Penthouse Retrospective

by Lawrence Linderman Originally Published: January, 1981

Robert Altman | 40 Years Ago This Month

When a subject like that interests me, I’ll ask questions of myself to find out what my misconceptions are about it, because I generally tend to think the same things most people think. I’ll agree that some guy’s an asshole and another one’s a jerk because of what I’ve read in newspapers, and on Power & Light — which is what we’re planning to call the film — I know that my own first impressions were “Oh, they’re probably just a bunch of dykes.” You find out what your own prejudicial thoughts are, and then you go out and discover what the truth is, and that’s really a fine experience. I know once a project gets going I’ll suddenly start seeing articles about female blue-collar workers, and maybe I’ll start hearing piano music, for instance, and I’ll start looking at pianos. And the next thing I know I’ve got one of these girl electricians as a piano player. It all comes together.

That sounds as if your subconscious eventually lets you in on what you’re thinking.

It does, and you have to trust it. In a lot of areas, I really tell myself, “I can solve this problem by going to sleep tonight.” And that will turn out to be true, which is why people say, “Let’s sleep on it.” You let it come out. I think I’ve hated every film of mine the first time I’ve seen it, but I don’t get into a panic about it. After seeing one of my films, I’ll go to sleep thinking about it, and I’ll literally stay in a halfway dream state all night long. And I know that I’m going to put my finger on what the problem might be and that it will be solved. The answer’s going to come, probably by morning, and if I haven’t come up with the solution, at least I’ll have the confidence to know that it’ll be there soon enough.

“The movie business has really become an ugly business, and it used to be a nice, glamorous, attractive industry. No more.”

You’re saying that you never enjoy your films the first time you see them?

Oh, it’s a terrible experience. The first time I look at one of my films, I’ll think, “Oh, shit!” because there will be a lot of things in it that I don’t like. But that’s part of making pictures. I think the real value of making a film is to look at all the dailies before they’re edited. The people who work on a film go in at the end of the day and look at all the footage. And you see the mistakes and the good things, and you see everything repeated many times, and pretty soon it’s all in your mind like a Thomas Wolfe novel. But then the film progressively gets worse as you refine it, because you’re progressively getting it pared down to where uninterested parties will become interested in it. But that’s probably necessary — unless you were part of the company when we made Buffalo Bill and the Indians, it would bore you to death if you were to watch four hours of Sitting Bull’s entrance.

But finally, when a film is finished there’s an obligation to the people who made it to get it released, to get it seen. That’s why I feel the way I do about Health, for everyone involved in it — from the cast to the art director to the old people in Florida who were extras — went into the movie blindly. They didn’t have control of all parts of that film. I did. Well, as long as the film isn’t seen, somewhere in his mind that art director, for example, is going to have his doubts about whether or not he did his work well.

Doesn’t it bother you in the same way?

No. It would have years ago, but I have a lot of barnacles on me. If I did a film and I couldn’t find one person on earth who liked it, I guess I’d never do another one. But if I can find one person who’s seen one of my movies and who says, “Jesus, I walked out of the theater and didn’t eat for four days, and your picture was all I could think about, so I went back and saw it again,” well, that’s enough. That’s really all that’s necessary. I’ll know it’s good because a guy in Dayton, Ohio liked it, and that’s a man who would know. My ego can adjust to that, and so can everyone else’s. That minor response is fine, because at least you know you’re not shouting into space.

Movie executives would undoubtedly reply that even low-budget films now cost several million dollars to produce and millions more to advertise. Faced with those hard facts of life, can you realistically expect the studios to finance films that have a limited audience at best?

They have to! They have an obligation to do it. They’re resisting that obligation right now, and if they continue to do so, they will have destroyed much of the audience they hope to draw from. Going back to Charlton Heston’s comment, I want to say that it’s my responsibility not to be a victim and to protect the victim, which in this case might be films and the people who make them. I don’t know how to explain it, but there are some things you just have to do, or else everything you’ve done is worthless; it would be like saying that I don’t really care at all about films and I never did care. Look, I have done films that people have responded to, and I’ve seen people change as a result of films they’ve seen. It’s like I really got to those people, like I wasn’t trying to reach them but I did reach them.

And that’s the only reason for making films. Making money is not the reason to make films, but people who do it only for money cannot understand that. But somehow, those old guys who once ran Hollywood understood it. They also knew that actors would probably work for nothing, because they love their work. You want to know something? The guys who are running the studios today don’t even know that!

You can take a look at the Filmography of Mr. Altman, and see why we believe he should have won Best Director awards a few times over the years. Of course you can also read an early interview with Burt Reynolds in these pages as well. He might not have deserved so many Academy awards, but golly he could be fun.

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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