“The wolf passed along something to me,
a scrap of its spirit,
in my blood or something.
I don’t know what it is.
I’m just… different.
– Will Randall
Will Randall, a Manhattan book editor haunted by fears of losing his job, drives absently along a remote country road one snowy Sunday night.
Suddenly, he’s forced to slam on his brakes as a dark figure looms for an instant ahead. There is a jolt, and his car skids off to the side of the road. He emerges, cautiously, and follows a thin trail
of blood which leads through the snow to a great dark wolf. Will can’t see it at first, but the beast is alive. As it rises to escape into the night, it bites turn on the wrist.
From this moment on, Will’s life begins to change. The transformation is subtle at first, as his senses become more acute and his perceptions of those around him sharpen. With each passing day he is drawn deeper into the mystical feral spirit of the wolf. For Will Randall, nothing — not his job, not his marriage, not any part of his life — will ever be the same again.
Jack Nicholson stars as Will Randall in Mike Nichols’ “Wolf,” a romantic thriller and contemporary tale of the supernatural. Also starring are Michelle Pfeiffer (as the one woman who gets close to Will), James Spader (as his colleague), Kate Nelligan (as his wife) and Christopher Plummer (as his unforgiving employer). The screenplay is written by Jim Harrison (Sundog, Legends of the Fall) and Wesley Strick. Douglas Wick is producer, with Neil Machlis and Robert Greenhut as executive producers. “Wolf’ is released by Columbia Pictures. Producer Douglas Wick seized on the idea of “Wolf’ when Jim Harrison first mentioned it to him. At that time, Harrison was merely considering the concept He and Wick spent a year shaping the impulse into a story. Wick nurtured the project, developing it for Harrison’s old friend Jack Nicholson and bringing in Mike Nichols as director.
“Jim Harrison works deep from his gut,” explains Wick. “Mike Nichols reached in there, grabbed hold of this powerful impulse and pulled it into the light of day.”
Harrison says that the seed for “Wolf” was planted over fifteen years ago, when his youngest daughter, Anna, challenged him to write something that would frighten her. “This is positive,” he says,
“as I have a very large image pool in my brain of things that might do the job.” One night in his cabin in Michigan’s upper peninsula, Harrison himself suffered what he terms “a modest attack of lycanthropy” (the delusion that one has become a wolf). “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 twenty minutes. My dogs didn’t forgive me for a week. It was not pleasant and not something I particularly want to experience again.”
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refrain from telling your readers or viewers about what happens in the third act of
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ABOUT THE PRODUCTION…
It was the Kafka-esque aspect of “Wolf’ that first appealed to Mike Nichols. “Like ‘Metamorphosis,’ this is a poetic expression of an inner state,” Nichols says. “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. There’s also the idea that, on the other side of such a horror, there is something that isn’t necessarily only dark, that endings aren’t necessarily endings, and metamorphoses and changes aren’t necessarily only bad.”
Nichols sees “Wolf” as transcending the horror genre. “I think of it more as an adventure picture,” he says. “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, and finally, the price that’s paid for that; the great price. I think 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.”
Nichols stresses that 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’s dark, frightening.
“This is a time in which there are terrible diseases, 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. ‘Wolf’ is not an AIDS metaphor, but it is about a world in which uncontrollable things are happening to people, and our need to deal with this on a spiritual level, and to find some honor, within the horror.”
Jack Nicholson concurs: “I think what we’ve tried to do with this script is to eliminate any of those kinds of value judgments as to whether Will is better, off as a wolf. You know, there are good wolves and bad wolves. Mike and I discussed that point at great length. 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.”
Nicholson has always been intrigued by the idea of playing a werewolf. “I had an idea that I wanted to do for years,” he says. “This was back before the new special effects revolution. I wanted to call it ‘Wolfman, No Makeup.’ I wanted to do these old-time tricks–you know, fall down behind the couch, come up with a beard, all that stuff. I’d always had that idea in my mind, and then Jim Harrison had a personal experience involving lycanthropy. We got to talking about it, and he sent me
the treatment for ‘Wolf.’ That was about three, four, five years ago.”
Nicholson’s research for “Wolf’ involved “reading a lot of books on wolves, and watching a lot of films and tape on their behavior. I did not go out and live with wolves. One of my neighbors actually had a wolf, a young she-wolf, and I watched it. I watched my dog teach it to swim. When it really started to grow, and to reach the stage where you really had to keep an eye on it, they had to get rid of it. They’re still wild animals.”
For Nichols, “It’s impossible to imagine this picture without Jack. The difference between Jack and other actors–between Jack and other men–is that his ‘underneath’ is on the surface. He’s always Jack–uncensored, uncontrolled. Because his nature is largely a sweet one, it’s very pleasing, but also the darker parts of him are not hidden. He’s kind of a walking id. At the same time he’s a very sophisticated person. It’s not that he’s a wild man, it’s that his nature is absolutely free. And yet he’s very much concerned about the feelings of other people, and that’s the kind of wolf that he becomes.
He’s a wolf of delicacy and sensibility, not a mad creature roaming the night and tearing throats out.”
Nicholson also says that this is a highly contemporary take on a theme that is the stuff of modern legend. “There is a specific classical mythology about this subject that we can’t help but draw on; we use variations on particular themes. But most of the classic werewolf movies were made in the 1940s, when the sexual components had to be neutralized. The myth of the werewolf is a sexual myth: Eventually, he kills the one he loves. Laura is the one who is in the most danger from Will.”
It is Laura Alden (played by Michelle Pfeiffer) who understands Will, and who offers him her love regardless of the consequences. She is the daughter of Will’s unscrupulous publishing magnate boss, Alden (played by Christopher Plummer). “Laura has always been the outcast, the black sheep within her family,” Pfeiffer says. “And I think that the wildness within her is attracted to the newfound wildness in Will. She’s used to caring for wounded animals in her life, metaphorically spealcing, and I think that Will is another wounded animal. That’s how she cares for him, and it comes as a complete surprise to her.”
“I think that Laura is somebody who, all her life, has had all the things that other people are supposed to want,” says Nichols. “But in reality she’s so unhappy. She’s never been able to make anything work to her satisfaction. So she’s drawn to powerful experiences. Beneath the surface of her princess’ life are tragedy and despair. She also has a sense, as Will does, that in some way the world is ending. And she’s deeply pained by the cruelty of the world, and the suffering of its victims. When she meets Will, she’s very touched by his pain and openness, and also by his sense of defeat, because she also feels defeated. As he begins to feel empowered, revitalized as a new creature, she’s more and more drawn to him. Until now, she has not met anyone to match the subterranean expansiveness of her nature.”
“Wolf” marks a reunion for Mike Nichols and Jack Nicholson, who have worked together on three films previously: “Carnal Knowledge” (1971), “The Fortune” (1975) and “Heartburn” (1986). In addition, Nichols once again chose some of his favorite behind-the-scenes collaborators: costume designer Ann Roth, who has done every Nichols film since “Silkwood,” director of photography Giuseppe Rotunno, A.S.C. (“Carnal Knowledge,” “Regarding Henry”) and editor Sam O’Steen, who numbers all but one of Nichols’ films in his credits. Producer Douglas Wick (“Working Girl”) and executive producers Neil Machlis (“Postcards from the Edge”) and Robert Greenhut (“Working Girl,” “Postcards from the Edge,” “Regarding Henry”) completed the list of longtime Nichols colleagues.
New York, the city in which Nichols makes his home, has played an integral part in many of his films. The 1993 New York he depicts in “Wolf” is “literally, physically falling apart–the streets, the buildings, the plumbing, the sewer system, the infrastructure. This is a time when things are both disintegrating and changing.” To aid him in creating the realm of menace and nightmare that surrounds Will Randall, Nichols hired Bo Welch as production designer. Welch designed the memorable fantasy worlds of many of Tim Burton’s films, including “Beetlejuice,” “Batman Returns” and “Edward Scissorhands.”
“The basic look of ‘Wolf’ changes according to the changing perceptions of Will Randall,” says Welch. “The film begins in a sort of anemic world where people have ignored their animal nature and are not doing as well as they’d like. In these scenes, New York City appears dull, decayed and monochromatic—we withheld most of the color and life from it. We also emphasized images of containment–bars, grids and fences. But the question is: Who is caged and who is free? If you’re not
in touch with the animal within, you are, in effect, a caged beast.
“After Will begins changing, the things he sees have a heightened quality–his apartment becomes even more claustrophobic and cluttered, the ceiling becomes lower, the bar and grid motifs are more apparent, the walls close in. MacLeish House, the publishing company where Will works, is extremely cluttered with books and paper. Will’s own office is tiny, and the colors are flat, brown and depressing.”
To create the interior of the MacLeish House publishing company, the filmmakers used Los Angeles’ landmark Bradbury Building, a stunning light-filled atrium of glass, ironwork and marble that has just celebrated its 100th birthday with a striking restoration. “The ironwork suggests a zoo or prison to me,” Welch says. “For all the Bradbury Building’s beauty, it is depicted in the film as a fancy jail.”
In sharp contrast to this is Alden Manor, set on rambling grounds and surrounded by deep woods. It is here that Will feels most alive, and where he finds Laura, who becomes his salvation.
For these scenes, the “Wolf” company spent a month on location at Old Westbury Gardens in Westbury, Long Island. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, this 1906 estate was the former home of railroad magnate John S. Phipps and his wife Margarita Grace Phipps. It was designed by the English architect George A. Crawley in the Charles II style and is surrounded by 88 acres of formal gardens, tree-lined walks, grand allees, ponds, statuary. and architectural follies. It served as the perfect embodiment of Alden’s “old-money” status and, with its broad, open perspectives, emphasized the freedom Will begins to feel when he finds himself confronting nature.
The extended scenes taking place in and around Laura’s cottage and the stables were filmed on Stage 27 at Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City, CA. Nearly a month was spent carefully choreographing and filming the climax of “Wolf” on a detailed outdoor set Welch conceived and created, which took up the entire stage. Filled with real evergreens, the stage bore the aroma of the Great Outdoors. Cast and crew began referring to Stage 27 as “the Christmas tree lot.”
Following a precedent set by Spencer Tracy in “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (1941), Jack, Nicholson chose to use minimal makeup in depicting Will’s transformation, relying instead on his skill as an actor to show the beast within. Only at the film’s climax is Will seen as a fully transformed wolf. Academy Award®-winner Rick Baker designed this special make-up. “Jack’s full preparation time was only two hours,” says Baker. “As Jack’s face is already fairly angular, all he needed to sharpen his features was a rubber prosthesis at the top of his nose, between the eyes.”
The first medical dictionary ever published in the English language, Stephen Blancard’s A Physical Dictionaty (1684), includes this entry: “Lycanthropia: a Madness proceeding from a Mad wolf, wherein Men imitate the howling of Wolves.” Other descriptions of lycanthropy date back at least as far as the writings of Marcellus of Side, who died in 161 AD. As a psychiatric disorder, lycanthropy is still very much with us. French psychiatrist Michel Benezech, an authority on lycanthropy, reported the case of a 28-year-old lycanthropic murderer in 1989. “Monsieur A” described his own symptoms: “It’s when I was bitten by a rabid dog.. .When I’m emotionally upset, I feel as if I’m turning into something else.. .1 get the feeling I’m becoming a wolf. I look at myself in the mirror and I witness my transformation. It’s no longer my face; it changes completely. I stare, my pupils dilate, and I feel as if hairs are growing all over my body, as if my teeth are getting longer…I feel as if
my skin is no longer mine.”
Harrison notes: “Lycanthropy tended to arise as a phenomenon during historical periods of extreme suppression of natural instincts. Like right now. The idea for ‘Wolf springs from Native American stories about men turning into animals, and also from children’s stories with similar themes.
[French philosopher Michel] Foucault, too, inspired it–the fact that modern man feels nervous, because we all live in a zoo. Sometimes to get out of this zoo, one needs to go to any lengths. For obvious reasons, this idea appeals to Alpha-type males under serious pressure.”