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Mike Nichols on directing WHAT PLANET ARE YOU FROM?

By Steve Biodrowski     March 01, 2000

With a handful of Oscar nominations under his belt (and one win for 1967'S THE GRADUATE), Mike Nichols might seem an odd choice to direct a light-hearted comedy about aliens from outer space impregnating human women. After all, this is the man who brought Edward Albee's searing play WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOLF? to the screen (in 1966), not to mention the biting anti-war novel CATCH-22 (197) the tragic, true-life story of SILKWOOD (1983). On the other hand, Nichols began his career as one half of a comedy team with then-wife Elaine May, and much of their humor focused the problems of modern society and the relationships between men and women. As a stage director, Nichols often tried his hand at comedy (BAREFOOT IN THE PARK, LUV, THE ODD COUPLE), and his filmography includes several efforts that examine and/or satirize both male-female relationships and office politics: CARNAL KNOWLEDGE (1971), HEARTBURN (1986), WORKING GIRL (1988), REGARDING HENRY (1991, with Annette Bening). Even the horror movie WOLF had its share of satirical jabs aimed at these subjects, with Jack Nicholson's decent everyman finding himself much better adapted to surviving in the modern dog-eat-dog world once his lupine proclivities transform him into the alpha-wolf. And his most recent previous effort, PRIMARY COLORS (1998) transfers some of these ideas into the arena of presidential politics

But as funny as many of these films are, their underlying intentions are essentially serious. Satire, not farce, his Michols' forte, a fact born out by his previous attempt at all-out comedy, 1975's THE FORTUNE, a leaden effort only occasionally elevated by Jack Nicholson's manic energy. Now, the director is back in the arena of laugh-out-loud comedy, but it's not hard to see what drew him to the project. WHAT PLANET ARE YOU FROM? offers ample opportunity to examine his favorite topics. With a naive alien (Garry Shandling) trying to negotiate the subtleties of dating, marriage, promotions, and office back-stabbing, the film is quintessential Nichols, only played out in a broader way, thanks to the comedic talents of Shandling, who also co-wrote the script.

HOW DID YOU BECOME ATTACHED TO THE SCRIPT?

Mike Nichols: It was surprisingly simple. My friend John Calley, who runs Columbia, had lunch with me and said, 'We want you to read this script.' I took it home, and I read it the next day, and I called them and said, 'I want to do it.'

DOES THIS FILM SEEM TYPICAL OF YOUR PREVIOUS WORK?
It does and it doesn't. I always love a strong metaphor. I'm happiest when everybody knows what it's about all the time. I love that. And I've always made movies about men and women. This is just another approach to the same set of problems and possible solutions.

WHAT WAS IT LIKE WORKING WITH GARRY SHANDLING?
It was mostly very good. The first thing he did was stop being a writer completely, and just become the actor--which was generous and very useful to me. He sometimes wouldn't even know the scenes, and I kept thinking, 'But you wrote them!' He actually just took on the attitude of an actor, a comedy actor. We had a little irritation one day, out of hundreds. He was kvetching about what Annette [Bening] was doing, and I said, 'You should learn your own part first.' But I think we work similarly in many ways, and gave each other quite a lot of pleasure. We finished it very fast, and most of the time we laughed.

ARE YOU VERY PICKY ABOUT THE SCRIPTS YOU CHOOSE?
Well, I'm very picky in that I turn down a lot of things. I turned down AMERICAN BEAUTY, but that was more...I needed more time to think about it. I knew I liked it, but they said, 'We can't give you that much time, because Sam Mendes wants to do it.' I said, 'Okay, fine.' I got their message. When I like something, it doesn't take me that long, and I just loved this idea, because I thought it was a very good way of telling a story about women humanizing men, which is my experience of that. I thought it would be a nice unsentimental but clear way to express it.

ARE YOU JEALOUS OF SAM MENDES NOW?
No, I love Sam. He's my friend. He's just early; I'm late.

'WHAT PLANET ARE YOU FROM?' IS PROBABLY YOUR SILLIEST PICTURE. IS THAT SOMETHING THAT APPEALED TO YOU?
Yeah, I liked it being silly. I'm trying to think if I haven't made a sillier picture: I think maybe DAY OF THE DOLPHIN [1975] was my silliest picture. First of all, I like silly things very much. I love Monty Python; I love FAWLTY TOWERS. I think in true, clear, clean, deep silliness are many very useful, important things. So I have pleasure in that and no worry about it. I do like that--because some of our jokes and approaches could be considered sophomoric silliness--I like that we've given it a certain amount of weight with the gravity of who Annette is, with the score (which I think is a serious, beautiful score), with various hints that say, 'It's not just a gag.' And we'll see if it's clear.

One of the pleasures of seeing the preview--and I don't usually enjoy previews, because all I can see is stuff I have to cut out--was that, almost from the first moment, the whole audience knew it was about them. Couples turned toward each other and snuggled closer, because they knew--they'd just recognized--that it was their story: the guy starts out as a savage alien, with only one thing on his mind, and slowly, slowly, other suggestions are made, and he changes. I don't think there's anybody who's in love who hasn't had a version of that experience. Therefore, if the silliness gets you into it, good for the silliness.

YOU MENTIONED LOOKING FOR MATERIAL WITH METAPHORS. THE IDEA OF THIS FILM SEEMS TO BE TAKING THE METAPHORE OF JOHN GRAY'S BOOK 'MEN ARE FROM MARS, WOMEN ARE FROM VENUS' AND MAKING IT LITERAL. WAS THAT EVERY DISCUSSED?
No, we never talked of him. But it's such a visceral thing that everyone experiences. They're from two different places, and then women teach men the manners of this planet--how to deal with other people. It's just everybody's experience, one way or another. As I say, You can just feel an audience hook in and think 'Oh my good, that's you and me, honey!' That's the best part, in a way; you don't know that until you're sitting there.

ANY LESSONS FROM YOUR OWN LIFE AND MARRIAGE THAT SEEPED IN HERE?
None. No, I've always had perfect relationships with women; I've always been a perfect gentleman, so nothing like that could have happened.

YOU HAD AN ACCIDENT ON THE SET AND DIRECTED MOST OF THE FILM ON CRUTCHES.
Yes, I fell in a hole. You know those transporter globes that he flies away in? They were changing the lights under them; they left the floor open, and I stepped in it.

THIS BEING GARRY SHANDLING'S JUMP FROM COMEDIAN TO ROMANTIC LEADING MAN, DID YOU FEEL THE NEED TO FOCUS ON HIM?
No, I've never done that. I think about the character. There's really for me only every one question, which is: What is this really like? Now, when you're on another planet, it's a hard question to answer. But of course we're not on another planet, so I know what it's really like. When you're thinking those questions about a character and with an actor, it just keeps you away from all the things I fear, all the presentational things. I think 'presentational' is very dangerous, because it means someone is depicting an idea of a person rather than a person. The more it reminds me of life, I figure, the more the story will carry people along; the more it will be an experience, which is what you're paying for.

THIS IS YOUR SECOND EFFORT WITH ANNETTE BENING.
She's just the cutest thing, and she's a real good actress. I like her. She's totally unafraid. She'll walk into a furnace, saying, 'What do you want me to do?' She's just great.

IS IT HARDER TO GET GOOD MATERIAL MADE IN HOLLYWOOD NOW THAT WHEN YOU STARTED?
I think it's the same, interestingly. While the world is radically changing, and while movies are radically changing and about to change again--in maybe the most radical way since sound, now that there's a twenty-four frame video camera and now that any one of us can make a movie for fifteen- or twenty-thousand dollars and do the effects on our computer and transfer it to film and take it to Sundance--the actual process of making them hasn't changed. The deal-making aspect has also not changed. The style has changed, from the Cohens and the Warners and the Wassermans, to these new guys, but function determines character. I'm going to keep making movies. I'm going to spend the rest of my life trying to remember who said it, and I never will; I saw some guy say it on television, and it's the most useful thing to remember: he said, 'All good work is done in defiance of management.' I think it's probably true in your job and my job. It just seems to be a rule that, if you're trying to do something really good, there's someone in your office saying, 'You can't do that! I have such-and-such dates; the thing has to be so-and-so. Why don't you just do the standard?' There's always somebody saying they wish you wouldn't take a chance and wish you wouldn't try and wish you wouldn't endanger the whole project. And yet we know that the only safe thing is to take a chance, and if you don't find yourself taking a chance, you're probably full of shit. The tricky part is only you can name where the chance lies. What's safe to others is a chance to you, and vice versa.

To me, it was a chance. Garry's not a box office name. Annette is beloved, but so far she has not been giant marquee. It was a chance to say, 'This is funny, and it's true. It's not gigantic. It's not about everything in the world. It's about one aspect of the world. Let's see if it will work. Let's see if people will like it.'

HAVE ANY OF YOUR CHANCES NOT PAID OFF?
Yes, all my failures!

IS IT DIFFERENT WORKING WITH A STUDIO EXECUTIVE WHO IS A FRIEND, VERSUS A SITUATION LIKE 'PRIMARY COLORS,' WHERE YOU HAD TO NEGOTIATE SALARY CUTS TO GET A BUDGET THAT UNIVERSAL WOULD AGREE TO FINANCE?
No, you're both under the gun. When Tannen and I were negotiating for the price of PRIMARY COLORS, we both knew many things. We knew that he was on trial more than I was; it's done. And in fact, he lost. He didn't lose over PRIMARY COLORS. It was the usual studio thing: they didn't have enough hits; they fired him; and then all the things that he had in the pipeline were hits. That's how it's done. But he's a strong man and a resourceful man, and he's fine. In many ways, it's good to get out of those jobs, take a break, and be a person for awhile.

But they are people, and when you're working, getting a picture ready, it's not very useful to think of them as 'those bastards who are trying to grind me down.' They have real concerns and real problems, and it's their money. We have a sense of responsibility--which we must have: We'll spend this if you want that. If I can do away with so-and-so, then I can do it with much less.' Nobody wants to make expensive pictures that don't make their money back--nobody. And all the ways in which things are changing are very interesting, very interesting.

BUT IT MUST BE NICE TO KNOW THAT THE CHAIRMAN OF THE BOARD, JOHN CALLEY, IS A FRIEND WHO'S ONLY A PHONE CALL AWAY.
Sure, of course that helps, but I've always had good relations with the chairman of the board. I'm not a rebel filmmaker who says, 'Go ahead! Take me in on charges!' It's hard for me to work in an embattled way. I find that you're usually talking about a concrete thing--either he says this line, or he doesn't say this line--and if you're talking reasonable with people you've treated reasonably, you have more of a chance of them agreeing than if you're sitting behind lawyers and managers, none of whom know what the issue is. It's just easier to do it yourself.

WHAT ELSE IS ON YOUR PLATE?
I have a couple of movies that I am looking to get done at Universal, but the next one for me is [a remake of] KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS, which Elaine is on page 95 of writing. Robin Williams and Will Smith are waiting for the script.

DO YOU EVER EXPECT YOUR PICTURES TO BE REMADE?
God, I hope so--because that's just more reviews saying how good the original was!

DO YOU APPROACHING AN ADAPTATION DIFFERENTLY FROM AN ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY?
Maybe, in a way, when there's a book or a play, you have a kind of bellwether for what's lost what's gained. An example was when I came on VIRGINIA WOLF: the producer-writer [Ernest Lehman] had decided that the child should have been real and committed suicide by hanging himself in the hall closet, and this weekend was his birthday, and they had papered over the hall closet--I don't know whether with him in it or not. I said, 'Why did you do that?' He said, 'Because the critics criticized the imaginary child.' I said, 'That's no reason to do it, because the critics said that. Of course it has to be the story; you can't have a real child hanging himself. What is that?' When you have something good that you're starting with, it's very useful to be able to return to it. You know what the important organs are, the ones that you don't dare slice out.

The hardest thing of all is to do things that really happened, because you're constrained--you can't change the ending. You know, my friend [Steven] Soderbergh has this wonderful movie, ERIN BROCKOVICH, and I'm pissed off and very jealous, because what it is, is SILKWOOD with a happy ending. We couldn't' find a happy ending for SILKWOOD--that's just the way it goes.

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