For months I’ve been researching director Mike Nichols and the second film of his career, 1967’s The Graduate. Last night, on my version of a busman’s holiday, I watched Robert Altman’s 1975 film, Nashville. Both Nashville and The Graduate ably reflect a fertile period of American filmmaking that has come to be called the New Hollywood. Still, they are shot in highly disparate styles. A “making-of” documentary that accompanies the Criterion DVD of Nashville has convinced me that one key difference between the two movies lies in the personalities of two very different directors.
Mike Nichols began as a comic actor, hailed for his satirical performances with Elaine May. After May broke up the act, Nichols moved on to even greater success as a director of Broadway comedies. Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park catapulted him into a career in Hollywood as well as on the Great White Way. Elizabeth Taylor chose him to direct her and spouse Richard Burton in a film adaptation of a controversial stage play, Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Nichols’ version was a popular and critical success. But – given that it focused on a mere four actors who played out their corrosive interaction against a single interior set – it did not take full advantage of the motion picture medium.
On The Graduate, Nichols was far freer to experiment technologically. The film is full of flashy camerawork that explores the psychology of the characters while conveying what Nichols saw as the sterility of SoCal life. Working with a cast made up largely of stage veterans, he rehearsed for three weeks before the start of shooting. In rehearsal, actors were encouraged to contribute their own ideas, but once the cast moved into production there was little tolerance for deviation from the finalized script. In his early films, Nichols was brutally hard on his performers. Dustin Hoffman, for one, felt completely off-balance, convinced he wasn’t up to Nichols’ standards of excellence. On Nichols’ part this was at least partially strategic: it was both a way of amping up his leading character’s agitated mental state and a trick to deflect attention from his own jangled nerves.
Robert Altman, by contrast, came across as jovial and laidback. In casting Nashville, he relied solely on instinct, giving major roles to those (like singer Ronee Blakley) with no real acting experience, once he sensed they were right for a particular part. (Explains Keith Carradine, “He hired behavior; he hired essence.”) On set, a performer was free to discard the script pages and try something completely different. Altman’s experiments with zoom lenses and with multi-track audio recording allowed him to shoot crowd scenes in which no one quite knew which characters would ultimately be featured on camera at any given moment. And the film’s many songs were all recorded live. The result: an improvisational feel that contributes to Nashville’s life-like spontaneity.
Though Altman hardly lacked a strong sense of self, he wanted his cast to blend into a community. That’s why he kicked off location filming with a 4th of July barbecue at the lovely rustic cabin he and his wife had rented. The barbecues continued throughout the months of shooting, and actors were encouraged to watch dailies together, thus reinforcing their feel for the overlapping stories in which they all played a part.
Almost everyone was housed at a local motel throughout the shoot. The one exception was Karen Black, who was whisked via limo to Nashville’s best hotel. Castmates who complained discovered Altman’s logic: no one else in the film was supposed to like Black’s character very much.