Mike Nichols on working with ORSON WELLES on CATCH-22
Here is an excerpt from Nora Ephron's article on the filming of Mike Nichols CATCH-22, that appeared in the New York Times on March 16, 1969 . I find the piece to be hysterically funny, given how many facts Ms. Ephron gets wrong concerning Orson Welles. Many sections of the article are clearly second-hand fabrications, probably "influenced" by Raymond Sokolov's earlier on location report on the filming that appeared in Newsweek on March 3, 1969. Welles refuted Sokolov's own "second-hand" version of events in THIS IS ORSON WELLES. Ms. Ephron also seemed to think that back in 1969, when Mr. Bogdanovich had only made TARGETS with Boris Karloff, he was some kind of "experimental" filmmaker!
GENERAL DREEDLE (Orson Welles) is alive and well and in the Mexican Desert
The arrival of Orson Welles, for two weeks of shooting in February, was just the therapy the company needed: at the very least, it gave everyone something to talk about. The situation was almost melodramatically ironic: Welles, the great American director now unable to obtain big- money backing for his films, was being directed by 37-year-old Nichols; Welles, who had tried, unsuccessfully, to buy "Catch-22" for himself in 1962, was appearing in it to pay for his new film, "Dead Reckoning." The cast spent days preparing for his arrival. "Touch of Evil" was flown in and microscopically reviewed. "Citizen Kane" was discussed over dinner. Tony Perkins, who had appeared in Welles's film, "The Trial," was repeatedly asked What Orson Welles Was Really Like. Bob Balaban, a young actor who plays Orr in the film, laid plans to retrieve one of Welles's cigar butts for an admiring friend. And Nichols began to combat his panic by imagining what it would be like to direct a man of Welles's stature.
"Before he came," said Nichols, "I had two fantasies. The first was that he would say his first line, and I would say, 'NO, NO, NO, Orson !'" He laughed. "Then I thought, perhaps not. The second was that he would arrive on the set and I would say, 'Mr. Welles, now if you'd be so kind as to move over here. . .' And he'd look at me and raise on eyebrow and say, 'Over there?" And I'd say, 'What? Oh, uh, where do you think it should be?'"
Welles landed in Guaymas with an entourage that included a cook and experimental film-maker Peter Bogdanovich, who was interviewing him for a Truffaut-Hitchcock-type memoir. For the eight days it took to shoot his two scenes, he dominated the set. He stood on the runway, his huge wet Havana cigar tilting just below his squinting eyes and sagging eye pouches, addressing Nichols and the assembled cast and crew. Day after day, he told fascinating stories of dubbing in Bavaria, looping in Italy and shooting in Yugoslavia. He also told Nichols how to direct the film, the crew how to move the camera, film editor Sam O'Steen how to cut a scene, and most of the actors how to deliver their lines. Welles even lectured Martin Balsam for three minutes on how to deliver the line, "Yes, sir."
A few of the actors did not mind at all. Austin Pendleton got along with Welles simply by talking back to him.
"Are you sure you wouldn't like to say that line more slowly?" Welles asked Pendleton one day.
"Yes," Pendleton replied slowly. "I am sure."
But after a few days of shooting, many of the other actors were barely concealing their hostility toward Welles--particularly because of his tendency to blow his lines during takes. By the last day of shooting, when Welles used his own procedure, a lengthy and painstaking one, to shoot a series of close-ups, most of the people on the set had tuned out on the big, booming raconteur.
But Mike Nichols managed to glide through the two-week siege without showing a trace of irritation with Welles. And whenever the famous Welles eyebrow rose after one of Nichols's camera decisions, Nichols would turn to him and smile and say, "No good, huh? Where should it go?"
"Mike controlled the Welles thing simply by respecting Welles," said Pendleton. "After all, if there's any one person who has the right to say where a cut should be made, it's Orson. Mike respected that. And Orson knew it."
At the same time, Nichols carefully smoothed the ruffled feathers among his company. And he got a magnificent performance, from Welles as well as from the rest of the cast. "The Welles situation, which brought a lot of people down, was almost identical to the tension that was written in the script," said Peter Bonerz, a young West Coast actor who plays McWatt in the film. "We were all under the thumb of this huge, cigar-smoking general, as written, and at the same time, we were under the thumb of this huge, cigar-smoking director. The discomfort that we were feeling was real, and I'm sure it looks grand on film."
One day shortly after Welles had left (taking with him his general's uniform, which he wore around Guaymas for two days until a costume man was able to retrieve it), Nichols sat in his trailer on the set. Outside, it was hot, dusty and windy. But the trailer was air-conditioned, with an icebox full of brownies imported from Greenberg's bakery in New York, and Nichols sat eating one and talking about himself, his success, and the Welles episode.
"What I wanted to say to Welles was this--I wanted to say, 'I know you're Orson Welles, and I know I'm me. I never said I was Mike Nichols. Those other people said that.' What I mean by that is that he's a great man. I know he's a great man. I never said I was. And of course, you can't say such things.
"We were talking about [Jean] Renoir one day on the set, and Orson said, very touchingly, that Renoir was a great man but that, unfortunately, Renoir didn't like his pictures. And then he said, 'Of course, if I were Renoir, I wouldn't like my pictures either.' And I wanted to say to him, 'If I were Orson Welles, I wouldn't like my pictures either, and it's O.K., and I agree with you, and what can I do?'
"I never said all that stuff about me. I'm not happy about this thing that's building up about me, because it has nothing to do with me. I mean, the things I've done are neither as good as the people who carry on say they are, nor are they as bad as the reaction to the reaction says they are. They're just sort of in-between. I'm not flagellating myself and saying I've turned out only junk, because I'm not ashamed of it and some of it I like very much. But Orson said to somebody that he didn't just want to be a festival director." Nichols paused. "Well, I guess if you have the festivals and Cahiers and Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris you want to make pictures that break box-office records. And it also works the other way around.
"I was very moved by Welles. I knew what it felt like to be him in that situation, to come into a company in the middle, to have a tremendous reputation not to like acting, to be used to being in control--and I was sorry when people didn't see what that felt like. Where the camera is and what it does is so much a part of his life--how is he suddenly supposed to ignore it? Take somebody like Elizabeth Taylor--when she is acting, she knows where the light is and how close the shot is. Orson knows whether he's in focus or not. Literally. If you know that much, what are you supposed to do with it? You can't throw it out. And I know that if I were acting in a movie, it would be very hard for me not to say, 'I wonder if you would be kind enough to consider putting the camera a little more there so that when I do this. . .' How do you kill that knowledge?"
Nichols stopped, lit a Parliament from a stack of cigarette packs on the trailer table, and began to talk about what the Beatles used to call The Fall. "I almost can't wait for it to come," he said. "Because I'm somewhat upset by the Midas thing and also by the reaction to the Midas thing. I don't like a critic to tell me that I set out to make a success, because it's not true. There's enough worry in thinking that you set out to do the very best you could and came out with only a success--that's depressing about oneself. You know, none of the great movies has been a popular success. I can't think of any exceptions. But you accept that there's a great difference between yourself and the artists who make films. It's like when you're 14 years old and your realize that Tchaikovsky would have liked to be Mozart--he just didn't have a choice. And I'm not even making a comparison there. But you have to go on as yourself. I'd like to be better, but I can't."
From outside the trailer came a knock, and a voice said, "Mr. Nichols, we're ready for you now." The water machine was working. The actors were on the set. And Nichols hopped out of the air- conditioned vehicle into the heat and began to walk over to the stone building where the cameras were set up. A few feet away, Buck Henry was having difficulty with a crossword puzzle. "Are there any Hindus here?" he was shouting. "One of your festivals is bothering me." A film is being shot here.
Nora Ephron is a freelance writer specializing in popular culture.