The Total Film Interview - Robert Altman

Tuesday 15 March, 1.30pm. New York is grinding to a halt, snowflakes pirouetting to the jarring accompaniment of blaring horns and scraping shovels. Total Film sludges across a frosty midtown Manhattan towards Robert Altman's office, Sandcastle 5 Productions, located on the ninth floor of a rundown brownstone. The murky elevator judders upwards, doors rattling open to reveal glass doors leading into a large, open-plan office. Glass desks, black leather suite, burgundy director's chair. One white wall is adorned with original one-sheets for all 37 of Altman's movies; another's splattered with 30 or 40 black-and-white photos, a 40-year career splashed over 12ft by 8ft. There's no doubting the centrepiece, though. That'll be the awards cabinet, BAFTA faces gazing down at Golden Lions tussling with Silver Bears. There's plenty of TV trinkets, too, Altman receiving handsome recognition for his work on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Maverick, Bonanza, Route 66 and Combat! during the '50s and '60s. The only thing missing, in fact, is The Big One - the renegade helmer has so far scored zero wins from seven Academy Award nominations (five for Best Director, two for Best Film). But more of that later…

Total Film is busy wiping a layer of dust off a Silver Bear when Big Bob shuffles in, plonking down behind his desk before furiously attacking his left ear with a cotton bud. "You'll have to shout because I've got an ear infection. Can't hear a damn thing," the 79-year-old director bellows. Then, to his PA: "You made that doctor's appointment yet?" "Yes Bob, it's on Thursday." Altman pulls out the bud, examines it, tries a finger instead. "Thursday? Aren't we leaving for Chicago on Thursday?" Pause. "No Bob, that's next Thursday."

Satisfied, he turns his attention to his interviewer. "So what's this all about?" The answer seems to please him. It's about everything, Bob, from your latest movie, behind-the-scenes ballet drama The Company, right back to your unlikely debut, space-race thriller Countdown. It's about critical smashes like M*A*S*H, Nashville and Short Cuts, but it's also about Popeye and Prêt-à-Porter. It's about liberating cinema with interweaving plots, vast ensemble casts, overlapping sound and zoom lenses… And it's about the no-thrills stage adaptations shot on a single set. Hell, it's even about flying bombing raids over Southeast Asia during World War Two, long before you cut your cinematic teeth on industrials and 150 hours' worth of TV.

Altman grins, reaching for a fresh ear bud. "Then let's begin…"

The Company contains very little of your trademark satire. How come?
I didn't find much to satirise. I found those people to be noble.

Some things never change, though: you undercut the drama and show little regard for plot...
True. People have said I've underplayed the drama of the injuries, but dancers are like athletes - facing career-ending injuries is part of their profession. I dealt with it the way they deal with it: no fuss. As for plot, all the stories have been told. There're only about six or seven of them, which we've seen a billion times. In this film, I chose to start the stories - the new kid in the company, the kid with the mentor - and not finish them. Viewers can recognise the stories and finish them by themselves.

You strip away the glamour to show the pain...
I wanted to show the blood and the blisters, the girls pulling leotards out of their butts…

Malcolm McDowell, as the company's director, is always hustling for funds. Did you identify with that?
Oh, certainly. I'm doing it today - taking these pictures, doing this interview. It's all hustle. It's all about trying to get the next picture made.

You had to hustle particularly hard during the '80s...
It appears that way to you and to most people, but that was a very creative time for me. I did three or four theatre pieces with no screenplays. Making stage adaptations like Streamers and Come Back To The Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean was experimental. It was fun. For me, it was a time of success.

Yet people dismiss that period, overlooking the fact that your filmed plays are very cinematic.
Right. I made them like movies, but they took place in one space. I don't understand why people say you have to open a stage play up.

Is it a common misperception that you turned to these small-scale theatre pieces because the critical failure of Popeye burned you?
I make no apologies for Popeye. Behind M*A*S*H, it's my biggest hit. It got maligned by the critics because it wasn't Superman. It wasn't about special effects and it wasn't made for 14-year-old boys. The majority of films are made for 14-year-old boys; I don't know where they get the eight bucks to get in. It's hush money from the parents.

How about Prêt-à-Porter? Any apologies for that? Especially the running gag about stepping in dog shit...
Have you ever been to Paris? Then you've stepped in dog shit. All the dogs in Paris must eat the same food because they all shit the same colour. I was once in a restaurant there and a man was ordering a bottle of wine. Sat beside him was a dog. Around its neck was a napkin…

You've always done things your way. The only movie you lost out on was your 1968 debut, Countdown...
At the time I was making it, Jack Warner [co-founder of Warner Bros] was out of the country. Everyone else was delighted with my dailies. I was the cat's pyjamas. People were talking to me about 15 pictures down the line. Anyway, I finished shooting on a Friday night and Sunday morning I got a call at home saying, "Don't bother coming down to the studio on Monday." Jack Warner had arrived back, looked at my dailies, and proclaimed, "This fool has actors talking at the same time." I was fired and barred from the lot.

Which, in the long run, was probably a good thing!
Yeah. Had that not happened, I'd have gone on to be the fair-haired boy at Warner Bros. I'd have turned out the same shit as everyone else. I'd be on history's trash pile.

Instead you made M*A*S*H...
When M*A*S*H came to me, I was working on something called Chicken And The Hawk, a World War One farce in which people get killed. It was an expensive project, all those fucking World War One airplanes, and I knew I'd never get it made. But I realised I could achieve much the same thing with M*A*S*H.

How did the cast respond to your radical working methods? The body mics, the zooms, the manufactured chaos?
Well, Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould went to the producer and tried to get me fired. They said I was ruining their careers, that I was spending all my time with the extras. Of course, I didn't know that at the time, or I couldn't have finished the picture. I'd have quit. Elliott told me a couple of years after. I was very hurt, but very happy he'd had the courage to tell me.

And what did the 20th Century Fox honchos make of your footage?
Fox had two other wars going on in their back lot, Tora! Tora! Tora! and Patton. I knew we could get away with anything if I stayed under-budget and kept a low profile.

It now seems incredible that M*A*S*H was the third-highest grossing movie of 1970. After all, Love Story and Airport were one and two...
It didn't surprise me, because I thought that was the way it should be. I'd succeeded in doing what they'd tried - and failed - to do on Catch-22. I even had a sign up in my office: We've Caught 22!

You'd never worked with a major star until McCabe & Mrs Miller. So how did you handle Warren Beatty?
Well, he was difficult. Warren was a control freak who was used to being in charge. I woke up one morning and it was snowing, much like today, so I said, "Hey, let's do so-and-so." Warren refused to come out of his dressing room. He said, "Well, by the time we get the shots, this is all going to be gone and we'll have to redo it." I said, "We've nothing else to do. Let's just try it." It snowed for 11 straight days and we got our whole final scene.

Beatty's always been renowned for demanding multiple takes. You shoot on the hoof. Did that cause any problems?
You bet. Take the scene where McCabe is drunk and talking to himself. We did about seven takes and I said, "Okay, that's great." He said, "I want to do another one." So we did 12 or 13 takes. He said, "I want to do some more." I said, "Well, I'm going to bed because I've got an early call tomorrow." I left him with Tommy Thompson, my second-unit director. They shot 10 more [laughs].

You've always tried to flip Hollywood convention. Is that why you cut away from the love scene between Beatty and Julie Christie? After all, every studio exec wants "a little sex"...
It wasn't something I was interested in showing. Sex is very private. You don't call up the neighbours and say, "Hey, Sally and I are gonna be at it tonight. Bring a chair over and sit and watch us!"

McCabe deconstructed the Western. The Long Goodbye did much the same for the detective story. Discuss...
Everybody's seen all those films. I like them to see my film and go, "Oh, we're going to see another one of those…" Then I say, "No, you're not."

Naturally, you pissed off the Raymond Chandler purists. Did you expect the backlash?
The purists said I didn't do what Chandler did. I never intended to. What's the point of a rehash? And when people say that Elliott Gould is not a good Philip Marlowe, they're not talking about Philip Marlowe. They're talking about Humphrey Bogart.

Your movies are renowned for their use of overlapping dialogue...
I started that with M*A*S*H and continued it with McCabe & Mrs Miller. Eventually, on California Split, we made the first eight-track, so I had stuff going down on different tracks. Everybody was miked. On Gosford Park, I had 64 tracks!

Gosford Park was typical of your predilection for ensemble movies: Nashville, The Player, Short Cuts. What's the attraction?
Well, after Nashville I made A Wedding in 1978, which had about 48 characters. And I did that mechanically! The advantage of having so many characters and so many scenes is that I don't get bored. I can just cut away to something else.

How do you feel about the adjective 'Altmanesque'? It's now applied to any multi-layered movie with an ensemble cast...
I don't know what "Altmanesque" means, though I suppose I'm flattered by it. I mean, Paul Thomas Anderson openly said to me, "All I'm doing is ripping you off." But that kid Anderson is really, really talented. He's a real artist, our best hope.

Filmmaking's changed so much since your arrival in the late '60s. Any other new voices you admire?
I don't know how Fernando Meirelles made City Of God. It's so courageous, so truthful. I think it's the best picture I've ever seen - all I could think of was Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle Of Algiers. I also liked Sofia Coppola's film, Lost In Translation. It's all about nothing but it's beautifully done. I'd rather watch a movie like that than Cold Mountain. For Christ's sake, I've seen that picture about 50 times before. There's nothing there that interests me.

You were 43 when you made Countdown. You'd served on bombers during World War Two. Does that life experience help the work?
It all goes in.

So how do you feel about the new wave of MTV directors? Do you agree with Fred Ward's character in The Player: their movies are just "Cut, cut, cut"?
They serve their art as they see fit.

Do you think that the '70s could have been cinema's last Golden Age?
These things are on a cycle, but it'll probably be the last Golden Age in my lifetime. Back then, the decisions had gone from studio executives to the artists. I remember doing Brewster McCloud for some guy, I forget his name, who had just taken over MGM. It was an outrageous film about a boy who wanted to fly. This guy didn't know what the fuck I was talking about, but he went ahead and let me make it anyway.

Why have so many of your peers burned out?
Well, I don't think they've dried up, but it's easy to get into a groove or a rut. I mean, I was offered millions - millions - of dollars to do a M*A*S*H sequel… But why would I do that? It was the same with Short Cuts and Nashville. I won't be restricted. Just look what happens every time some Mexican guy goes out and makes a great film for $65,000. They bring him in, give him $65 million and Ben Affleck. He falls on his face.

Your suspicion of Hollywood brings us nicely to The Player. How did you get 60 star names to gnaw at the hand that feeds?
I picked up the phone. The more people who said yes, the easier it became. Eventually even Julia Roberts and Bruce Willis came on board!

The cast's willingness to take part must have been a tremendous validation for your career.
Yeah, it was. It certainly was.

You've since said that The Player is a soft satire. What did you mean by that?
Meaning it's not a truthful indictment of Hollywood. It's much uglier than I portrayed it, but nobody would've been interested if I'd shown just how sadistic, cruel and self-orientated it is.

On the DVD, you say something surprising: that the satire begins with you. That you, in fact, are a player too.
Well, I am. Whenever I try to sell a movie, I too have to do that whole shorthand pitch. That's the way people talk. That's the way I talk. I say, "It's gonna have that Nashville quality, but it's also gonna be like California Split." It's a fucking circus.

Do you think your reputation as a maverick could be partly responsible for the Oscar missing from your trophy cabinet?
They'll never give me an Oscar. And I sincerely, honestly don't care. I always turn up when I'm nominated and it would be nice to get one, but to win one would be bad luck. It comes with too much expectation. It would be the end.

You were nominated for Gosford Park. Is it true that you've never had more fun making a film?
Probably. Those actors were so terrific. There wasn't a single hair in the butter.

Once again, Gosford Park illustrated your disregard for plot. You didn't seem to care who had committed the crime...
You know the plot, you know the players. I don't have to explain it to you. It goes back to the McCabe thing, where I deliberately chose a clichéd story - tart with a heart, tinhorn gambler, three heavies - so I didn't have to pay attention to it. I wanted to concentrate on the background, the ambience.

You've always said that you want audiences to "feel" your films, not "follow" them or "intellectualise" them. Is The Company the summation of that life quest?
I think so. I'm very, very happy with it and I think it's going to affect every film I do afterwards. If you want melodrama, it's in there, but I didn't create any melodrama. The Company is so simple and honest. It's the truth.

The Total Film team are made up of the finest minds in all of film journalism. They are: Editor Jane Crowther, Deputy Editor Matt Maytum, Reviews Ed Matthew Leyland, News Editor Jordan Farley, and Online Editor Emily Murray. Expect exclusive news, reviews, features, and more from the team behind the smarter movie magazine.