Upstairs-downstairs with Robert Altman

Submitted by Paul Fischer on Wed, 12/05/2001 - 23:22
Robert Altman

For three decades Robert Altman has remained on the periphery of mainstream Hollywood, yet his films have continued to shake the boundaries of cinematic convention, while remaining engaging, exciting, human and comic. 

All of those adjectives best describe Gosford Park, part murder mystery, part class satire.

Altman just received a Golden Globe Award and it's quite possible this could be the director's most honoured film to date.

Paul Fischer to Altman about the film, M*A*S*H and his relationship as a director to his actors.

Maggie Smith in Gosford Park
Maggie Smith - Constance, Countess of Trentham - drapes herself in a dead furry animal and applies the cucumbers before breakfast

Paul Fischer In the press notes to Gosford Park, you talk about your desire to make a murder mystery.  Yet, I was fascinated by the fact that what you also managed to do, despite being so very American, was also come up with a film that is very British.

Robert Altman  The writer Julian Fellowes wrote this screenplay and his wife is a lady in waiting for Princess Michael of Kent, so we wanted to be sure that we got all the protocols right cause I didn't want to be the ugly American coming over and making a film about England. Although I will point out that John Schlesinger made a pretty good film about an American called Midnight Cowboy, and that certainly wasn't an area that you would think he would be familiar with.

P.F.  This is a very British film.

R.A.  Doesn't it always take someone from the outside to come in and give you a really kind of balanced look at what's happening in culture? I would venture to say that if you took all the films that were made in Britain about this kind of period stuff, that we were probably more correct and detailed then any of the others. We were very, very careful that this was set properly and that all that stuff is done because I didn't want to suffer that thing:' What's an American doing in a British film?'

P.F.  Did you have a particular fondness for this genre or was it more of an academic approach?

R.A.  It was a genre I had never done before and that's all I look for every time.  I not a very creative person coming up with ideas, I don't care much about stories in films.  I look at films more like paintings and I look for a genre that the audience knows and will be kind of comfortable with, "Oh, I know what this kind of thing is" and then I just like to give it a little turn.

P.F.  You also excel with multi-character stories and most of your work contains ensemble characters. What is the attraction or view of getting with large groups.

Master and Servant: Richard E Grant, playing the first footman, George, offers something fowl to Michael Gambon, Sir William McCordle.
Master and Servant: Richard E Grant, playing the first footman, George, offers something fowl to Michael Gambon, Sir William McCordle.

R.A.  I'm just very comfortable with it and also I find it is very effective if something doesn't work you can just slowly cut away to something else that DOES work. I did a film once with only one character in it, Secret Honor, and only one actor, [Philip Baker Hall]; one person every appeared on the screen, but I like this idea of lots of people and lots of interaction; it's just something I'm comfortable with.

P.F.  As you start to film these types of characters, do certain plotlines start for come to the fore, far more then you had in mind when you are working with the script?

R.A.  Yes.

P.F.  Do you lose stories too?

R.A.  Yes, you lose pieces of them.  The actors don't, but you could look at a person and think: Oh, this sort of thing is happening, but you don't have to know what happened to him, you don't know what happens until the end credit comes up and says "The End'.  They kiss, walk into the bungalow and they say happy ending, and yet three months later he has murdered her; I mean all kinds of things happen in people's lives.  So the only ending I know about is death and the rest of it is stopping places, and there's the honeymoon: Oh I had a great honeymoon, then you know, then there is another 40 years of absolute agony and pain.

P.F.  Is that how you view your life as an artist?

R.A.  Yes.

P.F.  Are you still in your honeymoon phase then?

R.A. I keep changing partners all the time.  Each film is a whole new experience, a whole new child; I'm making a new baby.  And you tend to love your least successful children the most.  

P.F.  Such as?

R.A.  Well, you tell me which of my films you like the least and I'll probably tell you that's the film that I like the most.

P.F.  Okay, I'll think about that one.

R.A.  But we don't have to get into names.

P.F.  Do you have a genre that you are itching to tackle next?

R.A.  No not really, it's what occurs to me and I'm going to start a film in May and this genre's a little different and a film I'm getting very excited about.

P.F.  Do you think you are in a point in your career where the phrase Altmanesque is starting to be bandied about? 

R.A.  Ya

P.F.  How to you feel about that?

R.A.  Well, I can't do much about that can I, so it happens. But I had a terrible thing this morning happen, a writer, a very experienced guy, called Julian Fellowes, our writer, and said, "Altman said that the whole film is improvised" and I get calls from agents, from Julian and it just isn't true, I didn't say that, I never said that.  I said we use an improvisational technique and Julian Fellowes was on the set every moment except the last four to five days of shooting. So he was there and whether they use this now to just provoke somebody to say something, who knows?

P.F.  How do you cast a movie like this?  How difficult is it to cast?

R.A.  Well, we start with the foundation.  You start with a person, you never know who that is going to be, but I think the first person I cast in this was Kelly McDonald.  Then I think Maggie Smith came on immediately, then Kristin Scott Thomas did, and it just grew and each time two people come in then that makes the field a little tighter who the others are going to be.  When they are all in except one, that person comes in and he can change everything.  But, basically he will fit into that spot.  It's just a process.

P.F.  On this one it seemed like you were choosing from a very specific pool and going with British actors. When you do a more American film do you go in saying: Here is an actor I would really like to work with, do they fit into the film?  

R.A.  A lot of times. There are a lot of actors I like to work with and I would like to work with and do like to work with, but that doesn't mean I'm necessarily going to find a part for them.  I think you have to serve the part, the painting first, but what isn't and who fits it the best and also who has the most enthusiasm for the film.

P.F.  It kind of strikes me that you and maybe Woody Allen have a reputation that maybe with actors now, its not a place for egos and trailers and assistants and all that, it's more about doing good work.  Do you feel that?

R.A.  I think so, I think so, I hope so.

P.F.  You like actors.

R.A.  Absolutely, they do all my work for me, I mean in the business of actors and I do love actors cause I don't understand how they can do what they do, I don't understand their process, I don't know how they can do that.  And I'm always in awe; I think they are remarkable creatures, remarkable.

P.F.  Are you ever been tempted to act in one of your films?

R.A.  I couldn't say a line that even if I had eight weeks to rehearse it; I would freeze up.  I mean I have no idea how anybody can do that sort of thing.  

P.F.  Because your films aren't star-driven, I would expect that you wouldn't tolerate ego on one of your sets. 

R.A.  Well, I haven't run into that.   I know on M*A*S*H, [I didn't find this out until two years later] that Elliot Gould and Donald Sutherland went to the producer and tried to get me fired, saying that I was going to ruin their careers, and Donald never talked about it but Elliot called me two years later, cause I offered Elliot the lead in McCabe and Mrs. Miller and he turned it down.  Because he really didn't like the way I did the film.

P.F.  Why is that?

R.A.  He said I was paying too much attention to all of the extras and the little players, and this was really their picture, and, of course, they were wrong.  That wasn't the picture I was making.  But, I've done several films since with Elliot.

P.F.  Just looking at M*A*S*H for a moment, which is probably your most famous film. Do you think the movie is more timely now even what's happened in this country?  

R.A.  No, I think it was about Vietnam and it was of its time, without any question.  But I think the TV series was dreadful.

P.F. Why?

R.A. Because it's twelve years of an Asian war in our living rooms on Sundays and no matter what platitudes or things they had to say about things, the enemy is always brown people with the narrow eyes and it just prolonged something; it's just a cheap shot.  There were good and talented people in it, but what is it about? It's not about anything.

P.F.  So what is next?  Do you know?

R.A.  Yes I do know, but I can't talk about it very much, but I'm going to shoot a film in New York in May, with Alan Rudolf writing the script.

P.F.  Really!  You two are back together?

R.A.  We have always been together. He has helped me and I have helped him; we are together a lot and we came up with this thing and I'm going to direct it. It's going to be fun