How did you start out in your career?
I sort of backed into it. That is to say, I did some plays in college, and then I became part of a theater group that Paul Sills started in Chicago called Playwrights Theater. At that point I had a job as a disc jockey in a classical music station, which is how I supported myself. I would occasionally go to New York and see plays directed, for instance, by Kazan, and I became more and more curious about how he worked. I saw Death of a Salesman and Streetcar when I was in high school, in the same year, and I had already seen another great production, The Heiress directed by Jed Harris. All these seemed to me 100 percent real and simultaneously 100 percent poetic. I was extremely excited about this and wanted to learn more about it, so I started to study with Strasberg in New York.
[Yet] I never thought I would be an actor, because when I would occasionally try to cast myself in something, I couldn't; I didn't ever find a part that fit me. So I thought, Well, I'm not going to be an actor—I'm not sure why I'm doing this. I'd been through all the usual jobs of waiter, busboy, night clerk in a hotel, janitor in a nursery, and so forth, and I was running out of those jobs when Paul Sills again offered me a job in Chicago at what was then called Compass, which was an improvisational cabaret. And that's where I began to work with Elaine May, who I had known before. I was very bad at it for months, and then I became better, and then I became better, and then I became pretty good. Elaine was very good at it.
How did you meet and what was your impression of her?
We met at the University of Chicago. My first impression of her was of a beautiful and dangerous girl that interested me enormously, scared me. We were both what was known on campus as dangerous. We were introduced and then we oddly met in the Illinois Central railway station on the way back to the South Side of Chicago where the university was. I said, “May I sit down?” and she said “Eeef you vish,” and we were in an improvisation—we did a whole long spy mystery improvisation for the benefit of the other people on the bench. That's how we met.
We became very close, it's a very difficult thing to describe, but what was true then is true now in our most recent version of collaboration, in which she writes the script and I direct it, in that what one of us doesn't think of the other does, and we define the things that are involved in drama and movies in a similar way. And what was true when we were a team—namely, that I would tend to make the shapes and she would tend to fill them—is still roughly true for us now. Each of us has learned quite a lot about the other's, let's call it specialty, but we still tend to work that way a little bit.
Why were you both “dangerous”?
We were both seductive and hostile people, and we were both very much on the defensive with other people, and we both had big chips on our shoulders. Chips that we've in different ways whittled away at during the course of our lives and reduced the size of. We had very dissimilar backgrounds. Elaine was from Los Angeles; I was from Europe and then New York. My family was all doctors; Elaine's family was all Yiddish theater actors, and Elaine started in the Yiddish theater playing little boys who grew up to be doctors. It was different.
You had a few experiences as a professional actor in late-Fifties television, including something called The Red Mill, and something directed by John Frankenheimer.
The Red Mill was an all-star version of an old musical, with Elaine and me and Harpo Marx and Shirley Jones and Elaine Stritch and Donald O'Connor, and it doesn't bear thinking about, at least our part of it. The other was a “Playhouse 90” called Journey to the Day. Elaine quit, as I recall, and I was very unhappy in it—not for any reason to do with the piece, which was good, and Frankenheimer was a very good and very helpful director. We just weren't equipped as actors to just step into a TV play. It was about [some people] in a mental institution in group therapy, with Arthur Hill as the therapist. It was very good—I just would have liked to take me out of it and I thought it would have been better still.
Why do you say that?
I just hadn't figured out enough about acting, about how I would do it. It's funny, it's as though you imagined yourself ice skating and you'd never done it, and you fall on your ass and then you spend the next thirty years coaching ice skaters. And then somebody asks you if you'd like to ice skate again, and you say, “Well, that would be very interesting.” And that's what I did: I acted in a play in the National Theater in London by my friend Wally Shawn, directed by David Hare, and I was okay, I was good. I had figured out how I could act by then. It would be tantamount to going out on the ice and finding that you don't fall on your ass after thirty years of thinking about but not doing it. And that was a very interesting experience.
And that became the film The Designated Mourner.
Yes, which is another story.
The film didn't make me happy, because the play was a very specific event that transpired between the three of us actors and the audience, the living audience. The film had the tremendous problem of not being able to have that event and that process. I had a very specific process in the play, in which I played a monster who was able for a while to charm the audience, and just as they began to realize that he was a monster he could get them to laugh one more time and then they'd say, This is really it, you're really beyond the pale, and then I would say, Come on, one more laugh, it won't hurt you. During the course of that process, to some extent, they began to wonder if they were in any way like this monster, which was both the purpose of the play and the fun of the performance. Now if you take that process away and don't have the time to substitute something satisfactory for that process, the film isn't a complete film. But the play was a complete play; it was an experience.
Didn't you and Elaine May work on a play in the mid-Sixties?
It was a play called A Matter of Position, written by Elaine, in which she didn't perform but I did. It was pretty much an unmitigated disaster, not because of the play, which remains a very interesting play, but because we who had always been on stage together were now in an impossible situation in which I was performing and she was in the audience sitting next to the director watching, and it just imploded under that pressure.
And didn’t Arthur Penn direct both of you on Broadway?
Arthur Penn did direct us in our own evening, that was basically our act on Broadway. He helped us turn it into an evening in the theater, which of course it had never been—it had always been cabaret. But this had two acts, and it had an intermission and it had a build before the intermission. It had our best piece, really, something we could never do in a cabaret or on television. It was something called “Pirandello,” in which we started as children and then grew up and then turned into ourselves fighting, that was very flashy and worked very well. Because [Arthur Penn]'s a very good director, he kept leading us back to ourselves and our initial impulses, and how these pieces had come about and what they were. He was in this particular case more of a friend than a director an eye and an intelligence that we could trust absolutely. But it was material that we had done for years, literally. He helped us in the same way that I helped Whoopi Goldberg put together her evening in the theater, [created from] stuff, pieces, that she had done at various times in other places.
How did you make the transition from performing to directing?
Improvising was a wonderful training, as it turned out, for theater and movies, because you learn so much about what the audience expects in terms of action and events. When you're improvising, an audience basically is saying to you, Why are you telling me this? and you learn over the months—and in our case over the years—some answers to that question. “Because it's funny” is an answer, and if you don't have that as an answer, you're going to have to have a good, clear answer. And improvising teaches you the elements of a scene. If you and I are improvising and you say “black,” I'd better say “white” if I want a scene. And then we developed certain rules, Elaine and I, just for improvising. When I teach acting, I still fall back on some of those rules. “What is happening?” is the first question you have to answer. Conflict is good and a seduction is good, but something has to happen or you're just sitting there making up lines. You have to create a situation, an event.
Why were you so successful together?
I have no idea. We had done it for so long in Chicago; it never occurred to us that we would do anything further with it—we just did it because that was how we were making a living. And we were sort of surprised to be so successful in New York. We were at this nightclub and that nightclub and then we were on television. We were in a long segment on a show called “Omnibus” that was a very big deal at the time; we were very famous the day after, there were big headlines about us, and Elaine says that I called her at 4 in the morning and said, “What do we do now?” Because we thought it was something we would do to make a living until we grew up and started our lives as adults. Well, that apparently wasn't going to happen, because now we found ourselves doing this all the time, and doing it on television. Finally we did it in a theater for a year, and then when Elaine felt it was enough and didn't want to do it anymore, I really didn't know what I was or what I was going to do. I was half of a comedy team.
And then a theatrical producer called Saint-Subber suggested I might want to try directing a play. And he gave me a play called Nobody Loves Me by Neil Simon, and I said, “Well, let's do it in summer stock and see if it works and see if I'm any good at it.” In the first fifteen minutes of the first day's rehearsal I understood that this was my job, this was what I had been preparing to do without knowing it. It had literally not crossed my mind as far as I was aware. Everything I learned from Strasberg, from improvising, from performing with Elaine, was preparing me. I felt what I had never felt performing: I felt happy and confident and I knew exactly what I wanted to do. We changed the name of the play from Nobody Loves Me to Barefoot in the Park, and from that point on it went very fast—by which I mean I directed a lot of plays.
I loved movies, and I saw many movies, some over and over. Movies had always been very important to me even as a kid. I remember going to movies in the afternoon after school, but I didn't think particularly about making them until I heard that Elizabeth Taylor, who was a friend by that point, was going to do Virginia Woolf, and I said, Oh, I could direct that. I had a very powerful response to the play and I felt that there were many things I knew about it and things I'd like to do with it as a movie.
I can't say that I had the same sense immediately as I had with directing a play—Oh, this is what I was meant for—because at least for me it was too vast a possibility; it's too daunting for that. The thing about movies is, you're there looking all the time at the great movies that great directors have made, so it's difficult to jump into it and say, Oh, yeah, this is made for me and I'm made for it. It was a kind of total immersion in the process that seemed not difficult to learn, in the sense that I'd read Orson Welles saying “you can learn all the technical aspects of movies in one day”—which is not quite true, but you can learn a great deal about lenses and dollies and montage and so forth, and of course, you've been learning about all that seeing movies all your life. I think you can actually see me learning during the course of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, because we shot it in sequence.
I did know—and this is very rare for me—that it was something that I could never use up, that was going to be endlessly fascinating and exciting to me. It was a process the tools and possibilities of which are infinite. You can take them further and further, but you can also simplify them more and more, and over a very long time it can become as simple as your own grammar. It's something I knew I could never tire of, and one of my problems is that I do wear things out and want to go on to something else…..
In a movie you do have control of it, but the thing that you don't ever control after you choose [a film] is the central metaphor that is the movie. It seems to me that, to a greater extent than a play, a movie's artistic success, success as an experience, depends on the power of the metaphor that is the central engine of the movie. If you have a powerful metaphor, if the audience knows why they're there, you can soar very high. If you don't have that metaphor, no amount of cleverness with the camera or talent on the part of the actors can lift it, because the engine that is the metaphor is everything. I believe that now as much as I did when I began.
Is that central metaphor something that you can impose, or is it inherent in the material?
It's in the story—it's as simple as that. The story either contains it or it doesn't. In between there are gradations. There are stories that seem to convey them but can't stand the pressure of the process or confrontation by the audience, and certain metaphors crack under that pressure. I said to [Anthony] Minghella, when I'd seen The English Patient, that I'd never seen a New York audience so still, so absolutely silent, during a movie. It was a very strong experience to be in that audience. And he said, “Yes, well—they sense purpose.” That's a wonderful thing to say. And we do, as an audience, sense purpose. If there's a purpose inherent in a story, in the metaphor that is a given story, we do sense it and we can be tamed by it. An audience is a ruthless, Heartless, and unruly monster, and if it doesn't sense purpose then get out of its way, because it's going to be difficult—difficult to get the attention of, difficult to make laugh, difficult to carry along on the journey that is any particular story.
But when your purpose is high and strong and an audience can sense it, they'll go pretty far with you. So that all the mysteries of choosing a story—what does it mean to you, what does it really mean to you, what does it mean to you that you're not even aware of? How can you communicate on that level, of which you are not necessarily even aware or which you cannot necessarily articulate, to an audience? All these things reside in the power of the metaphor, and there you just have to get lucky. You can't invent, create, carpenter, that metaphor if it isn't there. Sometimes Hollywood people say, “If you can say it in two sentences it's a hit; if you can say it in one sentence it's a blockbuster.” That's a relatively shallow formula, but it has some truth in it.
Since as a director, part of your work is to work with the writer, aren't you, at that very early stage, doing something to direct the metaphor?
It's already too late. Let's say we're going to do a musical. One of us says to the other, “I have an idea: sixty people audition, six make it.” If I gave you that idea, or you gave it to me, the other one would say, “Oh, I'd like to work on that.” That's it, it's done. We could have all done Chorus Line; we might not have done it as well as Michael Bennett and his collaborators, it's very likely we wouldn't have done it as well, but we could have done a pretty good job because that one sentence is so powerful, it leads to so much that is story, tension, development, conflict, resolution, emotion, that you can make a pretty good show out of it. Now that sentence doesn't seem like such a big deal, but go find another one. Michael Bennett couldn't. All of us can spend decades of our working lives and not find such a powerful central sentence to a story again.
I think what happens is, you see all the signs of the central metaphor and you try different names for it, but it's always there, you're always describing it in different ways. You can also be in the middle of something and realize that there's a serious flaw in the central metaphor. I realized very early in Wolf that the metaphor of vampires is very powerful, it speaks to all of us, we all know a great deal about it, but the metaphor of werewolves is not—it has never worked, never will work, because it doesn't echo anything that happens to people. People are and do become vampires, people are preyed upon by vampires, this is something that has infinite resonance. Give me a vampire picture and I'll make you a better picture than Wolf. Because although a lot of very good work went into Wolf—from Nicholson and from Elaine May, who rewrote the script, and I did some good work—it didn't really matter because the metaphor just didn't sail, it didn't travel on its own. We had to start pushing and pulling, and once you have to start doing that, it is usually too late.
Which films came out closest to your initial inkling of them?
It takes me a while to know whether I see anything. I can love a piece of material, but [not] know for some time whether I see it as a movie, whether I literally see things that'll be in the movie. When I begin to see those things, it's always a moment or a scene that is the hook that pulls me into it. Sometimes it becomes so specific that the movie in the end is very much what I saw in the beginning. That's certainly true of The Graduate, Virginia Woolf, Carnal Knowledge. Primary Colors is very much what I saw from when we were close to finished with the script. The Birdcage, of course, was not the first or second or even third time that that story had been told, but once we began to imagine that plot, which Elaine and I both loved very much—a perfect metaphor for what the movie is about, which is family—once we began to see it in this time and found the exact right place for it to happen in this country, it came out very much the way I imagined it…. How did The Graduate come about? It was a book that Larry Turman, the producer of the movie, sent me before I did Virginia Woolf. I liked it, and we arranged to do it, and then Virginia Woolf came along, and I said, “Would you mind if I did this first?” and he didn't mind. It helped in many ways, because we had several scripts that I was very unhappy with, and then while I was shooting Virginia Woolf in L.A. I met Buck Henry, and I said, “I'd like Buck to do the script.” He'd never written before; he'd been a member of another improvisation group, Premise, but I thought that he would do a brilliant job, which he did.
Given that The Graduate was a film that turned out the way you wanted it, what for you was the defining moment?
There's a moment that I thought was at the very Heart of it. In fact, I told Anne Bancroft about it, and then when we got to shooting the scene she left it out, and I [reminded her], and she said, “Oh, oh, oh, I forgot, let's do it again.” So it was more important to me, although Anne did it.
It was when Benjamin and Mrs. Robinson are in bed and he says, “We never talk, let's talk.” And she says, “All right, what do you want to talk about?” And he says, “Well, you suggest something.” And she says, “All right, art.” And he says, “Art, that's a good topic, you start.” And she says, “You start, I don't know anything about it.” And somewhat later in the same scene, when he's asking her about her early life, she's talking about college and he says, “What was your major?” And she says, “Art.” He says, “Art … oh, well I guess you kind of drifted away from it,” and she says, “Kind of.”
I thought that was the very Heart of Mrs. Robinson, and therefore of the movie: namely, her self-hatred and the extent of her sadness about where the exigencies of her life had taken her, as opposed to where she had originally wanted to go. And that was very important to me. These hooks into the person who's making the movie or writing the play are so invisible and mysterious to other people. It's very personal and strange, but that was the first thing I understood about the people in The Graduate, and it was the beginning of the process.
You don't seem to identify closely with Benjamin; you seem to view him from a distance.
And yet the parts of me that did identify with Benjamin predominate in what I did with the movie. By that I mean, I didn't cast Redford. Dustin has always said that Benjamin is a walking surfboard. And that's what he was in the book, in the original conception. But I kept looking and looking for an actor until I found Dustin, who is the opposite, who's a dark, Jewish, anomalous presence, which is how I experience myself. So I stuck this dark presence into Beverly Hills, and there he felt that he was drowning in things, and that was very much my take on that story. When I think of Benjamin, there are many things that come from my personal experience. His little whimper was my little whimper when Jack Warner would tell a joke; in fact, people had to tell me to try not to whimper when he told jokes, that he was going to notice. And that was the direct source of Benjamin's whimper. To me, one of the most alive scenes in the movie is when he wants to leave the hotel room and Mrs. Robinson is putting her stocking on and now he can't. A lot of these things come from inside of us, and I think that the characters that speak to us, that express us, will never be apparent to anybody but ourselves because the outsides of people are so different, but the insides, especially people who feel themselves to be outsiders, are really very similar.
Catch-22 was considered to be an artistic failure at the time of its release, but I think it's one of your best.
It was in some ways a failure. I ran it for Stanley Kubrick and he was very nice about it. I don't remember the good things he said, but he did say that people might have some narrative problems with it: where are we, what's happening, and because it was all circular, you weren't really sure when a given scene was taking place. Which I don't mind, but it did bother some people. I think I made some mistakes. I should have scored it, because I think it would have helped. It was sort of arrogant not to score it. And it should have been funnier. The strange thing for me about that movie is it kicks in about the middle, in the dark part, in Rome. And then it gets pretty good. I didn't really find a completely successful way of translating the surrealism of the novel. It came and went. It was like one of those Von Stroheim follies. If I could do it again, I would like to think it could be funnier and have more Heart. It was very cold, too. What I like very much about it are its ambitions.
Do you feel Carnal Knowledge presses the cynicism of The Graduate even further?
Oh, I think so. Carnal Knowledge is the darkest movie I ever made. It's the only one I ever see again. I'm very impatient, and in looking at it I'm very annoyed by its pace. Because I was so hung up on not cutting and doing everything in one, I just think it's slow. In the beginning especially, I just think, C'mon, let's go, let's go. And then indeed it does get moving, in the middle, and then I think it works—I like it very much. It's a mannerist film, and that's both what I like and don't like about it. It was written as a play, and I said I thought it wasn't a play, actually it was a movie. I think without planning to, it was in some ways reminiscent of Feiffer's panels, when he draws his cartoons.
In the end the film underestimates the female capacity for duplicity and manipulation and underestimates men's naïveté. Nicholson's character is so completely in control, and the women are really just objects of manipulation and abuse.
That's the form at the outside of it, but the concern of it is with the interior experience of the object. That's what I still like about it. People thought it was an anti-woman film. I never thought that was true. It was a film about the underclass and what its members suffered. The main thing to remember about Carnal Knowledge was it was about a specific generation of men. I don't think those men exist now, and I think feminism has changed everyone to some extent. But what you said is absolutely true, that we all think of men as the liars. Well, of course, women, like any underclass, are liars, too—they're just better liars, because their lies are part of a necessary strategy. I think some of that is in the movie; we probably could have used more of it.
Do you see Silkwood as your most conventionally realistic film?
Yes and no. Silkwood was so much about being in a daze and looking around one and thinking, Oh my god, I haven't been aware of what's been happening, and what's been happening is very bad. And it was so much about people who don't spend a lot of time talking about relationships, talking about what's wrong, so that there was a constant obbligato, a kind of underside of what's really happening between the people. And that's what I liked about working on it, that what is going on between the people is still quite visible even when they don't talk about it.
It's also what drew me to the theater to begin with. You find ways to express the underneath without words; sometimes it's the opposite of the words, or a tangent of the words. I think Silkwood has a lot of those things—unexpressed undercurrents that are palpable.
On Primary Colors, what were you getting at in the final shots, the dancing, panning across the campaign workers and coming to Henry, the protagonist?
I wanted it to be ambiguous. It seems to me that the very concept of selling out is dead, it doesn't exist anymore. It's in fact George Stephanopoulos's dilemma: does he live very simply and teach at Columbia and keep faith with the assumptions about taking such a job, or does he take the $2.4 million and write an excellent book and forever after make some people think that maybe it would have been wiser not to? People go now where the power is. It's just what's happening. And it's not that there aren't millions and millions of people who do everything by their own lights and are unable to betray anyone or anything, because that's going to go on. People don't change. Fashions change. Right now the most effective thing is to go towards the greatest power, the most money, and then you can afford a shrink.
The dilemma of Primary Colors interests me because we are now in a time when so-called current events have largely replaced fiction as the primary metaphor. So that as we go from chapter to chapter of the big soap opera, from O.J. to Princess Diana to Clinton and Monica, they have crowded out the metaphors that were in fiction, they've sucked up metaphor into them so that they're the main story. They're the story that everybody's watching in the way that everybody used to read Dickens and Dostoevsky in serialized form. Primary Colors is confusing because it's fiction and reality at the same time. That's why it interested me, and that's why I think there were certain problems in looking at it. That mixture is happening in our lives as well as in more and more pictures, but the most interesting thing about the big soap opera is that what we are following are not the actual events. These are the things that go into Nexus, and once it's gone into Nexus it's happened, whether it's really happened or not. At the same time, we're looking at movies about worlds further and further into space and more and more of the imagination. What sort of seems dull now is just ordinary people's lives. Every few years we still get a picture about ordinary people and you think, Oh, isn't that interesting!
This has been an edited version of Gavin Smith's interview with Mike Nichols. Read the complete text in our May/June 1999 issue.