Working with Mike Nichols: A reminiscence

They were shooting a movie in town, but no one was saying much about it. Which was odd. Dallas in the summer of 1983 was a movie-minded place. It had a film school and a film festival, and Texas, a right-to-work state, drew enough film shoots that a real-estate mogul had built an entire set of soundstages just outside of Dallas proper. Mike Nichols and Meryl Streep were shooting out there. Where were the news reports on the production, the society talk about who hoped to get Nichols at a party, the gossip about sightings of Streep?

I think there were two reasons for the lack of talk. One, there’s never that much to say about a film in production, unless it’s one of those mammoth, troubled undertakings like Cleopatra, and Silkwood, as I came to find out, was the opposite of that. It was small, it was quiet, it aimed to do its work quickly and get out of town. Two, Silkwood was a little story that could’ve gotten in big trouble if it drew too much attention, because it dealt with safety problems at a Kerr-McGee nuclear plant. No one involved wanted it to be talked about in the press. So they played it down as a movie being made for TV. Maybe I missed something, but that was about all I heard, except from friends in the acting community, who were angling for jobs.

The production’s safeguards were a little lax, though. (Kind of like Kerr-McGee’s, come to think of it.) That’s how two journalists ended up right in the middle of the production: me and my friend David Seeley. At the time, we were always looking for something new and different to do; one of our principles had the high-toned formulation of “Take the broadening path.” It boiled down to fun: we thought it might be fun to work as extras on the film. An actress informed me who was casting the film; David and I shot Polaroids of ourselves in what we judged to be typical industrial-worker attire and took them to an interview. This went smoothly until a tricky question came up: what were our usual jobs? Afraid of lying and being found out later, we said we worked for a weekly paper called Dallas Observer. We had helped launch it three years before and were pretty sure that it was a big thing—after all, it got us no-line, no-cover passes for hot nightclubs—but somehow the name, and the chance of our writing a tell-all story, registered as strongly as if we’d come from the Daily Worker or the Asahi Shimbun. We were hired.

A poster from the original theatrical release of Silkwood.

A poster from the original theatrical release of Silkwood.

And so began an idyllic spell of showing up, passing the time, eating for free, and going home. We did this first at Las Colinas, then on location in Bedford. How long did it go on? How did we get our other work done, if any? That’s a bit of a blur now. But we had fun—that much I’m sure about. It may have been the strangest mix of people I ever spent time with (if only because I’ve never been on a cruise ship). On the one hand, Nichols was there, along with Streep, Kurt Russell, Cher, and Nora Ephron, who had co-written the script; on the other hand, most of the extras had been hired out of labor pools, and they were what you might call a savory crew. When one guy turned up at the lunch table crowing over how he’d gotten Cher’s autograph, another one said, “Oh yeah? I might’ve been impressed if she’d given you a blow job.”

David and I sort of met Nora Ephron—we nodded at her once, and she didn’t have us fired. We picked up a copy of the screenplay and read it. Writing a story that spilled the beans on the whole project didn’t seem like a nice thing to do, so we didn’t do it. We befriended another extra and occupied ourselves either playing a numbers game I had found in Scientific American or recounting Saturday Night Live bits to one another. I can’t explain it now, but for some reason we kept falling back on “Telepsychic.”

There was a day when we got to work with Meryl. This entailed standing in a line at the time clock, while up ahead of us Meryl waited to punch in. When I finally detected her among everyone else, I thought it might be fun to shout out “Sarah!,” the way Jeremy Irons’s character had done at the end of The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Instead, I nudged David, tried to point at her with my nose, and mouthed the word.

We even landed in a big scene that required Mike’s attention. A crucial point in the film’s story arrives when Karen Silkwood enters the plant one morning and sets off a radiation detector. The script gave this moment extra dramatic import by showing that it frightened two workers who had come in just after her, and David and I were chosen for it. Think about it. Since 1945, much of mankind had lived in dread of “the atom,” either the bright flash and quick destruction of a bomb blast or the lurking, invisible poison of radiation. This whole movie was about that poison, how it was being handled, what it can do to people. Who could best embody the fears of humanity on the silver screen? Apparently it was David and me.

We were costumed, photographed for matching later, and sent to the set. Mike was working things out with the cinematographer, Miroslav Ondricek. The moment was going to be shot in one handheld take, from behind Karen: she turns around in surprise as an alarm sounds; tilt up to a flashing red light; pan right 180 degrees to see the security guard reaching for a phone; pan another 90 degrees to the two workers; pan back to Karen’s face. The camera, they decided, should be undercranked a little, so that the events as shown would be slightly sped up, more urgent. While Nichols and Ondricek talked, Michael Hausmann, the first assistant director, outlined to David and me what we should do when. Then it happened: Mike said, “Let me have those two guys. I need to work with them a minute.” Mike wanted to work with us! What might this lead to?

What it led to was the first A.D. telling him, “Don’t worry. I handled it.”

Me (in rear, with hair) and my friend David Seeley in a crucial moment in Silkwood. (Photographed from a TV screen with a Contax i4R; original cinematography by Miroslav Ondricek.)

Me (in rear, with hair) and my friend David Seeley in a crucial moment in Silkwood. (Photographed from a TV screen with a Contax i4R; original cinematography by Miroslav Ondricek.)

We did a run-through or two, then the camera rolled. We all nailed it on the first take, but they filmed it once or twice again, just to be sure. The moment turned out well—so well that it was used in the trailer for the movie. David and I had at least another day or so of work, at a paper factory in Bedford, where exterior shots representing a parking lot outside the Kerr-McGee plant were done. David’s car got to play a role there, because it was old enough to fit the period.

Silkwood, unsurprisingly, wasn’t released on TV after all. The film had a limited theatrical release in December 1983 and opened wider in January. It was nominated for a handful of awards; Cher won a Golden Globe and began a second career as an actress. David was eventually able to buy a better car, and I co-hosted a public-access cable show. Mike may have had his regrets, though. He accomplished a lot after that, but he never got another chance to work with us.

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