Mark Harris takes us inside his new Mike Nichols biography
Mark Harris is trying to seduce us. Or at least, the new subject of his biography is.
Harris, a former columnist and executive editor of EW, has built a career writing about Hollywood history. His two previous books, Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood and Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War, examine specific moments in Hollywood history.
But with his newest work, Harris turns his incisive pen to a man who spans decades rather than a moment in time. In Mike Nichols: A Life, he explores the life of the decorated director, unlocking one of the most fascinating and influential creative forces of the 20th-century.
In advance of the Feb. 2 debut of the new biography, we called up Harris to discuss why he wanted to tell Nichols' story, what it was like writing about someone he knew personally, and the most fascinating things he learned along the way.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Your previous two books were focused on a handful of films or directors and moments in history, so what made you decide to tackle a more traditional biography?
MARK HARRIS: I thought it would be fascinating because I knew that I would be dealing with an extraordinary life. Someone whose life and work would never bore me. But then I thought, well, here's something I've never done — follow one person through 83 years that span from way before I was born to a time when I knew him. I would have no opportunities to cut away. His story would be the story. That all seemed like a fascinating challenge to me.
Because of that, did the writing process differ for you at all? Did you find it harder to grasp the story of one person versus broader social and cultural trends?
It was a challenge that I faced more in the years that I was researching it and thinking about how to tell the story than when I actually sat down to write it. Because it was really important to me that I always be able to situate Mike Nichols in the particular era that he was in, whether that was New York nightclub culture in the late 1950s or Chicago and the budding improv scene in the early mid-'50s or Hollywood in the 1970s. It was also important to me to always remember what age Mike was at any particular time. I wanted you to understand him as a 26-year-old and a 48-year-old and a 75-year-old because those are really different phases of life and of a career. You have different priorities and different levels of energy and different passions. It felt it would be a really cool challenge to try to understand someone like that at every stage of his professional and personal life.
What was it about him that made you choose him for this? Was it something you had percolating from the time you met him?
No, not at all. I had met Mike for the first time around 2001, which is when he agreed to direct the HBO version of Angels in America [written by Harris' husband Tony Kushner]. Shortly after that, I spent a lot of time with him interviewing him for my first book, which was in part about the making of The Graduate, but we never had any talks at all about me writing his biography. He always said really bluntly, and with pride, that he had made his life impossible for any future biographers. He had thrown away papers and any future biographer was going to have a hard time telling a story. It's not as if he ever said, "I don't want a biography written of me." I think, toward the end of his life, he did start to [get] interested in the idea of looking back at his career. But this did not occur to me, and it did not come up between me and my publisher, until after he died in late 2014.
You knew him socially. So, did that make it more challenging or give you better insight?
It was definitely a challenge. I'd never written about someone I knew, [and] I'd never written a biography. For my first book, I interviewed a ton of people. For my second book, I interviewed no one because it was all set in World War II. One of the challenges of this book was that it was going to be both kinds of books — it would span a period in which virtually no one was left alive to a period where I found myself doing research and finding in the New York Library for the Performing Arts, old Entertainment Weekly cover stories on The Birdcage and Primary Colors that I had assigned to writers as the movie editor and that I was now re-encountering as historical research.
I always knew the two specific complexities for me were going to be writing about The Graduate because I had already done that in some detail in my first book, and writing about Angels in America, because I would have to write not only about Mike but about my husband and about events that I knew about firsthand. I was dreading that. All the time that I was researching the book, I was thinking, "What do I do when I get to that chapter? Do I switch into first-person? Do I call my husband, Tony? Do I start referring to Mike as Mike instead of Nichols?" I ultimately decided to just write that chapter in a fairly straight forward way and not break the fourth wall. To write about someone I knew and really cared about, but still be objective and clear-eyed and not exclude any information, including material that I found that might be unflattering, was an interesting challenge.
With his quips about it being impossible, did you find that to be true? Were there interviews you did that were key to counteracting that?
I wish there had been a gigantic trove of his papers that I might've had access to, but I was fortunate that there were an extraordinary number of people who knew Mike and had worked with him who were willing to talk to me. I talked to about 250 people and I only stopped because it was time to start writing. I could have kept going. I, by no means, exhausted the list. But to be lucky enough to talk to Elaine May and to talk to Meryl Streep, two people who really knew him over long stretches of his life, that felt like I am going to be able to put together a really credible account of his life from everyone I can talk to. In some cases, I got really lucky. His brother, Robert, was able to fill in a lot of his childhood for me, which would have been very hard to do otherwise. I was lucky enough to talk to the woman who babysat for Mike when he was a little boy and she was a teenager. One of my big worries going in was that there would be blank stretches of his life, periods where I wouldn't be able to find out what was going on because there was no one available. I was really fortunate that people live longer now and they have very acute memories. In many cases, they saved diaries or letters. Mike was a wonderful writer, and so, even if he didn't archive his papers, other people informally did.
Out of all of those hundreds of people, did you feel there was one person that gave you insights that really unlocked who he was for you?
I don't know whether any one person can unlock who someone is, but I will say that it was very important to me to be able to talk to Elaine May. Her name is mentioned in maybe 32 out of the 35 chapters. She was that important to Mike's life and career and development. She knew him from the time they were both 20 until the end of his life, and she worked with him in the '50s, the '70s, and the '90s. There is no other Elaine May. If I hadn't gotten her, there's no one else who could have answered the questions I had. She's a remarkably thoughtful and insightful person. Throughout the process of working on the book, both researching and writing, I often found that I was thinking of her and what she had said. I also have to say that one of the great resources for finding things out about Mike Nichols was Mike Nichols. He was insightful and reflective and interested in thinking about a lot of the things that I was interested in. I got a lot of insight from him over the years. And sometimes I definitely felt him over my shoulder, saying, "That's interesting, but it's not quite right."
The hallmark of your work is how it assesses the ways culture impacts, influences, and intersects with history. Would you say that Nichols appealed to you as a subject because his work does that particularly well?
I did not go into this with a working theory of Mike Nichols. The way I go into all of the books I write is that I have questions, but things I genuinely do not know the answer to. One of the big questions I had about Mike Nichols was, "Can I, in exploring his life as both a film director and a theater director, understand more than I understand now about what directors do?" What a director brings to a movie that is uniquely his own, especially a director like Mike, who was immensely collaborative and really respectful of the work done by actors and by writers. What is the life of a director in that context?
One of the other big things I wanted to explore was if you're a creative artist, why do you make the decisions you make and how do you make those decisions at every stage of your career? From when you're starting out and not famous, to when everyone is hailing you as the wonder boy to when you've had a couple of flops and suddenly things aren't going your way, to when you reach an age where you think everybody takes you for granted and you still feel that you have new things to contribute. I wanted to understand the life of a creative artist that way.
What surprised you the most?
How much and over how long a term he wrestled with depression. That was nothing that I really felt about him when I knew him. I think his worst years of it were well behind him by the time I got to know him. So, it was very moving to me to learn that this man who I thought was incredibly confident and genial and centered had struggled in that way. That was a big surprise. It wasn't something I discovered all at once. It was something that kept coming up in interviews about different periods of his life. Once I started to put together that this was actually a serious part of his life, that began to unlock a lot of understanding.
Which of his four films would you recommend as essential viewing to pair with the book?
You have to pick Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which was his first movie. He said that you can see him learn to make movies as you watch that movie. But it must have been a very quick learning curve because he already seemed completely at home. It's a brilliant demonstration of his particular gift at working with actors and in finding a film language to bring plays to the screen.
Second, of course, would be The Graduate, because it is an essential milestone in the transition of Hollywood from one kind of movie-making to another — culturally, aesthetically, generationally. It's consummate movie-making.
Three and four get trickier and are more a matter of personal taste. I would pick Silkwood. If you want to understand Mike's career, Silkwood is the restart. It's when he came back to movie-making after many years away from it. It's one of the best examples of his deep belief that the way to make a movie was by finding the best possible actors, the best possible writers, and then thinking, what does this material require to be perfectly realized? And then, as a director, giving the material that. Silkwood is not made in the style of any movie that he made before. And it's not really made in the style of any movie that he made after it. It's his own thing. We think of Mike Nichols as a director of sophisticated, brittle, urban, funny, dark stories, often about sexuality, often about the war between men and women. Silkwood isn't any of that. But it's something that he felt really passionate about and it's as fully realized as any movie ever made. [You get] all that and Cher.
Fourth is tough, but for sentimental reasons, I'll pick Angels in America because he said it was one of his favorite things he did. He gave years of his life to it. Angels is emblematic of the way Mike worked, which is to say that he always looked for new challenges, for things he had not done before. He never wanted to rest. He was 70 when he did it and took on one of the most logistically complicated, lengthy, exhausting shoots of his entire career. And in doing so, wrestled this work that was really long thought to be unfilmable, to the screen, in a way that people still really appreciate.
If you had to sum it up, who would you say Mike Nichols was?
He was an artist with astoundingly, unusual fluency in different forms. There are great movie directors; there are great stage directors. Mike was both and a groundbreaking performer as well. If you want to understand a whole broad swath of pop culture in the second half of the 20th-century, whether it's improv comedy or stage direction or movie-making in the new Hollywood era, he's someone you can learn an awful lot from.