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Director Series: Mike Nichols (Closer)

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By Bill DesowitzDirector Mike Nichols is the first to acknowledge that Closer is a close cousin to his near-classic Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and 1971’s Carnal Knowledge. They are all about falling out of love. In summarizing his new film Nichols quotes Chilean poet Pablo Neruda: “Love is so short, forgetting is so hard.” However, Columbia Pictures’ Closer, based on the celebrated play by Patrick Marber about four strangers—played by Julia Roberts, Jude Law, Natalie Portman and Clive Owen—who meet by chance, is all about beginnings and endings and what what’s missing about the essential middles.Below the Line: How did you find the right way to adapt Closer?Mike Nichols: Well, I was lucky in that I read the play before I saw it. I was in London. I heard about the play, I read it and I liked it very much. And I was devastated by that central scene with Larry [Clive Owen, when he confronts Anna, Julia Roberts, about her sexual betrayal]. I actually got physically sick; it was so shocking and involving. Later I started to think about it. And then the story actually took shape in that it was very much like Dangerous Liaisons. Larry is hurt to the core, plans his revenge, gets his revenge and gets his girl back.BTL: What other thoughts did you have early on in the film’s genesis?Nichols: What I think about love is that people are equal in their power. It’s very painful otherwise. But that if you are in control in your equal ways, then it’s the greatest adventure. And my job is to make this happen in the eyes of the audience. Numerous things come from that. The quality of the four people; that any one of them should believably want any of the others is very important. To me the style of the piece is what it means, as I discovered when I saw a Jerome Gutherie-directed play with Ruth Gordon, The Matchmaker. I saw it three times, and after the third time, I said to myself, “I know what the style of this guy is… he’s so good that he’s taught me style.” The definition of it is that something has to begin in a way that will let the things that happen later really happen. So I found the beginning of Closer right away. I’m good at beginnings. Everything depends on that, sort of like the way everything rests on the giant hippo’s toe in Fantasia. And in that sense, once I found the beginning—oh, I have to have that!—then everything came from that.BTL: So once you found your beginning, how did you manage to work it all out with your key collaborators, production designer Tim Hatley, for example?Nichols: Well, the set he did for Private Lives with [Alan] Rickman was the greatest set I’ve ever seen for any play. Here’s this classic play that we all know. The first scene is two adjoining balconies in a hotel in the South of France. The second scene is an apartment in Paris. The third scene is an apartment in Paris by day. So, in Private Lives, it’s all the balconies, and our people are in two of them. And then you see the apartment at night—and it’s the most beautiful, romantic, ideal Paris apartment with a big window and the Eiffel Tower, dark red and glamorous. Then comes the next scene in broad daylight, and it’s looking like Dracula by day. The walls are peeling and the couch is this ancient velvet thing that looked beautiful at night. And Tim expressed a lot of the play in ways that had never occurred to anyone. He’s a genius. For instance, the scene between the two guys in the office. That office is a like a [David] Hockney [painting], where there is just one perfect vase of flowers and there’s two people strangely far apart. Tim is my ideal art director because he’s about—just as the actors are about—the secrets that aren’t expressed out loud that boil up in all the rest of us. So we worked to find out what were the secrets and what was really happening, as I did with the actors. We rehearsed, but not repeating and practicing, but asking the crucial question, “What is this really like?”Do you remember The Lady Vanishes? That’s a great example of a great director asking, “What if we didn’t do the accepted things?” What if a guy gets hit over the head very hard and passes out, but does not fall down? What if two guys are fighting and the girlfriend of one of them instead of, in close-up, making a lot of scared faces, gets into it with her shoe and beats the shit out of the bad guy? What happens in life, not in the agreed convention? You get closer to the impulse from which the piece was written to begin with.BTL: Tell me about the contemporary London that Tim found to convey this?Nichols: Well, Tim found a London that I never could have found—of strange new metal buildings. A very cold, infelicitous London. It all comes from buildings that were rebuilt after the War. There was no money, and there was no planning and there were very few architects. And it’s mostly very bad. New York is beautiful. Paris is beautiful. Rome, I don’t even have to say. But London, because of the Blitz and because of the bad planning, is not beautiful. There are beautiful things—the Thames is beautiful. It has very little character when you look at it. Tim not only seized on that but also found a cold new London that is these aluminum buildings. You see them even across the Thames when Julia and Clive are walking. They’re everywhere. He found a London that expressed the things in our story. It’s what a great designer can do—he creates life with the backgrounds while we’re busy doing it with the scenes.BTL: And Ann Roth, your costume designer, who you’ve worked with since The Odd Couple on Broadway in the ’60s?Nichols: She’s the greatest. She’s not doing costumes, she’s doing, “Who are these people?” That’s her genius. What would he/she wear? And there’s no equal to her that I’ve ever known.BTL: What have you learned most from her?Nichols: You know what I’ve relearned from her? If there is a central idea—I always give them the central idea—that there is no end to how much life they can create. But if you don’t give them a central idea, they can’t be good. Ann has worked on some movies that didn’t work because she wasn’t given a central idea—you can only be good if you give them a context. Do you know the story about Audrey Hepburn’s second movie, Sabrina?BTL: Which one?Nichols: After Roman Holiday she was suddenly a huge star—and with good reason. Billy Wilder cast her. She went to Paris to go shopping, and she said, “I’ll take that and that and that.” She flew back to Hollywood and called up Mr. Wilder and asked if she could show him what she’d like to wear. He was no fool and said all right. He came over and looked over everything and said that’s great. That’s exactly what you should wear. We’ll say that Edith Head designed them. And she won the Academy Award for costume design. But she knew at such a young age that she could make something really happen.BTL: And your cinematographer, Stephen Goldblatt [ASC, BSC], who worked with you on Angels in America?Nichols: Stephen is a godsend because not only does he understand everything and how to transform it into light, he takes much of the burden off of getting there. The office scene is a good example. I said I want a Hockney. Or go shoot in an aquarium sometimes. It’s a nightmare because there is nowhere to put light. But his solution to the impossible is something very exciting. The club has to be sleazy enough and sexy enough in a long scene in a very private room. I don’t remember if it was Stephen or Tim who thought of making the photographs look like light boxes.BTL: And editor John Bloom, who worked with you on Wit and Angels in America?Nichols: All my working life, I’ve shot
scenes for how I’ve wanted to cut them. Then seeing the assembly, I’ve wanted to kill the editor and myself. And then painfully explain to the editor what I had in mind the first time, and we go on. And then we start, really, and that’s the beginning. With John, I don’t have to say anything at all. He just does it automatically. He knows what I have in mind. He doesn’t come to rehearsal. He doesn’t want to hear a word about it until he sees the film. His greatest gift is making a scene out of a person who is not speaking. I think he does that better than anyone. When Julia in that scene when Clive says, “But we’re happy, aren’t we?”… that look she gives him. It’s my favorite thing in the movie—it’s so shocking. John finds that miracle of telling the story without words.

Written by Bill Desowitz

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