“Oh, it’s not hard to talk about a movie like this, even after 45 years,” says Mike Nichols, calling from his midtown office. The 80-year-old director is enjoying a moment in the sun, with his Broadway revival of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman—starring Philip Seymour Hoffman—having just opened to rave reviews. But today he’s taking a break to discuss another “loser” near and dear to his heart: Benjamin Braddock, the young antihero of The Graduate who turned Dustin Hoffman into a star and Nichols into an It filmmaker. As Film Forum kicks off a nine-day run of the 1967 comedy, Nichols regales TONY with stories about the making of a classic.
You and Buck Henry were friends by the time he came on as a screenwriter for The Graduate. How closely did you work with him on the script?
Very closely, actually. We worked together for months, although he wasn’t the first screenwriter. Lawrence Turman, the producer, sent me Charles Webb’s novel and I loved it, but I told him, “I have to work on [Who’s Afraid of] Virginia Woolf first.” So he said what if he give it to this writer, who’s name I can’t even remember now.…
[Author and playwright] William Hanley?
That may have been the guy, yeah! So I told Lawrence, sure, give him a try. But the script we got back was horrible. So it went to Calder Willingham, who also turned in a script that I just wasn’t crazy about. Because he used the same character names, the Writers Guild said that Willingham deserved partial credit; but to tell the truth, I didn’t use any of his script. It’s all Buck’s work—and some of mine, to a certain extent, since we worked together on a lot of it. But really, Buck did the heavy lifting. I still remember the one place where he sort of aced me: I read it and said, “Buck, really? Plastics? The guy says plastics to Benjamin? That joke is already 20 years old!” [Laughs] Buck said, “Let’s try it, Mike.” When we had the first public preview screening, Mr.McGuire says the line and the place went nuts. So, you know…smart Buck. [Laughs]
It’s like making a joke about Madison Ave or guys in grey flannel suits—it’s the sort of joke Ben’s parents might tell.
Precisely! But Buck realized, wisely, that some jokes are timeless. Just like plastics, really: Those damned things will be around forever, until we all go out in a big bang. Which should be in about a week to ten days.
You saw hundreds of actors for the part; what was it about Dustin Hoffman that stood out?
We literally saw hundreds! That’s not an exaggeration. I remember having seen Dustin in a play about a year earlier, where he played a transvestite Russian housewife. He was compelling and I thought, Here’s an actor who’s got something going on. He tested okay in front of us, but when we watched the actual screen test, he was great! I’m convinced Dustin had a secret deal with the film labs, where his performance got better in the developing bath overnight. [Laughs]
Part of what makes his performance hold up so well, I’d argue, is the way he underplays almost everything.
He completely underplays it, which makes it five times funnier. Dustin has always said he could never get a reading out of me when we were making it.… “Am I doing okay? Does he like what I’m doing?” And I always thought, Are you crazy? They had to move me to a different soundstage when we shot because I would ruin takes by laughing too loud. I’m not kidding, I had to eat handkerchiefs during some scenes to keep from cracking up. He could be absolutely hilarious while hardly moving a muscle—which was exactly what I was after, without being able to specifically describe it before I saw him do it.
You seem to have pretty good luck with actors named Hoffman.
I have a team of people scouring the world for every actor with that last name as we speak.
I’ve heard they just breed them in farms upstate.
So I’ve been told.
Did you get flak from [executive producer] Joseph E. Levine for casting this short Jewish guy?
Oh, please! Levine was never around; he gave us $3 million and then left us alone. If there were objections once we started filming, I never heard them. When we showed Levine the finished movie, he said, [In a singsong voice] “I smell mo-ney!” I was very moved by that remark. [Laughs]
You rehearsed for a month, right?
Back then, even if you had a $3 million picture, you could budget for a month to rehearse your cast. The production team had been working on it for close to a year before we started shooting. We’d sit in our rented offices and [production designer] Dick Sylbert would walk in and say, “What if we gave Mrs. Robinson tan lines?” “Beautiful, great idea!” [Pause] Then we’d all go home, because we’d all done a hard day’s work. But we rehearsed the shit out of that script, and because we had a month, no stone was left unturned. We knew those characters inside and out; we could play them backwards, forwards and sideways—which we often did. Dustin used to say we could take it on the road if we needed to.
For an American movie being made in 1966, there was some radical filmmaking going on.
Buck and I came up with a good deal of those elements months before the cameras were rolling.
Really? The camera movements and montages were written into the script?
Of course! You can’t come up with things like that on the day of shooting, or even in postproduction; you need to have the right sets to pull that off, and the right shots to make the editing work. We wrote out that famous montage sequence shot by shot. I knew that Ben’s inner experience of fucking Mrs. Robinson and then trying to go on with his so-called life had to be expressed in some very extreme way. Because this thing wasn’t a relationship; it was really just a way for Ben to become the mindless object that his parents wanted him to be.
But it wasn’t until we laid Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” over it that we knew the scene worked. I’d been listening to their album every morning in the shower before I’d go to work, and then one morning it just hit me: “Schmuck! This is your soundtrack!” [Film editor] Sam O’Steen worked on weekends, so the next Saturday I brought the track over and it was like, Holy shit, this fits exactly and it’s twice as powerful! It’s one of those miraculous moments you get when you’re making a movie, where everything somehow comes together. It’s better than sex. [Pause] Okay, maybe not better, but it’s indescribably fantastic.
It’s one thing to write a complex camera shot on the page, but it’s another to convince a veteran Hollywood cinematographer like Robert Surtees to shoot it.
You’d think it would be difficult—but Robert loved it. He was not stodgy; he was up for anything from day one. The thing is, as a film director, you’re essentially alone: You have to tell a story primarily through pictures, and only you know the film you see in your head. But Surtees immediately understood that. He wanted to know what I was seeing, and how he could help get those images out. Which were some very far-out images, given the filmmakers I was watching at the time: Bergman, Fellini, all the French filmmakers…George Stevens, too. People don’t realize he was doing some radical stuff in Hollywood before those European guys came in.
Have you ever seen A Place in the Sun?
Only about 150 times! [Laughs] That movie was my bible.
All those crazy dissolves Stevens does in that film…it’s amazing to think he got away with that in 1951.
You bet your ass! Every single one of those dissolves serves the story. “Look out, here’s what’s coming!” That movie taught me how to make movies. And Surtees was a truly great guy to have in your corner if you wanted to do something different. I remember when we were shooting the scene of Katharine [Ross] visiting Dustin in Berkeley. I asked Robert before we got to the set, “We’re in this small room, but is there a way to shoot this with a long lens?” And without hesitation, he replied, “Let’s remove the walls. We can do it that way.” The last thing you would have expected him to say! That’s what we did, for each angle of the scene, and it worked beautifully. Everyone knew this weirdo New York theater director who was making his second movie here had a lot of specific, off-the-wall ideas for how to shoot The Graduate. Robert was the only person who thought they were good ideas.
I’ve seen this film about as many times as you’ve seen A Place in the Sun, and for years, I always identified with Benjamin. It wasn’t until I saw it after I’d turned 40 that I started to sympathize with Mrs. Robinson.
Good for you! That was always my intent with the Mrs. Robinson character. I’d credit Annie Bancroft’s performance for a lot of that, actually. She brings a lot of humanity to that role. When we started shooting, she wasn’t sure how to play her. I told her, “I’m not sure how you play her, but I know exactly how she sounds.” I said a line back to her in this very cold, clipped voice, and she said, “Oh, I know that! That’s anger.” She’d suddenly found the character’s humanity. Years later, at one of the millions of anniversary things for the film, I asked her about that moment, and she said, “Of course! “ The she paused and memorably said, “And I never got rid of that anger. I’ve had it ever since.”
That was my reaction as well. [Laughs]
The film was a phenomenon when it opened…how did it feel to suddenly be considered a hero of the 1960s youth movement when you were in your mid thirties?
Very weird, actually. But it wasn’t quite like that at first. Joseph E. Levine made us take the film around to college campuses. After we’d showed it to a bunch of younger audiences there, the question on everyone’s lips was, “How come it’s not about Vietnam?” The only way college students could apparently get laid in those days was to be very serious and concerned about the war, so 80 to 90 percent of the kids said, “We can’t tell whether you are for or against Vietnam in this movie.… What are we supposed to think?” That was their criterion. They had no idea what they were looking at.
It wasn’t until we got the movie in front of audiences that we felt like younger viewers would feel a kinship with it. We previewed The Graduate in a theater on 86th Street; we just showed up and essentially flung the movie on top of another feature to surprise people. And in the last five minutes—starting with the melee in the church—everyone stood and cheered. I mean, it was like being at a prizefight. And it wasn’t even a finished print; I still had the sound in a box on my lap, because we hadn’t fully mixed the movie yet. Poor Dustin was white as a sheet; it was his first time seeing the movie and he was stunned by the reaction. We all were.
The Graduate kicks off what I’d say is one of the most impressive hat tricks to ever come out of Hollywood at that time.
What are the other two? You mean Catch-22  and Carnal Knowledge ?
Right. They all seem to be pushing the envelope stylistically and narratively. Did the experimental aspects that you toyed with in The Graduate affect the anything-goes approach you brought to those next two films?
I don’t think that it did, really. Jules Feiffer, who wrote Carnal Knowledge, had been a friend of mine since the Nichols and May days; he used to see Elaine May and I do our stand-up act at the Village Vanguard and, later, the Blue Angel. Jules was there from the very beginning and he was a great encourager, since what he was doing with his art and what we were doing with our comedy was remarkably similar. I was finishing up The Graduate when he sent me the [Carnal Knowledge] script, and it startled me because it really was like an extended Nichols and May sketch in a lot of ways. Buck read it after I did and immediately told me, “Mike, you have to do this.” It was all there on the page, while still leaving me a lot of room to do what I wanted to do. I sort of instinctively knew how to make the film from day one.
It was nice to feel that way having come out of doing Catch-22, which was the polar opposite: There wasn’t a day when I didn’t think “Oh shit, I have no idea how to do this!” The first week of shooting that movie, I was in utter despair. Finally, our cinematographer, David Watkin, said, “Why don’t we shoot directly into the light? It’ll set the tone for the story.” It was a genius idea—one that meant we could only shoot for about two hours a day, however, which was a little awkward. [Laughs] But since I was King Shit because of The Graduate, I was able to get away with it. It’s a very surreal movie, and for years, I thought of the film as an utter failure.
Lots of people think that surreal style is actually the perfect translation of Joseph Heller’s prose.
I’ve finally come around to that opinion as well, but it took me a long time to realize that. It wasn’t until relatively recently, when I saw the film again at a retrospective of my work a few years ago, that I thought, Oh, this kind of works. I actually dragged Buck to come see it with me, and we both had a great time. I even called up [star Alan] Arkin, who’d always hated it, and told him, “Watch it again; it’s better than we remember.”
Did he rewatch it?
He did, and sort of begrudgingly admitted, [Imitating Arkin’s voice] “Well, I see what you mean. It’s okay.”
In your opinion, what do you think makes The Graduate so enduring 45 years later?
I have a shocking answer: It’s because the story is an unintentional retelling of the Hippolytus and Phaedra myth. The whole younger man–older woman thing—that’s where it comes from. It took me decades to realize this, but it’s true. The fucking thing shows up in everything from Stendhal’s The Red and the Black to O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms to this; and then it gets filed away in our collective brains, because the corrupting aspects make that myth dangerous. Yet there’s something so primal and compelling about it that keeps it coming back. There are a number of basic stories like that, but that younger man–older woman one always seems to get to people. You want to make money, remake Cinderella. You want to move people, remake the Hippolytus and Phaedra myth.
Follow David Fear on Twitter: @davidlfear
The Graduate is now playing at Film Forum.