Robert Altman interview: ‘If I made a film that everybody liked it would be pretty terrible’

Robert Altman was interviewed by Geoff Andrew at the National Film Theatre on Wednesday 24 January 2001 as the highlight of a two-month tribute to the director. 

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Robert Altman filming MASH (1970)

Robert Altman filming MASH (1970)

Of the major American directors who first found an audience in the 60s and early 70s, Robert Altman is undeniably one of the most idiosyncratic, influential and stubbornly independent. Aged 75 he shows no sign of selling out, let alone giving up making films: his work remains almost defiantly youthful.

He was a late starter, but once he got going he certainly made up for lost time. The real breakthrough was 1970’s MASH. Then followed a remarkable string of films which typified American cinema at its best. Altman’s abiding preoccupation lies in analysing the murky social, economic, political and ethical realities barely concealed by the mythic American Dream, which he explores with great wit and intuition.

Before the interview, clips from four of Robert Altman’s films were shown: McCabe and Mrs Miller, Nashville, Secret Honour and The Player.

An American filmmaker?

Geoff Andrew: I’ve always felt that there is a personal signature to your films and I tried to explore what that was in those clips. Do you ever feel that you had a personal signature, a certain style or themes that you kept coming back to?

Robert Altman: No. I… In fact, I’d done six or seven films and I was so smug and proud of myself because I thought that none of these films are alike, they’re all different, I’m not repeating myself and there is no way to know that this film came from me unless my name is on it. Then, ten, twelve films more I think, ‘Hmm…’ These are all chapters of the same book, you really can’t escape your own fingerprints being all over them.

GA: Do you not like analysing your work too much because you think you might lose something?

RA: Well, it’s not that…I just don’t think that anything I could say can really be truthful. Somebody’ll say, ‘Didn’t you do that? Look at the film,’ and I’ll say, ‘Oh yeah! That’s right. That’s pretty good!’ I’ll read what the critics say and I’ll say, ‘Oh. Did I do that? Oh…yeah…I must’ve.’

But I think that any kind of work like this you don’t think about those things. It’s instinctive, it comes from yourself and consequently it has to bear your fingerprints. Whether that’s good or bad I don’t know. I often wish I could make a new film and have it come out without my signature on it so that the critics couldn’t open up and say, ‘Well. This certainly wasn’t Nashville.’ But that’s what happens — you get compared to yourself because you are yourself and, ultimately, so what?

GA: I said you were an American filmmaker. Would you agree with that?

RA: Well I would have been proud of that several years ago, I think since November I’m not very proud of that…

GA: You’ve also been characterised as a maverick or a rebel, have you ever regarded yourself as a maverick or a rebel?

RA: No, I…no. I think those sobriquets are applied to people who just…I don’t know…I don’t think there’s anything particularly rebellious about it. I think you can say that just being an artist, you’re not doing what someone else has done. If that’s what you are then that’s what it is. When I say ‘artist’ I don’t mean artist with a capital ‘A’. You’re doing something that is unique, and it is something as unique as your fingerprints, and you can not avoid it, you can’t not be who you are, so, you know, what’s all the fuss about?

GA: Did you, when you were making industrial documentaries in Kansas City for all those years, consider yourself an artist then? Was it very frustrating for you?

RA: I never felt I was an artist. I didn’t wake up one morning and think, ‘Well, I’m an artist, so I will go and make this industrial film in this manner.’ I was ambitious and I liked…At first I was in awe of actors, and then I came to love actors, I came to sort of understand how really courageous they are. They’re the ones that stand up there naked. It’s not me. It really is an actor’s medium. We talk about the writers and the directors, but it’s not really correct.

GA: We have some of your actors here tonight. Would you like to say who they are?

RA: Oh, they’re just great actors and great people, I don’t think they want to be singled out. It’s great being able to have the same kind of experience with a member of parliament and an Irish renegade — so I’ve got Glenda Jackson and Ken Branagh. Where else can you run into those people and have a really wonderful experience with them other than in what we do?

GA: It is said you like an improvisational style of filming. Do you still do that?

RA: Everything, I think, is always the same. I don’t do anything different to what I always did. I think rarely have I turned and camera on and suggested that the people out front just do something. Improvisation is a tool that the actors use and we use, just as the script is a tool. It is exactly the same thing.

When you go and buy the Samuel French copy of the play, what you’re really getting is the play as it was performed on the opening night. You back that up to when the rehearsals started and I’ll guarantee you that much of the writing comes from the improvisation that occurs in the natural process of putting this thing together.

GA: In a film like Nashville you used a lot of different cameras, the actors didn’t know if what they were doing was going to be in the film or not, you were pushing American commercial filmmaking to a new limit…

RA: Well, I don’t think it was commercial…We were trying to be, of course. A film like Nashville is not about the words that are said, the dialogue that is used is part of the behaviour of the actors. It is very important, but I don’t think it makes much difference whether one says this line or this line. Sorry, Julian….

GA: That’s the writer of the next film [Julian Fellowes]. Looking at that clip of Nashville with Ronnee Blakely doing that amazing breakdown scene and then you get the audience booing her, they know she’s been in hospital but they boo her. It’s not a very flattering portrait of the audience.

RA: Audiences are cruel…believe me!

GA: I think a movie with that scene wouldn’t get made today.

RA: A movie with that wouldn’t have got made then, either.

GA: But you got it through.

RA: Well, that’s just what occurred. I don’t know if I’m defending this or….it’s all part of the same thing. The words, the motions, the movements — everything the actor does — part of ‘that’. I don’t think it can be separated that much. Most film or theatre, especially theatre starts with the words. But as we get into it, we don’t have to confine the action in a small space, you can be in actual locations and use actual people, who do not have scripted lines. It just becomes part of the painting, part of the mural. I get in trouble all the time with this because my writer friends and critics take a different issue about it.

And many actors do. I can’t turn round to an actor and say, ‘OK. Improvise’. Many actors do not like that, and really aren’t capable of it. They want to know exactly what they’re doing, they want to protect themselves, and so they should. Some feel free to carry it on in a different way. But if I have Actor A and Actor B and put them together and they’re both using different techniques, that isn’t going to work. So there has to be a rehearsal. There has to be a respect between the artists who are playing these parts.

I think the actor, probably — I don’t really understand actors, I don’t know how they can do what they do — they figure, ‘I better find my space up here. I can’t stop him from doing what he’s doing.’ So you find your place and bring your truth to that. In the end, we end up looking at a few moments of a painting, a mural, where the audience can sit there and think, ‘Oh!’ And they can continue to think.

Karen Black as Connie White in Nashville (1975)

Karen Black as Connie White in Nashville (1975)

Growing up and experience

GA: Most of your movies either take a genre and twist it or they don’t start with a genre at all. A film like Brewster McCloud can’t be related to anything…

RA: That’s what a lot of the critics said…

GA: Given that you’ve always gone against the grain of American filmmaking, what did you grow up with, what movies did you like?

RA: I liked the same ones you liked, I liked the same ones everyone likes. The first film that I saw which made me feel that it wasn’t just a movie — I remember it was in the afternoon, after the war, and I’d gone by myself for some reason — was Brief Encounter. And I remember thinking, ‘Why am I watching this silly film? Look at her, she’s not a babe. My God! The shoes!’ Twenty minutes later I was sitting there with tears streaming down my face and I was in love with Celia Johnson, this girl with the sensible shoes…It just occurred to me that there were other things you were seeing when you looked at the painting, and they all affect you.

You talk about Nashville, 25, 26 years ago, at the time it affected a lot of people. They remember it. But they remember how they were affected at that time, so when they see that film again they’re not discovering it, they’re revisiting the things that they’ve already accepted and taken to themselves. The audience came in to see The Long Goodbye tonight, most of you came in thinking you were going to like it, wanting to like it, hearing it was good or remembering it. So it is a great audience. Usually you go in and, ‘Why are you taking me to see this? I don’t want to see this, I want to see that!’

GA: How many of you here tonight had seen Long Goodbye before? Not that many…

RA: About as many as bought tickets…

GA: And how many of you who saw it today enjoyed it? A lot. Anybody hate it?

[One person raises his hand]

GA: We’ll come back to you later. Right…erm…

RA: Take that man’s name. He looks pretty weird to me.

GA: You are doing something different. You do this overlapping dialogue, which you quite rightly said was first done by Howard Hawks, though not quite so much. You have very fluid camerawork. You have a great sympathy for losers and loners, dreamers and failures rather than conventional heroes. How did you get to do something different?

RA: Well…you got me!

GA: Were you doing that sort of stuff in your television work?

RA: I didn’t know what I was doing. I think so. I did what occurred to me and what I wanted to see. Again, it was always the actors that are doing it. I wanted to see something that I hadn’t seen before. That was my main mandate.

I don’t like talking to actors much about what we’re doing. If an actor comes up to me during a shoot and says, ‘How do you want me to play this scene?’ I don’t want to get into that conversation. Because as soon as I say, ‘I want you to play it da-da-da’, I’ve narrowed this 360 degree possibility down to a little piece of pie. The performance and the film is not successful and the actor says, ‘Well I just did what he told me to do.’

I want to see something that I’ve never seen before, so how can I tell that actor what that is? I’m not trying to construct a document or situation that is what I want, because what I want is something new to me.

GA: Have you ever felt ground-down by Hollywood or the critics. Popeye, a great film where you see something new, there were problems. I don’t think it was particularly a disaster…

RA: Oh…well…

GA: Do experiences like that make you feel like giving up?

RA: No, because it’s too much fun. It’s like giving up sex. You don’t do it for very long. You are discouraged, but basically you come back and say, ‘I wanna do that again.’

GA: After Popeye you did a series of adaptations of plays. My favourite is Secret Honor because it’s great to see someone doing so much with one set and one character. Some people said, ‘Altman’s been ground-down, he’s doing cheap play adaptations,’ and almost dismissed them. Did you feel sidelined at that time?

RA: No. You have that point of view because of the press and whatever, but to me — I was doing the most exciting things that I’d done. I didn’t come out of theatre, I came out of films, and dealing with actors over the years and then being exposed to theatre, I came to it backwards. I became very interested in it. So anytime I found something that I could literally put a fourth wall up and shoot as a film, it was something I had a lot of fun doing and wanted to do. I did four or five theatre pieces, and when I would do one I’d say, ‘I want to do another one.’

So, to me, that was a very important time, a high time, I wasn’t sent off to Coventry there, you know. I was experimenting. It’s no different to a painter doing pottery. Well it is different…

GA: The clips we saw are also concerned with celebrity. You come back to the theme time and time again. Is that a theme that really does fascinate you?

RA: Well, it’s started to become incestuous. You start out in film, and then you find it repeating itself. It occurs to me that there is not a policeman alive today that did learn his behaviour from looking at films and television. Suddenly the whole thing is reversed. Instead of the actor saying, ‘I’m going to act like I see that man acting,’ that man says, ‘I’m going to behave the way I see that actor acting like I should behave.’ So we get into this thing of ‘what’s real?’ And basically what it come down to is what is real?

Crying, for instance, will make you sympathetic. If you see a woman sitting down on the street, crying, you feel emotion for her. That’s an easy one to start with, if we’re making a drama. Cry. That will make the audience sympathetic with what we’re doing. What the audience is doing, hopefully, is looking at a mirror. They’re looking at a behaviour of themselves and of their culture. It’s what they do. Films with great heroes, they’re OK too, but they don’t all have to be that way.

GA: Would you describe yourself as a realist?

RA: I can’t…I don’t know…I can’t make those…no. A realist? I don’t think what I see in the world is real. I think we see what we want to make of it. I’ll hear somebody say something as I’m passing in the street or see a person behave in a certain way. Maybe ten years later that will suddenly appear in one of these films. But that means you are just drawing on your material, which is what you see, what impresses you. The minute I say, ‘Oh, I do this,’ I’m telling a lie because I don’t really know what I’m doing. I’m usually working emotionally. At the moment I’ll say, ‘That seems right to me.’

If someone gives me a script and it says in there that if you drink vinegar your eyebrows will turn green. If I read that in a script, ‘Just give him a shot of vinegar and watch his eyebrows turn green,’ I’ll say, ‘This is stupid, who’s the writer? Get rid of this. We can’t do that.’ And they’ll say, ‘Oh, it’s true.’ So I’ll say, ‘Is it really true? Then we can do it.’

So whatever is true — if I know there is some truth in it — then I can do it. I have to accept most of that from the instrument that’s doing it, the actor. As wild as they are, as courageous as they are, they also have great conservatism. Actors protect themselves, they’re exposed all the time, to stand on the stage naked continuously and to say ‘This is me,’ to a hostile audience is not much fun.

GA: You’ve made some unconventional casting decisions in your time — Lyle Lovett, Andie MacDowell after she’d done little of note, and you use people who aren’t known as actors at all. What are you looking for in the casting process?

RA: I don’t know — it’s just something that occurs. You have a problem, you have to find sixteen people to fill these roles. You go from what you’ve seen before. You see an actor in something and think, ‘He’s good. Let’s get him to do this’. I don’t think much beyond that. Lyle Lovett — well, Lyle Lovett is great to have around because he can serenade you…he’s great at the wrap party. We should look at something between this, and I’m not talking about Lyle here, but sometimes bad acting is pretty good! You won’t get an actor to do that…

GA: Can you give an example of that?

RA: No, I’m not going to do that…

The Long Goodbye (1973)

The Long Goodbye (1973)

Tattooing dogs

GA: You’ve worked quite extensively in television, Tanner and The Caine Mutiny Court Martial

RA: Those films…Tanner was probably the most different. It was the biggest step that I took away from the conventional thing. Taking a small core of actors and moving them into a real situation and just filming that as it happens. Their behaviour is not much separated from the reality that they’re in. Suddenly good acting and bad acting doesn’t apply.

We made one mistake. We told everybody when we were shooting Tanner, we didn’t disguise, we didn’t say, ‘Oh. We’re not filming this,’ we weren’t stealing that. We did that once and I was embarrassed by something that was said by one of these people and I didn’t want to use that film because I had invaded someone’s really private space, and I didn’t feel good about that, and I never did that again.

Basically it’s all the same thing. If you build a set on the stage and you decide to make it very impressionistic, or maybe very real. Boy, when you go to take that drink from that whisky bottle, there’s gonna be real whisky in there. Well, you don’t want to try that too much. It’s all the same thing. Whether you’re acting inside of the frame or outside of the frame, whether there is nothing that confines it. I’m always looking for some arena. We’re in a certain city, we’re in a certain place, a certain culture so that you draw the circle of where you are and then you put these artists inside of that circle and they behave. It’s all about behaviour, I think.

GA: Do you feel that there are any films, like Popeye, Quintet, where you’ve gone much further, into fantasy?

RA: Yeah, but fantasy’s OK. It’s another…Shakespeare did it. Fantasy is just carrying it on a little further.

GA: Do you think that some of these films are harder for the audience?

RA: Sure, sure. I can understand that. I think if I made a film that everybody felt exactly the same way about and everybody liked it would be pretty terrible. To whit, let’s go to the Academy Awards this year!

It’s not what the issue is. It’s really like building a sandcastle. I use this metaphor a lot for myself. It’s the doing the work that is the art and that is the reason for the art and that is the fun of it. You get your friends together and you build a sandcastle and the tide comes in, and twenty minutes later the sand is all smooth everything has gone. That castle remains only in the memories of the people who did it, really, not so much the people who saw it.

Then you walk away and people say, ‘Next Saturday. You gonna come down, and we’ll build another one?’ And someone says, ‘I don’t know. I didn’t have so much fun this time. Oh, I’ll come next time but I’m not doing moats. I wanna do the turrets.’ Basically, that’s what it is. You’ll always say, ‘Man, there was that day in November when we did that…that was the greatest one, wasn’t that the good one?’ And that’s the way these films are, as we remember it. They’re not any more real than…they age better in your memory.

GA: What’s the biggest disappointment in your career?

RA: It’s always the same. It’s always ego. It’s about my ego, it’s about how people think about me. It’s nothing real or of any value. The real joy is in the work and I’ve been in situations where you will do that work if you have to pay for it yourself. Paying with your own sweat and tears. You know what I’m talking about. You’re not doing it for the pay. If you are, and you get nice pay then that’s fine — I admire those people as much as anyone else. But it’s the doing of the thing.

We don’t want to be made fools of: we want to think we’re important, we’re want to be seen as good and talented. The talent certainly exists, I don’t know how you describe it. I don’t know how you can say one person can do this sort of thing and is creative and another person is not so great but I don’t think there are comparisons.

For me, this piece of work that I’m doing at that time, that’s the whole universe at that time. The actors that are in that are the best actors possible, they’re the best actors in the world, it’s the best everything. If there’s a failure in that, then it’s a failure of birth. It’s like saying, ‘I like him, but he’s not tall enough.’ Your love, and appreciation towards those you love, doesn’t change, and you can’t express that.

Catherine and I have twin grandsons, they’re a year old now and every time we sit down to dinner with somebody I look round and Catherine’s got the picture out. If that’s not it then somebody else has. I had dinner with that…oh, who’s that?…television…Pamela Anderson! She’s…famous! I was seated next to her, and she’s lovely, and the first thing she said was, ‘Wanna see some pictures of my baby?’ Well, that’s Pamela Anderson. It’s not this [circles forearms] …this, er…I don’t know how to explain…I forgot where I was or where I was going to. It really doesn’t make any difference. As you can see from the way these films go. Something interesting occurs, why not put it in?

GA: Each time I meet you, you see more optimistic about your career and the way things are going…

RA: Well, if I wasn’t optimistic I wouldn’t be doing it. I don’t think pessimism has anything to do with it. It’s all about truthfulness. You’re looking for something that’s truthful. If you see something that’s truthful you are seeing something that can incite anger, love, pathos — all of these things come from someone else’s dilemma, success or joy. You see a happy person, and…no-one’s going to change places with John D Rockerfeller because he’s a miserable old bastard. But he’s a billionaire! A billionaire! Well, look at our billionaires and put the happiness and fun quotient in with that. All that disappears. It’s not the stuff of life.

GA: We’re getting a bit philosophical, so…

RA: Sorry about that…

GA: Not at all. So one more question before I open it up to the audience. Is it true that in the forties you used to tattoo dogs?

RA: Absolutely.

GA: Can you explain?

RA: Well, in the forties, I tattooed dogs.

Right after the war I got a dog for myself, a personal dog. I don’t know why, it was a terrible Bull Terrier. The guy I bought it from had this thing called an identicode, which he would tattoo on to dogs for identification. I thought this was a terrific idea. Before I got out of the shop with my Bull Terrier, I was the vice-president of this company.

So, I became the tattooist. We would take the dog, and inside the groin, by the right-hind leg, we would shave and put on the antiseptic fluid and then with the tattooing machine I would do letters, and I got pretty good at it, and we’d put the number of that dog that was registered. We thought we were off to be millionaires. It turned out that I just got a few dog bites.

GA: I also heard that you tattooed President Truman’s dog.

RA: Yes, I did. We tattooed Harry Truman’s dog in Washington. That was a publicity stunt. Although the dog was actually tattooed. I also tattooed a waiter.

He was bringing drinks up to a hotel and he said, ‘What are you guys doing.’ We told him we tattooed and he said, ‘I always wanted to have that!’ So, we were a little drunken, I remember this guy took his shoe off and I tattooed on the bottom of his foot his army serial number and his name. His name was D W Stiles. I don’t remember his number.

GA: Do you regret having given that up for filmmaking?

RA: Well…they’re both about the same.

Short Cuts (1993)

Short Cuts (1993)

Questions from the audience

Q: You said once that there had never been a truly great film because film relies so heavily on literature and theatre. Have you seen one since?

RA: No. I think they’re getting worse! I had been quoted as saying a really good film had not been made yet, and I think the possibilities of film have not really been explored yet. Maybe there is somebody lying in a crib somewhere that will end up doing it. We still connect it too much to theatre and literature and not enough to just the image. Music has become background for it rather than something that is indigenous to the material. we give awards for the best film and awards for the best soundtrack and one doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the other. It’s a strange, bastardised type of artform and it draws on all this. It draws on theatre, the visual, performance art, literature. You can’t say, ‘This is the best film.’ This is a different film. As varied as people are.

Q: What was the last film you paid to see? [Quoted from Altman’s film, The Player]

RA: Boy, that’s a dirty question. I think that, truthfully, which means I’m not telling the truth, probably we bought a ticket for Speed. I remember Catherine saying, ‘Let’s go see that, I hear it’s pretty good.’ We bought a ticket, saw Speed. I liked all three of those movies.

GA: There have only been two.

RA: There were three in the first one. Hooked together. Didn’t you see it? One was an elevator shaft movie, one was a bus gone awry and the other was somebody blowing up.

Q: I’ve always found the opening shot of The Player amazing. Was it as hard to shoot as it looks?

RA: Well, the opening shot is an eight or nine minute single shot which introduces a lot of characters and it’s the title sequence and so on. The reason for doing that, well it was a conceit. It was a very show-offy thing and I did it for just that reason, because in the first place the film was about making films and conceit, and I was also trying to get your attention, saying, ‘Pay attention to this! It’s different. It’s special.’ So I was really just showing off, and it succeeded because people talk about it that way. Practically, it turns out, that had I shot that in a conventional way, with cuts and things, it would have taken two days longer than it did and it wouldn’t have been nearly as effective. Nor acted so well.

GA: You’ve been doing long shots for years. The Secret Honor clip we saw was just two shots.

RA: Well Secret Honor, we had a problem there, because it’s only one actor and it’s hard to cut away…He had to be pretty good. Most of the films I do are these ensemble films where I have all kinds of things going on, where if something doesn’t work I just cut away to something else that is working. It’s a lot easier.

Q: You said earlier that you don’t understand what actors do, but you must do.

RA: No. I don’t understand how they do what they do. I honestly don’t. I cannot do that myself and I don’t know what allows the individual artist to do that because I can’t experience it myself. I love it. I admire it. That’s why I’ve got the best job — I get to watch it. Can you imagine how someone can sit down and suddenly start crying or take on an attitude that moves you, that changes the way you are feeling at that time because of the way they behave? It’s amazing to me.

Q: How did you get the cat to perform so well in The Long Goodbye?

RA: Well, we had a couple of animal acts in that. The one in Mexico…was a natural act that just occurred and the cameraman was clever enough to move the camera over to it when I said, ‘Goddamnit! Shoot that! The dogs!’

The thing with the cats — we had about six cats — they were all trained to respond to different things. I don’t now how we did it, we just did it. I called the cat trainer and we picked on this colour of cat and we just did it.

GA: Did they stick to the script?

RA: Well, we moved the script to fit them. If what they’re doing is good enough then that’s what we go for.

Q: On a complex film like Nashville or Short Cuts, how do you keep track of what’s going on?

RA: I don’t have the answer to that. Each thing, each element of it, was something we were doing at the time. Your instincts, your sense of what this vague, smoky thing that you have going on inside your head is telling you what it is your doing. You take all these elements and then put them together. That’s the art of editing I guess.

GA: You did talk for a while about a longer version you were going to put on television.

RA: No, I didn’t talk about that, journalists did. When Nashville went on network television it was too long, and they didn’t know what to do. So I said that I could make two pictures out of this, I had enough footage to make two two-hour segments by adding stuff I did that, but then the network decided to run it at one time, so that was junked. But had that two hour version been showed together, not separated by a week, there would have been a lot of redundancies in there. What is on the screen in Nashville is what the picture is. There’s not a lot that isn’t there.

Q: Would you ever consider returning to the writings of Raymond Carver?

RA: There’s not enough material left, in my opinion. Raymond Carver wrote the material that was the basis for Short Cuts. I started scripting and working with writers and we started to put together more Short Cuts, but we realised that it was somehow compromising the original film and I abandoned it.

This was not a rendition of Raymond Carver’s work. This was inspired by Raymond Carver, this was of him. The stories that we took were not specific Raymond Carver stories, they were instances in his stories. They were attitudes that Raymond Carver didn’t write about but I felt he would have. There is no purity there. A lot of critics and Raymond Carver fans felt that way, they did not like that film at all because they thought that it wasn’t what Raymond did at all. And they were right.

It was the same for The Long Goodbye, where Raymond Carver fans…I mean Raymond Chandler — I gotta get my Raymonds straight here — said, ‘That’s not Marlow. That’s not Marlow at all.’ They didn’t like it because it wasn’t pure Chandler. But I think basically what they didn’t like was not that Elliott Gould was not Philip Marlow, it was that Eliott Gould wasn’t Humphrey Bogart. So the authors of these books or screenplays should never take the heat for these films, we’re just using their work as a stepping-off place. And probably violating it.

Q: You say you try not to repeat yourself, what do you look for in new material?

RA: Well, I don’t look for new material. I can’t answer that. I don’t know how material occurs to me. I’ll read something, I’ll see something, I’ll hear something, an idea will come, and it can come from any source, and I get seduced by it enough to start to get inside it.

In each one of these works, these paintings, these murals, whatever they are, I call it being inside the bubble. You step inside of the bubble, and you’re in there with the elements of whatever’s going to make up whatever this is going to end up being. So I don’t know what’s going on outside the bubble. Once I’m inside the bubble, that’s all that exists until the bubble breaks. I don’t look for things. Things find me.

The Player (1992)

The Player (1992)

3 Women was based on a dream

GA: Can you tell us a little about your next film which you are shooting here in Britain.

RA: We’re about to start a film here called Gosford Park. We’re shooting in March, it’s a marvellous screenplay written by Julian Fellowes. He has written this, I am going to direct it, and we are going to remain great friends! It’s an ensemble cast and there’s about thirty English actors and one American character. This is a British film. There’s my production designer, an American who lives in France, there’s my producer and myself. And one American actor.

In a nutshell, it’s a 1922, 1923 film that takes place in a stately home. It is basically Ten Little Indians meets Rules of the Game. It’s a true ensemble. Again, if something doesn’t work, I can cut away to something else.

GA: You mentioned Rules of the Game, is Renoir somebody you particularly admire?

RA: Yeah. I thought he was a great filmmaker and a great artist in terms of his filmmaking because he did not follow the blueprint. Now I hear that there a script courses, and when you write a screenplay you must have something happen by page 62…and I hate page numbers. You get a stack of raw material that will become this film, and I don’t think the pages have to be numbered.

Q: How involved are you in the editing? Do you sit there and tell the editor what to do?

RA: I’m very involved. The editing is the making of the film. The shooting of the film, the writing of the film, all that is the raw material that you gather and then you come to a point when you think, ‘Right. That’s all I’m going to gather.’ Then you do a new job which is to take this stuff that we have and put it together and make a film out of it. But I don’t sit over the editor’s shoulder. The last film I did, Dr. T and the Women, my editor put a cut together for me and we took maybe five or six minutes out of it, but nothing else was changed. It just went together, it wasn’t a struggle. The film you see is this raw material put together and cleaned up a bit.

Q: I was interested by you remark about the possibilities of cinema. Do you think film could be like dreaming?

RA: I think that film, going back to the very first experiments with film, was more related to dream than the film we see today. It seems to me that there’s a natural thing in there because you’re able to take images and destroy the link, the linear track of it, the logic of it, the reality of it, and put it together in such a way that it looks like dreams. I think that dreams — there’s probably some pretty good screenplays in them.

GA: 3 Women was based on a dream, wasn’t it?

RA: 3 Women literally came from a dream. It didn’t come from a dream in the way that I dreamed this, what I dreamed was that I was making this film. Or was going to. Catherine, my wife, had gone in to the hospital with a rather serious condition and I had just had a film aborted. I got home and my youngest son and I looked out at the beach, and I got into bed, and it had been a trying couple of days, and I dreamed this film. I woke up and took the yellow pad next to my bed and wrote a sketch for 3 Women and went back to sleep. Then I dreamed more of it and woke to write some more. I cast it. Then I had two of the fellas that worked for me at the time came into the bedroom and I told them to go down to Palm Springs because we were going to shoot this in the desert but I wanted to be close to some fun.

RA: Then I woke up. There was sand in my bed from my son, I hadn’t written anything down, I didn’t have a pad next to my bed. So I had dreamed the title, 3 Women, and this image of where it took place. I got on the telephone to someone who was working for me and said, ‘I found a terrific story. It takes place in the desert…da-da-da.’ And the next day I was in Alan Ladd’s office at Fox, and the next day we driving to Palm Springs to look for locations. That really did come together out of a dream, but not the specifics of the film.

Q: What were you drinking?

RA: Oh, I would drink anything civilised. Anything people would give me.

GA: I have to stop there, because the BFI would now like to present Robert Altman with a Fellowship for his work in film.

BFI Fellowship presentation

Robert Altman was presented with a Fellowship by the BFI, the 52nd person to receive the award over 60 years. This is his acceptance speech.

I am indeed honoured by this, and I am thrilled and will cherish this. I’ve loved this evening. I cannot tell you what a goal it seems to be, but I am so thrilled about being in this country, aside from the obvious reasons that we’ve elected a fool for a President. But I’m so happy to be here, and I would be happy to stay here. To be able to do this film in England with so many wonderful actors, I think the resources of art here, I don’t think there’s a pool anywhere else that is as inviting and as deep and as wonderful as it is England. So I’m really looking forward to this film and several after that. I’m honoured by this and I thank you all. Thank you.

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