The creators of Closer speak
Mike Nichols has had some of his greatest successes adapting plays into films. Recently, there was his Angels in America miniseries, and it goes all the way back to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? His latest is another theater adaptation, Closer, and Nichols discussed his attraction to the material.
"Plays are really just among a lot of other source materials," Nichols said. "I've made
movies of books, I've made movies of original screenplays. There are some plays that are suited to becoming movies I believe and many plays that are not. I like turning a play into a movie when it's capable of it, when it's something that can be transformed into a movie because plays and movies are very different."
With regards to Closer, a relationship drama the likes of which has also been a successful genre for Nichols, Nichols expanded on his thought. "I read it before I saw it and I think the central scene which upset me a lot when I read it, it had a very strong effect on me of Anna telling Larry that she was going and him forcing her in his pain to tell him what she did with the other guy. I thought that was very much at the heart of all relationships. I talked about it yesterday, I said ‘There's something we've all heard, namely "I promise I won't be mad, I just want to know." And everybody above the age of 11 knows you shouldn't answer that question. But to answer the question is to start the kind of slide into pain for both people.' I think in some ways, it's about that. My wife said one of the things about Closer is the importance of lying in a relationship, or withholding. It's about the definition of closeness. Do you really have a right to know what's in the other person's head? Do you have the right to protect what's in your head? And I think the answer is yes, of course. Love involves leaving each other intact, rather than trying to absorb the other person. Two people can't be one person and in my experience, happiness comes from being together but always marinating enough separateness. My wife for instance doesn't answer the question, ‘What are you thinking?' She simply doesn't answer which I've tried. It's very interesting. I'm not as good as not answering as she is, but it's important to remember that you don't have to answer what are you thinking? The point is that it's what you're thinking. It's not what you're saying. It's yours."
Playwright and screenwriter Patrick Marber felt that Nichols improved on some of the material in his film translation. "It's very good on time, the fact that you can go straight from the last bit of what I call the first sequence - when she tells him she was a stripper and she goes, ‘Look at your little eye' and he says, ‘I can't see my little eyes' - and you cut hard to him having his photo taken and you learn that, wow, it's a year and a half later," Marber said. "And you've done it with a cut. On stage you can't do that. You have to do it with a scene change so there's a natural passage of time on the stage where film just gets you straight in there and to me that's very, very potent, particularly in that photography scene. The fact that you can close in."
The film medium helped illustrate the relationships between characters even before they started forming. "It's a very difficult scene to direct on stage because it's all about little glances and the intimate little looks of two people as they're sort of cruising around each other trying to figure out, oh do you fancy me? I think I fancy you. Is this happening? Where on film you can just cut to a glance, the way she looks at him, the way he looks at her. You don't have to do it all in words. That scene is much longer in the play. There are many more words that we just didn't need. There are lots of things that live in the film that never lived in the same way in the play, a good example being when Larry says, after he's had his way with Anna in the surgery, that it's always better to be truthful about this sort of thing. It's a very dark, diabolical line. On stage, I was always happy to direct the actor to turn out to the audience when he said it so they could see his face when he said it so they would understand the dark wit of the line. On film, the camera does all that for you and it does it much more efficiently than you can do on stage."
If the material of couples at each others' throats seems like familiar Nichols territory, the director is no oblivious to the connections. His explanation is that "all the best people started as comedians. And surprising people: Maggie Smith, Emma Thompson, Harold Pinter to name but a few. I started out in a group called Compass which became Second City and so on and so forth. And I worked with Elaine May, and I wasn't very good at it at first and then I got good working with Elaine. Then we did what the people in the group called ‘people scenes.' Because we were a man and a woman, we did scenes about men and women. And it was what we were best and interested us most and it went on in our work. Elaine's movies, Heartbreak Kid, A New Leaf, they are on the same subject. It's sort of how we started, it's how went on and it's what interested us. Not particularly sex more than anything else, it's just living in a relationship or in the case of Carnal Knowledge, a series of relationships. And I think that's what it came from and why it continues to interest me."
One of the film's most visual moments, a cyberchat exchange between two characters, is actually a faithful translation from theatrical productions. "It's lovely on the stage," said Marber. "We had an enormous screen that would lower down with the two actors on either side so you saw them typing and the words would just appear on the screen. When the play premiered in May 1997 in London, at least half the audience didn't know what that scene was. You can trace the rise of the Internet really from that night. May '97, I would watch the audience and I could just tell that the majority, in fact, had no idea what they were watching. Whereas the younger people in the audience absolutely knew, oh my God they're in a chat room. We've never seen this done before. It hadn't been done on stage or in film before and it felt very new and very strange and radical and it played to complete silence, shocked awe. It was at the National theatre in London which is a respectable, subsidized theater and people were amazed. And it wasn't until the critics came a week after previews had started and said there's this really funny Internet scene that people started laughing. It was amazing, the power of the critics."
And it is mostly word for word in the film. "I made a couple of cuts. There were little jokes in it originally that worked back in 1997 that didn't make any sense now, but yes, it's the same sentences."
Closer opens Friday.
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