In light of Robert Altman's receiving an honorary Oscar this coming March 5th, Matt Zoller Seitz at The House Next Door is hosting a spur-of-the-moment Altman blogathon. These online events call for quick thinking or for much-needed reworking of old notes.
At the 46th San Francisco International Film Festival in April 2003, I attended the Robert Altman tribute at the Castro Theater, consisting of an onstage interview and screening of Nashville.
Almost the entire center section of the orchestra was blocked off for "Altman's party" except for about five rows in the front and the same in the back. Since I was one of the first into the theater, I got one of the few good available seats but felt sorry for those forced into the balcony who paid $20 for their ticket. That just didn't strike me right at all and I felt it was excessive and offensive for the San Francisco Film Society to have allowed such blatant favoritism.
The interview was interesting enough, though the event began to border on the hagiographic. Further, I had no idea they were going to talk for two hours before even beginning Nashville (which is almost three hours long as it is). Still, I thought I'd stick it out. Which I did. At least until the film burned up right before our eyes at about 11:00!! There was a collective gasp and then the audience buzz of genuine concern. Altman had just bemoaned earlier how some of his first films have literally fallen into dust because of the film stock they were using at the time and how difficult and expensive it has been to reconstruct some of that early work. In such situations I assume the projectionist would have to splice and continue; but, from past experience I've learned to leave; the magic having been marred. Besides, it was late. Regretfully, I walked out.
My favorite response of Altman's was when someone mentioned how it appeared at the Academy Awards broadcast that he wanted to win the Oscar for Gosford Park and that he looked incredibly disappointed when he didn't win. Altman grimaced and then said, "I had mixed reactions. Like watching your mother-in-law drive your new car off a cliff."
Also liked when someone asked how he was able to convince Julianne Moore to be naked from the waist down for five minutes. He praised the actress, said the role was originally for Madeline Stowe who chickened out by saying she would be happy to be naked for him in some other movie, but not that one. He'd seen Moore on Broadway in "Uncle Vanya" and was impressed. Phoned her to say he was going to offer her a film role but that first she needed to know right off that she would have to appear naked from the waist down for at least five minutes. Moore paused and then said, "I can do that." Altman was delighted, said he'd send over the script right away, and then Moore added, "Oh Robert, there's an extra treat." "Yes?" Altman inquired. "I'm a real redhead," Moore cooed. Moore's agent has asked Altman not to repeat that story so he asked all 2,000 of us in the audience to keep it to ourselves.
I ask the same of all of you.
When asked how he had been able to keep on doing the projects he wanted to do, without unnecessarily compromising his vision, Altman stated it was due to failure. The failure of several of his projects to earn the return the studios wanted convinced those studios to drop him, leaving him free to go elsewhere, to work with who he wanted. And when all is said and done, he couldn't complain about his life, not a year has gone by that he hasn't been working on a film that he has wanted to work on.
It intrigued me that Altman's start as a writer began as a WWII bomber pilot writing letters home. One of his relatives found Altman's correspondence amusing and suggested he become a screenwriter. So Altman began thinking of himself that way. He did some industrial films. Did some t.v., including half hour episodes for Hitchcock, then "Whirlybirds", then "Combat." Recently, he had the opportunity to look at some of those old "Combat" episodes and felt that his work was as good then as it is now and suggested that you don't get better at what you do, you simply become more facile, which in itself can be dangerous because you can then lose the art of what you do.
He was reluctant to offer advice to audience members requesting same. Said he could only say what he says to his children: never accept advice. Keep alive. Look both ways before you cross the street.
With regard to his political views, it was refreshing (if not sad) to hear Altman say that he believes some of his earlier projects, like the one on Nixon, would stand up well today precisely because nothing has changed in our country, not really. Lots of progress, he smiled, no change.
Altman did mention, however, that the most difficult aspect of directing Gosford Park was getting all the actors onto the set for filming. That is one thing for which I must commend Altman: his alleged respect for his actors (Louise Fletcher aside). He insists that all that is great in his films derives from what the actors bring to it. His art, he insists, is in doing nothing, being a figurehead, that sort of thing.
Altman added that, though Ryan Phillipe's agents were the only ones who showed up on the Gosford Park set, they left promptly after someone spilled tea on them. He claimed his Gosford Park cast were flawless; "not a single hair in the butter."