In the mid-'60s, after Robert Altman quit renting his directorial skills to TV series like Bonanza and Hawaiian Eye, he held near-daily shooting, editing, and screening parties with his friends. That sense of joy in creation, combined with a willingness to try the unconventional, fed the remarkable string of dream-plays and genre inversions that Altman began helming in the early '70s.
For years, Altman has been underrepresented on home video: While major films like M*A*S*H, Nashville, and The Player have been easy to find, the likes of Brewster McCloud, Kansas City, and Come Back To The Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean have drifted in and out of print. But earlier this year, Altman's work on the cult TV series Combat! was preserved on two DVD sets, and his surreal 1977 comedy 3 Women and his faltering 1985 Sam Shepard adaptation Fool For Love also recently made the jump to DVD. By the end of the year, three films that arguably belong in the all-time Altman Top 10 will be available on disc: the free-ranging, sweet-and-sour 1974 gambling comedy California Split, the hazy 1984 Richard Nixon confessional Secret Honor, and the 1993 Raymond Carver mosaic Short Cuts.
The last two arrive courtesy of the Criterion Collection, which is also responsible for a sparkling DVD edition of one of Altman's underseen triumphs, Tanner '88—an 11-episode HBO series with Michael Murphy as a naggingly vague Democratic candidate jockeying for the party's 1988 presidential nomination. Just in time for the spookily similar 2004 presidential campaign, the original Tanner '88 creative team returns for the four-episode Sundance series Tanner On Tanner, in which Murphy's character becomes the focus of a documentary, allowing Altman (with writer Garry Trudeau) to comment on the proliferation of political commentary in the popular media. Altman recently spoke with The Onion A.V. Club about Tanner, his own controversial politics, and his tumultuous history with TV and film production.
The Onion: Why bring Tanner back now?
Robert Altman: Because we could. Sundance bought the rights to the original Tanner '88 and asked us to shoot some lead-ins. So we brought Michael Murphy and Pam Reed and Cynthia Nixon back as the same characters 16 years later, and Sundance was so taken by those that we thought maybe we should do a couple new episodes. We agreed to do three, but once we got into it, we ended up doing four. What we actually did is a movie, in four parts.
O: It's striking how much Tanner '88 relates to politics today.
RA: Well, it's been a great frustration on our part that we could never get anybody to run it again after the first time. "Oh, that's yesterday's news. That's old hat." It isn't old hat. It's very relevant. But nobody would go for it until Sundance did.
O: As a candidate, Tanner is sort of an empty suit, answering honest questions with sound bites and seeming uncomfortable around anyone who's not on his staff. Of the current presidential candidates, who's the Tanner, Bush or Kerry?
RA: Oh, I think Kerry.
O: Does that bother you?
RA: No, it doesn't bother me. I can't help who Kerry is or who Bush is, even if I'd like to.
O: Has there been a good presidential candidate in your lifetime?
RA: Adlai Stevenson.
O: And since then?
RA: Adlai Stevenson. [Laughs.]
O: Do you think it's possible in this era for a good candidate to emerge?
RA: Probably not. Bush would have to win again, and then maybe a good candidate could come out of the ashes, if anything could come out of those ashes.
O: In recent years, you've been in the public eye as much for your political statements as for your work. Many conservative commentators put you on the list of "anti-American Hollywood types" with Sean Penn, Alec Baldwin, and others.
RA: I'm very proud to be in that group. You always want to be picked as the leader of your class.
O: Do you get tired of having your promise to leave the country when George W. Bush was elected thrown back at you?
RA: Well, I've been out of the country a lot. I don't think it makes any difference where you live. The isolationism of America is very archaic, I think.
O: In Tanner '88 and in your last feature film, The Company, you seem to resist the idea of a figurehead. Even though The Company was a script that you were hired to direct after other people had developed it, it fits with your other work in that it's about collaboration. Would you agree?
RA: Yeah, well, I made the film, so it's naturally going to have my silhouette, my shape. All films are like that. They start out as some germ of an idea, and when it gets to me, I can't help but have my skin rub off on it.
O: Why do you think you're drawn to stories about big groups of people sharing the same space? Did it have anything to do with growing up in such a large, close-knit family?
RA: Possibly. I don't know. That's a little too cerebral for me. I'm not much interested in stories anyway. I'm more interested in reactive behavior.
O: You mentioned that your films have your shape no matter what the material is, but your films don't necessarily contain your own biography.
RA: That never interested me. My biography is rather ordinary, and consequently rather boring.
O: You're not inclined to do a Federico Fellini-esque interpretation of your upbringing?
RA: No. You might see smatterings of it here and there, but nothing that could be readily recognized.
O: What originally prompted you to move from Kansas City to Los Angeles to make movies?
RA: My first move from Kansas City was into the Air Force. I was a B-24 pilot during the Second World War, and when I was overseas, I started writing stories. When I busted out, or whatever you call it, I headed straight to California and sold a couple of pieces to the movies. Then I just followed that track, you know?
O: You spent about a decade working in television, from the mid-'50s to the mid-'60s.
RA: I did miles of television.
O: Some of those shows are being made available on DVD now, like Combat! You said on one of the commentary tracks that some of your episodes were as good as any feature film you've made.
RA: I did. I think that "Cat And Mouse," among all of them, is really good.
O: Unlike in your film work, didn't you have to deal with a lot of compromises, working on television?
RA: Well, sure, but you always have to compromise. Whatever you're making has to fit the shelf that it has to go on.
O: Do you work differently when you're directing a TV series like Tanner '88 versus directing film or theater?
RA: No. To me, it's just different mediums. I'm about to go off and do an opera now, based on an old film of mine called A Wedding. I'm going to do it at the Chicago Lyric Opera Company. On November 1, we start rehearsals. I'm directing it.
O: So if your job is fundamentally the same whatever the medium, then what is that job? Shaping performances? Shaping the look?
RA: It's really the whole thing. I don't have too much to do with shaping performances. I see what the performance is, but I can't really influence it as much as people think I can. I just try to put all the elements that I see up there in such a way that they have relevance.
O: In film and television, though, you have the added elements of post-production and editing.
RA: Well, it's all equally important. You have to baste the turkey, or it's dry. The basting is as important as anything else.
O: There's a story that in the mid-'60s, when you were doing a lot of commercial work and trying to get a feature off the ground, you once took a random strip of film and a random piece of music and synched them up as a way of proving that cinema is a medium that thrives on accident.
RA: I don't recall that, but it sounds like me. [Laughs.]
O: So if almost anything will work on film, how do you make choices?
RA: It's mostly instinctual. I giggle and give in. I go with the flow. I really try to do what occurs to me at that moment. I don't really overthink it. Once it's done, it's history. We're all in a river. You look up at the bank, see something, look away, look back, see something else. All these films, all this television, all this opera, all this performance, all this stuff, it's locked and frozen in the past. They're Michelangelo's Prisoners, you know? Half-carved out of the rocks. They'll never get out.
O: Well, if you can bear to look back at those rocks for a moment…
RA: Oh, I don't mind.
O: Your name is always near the top of the list of the '70s maverick filmmakers, with the likes of Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, and Francis Ford Coppola, but you weren't really part of that "scene," were you? Were you social with that group?
RA: No, I wasn't. I've never really palled around with anybody that does what I do. Nor do they. Directors rarely work with other directors. The only reason you know them is if you go to a Guild meeting or some awards show. Well, that's not always true. Alan Rudolph happens to be a very good friend of mine, but he also started out working with me as assistant director, then a writer, then a director of things that I produced. But other than that, it's very hard. I had a meeting at the Director's Guild the other day with [George] Lucas and Coppola and Scorsese and myself, and Clint Eastwood was on the telephone. I don't know any of those guys. I know Marty better than any of them, but we never really work with each other. Our relationship is mainly based on jealousy. [Laughs.]
O: You never talk about tricks of the trade?
RA: Oh, anecdotes. Pretty boring, I think.
O: Were you engaged with watching the product of that era—not necessarily from those directors, but everything that was coming out in the '70s? Were you as interested in what other people were making as what you were making?
RA: Yeah, I did. I watched a lot. People come to me and say, "What director influenced you the most?" And my answer to that is that I'm afraid I don't know his name. I look at films and say, "God, that's so awful. I'll be sure never to do that."
O: But did you see films that you liked back then?
RA: Oh, of course I did.
O: What are your moviegoing habits now?
RA: I don't see too many. The best movie I've seen in the last five years is the Brazilian film City Of God.
O: That's an unusual movie for you to like, since it's so stylized.
RA: Well, I don't know how they did it. I just sat there with my jaw agape. I don't know how they got those kids to do that. Boy, it was strong.
O: When you do TV, do you watch more TV? When you were directing Bonanza, did you watch Bonanza?
RA: I don't think I saw very many of the other Bonanzas, other than my own. But it's very competitive, you know, no matter what anybody says. You're comparing yourself with someone who's comparing himself with you. Whether we know it or not, we can't help that kind of comparison, and it strikes jealousy and those kinds of emotions. It's hard, because there's a lot at stake. Or at least we feel there's a lot at stake.
O: To be a strong director, do you have to be an egotist? To not want others to be as good as you are?
RA: You don't care about others being as good as you are; you just want to be better than they are. [Laughs.] No, it's just a matter of saying, "Look! I made this!" It's that awe that any kid has when he draws a picture, or builds a little tower of blocks. There's an ego-identification. It's a very strong part of our nature. I'm quite sure that all the articles you have written that have been published, you've read. And you have probably perused similar articles that other people have written. We're basically self-oriented creatures. I kind of like it that way.
O: There's a little bit of contradiction there in your own work, because you've often talked about how what shows up on the screen isn't necessarily just you, but the coming together of a lot of different parts.
RA: Well, yes, it's the elements that go into it. All I do is kind of arrange them. I don't really create anything.
O: Do you agree with the common perception of your work as misanthropic?
RA: I don't quite know what that means.
O: Do you consider yourself pessimistic about human nature?
RA: No, I don't at all. I find myself rather optimistic. But I think you have to show the truth. The truth doesn't necessarily follow anybody around and behave accordingly. It has its own behavior. When I do a piece and people say, "Gosh, that had kind of a downer ending," I don't feel that way at all. I feel I've just shown a piece of the truth. I consider that a positive.
O: Can you talk a little about some of the projects you've been linked to in the past that didn't come to fruition? Were there any that particularly disappointed you?
O: Would you like to hear a few names?
RA: Yes, but I doubt I would've done anywhere near the same job. I think I wouldn't have done Petulia in as creative a way as Dick Lester did.
O: How about Ragtime?
RA: Ragtime, I think I would've done better.
O: For a long time, there was talk about you doing an Amos & Andy film.
RA: We still talk about it, Harry Belafonte and I. But I think I'm too old. It's too big a project. It covers too much territory. I'd love to do that, though, because it spans a century of some of the most poignant and relevant history that we have, dealing with the mixing of races. To capture people, put them on boats, bring them over here, and dehumanize them. And then to see them rise from that. I think it's a great history.
O: So it wouldn't have been just an adaptation of the radio or TV show?
RA: Oh no, no, no. It goes back to the original humor that the English music-hall performers did, when they started the minstrel shows. Somehow, things became funny when they put on blackface that weren't funny when they didn't put on the blackface. Once you figure out why that is, you've got a path to follow that brings us to where we are today, and where we will be. Which is, I imagine, that all the racial, religious, etcetera problems will be solved once everything is homogenized.
O: Homogenization is a good goal in your eyes?
RA: Absolutely. It's as good as any. If you're going to mix, you may as well mix.
O: Is there any way you could develop this Amos & Andy project and then pass it off to somebody else to direct?
RA: I don't know. I think Amos & Andy in itself—Harry and I still talk and argue about this all the time. I think no matter what we do, we're going to send the wrong message. The total message of Amos & Andy is cyclic, and the cycle hasn't ended yet. It's always going to be seen, no matter what we do or how it's done, as biased. Which is all right. But I don't know of a bigger, more all-encompassing subject. When the original Amos & Andy was on radio, the two white guys who played the leads, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, were the grand marshals of the NAACP parade in Chicago. And then a few years later, when they did the television show of Amos & Andy, they wouldn't let those guys in the parade.
O: Is it possible for a brainstorming session for a project like Amos & Andy to be as satisfying as actually creating it?
RA: No, not really. But yes, in a way. I mean, we've been at this for 10 years, and I just don't think in reality that I'll see it done in my day.
O: One last lost project: Did you see Mike Nichols' version of Angels In America?
RA: No, I haven't seen it, but I hear it's very good and I trust it is. That's a great piece, and I applaud them. It never occurred to me to do that on television, which of course is the way it should've been done. What I would never do is truncate it. People wanted me to get it down to two and a half hours, and I wouldn't do it. That's like doing a Reader's Digest version. It wouldn't work.
O: You started out in TV 50 years ago. Is it fair to say that the medium has gotten a lot freer?
RA: Absolutely. Without question. But the trouble is that you have an audience that's a little different than what you have in a dark theater. You have an audience that doesn't have to pay attention, that can get up and go to the fridge and get another beer, or do whatever they want to do. And even if you have 10 billion viewers in one night, it's still yesterday's news the next day. That's the problem with it. It's too disposable. With film, you get, "Oh, I haven't seen that yet, but I'm going to see it," and "Oh my God, we saw that last week, and it was really good." A film can run for three or four months, with an accumulation of chatter from people who are seeing it and seeing it again. That doesn't happen in television.
O: On the other hand, a lot of people these days wait to watch a TV series until it's collected on DVD, where they can watch it repeatedly.
RA: Well, that's great, except the problem there is that there's just so much selection. There's such a library to go through that as a director, how do you get the piece that you want to people? And you've still got to keep the audience's attention all the time. In a theater, when they stand in line, buy a ticket, and sit in a seat, they're less likely to get up and walk out than they are if they're sitting in their own homes. The phone rings and it changes everybody's attitude. For the artist, it's much more seductive to have your audience kind of trapped. Then my job is to make them not feel trapped, but to have them walk out saying, "Wow, I'm glad I saw that."