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Interview by Robert Altman with Frank Beaver
SOURCE: "An Interview with Robert Altman," in Michigan Quarterly Review, Vol. XXII, No. 1, Winter, 1983, pp. 44-55.
In the following interview, Altman discusses the course of his career and his critical reputation.
In the Fall of 1982, film director Robert Altman visited the University of Michigan as Howard R. Marsh Professor of Journalism in the Department of Communication. He gave seminars on filmmaking, participated in workshops, and directed a stage production of Igor Stravinsky's opera The Rake's Progress for the School of Music. Frank Beaver, Professor of Communication at the University of Michigan, interviewed Altman for MQR.
[Beaver:] What attracted you to a career as a motion picture director?
[Altman:] I was a movie fan when I was a kid. I got punished many times for going into a film and not coming out, seeing it four times consecutively. I remember I had the mumps when King Kong first played at my neighborhood theater, in the early 30s. My mother was away and I told the housekeeper not to come into my room, she'd get the mumps for sure. And I snuck down to the theater with the mumps and probably contaminated the entire audience.
When I went into the Army during the second World War, I was trained in Southern California and became more a movie fan than anything else. I had a cousin who was a secretary to Myron Selznick; she said "You should be a screenwriter, your letters are so cute." So I decided I wanted to be in the movie business.
And for a brief time in the 40s and 50s you were a screenwriter.
I started writing short stories when I was overseas and when I came back I stayed in Los Angeles and wrote with another fellow. I sold a treatment called Christmas Eve for $750. That was made into a film with George Brent, Ann Harding and Randolph Scott. Then I wrote a treatment of a film called Bodyguard, with the same guy, and we sold that for $5000, but they wouldn't let me do the screenplay, even for free, and they wouldn't let me on the lot while they shot it. These were notorious B-films.
So you left Hollywood and for a time in the 50s and 60s directed documentaries in Kansas City, then network television programs. Did these experiences influence your more recent work as a feature film director?
I think every experience that you have forms you. It gets into your computer and it's there.
I always objected to the way things were done as I saw them being done. I was very rebellious and had no patience in those days. I guess I was arrogant.
Was the immediacy, the spontaneity we see in your films of the 70s due to the experiences of working in television?
Yes, I think it was the experiences with television, some of the early half-hour shows I did like Whirly Birds and U. S. Marshal. You had two and a half days, no overtime, and at the end of that time—by noon on Wednesday—the picture was finished. You couldn't shoot anymore. So we had to get everything in within that time element. There wasn't any preparation time. We had a blueprint and then everything happened spontaneously. I'd see something and say "Quick, let's get it in that way."
How did you get from television to the theatrical motion picture?
I did television for many years and I turned down a lot of motion pictures, because by the time scripts came to me they had been through all the qualified feature directors. They were usually bad scripts and I knew there was just no reason for me to do them. I got very comfortable with my failure at achieving the status of feature director. When I was in television, I was considered one of the top directors and I was offered the best assignments. I was mostly doing pilot films for new series and creating series.
The first feature I accepted was called Countdown. Warner Brothers was making a group of low-budget films in the million dollar range. They offered me about four of them, but I didn't take them. I took Countdown because it was from a book by Hank Searls called The Pilgrim Project, which I had tried to develop into a screenplay…. When I finished shooting The Pilgrim Project I was barred from the lot, because Jack Warner saw the footage and said, "That fool has people talking at the same time."
M∗A∗S∗H, made in 1969, was the film which suddenly catapulted you to international prominence. How did you come to direct that film?
I got in with a man named Don Factor and we developed a script called That Cold Day in the Park, from a short story. We arranged the financing through Commonwealth United, a small distributor, and went to Vancouver to make the film with Sandy Dennis. When I came back, M∗A∗S∗H was offered to me after fifteen or sixteen other directors had all turned it down. The producer, Ingo Preminger, saw Cold Day in its rough-cut stage and liked it very much.
I took M∗A∗S∗H, because I'd been working on another project for about five years called The Chicken and the Hawk, a comedy about World War II fliers—about the ridiculousness of death and war, and containing a large supporting cast. When I read M∗A∗S∗H, I realized I could do everything with it I intended to do with The Chicken and the Hawk. So I had five years of background preparing for M∗A∗S∗H.
M∗A∗S∗H showed you to be a superb satirist, a black humorist. Would you say that satire and black comedy are interests which have found their way into most of your feature films?
I think my outlook finds its way into all the work I do. I don't think of myself as a satirist or black humorist. You don't really use those words while you're working. But in retrospect, through my film and TV work, that does come out.
Did you intend M∗A∗S∗H to be a statement with allusions to Vietnam?
Totally! In fact, I didn't put one reference to Korea in it, and when I finished they said you have to put in the titles that it was Korea. That's when we put in the statement of Eisenhower's.
How do you feel about the long-running television series, M∗A∗S∗H?
I hate it! I deplore its existence. I think it's the most insidious propaganda. They've taken the sting out of the original concept. We made people pay for their laughs with the position that nothing could be in worse taste than people with bullets in their bodies and being blown-up. The TV show may be well acted and written and I'm sure the people are all fine craftsmen, but it oversimplifies the emotional and political issues and purports that there's an Asian war going on now and that the Asians are the enemies.
You are well known as a director who likes to approach the filmmaking process in an improvisational manner. It's even been said that once you secure the backing for a motion picture you throw the script—or partial script—away. Is this true?
I don't throw away the script. I feel the script is the sales test; it's the basic artist's rendering in an architect's building. I say, this is the script, the idea, the kind of picture I want to make, and then I try to honor what I've said and if it means deviating from those original words in order to get that effect, I'll do it.
How much of M∗A∗S∗H was created spontaneously?
I'd say 75 percent.
Can you give an example where actors made contributions to M∗A∗S∗H?
In every situation where the characters relate stories that are not important to the plot of the film. For example, when the men talk about committing suicide and come up with the idea of the "black pill." This dialogue was invented by the actors themselves. And this happened throughout M∗A∗S∗H.
Were the actors allowed to participate in building their characters?
Oh, sure. Most of the actors, Elliot Gould in particular. I purposely went to San Francisco and got improvisational theater people who could work on their feet: Carl Gottlieb and Corey Fischer and Danny Goldman. People like that who were nearly stand-up comedians.
There have also been many rumors about the spontaneous creation of Nashville—the role played by screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury and the large cast of actors in developing the script. How did Nashville get made?
Nashville was a bribe. I wanted to make Thieves Like Us and United Artists didn't. They wanted a movie about Nashville, because they had a country music company. They had a script with Tom Jones and they said if I did it, they would finance Thieves Like Us. I said I wouldn't do their script, but I would do a film about country western music, so we made the deal and we went down to Mississippi to do Thieves, for which Joan Tewkesbury did the screenplay.
I threw the Tom Jones script out and told her to go to Nashville and keep a diary. Neither of us had ever been to Nashville. She went for eleven days. The first thing that happened to her was a traffic jam after leaving the airport; she was stuck for three hours. This appears in the film at about the same time we introduce our characters. It provides an excellent way to introduce people who are in the same proximity, but don't know one another.
Years before I'd had a film idea for a similar story of people whose lives intermingled, but who never knew each other and if they had been back-to-back and turned and met, it could have changed their lives.
I used these elements in Nashville. So again, Nashville didn't just happen overnight; it came after years and years of thinking out certain kinds of ideas.
It's a structure along the lines of John Schlesinger's adaptation of Day of the Locust, which to me didn't work as well as your film.
I think the book Day of the Locust is marvelous, but there too you are dealing with specific characters who mingle and jostle in an exotic locale. To pull that off in a film you have to disguise your characters in crowds and hide them, so that they seem to just be passing through, rather than attracting your attention. We tried that with Nashville, but United Artists didn't like the final script, so we sold it to ABC which produced it.
Isn't it true that you allow your actors to draw from their personal lives—from events important to them during the making of a film—in order to shape their fictional screen characters?
I try to insist on and encourage that because there are a great deal of truths which come out, that they don't even know about. If I'm trying to show behavior patterns in a certain scene and tell Shelley Duvall, "Here, I've written this marvelous monologue about how you felt the first time you saw the Coliseum in Rome," and she's never seen the Coliseum, it's ridiculous. If these things have nothing to do with the behavior pattern I'm trying to show, I'll try to find out what impressed her and if it turns out it was the first time she flew from Dallas to Houston, I use that.
So, you strive for a kind of credibility of character, even though your films happen in a very spontaneous way?
In order for them to appear spontaneous, you must have credibility and the best way to get this to let the actors use what is natural to them, so they can get into those rotes better and express that behavior.
It seems to me that this is one of the strong elements in your films. It's mesmerizing for audiences to see Shelley Duvall in Three Women going through routines that seem so real to her and so real to us.
That's the idea of it. I try to encourage the actors to become equal as artists with everyone in the audience, because I believe they are.
Nashville concludes with the assassination of a celebrity—a country western singer. This was somewhat ominous, wasn't it? And, why that ending to a film about the entertainment world?
There has been a tot of criticism of that scene. Most people said, "Why did you have him kill the singer rather than the politician?" My answer was, "You've just answered your question." You would accept a political assassination, that is, you condone it as a part of our culture.
I believe that people commit those types of assassinations because by killing someone at that level, they rise to that level themselves. By assassinating a politician they feel there will be a lot of people who will like them for it, because they hear so much against the politician.
The country western singer, or Barbra Streisand or, as it turns out, John Lennon, is the same thing. It did happen, I'm sorry to say.
The coming together of the politician as a celebrity and other types of celebrities—until the two meld into one—was another phenomenon we were trying to deal with in Nashville.
How is Nashville representative of your cinematic interests? It seems to me that one characteristic which appears in one Altman film after another is the setting of a familiar American film genre on its ear: the so-called success story in Nashville; the western and gangster myths in McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Thieves Like Us; the romantic film in A Wedding and A Perfect Couple. Do you see yourself as a genre revisionist, as many critics have claimed?
I don't think it would have occurred to me, if I hadn't read it so much. I have never set out and thought, "What haven't I attacked?" It's not calculated. When I see what's happening in life I'm always amazed that everybody's very beautiful in a film. The best corrective to a worn-out formula is a clear vision of how people really live. I think that everybody has the same feelings. In A Perfect Couple, Marta Heflin was anorexic at the time and you'd say, 'My God, who'd want to get involved with her?" Well, the character that Paul Dooley played wanted to get involved with her. Her sense of love and feeling is certainly as real as Faye Dunaway's or Loni Anderson's or Burt Reynolds'.
One critic has called you a pessimistic modernist. Is this a fair label?
I don't know what a modernist is. I guess I'm an optimistic pessimist or a pessimistic optimist. I think that everybody is pretty much that way. People who advertise what they are, are't that at all.
People ask why in A Wedding I put in the awful car accident, because they hated it. I hated it too. It makes me sick that something like that happens, but it does. The audience reacted in the same way the families in the film did; they were crushed by it, until they found that the bride and groom weren't in the accident. The audience was uplifted and they left the theater and said, "Wait a minute! There were two people dead and we were laughing at the end of the picture." That's the point of the film; life doesn't always work out the way you'd like.
It's been widely publicized that you dreamed one of your most interesting films—Three Women. Is that true?
I dreamed that I was making the film, but I didn't dream the plot of the film. I dreamed who was in it. I'd been looking for a film for Sissy Spacek ever since she appeared in a film by Alan Rudolph called Welcome to L.A., which I produced. I love Sissy's work and I thought it would be terrific to get her and Shelley Duvall together.
So I dreamed this and the title occurred to me in the dream. I had a hard time trying to find out who the third woman was.
How is it that a film based on a dream can succeed in a country where conservation and escapism—the well-made melodrama—seem to dominate filmmaker and audience interests?
I don't think it did succeed in engaging a wide audience, for all the reasons you mentioned. People want to see the same things over and over again. They desire and get the same experiences and forget the films the minute they've left the theater. It's like doing crossword puzzles.
That's why I keep coming to universities like this and going to film festivals and places where people are interested in film, because I want to expand my audience or at least make people curious enough to want to see some of these films. They find out that it's really exciting.
Whom do you see as your primary audience and what role do you see yourself playing among American filmmakers?
I can tell you who my audience is now: a cult, and a cult isn't even enough for a minority. It's people who have seen films of mine or like mine. They don't necessarily enjoy all of them, but they are stimulated.
I don't think of one particular audience when I make a film. I'll make one film and the gay community says, "Altman's the greatest." Then the next film they say, "You double-crossed us." I don't try to reach any one audience. I feel the audience is as collective as my subject matter. I wish the whole world were my audience.
All of your work seems to generate either great praise or damnation, especially among film critics. How do you feel about the critics?
I think if there are twelve critics, they'd fit on a scale of 1 to 12. I think they're necessary and desirable. Critics give us fill space in newspapers and on television and draw attention to our work. They help communicate that a film is there and that it is playing a particular night.
I can't argue with critics about my films anymore than I can with a member of the audience. They perceive what they perceive. I think they rise and fall with the same tidal properties as the making of a film itself does.
Vincent Canby in the New York Times recently listed you among the greatest living film directors, placing you beside Akira Kurosawa, François Truffaut, and Ingmar Bergman. When you read a critical comment like that, what do you think?
I can't help but be pleased by it. No way can it not affect my ego. Stanley Kauffman once said I should be destroyed. It was funny, but I think he meant it. So, I've had equally bad things said.
I find I'm treated the same by people with like or dislike, respect or disrespect for me. I would rather have a little piece like Canby's in the paper than seventeen Academy Awards. It's nice to know you're appreciated.
What is your opinion of contemporary Hollywood?
I don't think it exists. What people perceive as Hollywood. I don't like it at all. I think it's a business; an accounting factory. It's a place that makes comic books.
Do you foresee any future for innovative filmmakers like yourself?
I see a great deal of hope for them, primarily because there are more outlets and avenues opening up all the time. Network television and the major studios in Hollywood have made this kind of art a "closed shop" for many years, and now, because of pay television, cable, art houses and an increasing interest in films in universities, that monopoly is suddenly cracking. Also, the majors and the networks have brought the level of their work so low that the average audience doesn't even follow the films anymore. They're going to lose the audience altogether.
It's been a great seedtime and I think the spirits are coming up out of the ground. It's a great time for artists.
What for you would be the ultimate motion picture experience?
This is theoretical, but I think you must use the intensity of an image and put it before a person, so you engage their attention emotionally rather than intellectually. Not that the latter shouldn't be done also; but divorce the motion picture more—get it away from theater and literature, so you can start dealing with it as an arena of feelings and emotions…. The viewer might not even be able to articulate why he felt a certain way about a cinematic experience.
I always wonder how a tiger feels when it looks up through a rain forest and there's a spectacular sunset. I wonder if he calls the other tigers and says, "Hey, look at this." I don't think that happens, but it does with people. For eons, people have been saying, "Wow, look at that sunset." That means they feel something they can't articulate. That's what a film should do.
Recently you've branched out into theater directing and now opera. What have these experiences meant to you?
They've been very challenging, but I think the work is fundamentally the same. You're taking content and through the medium of actors and images and sounds, transmitting it to an audience.
I'm glad I did it and I wish I'd done it earlier. I'm going to continue to bounce back and forth as much as I can. I think the next work I do on film will be greatly influenced by what I've done on stage.
My latest film, Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, was translated from my stage production, so it has a different look than my other films.
I've never done a film in such a linear, closed-in manner. And this was because I was adapting a stage play. I became aware during the stage production that Jimmy Dean is about the inner psychology of the women characters. So I decided to keep the film action in one location—and not open it up to exterior locations. We kept it entirely in the dimestore, as on the stage, and concentrated on the actors' faces—using the camera and closeups to give the women the poignancy that had to come through the dialogue in the theater.
You seem to be at a new juncture in your career—to be moving in new directions, creatively and geographically. At this point in your life and career how do you personally assess the total body of your work?
I've been very happy and I don't consider I've ever had a failure. All the films are what we set out to do. I feel very emotional and warm about the people I've worked with and I think I probably stole a lot more of the spotlight and thunder than I deserved and they less. But, these people realize that too and they seem content. None of us is looking for great recognition. If I had a choice that when a film was released they would put someone else's name on it, I'd jump at the chance to hide my authorship. I don't believe I would have done that twenty years ago, but now I believe the work is the most important thing.
More important than that, is doing the work. When we finish the opera, I'm off to two other things and that's where my energy and ideas will go.
So work is what you live your life for?
Yes, it's the most pleasure that I have. It's the feeling of being worn-out at the end of the day and knowing that you've accomplished what you set out to do. It's back to the sandcastle syndrome. Buying a sandcastle for your kid doesn't mean anything; they have to build it themselves and it washes away. I think that's what's going to happen to all of this.
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