Nichols Quotes for Screenwriters
In the weeks since the demise of American icon Mike Nichols, I’ve been poring over the man’s pronouncements on page and screen, and have come up with some key quotations which – while not originally directed at screenwriters – contain valuable insights for those of us involved in the filmic storytelling game.
“I’ve always been impressed by the fact that upon entering a room full of people, you find them saying one thing, doing another, and wishing they were doing a third. The words are secondary and the secrets are primary. That’s what interests me most.”
- 1965 interview in The National Observer
Succinctly and quickly Nichols directs us to the heart of what makes a story compelling here, suggesting that in any given scene, conflict is immediately inherent if you look to human nature. There’s the voice we use to present ourselves to others, the actions that betray our truer nature, and the hidden desires that motivate us, often unconsciously. Put this tri-level truism to work when you put your characters in a scene, and you’re good to go from the get.
“Improvisation teaches you what a scene is made of — you know, what needs to happen. See, I think the audience asks the question, ‘Why are you telling me this?’ And improvisation teaches you that you MUST answer it. There must be a specific answer. It also teaches you when the beginning is over and it’s time for the middle, and when you’ve had enough middle and it’s time already for the end. And those are all very useful things in directing.”
- 1968 interview by Nora Ephron
Nichols famously came into his own on stage doing routines, often improvised, with Elaine May, and here he reports on an essential truth he learned about scene construction: A scene can’t live, and sustain an audience’s interest, unless the “why,” the real reason for dramatizing a conflict is delivered, clearly and specifically. Consciously driving towards that why, often discovered in a first or second draft, is an imperative I wish more spec screenwriters would respect.
Improvisation had given Nichols another invaluable directorial impulse: “To damn well pick something that would happen in the scene—an Event.” As Nichols explains it, the Event in any scene subliminally seeks an agreement with the audience on the human experience. “While you’re expressing what happens, you’re also saying underneath, ‘Do we share this? Are you like me in any way? Oh, look, you are. You laughed!’ ” The building of this agreement through observation and detailed comic business was Nichols’s signature.
-- John Lahr in 2000 New Yorker Profile
In interview after interview, Nichols talked about “the event,” and with good reason. In the thickets of writing a draft, it’s easy to lose sight of a story’s core concern. What is it about? Sydney Pollack spoke of this as the “armature” of a project – the theme that everything else in the story must relate to. “Man defeats monster shark” may be the exterior event, but on a relatable, character-driven level, the core event of Jaws is “how a man finds the courage to face his deepest fear.” To ask of any story or scene, “what’s the real event I’m writing about?” is a worthwhile step for your writing process – a bracing, vital way to maintain your story’s focus.
“The big question, ‘To whom is this moment happening?’ is one of the most crucial questions. My favorite, my biggest question is, ‘What is this really like [when something happens]?’ – never mind the conventions. And I love asking that question of the scene and of the actors and of myself. But my private decision to make is: Whose moment is this? Whose experience is it?”
- Commentary to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf DVD in conversation with Soderbergh
Deciding whose scene it is and then writing from that character's point of view may be one of the most underdeveloped craft techniques in the spec scripts one reads. Nichols was a master of conveying POV. In The Graduate, the sequence of Benjamin Braddock booking a hotel room for his first assignation with Mrs. Robinson is a textbook on conveying a character’s specific experience, beat by beat; Benjamin’s POV is evident in every moment. When you write a scene that addresses how a specific protagonist experiences the event, you’re forming an empathetic bond with your reader, and the importance of this can’t be underestimated.
“A movie's artistic success, success as an experience, depends on the power of the metaphor that is the central engine of the movie. If you have a powerful metaphor, if the audience knows why they're there, you can soar very high… The engine that is the metaphor is everything. It's in the story—it's as simple as that. The story either contains it or it doesn't.
…We do, as an audience, sense purpose. If there's a purpose inherent in a story, in the metaphor that is a given story, we do sense it and we can be tamed by it. An audience is a ruthless, heartless, and unruly monster, and if it doesn't sense purpose then get out of its way, because it's going to be difficult… What does [the story] mean to you, what does it really mean to you, what does it mean to you that you're not even aware of? How can you communicate on that level, of which you are not necessarily even aware or which you cannot necessarily articulate, to an audience?”
-- interview with Gavin Lambert in Film Comment, 1999
There’s not much I can add to the wisdom of this, and the entire interview it comes from is a fantastic read. Nichols is asking the necessary, most vital questions in storytelling here, and it behooves screenwriters to take the often painful time and effort that's necessary, to dig out the answers for themselves. Nichols spent a career plumbing the depths of the stories he told to bring up this kind of gold. That’s one reason why his best films have withstood the test of time and are likely to remain classics, when more flashy auteurist films have lost their initial allure.
It’s sad to no longer have Mike Nichols with us, but what he had to say can remain a screenwriter’s solace and inspiration.