Mike Nichols
Images via Everett Collection / Shutterstock.com and Wikipedia

Of Mike and me

by Wesley Strick

Warning: This is not a Mike Nichols tribute, nor a celebration of his genius – plenty of those have appeared online and in print this past week. What this is, is a brief “no tears” account of my collaboration with Mike back in ’92-‘93. I lucked into rewriting Wolf, pure and simple – it came at the point, early in my career, when producers, directors and studio execs were handing me plum assignments, one after the next.

Shortly after the Wolf thing was announced in the trades, I ran into someone (I really can’t remember who, but she seemed to know what she was talking about) at a party. She congratulated me, then offered this sobering tidbit: “He’s incredibly bright, and he’s terribly charming. Just know that the last five screenwriters he worked with?” She ticked off their names. “None of them is speaking to Mike.”

Thus forewarned, I started work with Nichols. Having read the original Jim Harrison script – and having found it exceedingly dense, occasionally impenetrable – I asked Mike what it was he wanted me to do. His answer was instantaneous: “There aren’t any actual scenes in Jim’s script. Please give me some scenes that I can direct.”

I should add that I’d just lost the credit arbitration for my contribution to Batman Returns and was still reeling from this setback when we met. Mike sensed right away that something was bugging me – and when I explained, he brushed it aside: “Forget about that. This is going to be fun!” And it was fun, great fun for many months (until, finally having dragged on too long, it inevitably became a grind).

First, everything you’ve heard about Mike the Conversationalist is true. The stories he told me (about Jack, about Jackie O., about his lonely life in Chicago before meeting Elaine May, about Elaine May, about his year of psychosis caused by the sleeping pill Halcion, about a British playwright brought to the States by Irving Thalberg, about just about anything) gave me material for a decade of dinner parties.

One night we dined at The Ivy: our producer Doug Wick and his wife (our studio executive) Lucy Fisher, me and my wife Marla, and Mike. As we sat, Mike stunned us: He said that, before the weekend, news would break that Woody Allen was having an affair with Mia Farrow’s adopted teenage daughter, Soon-Yi. (Apparently Mia had phoned Mike’s wife, Diane Sawyer, weeping about all this.) As I tried to wrap my mind around behavior so tawdry and (seemingly) out of character, Marla piped up: “Hasn’t it been staring us in the face the whole time if you look at Mariel Hemingway in Manhattan?” Mike turned to her with a big grin, his blue eyes glittering. “You’re so smart,” he said. Marla glowed. I swelled with pride. Mike was good at that, too.

One of the first big changes I made was to turn Nicholson’s character from a lawyer at a white shoe firm (lawyer becomes wolf – redundant!) into a senior editor with literary ideals. It not only seemed a fresher idea, but I’d once worked as a junior editor at a small publishing house, knew a bit about that business and could write the office dynamics of such a company. Happily, the change suited Mike fine.

In fact, everything I wrote – in the beginning, at least – was fine by Mike. He seemed naturally in tune with my process and ideas, casually riffing with me, rarely finding fault. Considering our gap in age (I was 37, he was 60) and accomplishments (I had just a few movies under my belt, he had a pile of movies, plays, record albums and awards), we had no trouble making small talk, trading gossip or giggling at each other’s jokes. One day, in an access of enthusiasm, he exclaimed, “Where have you been?” On another day, he declared (in the mock-grandiose style he sometimes affected, for laughs), “Together we could rule the world!” And I did laugh – but privately, I worried that his excitement over me was too much, too soon.

And then one morning, Mike threw me for a loop by announcing he’d decided to form a production company with his old friend John Calley, the brilliant producer and sometime studio executive. Then came the stunning offer: he wanted me to be his in-house, exclusive writer! At first I thought he was kidding, but he wasn’t: he told me I should speak to my agents at CAA about how to structure the deal.

I hedged. I’d been talking to Martin Scorsese about rewriting a movie to star Warren Beatty called Ocean of Storms. Tim Burton and I had resolved to work again together – and we did, eventually, on Superman Lives. Simultaneously, I was developing an original screenplay with Robert Zemeckis, called The List. The thought of being exclusive to Mike was flattering but – well, unthinkable.

So when Mike asked, a few days later, what CAA had said when I’d told them of “our” plan, I could only stammer that I hadn’t made the call. Mike got it, right away: he nodded, and we never discussed the matter again. But immediately the temperature of our partnership cooled, and never entirely warmed again. (Flash forward: Ocean of Storms turned out to be an ocean of storms, Superman Lives became Superman Dies … and, preposterously, Zemeckis wound up setting aside The List in favor of a competing project with the dopey, doomed-to-fail title Forrest Gump.)

Another bump Mike and I repeatedly hit was Laura – “the girl” – eventually played by Michelle Pfeiffer. Sometimes she was Nicholson’s love interest, sometimes she was his sister – we went back and forth. One day Mike walked into the office, very stoked about a thought he’d had overnight: Laura is a drab, sexless introvert at the start, but as Jack effects his transformation she gradually gets in touch with her erotic impulses and taps into her female power. I thought that sounded pat and schematic – and unnecessary – and I responded: “That’s great, Mike! On the poster, it can say… He’s turning into a wolf. She’s turning into a fox.”) Mike dropped the idea.

One morning I walked in to find him chuckling about a conversation he’d just had at breakfast with his son Max, who’d complained (in the put-upon tone, I suppose, of a kid saddled with a celebrity dad): “Everyone is way too nice to you, and you drive like a dick.” Mike liked that so much, he repeated it several times throughout the day.

But most days would kick off with a debate on what the movie’s “secret” might be? By this, I learned, Mike was asking what the hell were we getting at with Jack’s transformation – “Is it really about AIDS?” he would ask. I would shake my head. “The Death of God?” I would shrug. If it was about the Death of God, Mike said, why don’t we have a shot of Jack walking past two nuns on Central Park West with ice skates hanging around their necks? I can’t recall how I reacted to this, or whether such an image made it into the movie. But free associating with Nichols always felt like a privilege, a hoot, and a grand waste of time – like a dorm-room bull session without the lousy pot and cheap beer… plus Hollywood was paying us, handsomely!

The basic problem – what was the movie really about? – stemmed from its origins: as Mike confided, Jack Nicholson and his pal Jim Harrison had hatched it in Harrison’s Montana cabin after a night of very heavy drinking. But Jim and Jack were elsewhere, and it was now up to Mike and me to make a film of this inebriated inspiration – if it was an inspiration. Or was it all just a big, meaningless mess?

But we soldiered on, and eventually (miraculously?) filming got underway. It was a big, bloated production and I stayed away unless invited. The good news: I wasn’t needed on set, Jack was “delivering his lines” as Mike assured me he would.

I popped by a few times. Once, having left my house early, I stopped at a video store on Sunset. I’d been tipped by a friend that there were x-rated spoofs of my previous two movies (Cape Fear and Final Analysis) and went looking for them in the “Adult” section. I didn’t find Cape Rear or Anal Analysis, but I spotted a video called Regarding Heinie. On the back it explained that its hero, like Harrison Ford in Mike’s Regarding Henry, suffers brain damage. In Regarding Heinie, it happens when he’s cleaning out a closet and a box of dildos falls on his head. I bought the VHS.

The crew was shooting inside the Bradbury Building, downtown L.A. I was led into the small room where Mike sat at the monitor with his editor, Sam O’Steen. I was impressed at the way Mike quickly reviewed every shot – all the angles – with O’Steen, to be sure they’d cut smoothly and that he’d covered the scene thoroughly. Mike’s cool, understated professionalism was very much on display.

Between set-ups, when no one was watching, I slipped Mike the Regarding Heinie cassette. He looked delighted – thrilled, even. Between set-ups he read, and reread, the synopsis on the back, chuckled, stared at the photos on the front of the box. I sensed that he suddenly wanted nothing more than to wrap for the day, head back to the hotel and watch the dirty version of his “prestige” movie.

The last time I saw Mike was a few weeks later, in his trailer on the Sony backlot. It was Month Four of the shoot and Mike seemed tired of Wolf by then, and tired of me. Still, I’d brought a laser disc (laser disc!) of The Graduate for him to inscribe and I wasn’t going to leave without it. As he signed the sleeve then handed it back, I joked, “Thanks, Mike – my older kid can sell this for drugs, when he’s 18.” Mike raised an eyebrow and replied, “Why not 15?” He only seemed to be half-kidding.

Then we shook hands, I left his trailer… and we never spoke again.

Wesley Strick

About Wesley Strick

Wesley Strick is a screenwriter, novelist and longtime Sundance Lab advisor. “Watching, Waiting,” a short film he wrote and directed, is currently on the festival circuit. His latest feature, “The Loft,” will be released by Universal this August.

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