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‘Angels in America’ Cinematographer on Working With Mike Nichols

Mike Nichols gave cast and crew the time and space to create an outstanding piece of filmmaking

angels in america Mike Nichols
Stephen Goldblatt

Stephen Goldblatt, who was the cinematographer on Mike Nichols’ last three screen productions — including HBO’s “Angels in America,” which Nichols considered to be the crowning achievement of his career — spoke to Variety at the Camerimage Film Festival on Friday about his friend, who died Wednesday.

Goldblatt has worked with some of Hollywood’s leading directors, included Francis Ford Coppola, Alan Pakula and Joel Schumacher, and recently lensed Tate Taylor’s “The Help” and “Get on Up.”

Like Goldblatt, the majority of Nichols’ cinematographers were not American-born. German director of photography Michael Ballhaus, who worked on three of Nichols’ movies, said that Nichols — who was born in Germany — valued the outsider’s eye when directing films about American society.

“He liked how I brought a fresher view to these very American stories we were doing, and encouraged that,” Ballhaus told Variety in 2010.

Goldblatt, who was born in South Africa and moved to the U.K. as a boy, says Nichols and he shared an “intellectual and cultural affinity.”

During the production of “Angels,” they filmed in the building of an agency that holds all the historical records of immigrants who came into the U.S. While they were shooting in a corridor, a man came out holding the original record of Nichols at the age of 7, under his original name, Mikhail Igor Peschkowsky, with the name of the vessel that he had arrived on, and the record of his arrival in the U.S. from Nazi Germany.

“His great advantage was that he was an outsider,” Goldblatt says.

Some observers have noted that, despite Nichols’ great success, he retained a skeptical view of American society, which Goldblatt considers a fair comment.

Nichols has been lauded for his ability to draw great performances from his actors, which Goldblatt saw for himself on “Angels,” and the two feature films they worked on together, “Closer” and “Charlie Wilson’s War,” which was Nichols’ final film.

“By the time I started working with him, he was the Mike Nichols of legend, so it was less necessary, but I did see him persuade, seduce and, in every way, win over very recalcitrant actors, and actors who were convinced that they could not play a part. I was watching him doing this, and I just took a very quiet photograph – as is my habit – and he noticed and gave me a wink,” Goldblatt says.

He adds: “That was his charm and his power, and he never approached anything directly. So a rehearsal with Mike… the whole cast would be assembled, and the screenplay was read, and he always wanted me there, and I would sit there just watching and listening. But from that point on, he almost never spoke about the screenplay. He would talk, for example, about a moment from his life.”

He continues: “So on ‘Angels,’ which is full of jealousies, passion and betrayal, he begins to talk about how he f—ed up his marriage, or one of them, or it wouldn’t even be that direct, it would be some peculiar story, and an hour or two or three would pass by breathlessly, and almost nobody would speak, but everybody was refreshed and in some way included in his wider circle.”

“And then maybe a month or two would pass before we went into production. He and I spoke about it, and he said, ‘Well that’s when we…’ and I suggested ‘ferment.’ He does this process of assimilation.”

There is one point in “Angels,” Goldblatt says, where Patrick Wilson’s character is making love to his wife, played by Mary-Louise Parker. “It is a story of his feeling of shame at being a homosexual, and his wife’s misery in this marriage without love. What Mike wanted to do was not written. ‘I want to be outside in the corridor. I want the camera to come down the corridor, go through the door, go round the bed, and find them.’ This presents me, out of the blue, with a number of technical problems. So I just ask him: ‘Oh, Mike, why?,’ and he says, ‘I don’t know.’”

Goldblatt adds: “He was so interested in below the surface, the sly approach, and the undercover. As he said, when you go to a party there are people saying one thing, doing another, and wishing they were doing something else. Every encounter, as he saw it, and as we grew to see it through his eyes, becomes tremendously interesting.”

Goldblatt’s question to Nichols was paralleled by a question Nichols had himself for Meryl Streep, who plays Ethel Rosenberg in “Angels.” “She visits Roy Cohn (Al Pacino) on his deathbed and chortles with glee like a carnival clown. Never rehearsed that way. Never written that way. Amazing. Terrifying. And after we cut, after take three (he never did many takes), Mike says to Meryl: ‘Why did you do that? Like that?’ And she says, ‘I don’t know.’ ”

Goldblatt says he couldn’t sleep Thursday night, but “got some comfort” from reading an article that said Nichols considered “Angels” to be the greatest triumph of his career.

“Angels” could be considered to have started the Golden Age of television.

“Nichols started the whole movement whereby television became cinema. It took a leap forward, and now people are prepared to spend up to 16 hours watching in one go,” Goldblatt says. “What they are watching are great plays that are performed with the benefit of cinema – with all its tricks, cameras, make-up and design. Mike started it.”

Nichols’ background as a stage performer and theater director influenced how he approached his screen work.

“He didn’t give line readings. If an actor really wasn’t getting it, Mike would stand up and act it. End of story. ‘That’s how you do it.’ It was superb. And usually very funny with it. He was witty and funny, and deep and loving.”

Nichols often used comedy to tackle difficult subjects and open them up.

“That’s the essence of it, and that’s what he said about acting: That a serious actor who can play comedy is at the height of his profession,” Goldblatt says.

Nichols could be great fun to work with, says Goldblatt. “Not that Mike was easy, far from it, and not that he was always nice. Neither did he try to be. We had a terrible fight early on with ‘Angels’ and I quit three weeks in, and I thought ‘I can’t be treated like this.’”

As Goldblatt was about to jump in a cab to go home, Nichols’ assistant ran after him, and took his arm. “ ‘Mike must speak with you,’ he said, and dragged me backed to Mike’s office. Mike’s standing there and looks at me and said ‘I’m sorry, I can’t help it.’ What he was saying was that with someone new in his circle, he’s looking for that defiant moment, and we hugged, then and there, and that was it. I was his man but I had to do that to be there with him.”

Nichols would give everyone on his productions the time and space to reach for something fresh and outstanding, says Goldblatt. “The climactic moment of ‘Angels in America’ at the end of the first three hours is when Emma Thompson as the Angel descends on the poor, sad, hapless victim of AIDS — as an angel from heaven but fierce and beautiful, and crazy – this was not visual effects budget time, this was for real, we had money to paint out her wires with the lovely and brilliant Richard Edlund (visual effects supervisor) coping with the smoke I insisted was in the atmosphere,” Goldblatt says.

He adds: “And I swear Mike never got involved with how I was going to do it. I knew it was going to be great because I had so many lights, that had been begged, borrowed and stolen. I had some serious fire power.”

“And at that moment… voomph… the ceiling was off and Emma floated in as the angel, and said ‘Hail to the Prophet, the Messenger has arrived.’ It was something else. And we were all stunned by what we had achieved. He had achieved it, almost by doing nothing. He gave us that freedom. He didn’t second guess, he didn’t look, he didn’t question. He loved us, he trusted us. And at the end of the first take he just hugged me.”