I recently saw a documentary called Becoming Mike Nichols, and in an interview the acclaimed director declared there are only three types of scenes: seductions, negotiations, and fights. When I heard this, I thought, “That can’t be true.” But then I thought, “He’s Mike Nichols; who am I to argue?”
According to IMdB.com, Nichols had 22 directing credits. He made feature films, television movies, and mini-series. He began his career as an actor and was one half of the comedy improv duo Nichols and May. He then directed theater, partnering with Neil Simon on Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple. His film credits include Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, The Graduate, and The Birdcage. Nichols was a one of the most accomplished artists of his generation. During his career, he won Oscar, Tony, and Golden Globe Awards for his efforts. He was an actor’s director and was always able to get astounding performances from his cast.
When you look at a scene as being a seduction, a negotiation, or a fight, each scene becomes much easier to navigate. Once you know which type of scene you’re dealing with, you can make the right suggestions to help your actors get where they need to go. In each there is inherent conflict, and knowing that is half the battle.
If it’s a fight the conflict is usually obvious. The characters have a disagreement which results in either a verbal or physical altercation. In a seduction, the conflict is the mystery and anxiety of whether or not one person will succumb to the other. In a negotiation, who will win the scene? Who will compromise? Looking at a scene in this way works whether you’re writing, directing, or acting in it. You can find the different “as ifs” that can make the scene work and make it true.
I recently directed an actress who was performing Juliet’s balcony speech from Romeo and Juliet. After working with her for a bit, I discovered that the monologue is a negotiation. Juliet is saying: We can be together, but one of us has to give up our name. Give up being a Montague, or marry me and I’ll no longer be a Capulet.
Then she goes on: “What’s in a name?” It’s only Romeo’s name that’s her enemy–not the man himself, nor any part of him. In effect, she gives herself permission to be in love. She is negotiating with herself, with the unseen Romeo, and with God.
Once I realized the monologue was a negotiation, I could give the actress suggestions on different ways to play it. Is she reasoning? Is she bargaining? Is she praying? I could suggest to her who she was negotiating with and when. As a result, we found the objective of the scene, and she gave a great performance.
Of course, each scene is nuanced and can morph into something else. Sometimes what starts out as a negotiation turns into a fight or a fight turns into a seduction, but the simple principle of seeing a scene as being one of three types can give the director and actor a way in. When you know the simple rule, you can deal with each scene in those terms.
One thing I’ve learned is that directing actors isn’t really about getting what you want, or getting them to do what you want. If you want to do that, maybe you should be an animator. I’ve found it’s about finding what’s best for the scene, telling the actors your ideas, listening to their ideas and helping them get to the place they need to be emotionally in order to help the audience laugh, cry, think, and feel.
Nichols talked about having the same approach to directing as he did to improv. It’s something you find on the spot. “It’s terrifying and thrilling at the same time.” he said. I feel the best days on a set are when I’m uncertain about the day, but then I have those moments of realization and then the actors and I find the scene. It’s trial and error and a lot of work most of the time, but there is nothing better than navigating your way through a scene and coming out the other side with something wonderful.