It had all the ingredients of an instant hit and future classic. At the helm, one of the hottest directorial commodities of the period, the great Mike Nichols, just coming off his successes with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate, the film that defined a whole generation. Under his guidance, a stellar cast consisting of Alan Arkin, Bob Balaban, Charles Grodin, Anthony Perkins, Martin Sheen, Jon Voight and Orson Welles delivered great performances to breathe life into Buck Henry’s (The Graduate, Heaven Can Wait) really good script. The timing was also just right for such a project: the Vietnam War was in full swing, and tens of thousands of people swarmed the American streets in fiery protests against a bloody involvement they deemed unholy, completely unjustified and harmful both for the American people and the country’s reputation. There was hardly a better moment to produce a top-notch adaptation of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, undeniably one of the best anti-war novels ever written. Nichols had free hands to choose whichever project his heart desired, a rare carte blanche in the hands of a 37-year-old filmmaking prodigy, and he settled on Heller’s novel, the sharply intelligent satire that exposed the absurdity, senselessness, and pointlessness of war like so few works of art have been able to do. Everything regarding the concept, production, and realization of Nichols’ project was in such a perfect order that everyone involved might have gotten a bit careless and oblivious to the fact Catch-22’s thunder was about to be stolen by a completely different comical antiwar statement made by a 44-year old filmmaker called Robert Altman. Having opened a couple of months before the premiere of Nichols’ film, MASH completely dominated the box office, winning over the critics in the process. When Catch-22 came out at the beginning of summer in 1970, the terms of the game had changed. People were growing tired of war movies and saw cinema as an escapist opportunity to get away from the war that was so present in their everyday lives, and if they were to see another war picture, it had better be like Altman’s MASH, the easygoing black comedy the audience simply loved. In such circumstances, it’s to no surprise Nichols’ film got the label of a clumsy, incomprehensible underperformer, with disappointing financial results and largely unenthusiastic critical reviews. According to Peter Biskind’s wonderful book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Nichols was well aware of the fact Altman’s picture contributed to Catch-22’s demise. “We were waylaid by MASH, which was fresher and more alive, improvisational, and funnier than Catch-22. It just cut us off at the knees.” Forty-seven years later, both films stand out as classics, with Catch-22’s reputation having grown steadily since its initial disappointing run. It might have seemed to Mike Nichols appropriate to call Catch-22 his “green awning film,” a comment associated with the comical idea that every filmmaker who manages to put out a highly profitable film gets greenlighted by the studio to make whichever film he wanted, even a movie about people walking under a green awning. It’s understandable why Nichols would see it that way back in the day, but given its gradual reappraisal, as hard as he always was when criticizing his work on the film, we hope he figured at the only possible failure of Catch-22 lies in its financial performance—not its artistry.
When Mike Nichols showed the film to Stanley Kubrick, the great filmmaker whom Nichols looked up to said some nice things about it but pointed out that some people might have some problems with the narrative—wrestling with the questions where and when they are, what’s happening, and so on. Kubrick just might have gotten it spot on. Catch-22 has a circular narrative, the straightforward approach would be neither a practical nor a faithful solution to dealing with the original narrative. It’s sometimes hard to keep track of things, events, people—and this is a great thing, as the form follows closely not only Heller’s style, but also the content of the story and the lesson it tries to convey.
This is my favorite photograph. Guaymas, Mexico. Catch-22 was a nightmare to make, and everybody was unhappy except me. I had [screenwriter] Buck Henry at my side making me laugh the whole time. I’d had all these hits, and this was my first failure. It had to come eventually. And when it did, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be. Oddly, I kind of like the film. —Mike Nichols
Set on the tiny, fictional island of Pianosa in the Mediterranean Sea just off the coast of Italy in the time of the Second World War, Catch-22 introduces Yossarian, an American pilot who just wants to stop flying missions and risking his neck for a cause he didn’t believe in. Yossarian is a reasonable man who does his best to be proclaimed unreasonable, as he simply wants to avoid being shot down, but in the process of trying to get certified as mad, he approaches the verge of losing his mind. Populated by a gallery of quirky, peculiar and colorful individuals, the small American base is a microcosm that could be seen as a mirror reflecting the people, practices, and events on the global scale. Whether we’re talking about the famously genius “catch-22” that came out of the film and established its place in everyday language, the seemingly mad pilot called Orr who survived a series of crash landings only to turn out to be practicing for his ultimate escape to Sweden, the naively idealistic soon-to-be 20-year-old soldier who gets a handful of simple life wisdom from a 107-year-old Italian relic of a man or the ludicrously ambitious lieutenant who would do just about anything to make some profit, Catch-22 is full of perplexing little oddities that form a wider picture that manages to deliver two simple, graspable truths. Firstly, war is crazy and pointless. Secondly, man is nothing but meat. The messages might seem obvious and too plain to lie at the heart of a masterpiece, but it’s what we find in the essence of both Heller and Nichols’ work, and it works brilliantly.
Paramount had the rights to Heller’s 1961 novel and decided to finance the production with a very confident 17-million-dollar budget. The screenwriting task was handed over to Buck Henry, the acclaimed writer of Nichols’ The Graduate, who even got a solid acting gig in the film. This was obviously the horse the studio decided to bet on, so a glamorous cast was gathered. Alan Arkin jumped into the military boots of the central protagonist Yossarian, Jon Voight took the role of greedy Lt. Milo Minderbinder, Bob Balaban played the seemingly crazy Captain Orr, Charles Grodin embodied the squad navigator Captain Aardvark, Anthony Perkins played the friendly chaplain, the great Orson Welles got a brief but memorable role of wing commander General Dreedle, while Art Garfunkel landed the role of the naïve youngster Nately, much to his singing partner Paul Simon’s desperation. (Simon wrote the melancholic The Only Living Boy in New York inspired by the fact his friend left him to go shooting to Mexico.) The list does not end here: Martin Sheen, Bob Newhart, Martin Balsam, Paula Prentiss in one of the rare female roles in the picture… The film was shot by the skillful David Watkin (Out of Africa, Chariots of Fire), and the film was nothing short of a visual spectacle when it comes to the impressive flying scenes in B-25 Mitchell aircrafts, the shooting of which consumed six months of production. Catch-22 wasn’t scored, much to Nichols’ later regret, but the film made extensive and every effective use of the sounds one would come to expect in an army base, such as the deafening noise from aircraft motors and propellers.
Catch-22 is one of our favorite films. It’s not perfect, it’s not always as smooth or concise as it perhaps could be, and it’s often disorientating and befuddling. As it is to be expected when it comes to adapting a 450-page novel with dozens of peculiar, interesting characters and numerous humorous little side stories that help complete the picture of Heller’s bizarre little world, screenwriter Henry and Nichols chose not to cover a substantial amount of material from the novel, and even though we wouldn’t mind seeing a six-hour version of this film, it wouldn’t have exactly been a reasonable decision to make. What Henry and Nichols succeeded at doing, even though the director might not have felt the same way as we do, is conveying the general atmosphere of absurdity and mindlessness that scream out in panic and desperation from every page of Heller’s masterpiece. Catch-22 is an adaptation a literary classic such as this fully deserves.
A monumentally important screenplay. Dear every screenwriter/filmmaker, read Buck Henry’s screenplay for Catch-22 [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
YOSSARIAN IS ALIVE AND WELL IN THE MEXICAN DESERT
Here is a great article by Nora Ephron on the filming of Mike Nichols Catch-22, that appeared in the New York Times on March 16, 1969. Ms. Ephron reports that Orson Welles “told Mike Nichols how to direct the film, the crew how to move the camera, film editor Sam O’ Steen how to cut a scene, and most of the actors how to deliver their lines.” Welles refuted these obviously ridiculous stories in This is Orson Welles, telling Peter Bogdanovich, “It was a textbook cut… Mike was just wondering if it would work, and I told him it would, that’s all.” Courtesy of Wellesnet.
Guaymas, Mexico. It is a moment of intense concentration. Mike Nichols, the director of the film, is sitting in a blue director’s chair, his face contorted, his hands clenched, his eyes squeezed shut. He finally opens his mouth to speak. “Bladder,” he says. “Whimsy. Dailies. Rumble. Barren. Crystal. Pastry.” “No,” says Tony Perkins, who is seated next to him. “Not pastry.” “Strudel,” says Nichols triumphantly. “Strudel. Pepsi. Cancer. Stopwatch…” A film is being shot here. Not at the moment, of course. At the moment, the director of the film is playing a memory game with one of the actors while the crew figures out how to work a broken water machine that is holding up the shooting. The name of the film is Catch-22. It is budgeted at $11 million, is on location in the Mexican desert, and is based on Joseph Heller’s best selling World War II novel. “I’ve tried, as they say, to preserve the integrity of the novel,” says screenwriter Buck Henry. “Don’t print that unless you put after it: ‘He said this with a glint in his eye and a twitch in his cheek and a kick in the groin.’ Because if that line so much as looks as if I said it seriously I’ll kill you.” Among the graffiti scrawled on the wall of the portable men’s room on the set is one that reads, “Help Save Joe Heller.”
A film is being shot here—between memory games, word games, repartee, kibitzing and general good cheer. Catch-22, the story of Capt. John Yossarian and his ultimate refusal to fly any more bombing missions. The movie of the year. A film actors signed up for before they knew what parts they were playing or how much money they would get for their work. With Alan Arkin starring as Yossarian, and Orson Welles (General Dreedle), Martin Balsam (Colonel Cathcart), Dick Benjamin (Major Danby), Norman Fell (Sergeant Towser), Jack Gilford (Doc Daneeka), Tony Perkins (Chaplain Tappman) and Paula Prentiss (Nurse Duckett). Art Garfunkel, of Simon and Garfunkel, will make his acting debut as Lieutenant Nately. “What I feel like here,” said Seth Allen, a young actor in the film, “is a near-great.”
Whether Catch-22 will be a masterpiece, merely a very funny film, or the first failure for Mike Nichols after two smash hit movies (The Graduate and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) and seven hit plays (among them The Odd Couple, Luv and Plaza Suite) is at this point almost an irrelevant question for the actors in it. What matters is that the film is a chance to work with Nichols, who, at 37, is the most successful director in America and probably the most popular actors’ director in the world. Says Orson Welles: “Nobody’s in his league with actors.” What’s more, he is the first American director since Welles made Citizen Kane in 1941 to have complete creative control over his final product—including the contractual right of final cut and the option of not showing his rushes to studio executives.
Nichols is too modest and far too intelligent not to realize the absurdity of being in this position after making two films and directing for only six years. “Every time you get too much for what you’ve put in,” he says, “you know it’s going to come out of you later.” But for now, he is going about his business—wandering about the set, in stylish fatigue jacket and slender corduroy pants; offering Oreos and Oh Henry’s to the crew; bringing his low-key techniques to his actors’ assistance, and somehow managing to keep his macroproduction company happy and on schedule. Catch-22 is to shoot in Mexico until early April, move to Los Angeles for four weeks of airplane interior shots, and then on to Rome until mid-June. After 10 months of editing, it will be ready for release in late 1970.
It has taken eight years to bring Heller’s book to the shooting stage. In the interim, the novel, after a slow beginning and mixed reviews, has become a modern classic, with a Modern Library edition and 2 million paperback copies in print. The film property has passed from Columbia to Paramount/Filmways, from Richard Brooks (who did little or nothing with it for three years) to Mike Nichols, from Jack Lemmon (who originally wanted to play Yossarian) to Arkin, and from one unsuccessful treatment by Richard Quine to four drafts by Buck Henry (whose previous film credits include The Graduate and Candy). It took Nichols, producer John Calley and designer Richard Sylbert over a year just to find the ideal spot to build the island of Pianosa and its air base—largely because the logical locations in Italy, Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica no longer look like the Italy, Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica of 1944.
Casting began, with Nichols selecting a group of actors, all of whom look like ordinary people, to play fighter pilots, and with Frank Tallman, the stunt pilot, rounding up a group of authentic fighter pilots, all of whom look like movie stars, to fly the planes. Tallman also set to work locating and assembling a squadron of B-25’s—18 of them, each purchased, repaired and made sky-worthy at an average cost of $10,000. (One of the planes, a wedding present from heiress Barbara Hutton to playboy Porfirio Rubirosa, came complete with reclining seats, bed and leather-paneled toilet.) Sylbert and Calley finally found the location last summer on the northwest coast of Mexico, 20 miles from the town of Guaymas, Sonora, the home of Guaymas shrimp and little else. The location was a flawless one photographically—with ocean flanking it on one side and mountains set just two miles behind—but it was reachable only by boat. It cost $180,000 to build the five-mile highway to the spot, and $250,0000 more for the 6,000-foot runway. Both construction jobs were undertaken, ecstatically, by the Mayor of Guaymas, who just happens to own a contracting company. Seventy-five peones working with machetes cleared the one-mile-square site of cactus, brush and rattlesnakes, leaving only mesquite trees, which resemble the small olive trees native to Italy. And Pianosa rose from the sand, with its tents, corrugated tin huts, mess hall, control tower, lister bag setups, and piles of bombs stacked like supermarket oranges along the runway. War-beaten stone buildings were designed with collapsible walls, in preparation for the moment in Catch-22 when Milo Minderbinder (played by newcomer Jon Voight) leads the men in a bombing raid on their own base.
The most critical problem Nichols and Henry faced in translating the book into cinematic terms was finding a style for Heller’s macabre comedy. “The book and, as a result, the film, have to be somewhat dreamlike, not quite real—either something remembered, or a nightmare,” said Nichols. “That’s very hard to do with living actors, with pores and noses, because they’re so definitely there. If you’re making a film in which an officer says, ‘You mean the enlisted men pray to the same God that we do?’ and in which the men bomb their own base, you have to find a style that makes it clear, from the beginning, that such things can happen.”
The solution was to make the story arise from a fever Yossarian develops after being stabbed in the side by Nately’s whore; the film leaps back and forth from vaguely remembered horror to farce to better remembered horror. “The picture will be cut as if Yossarian’s delirium were cutting it,” Henry explained. The style has been further carried out in the set—which has a ghostly quality—and in Nichols’s decision to send home 200 extra’s after the first week of shooting, leaving only Yossarian and his friends to fill out the huge air base. In addition, David Watkin, the English cinematographer who shot Richard Lester Beatles films, has lit Catch-22 so that all the actors are in shadow and the background is burned out; the effect is of a subliminal limbo.
Like the novel, the film hangs on the notion of Catch-22, a masterpiece of muddled military logic. “Let me get this straight,” says Yossarian to Doc Daneeka in the script. “In order to be grounded I have to be crazy. And I must be crazy to keep flying. But if I ask to be grounded—that means I’m not crazy any more and I have to keep flying.” “You got it,” says Doc Daneeka. “That’s Catch-22.”
As a multitude of reporters and critics have observed since the book was published in October, 1961, Catch-22 has almost become a primer for the thinking that has seemed to be guiding the war in Vietnam. At the same time, the predicament of Yossarian has become more relevant in the context of the antiwar movement in this country. “The interesting thing about the book,” says Henry, who despite his disclaimer has been quite faithful to the novel, “is the enormous power of prophecy Heller had. He was writing about a man who had finally decided to opt out and who in the end ends up in Sweden. That was a total absurdity when he wrote it, a really far-out kind of insanity. Well, it’s come true.” “I don’t think of this as a film about World War II,” adds Nichols. “I think of it as a picture about dying and a picture about when you get off and at what point you take control over your own life and say, ‘No, I won’t. I decide. I draw the line.'”
That Catch-22 is being made in an atmosphere of such good feeling is as much a part of Nichols’s approach as any of the directing techniques he utilizes. “If you’re on the set, shooting,” Nichols explained, “and you say, ‘let’s do it again,’ and there’s one guy who rolls his eyes or turns away or groans, it sours it for everybody. John and Buck and I said, ‘Let’s see if for once we can have nobody like that—just people who like each other.’ And it worked.” Many of the cast members are old friends and about half have worked with Nichols before. They have been laughing ever since a chartered jet brought them from Los Angeles to Mexico on Jan. 2 and landed them smack in the middle of the utterly barren, desolate desert. “Look at this,” Bob Newhart said, as he stepped out of the plane. Everyone looked around at what looked like the end of the world. “Ten years ago I could have bought land here,” said Newhart, “and look at it now.”
When the film is between takes, the cast sits around and roars with laughter as Newhart spins out a routine on nightlife in Guaymas (there is none) or as Buck Henry and Tony Perkins improvise on the subject of free falling and parachute jumping.
Perkins: “What about all this we hear about the free fall mass?”
Henry: “There are two free fall masses.”
Perkins: “The 11 o’clock and the 7 o’clock?”
Henry: “No. In the fall of 1965 a town of 1,300 people in Nevada went up and made a fall.”
Perkins: “I was speaking of the free fall mass, not the mass free fall.”
Henry: The free fall mass is where the falling priest throws the wafer and the parishioners jump out of the plane and dive for it. It’s called diving for the wafer. That’s where the expression comes from. Dive for the wafer, dig for the wine.”
Perkins: “What about this lady who jumped with her cats?”
Henry: “Well, actually, that story was not reported accurately. There was a lady, but she jumped with her lawyer, whose name was Katz.”
When the film is shooting, the director and crew stand behind the camera, biting their lips and gritting their teeth to keep form exploding with laughter during the take. Nichols’s snorts of appreciation affect the actors in about the same way the bowl of food did Pavlov’s dogs. “I’m so overjoyed when he laughs,” said Paula Prentiss, “that I don’t even care that half the time I don’t know what he’s laughing at.” “You never get hung up if Mike is directing you,” said Miss Prentiss’ husband, Dick Benjamin. “If you’re doing a scene you’re not comfortable with, he senses it, and before it can get to be a problem for you, he gives you two or three specific things to do—like a piece of business or a new line or something. And you think, ‘Oh, I get to do that.’ Like a kid who’s been given a birthday present. Everything else sort of falls into place and you get your little goodies. And Mike talks in terms of that. He’ll say, ‘I’ve really got a present for so-and-so when he gets to Rome.’ And he means he’s got some wonderful shot, something to do, some way the actor will look that is just sensational. And you really take it as a present.”
Sometimes Nichols will give an actor a short suggestion or line reading that will suddenly clarify the role. To Benjamin, who was playing a scene in which he was supposed to be terrified of Orson Welles’ General Dreedle, Nichols—who was himself terrified of Orson Welles—said simply, “Watch me.” To Austin Pendleton, who was confused as to how to play Welles’s son-in-law, Colonel Moodus, Nichols gave a line reading that, said Pendleton, “gave me the key to the whole thing. I realized he wanted to me play the kind of person who says the most insulting things as if he’s being terribly friendly.” To Norman Fell, Nichols suggested playing Sergeant Towser as a military mammy; as a result, Fell delivers the most blood-curdling lines with a funny little smile on his face, as if he were talking about chicken and gravy and wonderful biscuits.
Occasionally, Nichols will add an especially intimate gift to the proceedings. One morning, he was shooting a closeup of Buck Henry (who also appears in the film, as Colonel Cathcart). Henry was to lean over and whisper to Balsam: “He’s talking to you.” Balsam was to pop to attention and deliver an answer. Nichols shot two takes of the scene and then called Henry over for a conference. “Let’s do another,” he said. Henry returned to position and the scene began again. “He’s talking to you!” hissed Henry, and he leaned over and goosed Balsam. Balsam jumped, his eyes bugged out of his head, and he managed to deliver his line before losing his composure. The crew broke up. “Nichols Directs,” said Henry—”A Monograph of the Unusual Techniques of a Young American Director: ‘Use three fingers,’ he said to me.”
On another occasion, Nichols was shooting a love scene between Arkin and Miss Prentiss, who plays Nurse Duckett. The footage—of Yossarian’s hand sliding up Duckett’s leg—was fine, but Nichols had not been able to get the right vocal reaction from the actress. He called a take for sound only. And as Arkin began to slip his hand up miss Prentiss’s skirt, Nichols grabbed her from behind and plunked his hands onto her breasts. “I let out this great hoot,” said Miss Prentiss, which Mike was very happy with. Then I was so overcome with emotion I had to go into a corner and be alone. Whenever someone touches me I’m in love with him for about eight hours.”
“It’s perfectly possible,” Nichols concedes “that we can have this great time now, making the film, and then have it not be a good picture. The two have nothing to do with each other. But then, none of us knows whether the picture is any good even long after it’s finished, so you might as well be happy while it’s going on. And when the actors break up and the crew is stuffing handkerchiefs into their mouths trying not to laugh at Dick Benjamin—or whoever it is—I love it. I love it now. Afterward, it’s up for grabs anyway.”
For the actors, at least, making an Air Force film has turned out to be very much like being in the Air Force. Not when they are working; when they work, making Catch-22 is like being at a party, a festival, a love-in. But because so many of the actors have small parts, they have a great deal of time to kill in a town where there is almost nothing to do. As a result, many of them spend their empty days discussing how many days of shooting each has to go. When they tire of kicking that subject around, they move on to other tried-and-true service talk. “I’ll tell you what we do around here in our free time,” said Alan Arkin. “We sit in the barracks out at the set with our muddy boots on and talk about women. That’s what you do in the Army, isn’t it? Sit around in your muddy boots and talk about women? I don’t know why we do it. Almost everyone here is with his wife or his girl friend. But that’s what we do.”
They complain about the food in the mess hall that is, the mess hall on the set, which doubles as a lunch commissary complete with regulation Army trays. They complain about the living accommodations at the Playa de Cortas, Guaymas’s somewhat unsatisfactory attempt at a luxury hotel. They complain about their isolation from the outside world. And they complain about the incredible difficulty of obtaining newspapers and placing long-distance calls. “We make bets on who’s going to go insane,” says Newhart, “or has already gone insane. In fact, maybe we’ve all gone insane and we’re all together and we don’t know it and we’ll go home and my wife will call Paramount and say, ‘Listen, my husband is insane.’ We have no norm here. We have no way of judging.” That everyone in this squadron of professed lunatics is good-natured, noncompetitive and thoroughly professional is small consolation. By February, several of the cast members had begun to complain that the company was too nice. “If only there were a lemon here,” said Perkins. “It would give us something to talk about.”
Any location—outside of London, Paris and Rome—is bound to breed complaint; but the actors, who seem to be playing a private game of Kvetch-22, have hardly been on a dull movie. Within the first two weeks of shooting, a case of hepatitis broke out, requiring that the entire company be inoculated. A B-25, caught in propwash, nearly crashed into the control tower while shooting was going on. Susanne Benton, a starlet who plays General Dreedle’s Wac, complete with seven pairs of falsies and a rubber behind by Frederick’s of Hollywood, was accidentally clobbered by a camera during a take and passed out cold. Two actors, mistakenly released for a short trip to New York, were headed off on the way to the airport by a hastily dispatched helicopter, which landed, a la James Bond, ahead of them on the highway. There was even an unexpected, action-packed visit from John Wayne—though reports differ as to exactly what happened during it: According to general consensus, Wayne, on his way to make a Western in Durango, radioed the field for permission to land his plane. Permission was granted. When Wayne arrived, producer Calley met him and asked if he would like to see the shooting, which was going on in a tent some distance away. No, Wayne said, he wanted to drive to a part of the location to see some land he was thinking of buying. But some time later he showed up at the set. He stood around, apparently waiting for a welcoming party; but none of the actors knew him, and Nichols and Henry did not emerge to greet him. Wayne went to the Playa de Cortas and spent the evening in the bar, drinking, smashing glassware and complaining that he had been snubbed—possibly for political reasons. Ultimately, he fell and broke a couple of ribs.
“We didn’t snub him at all,” Henry said later. “We were in the tent, and for some undiscernible dumb reason, no one said, ‘Come on out and meet the big guy.’ We’re trying to make up for it by getting a print of ‘The Green Berets’ and showing it to the crew. In the meantime, we’ve just been sitting around here, watching the days go by, and waiting for him to come back and bomb us.” The arrival of Orson Welles, for two weeks of shooting in February, was just the therapy the company needed: at the very least, it gave everyone something to talk about. The situation was almost melodramatically ironic: Welles, the great American director now unable to obtain big-money backing for his films, was being directed by 37-year-old Nichols; Welles, who had tried, unsuccessfully, to buy Catch-22 for himself in 1962, was appearing in it to pay for his new film, Dead Reckoning. The cast spent days preparing for his arrival. Touch of Evil was flown in and microscopically reviewed. Citizen Kane was discussed over dinner. Tony Perkins, who had appeared in Welles’ film, The Trial, was repeatedly asked What Orson Welles Was Really Like. Bob Balaban, a young actor who plays Orr in the film, laid plans to retrieve one of Welles’ cigar butts for an admiring friend. And Nichols began to combat his panic by imagining what it would be like to direct a man of Welles’ stature.
“Before he came,” said Nichols, “I had two fantasies. The first was that he would say his first line, and I would say, ‘NO, NO, NO, Orson!'” He laughed. “Then I thought, perhaps not. The second was that he would arrive on the set and I would say, ‘Mr. Welles, now if you’d be so kind as to move over here…’ And he’d look at me and raise on eyebrow and say, ‘Over there?” And I’d say, ‘What? Oh, uh, where do you think it should be?'” Welles landed in Guaymas with an entourage that included a cook and experimental filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich, who was interviewing him for a Truffaut-Hitchcock-type memoir. For the eight days it took to shoot his two scenes, he dominated the set. He stood on the runway, his huge wet Havana cigar tilting just below his squinting eyes and sagging eye pouches, addressing Nichols and the assembled cast and crew. Day after day, he told fascinating stories of dubbing in Bavaria, looping in Italy and shooting in Yugoslavia. He also told Nichols how to direct the film, the crew how to move the camera, film editor Sam O’Steen how to cut a scene, and most of the actors how to deliver their lines. Welles even lectured Martin Balsam for three minutes on how to deliver the line, “Yes, sir.”
A few of the actors did not mind at all. Austin Pendleton got along with Welles simply by talking back to him. “Are you sure you wouldn’t like to say that line more slowly?” Welles asked Pendleton one day. “Yes,” Pendleton replied slowly. “I am sure.” But after a few days of shooting, many of the other actors were barely concealing their hostility toward Welles—particularly because of his tendency to blow his lines during takes. By the last day of shooting, when Welles used his own procedure, a lengthy and painstaking one, to shoot a series of close-ups, most of the people on the set had tuned out on the big, booming raconteur. But Mike Nichols managed to glide through the two-week siege without showing a trace of irritation with Welles. And whenever the famous Welles eyebrow rose after one of Nichols’s camera decisions, Nichols would turn to him and smile and say, “No good, huh? Where should it go?” “Mike controlled the Welles thing simply by respecting Welles,” said Pendleton. “After all, if there’s any one person who has the right to say where a cut should be made, it’s Orson. Mike respected that. And Orson knew it.”
At the same time, Nichols carefully smoothed the ruffled feathers among his company. And he got a magnificent performance, from Welles as well as from the rest of the cast. “The Welles situation, which brought a lot of people down, was almost identical to the tension that was written in the script,” said Peter Bonerz, a young West Coast actor who plays McWatt in the film. “We were all under the thumb of this huge, cigar-smoking general, as written, and at the same time, we were under the thumb of this huge, cigar-smoking director. The discomfort that we were feeling was real, and I’m sure it looks grand on film.”
One day shortly after Welles had left (taking with him his general’s uniform, which he wore around Guaymas for two days until a costume man was able to retrieve it), Nichols sat in his trailer on the set. Outside, it was hot, dusty and windy. But the trailer was air-conditioned, with an icebox full of brownies imported from Greenberg’s bakery in New York, and Nichols sat eating one and talking about himself, his success, and the Welles episode. “What I wanted to say to Welles was this—I wanted to say, ‘I know you’re Orson Welles, and I know I’m me. I never said I was Mike Nichols. Those other people said that.’ What I mean by that is that he’s a great man. I know he’s a great man. I never said I was. And of course, you can’t say such things. “We were talking about [Jean] Renoir one day on the set, and Orson said, very touchingly, that Renoir was a great man but that, unfortunately, Renoir didn’t like his pictures. And then he said, ‘Of course, if I were Renoir, I wouldn’t like my pictures either.’ And I wanted to say to him, ‘If I were Orson Welles, I wouldn’t like my pictures either, and it’s O.K., and I agree with you, and what can I do?’
“I never said all that stuff about me. I’m not happy about this thing that’s building up about me, because it has nothing to do with me. I mean, the things I’ve done are neither as good as the people who carry on say they are, nor are they as bad as the reaction to the reaction says they are. They’re just sort of in-between. I’m not flagellating myself and saying I’ve turned out only junk, because I’m not ashamed of it and some of it I like very much. But Orson said to somebody that he didn’t just want to be a festival director.” Nichols paused. “Well, I guess if you have the festivals and Cahiers and Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris you want to make pictures that break box-office records. And it also works the other way around.
“I was very moved by Welles. I knew what it felt like to be him in that situation, to come into a company in the middle, to have a tremendous reputation not to like acting, to be used to being in control—and I was sorry when people didn’t see what that felt like. Where the camera is and what it does is so much a part of his life—how is he suddenly supposed to ignore it? Take somebody like Elizabeth Taylor—when she is acting, she knows where the light is and how close the shot is. Orson knows whether he’s in focus or not. Literally. If you know that much, what are you supposed to do with it? You can’t throw it out. And I know that if I were acting in a movie, it would be very hard for me not to say, ‘I wonder if you would be kind enough to consider putting the camera a little more there so that when I do this…’ How do you kill that knowledge?”
Nichols stopped, lit a Parliament from a stack of cigarette packs on the trailer table, and began to talk about what the Beatles used to call The Fall. “I almost can’t wait for it to come,” he said. “Because I’m somewhat upset by the Midas thing and also by the reaction to the Midas thing. I don’t like a critic to tell me that I set out to make a success, because it’s not true. There’s enough worry in thinking that you set out to do the very best you could and came out with only a success—that’s depressing about oneself. You know, none of the great movies has been a popular success. I can’t think of any exceptions. But you accept that there’s a great difference between yourself and the artists who make films. It’s like when you’re 14 years old and your realize that Tchaikovsky would have liked to be Mozart—he just didn’t have a choice. And I’m not even making a comparison there. But you have to go on as yourself. I’d like to be better, but I can’t.”
From outside the trailer came a knock, and a voice said, “Mr. Nichols, we’re ready for you now.” The water machine was working. The actors were on the set. And Nichols hopped out of the air-conditioned vehicle into the heat and began to walk over to the stone building where the cameras were set up. A few feet away, Buck Henry was having difficulty with a crossword puzzle. “Are there any Hindus here?” he was shouting. “One of your festivals is bothering me.” A film is being shot here. —Yossarian Is Alive And Well in the Mexican Desert
Buck Henry, the legendary writer of The Graduate, Catch-22, What’s Up, Doc?, To Die For, Get Smart and The Day of the Dolphin chats about his life as a writer.
AUDIO COMMENTARY WITH MIKE NICHOLS & STEVEN SODERBERGH
Steven Soderbergh is definitely somewhere at the top of our list of filmmakers with whom we’d like to sit down and have a chat about films. Incredibly articulate, absorbingly energetic and refreshingly witty, the American director has given us an abundance of pleasure through his commentary tracks, most fascinating of which was probably the one for Catch-22, where he talks to the film’s director, the great Mike Nichols. Take a break from work, give him a shot and find out for yourself why he’s considered such an amazingly clever little know-it-all.
Written by Sven Mikulec. Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Mike Nichols’ Catch-22. Photographed by Robert Willoughby © Paramount Pictures, Filmways Productions. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
Get Cinephilia & Beyond in your inbox by signing in