Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
Near the end of Robert Altman’s film adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, a gangster insists that everyone in the room take off their clothes in order to show they have nothing to hide. One of his henchmen pipes up, “But nobody ever got naked in George Raft movies.” This wink at the complicity between reality and movie life, the tangled dance of art and artlessness, is an emblematic Altman moment. It acknowledges the human need for honesty while showing just how handily a reasonable facsimile will serve us in a pinch. When I call the director at his production office at Sandcastle Films he is in a cordial mood. Reviews of his new film Cookie’s Fortune have been favorable and the box office is percolating nicely. He tells me he’s at work on a new comedy about a gynecologist and I grin at the possibilities. Unlike a lot of filmmakers associated with the ’60s and ’70s, Altman has remained vigorous; his work is still cause for us to sit up and take notice.
My first thought is to tell him how much films like McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Three Women, and The Long Goodbye changed my ideas about how a story could be told, but I reconsider. I know he’s heard it a million times. It would be almost as bad as using the word “irreverent” to describe what he does. All the critics use that label. But as soon as we begin talking, I realize he’s not particularly irreverent, not at all given to wisecracks. The conversation makes clear that he works hard to make us laugh, to strip away our social pretenses. In one way or another, everybody gets naked in an Altman film.
Albert Mobilio There isn’t a genre that you haven’t done: detective films, Westerns, showbiz stories, bio-pics. What haven’t you done?
Robert Altman I haven’t done an old-fashioned murder mystery … and there’s an endless number of genre comedies I haven’t touched. The next film I’m doing is called Dr. T and the Women and it’s about a gynecologist.
AM About a gynecologist, and it’s a comedy?
RA Who’s pussy-whipped, yes.
AM That could have possibilities. Did you see the Cronenberg film about the twin gynecologists?
RA I did, but that was quite another cup of tea, shall we say. Everything I do is compared against everything else anyway—unfortunately or fortunately, I’m not sure which. People will say about Cookie’s Fortune, “He made a great film, but it is not McCabe and Mrs. Miller.” Well, nothing is something else.
AM That’s the way the successful artist is penalized.
RA Absolutely. I just have to get beyond that. But I couldn’t be happier.
AM Do you feel you’ve taken a conscious path in choosing different kinds of films, or is it happenstance?
RA Oh, I get fascinated with an area that I haven’t dealt with before; that’s the way it happens. It’s the most exciting thing to me, to suddenly find myself in new territory. And when I deal with these special genres I can count on a certain amount of audience involvement because they’ll be saying, “Oh, I know what this is.” It’s much easier for me to bring them in on their own terms and then say, “Oh no, just a minute. This doesn’t have to be that.” Just do a little different twist or turn on the genre.
AM I think of it in terms of medieval craftsmen reworking nativity scenes or Madonnas. Whether it’s The Long Goodbye as a detective film or McCabe and Mrs. Miller as a Western, you always find a way to shake out some fresh news from the genre.
RA What intrigues me is that I look at these things and I think, What if it were this way rather than that way? The fun of exploration keeps me really charged up. People are constantly saying, “Why don’t you do another M * A * S * H? And I say, “Well, I’m afraid I’d be late for work.” (laughter) I don’t want to be thinking, Oh, I can’t do this ‘cause I’ve already done it. It makes me suddenly aware of myself, and that’s not good.
AM You’ve compared filmmaking to action painting. And it seems like what charges you is the element of risk.
RA Well, it’s just going into new territory and being excited. And with genre films you don’t consider, Is this going to be a hit or a miss? Or, is this going to sell tickets or not? It takes those elements out of it, and suddenly I’m dealing in a new arena—and so I’m absorbed by it. It has to be that way. Because if I were just trying to do something that was going to be popular, I’d fail—the way everybody else does.
AM But some of your films, like M * A * S * H or Nashville, have been “popular.”
RA Yeah, well, you know, you hit the audience at the right time and you hit a nerve.
AM M * A * S * H and The Player were made almost a quarter century apart and they’re both right on the money about their era. I don’t think many artists, let alone filmmakers, manage to embrace that long a period with so accurate a social reading.
RA I get to draw from the whole world. When we did McCabe somebody asked, “Why are you doing this? This is the most standard Western.” I said, It’s the most standard Western story we could find that has all the elements that everybody has already seen. So, I’ve got the three killers, the giant, the half-breed, and the kid. I’ve got the whore with the heart of gold. I’ve got the slimy merchant and then this kind of blustering hero who wasn’t really a hero—that was the only difference. So the audience knows the story, and they’re able to just go in. And I’m able to go in and say, “Yeah, you’re comfortable in this story, but let me tell you maybe they wore these kinds of clothes and maybe this sort of thing happened. Maybe they didn’t all wear big hats and speak with a drawl. Maybe the hero was just this normal, well-intentioned, blustering kind of guy who stumbles on the right thing to do.”
AM That’s certainly one film in which you create an atmosphere where everything is up for grabs at any moment. It’s a film where the entire mood, in fact, can shift at any moment.
RA Yeah, but you know when we first came out with McCabe it was probably the least successful of all my films. It didn’t do any business whatsoever. It grossed nothing. And Warner Brothers dropped it like a hot potato. Some critics were terrific with it, but the box office wasn’t. It’s the last thing I ever did for Warner Brothers. I don’t know how McCabe and Mrs. Miller managed to survive, but it did and I must say it’s thrilling to me.
AM Well, like Popeye it has a large cult following.
RA In a very positive review on Cookie, someone said, “Altman’s career had several disasters and Popeye is one of them.” But that’s the most watched picture I ever made ‘cause it’s a babysitter.
AM I know a number of people—just attended, sadly, a memorial service for someone and it was mentioned that this person had seen the movie over 30 times—
RA Good God!
AM A literary critic friend of mine.
RA Well, we can’t afford to lose those kinds of people.
AM I think it’s the same issue for McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Popeye. What was the tone of Popeye? Is it a comedy? Is it a political fable? Is it an adventure film? It feels up for grabs. And I think audiences prefer to know what the feel of a film is from the opening.
RA Unfortunately, audiences are not very adventurous; too much has been delivered to them. In other words, they make these things too easy to follow. They don’t demand that you become involved. If you read a novel and don’t involve yourself in it, skim it, you’d say, “That’s nothing.” Because it’s a kind of art that demands your attention, and unfortunately we’ve made such “instant candy” out of film that the audience goes, “Oh that’s good, give me one of those.” They eat it, and all that stays is the sugar in their system and they forget about the movie immediately.
AM Your films have a literary quality because their worlds are fully fleshed out. It makes me think about 19th-century fiction. These are social tales: Buffalo Bill, A Wedding, or Cookie’s Fortune, they show how people get along or don’t get along, and that requires a lot of attention.
RA Yeah, people stay away when they hear a film’s too complicated. I don’t quite understand it, but I know it’s something we have to deal with. Movies out now are gauged against the same criterion: what’s the publicity? Turn on the television and they tell you the top five grossing films. Well, actually Cookie’s Fortune was the top-grossing film last week on a per-screen basis. But they don’t mention that. It’s just on the mass audience thing because that’s who they’re trying to reach. They’re not reporting, they’re trying to get an audience that is already geared to that kind of thing.
AM Movies are the only art form where two million people could come out and see your work and that could be considered a disaster.
RA Yes, right.
AM For a novelist or a poet that many readers would be a stratospheric success.
RA Absolutely. But compare it to how many people read. The problem is that nobody visits these films twice. I mean generally, enough to make it make any sense. And yet that’s what a good film needs. When you see it the first time it’s like a whodunit. You’re playing, Oh, what happened? Oh, this is what’s going to happen! I betcha they—oh no! They didn’t do that, they did this. Boom, boom, boom. So really you’re missing a lot of the film because you’re playing that anticipation game. When you go to see a film the second time, you know whodunit and you’re able to deal with the detailing. You’re able to see things that you just didn’t see before. But unfortunately, you can rarely entice people to come and see a film again.
AM It’s certainly different now with video.
RA That’s a whole different market, of course. But most adults I know haven’t been inside a movie house for a hundred years. (laughter)
AM I guess that is true.
RA I did a film called Kansas City. I love that film. But it failed miserably for a couple of reasons. I should be the critic; I can tell you what’s wrong with it: I told the story backwards and you have to see it twice to get it. And another thing was that for people who love jazz, that’s all they wanted. They didn’t want to mess around with any story. While action fans, who would have gone with the story, thought there was too much music in it—they’re not jazz fans. When you say, “Do you dig jazz?” a lot of people are intimidated because they’re afraid that there’s something they don’t know. They don’t know how simple it is. You don’t have to be able to sit down and discuss Bix Biederbech to swing with the music. It’s just a cultural marketing problem. We have so many films, so much product. It’s all just candy—too much of it. It’s a problem because it costs so much money to make the goddamn things. A painter or a composer can sit there himself with very little investment of cash and, with just as much time and talent, make what he makes. Of course, then it has to be marketed too. But film starts out with millions of dollars. And these people who put up the millions of dollars for you are only interested in getting it back. You run into a couple of exceptions, always, but whether you’re making the crassest commercial film or you’re making a real piece of art, it’s all put in the same pot.
AM What about your film, Secret Honor, about Nixon? That’s a film I’m sure you knew was going to have a limited audience.
RA And it had literally, yeah, no audience. It’s just one person and you don’t know who that person is. It’s not Harrison Ford.
AM Well, the theater I saw it in Manhattan was packed. (laughter)
RA Yeah, it does that. I mean I love that film and we sell it around Europe a lot.
AM When I saw it the theater was very crowded and everyone was taking their seats and someone was calling to their friend, “Pat, Pat, over here.” And someone else called out “Tricia, Tricia.” (laughter) The amazing thing about that film is the relentless relationship between Nixon and the camera. It’s like a bull and a matador. Did it feel like that during the shoot?
RA I don’t know if that’s the comparison I would make, but it was certainly different.
AM He just seemed to be coming at the camera a lot.
RA Yeah, but you’ve got to understand that actor carried it off because our takes were running as long as he could go, or as long as the camera had film in it. We had to do it that way because we didn’t have any other way to go. We set up those television monitors and that got me some cutaways. Otherwise, with one actor, it’s very hard to edit it. But Philip Baker Hall’s performance—he just played that thing like a fine-tuned Stradivarius.
AM It was also one of the first films to look at Nixon and his myth. There have been TV mini-series since then, and Oliver Stone, obviously. But when you go back to that film there’s a fresh view of Nixon just several years, really, after the resignation. Ten years.
RA It was a very gutsy kind of piece. You had to sense that guy was all alone.
AM It was all texts from Nixon’s writing, right?
RA Everything in there was truthful.
AM Have you worked with Hall in other films?
RA No, he’s a good friend of mine and I keep looking for parts for him. It’s just a matter of finding a film with the right part. He’s now with, what’s his name? Paul Anderson?
AM The director of Boogie Nights.
RA Do you see your influence in Boogie Nights?
RA Yeah. Anderson is very outspoken about that: “Oh I just ripped you off.”
AM I was wondering how you feel about that.
RA Well, I’m flattered by it. It doesn’t upset me in any way; au contraire. I think he does terrific work. I don’t think Boogie Nights was as good as his first film, called Hard Eight. You saw the indulgence, when he did something he just couldn’t cut it out. But he’s a very talented guy and I think you’re going to see some wonderful stuff come out from him.
AM Another great actor you work with is Julianne Moore, who was also in Boogie Nights, and who you worked with on Short Cuts and in Cookie’s Fortune. She is a revelation to me.
RA Isn’t she great?
AM She has one of the most incredible, nuanced faces in movies.
RA Well, the thing about Julianne is that she does not look at this work—many of these people do—like it has to be a glamorous thing. She’s an actor. And she acts. And she plays those roles. And she loves to do it. And she doesn’t have any sense of, “Oh no, I’m not going to look good in this so I won’t do it.” She’s just a real, real fine actor.
AM The scene in Short Cuts where she’s half-naked and ironing is just one of the most incredible scenes because it completely desexualizes nudity. I think it took a lot of guts.
RA Well, it did. It certainly did. The history of that part is kind of interesting because I knew exactly what I wanted and how it had to be done—for a change. I offered that part first to Madeleine Stowe. I said, “Before you even consider this, just know that you’ve got to be naked from the waist down for about five minutes in this picture. So if you feel you can’t handle that then you should just … but that’s what it is.” And Madeleine called me back and said, “Bob, I just can’t do it. I don’t have any problem with the nudity. Standing there like that I am just afraid I couldn’t concentrate. I’d be too self-conscious.” And I said, “Well, that’s fine. I understand that,” and I gave her another part. Then I called up Julianne, who I had not worked with but I almost put her in The Player. I told her, “Before I tell you what this film’s about, I got to tell you, you’ve got to be naked from the waist down for about five minutes on screen. And if … ” And she paused for a second and she said, “I can handle that.” And I said, “Great. I’ll send you the script and you can tell me what you think of it and we’ll charge ahead.”
AM It was a kind of terrific moment because it got to the everydayness of nudity.
RA I felt it was a very important thing. I mean for Julianne’s character to be talking to her husband about a sexual indiscretion in her marriage, making these admissions and standing there totally unself-conscious, naked.
RA Ironing, yeah. It was just delicious.
AM I think there are those kinds of moments throughout your movies, moments when action seems to be taking place in the margins instead of being declaimed from center stage. This gets to that famous issue of when people mumble or the sound editing is not clear; film is one of the few places where you can have that kind of uncertainty and misinterpretation. In text you can’t. What are you going to do? Print funny letters? You have to write words.
RA People feel they have to know everything and when there’s an obscure point … People come to me about Cookie and ask, “Did Julianne know what she was doing? Did she do that on purpose? What was that?” And I say, “Jesus, I don’t know. Sometimes I see it and I think that she really was getting back at her sister and other times I don’t. I don’t know.” And they say, “How can you not know?” I say, “Well, how should I know?” But people feel they’re supposed to know everything. You’ll find certain critics will just not deal in an area where they’re supposed to have an answer. So they just pass it over. It’s very funny. People will say, “Oh, this is not an important picture. It’s a good picture. It’s interesting. But it’s not serious.” Well, the reason they say it’s not serious is because it doesn’t pretend to be about what we consider a serious subject.
AM The big subjects.
RA The big subjects, yeah. We’d lose some of our best paintings if these guys hadn’t just sat down and painted a flower that morning.
AM It seems to me that the uncertainties in dialogue, the overlapping conversations, are the moments that really draw you into a movie. You were talking about the idea that someone might want to see a film twice. These are the moments that draw you in, when you speculate and your mind starts to work. You have the delicious sense that you’re eavesdropping on lives.
RA Oh yeah, because that’s a very natural part of our curiosity, that kind of behavior. People get it; not to say they don’t get it. But I do find that critics often just don’t want to have to ponder, “What was that about?” If I say, “I don’t know,” they get insecure and they simply won’t touch certain areas.
AM I think of things I’ve read about Three Women. People often ask, “What exactly happens in that movie?” I’ve seen it a few times and I’m not sure exactly what happens psychologically and emotionally. But I keep seeing it because it’s a puzzle.
RA It’s a puzzle and at different times in your life and your experiences, you should be able to look at it and see different things in it. That’s what a painting does. How else can you have a painting hanging on a wall in your house for God knows how long? Every time you see it there are different things in it. You’re not supposed to know all the answers. I certainly don’t want to know all the answers.
AM You satirized TV news documentaries in Nashville. But in many of your films, you play with documentary film techniques.
RA It seems to me that what I’m doing in those things is showing the situation. Once we set up the situation, we shoot it in the way you would a documentary.
RA Then it’s up to the character’s behavior. And there’s no way we’re going to know all the answers to everything, nor should we. People who have to write or talk about films professionally are often afraid of saying, “This thing just washes over you. Just watch it.” There isn’t a right way or a wrong way to get it. There’s no end result. At no time am I saying, “This is what it’s about.” Rather, here’s the way it occurs to me. Here’s the way it seems to me that this kind of behavior exists. An actor will do something in this scene and I’ll say, “Goddamn it, that’s right. That smells right.” And it stays. People’ll say, “What did she actually mean by that?” And I don’t know what my wife meant this morning when I left for work; she called me a name she had never called me before. And should I fret about that? Probably.
AM People are unsettled by mystery in art—the lack of simple declarative sentences.
RA Yeah. But do they want that?
AM I don’t know, but it sometimes seems people want a little ticker-tape summary that would print out at the end of the movie under the screen.
RA And it’d say, “This means that murder is evil.” But instead, it’s what it is.
AM I was thinking about the fact that you spent a lot of years directing Whirlybirds and Bonanza and Route 66 and Gallant Men. What were things you took from your TV work and what did you rebel against?
RA I didn’t rebel against much except for the things I felt weren’t truthful. I used most of that time to learn my craft. With most of the television, I would try to find obscure things. For a couple of episodes of The Millionaire I said, I’m going to make this one so sexy under the surface. They won’t be able to pin it, but it really should be censored. We’d literally do things like that. The work I did in television, the successful pieces, all had to do with that kind of working under the surface. Showing things in a real way they just couldn’t nail me on. They couldn’t turn around and say, “Were you suggesting a homosexual situation?” ’Cause I would answer, “Did I say that? Audiences are funny.”
AM It seems like you did some rebelling.
RA With everything I do there’s a question: Is this the way it really is? Do the bad guys have to be real bad? Do the good guys have to be real good? I don’t believe so. I don’t think it’s all cut that easily. It’s of no interest to me to be a teacher, or a moralist, or a propagandist.
AM You brought a fresh kind of realism to film in the ’70s, the way action takes place around the edges. Whereas in television and most movies, there still is this proscenium stage.
AM A character talks and everybody else in the frame listens to them. That is not the way it happens. Is the driving impulse behind that realism? Or is it a stylistic impulse?
RA Oh, I don’t think it’s realism, I think it’s the illusion of reality. I try to say, “This to me is the way it more likely is.” It’s very hard to get over the convention of being taught, of needing to hear everything. It doesn’t make any difference. You don’t have to hear that line. You know what’s going on, don’t you? People who work with me might say, “We should make something more clear.” And I say, “Why? Why do you have to have these answers?”
AM The textures and the sound of Elliott Gould’s mumbling in The Long Goodbye are more important than what he’s actually saying.
RA Absolutely, no question about it. In that film, Elliott and l said, “This isn’t Philip Marlowe we’re playing; this is Rip Van Winkle.” This guy’s been asleep for 20 years and he wakes up to this culture that he just doesn’t know anything about. This is all new stuff to him. So he’s just going through the picture saying, “Oh, it’s okay with me.”
AM The thing I love in that film is that the neighboring apartment with the girls is itself a comic satire on Southern California lifestyles. You never quite catch what it is they’re doing until one of the last scenes, in which you see that they seem to be involved in nude yoga.
RA Well, they’re into all that New Age stuff that was going on. I still see people spending an extraordinary amount of time on fad culture.
AM But it’s in the corner of the movie. It’s not like the movie steps out and says, “This is something goofy going on in Southern California.” It’s almost there by way of accident. It’s like, these are this guy’s real neighbors, what do you want me to do about it?
RA Yeah, I’m sorry, but that’s where he lives.
AM TV is rigorously plot driven, and I think of your films as having a controlled chaos. There’s a lot going on in the margins, but there’s always literary control that feels very efficient in the way TV drama does.
RA I don’t know how to comment on that: What I do is what I do, and what everybody else does is what they do. I don’t think that the art any of us do gets better. I think your technique and your efficiency improve from picture to picture, but if you get too facile with it, then the art can get lost. The art has to come from someplace that you are not aware of. If I know what I’m saying in every one of these films and what this means and that means, then they’re not very good. I have to be innocent, truthfully innocent, as well. Stuff happens and people say, “When you did this, did you mean this?” And I say, “No, I don’t know what I meant, it’s just what occurred to me at the time and it seemed right and I said, “That’s right, that’s what we’ll do.” Because all of these good ideas, every decent thing that’s ever happened in any one of my films has, in most cases, come from someone else other than myself. Either an actor or a crew member.
AM So you create opportunities.
RA Yeah. You set up all these living people who have four dimensions, each one of them, and they take the place of a two-dimensional character. What’s written on the page is really two dimensional at that point. Then they come in and, if it’s a 30-year-old person, then they have 30 years experience of hiding things and being frustrated by things and trying to say things. And I think that the actors are the real spokesmen for films and theater. Mostly films. Because they come out and bring a depth to it that the original author could not write.
AM And does that get better when you work with people in film after film?
RA I think they get better as long as they can keep an edge on and they’re working, they’re doing what they became actors for in the first place. That’s the requirement. Because I don’t know what these people have in their minds. An actor comes on, and once I get a film fully cast, about 50 percent of my creative input is finished. I’m turning it over to them. Because I want to see something that I’ve never seen before. I’m trying to lead the audience through that kind of awe—the awe that I have.
AM Is that something that requires a lot of takes?
RA No, no. I don’t think a lot of takes makes a lot of difference. I will do another take if an actors says, “Listen, I’ve got more to say than that. I can do better.” So I’ll say, “Fine. Show me.” Because I don’t know whether they can or not. But they’re the ones who are doing it. And I’m sitting there watching them, watching something new.
AM You got a lot of great performances out of the cast in Cookie’s Fortune. I’ve already said that I thought Julianne Moore was terrific.
RA Yeah, wasn’t she?
AM I thought that Charles Dutton was also really, really fine. Glenn Close I couldn’t quite figure out at times. It was not a character I’ve seen her do before; but she was also marvelous.
RA Well, she stuck her neck out a lot. Different people will hit different levels of reality. This is a farce and we did some very far out things. For instance, her hand in the cookie jar thing. I simply couldn’t resist that. And I thought, “Oh this’ll never make the cut.” But we chose to use it. Now in Europe, that doesn’t mean a thing because they have no reference to a hand in the cookie jar.
AM They don’t have that cultural reference.
RA No. But it doesn’t make any difference. They see it as something else a little more cinematic than footnote-ish. That was the extreme. But why can’t I do that? We have to set a tone in all these things. You have to set boundaries of what these films are. And they’re all exaggerations of reality, especially of timed reality. So we’re fooling around all the time and some people are going to criticize us for it and others will get caught up in it.
AM There’s a great moment when Glenn Close brainwashes Julianne Moore. It was a great comic moment, and a very sinister moment, and it’s taking place amid this carnage.
RA Yeah, it was meant to be.
AM You didn’t know whether to be sad because this woman has just committed suicide, or because her niece is having this slightly psychotic reaction. It had the dimensions of a very funny psychotic breakdown.
RA Well, Glenn made it so that it paid off. All I can say is, “This is what I want to do.” And then if someone says, “Oh, that’s bullshit,” or, “I didn’t like that,” or, “You were over the top,” then I have to think, Aw shucks, they missed it. But I can’t do much about that.
AM I wanted to ask you about blues music. It seems to have more of a presence in your movies, in Cookie’s Fortune and Kansas City. Is this a legacy of your hometown?
RA No, the blues in Cookie are Delta blues. They were very authentic. Dave Stewart is a student of Delta blues, he made a documentary about eight years ago—down in that same town.
RA Holly Springs. There’s Junior Kimbro’s joint that’s out there.
AM That’s been photographed, yeah.
RA It’s quite famous. Although we paraphrased it. We built that set. The actual Junior Cessionie set we made. We had to build the jail in an existing place, but everything else—and the music—is of that area. I wanted the music to set the tone and the tempo. One of the big things people have said in the reviews is, it starts off so slow but it gets better, and then it’s okay. We’re trained that after 16 minutes of screen time, if there isn’t some explosion or something, you’re in trouble. But I couldn’t do it with Cookie’s Fortune. I had to let a pace be found and it had to be real and it couldn’t come from me, I couldn’t force it. So that’s what happens with those things and you just hope you hit a nerve. And in this case audiences get it, they like it. Nothing could thrill me more.
AM In Short Cuts it seems like blues music functioned like a Greek chorus between the stories.
RA Yes, it did and those songs were all telling the same kind of story. They were very off-the-beaten-path stuff.
AM You know, I am one of those people who have seen your films more than once.
RA Well, then you know what I mean. The first time you see a film you’re playing whodunit and the second time you’ll be able to look in the corners and deal with the details of it and that’s the real fun of it. That’s what I think the art is; the real things, the real message—although there are no messages. But the real message is, Look back here. See what’s going on back here. Everything that you’re told out front is covering something else up.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.