In October 1987 I flew to New York to talk to Robert Altman for The Times, to tie in with the UK release of his film Beyond Therapy. During the 1970s, he’d an incredible run of critical hits and high-profile releases, including M*A*S*H, McCabe and Mrs Miller, The Long Goodbye, Nashville and 3 Women.
Popeye (1980) was liked by some critics, and made its money back (it became what would at that time be the director’s second-highest grossing film), but was somehow mistakenly perceived as a massive flop. It heralded a period when Altman seemed to fall off the map, though of course he continued to work, albeit in lower-profile adaptations of stage plays, and, in 1988, the Emmy Award-winning political mockumentary TV series Tanner ’88, written by Garry Trudeau.
In 1992, with the high-profile success of The Player, followed by the even more masterly Short Cuts, Altman was enthusiastically clutched back to the Hollywood bosom. Though of course, he’d never really been away.
I found him charismatic and charming, with a delightfully dry sense of humour. I’m sure that if I’d been a young actress working in one of his films, I would have fallen head over heels for him.
Robert Altman is supine on the sofa. His dodgy knee has been playing him up. “You can say that I insisted on lying on the couch so I would tell you everything”, he suggests. All this is in keeping with the theme of his new film, Beyond Therapy. He recalls screening it before an audience of 400 psychoanalysts. “They all laughed during the picture”, he says. “But afterwards, when they analyzed it, they didn’t like it so much.”
The great American public did not like it much, either. “They didn’t get it at all.” But the French loved it, which is perhaps not so surprising: the film is his version of a French farce, complete with such familiar Altman trade marks as overlapping dialogue and skilfully interwoven ensemble acting. Glenda Jackson and Tom Conti play analysts, somewhat in need of analysis themselves, who tend to the egos of a sexually confused cast headed in fine kooky fettle by Jeff Goldblum and Julie Hagerty. The confusion is both heterosexual and homosexual. “The reviewers didn’t quite write it, but they mentioned between the lines that this sort of behaviour shouldn’t be dealt with so frivolously at a time when AIDS is so prevalent.”
Altman’s production company is called Sandcastle 5 – “My lawyer said we had to have a name, and it seemed to sum up the impermanence of what we do, like children playing on a beach” – and its offices are 15 floors above the snarled traffic of Park Avenue in New York City. Hanging on the wall is a gigantic five-and-dime store neon sign, a relic of the stage production of Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, and in the next room is a scale model of the set for a forthcoming CBS special of The Caine Mutiny Court Martial, the casting for which is being sorted out now (“Dennis isn’t going to do it, but Roy might”). Telephones are bleeping and people are milling and there is an awful lot of overlapping dialogue going on.
Since Come Back to the 5 & Dime in 1982, Altman’s films have all been adaptations from the stage: Streamers, Secret Honor and Fool for Love. Even his segment for Don Boyd’s opera anthology film Aria, set to Rameau’s Les Boreades and featuring some of the Beyond Therapy cast, was filmed in a theatre. Beyond Therapy is based on a play by Christopher Durang, although Altman considers it an original movie – “It was rewritten and changed quite a bit.”
The play is set in New York and so, ostensibly, is the film, although it was actually shot in Paris. Altman gives the game away at the end; two of the characters decide to take their honeymoon in Paris, only for the camera to pull back and reveal the Eiffel Tower already there. It is a neat gag, compounded by Yves Montand crooning Someone to Watch Over Me over the credits (and incidentally pre-empting Ridley Scott, whose new thriller is named after the same slice of Gershwin). “Well, why not?” Altman asks. “I was over there anyway, and they shoot a lot of films that are supposed to be set in Paris in New York and California.”
He has, in fact, spent most of the last two years in Paris. “I like working there. I find that people allow you your eccentricities; they can leave you alone. Here, if you’re left alone, it’s considered that you’re a failure.”
Is he not worried about being typecast as a director of filmed plays? “No, because I don’t think it makes any difference. When the motion picture industry started that was all they did. All the films were based on plays; that’s all Lubitsch did, that’s all Renoir did.” It is all part of the “pigeon-holing syndrome”, something he has good reason to scorn. If his feature films, spanning 30 years, have anything in common, it is that they are not easy to categorize into regular genres; McCabe and Mrs Miller, for example, turned the Western on its head, while The Long Goodbye did the same for the private-eye thriller.
Distributors and advertisers have always had problems slotting his work into neat packages for public consumption. Beyond Therapy was advertised in America as a zany romantic comedy. “They don’t know what to do”, says Altman, “and I can understand it. I keep advising them not to do anything. They should just open the film and see if the child survives the cold.”
Pigeon-holes are definitely not for him. He recalls, quite gleefully, an occasion four years ago when he was directing an opera at the same time as having a song he had written at Number One in the Country & Western charts. “People would say ‘Hey, man, that song was just great – I didn’t know you dug country music’. And I’d say ‘Yes, but I have to get back to The Rake’s Progress‘.”
The subject of country music brings us to Nashville and its sequel, which he will be directing next year. (The projected title is Nashville, Nashville, which at least is slightly more original than Nashville 2.) It will deal with the same characters 15 years later, with the same cast, minus Keenan Wynn, who has since died, and Ronee Blakley, whose character was very definitely assassinated in the first film. While M*A*S*H and its long-running television spin-off have generated over a billion dollars for 20th Century Fox, Altman reckons that it is Nashville that has generated more press and made more executive careers.
In an age when Hollywood is interested only in feeding the market for formulaic blockbusters, Altman remains very much his own man. “It’s just never been interesting and I’ve never been very successful at trying to feed the market. That’s why it’s been easier for me to do theatre. These guys say ‘Oh well, at least this play’s solid and he can’t do anything silly with it’.”
And it is also easier for him, he says, when he wants to approach a television network with the idea of doing Pinter, as was the case recently. “They can read it and say they don’t know what it’s about, but they can’t come back and demand a rewrite.” His films of The Dumb Waiter and The Room, still in preparation, are to be screened together under the title Basements. Altman has a fund of jokes on the subject. “A woman who runs a theatre in Toronto, when she heard I was going to do a film of the Pinters, said ‘You mean that the master of the overlapping dialogue is going to mix with the master of the perfect pause? I suppose that now we’ll get overlapping pauses’.”
This interview was first published in The Times, October 1987.