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The Craftsman

Photos by Michael Lavine

Photos by Michael Lavine

Every show’s my last show. That’s my philosophy.

Garrison Keillor,A Prairie Home Companion

“Do you mind if I lie down?” Robert Altman asks as I walk into the Manhattan offices of his Sandcastle 5 production company.

“It’ll be just like the psychiatrist’s office,” I suggest.

“That’s what you want anyway, isn’t it?” he gruffly counters, sprawling himself out on a leather sofa barely long enough to contain his imposing 6-foot frame.

Well, yes and no. Maybe it’s his impeccable Midwestern decorum, or the fact that he worked his way up through the Hollywood ranks at a time (the late 1950s) when directors were craftsmen, not auteurs — but the iconoclastic director of MASH, Nashville and The Player is loath to talk about himself or his work in terms that smack of the lofty or intellectual. He claims, without a touch of irony, that some of his old Combat! TV episodes are as good as any movie he ever made, and he’s quick to apportion credit to others for making him look so good, especially when the talk turns to actors. Of Meryl Streep, who stars inhis latest film as one half of a family country-music duo (the other half of which is played by veteran Altman collaborator Lily Tomlin), he gushes: “I didn’t have to do anything with her — I went home after the first day of shooting and I was a little depressed. She couldn’t be nicer and more helpful to everybody. There’s no angst of any kind. But she’s just about 25 percent smarter than everybody else, and that’s why she’s had this career that she’s had. I just put her and Lily together, gave them a room with a piano and a guy in it, and they worked everything out.”

The movie is A Prairie Home Companion, based on Minnesotan Garrison Keillor’s long-running radio variety program and filmed almost entirely within the confines of St. Paul’s Fitzgerald Theater, a patch of blue in the heart of red-state America. If that seems a surprising move for the filmmaker who famously threatened to trade his U.S. passport for a French one following the 2004 re-election of President George W. Bush, it’s worth remembering that Altman himself is a son of Kansas City. He’s spent the bulk of his six-decade career charting our changing cultural landscape through the lens of his roving, zooming camera and the disharmonies of his overlapping soundtracks, forming a body of work as varied and richly colored as the country itself — a bloody good Vietnam satire, a couple of frontier Westerns, a scabrous Hollywood takedown and even the odd (in every sense of the term) biopic. Yet somehow all of a piece — like chapters, Altman has suggested, in an ongoing serial.

But a serial about what?

“Oh, the things that I have seen, the things that have occurred to me,” he says in his gravelly Kansas City drawl. “I negate what I said in one place and I embellish it someplace else. I’m the wrong guy to ask these questions.”

In the latest installment of his magnum opus, which Altman says he was inspired to do out of simple admiration for Keillor’s work, a numbers-crunching corporate overlord (Tommy Lee Jones) wants to pave over the Fitzgerald’s paradisiacal environs with — what else? — a parking lot. But before the wrecking ball strikes, the show must go on, one last time. And on it goes, and on and on (complete with a couple of encores), until A Prairie Home Companion becomes perhaps the most ebullient funeral service ever put on film — a joyous tribute to the end of something past its time, but hardly past its prime.

Whether Altman’s modesty with respect to his career is false or genuine, his love for performers — and performing — is unassailable. Four other times (in Nashville, The Player, Kansas City and The Company), he has made films set in and around the world of the arts, and his résumé also includes one honest-to-goodness musical (Popeye). But even when Altman’s characters aren’t literally bursting into song or dance, his films are graced with a playful sense of make-believe and putting on a show, whether it be the literal operating theater of Hawkeye and Trapper John, the teenage girlfriends pantomiming the McGuire Sisters in Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean or the party guests turned amateur sleuths in the Oscar-winning Gosford Park. And like all of Altman’s best movies (and a few of his lesser ones), A Prairie Home Companion is another grand, messy, multi-character canvas in which actors invent and embellish freely, and the scenes seem to be unfolding organically, in the moment.

“I make them do the work they say they became actors to do in the first place,” Altman says of his famously collaborative and improvisational approach, while admitting that such unorthodox working methods aren’t for everyone. “They say, ‘I want to contribute. I want to do this and that.’ Good. I won’t have it any other way. Those people who want it all laid out on a storyboard for them and then they just come in and do the words — I can’t deal with those people very well, because I don’t get much out of working that way.”

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.