“The movie business is now a cheap carnival sideshow, and the only people who are concerned with the content of films are the people who actually make them. The people who sell films don’t think like that.”
Altman: The Penthouse Interview
By now, Robert Altman has long since established himself as America’s most innovative and provocative filmmaker. The director of M*A*S*H, Nashville, and nearly a dozen other movies, Altman has a highly personal film following — and a highly personal film signature. Altman films are largely improvised, often indifferent about plot structure, and usually feature sound tracks with two or three characters talking at once. They don’t make movies like that anymore and never did, which is probably why Bob Altman’s work invariably sparks passionate critical debate.
A burly 55-year old, Altman has a well-earned reputation for being an outspoken maverick who takes no guff from anyone; yet he’s extraordinarily kind to the actors he employs. Carol Burnett, who’s appeared in two Altman films, says, “I think my best film work has been for Bob Altman, and it’s not surprising: he gives you so much confidence you’re not afraid to stick your neck out. I loved working with him, but that isn’t unusual — Did you ever hear of an actor who didn’t?”
Still, except for M*A*S*H and Nashville, most Altman movies have turned out to be exercises in red ink. Although cinema connoisseurs may have loved them, such Altman works as McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, Three Women, Images, and Thieves Like Us failed to generate any enthusiasm at box offices, while still others, such as Buffalo Bill and the Indians, Brewster McCloud, Quintet, and A Perfect Couple, didn’t win favor even among his fans. Altman, however, seems to care very little about how his movies fare. Says America’s most prolific director, “I’m happiest when I’m working, which is why I like to make movies: it’s fun.”
Born and raised in Kansas City, Mo., Altman was smitten by films the first time he saw King Kong, but in those days the sons of midwestern jewelers did not grow up and hop planes to the West Coast. Instead, Altman studied mathematical engineering at junior college, after which he served as a B-24 bomber pilot during World War II. Following his discharge, Altman spent two years — in Hollywood and in New York — trying to be a screenwriter and then went back home to Kansas City, where he spent the next eight years working for an industrial film company.
In 1957 Altman coproduced a documentary, The James Dean Story, and when Alfred Hitchcock saw it, he immediately signed Altman on as a director for his television series. During the next six years Altman directed hundreds of episodes of such shows as Combat, Bonanza, and The Whirlybirds. He finally got his first shot at a feature film in 1963. The movie was called Countdown — it starred a new-comer named James Caan — and Altman was fired because he allowed actors to speak simultaneously, believing it would add realism to the film. He wasn’t hired as a director again until 1968, when he made That Cold Day in the Park, a murky suspense drama that starred Sandy Dennis. Altman’s next movie was M*A*S*H, and almost overnight he became the talk of the film world.
To interview Altman, Penthouse sent free-lancer Lawrence Linderman to meet with the director in Los Angeles. “When I met him, 11 Linderman notes, “Altman was on the verge of his biggest film success — and biggest film failure. Health, a satirical comedy starring Lauren Bacall, hadn’t been released by Twentieth Century-Fox since being completed almost a year earlier, and it seemed certain the studio was about to give it a permanent deep six. At the same time, Popeye, starring Robin Williams in the title role, was being readied for a Christmas release, and all reports on the film indicated it would almost surely become the biggest box office winner of Altman’s career. When I met Robert Altman at the informal offices of Lion’s Gate Films, the company he owns, he was busily putting the final touches on the forthcoming Popeye. Rather than waste any time in the way of preliminaries, we immediately got right down to cases and began our conversation.
Most American film critics compare you with Fellini and Bergman, and each time you come out with a new movie they knock themselves out describing how brilliant — or terrible — they think your work is. How do you react to all that scrutiny?
I react emotionally, but let me first say that I really don’t think any of my films are brilliant or important. I don’t think they mean much more than an experience to the people who made them. I also find that the awkwardness at certain points in my films — things that didn’t work exactly the way I wanted them to — cannot be subtracted without destroying the rest of the film. To me, those moments become part of the positiveness of the film, and I wouldn’t go back and change anything. I mean, you could see one of my movies and tell me, “Look, Bob, I think you probably could have milked more out of this particular situation,” but those are like flaws — or imagined flaws — in a person. If you have a child who seems tall for his age, you might say to yourself, “I hope he doesn’t grow up to be six foot eight.” But if he becomes six foot eight, you say, “That’s my boy!”
Is that the way you feel about your movies?
I feel that way about all of them. It’s the same way you fall in love: you might recognize that a person has a lot of flaws, but many times those become the most endearing parts of someone you love. In terms of my films, I don’t think I’m striving for a kind of perfection where everyone will sit back and say, “Oh, that’s wonderful.” That’s impossible to do, anyway.