|ROBERT ALTMAN: A lifetime in 90 minutes or less!
|by Brian Mckay
It’s Robert Altman night of the San Francisco International Film Festival. The big guy himself is going to be there in person, and the line is quite literally around the block of the Castro Theater. Hundreds of rabid Altman fans, hungry to get in the door and see what is considered one of his best films by many – NASHVILLE. But they’re even more excited to meet the man behind the camera, and tonight they get to see him bestowed with the festival’s Lifetime Achievement in Directing award. Best of all, they’ll get the chance to step up to the microphone and pose their questions to the man whose films they have been watching for years, or in some cases, decades. And so they patiently wait in line.
Meanwhile, the one guy who couldn’t care less about Altman’s films walks up, flashes his press pass, and strolls right in.
Okay, I admit it. I’ve never been a fan. Granted, MASH is an undisputed classic, but as far as everything else of his that I’ve seen? Nearly fell asleep in Pret-a-Porter. Almost walked out on The Player. Still haven’t forgiven the girl who made me go see Gosford Park. And I don’t think my Dad has forgiven me yet for making him take me to see Popeye when I was thirteen . . . and come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve forgiven me either.
Altman’s films may not be my personal cup of tea, but I will say this for him – a lot of people have been making a lot of films for a lot of years, but not everyone gets a lifetime achievement award handed to them. A man with over forty films under his directorial belt and over forty years in the craft of filmmaking most likely has something worthwhile to say. Maybe I haven’t found Altman’s films all that interesting so far, but Altman himself is a different story.
On what his secret to success is: “Failure” he says flatly. Altman doesn’t go to any great lengths to hide his disdain for the people who run “the biz”, referring to them as “The Checkbooks”. But by the same token he recognizes that filmmaking is a business like any other. He holds that his secret is to avoid the big blockbuster payday, to make each film just commercially viable enough to satisfy investors and warrant the next project. “I consider myself fortunate that I’ve never gone more than a year without making a film, and have never had to do a film I didn’t really want to do. I’ve been exposed to walks of life I would have never known anything about, and gotten to go to big cities and small cities and meet all kinds of people. No complaints here. But I will say one thing about my films – if you want to see them, you’d better move fast.”
On how he got his start: “I was a pilot on a B-24 bomber in the war. I sent a letter to my brother one time, and he wrote back saying ‘That was so funny! You ought to become a screenwriter’”. Altman decided to take his brother’s advice and gave writing a try. After the war he ended up in Kansas city making documentaries and educational films, then got his first big break from Alfred Hitchcock when he directed an episode of his series Alfred Hitchcock Presents. “After that, it was just a natural progression”.
On the process of filmmaking: “On average, a film takes about nine or ten months to make – not unlike a human child. And during those nine months you go through tears and heartache and love and laughter and joy. Then you cut the cord and send it out into the world and hope it does okay. After that you move onto the next project, but maybe you’ll come across it thirty years later and say “hey, we should do lunch!”
On how relevant his political films of the sixties are in today’s world: “Truth be told, there’s about that much (holds thumb and index finger millimeters apart) difference between what was going on back then and what’s going on right now. I won’t say there hasn’t been a lot of progress, but at the same time there hasn’t been much change. And if you think Nixon was crazy, what about this ‘shrub’ we have in the White House now?” (Wild applause from the mostly liberal and anti-war crowd. Wait a minute, a liberal, anti-war crowd? In the theater on Castro Street? WHODA THUNKIT!)
On the fan who tells him he likes “most” of his films: (smiles) “Most of them? That’s like meeting a woman with twenty kids and saying ‘I like most of your kids . . . but I don’t know about these two over here.’”
On the fan who didn’t like Popeye: “That’s okay, I didn’t make Popeye for you, anyway. I haven’t met a three or four year old who can’t quote every line of that movie back to me. It’s the ultimate babysitter – just throw the kids in a room and put Popeye on. That movie gets me a new audience every few years.”
On Julianne Moore’s semi-nude scene in Short Cuts: “I was going to have Madeline Stowe do the part at first, but she thought about it and said ‘Bob, I just don’t think I can do it. I don’t think I can stand around half naked and concentrate on the scene.’ I told her, ‘no problem, we’ll get someone else to do that part.’ She told me that she’d make it up to me by being naked in our next film together, though. Now, I’d seen Julianne in Vanya on 42nd Street and thought she was fantastic, so I called her up and said ‘Julianne, I’ve got a part I want you for, I’m sending you a script, but there’s just one thing – the part calls for you to be naked from the waist down for about five minutes. There was a pause, and she said ‘I can do that. And Bob, I’ve got a bonus for you. I’m a natural redhead.’”
On how he felt while waiting for the "Best Director" winner to be announced at the 2002 Oscars (where he was nominated for Gosford Park, but did not win): "Well, I guess you could say I had mixed feelings about the whole thing. It was like watching my mother in law drive my new car off of a cliff."
On breaking into show business: “I’ll give you the same advice I give my kids – don’t take advice from anyone!”
Altman got a standing ovation more than once, and one fan got to see Nashville, which he’d seen fifty times on video, for the first time on the silver screen. As for me, well . . . after ninety minutes I'm still not a huge admirer of most of his 'children'– but I have to respect a man who has thrived and survived in a business that has left lesser men broken upon the rocks, and who shows no signs of slowing down, despite having left a prolific body of work in his wake. As for when the 78 year old Altman plans on retiring – “We’re talking about death, right?”
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originally posted: 04/23/03 02:53:57
last updated: 12/30/03 15:54:45