Today marks the one year anniversary of Mike Nichols’ death. He was an extremely influential director whose career spanned six decades in film and theatre. He directed landmark films such as The Graduate, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Silkwood, and more recently, Closer and Charlie Wilson’s War. Some other films were not as good, but I always found that they had something interesting in them. Here’s what I learned from Mike Nichols’ work.
Make strong casting decisions
Most famously, Mike Nichols directed the landmark film The Graduate. It was deeply innovative and was one of the most emblematic films of the 1960’s. The title role had been written for a WASP guy, yet he handed the part to Dustin Hoffman. They had an exchange that went along the lines of this:
“I can’t do this, I’m Jewish, this guy’s a California wasp. You should get some leading man type, like Redford.”
“But did you connect to the humour?”
“Yes, I thought it was a very funny script.”
“Well maybe the character is Jewish inside.”
To this day, Hoffman still calls this one of the biggest casting mistakes in the history of cinema, despite the fact that it launched his career.
He directed The Graduate right after his debut feature, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, which saw the Burton-Taylor duo deliver some of their most iconic screen performances. Nichols was a hired gun on the project, but Burton was quoted later on as saying: “I didn’t think I could learn anything in comedy anymore. But from him, I did.” That’s telling enough on the kind of insightful director Nichols could be.
Milk your script
Nichols came from comedy. He had a very successful career as a comedian with Elaine May, which provided a lot of training on how to work a scene for the stage. He also often said that playing in comedy clubs where the audience had a lot of alcohol in their system quickly taught you how to not be boring.
As a filmmaker, this lesson translates as finding what is really happening in a scene, which can be what the text says, or what it doesn’t say, what the text is hiding. By finding the event, the conflict in the scene, you know what’s your purpose as a director, what you have to show. This means you have to:
Find visual themes
Film is a visual medium. We express ourselves in metaphors. If you take The Graduate, for instance, you’ll find a couple of recurring visual themes. For instance, Mrs Robinson was thought of as the beast in the jungle, always on the hunt. Therefore, she always wore some animal-printed item, or was shown with lots of plants in the background (in the hotel bar or, iconically, in the “You’re trying to seduce me” scene).
Benjamin is the kid who’s drowning, so his trajectory is illustrated through water (the aquarium in the background when he gets home, then the many sequences in the swimming pool).
Embrace the unexpected
One of the most iconic moments in The Graduate (and there are many) was not really planned ahead. The first time Benjamin and Mrs Robinson are about to have sex. He decides to grab her breast, and she just doesn’t react. Anne Bancroft didn’t know he was going to do that, and Hoffman was caught of guard by her lack of reaction. Feeling embarrassed, he just went to the wall, turning his back to the camera, and banged his head on the wall. That made it into the movie, as it equally reflected the character.
Give multiple layers to your work
This is one of the most inspiring things he has done, in my opinion. It’s true for all of his films, and most iconically for The Graduate: the script was funny in itself, yet he added another layer to it, a touch of cynicism, and songs in the soundtrack that would affect the perspective of the audience. Using all the elements of the filmmaking process to affect the perspective and give tremendous emotional impact to a story -isn’t that what directing is all about?
Being BFF with Meryl Streep, Natalie Portman, and Julia Roberts doesn’t hurt.