Wolf: Mike Nichols and Jack Nicholson on the Horror Movie

Every film made by Mike Nichols, the Oscar-winner director of such Hollywood classics as The Graduate, Silkwood, and Working Girl, is a major media event, especially if it stars Jack Nicholson, a two-time Oscar winner (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Terms of Endearment) and the most accomplished actor of his generation. Excelling in both leading and supporting roles, Nicholson recently scored a major international triumph in Columbia's court drama,
A Few Good Men, directed by Bob Reiner.

Conceived as a romantic thriller, Wolf is a contemporary tale of the supernatural. Far more ambitious in intent and execution than other horror pictures, Wolf offers a sophisticated and provocative meditation on the unknown, uncontrollable forces that often shape and even dominate our lives.

The movie's hero, played by Jack Nicholson in a restrained yet emotionally effective performance, is Will Randall, a senior editor at a New York publishing house who's haunted by fears of losing his job. One wintry night, while driving along a remote country road, will hits a wolf. Concerned that he's killed the animal, he stops his car and follows the blood trail on the snow. The beast appears to be dead, but suddenly it bites Will on the wrist and escapes.

From this fateful, quasi-mythical encounter, Will's life begins to change. At first, the transformation is subtle, but gradually his senses become much more acute and his perceptions much sharper. With each passing day, Will is drawn deeper into the mysterious spirit of the wolf. Nothing–not his job, not his old marriage, not any part of his life–will ever be the same again.

From the very beginning, some four years ago, novelist Jim Harrison (Sundog, Legends of the Fall) developed the idea for his close friend, Jack Nicholson. Harrison says that the seed for Wolf was planted 15 years ago, when his youngest daughter, Anna, challenged him to write something that would really frighten her. “I have a very large image pool in my brain of things that might do the job,” he recalls, “though ultimately Wolf's story took its shape as a result of a traumatic experience.”

One night, sleeping in his cabin in Michigan's peninsula, Harrison suffered what he calls a modest attack of lycanthropy (the delusion that one has become a wolf). He recalls: “I woke up, jumped out of my bed, tore off the doors of the cabin, rubbed my hand over my face and felt fur on it. And I felt a snout. It lasted about 20 minutes. My dogs didn't forgive me for a week. It was not pleasant and not something I particularly want to experience again.”

It was this Kafkaesque aspect of the saga that first appealed to director Nichols: “Like Metamorphosis, this is a poetic expression of an inner state. It's a metaphor for the experience of becoming different from everyone else and leaving humanity behind, which is a kind of nightmare that happens to people in the middle of their lives.” Thematically, Wolf is concerned with male menopause–professional and sexual anxieties that men experience in what is known as middle-life crisis.

But Nichols emphasizes: “The movie also features the idea that, on the other side of such a horror, there is something that isn't necessarily dark. Nichols wanted to show in this picture that “Endings aren't necessarily endings and metamorphoses and changes aren't necessarily bad.”

Wolf is a rarity of film, one that will equally satisfy the aficionados of the horror-werewolf genre, particularly in the thrilling nocturnal action scenes, as well moviegoers who are attracted to the genre's more philosophical and metaphysical issues.

Nichols sees Wolf as transcending the werewolf genre. “It's the adventure of becoming something else and being empowered at first by all sorts of sensory increases and gifts and abilities you didn't have before. But it's also about the price that's paid for that the great price.” Nichols holds that “certainly some of it is horror, but I hope more of it is adventure and a journey into fantasy that may have a corollary in real life.”

For the filmmaker, Will's transformation into a wolf is not necessarily something to be envied: “Becoming a wolf is not preferable to remaining a human being. How can it be That would be a sentimental and untrue thing to say. We don't present this as a sort of desirable, 'Greenpeace' thing to happen. It is meant to be dark and frightening.”

“This is a time in which there are terrible diseases (like AIDS), and terrible things happening to people through circumstances that no one can control. Trying to make some sense of that, and find some hope within it, is also one of the impulses of the picture. At the same time, Nichols says “Wolf is not an AIDS metaphor, but it is about a world in which uncontrollable things are happening to people and about our need to deal with this on a spiritual level and to find some honor within the horror.”

Nicholson concurs: “We've tried to eliminate any of those kinds of value judgments as to whether Will is better off as a wolf. In the movie, as in life, there are good wolves and bad wolves. Neither of us wanted to make a film that says we're better off being wolves. That's not what it's about. In fact, Will resists becoming a wolf, and it's only the events of the story that make him unable to do so.”

Nicholson says he has always been intrigued by the idea of playing a werewolf. For years, he wanted to do a picture that might be called “Wolfman, No Makeup,” i.e. a film without special effects. In preparation for his demanding role, Nicholson conducted an extensive research, “reading a lot of books about wolves and watching a lot of films on their behavior.” His interpretation here is close to perfection.

It's hard to imagine Wolf without Nicholson, whom Nichols considers as the very best of his cohort. “The difference between him and other actors,” he says, “is that Jack's underneath is on the surface.” The director admires Nicholson's uncensored, uncontrolled nature, including his darker side. “He's kind of a walking id, wild and sophisticated at the same time. The wolf that he becomes is one of delicacy and sensibility, not a mad creature roaming the night and tearing throats out.”

Nicholson, too, hopes audiences will sees the movie as a highly contemporary take on a theme that is the stuff of modern legend. “There is a specific classical mythology about this subject and we use variations on particular themes.” He is quick to point out that most of the classic werewolf pictures were made in the l940s, when the sexual components had to be neutralized. But there's no denying that the myth of the werewolf is strongly sexual, for eventually, he kills the one he loves.

In this, more sexually explicit version, the love interest is embodied by Michele Pfeiffer, who plays the wild daughter of magnate (Christopher Plummer). The beautiful actress engages in a bizarre relationship, full of twists and turns, with Will, as both represent unrepressed characters who connect on a deep emotional level.

Wolf marks a reunion of Nicholson and Pfeiffer, who last co-starred in the hilarious comedy The Witches of Eastwick. The movie also reunites director Nichols with his favorite star Nicholson; they have worked together on three previous films: Carnal Knowledge (l971), The Fortune (l975), and Heartburn (l986).

The New York City of Wolf is literally and physically falling apart–the streets, the buildings, the pluming, the sewer system, the whole infrastructure. This is a time when things are both disintegrating and changing. Distinguished production designer Bo Welch, who designed the memorable fantasy worlds of Tim Burton's Beetlejuice, Batman Returns, and Edward Scissorhands, created for Wolf a world that captured effectively the menace and nightmare that surrounds Will.

The huge commercial success of Wolf in the U.S. indicates that the movie has touched a profound chord in the public, that its message is not as pessimistic as might seem on the surface. Indeed, underlying the tale is the notion that times in which things are disintegrating may also be times in which things are changing. Nichols emphasizes the issues of awakening, empowerment, and coming to terms with the unconscious as central to the film.

Made by a middle-aged writer, director, and star, Wolf is somewhat a refreshing experience in an industry increasingly dominated by young audiences. In fact, the film's villain is a ruthlessly ambitious and immoral yuppie, played by James Spader in a type of role he has excelled in the past (sex, lies and videotape).

Says Nicholson with a huge grin on his face: “Just because you're pushing 60, that doesn't mean that you have necessarily lost your vitality or meaning in your life.” The subtext of Wolf may well signal the condemnation of yuppism as a desirable life-style. And it certainly contains a healthy dosage of criticism of the tendency towards conglomeration of our most creative institutions, including the publishing world, where the movie is set.