Saturday 19 February 2022

"I’d worry if I had control…" - Tom Ryan in conversation with Robert Altman (Part 2) - Working in television, multiple story telling, shooting styles

Michael Murphy being directed by Robert Altman
Tanner 88

You’ve spent a lot of time working in television and it’s clearly an area that continues to attract you. Why?

Well, it’s just a way of presenting what you’ve done. There’s nothing wrong with television other than its content. I don’t care whether it’s on television, or underwater, or on a screen. How you transmit it to people doesn’t really matter.


Are you able to work with the same kind of freedom when you’re making something like Tanner as you clearly do with your films?


Oh, absolutely. I had a great collaborator in Garry Trudeau. He was doing the writing and we worked as partners on that. And he was great to work with. We had a wonderful time doing that. But when I’m making a film I don’t have a partner.


But you actually like that kind of collaboration with a writer?


Oh, sure. Absolutely. Somebody has to be the one who turns the switch on and turns it off.


To go back to how you actually came to be a film director: who were your inspirations when you were going to the movies as a young man?


Fellini, the Europeans, Bergman. You know, the usual group were the films that I saw and that attracted me. I wasn’t high on American films.


Looking back, at what point did you first feel like there was some correlation between you and the role that put you in the director’s chair? When did you actually feel that this was your life’s profession?


The first time I did it. I liked it.


Can you recall what led you to the parts of the style that makes your films so distinctive: the ensemble casts, the crisscrossing narratives, the overlapping dialogue, the restless, zooming camera?


Tom Waits, Short Cuts

Well, it grew. One thing came out of another. That’s just what I was doing. I was always attracted to the multiple story thing. M*A*S*H* was a series of events, and certainly Short Cuts was. With Nashville we were really just showing off the arena rather than any individual story in it. And I just had fun doing that. I liked that kind of storytelling.


What of the overlapping dialogue, the decision to have characters talking over each other?


But I didn’t invent that. If you look at the films that Howard Hawks made in the ’30s, they were all just that way. The reason they didn’t have that generally is that most of that stuff comes from the theatre and in theatre you don’t have people talking at the same time because the audience couldn’t hear ’em.


How do the writers feel about whatever dialogue is there not being buried so much as being difficult to get at?


I don’t know. I don’t have any idea.I guess they’d need to speak for themselves.


What is it about the zoom that you like so much?


Well, it just lets me change my focus. It’s just a device to help the audience into the scene.


As I watch the films one of the things that strikes me is that it simultaneously gets you close, yet forces you to remain at a distance?


Well, OK. That’s valid.


I’m wondering here about your relationship to the characters in the arena that you’re presenting, the degree to which you empathise with them.


Well that depends on which character it is.


Warren Beatty, Julie Christie,
McCabe and Mrs Miller

Well, let’s go back to the ’70s and look at McCabe.


I certainly empathise with McCabe. I cry for McCabe.


What about one that I can’t find any sympathy for and that’s the Glenn Close character in Cookie’s Fortune?


Oh, I had a lot of… Well, you’re right. She was quite a ditz, wasn’t she? But that was just that character.


Yes, but you created that character.


No, Anne Rapp created that character. She wrote that character and then Glenn Close created that character. I just… It was brought to me. It walked in on to the set and that was it. We just played the thing out. She did that. That’s her soul in there.


Glenn Close, Cookie's Fortune

To go back for a moment to the question of your visual style: one of the things that struck me watching Prairie the other day is that you never have a still shot. Why?


Well, I don’t think that’s quite true, but if I don’t it’s because I have no reason to. Maybe I have a reason… Something happens in a certain space and the camera records that. How it records it, in close-ups or long shots or moving shots: that’s brush strokes. And there’s no right way or wrong way. There’s just  a way. It’s one’s way and I do what I do because it amuses me. I like it. I like presenting the material my way.


To what extent are the visual compositions of your films blocked out before you start shooting?


About one per cent. It’s usually the space and the action that determine what the shot is.


And you decide that as you shoot it?


Yes, almost always. Sometimes we’re going one way and then we decide it’s more interesting to go another way.


It doesn’t matter who your cinematographers are, and you’ve worked with many, your films all look like Robert Altman films. What kinds of qualities do the cinematographers need to exhibit for you to want to work with them? Is there anything in particular about their previous work that makes you want to work with them?


Oh certainly, in all cases.


Say with Ed Lachman, who shot A Prairie Home Companion?


Richard Gere, Dr T and the Women

Well, Ed also shot the last part of Dr. T and The Women. He shot all the stuff up in the desert. I was just so impressed. My son, who’s a camera operator, had worked with him and recommended him. Ed was just terrific.


What kinds of discussions do you have with cinematographers beforehand?


Ah, not much. We kind of ramble a little bit about how it should look and it shouldn’t look. It just sort of… happens. There’s not a lot of discussion.


Do they ever argue with you about how to go about shooting a particular sequence?


Yes. It’s happened.


And this is part of the collaboration aspect that you like so much?


Yeah. But I always win those arguments.


You have a wicked sense of humour, Mr. Altman.


[Chuckles] It’s easy to be wicked, I think.


What are your rules for collaboration with writers? Or is it different every time?


It’s like all things: it’s different every time, but it’s always the same. 


The freedom you give your actors to improvise, to make their own contributions has become legendary. Years ago someone described a Robert Altman set (I think he was talking about Brewster McLoud) as an “improvisational encounter group”. Is that fair?


[Laughs] All’s fair. It’s an exaggeration, of course. But if that’s the way it impresses somebody then that’s fine with me because that’s what I’m trying to transmit.


In such a working environment, though, do you ever worry about losing control?


Well, I’d worry if I had control. You know, I have to follow what’s happening, that animal that’s in front of me. I have to… He grows on his own, grows his own teeth, and he’s prowling around there and I have to film him, not make him fit my lens.


So you’re happy with that.


Sure. That’s what I do. I don’t say that’s what everybody should do.


In the light of that, it’s interesting that your filmsare often about characters who think they’re in control but who are, sometimes without ever knowing it, up against forces they never fully comprehend.


Welcome to life.


Sterling Hayden, Elliott Gould, 
The Long Goodbye

This side of it… there’s a sense in which your characters always experience a problem of seeing. I’m thinking of someone like McCabe, or Dr. T, or Elliot Gould’s Philip Marlowe, who have this vision of themselves but who understand very little. This seems to me to be the central theme in your career. Do you see it that way?


Well, I think that more people are alike than not. To some degree, we all are much more than we think we are. And, you know… we try to posture ourselves and fit ourselves into something grander. But we’re not that at all. And that’s what most of these characters, who lead us through whatever the madness is, are showing us.


Have you ever given or did you ever want to give credit to Alan Smithee?




Is this because of the control you’re able to exercise, having final cut and so on?


Well, yeah. I think. I don’t know what other people do really. I do what I do and just assume that everybody does basically the same kind of thing.


Editor's Note: This is the second of a three part  interview recorded by Tom Ryan with Robert Altman The first part can be found if you click here Previous posts in this series can be found if you click on the names Hanif Kureishi & Roger Michell Ken Loach Pt 1 Ken Loach Pt2  Colin Firth (Part One) Colin Firth (Part Two) Lawrence Kasdan (Part One)Lawrence Kasdan (Part Two) Costa-Gavras Jonathan Demme (Part One)  Jonathan Demme (Part Two) Click on the names to read the earlier pieces.


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