Written by Meg Walters, Dwell
Three decades since its theatrical release on June 25, 1993, Sleepless in Seattle remains a quintessential ’90s romantic comedy. Cowritten and directed by Nora Ephron off the heels of the success of When Harry Met Sally..., the film stars Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, two legends of the genre (who teamed back up for another Ephron hit, You’ve Got Mail, a few years later). But while When Harry Met Sally... and You’ve Got Mail have their feet firmly on the ground as classic New York movies filled with New York sights, sounds, and people, Sleepless in Seattle is a tale that revolves around opposite coasts, with the titular city at the heart of everything, and a fairly unique living situation involved to boot.
Most of the film’s Seattle scenes take place at Sam and Jonah’s new place of living, a homey, wood-clad houseboat on Lake Union. In real life, floating homes are deeply embedded in Seattle’s seaport history. Tracing back to the late 1880s, sailors, fishermen, loggers, and dockworkers built low-cost floating shacks on the shores of the city’s various bays, lakes, and rivers using rafts and scrap boards. In the 1920s, some of Seattle’s wealthy population built houseboats on Lake Washington as fancy summer homes. By the late 1930s, Seattle’s houseboat population was said to be around 2,000. While the number and size of Seattle’s houseboat colonies has since dwindled, real estate brokerage Prevu estimates that communities on Lake Union and other Seattle waterfronts still have around 500 floating homes and 250 houseboats, some with coveted real estate priced in the millions.
The exterior shots of Sam’s home were filmed on location at an actual houseboat in the area. "We looked at so many floating homes in Seattle and finally ended up in the biggest one there," Townsend says. "I think it’s 2,000 square feet." (In 2014, a Seattle tech executive reportedly bought the Sleepless in Seattle houseboat for over $2 million.)
The interior shots, meanwhile, were filmed on sets built at a nearby naval base. This was, apparently, an unusual move, as most films are based in New York or Los Angeles for cost and convenience. "Nora was really insistent on basing the movie in Seattle—and not for any reasons she could defend," says Townsend, who reportedly butted heads with the filmmaker during the project. Still, he says, "We had a lot of fun making [the set] just a little bit nicer than the actual [houseboat] interior with some details that gave the impression that perhaps Sam had actually renovated it himself and put some of his aesthetic as an architect into the remodel."
Still, Townsend wanted to add a little mess to give the space a sense of reality. However, according to the production designer, Ephron, on the other hand, did not. ("She had a comfort level with not being as devoted to realism as I was," Townsend says. "Production designers, I think, live by a mantra, which is that you never, ever want people to think of it as a set.")
"In preparing the houseboat interior for everyday filming, we always had a stack of newspapers that had not yet been put in recycling, some stuff from last night’s dinner, toys that didn’t get put away of Jonah’s," Townsend says. "Nora would always want them cleaned up. I would say, ‘Nora, it’s gonna look like a catalog.’ And she’d say, ‘So?’ She had in mind a movie that is seductive, aspirational. I was baffled by it at first. As the movie sort of blew up, I knew I was wrong."
It’s these types of easter eggs in the set design that add to the film’s fanciful tone. Thirty years later, the Seattle in Seattle houseboat still feels like a smart setting for Sam’s character—it helps ground the story in some level of realism, and is, of course, also quite the whimsical backdrop for a rom-com.