This interview was originally broadcast on May 23, 2012.
Mike Nichols has won every major entertainment award over a decades-long career that includes theater, comedy, television and film. He performed as half of the comedy team Nichols and May, won his first Academy Award directing The Graduate, and returned to Broadway with a revival of Death of a Salesman, which picked up seven Tony nominations. Nichols warns that the production may be his last.
"How do you follow Death of a Salesman?" he asks NPR's Neal Conan. "I suppose I could add Long Day's Journey into Night, but ... I actually can't think of anything [else I want to direct]. But I don't need to. I'm perfectly happy at home."
NPR'S Neal Conan talks with Nichols about his life and career and why he says directing his latest play has been as good a time as he has ever had.
On what makes Arthur Miller's Salesman different from plays by other notable playwrights
"My experience with [plays by Anton] Chekhov and [Samuel] Beckett was ... that they get harder and harder as you go. But with Salesman, surprisingly, because it's fully as great a play as those others, it did welcome us and come toward us day by day. And then we did a fairly smart thing, which is that we had a workshop just for ourselves for almost a month, and nobody ever saw it and we didn't perform it, but we just worked on it. And then, as per plan, we went away for over three and a half months.
"And then when we came back, we went into rehearsal and then finally got onstage and did it. And the three-and-a-half months living and doing other things made a surprisingly big difference. It just sank into everybody and took enormous strides all on its own, and that was both exciting and surprising in its extent. And also, it was a clue to what was going to continue to happen, which is that it just burrowed deeper and deeper into the actors and [the actors] into one another, and they have become a family. And what goes on between them ... in my experience, I've never seen it quite like this."
On what's satisfying about directing stage productions versus movies
"The great thing about a play is if you think you made a mistake, you can fix it. You can say try not going up there. Try going over there. You know, try opening the door instead of saying, 'Who is it?' You can do that any time you want. ... [But] that experience of 'I made a mistake' is not ... about moments in a production. It goes much deeper than that. I made a mistake with the set. I made a mistake with the casting, which is a very, very disturbing thing to think, because who are you going to tell and what are you going to do? ...
"You can change things in a movie right down to the last minute, because that's what's so great about film and mixing, and you never stop fussing with a movie. And they finally just have to take it away from you, because you're still fixing."
On the importance of fear to directing, and of being an outsider
"It's necessary. Fear is the excitement. Fear is the thing that basically says, 'You only get to do this one time.' You have many days, and you'll find — I have found and you'll find, if you do it — you have a good day followed by a bad day followed by a good day, because the good days surprise you, and the bad days come because you're expecting the good day from yesterday. ...
"I think there's a reason that outsiders, which certainly I was when I was growing up — I was a refugee; there were a dozen reasons that I was an outsider — the thing about being an outsider is that it teaches you to hear what other people are thinking just in self-defense. You have to, first of all, be very, very alert if somebody or a group of people is dangerous. And second of all, if there's kindness, you have to hear it. You have to move toward it, because that might be somebody who could help you figure something out. ... [Directing] is all about people together."
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NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.
Mike Nichols fell in love with the theater when a high school friend got tickets for the second night of "A Streetcar Named Desire." He went on to great success as half of the improv comedy team with Elaine May and found his calling after a producer suggested he direct a play by a gag writer named Neil Simon. All these years and so many awards later, he gets Arthur Miller and "Death of a Salesman" and his sixth Tony for best revival of a play. Mike Nichols joins us from our bureau in New York. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
MIKE NICHOLS: Thanks.
CONAN: I'm afraid that you've said you don't think you're going to direct another play. Should we believe you?
NICHOLS: I just said I don't think. At the moment, I can't think of one. How do you follow "Death of a Salesman"? I actually can't, I mean, I suppose I could add "Long Day's Journey into Night." But I never get a feel to do it again. And anyway, "Long Day's Journey into Night," we've seen it most - pretty recently. I actually can't think of anything, but I don't need to. I'm perfectly happy at home.
CONAN: Well, that's a luxury.
CONAN: Do you go back and see your plays often after they're up and running?
NICHOLS: Yes, I do. I mean, in the old days, I didn't, and I was very sorry for it. And I had to learn to do it because we have something we call, especially in the world of large shows, a lot of people killing babies where the director comes back and basically says, you know how they used to just come in and say hello? Well, you know, I think instead of coming in now, pirouetting with a finger up your butt, why don't you just go back to coming in and saying, hello?
And we do that fairly frequently because people do get bored, and they elaborate without even necessarily knowing they've elaborated. What's unusual is that the guys in "Death of a Salesman" simplify. They don't add. They simplify, and they get truer, and they find each other more. I've never quite seen it to this extent, but it's very exciting to see, and I'd like to go back and see it as often as I can.
CONAN: You described some playwrights, Beckett, for example, as somebody whose work seems to back away from you the closer you get it. But Miller's play, you say, is not like that.
NICHOLS: No. It wasn't like - my experience with Chekhov and Beckett was just what you'd call - that they get harder and harder as you go. But with "Salesman," surprisingly, because it's fully as great a play as those others, it did welcome us and come toward us day by day. And then, we did a fairly smart thing, which is that we had a workshop just for ourselves for almost a month, and nobody ever saw it and we didn't perform it, but we just worked on it. And then as per plan, we went away for over three and a half months.
And then when we came back, we went into rehearsal and then finally got onstage and did it. And the three and a half months living and doing other things made a surprisingly big difference. It just sank into everybody and took enormous strides all on its own, and that was both exciting and surprising in its extent. And also, it was a clue to what was going to continue to happen, which is that it just burrowed deeper and deeper into the actors and they - into one another, and they have become a family. And they're - what goes on between them is - I've never seen - in my experience, I've never seen it quite like this.
CONAN: Philip Seymour Hoffman obviously plays the lead role. Is - did the play come first or the actor come first?
NICHOLS: Well, they came together in my head. In other words, one day I thought, hey, if I can get Phil to do "Salesman," I think I know what I would like to do with it. And then sometime after that, having talked to my friend and partner and producer, Scott Rudin, about having told them I had this idea and that I'd like to do it, and he said, well, I sure would like to do it with you. I approached Phil and his reaction was very sweet. He said, oh, no, already? He said - in effect, he said, I know I've got to do it sometime.
CONAN: I guess it's like being asked to play Lear.
NICHOLS: Well, yeah, it is. And it - you know that you're not going to be in for a lot of laughs and good times. And he just said it was early. And I knew - first of all, it's not early because half of the play he's 40. And second of all, the older you get, the harder it gets, because physically it's a mother. I mean, it's two hours and 45 minutes on stage for Willy, to begin with, and tearing his guts out to continue. And you can't fake it, which is the final blow.
And when he was still trying to get out of it, Phil said, oh, Mike, please, no. He said, I, you know, I haven't seen my kids enough, and I wanted to spend the time with my kids. I'm just back from a movie. I said, well, you'll be with your kids except for Wednesdays and Saturdays. And he said, you know as well as I do that I'll start the minute I wake up in the morning. And I said, well, I do know that. And that's - among other things, we limited the run just to save his Saturday. And also, you just - you can't ask that of anyone. Lee Cobb did it for three-and-a-half months, you know, altogether, ever. And that - that's a limit. It's a very hard play. It's very hard on especially Willy, but really on the family.
CONAN: Did you go back - I know you saw the play, but not with Lee J. Cobb. Did you go back and see the movie?
NICHOLS: I saw the movie long ago. Weirdly, I was at the University of Chicago when I reviewed movies for the - could it have been called "The Maroon," or was that some other school? I don't remember what it was called, possibly "The Maroon." And I reviewed the movie of "Death of a Salesman" in that paper in Chicago. I don't remember what I said, and I don't remember what I thought. I do remember seeing the play and realizing that we were late seeing it. It was great.
And I remember Arthur Kennedy and Mildred Dunnock, and they were wonderful. And then when I was doing all my reading up on it, I saw a letter from Kazan to Clurman, who is sort of his partner/nemesis. He directed other companies of "Salesman," and he changed the blocking, and he made it double bunks instead of bunks. He was sort of in competition with Kazan and they were also pals and they cooperated part of the time. But he also - he wrote - Kazan wrote him - they had Thomas Mitchell replace Cobb when he couldn't go on.
And Kazan wrote Clurman about Mitchell, and he said, Mitchell is apparently going to give his a performance no matter what we do. They just had to give up on him because he wasn't amenable to direction or amelioration or apparently anything. And the result on me was that I don't remember him at all. All of which turned out to be very welcome when I was directing it because I didn't want pictures of what had been. I wanted to be here now.
CONAN: When you go back and look at it, obviously you're trying to clean up what actors may have introduced. But also, in the immediate part after you've just staged it, I'm sure you go back and say I made a mistake there. But after you get some distance on it, are there moments, at least, when you can say, hey, not bad?
NICHOLS: Well, sure. The thing about - the great thing about a play is if you think you made a mistake, you can fix it. You can say try not going up there. Try going over there. You know, trying opening the door instead of saying who is it. You can do that any time you want. And I have to say that that experience of I made a mistake is not - it's not about moments in a production. It goes much deeper than that. I made a mistake with the set. I made a mistake with the casting, which is a very, very disturbing thing to think, because who are you going to tell and what are you going to do? Many - and some reasons I don't know, there were none of these things on this. It was - for me it was all happiness, and I have no regrets.
CONAN: Obviously it's a different situation in a movie where you can't go back and change anything.
NICHOLS: Oh, yeah. But you can change things in a movie right down to the last minute because that's what - that's what's so great about film and mixing, and you never stop fussing with a movie. And they finally just have to take it away from you because you're still fixing.
CONAN: We're talking with Mike Nichols, the Tony Award-winning director of "Death of a Salesman," currently running on Broadway. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And I am old enough to remember getting - people handing me copies of Nichols and May records when I was a young man and saying, you have got to listen to this. This is - I never got to see you guys live, but I listened to all those records many, many times. What did you learn from that that informed your work as a director?
NICHOLS: Oh, so much. In a weird way, when I was looking back, I didn't know I was going to be a director until I was. That is to say, I was a comic and I improvised and, without even knowing it, sort of began to push the scenes in this direction or that, because if you're making it up, you've got to think a little bit about plot and developments and what happens next. And we developed these rules, Elaine and I. As I've said before, you know, she used to say - because we were improvising. We had nothing. We could make anything we wanted up, but there were no rules. And the place where we worked, they just sort of threw you on stage when we first started and said, well, now improvise. It was scary.
And so we began to develop some dodges, some places to go. And Elaine's first rule was when in doubt, seduce, because seduction is not only an immediate scene, but of course it's a funny scene because everybody knows about seductions. Everybody practices and has been practiced on him, and it's part of life. And then, of course, as everyone knows, both improvising and not, that a fight is certainly the answer to what's happening in the scene. Well, they're having a fight. You recognize that. And a fight is a great opportunity for laughs and all sorts of other stuff.
And then ultimately we realized, well, there only are three kinds of scenes. There are seductions, there are fights, and there are negotiations. Most of Shakespeare is negotiation. And if you take something like "Virginia Woolf," which I knew well because I directed the movie...
NICHOLS: ...that is out-and-out fights, negotiations. And what's the other one?
NICHOLS: Seductions. Thank you. And it just was. And it's so much easier to work on something when you know - for instance, you behave differently when you know it's a fight, and you'd be surprised how long you can look at a bunch of dialogue until you figure out, oh, I see, I see. This is a fight. So there was a lot of that stuff, and there was the things that you - you're unconscious finally when you're out there humiliated night after night. It finally begins to come to your help. And you finally find yourself in improv, saying things you haven't thought of, but they're coming out of you because of your reflexes.
It's like in the sports or any physical accomplishment - the more you do it, the more your body does it without your having to tell it. And that's the excitement of improvising and in a way the excitement of putting on a play because although the author has decided what's happening and what you say, there's still a lot open to you, and that's the excitement of it. And that's when I discovered - when somebody said do you want to try directing this play by this guy, Neil Simon, I said, well, let's try. Let's go to summer stock to see if it's any good, see if I'm any good.
And on the first day of the first rehearsal - I think we got six days rehearsal for all of "Barefoot in the Park," the first time in summer stock, first day I thought, oh, look at this, this is my job - who knew? Because I had very few doubts. And I just said, you go over there. I think you should have a cold, and so forth. And to my surprise - where I never quite got how I was going to be an actor because I don't think I'm suited to be an actor, I immediately realized that all this time I thought I was thinking about acting, I was really thinking about directing.
CONAN: That fear, though, going back to improv, is that part of directing too?
NICHOLS: I think fear is part of the whole process. It's necessary. Fear is the excitement. Fear is the thing that basically says, you only get to do this one time. You have many days and you'll find - I have found and you'll find if you do it, you have a good day followed by a bad day followed by a good day, because the good days surprise you and the bad days come because you're expecting the good the day from last - from yesterday. But that - it's all about people together. And if you have or are interested in people skills and knowing what people are really thinking, are really doing, I think there's a reason that outsiders, which certainly I was when I was growing up - I was a refugee, there were a dozen reasons that I was an outsider - the thing about being an outsider is that it teaches you to hear what other people are thinking just in self-defense. You have to, first of all, be very, very alert if somebody or a group of people is dangerous. And second of all, if there's kindness, you have to hear it. You have to move toward it because that might be somebody who could help you figure something out.
CONAN: I'm afraid, Mr. Director, we have to end it there. But thank you so much for your time, and good luck with that next project, whatever it is.
CONAN: Mike Nichols joined us from our bureau in New York. "Death of a Salesman" is running on Broadway with Philip Seymour Hoffman. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.