6 Filmmaking Tips from Mike Nichols

Free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from the director of ‘The Graduate.’
Mike Nichols
By  · Published on December 4th, 2014

Welcome to Filmmaking Tips, a long-running column in which we gather up the shared knowledge of a particular filmmaker and assemble it all into the internet’s favorite thing: a list. This one is about the filmmaking of Mike Nichols.

The phrase “actor’s director” is thrown around a great deal, but there have been very few directors who knew how to work with actors quite like Mike Nichols. A former student of Lee Strasburg and a fervent believer in the revelatory power of improvisation, Nichols has directed some of the most notable performances in modern cinema.

His debut alone was evidence of his gift. For his first film, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, the theater performer and director took on the mammoth task of adapting one of the rawest and most acerbic plays of the 1960s to a film starring the most powerful couple in Hollywood: Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. It’s now remembered as the best role of Taylor’s career.

His second film, The Graduate, showed an equal but opposite talent: his ability to get performances out of unknown actors that match their particular strengths. That film launched and defined Dustin Hoffman’s career. Since then, every Nichols film ‐ from Carnal Knowledge to What Planet Are You From? ‐ carried the promise that its cast would be used to the best of their talents.

So here’s a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from the only filmmaker we would trust to turn Jack Nicholson into a werewolf.

The filmmaking lessons we can learn from Mike Nichols

1. Great Actors Give You Less to Do

In 2012, Nichols collaborated with his Charlie Wilson’s War star Philip Seymour Hoffman in a Broadway revival of “Death of a Salesman,” which would turn out to be Nichols’ penultimate stage production. Here, he speaks passionately and at length about the necessity and the magic of rehearsal, and how great actors often work together through improvisation like a jazz band, letting each subtle contribution change the tenor of a scene.

Nichols stresses the difficulty and rigor of improvisation ‐ he has stated in the past that it took him years to fully grasp the process of working with Strasburg. Skilled performers can create a certain type of magic that leaves little for the director to do, for “doing” might interrupt the chemistry of their collaboration. Nichols clearly relished in the privilege and opportunity to consistently work with great actors, and that love showed on the screen and the stage.

Though Hoffman is only available here in silence, it’s a bit uncanny to see two people we lost this year who carried a true love for the craft.

2. “Improvising Teaches You the Elements of a Scene”

Film Comment: How did you make the transition from performing to directing?

Nichols: 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.

3. Both Sides of the Theatrical Experience are Special

After a retrospective screening of his 1971 film Carnal Knowledge, Nichols talks with Jason Reitman about how unique (and increasingly rare) the experience is of watching a stage or film production with a theater full of other people, sharing emotional intuition and experience. He seems to stress that there’s something that can’t be put into words about watching an actor perform and connecting with the feeling an actor conveys ‐ a shared humanism that unites the room. That Nichols states his love for being on “either side” of this equation is worth noting: he sought to produce performances that would reach him as a theatergoer.

4. There is No Distinction Between Comedy and Tragedy

“I never understand when people say, ‘Do you do comedy or tragedy?’ I don’t think they’re very much different. They both have to be true, and there isn’t a great play in the world that doesn’t have funny parts to it ‐ as Salesman does, as King Lear does. The whole idea is to reflect life in some way, which means surely you have to have both.”

Take that quote and watch Nichols’ adaptation of Catch-22.

6. The Director Knows

Nichols was best known (and recognized) as someone who knows how to direct actors, but his films were never simply staged performances. He used the tools of filmmaking to exercise emotional and psychological work alongside the contributions of his cast. Further, his films (especially in the ’60s and ’70s) were formally rather innovative and daring, forgoing an easily comprehensible linear style for something more expressive.

But as Nichols stresses in this Virginia Woolf commentary to Steven Soderbergh, there had to be a reason for formal invention. The camera could not simply call attention to itself but must work something like an instrument in a band, in unison towards the greater artistic, thematic, and emotional vision of the film.

But Nichols also had an eye for filmmaking. He was a cinephile, and he understood how previous Hollywood directors deliberately utilized or even broke with the conventional language of Hollywood filmmaking. Watching George Stevens’ films was apparently an important part of his cinematic learning.

6. Remove the Walls

TimeOut: All those crazy dissolves Stevens does in [A Place in the Sun]…it’s amazing to think he got away with that in 1951.

Nichols: You bet your ass! Every single one of those dissolves serves the story. “Look out, here’s what’s coming!” That movie taught me how to make movies. And [The Graduate cinematographer Robert L.] Surtees was a truly great guy to have in your corner if you wanted to do something different. I remember when we were shooting the scene of Katharine [Ross] visiting Dustin in Berkeley. I asked Robert before we got to the set, “We’re in this small room, but is there a way to shoot this with a long lens?” And without hesitation, he replied, “Let’s remove the walls. We can do it that way.” The last thing you would have expected him to say! That’s what we did, for each angle of the scene, and it worked beautifully. Everyone knew this weirdo New York theater director who was making his second movie here had a lot of specific, off-the-wall ideas for how to shoot The Graduate. Robert was the only person who thought they were good ideas.

What we’ve learned about filmmaking

Nichols’ discussion of directing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is essential for understanding how he honed his specific approach to filmmaking. We typically think of so-called “actors’ directors” as collaborative and democratic, but here we have an example of a director pointedly asserting his authority in contradiction with a cinematographer in order to ensure a unified vision of the film.

This does not contradict Nichols’ love for improvisation and other more collaborative techniques. What Nichols understood is that a revelatory performance is just as cinematic as the power of montage. It’s not the same as a great performance in theater, on television, or anywhere else. Great on-screen performances work in tune with all the other machinations of filmmaking. And Nichols’ films taught us that there was a great deal yet to be explored in terms of what both film acting and filmmaking could do.