By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
He pauses, then gestures to the top shelf of a bookcase across the room. “See that bunch of leather-bound scripts up there? Those are the scripts of the first 30 or so pictures I did. And if you pulled any of those out and read them, they are the most insipid documents. If you were to read them, you’d say, ‘You’ve got to be kidding.’ They were the original scripts that I had. They were much more structured than the way I do it now.”
Which is how exactly?
“I just get what I consider the outline, the place and then the people. And then it’s like, ‘Do it.’ I know pretty much what some of the characters are going to do. With others, actors come to me and say, ‘Why don’t I do this? Why don’t I play this kind of a guy?’ And it grows. Once there’s a core of people and they are going to be the artists of the film, the film will develop, and I just have to stay there and keep it on track and try to keep the actors in a position where they can continue to be positively constructive.”
“But isn’t that a process fraught with danger?” I ask.
“It’s fraught with danger, but I don’t know what it is that I’m after in the first place. I’m working from the seat of my pants. I’m the one who’s doing the improvisation, not the actors.”
Robert Altman is 81 this year and, excepting a couple of dozen shorts, documentaries and movies for television, A Prairie Home Companion marks the 36th feature film he has directed since making his debut, with The Delinquents, in 1957. In those 50 years, he has been nominated for seven Academy Awards, won the Cannes and Berlin film festivals, and been hailed as one of the founding fathers of American independent cinema. But if he now seems a maverick and an institution, it was a long time coming.
His debut studio feature, Countdown, was taken away from him and finished by others — in part because Warner Bros. honcho Jack Warner couldn’t tolerate Altman’s penchant for having all the actors talking at the same time. Of MASH, his first major success, Altman has joked that the film wasn’t so much released by its studio, Fox, but rather escaped. “The studio people wanted to cut all the operating-room sequences out and just go for the dirty jokes,” he recalls. “Then [Fox mogul Darryl] Zanuck — the old man was still alive then — showed up at a screening with two French girlfriends who were in their 30s, and they got it. They said, ‘Oh no! This is great!’ ” Altman rode high for the next few years, bolstered by the widespread acclaim for Nashville and McCabe & Mrs. Miller — arguably his finest film — only to spend most of the 1980s working on the margins of the industry, but working nonetheless.
“I kept chugging along,” he says today, “and I never got in bed with any one section of the industry that might have made it more difficult for me to change. During the ’80s, when it got so bad, I started filming a lot of stage plays. I’d literally take the script, the Samuel French script, and that was the screenplay. We’d just put up a fourth wall. Streamers was done that way, and so was Come Back to the Five and Dime.”
Altman, then, is a survivor, and with the exception of John Huston, maybe the only American director who has worked to such an advanced age while continuing to make some of his best films, of which A Prairie Home Companion is certainly one. But no matter the literal and figurative specters of death that pass throughthe Fitzgerald Theater’s hallowed corridors, Altman isn’t planning his exit just yet.
“I’m here in a way under false pretenses,” he said while accepting his long-overdue honorary Oscar earlier this year, just before stunning the crowd with the revelation that 10 years ago he underwent a complete heart transplant. And over the course of our conversation, he mentions no less than two upcoming projects he plans to film in the near future, one of which — a feature adaptation of the documentary Hands on a Hard Body — already exists as a series of note cards and photographs taped to a marker board adjacent to where we are sitting. In other words, Robert Altman has many stories left to tell.
“You can sit on the street corner and watch people die just walking past you,” he says. “Some guy’s coming down the street with a cane and a shopping bag and you know this cocksucker’s not going to be alive in two years. Then you see little babies being pushed in their carts who have no idea what the quality of their lives is going to be. It’s very . . . I don’t even know what I’m talking about. But that’s the kind of thing that impresses me right now.”
“The circle of life,” I say. “It sounds like a movie.”
“Maybe this one,” he replies.
For Robert Altman, I suspect, in his end lies his beginning.