"They used to lock me up for getting into trouble in this town," quipped
filmmaker Robert Altman as he accepted the Key to Kansas City from
Mayor Richard Berkeley. "They used to throw away the key. Now, they'
re giving me one!"
Altman lived in his native Kansas City, MO, for his first nineteen
years. As a boy he raised quite a ruckus, as he puts it; and he made
his first movies there (which is. perhaps the same thing). Now, an
acclaimed world-class filmmaker, he has returned to receive a Lifetime
Achievement Award from the Greater Kansas City Film Commission in
the ballroom of the downtown Crown Center Westin Hotel. There is a
sense of euphoria in the air that has been growing during the three
days of nonstop screenings of sixteen Altman films, press conferences,
workshops with area filmmakers and reunions with family members.
Altman and his hometown are both on a roll these days. He is fresh
on the heels of his latest triumph, Vincent and Theo; and Kansas City
itself is basking in the glow of the successful completion of two
recent theatrical films that had been shot in the area--the prestigious
Mr. and Mrs. Bridge and the forthcoming Article 99.
"This town and I will have to get together again," he told a press
gathering earlier that day. "I haven't shot a film here since The
Delinquents in 1955--which I'd rather not talk about! But the future
of filmmaking is here in communities like this. We help each other.
Companies have to figure things now down to the split penny. We go
where it's cheapest and where the artist can get the most return for
his time. When I leave here I'll have a whole box of scripts under
my arm." He paused with an air of mock drama. He waited a few beats,
then-"We'll have to see."
Altman is relaxed, accessible and talkative. His Buffalo Bill beard
is neatly trimmed. A white shirt and tie peek out from his zippered
navy-blue jacket. He hardly seems the same hard-charging, hard-drinking
maverick that barnstormed his way through movie after movie in the
early 1970s. With M*A*S*H, Brewster McCloud, McCabe and Mrs. Miller,
The Long Goodbye and Nashville, he was a prime architect--with other
young filmmakers like Paul Mazursky, John Cassavetes, Francis Ford
Coppola and Martin Scorsese--of what Diane Jacobs has called the "
Hollywood Renaissance." He was called a "prairie Buddha" by his associates.
He referred to himself as the "action painter" of American films.
Controversies, disputes, awards and brickbats trailed in his wake.
College students appointed him their Viet Nam-era voice. Critics
debated his unorthodox, looping and eliptical style. While Stanley
Kauffman called him a pretentious blunderer, Pauline Kael praised
his idiosyncracies: "Altman has to introduce an element of risk on
top of the risks that all directors take," she wrote in 1981. There
was always something protean, even relentless about him. After the
failure of Popeye in 1980, the big studios rejected him, but he kept
going, staging operas at colleges, shooting modest projects like Come
Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean in 16mm, and filming plays
for cable television. Meanwhile--although Altman wasn't counting--
the awards were piling up. There were numerous "Best Film" and "Best
Director" awards from the New York Film Critics Circle, the National
Society of Film Critics, the National Board of Review and the Venice
Film Festival (a Grand Prix for Streamers).
"I haven't been back to K.C. in almost IS years now, I guess; and
I come back and don't see the same city." We are talking together
in the Presidential Suite on the 17th floor of the Crown Center Westin
Hotel. The rooftops, spires and glass ramparts are spread out below
us in the late afternoon sun. We have an hour to spend before he greets
a sold-out house for a filmmaking workshop. "But I smell it and I
feel it," he continues. "This is where I got my `chips,' my attitudes.
I lived on West 68th Street and went to several schools--Rockhurst,
Southwest High School, Wentworth Military Academy, and then did a
hitch in the Air Force, where I was a co-pilot of B-24 bombers. Restless,
I guess." He takes a drink from a tumbler filled with club soda and
a slice of lime. That's all he's drinking today.
"Somewhere along in there I saw my first movies at the old Brookside
Theater. Those movies just seemed to happen--nobody made them, you
know? And I guess that's the way I still see movies--I want them to
be occurrences, to just seem to be happening."
We reminisce for a moment about the fate of the Calvin Film Company,
a Kansas City landmark. Established by Altman's grandfather at 15th
and Troost, the company had been "home" for every film student and
filmmaker in the area for more than 40 years. The building had been
razed in 1990. "Actually, I came back to Calvin several times after
the war," Altman muses, rubbing his bearded chin. "I'd go to California
and try to write scripts, but then return, broke, to Calvin. Each
time they'd drop me another notch in salary. Like some kind of punishment.
The third time they said it was like the Davis Cup--they were going
to keep me!"
In the early 1950s Altman participated in every aspect of filmmaking.
"I don't remember actually learning anything," he says; "it was more
by a kind of osmosis." For $250 a week he made promotional films for
Gulf oil and safety films for Caterpillar Tractor and International
Harvester. "They were training films for me--stuff like "How to Run
a Filling Station." They weren't a goal for me, just a process to
learn how to do entertainment and dramatic films. It was a school,
that's what it was." During these years he met several other young
filmmakers who were to form the core of his filmmaking team--writer
Fred Barheit and editor Louis Lombardo.
After returning to Hollywood and clicking in the late 1950s and early
1960s on television series like Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Gallant
Men, Bonanza and Combat! (for which he directed fully one-half of
the episodes), he was ready to tackle feature films.
"There's always been a sort of division between the feature film business
and the television business," he continues. "It's hard to step from
one to the other. And that still is the case. But it was a great training
ground. I was lucky; it kept me in California. I developed a nice
reputation there and learned to stay in budget. But when I did my
first movie, Countdown (a science fiction thriller) in 1967 for Warner
Bros. everything went wrong. Jack Warner fired me. I got a call Sunday
night from the studio warning me not to come in because the guard
would stop me. I'd been locked out. Warner had looked at the dailies
and he said, `That fool has everybody talking at the same time!' So
I went to the studio gate and got my stuff in a box from the guard.
Somebody else edited it. `Since that and another picture, That Cold
Day in the Park, you've never seen a film of mine that I didn't keep
total control over. And that's why I don't work a lot." He laughs
The criticism about Altman's unique use of densely textured sound
and dialogue has always aroused controversy. "But, you know, last
Saturday night the Audio-Engineers Society--they are the Hollywood
sound people--awarded me their own Lifetime Achievement Award." Altman
smiles. It's a chesire cat smile. If he were to vanish, that knowing
grin would still hover there in the air. "This was the first time
it's ever gone to a filmmaker instead of some inventor or process,
like Dolby. And that very day I had read a review of Vincent and
Theo complaining of the same thing--that the soundtrack was so muddled
you couldn't understand anything. Like all the characters were played
by `Mumbles' in Dick Tracy. Look, what I'm trying to do is--" he pauses,
groping for the right words. "I don't want you to understand everything-
-not the sound, not the images. What I'm trying to do--and this is
what the engineers understood (which pleased me)--I'm trying to present
something to an audience where they have to work a little bit. They
have to invest something. You don't hear everything somebody says
in real life, do you? Maybe you're not really listening or distracted
or something. That's the illusion I want. It's a way to get the audience
involved and participating in the thing." He spreads his hands philosophically.
"But some people don't like it." Another pause. "Anyway, I really
worked this out the first time in California Split. I used 8-track
sound. I said, `They do this in music recording, put a microphone
on every different instrument and try to isolate them as much as possible
then mix it afterwards. Why don't we do that with the voices on the
soundtrack?' So, we developed 8-track tape machines and individual
microphones. Which means recording everything and then mixing it later.
I can take a person's sound down or push it up. That way, I don't
have to go back for post-synching, looping of lines--you know, bringing
the actors back in to match their lip movements. When you do that,
the acting is gone."
Clearly, Altman still relishes the role of iconoclast. That memorable
spurt of movies in the early 1970s took the cherished genres of war
story (M*A*S*H), western (McCabe), detective thriller (The Long Goodbye)
and the caper film (California Split) and turned them inside out.
"When I look at a subject and see how it's done, I think, it doesn'
t necessarily have to be done that way. Like McCabe. What a collection
of stereotypes! There was the gambler down on his luck, the whore
with the heart of gold, the three heavies (the giant, the half-breed
and the kid). Everything there you've seen all your life in westerns.
The audience can supply most of the story already! That left me free
to work on the backgrounds and the atmosphere and the details. The
same thing with The Long Goodbye. That was a Raymond Chandler story.
To this day I've never finished it. I could never figure out what
was happening! And I didn't much care. I thought, Raymond Chandler
used his plots the way I do--just as an excuse to hang a series of
thumbnail sketches on. I had fun dropping the 1940s character of `Philip
Marlowe' into the attitudes of 1973, into a time of marijuana and
brownies and health food. He was out of place and that was a great
chance for some thumbnail essays of our own of what the culture and
society at the time looked like. "
One genre that he tried to avoid--and couldn't--was the bio-pic, or
film biography. "Vincent and Theo was offered to me and I didn't even
want to read it," admits Altman. "I didn't want to make that kind
of picture. I don't like those biographical things. I just don't believe
them, for one thing. But they kept pressing me to make it and I said,
at last, `OK, you let me have artistic control on this and do whatever
I want to do and I'll make it."'
The results have been spectacular. As Variety reported April 27, 1990,
"Seldom has an artist been so convincingly or movingly portrayed
on screen." Although it got no Oscar nominations (a grievous sin of
omission) it has found the largest, most enthusiastic audience for
an Altman film since Nashville. For Altman, the movie was a process
of avoiding traps. (He frequently describes filmmaking as avoiding
hazards and traps.) "For example, at first I didn't want to use any
of the Van Gogh paintings at all," he explains. "I wasn't going to
show them. And I wasn't going to show him actually painting, either.
Finally, I realized I had to show them, but I decided to show them
as a kind of `evidence.' We'll treat them roughly (like he did). We'
ll have them lying around, people stepping on them. Vincent himself
destroys some of them. I wanted the audience to say--`Oh, that's worth
$82 million dollars!'--and then somebody steps through the canvas!
Our laughter attracts the attention of a young man who has just wandered
in from the hallway. He has chiseled features and curly dark hair.
He is Altman's son, Stephen, who was the production designer on Vincent
and Theo. Stephen was born in Kansas City in 1956 and, although he
was reared by his mother, Altman's second wife, he began working with
his father (he calls him "Bob") on sets and props at age eleven. Stephen
claims he can look back upon his father's films and discover his own
"fingerprints," evidence of his own presence--like the pay telephone
he managed to insinuate into every picture (and which now adorns a
wall in his Paris apartment). He describes himself as part scavenger,
part prop master and part set dresser. ("Anything an actor touches
is a prop," he explains. "If he drives a tank, it's a prop. If he
eats cornflakes, it's a prop. If it's something just sitting on the
set, then it's set dressing or background. ") It was he who arranged
for all the reproductions of Van Gogh paintings and sketches seen
in the movie.
"They were all done by students at the Beaux-Arts in Paris or in Holland,
" explains Stephen, whose research into the ateliers and galleries
of Van Gogh's time has made him into something of an art historian
himself. I ask him where the paintings are now. "oh," he looks sidelong
at his father. "The producer has a lot of them. I know somebody else
who keeps some of them in his office." He pauses meaningfully, still
grinning at his father. "But I don't have one."
Altman pushes his way into the pause. "Those darned paintings--I'd
find the sets would look just like them--the sort of thing you see
in the Vincente Minnelli picture, Lust for Life. I didn't want that
kind of competition. So, I'd come on the set and I'd say, `I've seen
this before'--and then I'd move the chair and shoot the room differently.
I didn't want exact copies, just the--just the smell of things."
Stephen nods. "on all the Dutch scenes, we wanted a kind of lighting
with an `old Masters' look--with the light from above, northern light.
When we went to Paris, we wanted a gray, impressionistic feel. And
when we went to Arles, we had to have a bright shining light."
Altman's eyes twinkle as he leans forward. "Although, if we'd have
had to shoot a rainstorm in the sunflower fields, we'd have done that,
too. I'd read a lot of stories about David Lean waiting weeks for
snow in Dr. Zhivago; but in my experience, you're lucky to get the
crew together at all. So if you're out there and it's raining, you
just change the script from `sunshine' to `rain.'"
Robert Altman's laugh fades after a moment. He continues, more seriously.
"I wasn't so much interested in showing Van Gogh's ceativity as in
showing the pain that this guy went through. You have to remember
that nobody ever smiled at Vincent Van Gogh. But there was some compulsion
to just keep doing what he did, until he finally couldn't stand it
anymore and just shot himself. only in combination with his brother,
Theo, was Vincent a complete person. They were connected in some
way. That's the story I was trying to tell. You know, people expect
movies like this to blow trumpets when a painting is made. But Vincent
did not have a great deal of talent. He was not a great draughtsman.
It took him a long time to learn how to draw and paint. He taught
himself and he worked hard. He copied other people and didn't start
any schools. He couldn't paint from his own imagination, just from
what was in front of him. He had a lot going against him. If anybody
was going to make book and ask which of these painters at the time
would sell paintings for millions, like I show at the London auction
at the beginning of the movie, nobody would have voted Vincent." He
pauses again. His next words come slowly. "I'm sure my film is not
factual," he says, "but I hope it's truthful."
I ask about the final sequences in the movie. Rarely has a person'
s self-destructive impulses been more harrowingly portrayed on film.
"I think that when Vincent mutilated his ear, it was a cry for help,
for attention," says Altman. "When he went to the asylum for a year,
he met the daughter of the man who ran it. But when he rejected her
advances, he realized he didn't belong, that he couldn't make it in
life, and by that time he abdicated and wanted out."
"There was a dramatic, unexpected moment on the set during the ear
mutilation scene," volunteers Stephen. "You know it's a moment that
audiences have been waiting for. But when Tim Roth (the actor portraying
Van Gogh) cut the ear, suddenly he did something none of us expected.
He held on to the razor and suddenly brought it close to his tongue.
We just shot it once and, Tim surprised everybody with that. I guess
he didn't know what to do at that moment, but he felt he needed something
else. He didn't tell anybody in advance. It was scary."
"Maybe not so unexpected, though," growls Altman. "I get a lot of
credit for having the actors improvise all the time. When we go into
rehearsal, I encourage as much improvisation as I can get. And we
find out what works and what doesn't work. But by the time we actually
shoot the scene, it's very well rehearsed. The secret lies in letting
the actor give the good performance. That's what Tim did. I can't
teach anybody to act. My job is like a cheerleader's, really--trying
to set up an atmosphere and a focus of energies so the actor becomes
the most important part of the collaboration. Get them to trust you
and take some chances. Get them to know that you won't make them look
bad. If they can't say a line in the script, we'll change it."
Our conversation is interrupted by a ringing telephone. It's time
for Altman and his son to repair downstairs to the hotel lobby for
a workshop with area filmmakers and students. For the next two hours
Altman's high spirits continue unabated. As he mounts the platform
to the applause of the crowd, he jokes, "I think I forgot my lines!
" Peering out at the crowd, he mutters, "You know, the actor's nightmare
is to find himself in a play and not know his lines. Hell, I don't
know this play!" But he fields the questions beautifully. It is obvious
that he loves audiences and respects them.
At times the give-and-take is rapid-fire. Examples:
Question: "Are you really a control freak in your movies, like they
say?" (The questioner is too young to have seen Altman's first pictures
during their first run..)
Altman: "Let's put it this way. Making a movie for me is getting people
to work for you who are shooting the same film you are shooting. In
Fool for Love we started with a wonderful cinematographer named Robby
Muller. After six days of shooting I fired him. I said, `I can't do
this. I'm sure you're shooting a beautiful movie, but it's not the
movie I'm making.' So we started over again. Next question!"
Question: "Have you ever tried to make a movie somebody else's way?"
Altman: "I can't do anything but what I do. If I tried to, I'd fail.
Question: "Do you have a particular style?"
Altman: "I don't know what my style is. I'm the last one to say what
it is, I think. What I secretly think about myself might be wrong.
I didn't know what anybody was talking about when they said my first
seven films had `the Altman signature.' I was just trying to do things
totally different from one film to another. Now I look back at them
and see my fingerprints all over them. You can't keep your hands clean.
Question: "What do you think of critics?"
Altman: "A lot of people see my films and say, `I don't get it.' But
I've created at least a cult following. That's not quite enough people
to make a minority!"
Question: "What is your favorite among your films?"
Altman: "I won't fall into that trap. They are all your children.
You can't choose."
Later, while he's surrounded by the crowd for some last questions
and pictures, I steal away to the coffee shop with Stephen. I tell
him I'm amazed at his father's easy amiability. This is not the same
Altman, I tell him, that stormed through critics, press and audiences
alike twenty years ago.
"He's mellowing out a little bit," Stephen admits, stirring his coffee.
"He used to be a hard drinker. He never drank on the set, but he'
d drink a lot and rip into people. Usually they deserved it. But I
think it's better now. He's looser. He's not trying so hard. He's
had a lot of experience. Hey, he's done more films consecutively now
than anybody else working today. I think he's the best director I'
ve ever worked with. He's very tough and very difficult and at the
same time can be the easiest and nicest. Anybody can disagree with
him on the set, but he'll tell you, `Anybody can make a suggestion,
but only give it once.' He won't easily admit it if he's wrong. He
has some funny quirks. People might sit around and talk and it won'
t seem like he's listening; and then the next day he'll come up and
say, `I had this great idea. We'll do this and that.' And everybody
will sit around and say, `Good idea, Bob!"'
After the ceremonies that night, Altman rejoins me for a wrap-up of
our interview. He has to leave early the next morning, he explains,
to return to his editing studio in Malibu, CA. He describes the studio
as a kind of support environment. "I have lots of people there to
help. Primarily, I can get into an environment where I have everything
I need. Like being in a submarine. We have a cook who comes in. That
way I can keep everybody there. We'll work six days a week, 12-13
hours a day. I like the intensity. I just can't do it leisurely. It'
s the process that's the real reward."
There are many projects in the works. He will begin immediately editing
footage, for Japanese television, he has shot backstage during a performance
of the Broadway musical, Black and Blue. "Like I first wanted to do
with Vincent and Theo, I decided to ignore the show itself and get
the fatigue on the faces of the dancers as they come back offstage.
All those smiles and energy would collapse as soon as they hit the
black. I'm dealing here with errors and frailties."
Another project is the long-cherished L.A. Shortcuts, a script he
and Frank Barheit adapted from stories by Raymond Carver. There have
been problems lately in getting the financing, but Altman hopes at
last the project is in the gate. It sounds like a kind of West Coast
version of Nashville: "There's a big cast, 27 main actors, who all
lead different lives. They don't necessarily affect one another, but
their lives all cries-cross. You know, Frank Lloyd Wright said that
Los Angeles was made when the continent tipped and all the people
without roots slipped into the southwest corner!"
Even more tantalizing are hints at other movies. His highly praised
television film, Tanner '88, made in collaboration with comic strip
guru Gary Trudeau, may have a sequel just in time for the next presidential
election. "Let's run Tanner again in 1992," cracks Altman. "Somebody'
s got to run against those guys!" And he confirms something his son
Stephen had told me--that he plans to make a movie called The Player.
"oh, yes," he grins, "that's another thing about an artist at work.
It's about a studio executive who murders a writer. And gets away
with it. We'll get in some shots and make the producers hate us! That'
s all I'll tell you."
He pauses a moment. The ballroom has almost cleared and some members
of the Altman clan still living in Kansas City--a whole contingent
of cousins, uncles and nephews--are waiting for him. Doesn't this
man ever get tired??? "But with all these projects there are still
those that fail, that don't get made," he continues philosophically,
apparently in no hurry to leave. "Like Rossini, Rossini." I start
in amazement. Robert Altman making a movie about the great Italian
opera composer....? "Sure," he says, as if reading my thoughts. "This
was to be our `big' film, not Vincent and Theo. Vincent was going
to be just a warmup for it. Stephen and I worked on it for over six
months, travelling through Italy, scouting locations, dressing sets,
hashing out the script. Then, things got very strange. We'd be called
back to Rome several times; and finally we were told the movie had
shut down. Then I got fired. Somebody else finished it."
Clearly, the aborted project meant a great deal to him. It's the sort
of disappointment and pain that tempts me to compare Altman's career
with his most recent subject, Vincent Van Gogh. But no. Altman rejects-
-almost peremptorily--the association. "I can't summon up the fortitude
of somebody like Vincent. I've had a good deal of personal adulation
in my life and a great deal of success. But I think if I ever made
a film and people got up and walked out of a theater before it was
over, I'd never make another one. I couldn't change my films to anything
else. I don't make mainstream, `shopping mall' kinds of films, like
Pretty Woman. I'm not an `in demand' commodity. If I stepped down
off this stage we're on and went straight downhill to the end, I'd
have to look back and say, `I had a great roll.' Some people liked
my work--I can at least find a couple. But the minute I don't find
anybody, then I'm stepping off."
No compromises. No prisoners. After more than 35 years of making films,
he still can thumb his nose at the naysayers. He can still say brashly,
"There's them and there's us." There's no question that "them" still
means the Hollywood establishment, the grownups, the crowd; and that
"us" means those who grew up loving his movies-those who felt young
and special just watching them.
By John C. Tibbetts University of Kansas
Copyright 1992 by Salisbury State University. Text may not be copied
without the express written permission of Salisbury State University.
THE ONLY ROBERT ALTMAN-DEDICATED WEBSITE
Robert Altman on The Internet Movie Database