was trying to get made and everybody was turning it down because they said nobody will understand this, it’s rubbish, forget it. And then it was through a series of events that I couldn’t control, Sydney Pollack got the script, quite by accident. John Hannah, who plays James, was in Sydney’s office, and Sydney asked what he was working on, and John told him the basic premise. Sydney thought it sounded interesting, and John happened to have a copy of the script in his bag, and he left it with him. This is kind of Sliding Doors in itself, I suppose. He read it, and the next day I’ve got a phone call. I was in the pub and my agent was like, “You’ve gotta sober up, Sydney Pollack wants to talk to you.”

So he said, “I read your script. I really like it, and I’d like to direct it.” And I said, “Well, you can’t. I don’t mean to be rude, but I’m directing it.” And he asked if I would like him to help me get it made, and I said, “Yes, please.”

He taught me more about editing and character than anyone or anything else. I couldn’t even begin to tell you what I learned from Sydney. He was really, really lovely. That was the grand sliding-doors moment for me, which just happened to be a sliding-doors moment that brought about the making of the film, Sliding Doors. [Laughs.] It’s hard to have a sliding-doors moment when you haven’t yet made the film that will garner the phrase, but there were several of those moments along the way.

How do you feel about the film after 20 years?

Well … 20 years goes so quickly these days. I’ll be honest with you: Aside from my children, it’s still the thing I’m most proud of. I could make it better now. I’d love to go back and make it again, but I am immensely proud of it.

Do you pay attention to all the references to the film that show up in pop culture? There’s an episode of Broad City, for a recent example, that’s based on the movie.

No, I don’t know that show. They had an episode with a Sliding Doors theme? [Howitt is typing on his computer.] Broad City, here we are. A half-hour comedy show, right? I’ll look it up. Any time that happens, I’m simply flattered. Frasier once had an episode called “Sliding Frasiers.” There was a great line in The Sopranos—I was watching it live and it made me laugh. With Tony Soprano. Do you know the line?

I do, I just watched The Sopranos for the first time and I noticed there was a reference …

He’s with his shrink and he says, “I feel like Gwyneth Paltrow in that movie,” and his shrink goes, “Sliding Doors?” And he goes, “Fuck no! Se7en!” It was very funny that he was like, Not that piece of shit—the other one, where she gets her head in the box.

Well, Tony Soprano is definitely not a character comfortable embracing his feminine side.

No, you’re right. Imagine being in that world. The minute you showed any empathy, that was just weakness, and that’s what made it such a fascinating show … or Analyze This, which also had a very funny spin on that. I think that’s a very clever film. I will tell you one story that’s stuck with me. I’m a big Beatles fan. A ridiculous, ridiculous Beatles fan. I read an interview with Ringo Starr, who was talking about how he got into music rather than getting a proper job. His dad and mum wanted him to become an electrician. … He’d been given an opportunity to go play drums when he was about 15 or 16, and he left school early, didn’t become an electrician, and in this interview he says, “I defied my parents, and that was the biggest sliding doors moment in my life.” I just went, “Oh my god, Ringo Starr used the expression ‘sliding doors.’” I told everyone; I phoned up everybody. I was so excited that a Beatle had used my film to reference a really pivotal moment in his life. I’m genuinely flattered. It’s a lovely thing to have had a funny thing happen to me one day in London, and because of that, there’s a new expression people use to describe that moment.

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