Penthouse Retrospective

by Lawrence Linderman Originally Published: January, 1981

Robert Altman | 40 Years Ago This Month

A number of Hollywood observers believe that Popeye will turn out to be the biggest, most commercially successful film of your career to date. Do you feel that way about it?

Well, it’s a tacky little film, as a matter of fact.

A tacky film?

It is. The only thing that makes it a big film, other than being expensive because of the logistics involved, is that it’s a big, presold thing. I daresay that if Evans, Feiffer, and I had had the genius — which is what it would have taken — to start from scratch and create the film that exists now, it would have fallen into the category of being understood by a very, very elite few.

I think that if there had never been an Elzie Segar and a Popeye comic strip, the film would have failed commercially, because people would have said, “Well, what the hell is this? What is it supposed to be?” They’d have no relationship to this fantasy. But because Popeye has a presold audience, it isn’t going to be hard to get people into theaters to see it, and it gave us the chance to do what we wanted with the picture. I mean, there are some marvelous moments in this picture. But if people had no pre-knowledge of Popeye, and if we had created this kind of comic, clownlike place, people would really claim it as a masterpiece — and it would be! So what you have to say is that the genius in the piece is Segar’s, and if we succeeded in making Popeye really good, it’s because we took Seger’s idea and, let us hope, did it well.

Popeye could very well turn out to be a continuing film character, like James Bond. Are you planning to direct a sequel?

No, I’m not. They’re making sequels to everything. I mean, I expect to see a sequel to The Day the World Ended. My own history is that after a logistically difficult film, I try to do a simple little film dealing more with people and contemporary things. I kind of feel that after Popeye I’ll probably go somewhere in America and do a nice film where I can shoot on location, rather than build sets.

In a recent Penthouse interview, Charlton Heston said he feels that one of the problems with current movies is that they’re usually about victims, not heroes. Do you think that’s true?

Well, I think traditional kinds of heroes came at times when there were frontiers. By that, I don’t mean locales but new areas to cross, whether in medicine, law, architecture, or art. Today, I think a hero is someone who’s a victim — and who chooses to rise above that. And I don’t think the success of his effort is what makes him a hero; I think it’s the desire to rise above being a victim. In McCabe and Mrs. Miller, I thought McCabe was a hero. McCabe was dumb, and I doubt that he had the IQ to be a hero, but I bet he had the heart to be one. The fact that he failed makes him no less a hero than Popeye. I did a film about Buffalo Bill a few years ago, and I think he was a hero, who unfortunately got mired down when he started to believe his own publicity. And the Essex character in Quintet was also a hero.

Buffalo Bill and Essex were both played by Paul Newman, which brings up an interesting point. By now it’s fairly common knowledge that any number of well-known actors are willing to accept less than their usual film salaries in order to work with Robert Altman. What do you think is responsible for that?

I think I give them respect and credit for being intelligent. I admire actors, and I feel they’re the most important element in a film. I’m not an actor, and I could not be an actor; I just don’t know how they do it. I ask actors to contribute artistically to a film, and I do that for a selfish reason: to get the most input from them that I can. If I hire talented actors, I want to use as much of their range of talent as possible and not limit them to what I think. Most actors enjoy working with me, but that’s not true of all of them.

Why not?

Well, because of my reputation they may come into a film expecting some magic to happen, and instead they’ll wind up thinking, “Gee, this guy doesn’t even know what he wants.” A lot of times I’ll work with actors who I know are highly talented because I’ve seen their work on the screen, but I won’t be able to communicate with them at all. I can look into their eyes when we’re talking, and I’ll know they think I’m crazy. For some reason, there will be a communication gap, and I don’t think it’s their fault; if anybody’s to blame it’s me, but I don’t even think it’s my fault. It’ll just be one of those cases where two people don’t connect.

“The movie business is in terrible shape. It’s at the point just before total destruction. It’II be just like Broadway, which has become a joke.”

Actors in your films often wind up writing a lot of their own dialogue, which in the past has caused you a lot of problems with certain screen-writers. Why do you do that?

I take the position that a script is like a guide or an artist’s rendering and that you make changes within it as you make the film. Screenwriters are told or taught or propagandized to believe that, by God, they write the screenplay and directors should go out and shoot exactly what they write. Well, I was the original author of Images, Three Women, and Quintet, and speaking as both a writer and a director, I don’t agree with that. Film is not a medium where a person sits down and reads something and that’s the end of it. In movies the writer is part of the construction process. He’s one of the engineers. He does a sort of blueprint, and then these other people come in, and we build a building. You start out with a screenplay and say, “This is what I want,” but by the time you put ten actors into it, it has to change a little bit to get the most out of the actors.

Many of us have a list of movie directors we think should have won an Acadamy Award by now. Some of us here think Robert Altman should have won it three times. Maybe four.

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