Bang! You’re Dead: Shooting “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”
Nichols revealed on the Virginia Woolf DVD commentary that a colleague advised him to fire someone on the first day of production to establish his authority on the set. The unlucky person was the first assistant director. When Nichols overheard him say after the first shot of the first day, "Oh well, it's just another picture," he was so angry that he fired the guy on the spot.
Nichols was Elizabeth Taylor’s first director who was her contemporary—they were just several months apart in age. However, in film experience, this was Taylor’s 35th film to Nichols’ first. On the DVD commentary, Nichols talks at length about Taylor’s innate movie skill and how stage-based actors like Burton, Sandy Dennis, and George Segal closely watched Liz at work.
Set photographer Bob Willoughby noticed that the Burtons didn’t automatically take Nichols direction at first, but came to trust his judgment.
Willoughby had snapped Taylor a number of times before, but was shocked when he saw her in Martha mode for the first time. More shocks came, as Willoughby recalled: “The dialogue “was like a slap in the face…and some of the crew just said ‘no thanks’ and left—something I had never seen happen before and never saw again on any film.”
|One reason why Virginia Woolf was filmed in B&W:|
Liz still looked too young and pretty.
Warner was adamant that Virginia Woolf be filmed in color, even though for the first half of the ‘60s, black-and-white signified drama when used in a big budget film. The studio head was hedging his bets with color as added box office allure, but his insistence also shows how swiftly black-and-white films were on the way out. Director Nichols held firm, feeling that black-and-white would enhance the bleak and boozy late night story, that Elizabeth Taylor would look too young, and her “age” makeup too artificial in color. Ironically, 1966 films were the last year the Oscars offered categories in black-and-white, and Virginia Woolf won three: costumes, set decoration, and Haskell Wexler’s cinematography.
"We shot makeup tests 'til they were coming out of our ears," said O'Steen of Taylor. "First they put lines every place, and she looked old enough, but you saw the pencil lines. Mike sweated that out quite a bit, but in the end they didn't put much make-up on her. She did gain weight for the part, and had a double chin, which helped...She really didn't care about how bad she looked, she was a pro."
|"Mrs. Burton, are you trying to seduce me?"|
Nichols was already irritated by Woolf’s first cinematographer Harry Stradling, asking why he put “all those ravishing shadows on Elizabeth’s neck.” When Stradling suggested that they shoot the film in color and print it in black and white, Nichols fired him, suspicious that Warner would weasel out and demand a color print.
Nichols then selected Haskell Wexler, who had several documentaries as well as Elia Kazan’s America, America and Gore Vidal’s The Best Man under his belt. Nichols knew Wexler and his family from Chicago while in college, and felt he could trust him.
"Every day Mike would learn more than some directors learn in years of shooting," said Wexler, though the two battled to the point where Nichols later referred to Wexler as “my nemesis.”
Woolf was Sam O’Steen’s first film as full editor and the two new guys bonded over their affinity for overlapping dialogue. O'Steen recalled that Nichols requested someone from the outside to cut the film, but Warner demanded he use an in-house editor. "The reason he picked me," O'Steen said, "was that most of the Warner editors were 65, 70, and I was the youngest. But he was still dead set against me."
The cast and crew arrived at the Smith College campus in Northampton, Massachusetts to shoot the opening title sequence, and the few exterior shots: the yard and the roadhouse parking lot. Incredibly, this took a month. "Mike ended up being thirty days over schedule and doubling the budget," said O'Steen. "The studio thought about kicking Mike off the movie. They tried, but they knew if they fired Mike, the Burtons would both walk."
Nichols later saw that his insistence on location shooting at an actual college campus was a waste. All of the location scenes could have easily been recreated on the studio back lot and audiences would have not noticed the difference. "I was a New York theater director," he said. "I was cocky and I was afraid of Hollywood. They tried to tell me I could have done it right on the back lot. But I didn't know anything about movies."
On the DVD commentary, Nichols lists the delays: rain and fog; shooting so far from the studio, the Burtons’ long lunches; Wexler’s perfectionism, and his own inexperience.
He further mentions that Richard couldn’t work every day, surprising, since he was at his career peak. “Richard had his black days,” Nichols recalled. “During the production, he had 8 or 10 of those days, and they took various forms.”
|Burton wigs out like Martha, while Liz rocks go-go boots!|
Nichols was nervous when it came time to shoot George’s famous “bergin” monologue, recalling that “Richard was not so great at remembering long things at this point.” However, it was a perfect take—at least by Richard. Nichols said that Haskell had miscalculated by 8 stops of exposure. He let Wexler know that Burton was never going to give another great take, and ordered him to fix it.
Ernest Lehman had already hired respected composer Alex North to create the music for Virginia Woolf. However, Nichols wanted to use Andre Previn instead and fought with Warner Bros. executives over it. Over schedule and over budget, the studio was at the end of its patience with Nichols. "So he kept fighting and that was the last straw, that's what finally did it," said Sam O'Steen. "That was just before Warner threw him off the lot. Mike and I were working in the cutting room, we'd just finished shooting a couple weeks before, when they told him he had four more days to finish the movie...he yelled about it, but there was nothing he could do."
“Then they wouldn't even let Mike [do the sound] mix,” O’Steen said. “I mixed the picture and at the end of each day I'd call Mike and hold the phone up so he could listen. We did that every day for about a month."
Nichols and Lehman
Nichols once told Vanity Fair, “I’m somebody who wears things—and people—out.”
Mike Nichols was incredibly beloved by actors and writers, evidenced by affectionate tributes at various lifetime achievement awards in recent years. Upon Nichols passing, his gift for friendship became even more apparent. However, early in his career, despite his stage success, Nichols was not yet comfortable in his Hollywood skin. By his own admission, the young director did not “have the patience” to compromise with either Stradling or Wexler, and especially Lehman. On the Virginia Woolf DVD commentary, Nichols admitted, “I started out as a prick on the set. Not to the actors much, but by and large to everybody. I don't know who I was then or what was happening. And I got nicer as time went by. But I was a prick.”
|All smiles on the first day of rehearsals: producer/screenwriter Ernest Lehman, |
director Mike Nichols, and their star, Elizabeth Taylor.
The turning point for Nichols’ and Lehman’s relationship was when Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, once considered an Ernest Lehman production, became a Mike Nichols film. Still, Lehman got top billing, which probably rankled Nichols. A decade later, Lehman told American Film that he became a producer with Virginia Woolf for more creative control, “and Mike Nichols promptly took over my baby.” To some showbiz insiders, Lehman’s reputation went from a hit screenwriter to high-priced hack, and Nichols, from a boy wonder to beloved director.
One critic was Richard Corliss, who derided Lehman in Talking Pictures for abandoning original scripts to become "Curator-in-chief of the Hollywood Museum of High-Priced Broadway Properties."
"He is meticulous and particular in the extreme," says Robert Wise, director of four Lehman screenplays, told Movieline. The same could be said of Mike Nichols.
A colleague later said, "If you looked up the term 'passive-aggressive' in a psychoanalytic dictionary, you'd find Ernie's picture."
When Nichols came along, Lehman had written several drafts. Included were such changes as making George and Martha’s imaginary son real, who committed suicide on his eighteenth birthday. Lehman admitted to American Film a decade later: “I hate to tell you some of the ideas some of the awful ideas I had which I then thought were good.”
Nichols goal was to rightly return to Albee’s text, and edit—not change. The task was to cut Albee’s 3 hour play to a reasonable film running time—the movie Virginia Woolf clocked in at 2 hours and 11 minutes. Did director and producer/screenwriter collaborate at this point, or did Nichols just take over? It’s not clear, though one senses the later.
Some of the changes Nichols did agree with were taking the two couples out of the living room and to different parts of the house, the yard, and the roadhouse.
Lehman career was just as varied as Nichols. Ernest Lehman was a publicist, a short story writer, and also wrote original screenplays, but he didn’t have Nichols’ confidence and stamina for the long haul. After Virginia Woolf, Lehman’s career became sporadic, totaling little over 20 years. Lehman said, "I would never see anyone as if I were auditioning. It would have been too painful for me to be turned down."
Even recently as 2006, Nichols dismissed Lehman, who died in 2005, as “the so-called writer-producer who was neither producer or writer.” One senses that sides were drawn, Lehman aligned with the studio, and Nichols with the Burtons. What if Lehman had called Nichols on his reasons for firing some of the crew or spending a month filming on location for a handful of scenes? Or taking five months on a film about four characters? For a director with little directing background, Nichols was accorded much power. Would the new director have respected Lehman for exerting his own new power as producer? I doubt it.
|"Ernie, where's my present?!"|
The Burtons lavished praise on Nichols in interviews but were conspicuously silent regarding Lehman. Except for hinting/hectoring the producer for her end-of-film gift of jewelry, I could not find one quote from Liz on Lehman. Taylor’s taste in men, professionally as well as personally, seemed to run from gruff alpha males like George Stevens, Mike Todd, and Richard Brooks to acidic wit and intellects like Joseph Mankiewicz, Richard Burton, and…Mike Nichols.
Jack Warner fell in the former category, though as a studio head, was not especially loved by La Liz. Perhaps this Warner quote helps explain: “I’m paying her a million and one hundred thousand, plus ten percent of the gross. Let her by her own goddamned brooch!”
(Part 4 finale: The censors, the box-office, and after-math of “Virginia Woolf.”)