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Posts Tagged ‘Mike Nichols’

“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 pretty good. Elaine was very good at it.”
Mike Nichols
Film Comment interview with Gavin Smith

According to the Encyclopedia of Chicago, improv as a structured theatrical art form began in 1955 when David Shepherd and Paul Stills started the ensemble group the Compass Players in Chicago. Many of the alumni later went on to be part of Second City.

Along with Compass Players Ed Asner, Alan Alda, Valerie Harper and among the others was a German born, former pre-med major, and method trained actor named Mike Nichols—who would later go on to be one of the few people to win the rare combination of Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Awards.

When Nichols, who passed away this week, was asked in 2013 if there were any ground rules for improvisations with the Compass Players he replied:

“The greatest rule was [Elaine May’s], ‘when in doubt, seduce.’ That became the rule for the whole group. And looking back, because I did teach acting for a while, we figured out over a long time that there only were three kinds of scenes in the world—fights, seductions, and negotiations.”
Film and theater director Mike Nichols (1931-2014)
Vanity Fair article by Sam Kashner

While not improv scenes, yesterday’s post had the classic seduction scene from The Graduate, and here’s a negotiation scene from that film which Nichols won an Oscar for directing:

It’s been a few years since I’ve seen Nichols’ first feature film Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? but I seem to recall Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton fighting throughout the film so it wasn’t hard to find a fighting scene. (Lots of fighting and 13 Oscar nominations.)

P.S. The well respected acting teacher Del Close—who was once roommates with Gene Wilder at the University of Iowa— was part of the Compass Players before later influencing/teaching Bill Murray, Chris Farley, Gilda Radner, Mike Myers, John Candy, Tina Fey, and John Belushi. Close also co-authored Truth in Comedy, The Manual of Improvisation.

In the book The Funniest One in the Room:The Loves and Legends of Del Close, Kim Howard Johnson writes, “Many have called Del Close the most important comedy figure of the last fifty years whom you’ve never hear of.”

Scott W. Smith

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“Sometimes the truth is shocking.”
Tennessee Williams

“I did four plays with [Neil Simon]: Barefoot and Plaza Suite and The Prisoner of Second Avenue and The Odd Couple. There were real discoveries. Sometimes we didn’t even know things were funny. Walter Matthau says: ‘You leave me little notes on my pillow. Told you 158 times I can’t stand little notes on my pillow.’ ‘We’re all out of Corn Flakes. F.U.’ Took me three hours to figure out F.U. was Felix Ungar.’ And the audience laughed so hard, he had to sit down and read the New York Post.

“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.”
Oscar-winning director Mike Nichols (The Graduate)
As told to Stephen Galloway/ 2012 Hollywood Reporter

Related Posts:
The Shocking Truth (Tip #84) “The truth is your friend.”—Oscar-nominated screenwriter Nicholas Kazan
Hunting for Truth “Truth is not found in the sunshine, truth is found in the shadows.”—Novelist Paul Lieberman
Telling the Truth=Humor “Watch human behavior. Telling the truth about people will make them laugh.” Phil Foster via Garry Marshall
Insanely Great Endings Screenwriter Michael Arndt puts The Graduate (written by Buck Henry and Calder Willingham based on the novel by Charles Webb) on his short list of movies with “insanely great endings.”

Scott W. Smith

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Years ago, philosophers Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren wrote a serious book called How to Read a Book. In it, they mentioned that unless you’d read a book three times, you really hadn’t read the book. That is, you hadn’t digested the book. I wonder how many of the estimated 1.7 billion DVDs sold last year were viewed more than once (not counting Finding Nemo).

The best way to watch a movie in order to grow as a screenwriter and filmmaker is to watch it over an over again. Writer/director Frank Darabont admits that, on his days off while making The Shawshank Redemption, “I would just watch Goodfellows again and again…just for inspiration.”

Director Mike Nichols (The Graduate) once commented that anyone wanting to be a film director should watch George Stevens’ classic, A Place in the Sun 50 times. In fact, the single best class I had in film school was taught by a professor who showed us A Place in the Sun and afterwards asked us questions like “what sounds and visuals do you associate with the Shelly Winters’ character?” and “What music is playing whenever Elizabeth Taylors’ character appears?” It was the first time I really saw the intentionality of a filmmaker.

Film school was also the first time I was challenged to watch a film with the sound turned off and then just listening to the audio. Just out of school as VHS machines finally became affordable is when I began to break down movies scene for scene and to time the length of scenes as well.

Repeated viewing take you to a deeper understanding and appreciation of film. And now with DVDs and the like you can easily locate a single memorable scene, allowing you insights on how lighting, editing, pacing, economy of writing, direction, music sound effects and performance all come together for maximum impact.

While many DVDs come with extras, the real gold is in the commentaries. I’m not talking about the ones with film professors and critics, but the real nuggets that come from the writers and directors who made the film.

One DVD that I recommend you invest your time studying is the 15th Anniversary edition of Rain Man. The film, winner of “Best Picture” Oscar in 1988, has been out long enough to stand the test of time and be considered a modern-day classic. One aspect that separates it from the DVD pack is its three commentaries.

The director, Barry Levinson, the original writer Barry Marrow, and the rewrite writer, Ron Bass, offer more than six hours of insights that warrant repeated listening as well as the film itself.

The commentaries on Rain Man expose the collaborative process at its best. At one point, Steven Spielberg was set to direct, and had spent many months working with Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise on their characters and mulling over script ideas with Bass. You learn how difficult it was to get the film made even with top talent attached.

Levinson explains how he sought to shoot in a way that would give the audience glimpses of how Hoffman’s autistic savant character saw patterns in the world. And he notes that his direction was designed to show that Cruise was as handicapped (relationally) as his brother, making the film a journey of two broken people connecting.

Rain Man works on so many levels (psychologically, visually, emotionally, and performance-wise) that you can begin to appreciate its depth only by repeated viewings.

So don’t concern yourself with watching films just to check them off your AFI Greatest Films list. Invest in couple DVDs of your favorite movies that you’ve heard good things about the commentary and watch those–study those–repeatedly. And like Van Gogh studying a Rembrandt painting, you will be partaking in a timeless creative tradition.

Here is a short list of my favorite DVD commentaries:

The Godfather; Francis Ford Coppola commentary

Stand by Me; Directing inexperienced actors and using improvisation

Seabiscuit; On adapting a film from a best-selling book

The Shawshank Redemption (15th Anniversary Edition); Frank Darabont and “Happy Accidents”

Pieces of April: On funding falling through and finally making the low-budget movie in 16 days.

Big: Commentary with writers Gary Ross and Annie Spielberg which has original excerpts of when they were writing the original script before they had ever had a script produced. Great stuff.

Copyright ©2008 Scott W. Smith

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Indiana’s been in the news the last couple weeks. First there’s the new Indiana Jones film that’s on top at the box office, there was the Indy 500 this past weekend, and then I saw the front page of New York Times yesterday morning and learned that director and Indiana native Sydney Pollack died Monday.

It seems like a fitting time to take a road trip to the Hoosier State. Though Pollack was not a screenwriter it’s worth paying tribute to this giant of a filmmaker who knew how to tell a story.

Before he headed to New York after high school in South Bend to study acting with Sanford Meisner he had spent his life in Indiana.  From acting in theater, to directing TV shows, to directing over 40 feature films Pollack was unusually gifted. I was a long time fan of Pollack’s and he directed some of my favorite films:

They Don’t Shoot Horses, Do They? The Way We Were Jeremiah Johnson Three Days of the Condor The Electric Horseman Absence of Malice Tootsie Out of Africa The Firm Sketches of Frank Gehry 

He was a two time Oscar winner (Out of Africa & Tootsie) both of which films also won Best Picture Oscars.  Another Indiana native producer/director Robert Wise also had won two best director Oscars for his films West Side Story & The Sound of Music. He also won two more Best Picture Oscars for producing both movies.

And to challenge Nebraska’s cool actor category (which produced both Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando), Indiana lays claim to Steve McQueen and James Dean. The list of entertainment icons from Indiana also includes Karl Malden (On the Waterfront), comedian Red Skelton, song writer Cole Porter, and TV host David Letterman.

Moving to the writing side, Kurt Vonnegut was born and raised in Indianapolis. Glenn Berggoetz writes, “It was at Shortridge High School in Indianapolis that Vonnegut gained his first writing experience. During his last two years there he wrote for and was one of the editors of the Shortridge Daily Echo, which was the first high school daily newspaper in the country. At this young age Vonnegut learned to write for a wide audience that would give him immediate feedback, rather than just writing for an audience of one in the form of a teacher.” (Note also that Vonnegut also honed his skills at the Iowa Writers Workshop.) 

Theodore Dreiser from Terre Haute wrote the novel An American Tragedy that was made twice made into a film including the 1951 George Stevens’ version (A Place in the Sun) staring Elizabeth Taylor that won 6 Academy Awards. It is a film that Mike Nichols (director of The Graduate) said if you wanted to learn how to direct you should watch 50 times.

To counter Dreiser’s somber look at the dark side of America let’s look at another film with Indiana roots. Playwright and screenwriter Steve Tesich was born in Yugoslavia, raised in Chicago and graduated from Indiana University. He won an Oscar for his screenplay Breaking Away based and filmed in Bloomington, Indiana and that became the 1979 sleeper hit staring Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern, Chrisopher Plummer and James Earle Haley.

Tesich’s script came at a time before we were jaded by sports stories and was released just three years after Rocky. The film captures much of what I’m trying to write about in Screenwriting from Iowa. That is that there are stories to tell beyond Hollywood, and people all over the world need encouragement to tell those stories.

Frank Deford reviewed Breaking Away for Sports Illustrated in 1979:

“It is the rare film that has understood the essence of sport so well as Breaking Away; or understood summer or growing up; or, for that matter, America and Americana. This joyous story about four young A&P cowboys and a bicycle race in Bloomington, Ind. cost a measly $2.4 million to make but it is better by far than all the ballyhooed, star-studded epics. Steve Teisch’s screenplay is impeccable; Peter Yates’ direction is nearly magic in its command and sensitivity; and the cast is perfectly chosen, an ensemble always in character. And if all this were not enough, Breaking Away also evokes a spirit these times yearn for.

“I’m sure that Teisch and Yates didn’t set out to wave the flag, but there is something special here… the wonderful thing about Breaking Away is that you leave the theater very proud that America has both an Indiana and a Hollywood.”

TV and film director David Anspaugh was born in Decatur, Indiana and also studied at Indiana University before going on to win two Emmy’s producing and directing Hill Street Blues and the quintessential Indiana film Hoosiers.

Matt Williams from Evansville, Indiana is best known as the creator and executive producer of Roseanne and co-creator of Home Improvement. But he also wrote for The Cosby Show and produced the Mel Gibson film What Women Want. He graduated with a theater degree from the University of Evansville and was awarded an honorary doctorate from there in 2003.

And the newest up and coming writer/ director from Indiana is James C. Strouse (from Goshen, Indiana) whose latest film Grace is Gone won the critics awards at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. His first film Lonesome Jim starred Casey Affleck and was directed by Steve Busemi. 

But I can’t pass up the opportunity to mention John Mellencamp from Seymour, Indiana who seems to embody a Midwestern spirit in everything he does. Going way back into the early 80’s with prefect sing-a-long songs Jack & Diana (“Two American kids growing up in the Heartland”), Pink Houses and Small Town to his classic thought-provoking album Scarecrow that addressed the farm crisis in the 80’s, to his more recent Our Country. Mellencamp embraced his Midwestern roots and we were better for it.

While his film connections are usually on the soundtracks of films he did star and direct the 1992 film Falling from Grace. Mellencamp was recently inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Indiana University awarded him an honorary doctorate of Musical Arts.

On Sunday I spent a several hours driving on the Lincoln Highway, the first transcontinenental highway in the country. (It goes through both Iowa and Indiana. And paid my first ever $4.+ per gallon for gas.) It’s hard for me to make that kind of trip and not think of Mellencamp’s lyrics, “Ain’t that America Something to See.”

It’s something to write about, too.

P.S. Did you know that in the original Indy script that it was Indiana Smith? Doesn’t have the same ring does it?  (Spielberg thought it sounded to much like Nevada Smith, a 1966 Steve McQueen film.) And isn’t it hard to see Tom Selleck as Indy, who Spielberg originally wanted but couldn’t get because of Selleck’s commitment to Magnum P.I.?

Copyright ©2008 Scott W. Smith

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