Sliding Doors emerged unassumingly in 1998 as a slight, clever romantic drama, but its crackerjack premise went on to capture the imaginations of anxious people everywhere. Sliding Doors’ high-concept gimmick goes thusly: Alternating parallel universes, based on the two paths that Gwyneth Paltrow’s life will go based on whether or not she catches a train. If she catches it, she meets a hunk, dumps her shitty boyfriend, starts her own business, and dies. If she doesn’t, she stays with her shitty boyfriend, gets pregnant, has a miscarriage, doesn’t die, and then meets the hunk.
There’s something sort of poisonous about the premise, which feeds into the kinds of obsessive, “what if?” thought experiments that inevitably lead to depression spirals. That said, the film provides some cold comfort by saying the life one didn’t choose would probably have resulted in premature death. Yay?
Celebrating the film’s 20th anniversary, The Ringer chatted with writer and director Peter Howitt, who’s positively brimming with behind-the-scenes stories and insight into what inspired the tale (sorry, film nerds, it wasn’t Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Blind Chance):
“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.”
Howitt goes on to recount his other “sliding-doors moment” that led to the film getting an influential producer in filmmaker Sydney Pollack.
[It went] 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.
He’s not kidding when he says it garnered a phrase. The general concept of “sliding doors” has been referenced on the likes of Frasier, Bob’s Burgers, The Mindy Project, and Jane the Virgin, as well as in the fourth season premiere of Broad City last year.
Now, because we’ve all got Sliding Doors on the mind, do take a moment to consider the life you’d be leading if you hadn’t clicked into this article.