Berlin Audiences Flock to Nichols' Wit

BERLIN — Mike Nichols came to the Berlin Film Festival with his new film, Wit, a sobering pic starring Emma Thompson as a terminal cancer patient, but his visit wasn't solely work-related.

Nichols was born in Berlin in 1931, but his parents fled the country's Nazi rule in 1938, moving the family to New York. When asked about returning to his homeland, the director of The Graduate — who was born Michael Igor Peschkowsky — said, "I haven't had a chance to be in Berlin [since childhood]. It's more coming back to the Four Seasons Hotel. I'm staying an extra day, and I want to visit my birthplace."

Wit, based on Margaret Edson's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama about a college professor's battle with ovarian cancer, premieres on HBO in March but will have a theatrical release overseas. High demand for the film's world premiere prompted festival officials to add an extra screening Friday night.

Nichols, a filmmaker who soared in the '60s, was asked if he ever feels out of place in 21st-century Hollywood. "It's not [because] they don't want us that we're doing TV," he said cheerfully. "I am doing a studio movie — it's only taking us a long time. There are several things I want to do for TV, and in our country, HBO isn't exactly TV. They have great freedom and a lot of money to spend, too. They're interested in a lot of things."

But since Wit bows on TV, it renders Thompson, who shaved her head for the part, ineligible for Oscar consideration. "I don't think her heart will break," Nichols responded.

Reteaming With Robin Nichols' next studio production is a remake of Kind Hearts and Coronets, the well-regarded British comedy that featured the late Sir Alec Guinness in numerous roles. Robin Williams is set to star in the film, while Nichols' first comedic partner (and his The Birdcage collaborator), Elaine May, is working on the screenplay.

How did Nichols get Williams, who starred in 1996's The Birdcage (an update of the French farce La Cage aux Folles), get the actor to consider a second remake? "He's the only actor in the world who can play seven people," Nichols noted. "You should have seen him in the reading. It's not the easiest thing for him to do a woman, but he'll be a Romanian gymnast over 21."

Reiner's Runner-up Not many directors would be secure enough to point out that they were not the first choice for a project, but Nichols — whose wife, Diane Sawyer, sat attentively at the back of the room during his press conference — refused to let that moment pass.

As producer Cary Brokaw explained the history of Wit at HBO, the director interrupted by asking, "What about Rob Reiner?"

A smiling Brokaw quipped, "You don't want me to go into that, do you?"

Nichols, however, did. The producer noted that since Wit lead Thompson was a client of the William Morris agency, they asked a William Morris director — Reiner — to direct first. "I was absolutely the second choice [to direct]," a triumphant Nichols noted. "I've been promised that."

This weekend, the Berlin festival world-premieres Pierce Brosnan's Tailor of Panama, a dark comedy directed by John Boorman, and Don's Plum, the movie Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire sued to prevent anyone in North America from seeing.

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