Douglas McGrath On Capturing Mike Nichols’ Last Interview In His New HBO Doc ‘Becoming Mike Nichols’

On July 11, 2014, legendary director and comedian Mike Nichols sat down with his good friend Jack O’Brien to talk about his life. The interview was set before a live audience at Broadway’s John Golden Theatre, where Nichols had performed with his comedy partner Elaine May in 1960. Just a few months after the interview, Nichols passed away, but this conversation between two friends remains in the form of a documentary from director and actor Douglas McGrath. Becoming Mike Nichols shares moments from the interview that took place in front of a live audience, as well as the interview Nichols and O’Brien had in private on the same stage.

The film is comprised of Nichols’ anecdotes from their two-night interview, paired with archival photos of Nichols’ childhood, the various plays he directed (The Importance of Being Earnest, Barefoot in the Park), as well as footage from his improv routines with May, and scenes from his films Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and The Graduate. After discussing The Graduate their interview comes to a close, leaving the rest of Nichols’ life and film career up for Elaine May to share (she directed an American Masters tribute to Nichols, which was released earlier this year).

I spoke with McGrath about meeting Nichols, becoming his friend, losing him, and the lessons he left behind.

Did filming the interviews inspire the documentary, or did you film them with the conceit of turning them into a doc? It was the latter, it was to make the documentary out of the interviews. Originally the idea came about because Mike Nichols had been planning to write an autobiography and, for whatever reason, he couldn’t do it. He told his friend, Jack O’Brien, that he was giving up on the autobiography. Jack thought, this is a loss. This man, Mike Nichols, has so much to share and so many interesting stories, somebody should get it down. So the idea of a documentary came up as a way, sort of, to replace the autobiography. When it was brought to me by Frank Rich, one of the producers of it, that’s how I saw it. I saw it as a chance for Mike to tell the story how he wanted to tell, the way he would have in his autobiography. It seemed the best way and the way he was most interested in doing it, to sit down with his old pal Jack and talk about his life.

How was it when you first met Nichols? I had met Mike a few times through the years but meeting him again for this was extra exciting. Jack O’Brien, Frank Rich and I went to Mike’s apartment for lunch. I grew up in west Texas, I’ve lived in New York now forever, but my idea of magical New York came from old movies. The thing that I loved in the old movies is when somebody would get in an elevator and then the doors would open up directly into someone’s apartment, that always killed me. That’s what happened here. The doors opened and there standing in front of me was Mike Nichols. Really, really, really satisfying and thrilling. He’s exactly what you’d think when you think of Mike Nichols. He was dapper and erudite and charming. He somehow manages to be erudite and down to Earth, I don’t know how he accomplishes that but he does. He puts his guests at ease, we had lunch, we talked about what we thought it could be, and at the end of lunch he said, “Let’s do it.”

So it was the consensus that the documentary should keep the feel of an autobiography, with no outside interviews or stories from people who knew him. Right from the beginning I didn’t want the outside interviews. I love outside interviews in a movie, I love them, but I felt we were going to try to do something different here. I thought, this is a chance, we have this great artist in front of us who is willing to sit down and talk about anything. Let’s listen to him. There’s always time to get the other people later, to say, “He was so wonderful,” “He said this funny thing,” whatever. But I thought it was a more valuable record, and frankly more unique, to just keep the spotlight on him. I don’t mean this rudely but I don’t really care what other people think about Mike Nichols if I can just have Mike Nichols. Everything else is just an anecdote but from him it’s the real philosophy and real experience behind what he went through to become the artist he became and to create the work he created.

And he had amazing anecdotes. It’s fun to hear the stories behind classic moments. I loved his story of how Simon & Garfunkel came up with “Mrs. Robinson.” Throughout the interview, what were some of your favorite stories? I always liked the anecdotes that informed the movie in a way that helped me see the movie in a new way. For instance, I love when he talks about Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and how Richard Burton was having trouble figuring out how to cry in a scene. He wanted to do it in some way that was believable but also not like everybody else would cry in a scene. So Mike tells the story of what Burton decided to do, upon discovering a piece of clothing that led him to believe that his wife was having an affair with another man, rather than burst into tears right away he decided to laugh. Then the laugh turns to tears. That, to me, makes me see Virginia Woolf in a whole new way. I felt that way about his anecdotes about The Graduate, I love his story about when he use to go to lunch with Jack Warner, the head of Warner Bros. He said that Jack Warner use to tell terrible jokes all during lunch and Mike’s reaction was to always make a strange whimpering sound and somebody pointed it out to him. And he said, “I do?” He thought that was so funny that he told it to Dustin Hoffman and Dustin Hoffman uses it in The Graduate. And one of the great joys of this job, which seems unfair to call it a job since it was so fun, was to watch The Graduate and look for whimpering moments we could use to demonstrate.

When he was describing the moment he realized how Simon & Garfunkel would be the perfect soundtrack, when it clicked for him, then seeing “The Sound of Silence” over the montage, it made the song fit in a whole new way once he explained it. It changed the way I saw that montage. That’s interesting because you assume the montage was constructed and then Simon & Garfunkel watched the montage and wrote it for that but in fact that’s the great surprise. It was accidental. He was a very careful person, I don’t mean to suggest by any means that he was haphazard or unprepared. He came prepared every day. But he left himself open to the possibility of a happy accident and that came out of his early career as an improvisational actor where you just have to be open to whatever is in front of you. That’s what improv is.

I loved watching him improvise with Elaine May. How was it looking through all that archival footage and selecting the right ones to share? And how was it meeting May? I love Elaine. Elaine is one of the great artists in American film and theatre in the last 50 or 60 years. She’s not only an absolutely beguiling and hilarious actress — she’s just hilarious — but she is such a great director and a wonderful writer. Selecting the material, at the end of the day if I tell my brother, “Oh I had such a hard day at work.” Then he says, “What did you do?” And I say, “Oh I just watched some Nichols and May sketches all day long so I could choose the absolute best.” I know what he means when he thinks it doesn’t really sound like I have a job. It’s like I’m playing all day. Some of the pieces we picked we were sort of led to by Mike, for instance the mother sketch, he’s telling an anecdote that leads to that. And then there were others we picked because we just thought they were the best.

Did you see May’s documentary on Mike Nichols? I did see her documentary. I was eager to see it because it’s Elaine and it was interesting to see her take on it. We met, I showed her my film, and she said exactly what I felt, that the two films don’t seem competitive, they really seem complimentary. She took an entirely different approach to it. She covers more of his career, she has other people talking in the documentary, weighing in with their thoughts about Mike. What was so interesting to me was she said—because I was worried we would be using a lot of the same Nichols and May pieces—and she said, “You know, I didn’t use much Nichols and May,” and I said, “You didn’t?” She said, “Since I was directing I thought it was wrong if I was putting a lot of myself into the movie about Mike,” which is typical of her generosity

How did the feeling change during the interviews with an audience versus the ones with no audience? It’s funny, I almost preferred the day without the audience because we all were sitting just outside the range of the lights and the cameras, listening. It was so intimate. You really felt like you had a little peephole into two guys sitting at a restaurant having the best chat of their lives. It was very informal, we had to stop every so often to reload, but otherwise we just let them talk. All of us listened with the most ardent interest because they were talking about these things I’d always wanted to know or that I had never thought to ask about. The night with the audience was interesting and valuable in its own way because Mike, having been a performer, knew how to tell a story to an audience and it was nice. It was the second of our three days, and it was nice because the other day had been quiet and more personal, more confidential if you will. And I don’t think a lot of the first day subjects could have been discussed as well on the second day. I think Mike would have felt more guarded about those in front of an audience.

Were you surprised that he died just a few months after? I was shocked. I had just spoken to him the week before. It was a shock. He was frail. You could see that he wasn’t going to run a decathlon or anything, but he was planning his next movie, he was completely, in our conversations, articulate, energetic, enthusiastic about everything in front of him. So in that way I really was quite taken aback and blue. I have to say it made me really sad. I felt very lucky to have known him but it’s that thing, when anyone dies, unless it’s after a long illness, when anyone dies surprisingly it always brings you to that cliché, which we think everyone’s going to be here forever and we have all the time in the world but we don’t. So you gotta grab every second you can with people.

At what point in your life did you become aware of him? What’s your first Nichols memory? My first memory, I can’t say it was Mike specifically but The Graduate. I was just a kid and I really wanted to see The Graduate and my mother wouldn’t let me because it was so grown up. Then I really wanted to see The Graduate. I don’t think I saw it until I was in college. When I finally saw it, like everybody, I was just completely knocked out.

What lessons did you learn from him, either before or during the interviews, that you use in your own work? From the interviews the thing he stresses the most, over and over, is how important it is to be open to something that you didn’t expect, the value of that surprise. There are so many ways you can get lucky in making a movie or doing a play and you have to remain alert and open to it. You can’t just figure everything out at your desk and then expect people to deliver just that. There are great film directors, like Alfred Hitchcock, that’s exactly what he did, he storyboarded everything. Nothing was left to chance and in his case you can’t fault it, it’s hard to beat that resumé. But in Mike’s case he’s really saying anything wonderful can happen, keep your eyes open and then use it, be alert.

The other thing I loved about him is he told me that he had directed a production of The Country Girl on Broadway and it was a rare flop for him. When the show closed I remember he said he went home and took out a legal pad and wrote ten pages of notes of what he felt he did wrong. And he was 78 when The Country Girl opened. I was really impressed with that because if you’re Mike Nichols, or anyone of a certain stature, you could easily think, the critics don’t know anything or it wasn’t my fault or I have this reputation so I don’t have to learn anything, but that’s not what he thought. He thought, alright a lot of stuff went wrong, let’s figure it out so I don’t do that again. Everyone should pay attention to that. To not stop growing, to keep pushing yourself. He took responsibility, he didn’t blame somebody else for it.

Becoming Mike Nichols premieres on HBO tonight.