Why Mike Nichols is brilliant.

Lately I’ve been saying, I don’t want to do a movie unless it’s Cinderella or Rocky, because that’s all people want to see. And the other night, I was sitting in bed watching The Blind Side with my wife, and she turned to me and said, “See, this is Cinderella AND Rocky.”

At a Q&A session at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater the other night, I learned that Mike Nichols is a born storyteller. Not only did the man simply get on stage and relate various anecdotes to the audience for 45 minutes, but he revealed the secrets to his brilliance through each little story – if you were paying attention.

First of all, Nichols does not only appreciate adaptation – he understands it. After all, his first two features, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate were both adaptations. He talked about how all aspiring screenwriters need to read both the novel and the screenplay of The Graduate, and how it really is the Greek myth of Hippolyta and Phaedra. He gets it: palimpsestuous text never goes away, and old stories are everywhere.

Secondly, Nichols knows how to hone a single vision – his own – and deliver without letting it get cluttered. He talked about the role of the director in film. He spoke of how, on his first day shooting Virginia Woolf, he told the D.P. how he wanted to shoot a particular scene, and the D.P. suggested an alternate way of shooting it that completely miscommunicated Nichols’s idea for the scene. This was his mental reaction:

Oh shit. I’m alone. I’m the only one who knows the story, and that’s no one’s fault, but I have to call the shots. I have to tell the story.

And so he did. He told the story on screen that Albee told on stage. And when he read the novel of The Graduate, he immediately recognized what story he wanted to tell:

I wanted it to be this story about a boy who’s being turned into an object, because objects are what moves his parents’ lives…[a boy who] saves himself through passion and madness.

He told his screenwriter this, and what did the screenwriter say? “Well, I don’t want to do that.” So Nichols got Buck Henry – whom he knew from the improv comedy scene – to do it instead.

During filming, Nichols never thought of The Graduate as a revolutionary film that was going to reflect the zeitgeist for an entire generation, as well as for successive generations (that audience last night was a mixed bag full of Boomers, Millennials, and every generation in between). He did realize, though, that although it was 1967, this movie didn’t have to be about Vietnam in order to speak to people in their own voice. He wasn’t thinking about how The Graduate would affect contemporary youth. All he wanted to do was tell a story about a boy.

His simple yet crystal clear vision for that story resulted in a film that not only resonated in the moment, but continued to impact viewers. It’s forty-three years later, and The Graduate endures, not only because it was a timely movie that struck a 1960s nerve, but also because it’s a timeless story clearly and gracefully communicated in a way that any viewer can appreciate.

And that, my friends, is why Mike Nichols is a brilliant storyteller.