For more than 30 years, Robert Altman has been one of America's leading directors, working at a near-constant pace that has produced, on average, a movie a year. Among Altman's films, you'll find several frequently heralded as the best ever made (MASH, Nashville), several that should be (McCabe & Mrs. Miller), underrated and overlooked material (Buffalo Bill And The Indians, Secret Honor), interesting failures (Health, Ready To Wear), attempts to expand prescribed genres while working within them (The Gingerbread Man, Popeye), and the outright bizarre (Brewster McCloud). Each is guided by an easily identifiable style (documentary-like camera work, multi-layered soundtracks with overlapping dialogue, improvisational acting, a strong emphasis on character over a traditionally forward-moving plot), and a sensibility that's harder to identify. Nashville, for instance, spends three hours showing a cross-section of humanity behaving at its most selfish and/or vulnerable, culminates in a harrowing climax, and then offers an oddly hopeful ending. It's a move typical of Altman's career, which is capable of containing, without contradiction, the barely tempered sweetness of Cookie's Fortune and the almost unqualified pessimism of Brewster McCloud. Perhaps the best illustration of what Altman does comes from one of his most conventional films. Toward the end of 1992's The Player, Cynthia Stevenson's character, having failed to match the success unscrupulously won by ex-partner/ex-boyfriend Tim Robbins, collapses to the ground in defeat. An expected moment, Altman treats it unexpectedly, lingering for the time it takes to turn the shot from a plot point into a heartbreaking moment, showing the familiar in an unfamiliar, far more revealing way. In recognition of its 25th anniversary, Nashville will be reissued on video and DVD in August, preceded by the long-delayed CD debut of its soundtrack, a collection of the original songs written and performed by the film's actors. Altman, now 75, recently spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about his most acclaimed film and other topics.
The Onion: The ostensible reason we're talking today is the re-release of Nashville, which is often cited as your best film. Do you agree with that assessment?
Robert Altman: Oh, I think the last one I did is. Yeah, I like Nashville. I mean, I like 'em all. They're like children, you know, and you tend to love your least successful children the most. But I don't think there's a best any more than… I don't think things are best. In terms of my own assessment of my work, it's no better than any others.
O: What would you pick out as your most underrated film by that logic?
RA: I don't know. I can't do those things. Emotionally and intellectually, you have to look at these like you do your own children. You're so connected to them. What critics say, and general assessments of these films and this kind of work, is about popularity and what's going on at the time. Right now, there are more movie critics than film critics out there. In other words, they're trying to reflect—which is their job—the popular taste. There are very few critics who go beyond that and treat this stuff as any more than movies.
O: Did you follow the whole affair of James Cameron writing a letter to The Los Angeles Times' Kenneth Turan?
RA: James Cameron, can he write?
O: Apparently, he wrote an extensive letter about how he felt Turan should be fired because he gave a negative review to Titanic, arguing that everyone loves Titanic and Turan was out of touch.
RA: He should get a negative review. It was a shitty picture. For him to criticize anybody for what they say about that picture proves he's as crazy as he advertises.
O: Getting back to Nashville just for a moment, do you see it as being prescient of the current political and celebrity culture?
RA: It's 25 years old. We did that 25 years ago, and it's as politically valid today as it was then. It was the precursor of a combination of Jimmy Carter, who got elected, and Ross Perot, who didn't get elected. But those kinds of candidates weren't heard of at that time.
O: Do you think that movement has sort of died off? Did the Perot candidacy excite you in any way?
RA: I know a lot of people responded to it, just because it was something that wasn't in the machine. But it became part of the machine just as bad as everybody else.
O: It seems like the worst elements of it took it over.
RA: Yeah. Well, they always do.
O: The new DVD version, I noticed, didn't have any deleted scenes. There's said to be hours of footage from Nashville that weren't included. Did you want any of that to see the light?
RA: There weren't any deleted scenes. Almost everything we shot is in that film.
O: Just in shorter versions?
RA: No, that whole thing that has been said for 25 years—that we cut another two or three hours of film, that we could have cut another version—just isn't true. That all stemmed from when we went to network television, because the film was so long at that time. I said we could add footage and put it on two different nights: in other words, make two two-hour films out of it. Because if you're not seeing it all in one sitting, and it's going to be separated by a week, you can afford to do a little reprise and repeat some stuff a little bit.
O: But that never happened?
RA: No, they chose not to do that. Nashville... There's nothing I would do to change it. I'd probably cut it a little bit, but that isn't what it is. Most of the time trimmed is music.
O: In an interview 29 years ago, you said, "Nobody has ever made a good movie. Someday, someone will make half a good one." Have you seen one since then?
RA: No, not really.
O: That quote was in reference to the over-emphasis on narrative. Is that something you'd still like to see movies move away from?
RA: Well, yes. Film, to me, is all based on literature and reading. But film isn't that; it's more like painting. They should be more like murals. They're all too articulate, and everything is told to you too many times. You're not allowed to glean anything from it or get impressions. Once you tell somebody, "Okay, this is red," that's red to them forever. And if they say, "Is this red or orange?," you should say, "I don't know." And then people… Their own brain will work on that answer, because everything is perceived slightly differently by every single human being. No two people are ever going to receive anything exactly the same way. It all has to filter through all the information you have in your computer, your brain.
O: So, by your assessment, the better films are the ones that leave more up to the viewer?
RA: Yeah. They allow them… It's the same way with a painting. The worst thing I hear, and you hear it all the time, is when people say, "Oh, did you see this film?" "Oh, I've already seen that and I don't want to go again." But with paintings, you stand and look at them as long as you want and walk away, and every time you look at them, your own experience is bringing something additional to the information that you're looking at. Music is the same way. But the problem with film is that it attacks too many of your senses. It's become more of a tonic, an escape. It's, "Oh, let's go tune out and watch Charles Bronson." And it's fine—there's room for that kind of material—but we're all just pushed into the same category. If all books were pushed into the same category, it'd be pretty dreadful. And it's getting to be that way anyway. You can't read anymore. But I don't care about that, because I'm in the looking business.
O: Do you agree with the fairly recent notion that the '70s were the last golden age of American filmmaking?
RA: Well, I think probably of film as we know it now, yeah.
O: Do you see that changing at all?
RA: No. I think it's just become all corporate now, and it's mostly run and controlled and ordered by the bean-counters. These guys start a new studio, and they're turning out the same old crap. Except a few individual artists—and they can almost not get financing—nobody does anything dealing with cinema as an art. They deal with it as a money machine. They have to. Every picture is geared toward the 16-year-old mind, because by the time the grown-ups decide to see a film, it's not playing anymore and they say, "Oh, I'll wait and look at it on video." Video is getting better, and the screens are getting larger, so people don't go out. The only people who go out are these kids who want to run up and down the aisle and see this stuff, like this Tom Cruise crap [Mission: Impossible 2] and that Travolta thing he just did [Battlefield Earth].
O: Well, no one saw that, though.
RA: Oh, but they did. They're gonna make money on that film. As long as they do that, as long as they make money on 'em, they're gonna keep making 'em.
O: It seems like a great help to you early in your career was the critics. We kind of touched on this before, but do you feel there's any sort of critical network in place to help filmmakers now?
RA: Not really. Not really. There are very few critics left, the Pauline Kaels and those. There are no real critics left; there's reviewers. And then the [Richard] Corlisses and this guy [Dave] Kehr and people like that. I don't know what they look at when they see a film. I'm always surprised by what I see and what I've heard about a film. Always.
O: You discovered Shelley Duvall working in a mall. You've used a lot of non-actors over the years in films like The Long Goodbye and Kansas City. Do you feel that there's a fundamentally different approach to using non-professional actors?
RA: By the time I use them, they're professional. Professional is just somebody doing it. How much experience they've had is a different thing. Sometimes that's the desirable thing, because their experience helps you. At other times, you want the off-the-wall kind of raw truth that comes out of some of these inexperienced actors. It's like any skill or art: When you get too good at it, you get too facile and the art disappears. So I'd much rather see… I don't think any rule should be set down. You get the very best, most experienced actor, and you're also not going to get surprised as much. They're going to do a great job because they're skilled at that, but you're not going to see anything that really makes you sit up and say, "Wow, that's truthful."
O: Do you feel that, outside of films like yours, actors are underutilized?
RA: Well, I think their talent is underutilized. I think many of these people should have fewer reins on them.
O: It seems with actors that you either work with them once or work with them repeatedly. To what do you attribute that?
RA: Well, if I work with an actor—say he plays a cop—I think, "Man, this guy is really good." But then you go see the film and say, "Wow, he's a great cop. Let's put him as the cop in the next picture." Suddenly, the guy is playing cops all the time. I see that they have a larger range than that, just in the process of working with them. It may not appear on the screen, but I think, "Wow, this guy could play the priest." So I usually don't repeat people in the same roles.
O: Well, you can't get much further apart than Shelley Duvall in Thieves Like Us and her part in Nashville.
RA: That's right, that's right. Still, it's her. She's the painting. She's the piece of art herself. I stick her up in different kinds of murals, or I had. McCabe, I thought, was the first real acting thing she did. She was spectacular in that, I thought, in her naivete and truthfulness.
O: That's a film I'd like to talk about a little bit. In that one, you built an environment from scratch. Did you use that approach in any of your other films?
RA: I think in all of them.
O: Right, but actually building the actual city, in that case.
RA: There's always an arena, I find, and in a case like McCabe, or someplace where it's in a contained physical area, you can control more. In other words, they're not going to get into the wardrobe. Everything that goes on the screen, I've put there. Then I can say, "Okay, I'm not going to have any blue shirts in this film, and I'm not going to have any red in this film." But when you go out to shoot, say, Brewster McCloud or Nashville, I have no control over the art direction. I shoot people in real situations, so I can't call up the world and
say, "Don't wear a blue shirt tomorrow." So, consequently, I have to then change and say, "I have to deal with these elements." That's what I do.
O: How much do you think your Midwestern background influenced your sensibility?
RA: Oh, I don't have any idea. I don't know. For the life of me, I can't think of anything different about being in Missouri or New York City or Los Angeles or Toronto or Texas.
O: You've made some quintessentially L.A. films, but you're also one of the few directors who regularly make a point of showing life between the coasts.
RA: I just do what interests me and occurs to me the most. But with most action films or genre films, it's more convenient to shoot them in L.A. or go to Toronto and try to make them look like L.A. It's all driven by money, and I just don't know the difference, really.
O: Were you surprised to find yourself still fighting with the studios when you made The Gingerbread Man?
RA: Well, I didn't think that was a studio. I was fighting, yeah, and I was quite surprised at that. But those were a bunch of… What was that, Polygram? They went ahead and hired a bunch of guys who had been fired from other studios, or lost their jobs, and they came in and tried to develop these films. They go out and do these test screenings, and whatever the test screening says, they say, "Oh, this is what we have to do." Because then, when the picture fails, they can say, "This isn't my fault. I did my job." They're not interested in, say, how we get the film to the largest and most appreciative audience. They say, "How can I protect my job and not look like an asshole if it fails?" That's what they all do.
O: Your cut went out, but only after the studio tried its own. Is that the first time a film had been taken out of your hands and re-cut?
RA: Uh, like that it was. But, of course, I got it back, and what ends up on the screen is, in fact, my work entirely. But, in the meantime, the company went out of business—they sold themselves off—and they wrote it off as a loss and never distributed it. They didn't make enough prints. This is as close as I came to getting people to go to court on a thing like this, because they [acted] maliciously. I mean, we had really strong evidence, and we had attorneys ready to go along with us on spec to sue them, because theater exhibitors called them and tried to get that film, and they said, "We only have 15 prints," or whatever the number is. They would send them a print and say, "You can only have it for a week." That film could have been commercially successful, The Gingerbread Man, and it wasn't.
O: Was that the worst conflict you've had with a studio?
RA: Well, no, but it was one of 'em. It was as bad as any, and it was pointless and silly. They didn't have to go through what they went through. Many of the major studios in the '80s and back in the '70s… I looked at a new print of Brewster McCloud the day before yesterday, because they're doing a lot of retrospectives of my stuff right now in New York and L.A., and that film was… Jim Aubrey, when he had just taken over MGM, he just buried that film because he was selling off assets. He was crashing the company. He couldn't care whether that was film or green socks.
O: I was sorry to hear on the audio-commentary track to The Player that some of your films had faded and needed restoration. Has any of that been addressed for the retrospectives?
RA: They've recently done most of them. The only film we can't find the negative of—we can't really find out who owns it—is Images. But the rest of the films, as I say… I just looked at this new print of Brewster, and they're looking great. They're doing a great job.
O: A number of your films have never been available on video. Do you think this will lead to their release?
RA: I don't know. It's the first time the album of Nashville has gone out on CD after 25 years.
O: Does the idea of digital video excite you at all? It seems like technology that might be compatible with your style of filmmaking.
RA: I think it will replace everything. There's always this problem of whether the light comes through the film—is it illuminated that way, or is the light reflected from the film? They'll solve all the problems, and I think there will be a day when you don't ever see film anymore.
O: Do you think it can be just as artistic as film?
O: Other people have drawn a direct correlation between Popeye and the fact that you spent much of the '80s working on low-profile projects. Is that fair, or was that partially by choice?
RA: I don't know what you mean.
O: When you made Popeye, did it close some doors for you for bigger-budget studio projects?
RA: Yes, it did. But Popeye is probably my most seen film. Probably more eyes have seen Popeye than all the other films I ever made, because it's the perennial babysitter.
O: It gets played a lot on television.
RA: They lock the kids up in a room and turn it on. I know four-year-olds who can repeat every word in Popeye, but it's still considered… People say, "Oh, God, your big failure." It wasn't successful at the time because it wasn't Superman.
O: It made money, though, didn't it?
RA: I don't know.
O: Of your '80s films, was O.C. & Stiggs an attempt to do sort of a genre exploration with the teen comedy the way some of your other films explored genres?
RA: I was trying to do a satire. I was attacking the teen mentality of the audience and I just was a little too… Nobody got it.
O: Did those films dissatisfy you? The teen comedies, did they upset you?
RA: They were dreadful. I was trying to show that.
O: How did you find Anne Rapp, your collaborator for your last two films?
RA: I read a short story that she had written when she started writing, and I had known her before that for many years. I read a couple of short stories, and the first one turned out to be Dr. T And The Women, my new film.
O: You're editing that now, right?
O: How's it going?
RA: It's great. It's going terrific. I'm in the mixing booth right now.
O: Of the projects you've been developing that you haven't been able to realize, which ones do you really want to get done?
RA: There's not a filmmaker alive who has had a better shake than I have. I have never been without a project, and they've always been projects of my own choosing. My perception and general popularity is quite… They say, "Oh, my God." People consider me some kind of a failure. I'm not a failure. My films may not satisfy a mass audience, but they were never made to do that. This big store, they sell shoes, and I make gloves. With films I do or am going to do, I never take into consideration, "Oh, this is really going to sell a lot of tickets."
O: But they last. I think people rediscover your films all the time.
RA: Yes, they do, and that's very gratifying, but I still have to work every year to pay my rent.
O: What was the last film you saw in the theater, and what did you think of it?
RA: Probably Cookie's Fortune, when we opened it. I see these films when we open them. I rarely go into a movie theater and actually see films.
O: What's your earliest memory of watching movies?
RA: Oh, God…
O: Or, what was the first movie you saw that made you want to make movies?
RA: The first film that allowed me to look at films as more than just a novelty was David Lean's Brief Encounter. I was probably 21, and that just startled me. The person who had the most influence on my filmmaking was Norman Corwin and his radio writing. As to, "What director do you admire the most or have you emulated?," the truthful answer to that is… The directors who've probably had the most influence on me were probably names I don't even know, because I looked at a film that was really bad and I would say, "Hmm, I'm never going to do that." That's probably the most direct positive influence on the work I do. I don't even know who those directors are, but the other directors on my list would be probably the same as yours: Fellini, Bergman, Kurosawa, John Huston, David Lean. They're very easily… They float up there above anybody else, and it's very evident why.
O: You've done a lot of films that have taken on genres. Do you feel that you've laid to rest any genre clichés with films like The Long Goodbye?
RA: No, they keep recurring. I'm not laying them to rest; I'm just moving around to another side, looking into the prism from a different angle, saying, "Oh, what happens if you look at it from over here?" Basically, the material is… I have to stimulate an audience and try to get them interested in what I'm interested in. That's not easy.