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It's Okay With Me: ROBERT ALTMAN
(Complete Interview): Highlights from Issue 23: The Auteur Issue

Highlights from Issue 23: The Auteur Issue

Altman in his New York production office, August 2005 / Photograph by DAVID BLACK


Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The following interview originally appeared in Issue 23: The Auteur Issue


The Stop Smiling Interview with Robert Altman

By James Hughes

Midway through Robert Altman’s 1975 film Nashville, a bemused BBC reporter played by Geraldine Chaplin infiltrates the house party of Haven Hamilton, the crown jewel of Nashville’s music royalty. Regarding her majestic surroundings—a lush, tree-lined estate that looks more like a roadside stop from Wild Strawberries than the backwoods of Tennessee—Chaplin flatters her host by comparing the scene to a slice of Sweden’s premier auteur. “Bergman,” she cries. “Pure, unadulterated Bergman!” Taking one final glance at the locals—a honky-tonk group already tipsy on Jack Daniels—she revises her statement. “Of course the people are all wrong for Bergman, aren’t they?”

This small exchange, typically buried in a sound track dense with overlapping dialogue, encapsulates the essence of Robert Altman. His films have a European sensibility that echoes both the grandeur and the interior anguish of Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini. But the characters Altman chooses to occupy these arenas are quintessentially American. Faithful to his ever expanding stable of actors (Shelly Duvall, Michael Murphy, Lily Tomlin and Elliott Gould among them) Altman explores the lives of real people living in the forgotten recesses of a country often misrepresented by an overexposure of the two coasts. For over 50 years, Altman has created a cinematic landscape that stems from the heartland and branches out to every corner of the map: from the hazy Southwestern sprawl of California Split and 3 Women, through the clutter of Texas (Brewster McCloud and Dr. T and the Women) and quaintness of Kansas City, all the way up the bustling eastern seaboard, where the fictional presidential candidate Jack Tanner shamelessly canvassed for votes in ’88.

Robert Altman was born in Kansas City in 1925. After serving overseas in World War II, he returned to the Midwest and worked on industrial films for the Calvin Co. of Kansas City, eventually landing in the director’s chair for television series as diverse as “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and “Bonanza.” With the success of MASH in 1970, Altman was tossed the keys to Hollywood’s most coveted projects, but chose instead to champion more personal films. Despite his continuous critical acclaim, he remains in the distinguished company of Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese and King Vidor—all Best Director nominees shut out five times by the Academy. But Altman seems unaffected by the allure of awards, and even more so by the demands and labels of the press. As Philip Marlowe would mumble in Altman’s exquisite adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, “It’s okay with me.”

Fresh off a rebirth from Gosford Park in 2002, which catapulted him back into the public eye with the same force as The Player in 1991, Altman has recently seen some of his greatest unreleased works preserved on DVD, and he now embraces digital technology. His last two features—The Company and the just-wrapped A Prairie Home Companion—were shot on high-definition video. And, as Altman reveals from his well-equipped production office in Midtown Manhattan, he’s not surprised to see film become a thing of the past.

Stop Smiling: The film that you’ve just wrapped, A Prairie Home Companion, isn’t a documentary about the making of Garrison Keillor’s radio show, it’s a narrative that uses the show and its theater as a setting?

Robert Altman: Yes, it’s a drama about the demise of the radio show. The penultimate scene has Kevin Kline at the piano while the stage is being demolished.

SS: How was it working with Garrison Keillor?

RA: It was pretty good. It was tough on him—he’s been in charge for 30 years. This is the first time he’s done anything in which he is the content. And he’s always dealt in radio, so I had to put pictures up there. I have to give the audience something to look at. We could’ve shot the Keillor picture anywhere, but it was easier for all of us to shoot it in St. Paul, because that’s where it was based, and that stuff rubs off on you. It really rubs off on the people who live there and perform there. But we never left — we had two locations: a diner, which we shot in one night, and the rest of the time was all in the Fitzgerald Theater. We get a lot of cooperation in a city like St. Paul, because it’s a novelty to them, and they’re all very nice when you go to those small towns and small venues.

SS: Paul Thomas Anderson was brought on to be your back-up director. Did that work well?

RA: Yes. He was with me all the time. He’s a good friend of mine. I’m 80 years old. So they don’t insure me. On Gosford Park, which was the first time I did this, Stephen Frears was my stand-in. That’s all an insurance issue.

I’ve known Paul since he started, and he’s always been very generous about the origins of his work. Paul agreed to do it, which surprised and thrilled me. His girlfriend, Maya Rudolph, who was pregnant, was in the film as well. So that made things easier. It worked out well.

SS: There’s such a lack of regionalism in American entertainment today. You seem to be one of the few filmmakers who sets their films in smaller cities.

RA: I also try not to make all my films in Canada, and create that city that doesn’t exist anywhere. It’s dreadful what some filmmakers do. Most of my films I call arena films. I deal with a confined area — an arena—and I try to cover every aspect of it.


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