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Mike Nichols: Changing set ideas of the world


Director Mike Nichols holds forth on the set of ‘Charlie Wilson’s War’, with Philip Seymour Hoffman listening attentively in the background

Director Mike Nichols holds forth on the set of ‘Charlie Wilson’s War’, with Philip Seymour Hoffman listening attentively in the background

SHAKEN, NOT STIRRED: Julia Roberts in ‘Charlie Wilson’s War’

SHAKEN, NOT STIRRED: Julia Roberts in ‘Charlie Wilson’s War’


Director Mike Nichols holds forth on the set of ‘Charlie Wilson’s War’, with Philip Seymour Hoffman listening attentively in the background

When Mike Nichols talks you listen. The 76-year-old director of The Graduate has that voice, that aura, that even when his conversation starts disappearing down unexpected avenues you know instinctively that it's best to go with him, rather than attempt to reign him in, which, in any case, would be a futile exercise.

Whether he's speaking about movies, love, politics or life, he has something interesting to say. We're talking the morning after the night of the London premiere of his latest film, Charlie Wilson's War. He doesn't particularly enjoy premieres. "Who does?" he says. "I was going to say the girls enjoy the red carpet," he continues, "but they're the coldest of all. And some of them don't have any underwear on."

Charlie Wilson's War is the true story of hard-living US Congressman Charlie Wilson (played by Tom Hanks), and the behind the scenes Washington power-broking involved in arming the Afghan rebels to take on the invading Soviets in the 1980s. It's written by Aaron Sorkin, the man behind The West Wing and A Few Good Men, so it's accuracy showing life in corridors of Washington cannot be disputed, although making reality films is not exactly something of particular interest to Nichols. "It was a nightmare making it because of the real life thing, because we couldn't make anything up," he explains, "and then I realised f*** it, we are making everything up."

The collaboration with Sorkin is also particularly interesting. Can two men, who from the outside would seem to have very set ideas, really achieve a positive collaboration? "He [Sorkin] has no set ideas," Nichols explains, "He said to me, 'I can't write a scene until I know the essential conflict.' I said to him, 'I can't do a scene until I know which of the three categories it falls into.'" There are only three kinds of scene: a fight, a seduction or a negotiation. And until you know which of the three it is you can't do it. Until he knows what the underlying conflict is he can't write it, and so we got along and we did it."

I ask him if he thinks that there are also only three scenes in life? He says that he does, and so I ask which category our interview falls into. He asks me my opinion, to which I suggest that it may be a negotiation. He replies instantly, "It's a mutual seduction. That's what interviews are. And they're always ultimately betrayed."

Why are they always betrayed? "Because the journalist tries to be objective," he answers.

Born in Berlin in 1931, Nichols, the son of a Russian-Jew, left for America in 1939 to escape the Nazis. "I remember stuff from Berlin," he explains. "Most of all I remember leaving Hamburg and arriving in New York. As we were leaving, we were ready to get on the boat and Hitler made a speech. When Hitler made a speech everything stopped. Cars had to pull over. There were no radios but there was a speaker system on every corner and we weren't allowed to get on the boat.

"We had to wait behind the rope. I remember a woman whose baby food had gone on the boat and they said there was nothing they could do. The baby was screaming, and Hitler was screaming in that way he had -- I remember that. Who wouldn't?"

"The reason we got out when no one got out, especially not a Jew, is because my father was Russian and had Russian papers, and for two years there was a Stalin-Hitler pact. Then, when you arrived in the US, in order to give you a visa, they demanded that each single person in the family had somebody in the States who would guarantee them financially for the rest of their lives. By wild chance my mother had a rich cousin who lived in the States. He said 'sure' but not everybody had that. We had to be lucky twice.

"Yes, that affects your life and the other thing is that your ear for the new place stays with your forever. You always keep it; you can hear what people are thinking.

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"What affected me my whole life is putting it all together. The guilt of surviving when six million didn't is so overwhelming that you don't even know it. You don't even feel it. And then somewhere quite late, for me at least it was my early 20s, it just hit me all of a sudden and I was kind of incapacitated for a long time. The guilt is very, very hard to deal with."

By the time of his 20s he had teamed up with Elaine May, one of the two great women in his life (the other being Diane Sawyer, presenter of ABC's Good Morning America, and his wife of more than 20 years -- who briefly dated the real Charlie Wilson).

Along with May, he was writing and performing in Chicago, which ultimately led him to Broadway. This, in turn, led him to direct movies, his first being Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, starring Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, and his second, The Graduate, with Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft. More recently, he made Primary Colors, about a US presidential candidate with an even bigger appetite than Bill Clinton (it opened as the Lewinsky scandal broke), and Closer.

This leads us back to Charlie Wilson's War, which sees Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts on screen together for the first time. Playing Wilson is something of a departure for Hanks. Our first introduction to him sees him drinking whiskey in a hot-tub with a gaggle of cocaine-snorting Playboy models and strippers. Not exactly what you expect from the renowned family man. "Tom literally and figuratively jumped right in," Nichols explains. "He threw down his shorts and jumped in the water. The girls screamed and squealed and I said, 'Hey, we got the scene. Let's go.'"

Roberts, he says, he would cast in anything. "It's great to be around her. She reminds me of my wife a lot. They're both people that everybody is after. They connect with everybody, they're sweet and they're kind and they're thoughtful, and they always have a good time, and nobody ever knows what they're really thinking. Including me."

Whether or not he knows what they're thinking, Nichols has managed to maintain long-term meaningful relationships with two women when most people struggle to find one. Sawyer, his fourth wife, is one and the other is May who he continues to work closely with. But what is the secret? "Luck," he says. "It's all luck."

"Elaine and I, we go back 58 years. There was a time in the middle, after a play she wrote for me that I was in and she wasn't, that blew us apart. Instead of being together with our anger aimed outwards, we were on two sides of the footlights and there was flames. It took years for that to heal.

"What I feel like I was lucky in was meeting these two astounding women who grow and change and, most importantly, forgive. They have to forgive us every day. And the good ones do. My wife in 20 years has never said, 'You always ... ' She's never once brought up any occasion in the past saying, 'You talked to her all night you never looked at me.' Not yesterday, not last year, not five years ago, not 10 years ago. Doesn't do it. Now is that luck, or what?"

He has a point, but with 15 Oscar nominations and counting, numerous Tony, Emmy and Grammy Awards Mike Nichols seems like the kind of guy who makes his own luck.

'Charlie Wilson's War' is in cinemas nationwide now

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