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Charlie Wilson's War - Mike Nichols interview

Charlie Wilson's War

Interview by Rob Carnevale

MIKE Nichols talks about directing Charlie Wilson’s War, tackling political movies when the characters being depicted are real and how he handled some of the more difficult issues surrounding Tom Hanks’ character, such as drug taking.

Q. You’ve navigated the political arena before with Primary Colors. But how different was it this time given that the people you were depicting are real?
Mike Nichols: It is different because the things you can and cannot make up are entirely changed. The ordinary plot of a movie or a play, you can change the events any time you want. Obviously, when it’s dealing with real people you can’t. I saw an interview with Aaron Sorkin [writer of Charlie Wilson’s War] and he said something that had never crossed my mind. He was talking about being in some awe of these characters and these events, and then he said to himself: “Well, I’ve just got to plunge in and start making up what they say.” And I realised that was indeed what he had to do. The insides and the structure were set in regard to what he had to do and what they had to do, but in what way it happened, what they said to each other and how they felt at any given moment was going to be our territory. And as you start to work on a piece like this, you realise just that – that the behaviour, the emotions, the ways of dealing with one another, you have to make up because they’re not recorded or remembered even by the people who did it.

My wife told me that Senator Bill Bradely, who’s a great senator of the past and who did run for President, was there for all this and he called my wife and said: “This is unbelievable. It’s fantastic! It was really what happened. They got it right.” I was so excited. He was not a character in the movie and he still said that’s the way it happened. To me that means that what we made up that was different was alive enough to animate the things that actually happened. So, yes you have to bite the bullet and make things up but you have to be sure that they’re not acts, but behaviour.

Q. Have you had any feedback from people like the real Charlie Wilson?
Mike Nichols: Oh my God yes. He’s seen it and seen it and seen it. He loves it. When it wasn’t finished I made the mistake of showing it to him very early and he and his beautiful, hilarious wife ate with me at this restaurant I ate at every day because it was down below my office. We had the worst waiter of my entire life and they never spoke during the entire meal about the movie, they never said anything, and I thought: “Oh my gosh, help us all.” But it later turned out that they were so stunned at seeing Tom [Hanks] as Charlie and Charlie as Tom that he was just too emotional about it to talk. They also had a few things they didn’t like, as we did at that point, because it was in the middle of our work. But he’s seen it many times since.

Q. Were you aware of Tom Hanks previous reputation when tackling the scenes involving the drug taking? We don’t see Tom doing it but it’s suggested that he might…
Mike Nichols: Aaron [Sorkin] said, in reference to America, that there’s something in our unconscious that will forgive drinking as much as you like but cannot forgive a character doing coke right out there in front of anybody. In some way, we write that person off. And I think it’s right on the nose. Movies have certain rules, you know. We can get a headache and we do not get a terminal illness 10 days later. But in a movie, nobody ever gets that headache without that terminal illness! In the same way, nobody ever does coke without being eternally damned. So, you ignore that at your peril.

Q. How did you arrive Ken Stott as an Israeli arms dealer?
Mike Nichols: I’ve been looking for something that I could do with Ken Stott ever since I saw him in that Stoppard play about the veterans. I thought he was unbelievable. He’s a great actor. And then I thought: “Hey, he could be Zvi.” An accent is an accent, but if you say he’s Jewish, then he’s Jewish. He loved the idea of doing it and came up with this incredible accent. But you don’t go by where people are from [when casting] but where they’re going.

b>Read our review of Charlie Wilson’s War