December 20, 2001
Director Robert Altman describes his process: He layers actors into film like paint on a canvas and lets them create.
by Rob Kendt
Robert Altman wants you to see his films twice. Not that he's vain, or out to top the repeat-business box office of Harry Potter. It's just that this fiercely independent auteur—who's been directing films, television, and theatre since 1951—views filmmaking as a kind of layering process, with levels and nuances that can't be absorbed in a single viewing.
That certainly rings true of Altman's best work—1975's Nashville, 1992's The Player, most of 1993's Short Cuts, 1971's McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and his mainstream breakthrough, 1970's raucous MASH. From his lively sense of mise en scene to his impressionistic sound design, Altman at his best is a film artist of a particularly high order. At his worst—and he's made some notorious stinkers—his films meander and curdle, though it's a tribute to him that one reason some of his films don't take is that the material seems beneath his formidable attention.
His new film Gosford Park marks both a departure and a return to form: It's a period murder mystery set in an English mansion, with an ensemble cast of mostly English actors playing both the "downstairs" servants and the "upstairs" toffs. This egalitarian approach applied off-screen as well: All these knights, dames, old pros, and young colts put in several weeks of shooting, doing dialogue scenes some days—and lingering in the background, fully in character, on many other shooting days.
It's fair to say that only Altman could pull off such an ego-less actors' camp-out—and that only he would make a murder mystery with such an unhurried pace and such lapidarian attention to detail, most of which has little to do with solving the crime.
When I interviewed the 76-year-old Altman recently, he had just finished inviting a colleague to a barbecue at his house—an irresistible segue.
Back Stage West: I overheard you talking about that barbecue, and thought about one of the images people have of your approach to filmmaking—that you essentially host a party and invite a lot of people, and film it.
Robert Altman: Well, people say that. See, I don't know about other films because I've never worked as anything other than as a director, so I've never seen another director work. I just think the whole process is so intimate and personal and the actors are the main ingredient, of course. All I try to do is make them comfortable with one another so they can have fun and enjoy—because it's hard fucking work, you know? There's a lot of pressure on these people that we don't know about. And of course I like these people.
BSW: That comes through in the work. I wanted ask first about how you choose the people—your casting process. You haven't worked with the same casting director on every film, necessarily.
Altman: Well, for many, many years I didn't use a casting director. Then, on Kansas City I used Elisabeth Leustig, and she was great. Then she died right after that, and Pam Dixon, who has worked on all of Alan Rudolph's films, does my casting now for me. For Gosford Park it was Mary Selway, because it was done in England. All of those people I've mentioned have been just great.
BSW: But you've never had a Juliet Taylor, as Woody Allen does, to introduce you to all the new actors who want to work with you.
Altman: I hope I don't do anything like Woody Allen.
BSW: Well, I hate to make another Woody Allen comparison, but one thing you do have in common is that you're both directors people seem to want to work for, and cut their salaries for.
Altman: Well, this salary thing is a false thing. I can't imagine an artist having a price. If they say they have a price, then I'm not particularly interested in them, because they put some kind of value on their work that indicates to me that if you pay the price you get them, and if you don't you don't, and the art of it isn't really part of the issue. I understand why they do it, because they get screwed so much by all these producers and studios, they get lied to and hustled, so through years of experience people decided to say, "Well, I'm going to get it up front, because I never get it at the other end." You don't want to be made a fool of.
But I don't have those kinds of budgets. I can't compete with Warner Bros. or these studios. It's pointless to try. I can't have an actor come in who says, "OK, I'll come in and work free for you, but I've got to have my makeup and my hair and my perks and my trailer, and where is my trailer going to be parked?" It suddenly becomes not about the work that we're doing but some other issue that I can't help them with. So I just stay away from that sort of thing. There are a lot of great actors out there and most of them, nobody knows who they are.
BSW: I'm interested in how much of what we see in your films, including Gosford Park, is created in the script stage, then in production, and finally in postproduction. I get the feeling that each of those phases has a lot to do with the final product.
Altman: It's the actors who are the main element. Let's equate it to a wall. I'm a painter and you give me a wall, and you say, "Oh, it's a 70-foot wall, and you can paint the whole wall, but you've got to have horses in it." I'll say Oh, OK. Then I get the paint—and the actors are the paint and it's living pigment, and each person who's added to that bleeds through to the next person and causes reaction and reaction, and it moves and finds its own composition. That's the way it seems to me. Everybody doesn't work the same way, nor should they.
BSW: Actors certainly work different ways. I know you've done some theatre directing, as well. Does that give you insight into the different ways actors work, the interior vs. the exterior approach? Do you speak that sort of actors' language?
Altman: I don't understand actors. By that I mean I don't understand how they can do what they do. It is beyond my comprehension. My method, if there's such a thing, is: I cast, and when the whole thing is cast, it's like throwing rocks into the water—it raises the levels and all that. Once it's all cast, I don't have a hell of a lot to do. I certainly don't direct them, actors. I try to give them the confidence and try to earn their trust so they can give 110 percent of what's possible, and I won't let them make fools out of themselves. In other words I will protect them so they are not afraid to go over the top.
BSW: I'm wondering, though, if you ever work with actors who feel the need to be directed—who want to talk to you about their character and such.
Altman: Well, there are some people that you just kind of communicate with, and there's no explaining why. It's like love affairs. You say, "Oh, wow, that's a great-looking girl over there," and you go to talk to her, and you just don't connect. And I remember a few times of talking to an actor and looking in their eyes, and I've suddenly realized that they're not hearing a word I say. And it's not their fault. It's just chemistry. It just doesn't work. But that happens rarely.
BSW: In your films with large casts, like Nashville or Gosford Park, I'm curious about the extent to which improvisation is allowed, encouraged, a part of the process.
Altman: Well, improvisation, if I were trying to explain it, is a rehearsal tool. It's not really a method. I don't throw a bunch of people into an area, and say, "OK, improv," and everybody does what they want to do. It just doesn't happen. Improvisation is something that occurs in the rehearsal process. Now, in scenes where actors have to interact, they all protect themselves and they all deliver. I mean, they all became actors in order to create. That's what they want, and so I just insist that they do the creating. What I want to see is something I've never seen before. So how can I explain what that is? It's impossible.
BSW: I understand that the actors in Gosford Park had body mikes on in these large group scenes. The mixing process must have been interesting.
Altman: Well, that's a technical thing, and it's a selection. I'm able in the editing process to make the choice. I may have you talking to your dinner mate, and if there's 12 of you at dinner there's maybe six of those conversations going on. I may feature two of them. I don't know what they're going to be until I come to that final edit.
BSW: I guess what I'm asking is, Do you go in with a vision of how a scene will look and play? It sounds like the actors create a lot of that and you sort through their creations.
Altman: I do not go in with a vision. In a film like this, where we had 24 microphones out, what we mix down on the set is maybe the main storyline stuff, the main character things. Everybody's doing something, but I don't hear what they're talking about, necessarily. When we go to the editing, then I bring all those tracks in and I say, "Shit, that's great—I didn't know they were saying that!" And then I change the structure of the whole editing of the scene.
BSW: You could tell a whole other story, almost, that way.
Altman: Yes, absolutely. There are things in Gosford Park like that—Tom Hollander, particularly, was talking about going into the Sudan and getting shoes—I never heard that! That was never in anybody's script; that was something that Tom did. He went into the period of the time, he researched, he came up with certain information, he decided that's going to fit my character. The same thing happened with most of these people. Those are the surprises.
Look, I don't give a rat's fuck about plot. It's behavior. That's my interest. You have to have a plot, because the audience has to think they're watching something. But how many stories are there? Six?
BSW: It's funny that you chose to do an English murder mystery in an old house—a genre that's typically all about plot.
Altman: Well, we all know that, though. I call this not a "whodunit" but a "whocareswhodunit." And I made no particular effort to disguise or to make it, "Boy, who's going to get it?" Certain people will see it and say, "Well, I knew right away." I don't care about that. And somebody said to me, "I loved this picture, but I still don't know who really murdered him." I said, "I think it was so-and-so, but I don't think that makes a lot of difference."
Of course, my goal is to get people to really see this film more than once. The first time you see it you're playing whodunit, and you're not looking in the corners. The second time when you know all these things, then you're able to see a different film.
BSW: Is that an ambition of yours—that people see your films more than once?
Altman: I think with my films, if you see them once you see a film, but to really get it, you have to see it more than once. I think any good film should be seen more than once. Look at these great paintings: You don't say, "Hey, we're going to go down and see the Rembrandt tomorrow." "Oh, I saw that." Of course, what we're dealing with is a mixture: We're trying to sell caviar disguised as candy, but we're really selling candy.
BSW: You're talking about art vs. commerce?
Altman: I think the problem today is that all films are dealt with in exactly the same way, and they're all basically made for the lowest common denominator, which is the 14-year-old boy. You know, it was very difficult for me to achieve an R rating on this film. The studio said, "Why do you want an R?" I said, "I don't want young teenagers to come in to this picture, because they'll be bored to sobs. They won't get it. They won't like it. So why have them in there, because they'll go out and say, 'Oh, that's a shitty film.' " Now, if the film works and develops a reputation, then on the tail end of it they can say, "Oh, let's go see that, I heard it's good." Then they can sneak in or something, I don't care. But I certainly don't want to attract them because it's not made for them.
BSW: I have to ask the inevitable question about working with an English cast, whether that felt different, and in what ways, both in terms of the actor's technique and professionalism, the way they work.
Altman: Well, in the first place, they are theatre people—almost 99 percent of them—and they were used to working in ensembles. They don't have this thing about, Do I have the starring part? Where do I park my trailer? They liked working with each other. You just couldn't do this film in America. Not in my lifetime.
BSW: You don't think so? You can't get casts like this here?
Altman: The agents won't let them do it. "Oh, I'd love to, I'll work for scale. What's my part, six days?" I said, "No." I think the whole shoot was roughly 12 weeks. The first six and a half weeks, Kelly MacDonald worked the longest, and Alan Bates worked probably the next longest period. He was there, I'd say, for 10 weeks, an average of four and a half days a week. The first six and a half days he was in the back, back, background and didn't say anything. He came every day, got his stuff on. You can get an actor to do it, but you can't get an actor with an American agent. He'll say, "Oh, well, I don't have to be in those scenes. Put somebody else in. I just want to do these scenes and run."
BSW: What you described about Bates, though—for the actor's process, that's invaluable work.
Altman: Of course it is. Maggie Smith—almost all of her scenes were done, I'd say, in the first six days. Then she was there another four or five weeks, where she was in the background crossing through. People said, "Oh, you won't get Maggie to do that!" And I said, "But she's going to do the film."
BSW: I've read that these actors watched the dailies with you. That's something a lot of actors don't get the chance to do, especially not a whole ensemble cast. And some actors don't want to see them. Is that something that you do regularly?
Altman: You bet. My favorite part of the whole filming process is the dailies. We serve drinks, nobody takes notes. These people work all this time, and by the time they see themselves on the screen it's edited and it's a year later and they've done four other films, three theatre pieces; they never get the applause. In the dailies, they get the applause of their own peers. They cheer, and they start rooting for each other to do well.
BSW: I just want to press you on one point. You said that you don't care about plot. Clearly, though, your films reflect a way of seeing the world—I'm not the first to compare you to Jean Renoir, but I'll mention him again. Renoir told stories, didn't he? Film is still a storytelling medium, isn't it?
Altman: No, I don't think so. I equate it more with a painting, like a mural. It's storytelling in that you have to have something to keep the interest of the audience so they can watch the behavior. But the interesting thing to me is the behavior. There are only six stories. Then it's just a matter of when you choose to say "the end." You say, "Oh God, does it have a happy ending?" Well, it's not an ending—it's a stopping place. The only ending I know about is death. So it was a happy ending and now the picture's over, but that couple that just had their wedding—two months after that he shot her, and she caught him with her mother, and there was a violent murder, and the children were born dead. Now it's a tragedy.
BSW: And clearly, even though your films have a sort of egalitarian gaze, there are obviously differences in social position, there's conflict, and there are villains, for lack of a better word.
Altman: But every villain can smile and every hero can frown. I mean, none of us do just one thing. Except politicians.