The ultimate ‘Player’
An interview with Robert Altman
Lady Sylvia: Mr. Weissman, tell us about the film you're going to make.
Morris Weissman: It's a detective story about a murder in the middle of the night, a lot of guests for the weekend, everyone's a suspect.
Constance: And who turns out to have done it?
Morris Weissman: I couldn't tell you that. It would spoil it for you.
Constance: But none of us will see it.
This conversation from director Robert Altman's new movie "Gosford Park" bears more than a small resemblance to his own experiences with potential audiences. Despite having helmed the 1970 blockbuster "M*A*S*H" and the landmark flicks "Nashville" and "The Player," Altman's work (40 feature films and dozens of industrial movies and TV episodes) is often tough to find. Even the filmmaker himself has difficulty tracking down some of his movies.
"They do have the DVDs, but nobody can gather those under one label," says Altman during a recent telephone interview from Los Angeles.
"They're all owned by weird little people that end up owning the negative. It's a shame that, whether it's me or Paul Thomas Anderson ("Magnolia") or anybody, but their (work) is owned by all these different companies. I've chased down everything but 'Images,' and I finally found that the negative of that is owned by, I think, a
So far, viewers may have to make a similar effort to find "Gosford Park." The film, which this week debuted in Altman's birthplace Kansas City, opened two weeks ago in New York and Los Angeles in only nine theaters. Fortunately for the filmmaker, viewers are eager to make the trip. Averaging an unusually high $27,000 per screen, Altman's film is drawing crowds and his most enthusiastic notices in nearly a decade.
The New York Film Critics Circle voted Altman Best Director of 2001, and the Los Angeles Critics voted him a Runner Up to "Mulholland Drive" director David Lynch. Altman is surprised about the second honor.
"Did I get a Runner Up from L.A.?" he asks. "I thought you only won or lost. I feel good about that. I love David Lynch's work."
"Gosford Park" is also a serious contender for this year's Golden Globes, with five nominations including Best Motion Picture-Musical or Comedy, and Altman won Best Director last Saturday at the first American Film Institute Awards. When congratulated on the praise and the potential market for the picture, the director asks, "Is there one? I hope so. I don't know."
Opal from the BBC (Geraldine Chaplin): I've been through all the recording studios in London. They're always enormous and very impersonal. - Altman's "Nashville" (1975)
In many ways, "Gosford Park" would seem a major departure for Altman.
Known for such domestic locales as the American South in "Thieves Like Us," "Nashville" and "Cookie's Fortune," the new film is set entirely on a massive English estate owned by a titled but new-money tycoon Sir William McCordle (Sir Michael Gambon). Although Altman has made movies in France ("Beyond Therapy," "The Laundromat" and "Ready to Wear") and Ireland ("Images"), "Gosford Park" is the first film he's made in Great Britain during his 45-year directorial career.
"I'm surprised that people are surprised," he says. "It's an English picture, but my God we're all so familiar with all that stuff, aren't we? I think most of American culture is all little brothers of the Brits. I was an outsider in 'Kansas City (1996),' the jazz film. I hadn't been to Kansas City for years. I was visiting someplace between my father's stories and my memory."
While the director dismisses the notion that this combination murder mystery, class study and ensemble drama is a radical departure, he established the 1932 setting with care. Many of the actors who played servants (like Alan Bates, Sir Derek Jacobi, Ryan Phillippe and Clive Owen) had to take lessons to convincingly perform their on-screen duties. Altman had to make sure appropriate devices, like a now-obsolete machine that "Trainspotting" actress Kelly Macdonald uses to wring out clothes, were present on the set.
"Just the equipment, the artifacts that were invented and manufactured or made during that period were all about serving people," he recalls. "They were fantastic. That stuff doesn't exist anymore. They're antiques. We had a butler, a housemaid and a cook who were all in their late 80s who were all in the service during the time the picture takes place. They were on the set all the time. I was determined to get it right technically, so I wouldn't be criticized by the English. 'What's an American doing coming over here and doing a picture about our culture?' I wanted to be sure we were right about all that stuff."
From listening to Altman describe the conditions on his new location, it's obvious he quickly found himself at home. Despite persistent rain and a temporary illness with principal actress Dame Maggie Smith (who plays the catty Lady Trenthan), Altman says, "I had the time of my life doing it."
When pressed for details, he pauses a bit and says, "I think it was the actors - always the actors, and the crew. They're just not like (Hollywood). One, I didn't see any agents (his voice beams). This film couldn't have been made in America. You couldn't have had that quality of actor standing around in that kind of ensemble. They'll say, 'I'll come in for six or seven days.' We shot for 10 weeks, and all those people were there almost all of the time."
Despite the new location, many of Altman's directorial trademarks are clearly visible.
"My films all come through me. They all pass through me, so they're going to all have the same shape."
For example, his depiction of class relationships mirrors those between studio heads and talent in "The Player." The bosses are two-faced heels, but a pretentious British director named Tom Oakley (played by "Gosford Park" star Richard E. Grant) eagerly prostitutes his vision to the studio's wishes. Similarly, Sir William McCordle finds himself more comfortable with his servants, like the maid Elsie (Emily Watson), than he is with other titled people.
"He's not of that class either," explains Altman. "The social structure of the downstairs (where the servants operate) is really more complicated and structured than the upstairs (where the rich and the aristocratic live). The upstairs people really have less to do.
They really are isolated and insulated in their little society. The downstairs, which mimics that society, is more complicated. There's more stratas in it."
Like previous Altman, movies, "Gosford Park" features a mobile camera that often makes the audience feel as if they are viewing the story through a security mirror, listening to intimate, privileged conversations. Often these discussions overlap, giving a viewer some of the same disorientation as the characters. At times, Altman shifts the sound by adjusting the volumes of different conversations, resulting in a change in focus that other filmmakers get from editing or camera movement.
"What we see and what we hear may come at different times. We're able to split our senses and use them all," Altman explains. "They're all feeding information to our brains, and our brain is ending up with an opinion. I just try to get the audience to do the same thing and not have it served up for them."
With the barrage of chatter, viewers of Altman's movies have to concentrate intently.
"There's lines in ("Gosford Park") that you can't possibly get the first time because you don't know where they're going," Altman says.
"There's lots of little details. With so much television, everything is served up. A guy can sit there and get up in the middle of a television drama and get a beer and when he gets back, he says, 'Did he kill her yet?' because he knows what's going to happen. He doesn't even really have to witness it. There's no surprise, and these things are told six or seven times to you. I try to set a film up to put the audience on notice very, very early that you'd better pay attention or you're going to miss it. Or if you don't want to pay attention, you'd just as well leave because you're not going to like the movie."
Tess Trainer: I hate L.A. All they do is snort coke and talk. - Altman's "Short Cuts" (1993)
Just as Altman is not afraid to make his films differently than others do, he's also quick to criticize the film industry itself.
Most recently, he chastised Hollywood for helping to inspire the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
"When I said that about the 9-11 thing, I didn't exclude myself, although it was reported that way," he clarifies. "They came out and said, 'Altman Blames Hollywood.' I didn't say that. I said WE all have to look at what we've done and what we do and hold ourselves responsible for this sort thing because I think we did make the training film for those guys. Once again, I'm in the doghouse. But I do think that as a culture we have to be responsible.
"I remember some film (Michael Mann's "Heat") where De Niro and Pacino and a bunch of stars were in it, and there were cops and robbers. There were 40 policemen killed in a holdup that went awry.
And then the next day, they're talking and there's nothing in the newspaper about it. Forty policemen were killed in Los Angeles, and you never heard anymore about it. That's just ridiculous. When 8-year-old and 9-year-old kids see those things, they can't make those distinctions. They think you can kill somebody, and it doesn't cause any harm. The (police officers) are people in black suits that don't have any identity. They don't have any children, any parents, wives or friends. They're just ciphers. I think that's terrible, and we have to take responsibility for putting that kind of behavior in people's minds."
Considering outspoken nature, it's not surprising that he'd be willing to helm "The Player," which starred Tim Robbins as Griffin Mill, a studio executive harassed by a bitter writer.
"'The Player' is a really soft indictment," Altman says. "You can certainly see the bulge in the side of my mouth which discloses the tongue in my cheek. It's much, much worse than that. Much, much worse."
"Soft" seems an odd word to use because Mill winds up literally getting away with murder. Could the fact that he was allowed to make
"The Player" indicate that studio bosses aren't so bad?
Fortunately, late marketing is proving to be a friend to the filmmaker. Several of his previous efforts are surfacing on DVD. His breakthrough "M*A*S*H" came out in a deluxe two-disk edition this week, and the director has recorded an audio commentary track for both it and his 1971 western "McCabe and Mrs. Miller."
"It gives life to these films. Otherwise they'd all turn to dust," says Altman.
While he plans to continue including his recollections on separate audio tracks for DVDs, he finds much of the process questionable.
"I don't know that I like them, but I'll continue to do them," he laments. "I don't know what the reason for it is. I feel very much like a real estate salesman saying, 'This is the best bathroom. Here is the bedroom. These stairs lead up to the so-and-so.' I'm telling you things that you're seeing. For me to just talk or bring up an incident or something that occurred to me, by the time I finish another sentence, it's on to another scene. It's very hard to do those things. I think we did a pretty good job on the 'McCabe' thing. It's the first one of those I went away feeling pretty good about."
Me Lay Marston: So why don't you save your rapier-like wit for the clam diggers back home, Hawkeye?
- Altman's "M*A*S*H" (1970)
Despite all of his frustrations, the filmmaker, who turns 77 next month, says with the same emphatic tone, "I've done 40 films, and they've all been of my own choosing. That's not to say that people haven't tried to take them away from me or that people haven't squashed them and sat on them and not let them out. From my standpoint, it's been a great career. It is a great career because I do what occurs to me, and I'm able to do it."
That career has its roots in the Kansas City area. In addition to being his birthplace, the now-defunct Calvin Company, which made industrial films, was Altman's training ground, and his first feature, 1957's "The Delinquents," was shot there. KC's film community hasn't forgotten its favorite son. The Kansas City Filmmakers Jubilee has named its top award, "Robert Altman Jubilee Grand Prize" or "The Bob," and Altman has a prominent spot on the Kansas City Walk of Stars, near markers for such local luminaries as Jean Harlow, Walt Disney and Ginger Rogers.
Still, Altman states, "In Kansas City, my films aren't very popular. I am. My films aren't.
"I'll never forget. I went to visit my grandmother in the '50s, and I was doing the 'Bonanza' television show. I went through Kansas City.
'Grandma, I've got a "Bonanza" on tonight.'
"She said, 'Boy we're going to see that. That's Saturday night.'
"We came back on the Sunday, and I said, 'Did you see my "Bonanza?"'
"She said, 'Oh, boy we saw it. There your name was: Robert Altman. It was just wonderful.'
"I said, 'Did you like it?'
"She said, 'We didn't see the show. We watched long enough to see your name, and then we switched to "Perry Mason." We never miss "Perry Mason."
Altman adds, "There's no way to have any arguments or discussions about that."