Once described as the ‘new Orson Welles’, Mike Nichols played a major part in the emergence of the New Hollywood era. Known for his fantastic early works like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate, Nichols established himself as one of the top auteurs in the country alongside the likes of Martin Scorsese and Stanley Kubrick.
While recalling his relationship with Kubrick, Nichols stated that Kubrick’s approach to filmmaking could be classified into two distinct periods. The first one had elements of improvisational art, but that would slowly give way to the second period where he became the tyrant-director, famous for demanding complete control over each and every aspect of the production in the name of perfectionism.
“Stanley was a friend and I loved and revered him,” Nichols said. “I think that my favourite moment is Peter Bull as the Soviet ambassador and the fight with Peter Sellers as Dr Strangelove. It was that improvised, half-assed, completely brilliant aspect of Stanley that I loved the most. Then, later, he became the opposite: he had to have total control over everything, doing 500 takes just to get it right.”
Nichols did acknowledge that the second period also required tremendous skill, claiming that being a successful perfectionist is not easy by any means: “It was another kind of genius, but it would never have permitted those moments of improvised mastery that were in Strangelove. In the end, I think he began to have trouble, because if you can’t leave home, you lose track of reality, and I think that happened to him.”
Kubrick’s masterpieces like 2001: A Space Odyssey continues to inspire younger audiences, but Nichols insisted that he liked the improvised humour of Dr. Strangelove better. “He made great movies and he was a completely gifted director,” Nichols commented. “If you look at 2001: A Space Odyssey, you suddenly realise: ‘My God, there’s nobody in this movie! There are those two guys who you can’t quite tell apart as they have no real characteristics, and the rest is just… Well, what is it?!'”
While Kubrick’s magnum opus is definitely 2001, Nichols is right in his assessment that Dr. Strangelove is Kubrick’s funniest film. It is the perfect cinematic translation of Cold War paranoia, so terrifying absurd that it somehow ends up as a pretty complex commentary on the pernicious machinations of the military industrial complex.
“I started work on the screenplay with every intention of making the film a serious treatment of the problem of accidental nuclear war,” Kubrick recalled. “As I kept trying to imagine the way in which things would really happen, ideas kept coming to me which I would discard because they were so ludicrous. I kept saying to myself: ‘I can’t do this. People will laugh.’ But after a month or so I began to realise that all the things I was throwing out were the things which were most truthful.”