Jack Cries Wolf

MAYBE ONE OF THE REASONS "Wolf" turned out so well is that it wasn't hatched in the usual high-concept Hollywood way. Did you see those "Dracula" grosses? If vampires work, why not werewolves? I got it-Jack with fangs! The stylish and resonant finished film does have Nicholson with fangs, but unlike most werewolf movies, there's conviction in every detailed step of the journey. It's the story of married New York book editor Will Randall, who, bitten by a wolf, begins a subtle and terrifying transformation that changes his life for both good and evil-the good being a passionate. dangerous affair with Michelle Pfeiffer.

In fact, the germ of the idea started, 12 years ago, in the temporarily tortured mind of novelist/poet Jim Harrison, who had his own bona fide lycanthropic moment. It was an appropriately dark and stormy night in the Michigan backwoods. where the gruff, burly, gap-toothed writer had been holed up in his cabin for weeks, feeling powerfully antisocial. "I didn't want to see anybody." he recalls in his tobacco-aided growl. "And I saw car lights coming. I went into this incredible rage." He leapt out of bed, banged his scalp on deer antlers that were higher than he could have humanly jumped, tore the back doors off their frames and "scooted around in the wilderness. There, was something inside me."

Harrison, who happens to count Jack Nicholson among his closest friends, didn't think about the incident as material. But many years later, returning from Montana on a plane with producer Douglas Wick, the two men got to talking over Bloody Marys about human wildness, and Harrison told him his story. Wick, who had produced Mike Nichols's "Working Girl," thought it would make a movie. "I didn't see it," Harrison recalls. "I didn't even think about it for another year or so."

But two years later he'd written a first draft, and flew off to Paris where his pal Jack was "hanging out." Nicholson read it overnight and was intrigued: Harrison contacted Wick, and the actor presented the producer with a list of five acceptable directors: Kubrick, Bertolucci, Polanski, Peter Weir and Mike Nichols. Nichols was the obvious man for Wick to turn to, because they'd worked together before. He thought Nichols could strike a balance "between these incredibly operatic night things and these minutely observed day things."

Newsweek subscription offers >

Though it was a stretch for the director, who had never made violent genre movies, he was drawn to the people involved. He'd worked with Nicholson on "Carnal Knowledge" and "Heartburn." And he knew and admired Harrison as a "unique contradiction: he has the soul of Emily Dickinson in the body of a bear." This story of a defeated middle-aged man revivified by the soul of a wolf struck a chord in the 62-year-old director. What he, Nicholson and Harrison shared was a view of themselves as "old guys" in a changing world, "old guys who are spiritually young guys and whose libidos are those of young guys, who still think they're young guys." For Nichols, it was a story of a man who loses his humanity, but he wanted to show that after this disaster befalls the hero, there is still hope.

With Columbia's money funding the project, these friends started to hammer out a script, and the troubles began. It was the beginning of a two-and-a-half-year ordeal that led Nichols to say "Wolf" was "like Vietnam -I can't pull out." Harrison laughs wheezily about that quote: "Mike would sacrifice everything in the world for one f---ing witticism."

The core problem boiled down to a philosophical dispute between the rugged, romantic country boy Harrison and the urbane, skeptical city boy Nichols. For Harrison, who believes that civilization breaks men's spirits, the werewolf story was a tale of liberation. Inspired by Native American lore, he felt the soul of the wolf entered Will to heal his spirit. Nichols was not comfortable with this back-to-nature piety; to him it smacked of sentimentality and trendiness. As Nicholson tersely explains it: "It's one guy who thinks it's very nice to turn into a wolf, and another guy who thinks you lose your humanity if you do."

Harrison wrote five drafts of the script before tossing in the towel, fed up with the eternal rewrites. It was at this point that Nichols wanted to quit himself. "I just don't think I can do this," he told Wick. But Nicholson persuaded him to stick with it. Wesley Strick, who wrote "Cape Fear," was brought in to find an architecture to contain Harrison's sprawling, mythic vision. "His job was to Nichols-ize Harrison's script," explains producer Wick. Even Harrison now admits his drafts were unwieldy, realizing that his own version would have resulted in "a three-hour Gothic horror movie with blood coming off the f---ing walls." Meanwhile, Columbia's anxiety was mounting. "The studio was always calling and saying, 'There's a lot of sex and violence in it, right?"' recalls Strick. "And we're still trying to figure out what 'it' is!"

Newsweek subscription offers >

Harrison and Strick share screen credit on the completed film, but the writer who ultimately saved the day-and prevented "Wolf " from collapsing was Nichols's old friend and performing partner Elaine May. Though she was heftily paid for her rewrite, she didn't take a credit. "It's like some Taoist thing with her," Harrison speculates. "Very mysterious. Come in, do the work, take the money, leave no tracks."

May's first task was to beef up Laura Alden, the woman who falls in love with wolfman Will. Michelle Pfeiffer had turned down the role; there was no character to sink her teeth into. (Laura was initially a vet by profession, but as written, she was just "the girl.") After May turned her into a tough rich-girl waif with a tragic past, Pfeiffer signed on. Nichols had reset the story in the publishing world, and May nailed down the specifies of that heady milieu. One of the first lines she wrote, a throwaway bit of party chatter, got cut out, but it set the appropriately heartless tone: "At first I thought, Not another Holocaust book, but it's selling, it's selling."

With May aboard, Nichols finally felt in control of the movie. "She and I share a sense of satire about modern life, and I knew that we could coax that out of the material. It needed that edge." In the end, Nichols says, "there are very few scenes she didn't have a hand in, just as there are very few scenes that aren't really Jim Harrison's heart and soul."

Throughout the battles and bruised egos, everything rested on Nicholson's commitment. He was the bait that kept Columbia's money on the table. But he had an old loyalty to Harrison. "Jack made it clear that he wasn't going to do the movie unless I liked the script," Harrison said. "You know, he has that sort of completely improbable fidelity to his friends." Luckily, Harrison was pleased with the rewrites. "There is no movie without Jack," Wick states. Then he adds, "The difference between lack and a wolf is not all that great."

Nicholson just saw the finished film, and a friend describes his reaction, interestingly, as "over the moon." Where did Jack fall in the great man vs. beast debate that almost tore "Wolf" limb from limb? "I'm pretty big on human beings, you know. I rap on a table and say, 'Do you know how to make glass? Can you build a house?' You have to give a lot of credit to what human beings can accomplish. We have enough animal in us already."

Harrison, the man who started it all, remains unreconstructed. "I've seen the best the white world can offer," he says cheerfully. "I could quite happily become a wolf."

WEREWOLF MOVIES, EVEN THE tackiest ones, ripple with primal resonance. Give us a full moon, feral fags and a furry guy howling in the dark, and you've got a perfect snapshot of a Homo sapiens in the grip of his darkest atavistic suspicion: underneath this thin windbreaker of civilization, I'm a raging beast!

From "The Werewolf" in 1913 through "I Was a Teenage Werewolf" (1957) to "An American Werewolf in London" (1981), this turf has been endlessly plowed. The dark beauty of Mike Nichols's Wolf is that it manages to seduce us afresh, taking dreamlike advantage of our deja vu. Spiked with social satire, strategic jolts of horror and a "Beauty and the Beast" romanticism that owes more to Cocteau than Disney, it recasts a too-familiar story in a literate, contemporary idiom. This is a werewolf movie for adults: it's got sophisticated teeth.

It's also got Jack Nicholson, who was born with a beastly glint in his eye. Playing a civilized, mild-mannered book editor, Will Randall, he's a man of "taste and individuality"-two distinct liabilities in the mid-'90s world of corporate publishing. His company has been swallowed by a voracious conglomerate headed by Christopher Plummer, and he's about to be replaced as editor in chief by his young, ruthless protege (the hilariously smarmy James Spader).

But suddenly this diffident fellow feels invigorated, impassioned, vengeful. Horses freak when he approaches. Can it be the result of the wolf bite on the wrist he got on a dark Vermont country road? How else to explain his inhumanly acute sense of smell, of hearing- and the feral brilliance of his scheme to get his old job back? It is one of the droller conceits of the script - written by Jim Harrison, Wesley Strick and an uncredited Elaine May-that to succeed in the new corporate New York world it can only help to be an animal.

Nichols and an impeccable cast bring this treacherously urbane milieu to life in swift, sure strokes, blanketed in cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno's inky chiaroscuro. And when Michelle Pfeiffer's Laura Alden enters the tale--she's the moody, neurotic daughter of Plummer's magnate-- the writing loses none of its edge. As Will's newfound libido gets unleashed-not to mention his nocturnal forays in pursuit of raw meat-"Wolf" smoothly shifts into high romantic gear. This is dangerous dramatic stuff--the slightest inappropriate titter and the whole house of cards collapses -but Nicholson and Pfeiffer navigate with hushed conviction. When we laugh-and we do-it's only when they want us to. Will's lycanthropic metamorphosis -and his own tom response to it -has a resonant ambiguity. He's both terrified of his own savagery and liberated by it. He's like a junkie in the grip of a passionate high, knowing he's destroying himself and unable to stop.

"Wolf" only loses its eerie sure-footedness at the end, when it gives in to the the genre and settles for chases, leaps and fights. This isn't Nichols's strength, and it's the only part of the movie that feels mundane. There's a final twist that doesn't quite deliver all it should. But such is the spell that "Wolf" has cast-like being draped in a voluptuous, smartly tailored cloak that you don't want it to end. From such a seductive nightmare, who'd want to wake?

Jack Cries Wolf | News