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It's Okay With Me: ROBERT ALTMAN
(Complete Interview)

SS: You’ve had films set in larger cities like Los Angeles, but even then it’s treated almost like an alien environment.

RA: I’ve lived in New York for about 30 years, and I still meet people today who say, “Oh, you’re a Hollywood director.” That’s strange, because I’ve hardly ever made a film in that mold. I’ve never really been a New York director, either. That kind of mafia that runs New York, I never wanted to participate in that. As for Los Angeles, The Long Goodbye and California Split used that arena. Short Cuts was strictly L.A. I usually find that I don’t do road pictures; I need to have a cultural and geographical perimeter. Maybe that’s just the way I organize my thoughts, I need to contain them and contain my environment. Most of the time, it’s whatever interests me, whatever gets my attention at the time. It always ends up as the result of finding the right arena to do the film I’ve got in mind to do. The arena becomes a big part of it, because it fills the big part of it. I’ve done a lot pictures in small towns in the South. When you go to a unique area, I can do more with the stuff they have there. We try to use their culture, their colors, their music, their pride and prejudices.

SS: When the auteur theory was popularized in the mid-’60s, were you keeping an eye on how that movement was being shaped in the film journals overseas and then imported to the United States?

RA: I was focused on what I was doing and wanted to do. I was trying to make my own career and my own life’s work. Anything I felt helped in that area, I was interested in.

SS: Did the awakening of film writers and their duels in the press—Andrew Sarris battling Pauline Kael, for example—hold your attention at all?

RA: Pauline was a big help to me. She didn’t like a lot of my films. And when Pauline didn’t like my films, I didn’t like Pauline. When she did, I thought she was a genius. At times, I’d say, “What’s Kael going to think of this? What’s Judith Crist going to think of this?” The same is true today, because critics are the first press that you have to represent your work.

SS: So you took initial steps to guarantee that Kael would see your work early?

RA: Oh, yeah. She saw Nashville early. She jumped her deadline at The New Yorker, which helped cause a stir for the film. That was a controversy in itself. What she saw was the finished picture, although the story has it that what she saw was about three hours longer. There was some editing done on the picture since she saw it, but it was just tweaks. The critics were a force in the ’70s, but then the studio heads disappeared, so the filmmakers really were in charge. We could do pretty much what we wanted. I made Brewster McCloud at MGM—they couldn’t release it and they just dumped it, but the fact that it even got made is miraculous. Originally that script was terrible, and we reinvented it as we shot it. For me, the story has never been a concern. I like to literally save the idea, in a funny way. But at that time, I was being offered big, big movies, because it followed right after MASH. I said I didn’t want to make anything like that. I took a really low-budget project instead. I’ve done that all my life. If something works for you, you continue to do it. I did a bunch of pictures for 20th Century Fox when Alan Ladd was over there, but I set the budgets so low that they’d approve and I’d deliver the film. They would have no say in it, which is the kind of arrangement I liked.

SS: Was it your background in television and industrial films that kept you distanced from the theoretical side of filmmaking?

RA: I think it kept me more eclectic, in terms of venue and all that. I was always interested in shooting in places that I’d never been to before, and trying to use their assets. I find it hard to repeat myself, or consciously repeat myself. I can’t tell you how many times I was offered to do another MASH. I would always ask why. There was one, and that’s what I did. I despise the television show, because I think it was thematically the opposite of what the film was. For 12 years, it was about an Asian war. The enemy, no matter how you want to cut it or what platitudes you say, was always the guy with brown skin and narrow eyes.

SS: Were you constantly harassed during the reign of the show?

RA: I remember at my mother’s funeral, all of the ladies in the neighborhood in Kansas City baked some stuff. Afterward they caught me in the kitchen and said, “Oh, Mr. Altman. That MASH, we just love that.” I just said, “Oh, well. Thank you very much.” But they never saw what I did.

SS: When you were younger and watching films, did you keep track of directors and follow their releases?

RA: People have asked me throughout the years which directors have influenced me. I don’t know their names, because I was mostly influenced when I’d see a film and think, “Man, I want to be sure to never do anything like that.” So I never learned their names. It wasn’t a matter of copying or emulating somebody I admired. It was getting rid of a lot of stuff. I was impressed and affected by Bergman and Fellini and Kurosawa. My film Images was a big nod to Bergman, to Persona particularly. My whole sense of Kurosawa was light coming through trees, like in Rashomon. That film in particular was a favorite of mine. I liked a lot of the Italian films, some of the French. It went in circles—the British films were terrific for a while. There doesn’t seem to be room for everybody. Somebody comes in and occupies the art market, as I suppose it would be called, and then another group takes over.

SS: You once said, “The artist and the multitude are natural enemies.” How can you then explain working in so many popular mediums, like television, film, theater and opera?

RA: Opera cannot be considered a popular medium, and theater can hardly be, either. And most films can’t be. Television is still a popular medium. Movies are finished, aren’t they?

SS: You don’t just mean the steady decline of the box office?

RA: Just the general quality or character of the films being made. The marketing has always been to 14-year-old males. That’s one audience I’ve never had, or ever will have. Maybe it’s generational, maybe it’s just all past me and I don’t know it. But I just don’t see any films—or filmmakers, for that matter—coming along that interest me. I find the style of the films so silly. I’m surprised filmmakers can get away with all this. The corniness of most of these things—anyone who can even do it astonishes me.


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