Under the Influence

November 9, 2003 Mike Nichols and The Graduate

Steven Soderbergh was 4 years old when The Graduate was released in 1967. But the future director had to wait until age 12 to see the film for the first time — at a midnight show, accompanied by his big sister.

When Soderbergh (Solaris, Ocean's 11, Traffic) saw The Graduate again on Nov. 9, 2003, he did so with the film's director, Mike Nichols, as part of the DGA Independent Directors Committee "Under the Influence" series. The series features visionary and innovative films from the past, followed by a postscreening dialogue between the 's director and an independent filmmaker who was influenced by it. The Graduate screening, at the DGA Theatre in New York, was followed by a revealing Q&A session with Soderbergh and Nichols, beginning with the casting of Dustin Hoffman as Benjamin, the confused college grad famously seduced by his parents' friend, Mrs. Robinson.

"I interviewed hundreds, maybe thousands of men," Nichols recalled of his search for the perfect male lead, noting that he had even discussed the role with his friend Robert Redford, who wanted it. "I said, 'You can't play it. You never can play a loser.' And Redford said, 'What do you mean? Of course I can play a loser.' And I said, 'OK, have you ever struck out with a girl?' And he said, 'What do you mean?' And he wasn't joking." Soderbergh described the successful casting of Hoffman as "a watershed moment," noting that "there weren't a lot of parts like this going to guys with strong noses and weak chins."

Also watershed was Nichols' use of already established hit songs by Simon and Garfunkel to form the soundtrack for The Graduate, including "The Sounds of Silence" and "Mrs. Robinson." According to Nichols, it was an accidental accomplishment.

"We were halfway through shooting and my brother sent me Simon and Garfunkel — on an LP, of course; it was the turn of the century," joked the director, who says he played the album continuously for four weeks. "In the middle of the fourth week I said, 'I'm listening to a great score! This is the score!' We started putting it in then and there while we were still shooting. And then I met Simon and Garfunkel, and they were quite uninterested in the whole thing. They said, 'Oh, OK, well, yes it's alright, I guess you can use it.' They were very blasé."

When Nichols later screened a rough cut of the film for Simon and Garfunkel, "Mrs. Robinson" wasn't part of the score; a different song was in its place and Nichols told the musical pair he wasn't wild about it. "I said, 'Have you got anything else?' They looked stunned. Then Paul said, 'Wait a minute,' and he and Artie went off and talked for a minute in the corner. Then they came back and sang "Mrs. Robinson," and they sang it as you hear it in the movie: deet de de de de de ... because they hadn't written in the verse yet."

But they were singing about Mrs. Roosevelt, Nichols said. "It was a song about Eleanor Roosevelt and American icons. That's why Joe DiMaggio is in there. So they switched Mrs. Roosevelt to Mrs. Robinson. It happened in about six minutes, and we just put it in the picture and that was that. So much for 'creation.'"

Nichols also revealed that the film's ending — with a terrified-looking Dustin Hoffman and Katharine Ross sitting nervously in the back of a bus after fleeing Elaine's wedding — was another happy accident, and not the final scene as written in the script, which read, "Some people seem to be running around in front of the church."

"On the day we shot the scene," Nichols explained, "I said to Dustin and Katharine, 'Look, we've stopped traffic for miles and we have a police escort and I cannot do this over and over and over. So please, just get on the bus and laugh, OK?' And they looked at me terrified, and I thought, 'What am I doing? Am I nuts? I'm just scaring them to death.' But it was too late, and they got on the bus and they tried to laugh. They looked very unhappy and terrified because I had terrified them. The next day I saw the dailies, and I thought, 'Look at this. It's the end of the movie!' Some part of me knew better than I did."

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