Frontlines

Robert Altman: a Young Turk at 54

Wayne Grigsby April 23 1979
Frontlines

Robert Altman: a Young Turk at 54

Wayne Grigsby April 23 1979

Robert Altman: a Young Turk at 54

Frontlines

Wayne Grigsby

There are perhaps two dozen people in the tiny screening room at Lion’s Gate Films, West Los Angeles, but the major characters in the small drama number four: three are executives from Twentieth Century-Fox, mega-studio; the fourth is film-maker Robert Altman, grey-bearded Hollywood maverick and creator of fresh, inventive films like M*A*S*H, Nashville and A Wedding. Tension hangs heavy in the room as Altman, all by himself, has the Fox men outnumbered.

Having shown three musical numbers from his latest film, A Perfect Couple—his 14th in nine years—Altman is boiling with ideas on how to sell the movie, the stars (a rock group called Keepin’ ’Em Off the Streets) and the concept. The Fox men are uncomfortable: it’s tough to face Altman in high gear.

“We could make a half-hour variety special with just the songs from this movie! We could place it on every TV station in the country!”

“It needs celebrities,” mumbles a Fox man.

“These kids are gonna be celebrities!” insists Altman.

The Fox men squirm. “I think we need a star thing to sell it, y’know?” offers one. “Like a party, a premiere. Limos, stars arriving ...”

“We got a party,” counters Altman. “We already shot it. Use that!”

“Any stars?” comes a wistful murmur.

A long and deafening silence ensues. Only the air conditioning breathes, as the Fox men stew.

“All right,” concedes the leader, “we’ll have the TV guys come over and take a look at this.”

A quick glance at Altman. His cat-that-ate-the-canary grin speaks volumes.

At the moment, A Perfect Couple (review, page 58) is Robert Altman’s favorite film. Acknowledging that it’s as quirky a musical as you’re ever likely to see, Altman is determined that it be given every promotional push, every bit of exposure that would enhance its chances of success at the box-office.

Just a couple of months ago his then

latest work, Quintet, was his favorite. Stung by the scathing reviews that greeted its release, disappointed by its appalling performance at the box-office, Altman now refuses to talk about Quintet, saying that further discussion won’t change the situation. Not that anything that’s been written or said about any of his films will ever change his own view of them. “I like ’em all,” he says. “You name one you like and I’ll agree with you. You don’t like a film and that’s your problem.” The smile is broad, challenging.

Altman is a Hollywood conundrum. Youngsters like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg slavishly adhere to Hollywood formulae and turn out blockbusters like Star Wars and Jaws. It’s 54-year-old Altman who produces inventive, uncompromising and daring pictures like California Split, 3 Women and McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Altman works at a breakneck pace, finishing one film while preparing another in the midst of shooting yet a third. Other directors plead total exhaustion if they complete a film every 18 months. And in an industry where the financing of your current project depends on the balance sheet of your previous film, Altman continues to make pictures despite the fact that only two of his films— M*A*S*H and Nashville — have returned any sizable profit.

If he wasn’t such a good director, Robert Altman would make a helluva movie star. He has that aura, that ability to walk into a room and command attention. A big, burly man, he looms even larger, shambling up and down the corridors of the converted warehouse that houses Lion’s Gate Films, his production company. Slightly rumpled but comfy in suede, corduroy and Wallabees, Altman is the perfect host, guiding a visitor through the various sound stages, editing rooms and offices, exchanging good-natured banter with everyone. He listens well, he’s kind, considerate and emphatic. When the bluegrey eyes twinkle and a smile bunches his cheeks, he’s a goateed Santa Claus. The other side of the coin is the irritated Altman, a man not to be trifled with. Crossed or angry, the eyes go steely and the shoulders hunker down, making the bulky torso downright menacing.

Here’s a man who gambles big: the budget on Quintet was close to $7 million. The chances of recouping that loss are nonexistent. He calmly loses $400 in a social game of backgammon; what he wagers on a football game could buy a family car. He sends out for champagne and caviar to fuel a business meeting— the champagne by the case, the caviar by the pound. Almost on the spur of the moment he pledged up to $2 million of the profits of A Wedding to supporters of the Equal Rights Amendments. He loves to eat and drink and fights a ferocious battle with the spare tire at his waist. He is thrice married, with five children and a notorious eye for the ladies. He was deemed too big a risk for an American Express card until 1970. Altman celebrates life, the senses, the emotions.

When asked about the conventional wisdom in the film industry, the view that says “Altman needs a hit,” he shrugs. “People keep saying I need a hit, and maybe I do,” he says, sipping on an iced diet cola in his loft-like office. Well, do your films lose money? “No,” he snorts, “They don’t make enough to show a profit on the books or back to me. But don’t kid yourself, they make money or we wouldn’t be makin’ ’em.”

Maybe so, but Twentieth Century-

PORTRAIT

Fox, the studio currently distributing Altman’s films, has tightened its grip on the reins. It’s demanding script and casting approval these days where previously Altman made the decisions independently. Fox spokesmen profess surprise and disappointment at Quintet’s performance but are tight-lipped about whether Fox plans to extend its relationship with Altman’s Lion’s Gate beyond the five films they have done together. The fifth is Health, a film about the health-food industry and politics which finished shooting last month. But Altman is already discussing projects with United Artists and Paramount, one of them a film version on the Popeye comic strip which would star Robin (Mork) Williams as the sailor man and possibly Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl.

Then there’s the thorny question of scripts in Altman’s films. Do they even exist? Legend has him improvising on the set, creating the film as he goes along. How can any studio control that kind of process? Altman dismisses the legend out-of-hand. “I know how the picture’s gonna start, how it’s gonna end, and what the middle’s supposed to

be,” Altman wearily insists. “It’s a matter of enhancing that and not losing improvements by locking ourselves into something. It’s rewriting with the performers there, rewriting at the very last moment. Everybody just tries to make too much of it.”

Still, the fact is he encourages contributions and actors love it. “He wants you to explore, he demands you pass on ideas,” enthuses Carol Burnett, who joined the Altman repertory company for A Wedding and returned for Health. “What happens is you get a binder with the names of all the characters, yours included, and how they relate to each other. When it’s time to shoot your scene, you’re given pages of dialogue, maybe a day, maybe a week ahead. If you have any other ideas, chip in. He may say yes, he may say no.”

Altman sees it as a matter of faith. “If you don’t have faith in actors, you shouldn’t be in this business. The less I impose myself on them, the better the work gets, constantly. And that’s a fact.”

The eldest son of a Kansas City insurance broker, Altman can’t remember what drew him to film. After a war stint piloting B-24s over the Dutch East Indies, he went home to Kansas City, joined a company that made industrial

films and learned his craft from the ground up.

By 1948 he had cowritten two screen treatments for RKO and then spent the next several years trying to establish himself in Hollywood, rather unsuccessfully.

A made-to-order feature for a local backer ( The Delinquents) led to a 1957 documentary effort (The James Dean Story) which impressed Alfred Hitchcock, who took Altman to Hollywood as a director on his TV series. Altman cut a swath through television, directing episodes of Kraft Mystery Theatre, The Millionaire and Whirlybirds among others. Even then he was a problem, doing such unconventional things as allowing actors to (heavens!) speak at the same time. He frequently rewrote scenes on the spot, in consultation with the players. And he was frequently fired.

It wasn’t until 1969 that Altman was able to launch a career as a director of feature films when he made That Cold Day in the Park, shot in Vancouver with Sandy Dennis. This led to an offbeat project for Ingo Preminger, a film that had been turned down by 15 other directors. But M*A*S*H was a blockbuster, returning some $40 million to date. As a relative unknown, Altman didn’t participate in profits, neither from the film nor from the spin-off TV series. But his son Michael has made a small fortune in royalties for the lyrics he wrote for Suicide Is Painless, theme song for both the film and TV series.

Altman followed up with a shower of films in different styles and of varying box-office success, the notables including McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Brewster McCloud and Thieves Like Us. He tried out multi-track sound recording (a process long used in recording music) in California Split, a deft essay on the gambling psyche. Having worked out the bugs, he proceeded to juggle his eight-track sound system and 24 principal characters in the incomparable, widely hailed Nashville. The rest, as they say, is history. Altman had become an Important American Director.

But you will never hear that line from Altman. He feels his job is the essence of simplicity. “My position is one of constantly keeping a balance,” he explains. “You have characters, a set, music, and all the elements have to be kept in balance. It’s a matter of juggling those things.”

One of the keys to the success of this juggling act is the team of colleagues and collaborators that Altman has gathered. His senior staff has been with

him for years, and thus he’s constantly working with people thoroughly familiar with his style. Tommy Thompson, who currently serves as executive producer, goes back with him to the days of television. “It’s a refined process, a developed process,” says Thompson, “but the attitudes are exactly the same; ‘Does it work?’, ‘Does it fit?’ Bob’s never tried to stuff the words into somebody and then stuff them into a position just because that’s what the script says. He’s the most flexible director I’ve ever met, and I’ve worked with hundreds through the years.”

Altman never stops working, and sees no reason to behave any other way. So six and frequently seven days a week, he thinks, talks and makes films. When he’s not shooting, he prowls the halls of Lion’s Gate, supervising the installation of new equipment, consulting with editors, overseeing the installation of artwork, and no doubt checking up on the kind of beans being purchased for the coffee machine. Holiday is a word he barely understands: “I’ve never done that. What would I do?” he asks. “Fish? I can fish for three days, not much more.”

His third wife, Kathryn, an elegant and gracious redhead, has learned to cope with this workaholism in the course of their 19 years together. She visits the office/set frequently, often with one or both of their sons in tow, chiming right in with comments and suggestions. Still Altman has admitted that they live separate lives, but together.

“It’s their life. It’s recreation, social life, work, a whole culture by itself,” is the way Montrealer Rita Schaffer, project manager on Quintet, describes working with Altman and crew. “It’s what they do 12 months a year, so they

try to make it pleasant.” Indeed they go to great lengths to make the set homey. Cast and crew, stars and grips, all are expected and encouraged to speak up with ideas and contributions to the film. Sumptuous lunches, including steak, lobster and roast beef, are provided by chef Mickey Chonos, another Altman regular. Carol Burnett summed up A Wedding saying, “It was like summer camp. We all had our kids with us and we had a hoot. Best summer vacation I ever had.”

An Altman set can also be a regular “laff riot.” Perhaps the best example was the war of practical jokes waged across the Morley Flats just outside Calgary, the setting for Buffalo Bill and the Indians. Altman commencing hostilities by filling Paul Newman’s trailer brimful of popcorn. Newman countered by turning 300 baby chicks loose in Altman’s trailer, necessitating a thorough cleaning and airing after the roundup. Numerous other volleys were exchanged, including an exploded automobile, but the pièce de résistance went to Newman. He stole Altman’s prized pair of deerskin gauntlets, beautiful examples of Indian beadwork, and had chef Chonos serve them up on Altman’s lunch plate—deep-fried.

Some find the cameraderie cloying, others find it exploitative. A few people who worked on Quintet came away with sour comments. “There were those of us who felt used. Contributions were made, acccepted and used, but then got precious little recognition,” was one complaint. Another concerned the hierarchy: “Some people expected to be able to just drop by Bob’s room for a chat, and found they couldn’t. It was Bob’s

room, open to certain people on a regular basis, and others if invited. But nothing was ever said. It just got chilly if you weren’t welcome.”

The cocktail hour has descended on Lion’s Gate. Tonight it’s a clambake in celebration of the launch of Quintet and the final cut of A Perfect Couple. Buckets of iced beer and white wine appear magically; guests are welcomed and effortlessly absorbed into the bantering conversation. Lion’s Gate is seductive.

As Altman eases through the crowd, abstaining from food, but consuming his fair share of the liquid and smoked refreshment, it’s clear that this is the one place where he is truly comfortable. His guard comes down and the compulsion to challenge/charm eases. He can even chuckle out loud about the growing Robert Altman mystique. “I don’t particularly like it. It limits me from having a lot of fun. I find myself coming into a situation and everybody changing their attitude, and I find I have to leave and that’s no fun. On the other hand I’d rather have it that way than the other way.”

On the occasions when he does talk about his work, Altman uses two metaphors. In the first he compares it to painting: “It’s an impression of character and atmosphere.” In the second he sums up the work process and its permanence as follows: “It’s the sandcastle syndrome. You get a bunch of people together, and you say, ‘Hey! Let’s build a sand castle!’ And you work all day long at it and say, ‘Boy, that’s some castle!’ when it’s finished. Even as you say it you know that a wave is gonna come along and wash it away and you’ll do it all over again tomorrow. It doesn’t last.”