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NICHOLS, MIKE : Primary Colors

WHO’S AFRAID OF PRIMARY COLORS
He's directed some of the true ground-breaking classics in the annals of American cinema: from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, The Graduate, Carnal Knowledge and Catch 22, through to more mainstream hits such as Working Girl and The Birdcage. At 66, the veteran Oscar winner takes on the American political arena with the controversial, Primary Colors. And now that the Paula Jones lawsuit against real-life President Clinton is quashed, it's back to business as usual, the director suggests in this exclusive interview with PAUL FISCHER.

It's hard to believe that it's been some 30 years since Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor spewed verbal abuse at one another in the ground-breaking Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It would mark the directorial debut of actor and satirist Mike Nichols. Thirty years on, the Academy Award-winning director sees some curious parallels between that, his first film, and his latest, the political satire Primary Colors. "They both deal with a complicated love affair", Nichols explains from his Los Angeles office. "These are people, in both cases, who love each other in ways that are not immediately clear to other people."

"I thought it was a great story, as well as a great way into some questions about our actual lives"

Set during the early '90s, Primary Colors is told from the perspective of Henry Burton (Adrian Lester), an idealistic young black man who, reluctantly and then later enthusiastically, becomes part of the entourage surrounding Jack Stanton (John Travolta), a governor of an unnamed Southern state who is running for President. As one of Stanton's key advisers, he is privy to the secrets behind the candidate, which include womanising, dissembling and outright lying. Nichols, who immigrated to the US from Nazi Germany in 1939, was easily drawn to this tale of American politics and media intrusiveness. "I thought it was a great story, as well as a great way into some questions about our actual lives at the moment in our political process. I was also intrigued by the function of scandal in modern headlines and the extent to which it's taken over modern headlines and some of the media's concerns." Nichols also "liked the characters very much which would lead to very good scenes, and I think they have." Playing those characters meant some interesting casting to be made. Stanton was originally to be played by Tom Hanks, but after that fell through, Nichols turned to John Travolta. "When I met him, which I'd never had, I immediately knew that he was the guy for it, because he DOES have enormous charisma as well as great concern for and connection with, people." Emma Thompson may not have seemed the likely choice for the icily ambitious would-be First Lady, but she was first on Nichols' list. "She has a unique combination of characteristics, her high intelligence, goodness, wit and her beauty. She just seemed the ideal person for the part."

Much has been made of the obvious parallels between the fiction world of Primary Colors and that of the Clinton escapades, publicised to the max, in recent months. One of course wonders if, had it not been for the current spate of Clinton scandals, Primary Colors would have been differently perceived. "I think it would have been SOMEWHAT less startling, but not a great deal. It's STILL concerning itself with things that are very much woven into the fibre of our national consciousness, and the events that accompany it. It was just eerily close to things that have been happening over the past months, but those things are based on other things that have been going on for quite a long time."

"I think that everybody is wondering how we get the toothpaste back in the tube."

Despite the film's immediate political interest, Nichols insists that the film deals with the broader issues of celebrity and media intrusiveness. "We all know that something has happened. On the one hand, metaphor has moved sideways from fiction to real life, starting with the Bobbits through O.J., Princess Diana and now Clinton. Metaphor is such a strong part of these public events, the rise of scandal and the headlines, I think that everybody is wondering how we get the toothpaste back in the tube. Decisions like the one which had the judge throw out the Paula Jones case, will help clean up some of the toothpaste." And on that very timely decision, made the day before this interview, the director is delighted with the outcome. "I felt such enormous relief and pleasure, that maybe now everybody can get back to work and drop this nonsense."

Yet, despite the public's fascination with this 'nonsense', Clinton's own political survival has been almost strengthened by it all, for obvious reasons, Nichols hastens to add. "The American public is ambivalent. I don't know if you're aware of the statistic, but a majority of people in the United States have more money in the stock market than in their homes. That's almost inconceivable and that happened during Clinton's Presidency, so that the majority of Americans are better off than they ever have been. Not to mention the fact there's no war. At the same time there are these scandals, so that while the polls tell us that a HUGE majority of Americans wish that the media could leave the President alone and let him have the private life that we all do, that same public runs up the ratings on the sleazy T.V. shows. The only thing we can conclude is that we're ambivalent."

"We had a Clintonesque experience"

Finally, there were those rumours that Clinton pressured Nichols to tone down his film. Totally untrue, says its director. "We had a Clintonesque experience, where these untrue things were picked up to the extent that they became ‘true’. And there's nothing you can do about it. After I was through being pissed (off), I thought for some time, 'Remember this when you read a newspaper or watch TV; don't forget this is horseshit.' It's weird because that is our subject to begin with. Somehow every move we made, every change we made, every lunch we had [with the Clintons], was to pacify the White House - and we were just eating lunch. I had hoped that when people saw the movie, it would slow down and maybe stop. I hoped that the movie clarified this. Maureen Dowd (New York Times) wrote a whole column when the movie wasn't even cut together. She already had an opinion. In fact, I wanted it [the movie] to be balanced. We worked very hard on its being balanced." After 30 years of breaking the rules, Nichols hasn't lost his touch.

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"Travolta’s a really sweet guy, very supportive and a kind man."

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"I immediately knew that he (John Travolta) was the guy for it, because he DOES have enormous charisma as well as great concern for and connection with, people."

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"She (Emma Thompson) just seemed the ideal person for the part."

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"Nichols insists that the film deals with the broader issues of celebrity and media intrusiveness."

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"The American public is ambivalent. I don't know if you're aware of the statistic, but a majority of people in the United States have more money in the stock market than in their homes."

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