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This story first appeared in the Dec. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Aaron Sorkin wrote Charlie Wilson’s War, which Mike Nichols directed.
Much will be written about Mike Nichols, and that’s as it should be. His name should be known by schoolchildren. There isn’t a lot that I can add to his eulogy. Many others knew him better, worked with him longer and, with him, created more memorable work.
I wrote Charlie Wilson’s War, the last film Mike directed. I spent just over 18 months with him, but there’s nothing for which I would trade that time. When he called me one day to tell me he wanted to direct the movie, I said, “Is this really Mike Nichols?” He paused for just the right length of a beat before he said, “Wait — is this Tom Stoppard?”
I went to New York for two weeks of script work at his Fifth Avenue apartment. It was scheduled to be one week, but it had to be extended because I’d spend the first hour of each session asking him questions about The Graduate. “How did you land on Simon and Garfunkel?” “I was in the shower, and one of their songs came on the radio. I thought, ‘It should sound like that.’ Then I thought, ‘It should be that.’ “
By the second week, I was asking him about his life. “At what point in a marriage that lasted eight months did you decide you should split?” “When she pulled a knife on me.”
His instructions to actors are simple and actable and devoid of magical phrases like, “I need to see more colors” or “Let’s find the truth.” At the beginning of the first day of rehearsal for Charlie Wilson’s War, he said, “Here’s how we do this: Start speaking as soon as it’s your turn and don’t stop speaking until your turn is over.”
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When asked by The New York Times how he directs plays, he said, “At the beginning of the play, it’ll say, ‘Natasha enters Stage Right.’ I have Natasha enter Stage Right and then see what happens.” Of course he was doing much more than that, but Mike delighted in making hard things simpler.
Maybe it comes from starting out your life by having to avoid being murdered. He was 7 years old when he put an ocean between himself and Nazis. It’s hard — impossible — to sum up Mike Nichols in a short space, but in his memory I’ll try to make a hard thing simple. He was the most talented person I’ve ever known. He was also the kindest. And we’ll never see his equal.
Read more from THR‘s tribute to Mike Nichols:
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