Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?
by PETER BISKIND | photographed by Herb Ritts
Not director MIKE NICHOLS, who took JACK NICHOLSON and MICHELLE PFEIFFER on an offbeat trip into the belly of the beast and discovered a few personal demons along the way.
MIKE NICHOLS IS WAITING FOR JACK NICHOLSON. He is sitting in a director’s char before the entrance to a dank underpass that is supposed to be situated in the southwest corner of Central Park, opposite the Mayflower Hotel, but is actually on a soundstage at Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City. It is clear something very unpleasant is about to happen. “Mike, do you want to go wide or tight?” asks an assistant. “Both,” replies Nichols, without cracking a smile.
In this scene Nicholson’s character, Will Randall, is menaced by three muggers. Having been bitten by a wolf earlier in the picture, Randall is well along on his lupine journey and more than a match for his attackers, whom he routs with an unexpected, preternaturally athletic leap. While the star is in the makeup trailer, getting tiny hairs pasted on his face by effectsmeister Rick Baker. Nicholson’s double is catapulted some ten feet into the air by a spring device.
Nichols stands up. He is tall, six feet or so, and wears a blue windbreaker over a blue-and-white tattersall shirt. “Good jumping,” he murmurs, in a soft, cultured voice with only the faintest whisper of irony. Then, aside: “Harrison [Ford] says movie acting is 50 percent running, 20 percent falling down.” He thinks for a moment and looks over his shoulder at the makeup trailer with the expression of a man who expects to be disappointed. His eyes light up.
“Jack’s here.” Indeed, Nicholson has arrived, looking only slightly more wolflike than usual, in a blue oxford shirt, gray sports jacket, and corduroy trousers, and smoking a cigarette. The set is swept by an imperceptible quickening, as if, at last, real work can begin. “What am I matching?” he demands, heading for the video monitor to inspect the work of his double. “Why is the camera so high?”
“I raised it a little. You looked so Orsonian.”
Nicholson is supposed to pick up where the stunt jump ends, land on mugger, lift him up, swing him around, and bite his face. And so he does.
“Is it possible, while you’re flailing around, to maintain apparent contact with his face?” says Nichols, half apologetically, as if it is his fault that the scene is not quite right.
Nicholson shoves what appears to be a chocolate truffle into his mouth, then falls on the mugger again. As he performs the lift and swing roundel, he adds a couple of grace notes. Throwing his head back and rolling his eyes upward, he emits a chorus of growls, barks, and yips, then take a big bite. “Oh, shit! Fuck that shit!” screams the mugger. Nicholson spits out the truffle, which turns out to be Baker’s best shot at the mugger’s nose, spraying a pink spume of bodily fluids. “How was it, Nicky?”
“That spritz was too much water.”
Nichols picks up the nose off the ground, examine it closely. “Isn’t there a middle ground between a well-shaped nose and a piece of red meat? Where’s Rick Baker?”
“This is a story about somebody who loses his humanity,” says Nichols. “And you can’t say that’s something to be desired.”
WOLF BEGAN its life more than four years ago as a conversation between novelist Jim Harrison and producer Douglas Wick on an airplane. Harrison likes Wick; he is one of the few producers in Harrison’s experience who “has read whole books from front to back,” as he puts it, and so he was happy to entertain him with a description of a “lycanthropic” episode he once had in the thick forests of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Wick, holding Harrison in high esteem (it didn’t hurt that he’s a close friend of Nicholson’s), was happy to listen as the barrel-shaped writer whispered his tale in a house, Jack-like drawl. “Where I live is extremely remote,” croaked Harrison. “There are wolves up there. I dreamed that one of them had been hit by a car. When I picked it up, it went into my mouth and into my body, which is uncomfortable, ‘cause at the time I was on yet another diet, and now I’m full of this bitch, ya know? One night, I thought someone was coming into the yard, so I hopped out of bed, tore off the doors to get a whoever was out there, and my face was covered with hair—ya know, the usual. It meant the dog wouldn’t have anything to do with me for about a day and a half. I don’t care for that kind of thing. I’m a very ordinary person.”
Instead of suggesting that Harrison seek professional help, wick told him it would make a good screenplay. Harrison agreed, and after nearly two years of noodling the concept, showed a script to Nicholson in Paris. Nicholson committed, and the nightmare began.
Nicholson being the 800-pound gorilla, the choice of Nichols as director was pretty much up to him. Wick had produced a Nichols hit, Working Girl, and liked him. “I always hated werewolf movies,” says Wick, “because I couldn’t relate to the character. But we felt that if you took the audience in teeny increments, all of a sudden you’d find yourself in an extreme place. We wanted to tell the story in quarter inches. Hence the choice of Mike Nichols. He would make it about details.”
Actually, Nichols is more at home with chocolate truffles than red meat, which made the pairing with Harrison odd at best. Harrison’s script derived from Native American myths in which the souls of sick humans enter animals for therapeutic purposes. “Then you either come out or you don’t,” he explains. “If you have to stay a bear, you’d be quite happy about it. Unlike the Inuits, we think we would miss going to Zabar’s.” Which was precisely the problem. To Nichols, Mr.Broadway, witty and sophisticated, Harrison’s conceit seemed no more than the old romantic notion of the noble savage—the idea that redemption lies in the heart of the beast—a notion with which he was uncomfortable. “This is a story about somebody who loses his humanity, and you can’t say that’s something to be desired,” says Nichols. “It’s a sentimental lie.” To him it must have looked more loopy than lupine: Dracula in suits.
“There were stages where I thought, Are we crazy? Recalls Nichols. “If it’s about anything, it’s about male sexuality. You know, a beast at night, a nice English gentleman by day. That interested me, and the idea of Jack being the man who is becoming a wolf, because he’s already partway there.”
Harrison did two scripts for Nichols, then, discouraged and angry, went home to the company of wolves. In came Wesley Strick, who did Cape Fear for Martin Scorsese, to do a quick polish. (Working with Marty was like going to the best film school in the world.” He says. “Working with Mike was like being at the best cocktail party!”) But bringing in another writer was tricky. “Mike always referred to it as the Jim Harrison movie, because there was a need to appease Jack,” says Strick. Nichols, in Strick’s words, “was a bit baffled by it. He was always asking unsettling questions like, Why is he becoming a wolf?”
As Nichols got into it, Strick’s quick polish turned into a thoroughgoing rewrite. And in wrestling with the script, Nichols unexpectedly found himself grappling with profound cultural and ethical themes: How fragile is the veneer of civilization, how black the human heart, how thin the thread of redemption, how difficult it is to grasp it. “Terrible things are happening,” says Nichols. “Yesterday I got home and saw the news about the guy shooting people on the Long Island Rail Road. You know those Yeats lines everybody’s always quoting: ‘slouching towards Bethlehem.’ But the line that kills me—the line I think of every week, from the same poem—is: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.’ It’s the line of the century.”
The moral and emotional freight of the plot, in addition to Nichols’s doubts about the script, made it difficult for him to commit. “He’s the kinda guy who’s prone from one project to the next to feeling that he’s completely forgotten how he ever made a movie,” says Strick. “He has exquisite taste, but his fear was that taste in this kind of materials might not win the day.” It didn’t help that Michelle Pfeiffer had already turned the script down several times. (It was ‘the girl,’ she says. “I hadn’t done that in a long time.”) Nichols was in; Nichols was out—but always, he was drawn back. “There was a time when I called Jack and said, ‘Listen, I’ve got to withdraw, because they want to start shooting in a couple of months. I have no script, and I can’t shoot a meeting.’ With one flick he says, ‘Sorry, guys. It’s Nichols or Kubrick—which one do you think is faster?’ And suddenly I have more time.”
When Nichols is in script trouble, he goes to one place: Elaine May. she enhanced the love story and punched up “the girl” to the point where Pfeiffer, who was eager to work with Nichols and Nicholson, committed. Says Pfeiffer of her character: “She was a vet, she was a nurse; basically it became this sort of device to make her look as if she’s someone important. I finally said, ‘It’s Jack’s movie. It’s better just to not pretend—to make her somebody who really can’t find a purpose, the black sheep of the family, and a kind of wanderer. At least that’s something that’s playable and real.’” In this last stage, ironically, Nichols abandoned some of the ides he had explored with Strick and returned to Harrison’s original concept.
(Several paragraphs from page 60 to 62 are skipped since there’s nothing to do with “WOLF”)
FOR WOLF TO BE a success, much depends on whether the perplexities that plagued preproduction have been resolved—whether Nichols has found the right tone and style for a movie that is part thriller, part romance, part gothic horror story, part comedy, and whether the “quarter inch” approach can make the premise believable. As Pfeiffer puts it: “I would ask throughout shooting, ‘What is this movie about?’ As soon as you say ‘Jack Nicholson becomes a wolf,’ people laugh.”
Wolf was an expensive picture, with a hefty above-the-line; it nudged the $25 million mark, with script development alone accounting for $2 to $3 million. By all accounts, it was a very tough shoot, with a lot of night work. Nicholson did not relish the four or five hours it took to make him up. “It was hard for Jack,” says Nichols. “Not only physically, but to keep all those things in your mind: He’s falling in love, but he’s also turning into a wolf, and he’s lost his job. Where are we now, you know?”
“Was it a hard shoot?” comments Nicholson. “Well, I don’t know what an easy shoot it. Yeah, it was a hard shoot—as opposed to making a story about a guy who survives a bath in radioactive waste, or who is the devil. It’s not such a new area for me.”
The picture went ten days over, triggering the $150,000-a-day penalty clause in Nicholson’s contract. But if there was pressure, the actors never felt it. “No matter what happens to Mike Nichols, he will always be a director that anybody wants to work with,” says costume designer Ann Roth, “because he lets you be free to try something, and if you screw it up, he has that great sense of humor. He is the creative person’s best friend.”
“It was so relaxed, I never really believed the camera was going,” says Kate Nelligan of her experience on the Wolf set. She plays Will Randall’s wife. “My character read as unpleasant, cold—the bitch from hell. I said, ‘Mike, you gotta tell me what you want me to do.’ He sais, ‘I want you to make the case for her.’ A good director only has to say the one thing you need to hear. The case for her was to take her out of the fucking fur coat, put her in a regular coat. It’s so much more interesting to make a thing contradictory.”
Nichols is sensitive to the change, as well he might be, that he has never lived up to his potential, that he did his work in the first five years of his 28-year career. When this point was raised by Bernard Weinraub in The New York Times, Nichols lost his famous cool. “It’s not fair,” he snapped. “Why should I have to defend myself? Why do I get punished for making two or three or however many great movies?” Calley points out that “Mike is not a screenwriter. He is in a sense a victim of what he gets. I don’t think he’s lost an iota if his gift. He’s as capable on any given picture of knocking it out of the park as he ever has been.”
Why indeed does Nichols have to defend himself? There is no doubt that he is supremely gifted, that he can always, given the right materials, hit one out of the parl. Nichols’s “problem,” if there is one, lies elsewhere. Perhaps he was never the kind of director we thought he was. In the days of The Graduare, he was hailed, with typical media hyperbole, as America’s auteur, our answer to Truffaut and Fellini. But he never really made “personal” movies. Although he built his career by transforming the materials of his life into biting comedy, as a filmmaker he turned his back on improvisation. Perhaps Altman, who built improvisation into his method, not only bested Catch-22 with M*A*S*H but also went on to have the career we expected Nichols to have. Perhaps, with out obeisance to “sincerity” and “authenticity,” we are more forgiving of our less commercial filmmakers.
Nichols has been smart on this subject, as he is about most others. He considers the “art film” or “auteur” period of the ‘60s and ‘70s an aberration, a dead end. He points out that movies have always been a popular medium, and likes to cite the case of Larry Adler, who could play Bach on the harmonica but forces us to ask: Do we really want to hear Bach on the harmonica? Wouldn’t we prefer “Oh! Susanna”? There is some truth in this. Certainly Bergman was a dead end for woody Allen.
But there is an irony too. For all that the ship of celebrity is awash in a sea of schaden-freude, there is always the hope that a new Mike Nichols movie may be a special gift , because, God knows, there are precious few out there, and he has done it before. Nichols says that “the miracle is that anyone survives at all.” But it would be distressing indeed if, in the autumn of a career as distinguished as his, we can expect no more than survival. It is a jungle out there, and maybe Nichols needs more “Screw you” movies and fewer “Like me” movies. Maybe he has to discover the wolf inside himself. Maybe, with Wolf, he has.
During his Halcion episode, Nichols says, “I was afraid the story would end badly. Then I realized there is no story. As Lawrence says in Lawrence of Arabia, ‘Nothing is written.’ It’s never over until it’s over. All things are still possible. That was a source of great happiness.”