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Robert Altman: The Oral Biographyby Mitchell Zuckoff
Author Q & A
A conversation with
ROBERT ALTMAN: The Oral Biography
and his editors
MARTIN ASHER and ZACK WAGMAN
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
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.
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