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20 January 2015updated 07 Sep 2021 10:14am

How to make a Robert Altman film – and six ways not to die first

As Ron Mann's Altman (15) runs on Netflix, Tom Shone takes us into the life - and methods - of the man himself.

By Tom Shone

Here is a list of the things that failed to kill Robert Altman. First off, the rattlesnakes he collected as a boy, storing them in the back of the garage, much to the consternation of his father, who would return from the golf course to back his car into a nest of copperheads. Then there’s the anti-aircraft flak that blew out the windshield of a B-24 bomber that Altman, aged 18, co-piloted across Borneo during the war and landed without one engine; they found it filled with 32 holes. There’s a trio of automobile accidents: a red Buick driven into the side of a Greyhound bus in Kansas City; a Mercedes crashed into side of the Kensington mews house in London; and a Hillman Minx drunk-driven through the front window of a furniture store in Malta, where Altman was shooting Popeye. He walked away from each without a scratch. Finally, there was the stroke that hospitalised him as he was preparing to shoot Prêt-à-Porter in Paris. “If this is it,” he said to his daughter Konni as she tried to get him into hospital, “it’s been great.”

How many of us can say we’d meet our death with anything like such brio? What was truly Altmanesque (definition: “defiant of genre”) was that, despite the superb exit line, he was denied an exit; he lived on to make six more movies and more immediately to read the reviews for Prêt-à-Porter, which is either an instance of God’s sick sense of humour or incontrovertible proof that he is absent without leave. Altman presided over his creations less as their master and more as gleeful co-conspirator; he was the polar opposite of someone like Kubrick, a director general who drew up movies like battle plans and pinned actors into his immaculate prosceniums like someone mounting insect specimens in a case.

Here is the Altman way of doing things.

Get a script, preferably by a first-timer you’ve drafted in to the job, who is still brimful of curiosity about the world and less likely to complain when you change that script – such as Joan Tewkesbury, the script supervisor he despatched to Tennessee with the words: “Go to Nashville and keep a diary.” She returned with a “poem” with 18 speaking parts, which Altman soon bumped up to 24. “He didn’t really cast actors so much as he cast people,” Tewkesbury said. The words “And Introducing” in the credits for M*A*S*H are followed by 20 names, most of them cast after a trip to see an experimental theatre troupe in San Francisco. Movie stars were to be avoided if humanly possible, and if not, then treated like extras. The extras, meanwhile, were treated like stars. “Why can’t you be more like him?” Altman asked Elliott Gould during the shooting of M*A*S*H, pointing to Corey Fischer, who played Captain Bandini. He meant minimal and quirky. Gould flew into a rage and later, along with Donald Sutherland, tried to get Altman fired, although he later came around to his way of working. Sutherland never returned.

Pick a location. Altman always favoured location shooting, both for realism and for the distance it opened up between him and the moneymen, it being harder to pull the plug on a rogue production on the island of Malta, say, than one in Culver City.

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“We were on everything but skates,” said the star of Popeye, Robin Williams, of the prodigious drug intake on the production. “Kind of like Apocalypse Now without the death.” For McCabe and Mrs Miller, a group of hippie-artisans from Vancouver built a whole town for Altman and then moved in, on condition they wear and mend their own period costume, though production slowed considerably when they threw away their power tools. It slowed further when the star, Warren Beatty, insisted on 20 takes to warm up. Legend has it that one night Altman, exasperated, simply retired for the night, telling Beatty, “You can keep shooting,” but left no film in the camera. It’s another of the myths that he picked up like lint: apparently Beatty got the message.

Direct your movie. Actually that’s wrong – “direct” sounds like something schoolteachers do to children to get them in a straight line. Step back and let your movie happen, like a Sixties art event, or a dinner party, or a conga line. Your actors are your guests. Mike everyone up, using a specially built eight-track recording system, so nobody knows when the camera is on them, dolly and zoom between foreground and background until nobody can tell the difference, then invite everyone to view dailies. Fellini once told Altman they were the true art form – where you got to see reality in the rough. “It was like a happening every night,” said the cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond of the dailies for McCabe, which featured copious quantities of grass, booze and even cats and dogs, animals being a key player in the Altman satirical bestiary: his true quarry the poor, bare, forked human animal standing buck-naked in the shower (see also – “Altman and Nudity”).

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Stop shooting. At some point someone will tug gently on your sleeve and tell you you’ve run out of money. Do not panic. Invite your lead actor into your office. Roll a joint. Devise an ending while high as a kite. That was how he and Tim Robbins came up with the ending of The Player, in which Robbins’s executive pitches the film we’ve just seen. Strictly speaking, it was Robbins’s idea but Altman told him, “I’m never giving you credit for that” – and quite right, too: it was the ending of M*A*S*H recycled.

Voilà! Your very own Altman movie.

You can see why people might miss such a man. The first few months of 2015, eight years after his death, are shaping up as unofficial Altman season, with a new documentary, Altman, directed by Ron Mann, and a coffee-table book of photographs from the personal collection of his widow, Kathryn Reed Altman, together with essays from Kurt Vonnegut, E L Doctorow and the like. If the portrait of Altman that emerges from both documentary and book is one swollen with affection to Falstaffian girth, it is easy to forgive. It’s hard not to warm to a man who, upon being told by someone’s son that Brewster McCloud was his favourite film, told the boy, “You have excellent taste and terrible judgement” – a kid after his own heart, in other words; or who once threw an executive who wanted to cut six minutes from California Split into a swimming pool. “When you’ve flown 50 missions in a B-24
Liberator bomber over the Pacific, what’s the worst they can do to you in the movie business?” asks Garrison Keillor, rhetorically.

Well, quite a lot, if you happen to be a film-maker. Scorsese is not the only one who regards the loss of Altman’s shot at directing E L Doctorow’s Ragtime as a “tragedy”. Too much embroidery around his reputation as maverick has fogged our view of a director who, for all his steadfast opposition to the studios, cut a very Hollywood figure, this flamboyant high-roller with big appetites – for women, racehorses, white suits, hookers – who thought nothing of announcing, upon going broke for the umpteenth time: “We’re going to Cannes and we’re going to rent a yacht!”

If you think Bob Altman sounds fun you should try his father, BC, a sharpie in a camel-hair coat who used to eat breakfast until 10am, play gin rummy until 3pm, then hit the golf courses, selling insurance as he went. “It all came from himself,” his
eagle-eyed son noted. “It was all about those
things that served himself. It was about having everybody like you. If you lose $300 to that person, that $300 you get back when you sell them an insurance policy.”

This is fascinating not just for the light it sheds on Altman’s own tastes – it was BC who took him to his first brothel – but because it is very similar to the things that would one day be said about him. It’s not so much that Altman had a mean streak, though of course he did. When drunk he would often tear into close associates, using the same unerring eye for a person’s weak spots that informed the more forgiving portraiture of human foibles in his dramas. Those blue eyes could burn like lasers.

One of the most revealing contributions to the book is Alan Rudolph’s account of Altman’s role as producer on Rudolph’s Wel­come to LA: a stream of criticism and second-guesswork that culminated in Altman accusing the director of shooting scenes that weren’t in the script – of all things! Rudolph snapped and told him he was acting like an asshole. For a few seconds the Altman brow gathered thunder. “You’re right,” he finally said. “I’ve been an asshole because those are the only kinds of producers that I know.”

Maybe this shouldn’t surprise us. The only way a film-maker can set himself apart from Hollywood is by first containing all of Hollywood within him. He must be whole studios, an internal cast of thousands: mogul, producer, director and star, all in one. To Altman’s mind, all authority was suspect, including that of film director; his art was therefore one of sly self-usurpation, a king who passed his crown around for everyone else to rub with their magic. Auteurism is primarily a matter of tone – not so much what you say as the distinctiveness of the voice in which you say it – and his unmistakable blend of the jovial and the sardonic remains unmatched in American cinema, though Rabelais, Sterne and Vonnegut would have spotted a kindred spirit.

A misanthrope who delighted in company, Altman scrambled the picaresque-satiric and the tragic within the same film, and frequently within the same scene, his successes and his failures both lit up with a gambler’s delight simply to be at the table. In 1993, the year The Player was nominated for three Oscars, Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven swept the board. Altman and his wife sat in the front row getting stoned on hash brownies they had smuggled into the auditorium, whooping it up for the opposition. “Hey, Clint, go for it! Way to go! Hot dog!” Who wouldn’t to join that party?

Ron Mann’s “Altman” (15) is on Netflix

“Altman” by Kathryn Reed Altman and Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan is published by Abrams (£25)

Tom Shone’s “Scorsese: a Retrospective” is published by Thames & Hudson