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Altman lang syne

Had he just made those movies that came out between 1970 and 1975, Robert Altman would still rank as one of the world’s great directors. Maybe even greater because then he wouldn’t have turned out such clunkers as “Dr. T. and the Women.” (Okay, so we wouldn’t have had “Short Cuts” or “The Player” either). The recent retrospective at the Brattle Theatre, “Robert Altman’s 70s,” reminds me of the late director’s amazing creative outpouring  during that period of eight masterpieces, from “M*A*S*H”(1970)  to “Nashville” (1975,) and how, at the time, we took it for granted that it would just go on forever.

It came to a stop on November 20. Sadly, his last film, “A Prairie Home Companion,” scripted by and starring Garrison Keillor and adapted from Keillor’s radio show, wasn’t his best (has any American director finished his career on a high note except for John Huston with “The Dead?”). But it may have been his spookiest, what with the plot hinging on the show’s last broadcast and Virginia Madsen as the Angel of Death prowling around backstage.

Last April I was fortunate enough to talk with Altman about that film, his career, the state of Hollywood and the Lifetime Achievement Award he just got at the recent Oscar show, at which he stunned everyone by casually noting he had a heart transplant done eleven years before.

Here’s a transcript of our conversation. If memory serves me right I was kind of stupid that day and he was kind of grumpy. So at times it reads like the disjointed, overlapping dialogue of one of his lesser movies. Had I known he was a goner maybe I'd come up with different questions. Who knows about these things? So not the gest interview, but, like the movie, kind of spooky.


Q: Do you listen to the radio yourself anymore?

A: Yeah. I listen to the radio more than I watch television.

Q: Do you listen to the talk shows?

A: I listen to a lot of NPR. I just listen to radio, I like radio. I grew up on it and my first professional job was writing an episode of a thing called  “The Man Called X” with Herbert Marshall. Norman Corwin was my idol.

Q: Wasn’t the Oscar winner for Best Short Documentary [“A Note of Triumph: the Golden Age of Norman Corwin”] was about him?

A: About him, his work. The piece after the war....was just a genius piece of work. I talked to him just a couple of days ago. He’s in his 90-s now. Shit, I’m almost in my 90s, I don’t have much further to go.

Q: You said at the Oscars that you have another 30 or 40 years.

A: But nobody else knows that, thinks that. Because they didn’t know that I have this young heart.

Q: That was kind of a shock for people. Anybody know about it before that?

A: Oh, a few people, but not generally.

Q: Why did you choose that as an occasion to....

A: Well, I’d done it 11 years ago. And I didn’t want it known then, because there’s such a stigma connected to it. I was 70. And I thought maybe people wouldn’t hire me. But it just fell into place and I thought well, it isn’t going to affect me now. And I think it’s important to get that stigma behind us and know you can have these, these body parts can be almost harvested and replaced and there’s no, I can’t tell you how many 1000s of heart transplants around the world and they hardly lose anyone. I was the oldest person when I got mine, that they would give them to because they didn’t want to waste the hearts. But most heart transplants go to young people, teenagers, people who have really defective tickers.

Q: Do you know anything about the person who was the donor?

A: A young woman from Seattle, I think, or Portland. I think it was a woman. They won’t tell you much.

Q: Did you have curiosity?

A: Ah, mezzo-mezzo.

Q: Sounds like a movie!

A: A bad movie, because where do you go from there? The work I have done since then, it has no effect on my brain....

Q: Has it touched into your feminine side?

A: I’ve always had my feminine side.

Q: I was looking at your filmography and there doesn’t seem much of a gap…what was it 12 years ago?

A: The last film with the old heart was “Kansas City” and then I did “Gingerbread Man.”

Q: An underrated film....

A: “Gingerbread Man?” Yeah, I thought it was a good thriller...

Q: That wasn’t your cut?

A: Yeah....everything is my cut.

Q: There is the legend that you have an atagonistic relationship with your screenwriters sometimes..?

A: Well, that happens. That’s a general given. Because the screenwriter, they write the thing and they have their picture. And then when somebody suddenly takes it and makes it into a picture and it isn’t what they saw — it’s what I saw — it kind of confuses the issue a little, no one knows what position to take. And there’s too much put on the director and screenwriter and actors. The actors are the main force in my movies. The screenplay is sometimes very important, sometimes not important at all. It changes.

Q: With the screenwriter also being one of the main did that work?

A: I didn’t think much about it, we did it. And he had mixed emotions because he was in it, plus he was the writer and kind of the creator. I was calling the shots. So there was a little, I don’t quite know what our realtionship was.....

Q: Creative tension.

A: Yeah.

Q: He’s seen it...

A: Yes.

Q: And happy with it...

A: Yes, I think he’s really happy with it.

Q: And you’re happy with it.

A: I’m extremely happy with it.

Q: Are you more happy with this than other films?

A: Different strokes for different folks.....different film....

Q: So you’re happy with every film you make.

A: Yes, sir.

Q: You wouldn’t do qualitatively, this one is better than another?

A: Do you have any children?

Q: No I don’t.

A: Well, that’s the question, which of your children do you like the most.

Q: So you have 30 children at least.

A: Almost 40.

Q: At the same time you just finished a play in London…

A: Well the play closes in two weeks.

Q: So you did that after you did the film?

A: Oh yeah.

Q: So you did a film about a stage play and then you did a stage play. Is that confusing?

A: It’s all part of the same...

Q: “Resurrection Blues?”

A: The critics were terrible, but it was great. I had a wonderful time. Great cast and very happy and proud of it.

Q: One thing that struck me about this film is that there were no audience reaction shots in the film. Is that deliberate?

A: It was radio. The audience was part of the show and no more than what you saw, so there was no point in showing the radio reaction.

Q: I kept thinking about the Bergman version of “The Magic Flute” where he would always cut to the enchanted little girl, which I thought was a mistake....

A: That’s a different film. Kenneth Branagh is doing that film right now.

Q: I was talking to a friend of mine who has a much better memory of films than I do and I asked if he remembers seeing a flashback in any of your movies. He couldn’t think of any. And it seems like...

A:Is that true?

Q: You don’t believe in flashbacks....?

A: Yeah. I’m sure you’re wrong, I’m sure I’ve done a flashback....or interrupted time or flashforward or whatever. But I don’t think of that as....shit happens.

Q: Speaking of shit happens....plot doesn’t seems to be your priority when putting together a film.

A: Not for me.

Q: As in your film “The Company,” which probaly had less plot than this. How do you approach narrative?

A: I just do what occurs to me really. And there was ....I don’t think about it.

Q: Kind of like Mike Leigh?.

A: Not as much as Mike does...he really makes it up as he goes along.....but they really do a lot of that ahead of time. Rehearsals. Long, long rehearsal, weeks. And they develop the script from that. I’m a big fan of his, I think he’s as good as it gets.

Q: So you don’t believe in rehearsals?

A: No.

Q: 25 days shooting for this?

A: 23! We were ahead of time. It was a good experience.

Q: You had PT Anderson serve as your backup?

A: As my shadow.

Q: Is he kind of an acolyte of yours?

A: I wouldn’t say that, it might be the other way. He’s paid attention to my work and I’d have him as standby...and his girl [Maya Rudolph], she’s in the picture....and his daughter [Rudolph was regnant in the film]....not born yet. So he was the perfect guy to do this. Stephen Frears did this for “Gosford Park.”.I don’t think I had anything for “Company....I guess they just thought if I croak they’s just shut the picture down.

Q: Would you say he’s one of the more promising directors?

A: Anderson? Oh yeah, he’s ahead of that, I think he’s very...the piece [“There Will Be Blood”] //’s about to do this fall with Daniel Day-Lewis, it’s more conventional, oil rigs in the 20s, Sinclair Lewis piece. He drew this out of. “Oil?” Wasn’t that the book? We don’t talk about these things, he’s a good friend of mine, we’ll have dinner in New York. But we won’t talk about his film. What is there that I can talk about? I haven’t seen it! And he hasn’t made it. But I’m a big fan of his.

Q: Alan Rudolph is another....

A: Alan Rudolph I’m a big fan, I love his work. And he’s had a tough time, all these guys have.

Q: You’re the maverick filmmaker who beat the system.

A: Well the system beat itself, they just....incest will eventually defeat it, there’s just too much incest at the studios and you have to do this and this and this and this. You gotta use this star and you can’t use anybody else because she’s gotta be in every scene. It’s all out of whack.  I did a film with only one actor: “Secret Honor,” Philip Baker Hall, who was also PT Anderson’s actor, as was John C Reilly, in Anderson’s first picture, “Hard Eight.”

Q: This incest will undo the system?

A: It will occur. Just look at the popular films last year, were all special....”Brokeback Mountain,”  “Capote,” “Crash”.....”Crash,” I’m not a big fan. I did that 25 years ago. That surprised me. But anyway, it’s all the same trip, I can’t erase the last film and can’t erase the next one.

Q: I’m not a big fan of “Crash,” I thought it was very contrived, and “Syriana” also, but isn’t it encouraging that people are becoming accepting of that kind...?

A: Oh yeah. I love it. “Short Cuts” would be “Duck Soup” these days.

Q: There’s a short of an elegiac tone in this film. The Angel of Death appears. Is there a conscious...?

A: Well this is Garrison’s script....he’s the one feeling mortal....I’m not. But eventually we all go, so....

  • Grasshopperus said:


    Thanks for the insight and the interview.

    You mentioned directors going out on a high note. I'd have to offer Stanley Kubrick and "Eyes Wide Shut" (unless you want to call "A.I." on some kind of technical). I can't remember if you were a fan or not.

    February 1, 2007 8:26
  • Edmund Davis-Quinn said:

    I adored Altman's work .. especially the player and was very, very lucky to hear him and Buck Henry at a Vanity Fair event in New York.

    Another director that had a good last film would be Cecil B. Demille and "The Ten Commandments" ...

    And I quite enjoyed "A Prairie Home Companion" .. I considered it a very sweet movie.

    February 1, 2007 9:23
  • Janet said:

    Thank you fro bringing such nice posts. Your blog is always fascinating to read.

    May 16, 2007 1:13

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Peter Keough tosses away all pretenses of objectivity, good taste and sanity and writes what he damn well pleases under the guise of a film blog.

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