Interview with Filmmaker Robert Altman

February 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

Robert Altman has been doing things his own way for past three decades, existing, thriving even, amid the Hollywood mire, while still keeping a firm hold of his individuality. In the process, he’s explored nearly every genre imaginable – turning textbook noir on it’s ear with his version of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, twisting the war movie into a wry ballet with M.A.S.H., transforming the Western into modern romance with McCabe and Mrs. Miller, gleefully skewering music and movie industry self absorption with Nashville and The Player.

Relying upon gut instinct and a huge respect for his performers, Altman creates multi-layered landscapes of emotion, taking the familiar and transforming it into something deeper and more complex.

His newest film takes on the world of live radio, a collaboration with popular radio host Garrison Keillor, that bring the latter’s whimsical, folky Prairie Home Companion to the big screen. With the help of an ensemble cast that includes Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Tommy Lee Jones, John C. Riley, Virginia Madsen and Lindsey Lohan, Altman proves, once again, that he is the ultimate – “actors’ director”.


Q: With Prairie Home Companion, you’ve got this incredible ensemble cast. You tend to work really fluidly in your films, with a lot of actors at once, I’m wondering about your casting process, it seems similar to say, putting together a great jazz band, seeing who can riff off one another best.

A: I like that statement.

Q: What made you decide on this particular group of people?

A: You know, you start with one and then you add another and then that starts making the palate and by the time the last actors are added, they are the only ones who could be in that particular ensemble. So it kind of builds upon itself. If I were to get Susan Sarandon instead of Meryl Streep, then the whole thing would change; it would be an entirely different animal.

Q: Meryl Streep is hilarious in this movie. In Adaptation too, she really showed what a great comedienne she is.

A: And she’s a good singer. She’s got a lot of humor. She is everything. She does not need a director. I mean someone has to be there to turn the switch on or off, but it wouldn’t make any difference if I were directing her or whether Billy Wilder was, it doesn’t make any difference, she’s going to deliver. And she’s so delightful on top of all that. She doesn’t have any angst to get through – she just plays it.

Q: Is that lack of angst a rare thing in an actor?

A: Oh boy…

Q: You’ve explored so many varied worlds in your past work, fashion with Prêt a Porter, the movie industry with The Player, the music industry with Nashville, the dance world with The Company. What made you decide to make radio your topic this time around?

A: Garrison Keillor’s people came to me and said they would like to make a movie and would I be interested? They started out with the Lake Woebegone kind of thing and as we got into it and I talked about it with Garrison, I said, ‘if we’re going to do this, let’s do A Prairie Home Companion’. It’s what he does and why not do that? I had met him in Chicago shooting The Company, the dance film. He stopped through and we had dinner and started the flirtation then.

Q: In know that you tend to allow the actors a lot of freedom to improvise in your past films. How much of Prairie Home Companion was improvisation?

A: Garrison basically wrote most of those things, they were on the page. But then we improvised a lot as we went through them.

Q: We were talking earlier about how you’ve explored all of these different worlds with your work, is there any particular topic you feel you’d haven’t explored yet, that you’d like to dig into?

A: It’s all whims and caprice, really. You say, “hey, that’s a good idea, let’s do that’. But if I’ve done it before, I’m not so interested in it. I’ve really said all I have to say about a topic after I’ve made a film about it, because I don’t really have a lot to say about anything. This is all just an observation. You say ‘look east’ and I say, ‘oh, that’s nice, let’s do that’. Or ‘look west or southwest or southnorth or whatever’.”

Q: Looking back, which world, which direction, was the most rewarding to explore.

A: Well, anyone who has children will tell you the same thing – you can’t choose. Each has their own charm and connection. There’s no way I could call a favorite.

Q: You got finally got an Oscar this year (Altman has been nominated five times), which is wonderful and you’ve become a mentor to a lot of young filmmakers who want to work their own way, on projects that may not be standard studio fare. Do you have any words of wisdom for those kids, any advice?

A: My advice is to never take advice from anybody. Every situation is different. There is no real advice, other than that if you want to work, you have to work. You just have to follow your own star, really.

Q: What are you working on right now?

A: We’re in previews right now with Arthur Miller’s last play, Resurrection Blues, at the Old Vic in London. I’m here, sitting on the stage as we speak.

Q: How is working in theater different for you from film?

A: It’s all working with actors, which is really what I love most, seeing what they come up with and what they do. I’m just in awe of them. I mean, I just love working with actors. And watching them, really and wondering how it’s going to come out.  An actor has to make himself or herself vulnerable because he’s using his whole persona – whether they know they’re doing it or not. And with a play, it changes every night, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worst, I never know which it’s going to be.

Q: Do you feel protective of your performers?

A:I feel collaborative with them, but they’re on their own from the beginning, you know. I can’t get inside of them and in the end – I’m the audience. I’m outside and I’m watching them and saying, “show me.”

Q: Are there any actors you haven’t worked with yet that you’d like to work with?

A: Well, there are actors who don’t interest me much, and I’m not going to tell you who they are! But I’m probably wrong about them actually. At the end of the day, to be honest, I’m happy to work with anyone who will let me sign their dance card. Directors don’t exist without actors.

Q: In your own opinion, how has your style evolved, how has your filmmaking changed over the years?

A: I’m sure it has changed, but I don’t really think about it. With each new project I go into unknown territory and hope to find my way. I don’t think about it comparatively and I try not to care. If I find myself doing the same thing twice, I can always tell, because I start getting bored. Its hard not to do new things, there are so many things out there to explore. I do know that it always evolves organically, it grows organically. I follow my instincts. It’s what occurs to me at the time and that’s all developed from what I see and hear and feel and that means it’s the actors. If you were to take one actor out of one of my pieces and replace them with another actor, equally as skilled, the whole piece would be different. Its DNA would change, because the actors are an integral element and each actor is unique, there’s no one else like him or hear. When I’m directing, I jump down in the soil with the seed and you never quite know what it’s going to come into or what it will grow up to be. But you’re there with it all the time and it’s always a great joy and discovery to see what it ultimately becomes.


Originally published in Dazed magazine






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