Penthouse Retrospective

by Lawrence Linderman Originally Published: January, 1981

Robert Altman | 40 Years Ago This Month

Why not get the most out of your writer?

Let me use M*A*S*H as an example: Ring Lardner, Jr., who wrote the screenplay, got very angry at me because he’d written Hawkeye Pierce as a guy from Maine, and Ring was very meticulous about the New England speech patterns and expressions that Hawkeye used. Well, we hired Donald Sutherland, a Canadian, to play that part, and he wasn’t comfortable with a lot of that dialogue, so I immediately changed it to fit what Donald was comfortable with. Ring got very mad about that, because he felt that an actor should be good enough to act a part as written — and Donald is good enough to do that. But to me it didn’t make any difference to the story we were telling whether Hawkeye was from Maine or not. There are so many other things that will also cause you to alter a screen-play, and they include the locale, the weather, the shooting schedule, and the budget.

Probably the most accurate description I can give you of the moviemaking process is that it’s like building a sand castle. You go down to the beach, and you decide to build a sand castle, and you call some friends in to help you. At least I do: I wouldn’t build a sand castle alone. I’ll get as many friends together as I can, and we’ll start working on it, and if some stranger comes down to the beach, I’ll say, “Hey, you want to help?” And then we’ll work our asses off and somebody’ll do the moat, and somebody else will do the windows, and it’ll turn out that the sonofabitch is no good at windows, so we’ll get somebody else to do the windows. Then, just when we think we’re about done, a big piece of the sand castle will cave in, and I’ll get pissed off and wonder why I started the goddamn thing in the first place. But finally you finish it, and you’re happy about it-and then the tide suddenly comes in and washes it away, and you say, “Okay, we did all right, and it was fun. Let’s go have a few beers.” Making movies is that kind of experience to me.

After filming The Long Goodbye, you said that Raymond Chandler’s plots served only as an opportunity for him to present a series of thumbnail essays. Do you think that might be true of your own work as well?

Sure it is, and I also think that several of my films could be described as essays. For instance, I’d always wanted to do a film on gambling, and California Split gave me an opportunity to delve into that world. I think it’s a very good film, and that there’s a certain documentary quality to it. Matter of fact, when it was edited for television, almost all the parts with the girls were cut out of it, and most of the language was censored for TY as well; anyone seeing it for the first time had to believe they were watching a documentary about gambling. But they also had to wonder what George Segal and Elliott Gould were doing in it, because there was absolutely no story left when the censors finished chopping it up.

Why do film studios allow their movies to be treated like that?

Because it’s a by-product they sell, and they just don’t care. A Wedding was mutilated even worse than California Split; the TV version of that film had nothing to do with the movie — and I mean nothing! In prime time the networks censor language, and syndicated TV sales are worse, because that’s when a movie runs into local stations and local blue laws. It’s a horrible situation. The one guy who’s really been smart about all this is Woody Allen. He won’t make a picture unless there’s a clause in his contract that says the film can never be sold to television. He makes less money up front because the film company has to figure in their loss of TV rights, but that’s his deal, and more power to him.

Have you talked to film studios about how you’d like your movies shown on television?

Sure I have, but there’s really no talking to these people. You make an appointment for a meeting, you show up — and they don’t listen to what you say. They don’t want people like me there, because all we do is inhibit them. I’m sure there are some good guys at the studios, but if they’re there, I haven’t met them.

Faced with all this adversity, can you still get excited about making movies?

Oh sure, because they’re different each time, even down to the technical things, like trying for a new effect or seeing a landscape and envisioning what you’re going to put into it and how it’s going to look on film. And I still find it amazing to watch actors transform themselves into characters before a camera. It’s always exciting. I can look at something and say, “How do you do that?” and that’ll be enough to get me started on a film — the fact that I don’t know how to do it. Popeye was like that, it intrigued me because no one knew what it would look like as a film. It’s really hard to explain this, because it’s almost like trying to describe a dream. It’s vague. There are too many veils there, but you know something’s behind it, even though you’re not quite sure what it is until you do it.

Do you see yourself as a catalyst — someone who brings a cast and crew together and then helps cause a kind of magic to take place?

Well, I call it releasing the pigeon — once you let it go, then everything goes. You know something’s going to happen, and something will happen. That’s also the way I choose my films. I don’t try to be a barometer of the times and say, “Oh, this would be a good subject to deal with now.” Instead, somebody will tell me, “Gee, the other day I was out driving, and I saw three power and — light trucks stopped on the highway, and five guys were taking a coffee break, and up on this electric pole, splicing some high-tension wire together, was this girl with a hard hat on and hair down to her ass.” That’s roughly the way I started investigating the subject of women who work in blue-collar jobs and why they do it. More than likely, that will be the next movie I’ll do.

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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