lessons from Mike Nichols

I finally finished reading Mark Harris’s biography, Mike Nichols: A Life.

A few takeaways:

  • “I passionately believe that in art, certainly in theater, there are only two questions…The first question is: ‘What is this, really, when it happens in life?’ not what is the accepted convention…but what is it really like? And the other question we really have to ask is, ‘What happens next?'”
  • Regarding improv: “You have to create a situation, an event…or you’re just sitting there, making up lines.”
  • “Never try for a laugh. Get the laugh on the way to something else. Trying for it directly is prideless and dangerous, and the audience loses respect.”
  • Regarding improv performance: “Always make the active rather than the passive choice, justify every action you’re playing, and, most important, never deny verbal reality.”
  • To cast members of Barefoot in the Park: “Let’s do the play as though we don’t know what’s going to happen…As if the people were alive. Play it as if you were think it’s King Lear.”
  • “Even if you want something to be universal, you make every detail unique to that person, that circumstance, that character’s history.
  • “Don’t forget to leave some string for the pearls…connect your masterpiece scenes–tell the fucking story!”
  • Regarding comedy in performance: “[The jokes] will take care of themselves. They don’t need you to push. Just play it.”
  • “There are few combinations in theater move toxic than a playwright convinced that a director is sabotaging his work and a director convinced that a playwright is sabotaging himself.”
  • “Everything in a movie has to tell the story–the clothes, the performances, the sets.”
  • On writing with Elaine May: “Every morning, [Nichols and May] would tell each other the story of the movie…’This is a movie about a man who wants to do this. Then he meets these people. Then there’s this setback.’ If they couldn’t remember something, that was a red flag for them–a scene that needed to be fixed or a story point that wasn’t in the right place. For them it was an exercise about seeing both the details and the big picture.”
  • “…you don’t play tragedy as tragedy, but as comedy with fewer jokes.”
  • Regarding preparation: “You have to prepare like a maniac…Research and research and research. Know everything there is to know. And then, on that first day, be willing to throw it all away.”
  • On capturing a performance: “The thing I’ve finally realized after all this time is: you have to not care. Sometimes it’ll be there and sometimes it won’t. The potential is all.”
  • after watching Pacino on set: “See how hard it is? Even for the master, even for your idol? See how many times he has to try it? You’ve just watched ten takes, and I know you can see it was great here but not there, and then great again but not great right at that important moment. That’s what film acting is. We’re not trying to draw the perfect line. You do whatever you need to–be real, be fake, be quiet, be loud–and then leave the rest to me [the director]. I’ll know when I have it, and I’ll put it all together.”
  • “In making movies…time is short–because it is so expensive–that we tend to neglect the place from which our best ideas come, namely that part of ourselves that dreams. The unconscious is our best collaborator.”
  • “As soon as you have figured out how to get your laugh, don’t do that.”
  • Remember:
    • Portray human beings in the course of their lives
    • Stop playing for laughs
    • Say the lines
    • Don’t get in the way of your own jokes
    • Stop mugging the audience
    • Strip back to the basics–what you must do to remind us of real people
    • Pursue your task
  • “…things that start out poorly don’t always end poorly.”

In addition to the brilliant lessons on drama, directing, and performance, there are quite a few fantastic bits about life as well, my favorite of which comes at the end of the book:

“[Nichols] died a short time later, at home, surrounded by the people he loved the most. He left behind an appointment book for the coming week that was completely full.”

If that isn’t a way to live a life –as though there’s always a tomorrow to be had– I don’t know what is.