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1 Burnside Film and Television- Production Biographies

Robert Altman: The Oral Biography


Robert Altman: The Oral Biography Cover



Author Q & A

A conversation with


author of

ROBERT ALTMAN: The Oral Biography

and his editors


Q: Do you think there's any director who blazed the way for Altman or was he just a

maverick, a complete original?

A: In a technical sense, Bob was always quick to credit to his predecessors. When people talked

about his innovative use of overlapping dialogue, for instance, he'd tell them to look at the films

of Howard Hawks. But the real answer to your question is no, there isn't anyone you'd call a

model or a trailblazer for Bob. In terms of his approach to filmmaking and his relationship with

the business, Bob earned the titles people hung on him—maverick, renegade, iconoclast, you

name it. Even during the years when he was pretty much working inside the Hollywood system

—the 1970s, mostly—he did things his own way. Think of it like this: Hollywood runs on genres

—comedy, romance, war, westerns, etc.—with certain fairly narrow, clearly defined expectations

for each, based on successful films that have come before. In one film after another, one genre

after another, Bob knew the rules then purposefully inverted and subverted them, as only a true

original can.

Q: If you had to choose one film as Altman's "masterpiece," which would it be and why?

A: I'd rather pick three, or five, or seven, but if I had to choose one I'd say "Nashville." Before I

explain why, though, I've got to tell you why Bob hated the word "masterpiece." He felt—rightly,

I think—that it turned away audiences, making them think of a pile of vegetables they should eat

because it's good for them. So if we use the masterpiece label, let's agree that "Nashville" is

nothing like that. It's an enormously entertaining movie that happens to be an absolutely brilliant

portrait of America. Without using any of these terms, or laying it on too thick, it gets underneath

and exposes the peculiarly American nature of power, fame, race, sex, violence and character.

Think of a painting you'd consider a masterpiece. You appreciate its beauty on the surface the

first time you look at it. But why do we keep looking at it, again and again, for hours at a time?

It's because the deeper we engage with a masterpiece, whether in oil or marble or on film, the

more it touches what Bob called "deep down in the dermis"—the layers of ourselves far beneath

the skin. "Nashville" does just that.

Q: What do you think is Altman's most underestimated film and why?

A: A few fit the bill, but I'd have to go with "Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History

Lesson." It was the complete opposite of what people expected, it painted a bleak portrait of an

American icon at a time when Americans were celebrating the bicentennial, it played Paul

Newman against type, and it took a jaundiced eye to popular history and show business. But if

you set aside your expectations and take another look, you'll see a movie that never got credit for

what's really there on the screen.

Q: What was your reaction when you first saw "M*A*S*H"?

A: It was a long time ago, but I remember it perfectly. I had this wonderful, furtive, guilty feeling

of, "Are we gonna get caught?" It was so wild, so funny, so subversive—in short, so in tune with

my adolescent heart—that I couldn't believe what I was seeing. As great as the actors were, it was

the first time I had a sense of a director, someone moving all these amazing pieces around the set.

Even still, that first time I loved it purely on the surface. Only later did I figure out what was

really going on—the way Bob was commenting on war (Vietnam specifically)—and then I got

even more excited because that meant you could make a serious, powerful, important statement

in a way that was still hilarious. I felt like I was learning a new language.

Not too many people remember this, but there was a series of paperbacks that followed the movie

—"M*A*S*H goes to London," M*A*S*H goes to Las Vegas," and on and on. Bob had nothing to

do with them, of course. But as a teenager I read the whole series, hoping to feel the same way I

did in the theater the first time I saw the movie. It didn't work.

Q: Many people think of Altman as a director who worked with a "troupe" of actors like Lily

Tomlin and Elliott Gould; yet he also got great performances from stars like Julie Christie and

Tim Robbins. What does that say about him as a director?

A: That's one of Bob's greatest gifts as a director—his ability to help actors do their best work.

When I talked with actors in Bob's films—I spoke to all the people you just named and dozens of

others—it was incredible how consistently they talked about the complete trust they had in Bob.

Actors are constantly being judged—by critics, by audiences, by producers, you name it. By

directors, too. No wonder so many talk about feeling insecure. If they don't trust a director it's

understandable if they dial it back a bit, to protect themselves and their careers. They'll give a

solid performance, but they don't climb out on any limbs. Again and again, I heard how Bob

made actors feel secure—whether they were stars or extras—because he admired what they did

and trusted them to do it well. He had a way of conveying that, of infusing a set with this feeling,

"We're in this together and I'll protect you from harm." And since he was a big guy, the kind of

charismatic big guy who exudes confidence, actors set aside their fears and returned the favor by

giving the performances of their lives.

Q: Many of his contemporaries accused Altman of just putting the camera out there and

recording everything that happened with little direction. Do you think that's true?

A: If that were true wouldn't we all be setting up cameras, stepping back and making Robert

Altman movies? I mean, c'mon. That notion got traction in part because actors on Altman films

talked a lot about how collaborative it was, how Bob allowed them to improvise, how much they

felt part of the process. And all that's true. Bob was the opposite of the controlling, imperious

director who thundered from on high. He didn't have every shot, every action, every piece of

dialogue laid out on a storyboard in advance, and he was loathe to tell actors how to act. He did

a great deal of his work like a chef, assembling the right ingredients, making sure the oven was

the proper temperature, and establishing an ideal atmosphere to create a perfect meal. And then

he wanted to be surprised, knowing that film is a perfect medium to capture an unexpected

glance or an unplanned reaction or a throwaway line that turns out to change the audience's

perspective. By directing with a sometimes unseen hand, he was able to do just that. Anyone who

thinks he just set up a camera and said "action" is welcome to try, but they'll be disappointed

when they don't end up with "Short Cuts."

Q: Where do you think Altman ranks among the pantheon of great contemporary directors—

like Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola?

A: How about we answer that artistically rather than commercially? Because let's face it, with the

exception of "M*A*S*H" and a few other profitable films, Bob's movies weren't box office

monsters. In terms of the films themselves, there's no question Bob is a full-fledged member of

that pantheon. If they held annual dinner meetings, he'd be at the head table. For the sake of

argument, let's define a grand master filmmaker as someone who leaves a body of work that

creates indelible images and penetrating ideas, and does so in a unique way that endures long

beyond the filmmaker's lifetime. There's no question that Robert Altman satisfies that definition.

Q: Why do you think that although Altman was nominated for five Academy Awards for best

director, he never won?

A: That's tough to say because each nomination is somewhat unique. Maybe "M*A*S*H" came

too early and the Academy wanted to be sure he wasn't a flash in the pan. On the other end of the

timeline, there's a lot of speculation that Bob's comments about the film industry after 9/11

torpedoed his chances for "Gosford Park." I hope that's not true, but you never know. Either way,

I'll never understand how the three nominations in the middle—"Nashville," "The Player" and

"Short Cuts"—didn't give him at least a matching pair for his mantelpiece. As far as I'm

concerned, it's a good thing the Academy gave him the lifetime achievement Oscar when it did.

Not for Bob's sake, but for its own credibility.

Q: How do you think a director like Altman would fare in today's Hollywood?

A: I'm not sure there's anyone like him, or ever will be. But the real answer is that I don't think

it'd be remotely possible for a director like Bob Altman to operate in today's Hollywood. He

couldn't stand "the suits" back in the days when directors were enormously powerful in their

own right. Nowadays, with power, money and control so thoroughly concentrated in the studios,

there's no way someone like Bob Altman could survive there, at least not for long. And since Bob

was never willing to abandon his vision in the interest of making a popcorn-friendly blockbuster,

I don't think Hollywood would care terribly about his absence. On the other hand, someone like

Bob might have a chance to thrive as a true independent, as long as he or she had the talent, the

spine and the willingness to repeatedly take potentially career-ending risks.

Q: What is Altman's ultimate legacy to film-makers, film-making, and film audiences?

A: Bob was fearless when it came to making movies, and fearlessness is a quality that is in short

supply. Plenty of good directors can paint by the numbers and succeed commercially. Bob is an

icon because he wouldn't play by the rules. And isn't that where all great art comes from? I like

what Martin Scorsese said when I asked him this same question. He said: "His legacy? His spirit.

His spirit was to make pictures, to say what the hell he wanted to say on film. It may have

angered people, it may have unsettled people, but he did it."

He did it. Not a bad epitaph for Bob Altman. Other people might have talked about it or dreamed

about it. He did it.

Product Details

The Oral Biography
Zuckoff, Mitchell
Film & Video - General
Entertainment & Performing Arts - General
Motion picture producers and directors
Altman, Robert
Entertainment & Performing Arts - Movie Directors
Film & Video - Direction & Production
Film - General
Biography-Entertainment and Performing Arts
Publication Date:
Grade Level:
9.46x6.56x1.75 in. 2.10 lbs.

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Related Subjects

Arts and Entertainment » Film and Television » Directors
Arts and Entertainment » Film and Television » Production » Biographies

Robert Altman: The Oral Biography Used Hardcover
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Product details 576 pages Knopf Publishing Group - English 9780307267689 Reviews:
"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "In this fitting tribute to one of Hollywood's greatest directors, journalist Zuckoff (Ponzi's Scheme) chronicles Altman's remarkable life both in and out of the spotlight. Though it's arranged roughly chronologically, Zuckoff wisely chooses to reflect the director's nonlinear approach to storytelling in crafting the biography. Interspersed with Altman's own words — from interviews with Zuckoff near the end of his life — are memories from his large family and extended circle of cinematic collaborators, and excerpts from critics' reviews of his almost 40 films. More interested in character than traditional stories, Altman put his own spin on everything from war films with 1970's M*A*S*H — which Pauline Kael dubbed the 'best American war comedy since sound came in' — westerns with 1971's McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and English murder mysteries with 2001's Gosford Park. Despite his artistic achievements, Altman's personal life was often rocky, with philandering and a penchant for alcohol, aspects that Zuckoff's interview subjects confront with refreshing frankness. The myriad stars who worked with Altman and share their reflections with Zuckoff include Lauren Bacall (Prt--Porter), Julie Christie (McCabe & Mrs. Miller), Paul Newman (Buffalo Bill and the Indians) and Robin Williams (Popeye). A rebel to the end, Altman's spirit is perfectly captured in this fascinating read." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Review" by , "An engrossing, comprehensive book that gives invaluable insight into the life and work of a truly original artist."
"Review" by , "Something quite special....This is a smart, amusing, lively book, full of anecdotes and a generous step towards perceiving the glorious and perverse ways of Altman himself."
"Review" by , "The freewheeling oral history format seems appropriate for tracing the life of a man known for his loose, improvisational style..."
"Review" by , "A big, comprehensive, flesh-and-blood account of Altman's persona and exploits....[A] sprawling, many-faceted story."
"Review" by , "Zuckoff's biography is like his subject's movies, filled with a multiplicity of voices and averse to defining 'meaning.' Yet in the end, readers understand Altman's stubborn vision, his refusal to compromise with commerce, and his hard-earned, eccentric genius."
"Review" by , "[There are] many surprising and revealing comments that Zuckoff has assembled in his fittingly rambling book....Life is complicated, often messy — as Altman showed us — and his life, as seen in Zuckoff's book, was no exception."
"Synopsis" by , Robert Altman — visionary director, hard-partying hedonist, eccentric family man, Hollywood legend — comes roaring to life in this rollicking cinematic biography, told in a chorus of voices that can only be called Altmanesque.
"Synopsis" by , Robert Altman—visionary director, hard-partying hedonist, eccentric family man, Hollywood legend—comes roaring to life in this rollicking cinematic biography, told in a chorus of voices that can only be called Altmanesque.

His outsized life and unique career are revealed as never before: here are the words of his family and friends, and a few enemies, as well as the agents, writers, crew members, producers, and stars who worked with him, including Meryl Streep, Warren Beatty, Tim Robbins, Julianne Moore, Paul Newman, Julie Christie, Elliott Gould, Martin Scorsese, Robin Williams, Cher, and many others. There is even Altman himself, in the form of his exclusive last interviews.

After an all-American boyhood in Kansas City, a stint flying bombers through enemy fire in World War II, and jobs ranging from dog-tattoo entrepreneur to television director, Robert Altman burst onto the scene in 1970 with the movie M*A*S*H. He revolutionized American filmmaking, and, in a decade, produced masterpieces at an astonishing pace: McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Thieves Like Us, The Long Goodbye, 3 Women, and, of course, Nashville. Then, after a period of disillusionment with Hollywood—as well as Hollywoods disillusionment with him—he reinvented himself with a bold new set of masterworks: The Player, Short Cuts, and Gosford Park. Finally, just before the release of the last of his nearly forty movies, A Prairie Home Companion, he received an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement from the Academy, which had snubbed him for so many years.

Mitchell Zuckoff—who was working with Altman on his memoirs before he died—weaves Altmans final interviews, an incredible cast of voices, and contemporary reviews and news accounts, into a riveting tale of an extraordinary life. Here are page after page of revelations that force us to reevaluate Altman as a man and an artist, and to view his sprawling narratives with large casts, multiple story lines, and overlapping dialogue as unquestionably the work of a modern genius.

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