November 20, 2014

A Safe Place to Open a Vein: Celebrating the Life & Work of Director Mike Nichols

Mike Nichols
"A movie is like a person. Either you trust it or you don't."

Wise words from a filmmaking legend. Oscar-winning Director and EGOT winner, Mike Nichols, who gave us iconic films like The GraduateWho's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and Silkwood, passed away on Wednesday at the age of 83.

His 41-year directing career started off the way we all dream our own careers would; his very first feature Virginia Woolf, received numerous Oscar nominations in 1967, including one for Best Picture and Best Director. Nichols went on to win an Academy Award for his direction of The Graduate, a film that many believe showcased his best work (and was also only his second feature).

Nichols had a lot to say about his work on The Graduate, naming it one of his films that came out just the way he originally envisioned. In this interview with Film Comment from 1999, he talks specifically about the defining moment during production when he realized this -- a scene that he felt was the heart of the entire narrative, which oddly enough had little to do with the protagonist, Ben, played by Dustin Hoffman, instead centering on Anne Bancroft's seductive character, Mrs. Robinson.

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.

That's an issue I'm sure all filmmakers can relate to: What's the heart of my story? Is it clearly defined? Can I pinpoint it and draw a circle around it and say yes, there it is? I think one of Nichols' great skills was finding it, being able to uncover the raw humanity that drove his films, whether it was in The Graduate or Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf -- whether it was the angst and ennui of youth or the bitterness and scorn of middle age.

But none of this, none of it, would've been possible without the incredible and critically acclaimed performances of his actors. Nichols repeatedly declared that he had little to do with this, even once saying, "I love to take actors to a place where they open a vein. That’s the job. The key is that I make it safe for them to open the vein." In this interview that aired on 60 Minutes in 1996, he again tries to give all of the credit to the actors when he's asked by interviewer Lesley Stahl how he got Elizabeth Taylor to give the performance she did in Virginia Woolf. He simply replies, "She gave it. I don't do much." However, his incredible ability to create a "safe place for [his actors] to open the vein" made him one of the most sought after directors in Hollywood.

Mike Nichols' films have so much to teach us. His work was varied, encompassing many different genres. His visual style wasn't easily identifiable, but it didn't really have to be. He excelled at the most important task a director has -- directing actors and being able to pull great performances. It all starts with pinpointing the heart of the story -- the driving human emotion, the honesty -- and doing everything in your power to create an environment for your actors to feel secure enough to open a vein and bleed.

Nichols did that so well. His work was honest enough to trust.

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1 Comment

That's an impressive article about an impressive director Mike Nichols!
Thank you for writing.

November 21, 2014 at 3:07AM

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