Altman Speaks!

The Ultimate Indie Director on Breaking Into the Business, Staying There, and Loving It

Robert Altman at last year's Austin Film Festival
Robert Altman at last year's Austin Film Festival (Photo By John Anderson)

Now in its seventh year, the Austin Film Festival and Heart of Film Screenwriters Conference is the first national conference to be devoted to the art of the screenwriter. Next Thursday, October 12, dozens of seasoned scribes descend on our city to participate in the conference, which honors such veterans as David Chase, creator of The Sopranos, and Paul Mazursky, the writer/director of Next Stop Greenwich Village and Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. Last year's honorees included Robert Altman, who kept the audience at the Paramount spellbound during a Q&A session that followed a rare screening of his 1975 classic Nashville. Though Altman will not be attending this year's festivities, his latest film -- Dr. T and the Women -- kicks things off for the Austin Film Festival next Thursday, October 12 (prior to opening in theatres the next day), with the film's screenwriter, Texan Anne Rapp, in attendance.

We know that for any would-be screenwriter, the key question for these festival attendants goes something like this: How can I do what you're doing? With that in mind, we've compiled interviews with three successful writers: One is a master of the form still burning with passion; one is a jack-of-many-trades building a sustainable career; one is a young upstart spinning pop culture into celluloid stories. But they all have one thing in common -- they used to be young writers, and now they are now making the films we love.

Next week, we take a look at some of the films showing as part of the Austin Film Festival, and we'll print a schedule of events open to the public. The festival runs October 12-19. For tickets, call 469-SHOW. For more information, call 478-4795, 800/310-FEST, or see -- Sarah Hepola

What can I possibly say about Robert Altman that hasn't been said better already? How about this: The man sounds exactly like what you'd expect. Coming over the phone lines from Artisan Films headquarters in New York City, where he's overseeing the release of his new film Dr. T and the Women, his voice is a scratchy-soft, mellifluous hum that at once puts you in mind of that childhood dad next door while carrying the edgy authority of a legend. Think of all the commanding radio announcers you've heard over the years, and then think of your disappointment when you actually saw a picture of them and found out they were all bald, fat, and totally unlike what you'd created in your mind's eye.

Robert Altman, God bless him, looks and sounds just like you think he ought to -- which, I suppose, is a pretty good way of describing his films: They may all seem to be different as night and day, but you watch just one and you'll never mistake an Altman film for anyone else's. That kind of stylistic signature is something that's increasingly rare these days, when MTV and commercial work have both groomed and deflowered so many young upstarts. The director's attention to the hallowed soul of the film, to that overlapping dialogue, the space between characters and their surroundings, and the music behind the words -- nobody pays attention to that stuff like Altman does. Not anymore.

From his early television work on shows like Combat! and Route 66, to the pure, watershed cinematic masterworks of MASH, The Player, and Nashville, Robert Altman has consistently challenged and redefined not only himself but also the very craft of filmmaking. He is, unquestionably, America's most provocative living director, and frankly, I don't know if I even need that "living" qualifier in there at all. His films have done with dialogue and plot and music what John Ford did with the rocky eruptions of Monument Valley. When he's firing on all cylinders, everybody else just sits back and watches, jaws agape. You do too.

I spoke with the man about the sorry state of affairs in Hollywood 2000, the sorry state of affairs on the road to the White House, and the sorry state of affairs occurring when some dimbulb studio boss buries your baby at the box-office. On the plus side, the man still burns for getting up, getting out, and getting on with the making of all those movies. You couldn't stop him if you nailed his hands to a Sequoia and chucked that sucker into the Pacific. And you know it goes without saying we're all pretty damn thankful of that.

Austin Chronicle: You're probably the ultimate indie director, the Hollywood outsider, the maverick, the risk-taker. That style of filmmaking that you developed in movies like MASH, Nashville, and McCabe and Mrs. Miller -- can that even be created anymore in the current Hollywood climate?

Robert Altman: Nope.

AC: You want to expand on that a little?

RA: [laughs] Well, it's because there's too many cooks. They don't leave you alone, and by the time these things get done, they've been through so many committees that it just doesn't work. All of the fingerprints have been washed off of them. Occasionally there's some stuff that sneaks out, but then it doesn't get very far because you can't anymore really release these films. When a really good film is made, it can still suffer from not getting the proper release. And if you don't get it, by the time people do find out about it, it's too late.

AC: How do you feel about the releasing strategies behind some of your more recent films, say, Cookie's Fortune or Kansas City or Gingerbread Man?

RA: Gingerbread Man was a disaster. That film was absolutely scuttled. I mean, they were so mad at me because I didn't give 'em a John Grisham film that they scuttled that picture outright. Kansas City was a soft release, and nobody knew what it was going to do, and so they piddled around with it and now everybody says, "We could have done so good with that if we'd been a little braver." That's like the guy shoots your dog on your front porch and then comes up later and says, "Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to kill your dog." But you're still sitting there with a dead dog.

AC: Have you found Artisan to be any different in their strategy behind the upcoming release of Dr. T. and the Women?

RA: I have high hopes for them. They're a releasing company, and that's what they do, and they seem to be handling it all right. We're going out very broad with this one -- whether this picture will work or not, who the hell knows? But I'm quite happy with Artisan so far. Now, the problem is that we'll know exactly what this film's going to do two days after it opens, right? We'll know to the penny how much it's going to make, which is sad.

AC: You mentioned recently that you'd leave the country if our fair governor made it to the White House. Were you bluffing, or are the bags already packed?

RA: Well, I think we should all leave the country if that happens. That's more to the point. You know, I hope he remains governor of your great state for eight more years. What I really said, though, was that I'd move to Paris. Paris, Texas. 'Cause he won't be in the state any longer, so then I can get in there.

AC: What do you think about this election-year blitz against Hollywood values and the recent, unsurprising revelations that the studios are intentionally targeting a kiddie demographic with their more violent fare?

RA: I think that's true, sure. I think the industry has been marketing these sorts of hyperviolent films to kids. They know exactly what they're doing, and they got caught. And it's about time. These kids get anesthetized, and then we end up with something like Columbine. It's like the cigarette companies -- they're doing exactly the same thing as the cigarette companies did. I don't believe in censorship, and I would fight it with my life, almost, but let's face it, everybody's lying. You know goddamn well that when they make these pictures and they spend hundreds of millions of dollars on them, they have to get those kids in because that's the only real audience they've got for most of these things. They're just lying and they should have to answer for it, and hopefully they will.

AC: I'm curious what, if any, political savvy did you pick up while shooting the short film about faux-presidential candidate "Tanner '88"?

RA: A lot. That film's 12 years old, and you could take it out and run it today and it'd be just as au courant as anything. There haven't been any changes whatsoever in the American political landscape since we shot that.

AC: Film and politics and the collision of the two to create some weird, surreal entertainment seems to be the order of the day.

RA: Hell yeah. But that shouldn't be the way it is. What I'd like to know is why it's the big deal about everybody having to know how much a piece of supposed art, or faux art, costs? And how much it made the third day, and the fourth day, and so on. What is all that about? What does that have to do with anything at all? Because all of this is run by accountants now, that's language and information that accountants can understand, see? So they get out there with that stuff, and it's just the wrong information. But, you know, I don't think anything's going to change. If anything changes it'll be through attrition. One day they're going to wake up and nobody's going to come to their movies. What are they going to do then? It could be real bad for them.

AC: Now that we have a firm grasp on what you don't like about the current state of affairs, let me ask you this: What excites you about filmmaking today? There's gotta be something.

RA: I just love the process, I love the actors, I love the fact that we can do it at all. I think it's a great art form and, I mean, I just love it. I am so enamored with the actors and the courage that they show. I think they're very noble folks.

AC: Any thoughts on the digital video revolution that's going on these days? Is it possible to have the door open too wide, where everyone with the urge can suddenly make a marginally presentable film or video and have it seen -- via the Internet -- by virtually the whole word? I'm thinking of a plague of Ed Woods here.

RA: That's great! Why do we have to make it so complicated in the first place? It's a goddamn shame. Plus, these new things open up the competition to a lot more people. The cost of making films has become extraordinary, and the studios are going to keep it that way so that you have to go through them to get it done. They're gonna get caught, though. They're gonna wake up someday, and nobody will be there. I can't wait. I hope I'm alive when that happens.

AC: You're well-known as a director who demands total creative control over his projects from frame one. But honestly, is there any other way for an artist -- any artist -- to create? Isn't control and the ability to wield it within your art what it's all about?

RA: Well, you know, Michelangelo didn't really have total creative control over his work, and, let's face it, nobody else really has either. Movies cost so much to make that they, the studios, are going to demand some sort of control over the finished work. But there's also companies who have done this who respect the artist and the artistic process, and have not necessarily bastardized everything. They've gone out and they've spent the money and the pictures have flopped and they've taken their lumps. They're not all bad people.

AC: Who inspired you in the beginning, when you were just starting out, and who inspires you now when you take a look around at your peers and contemporaries?

RA: Well, there's many, many, and, you know, I don't know their names.

AC: What do you think of Paul Thomas Anderson [director of Boogie Nights and Magnolia]? I know he's cited you as an influence many times.

RA: I think he's a very talented guy, and I think he'll do some terrific work. I think his stuff up to date has been a little youthful, a little indulgent, but that's something you have to work through. I think he's got the real stuff, though.

AC: What's the most important thing a filmmaker can do?

RA: [long pause] Protect his art. And do his film. And that's about it. Just get up and go to work in the morning and follow the muse.

AC: So many of your films feel as though there's a lot of improv going on with the actors. How much leeway do you give your actors for that sort of non-scripted material?

RA: Not a lot. In the first place, how much will they take? They come in and they want order, they want to know that they're protected, that they're fairly safe with what they're doing. What I have to do -- what is any director's job -- is to just give them courage to do what it is that they became actors for in the first place, and that's to create. What has to be done is you have to allow the artist to have his fingerprints on the piece and not anybody else's. And if it fails, it fails, and you just have to go along with that. You just pull out another piece of clay and start again.

AC: It's been 25 years since what most people would call your defining film -- Nashville -- came out. It's still regarded as one of the greatest films ever made and, you know, it is. How does that make you feel a quarter-century later?

RA: Real good!

AC: I'm assuming you had some inkling when you were creating it that it was more than just another film in some way, right? Are you at all surprised at its lasting impact and ability to speak to a whole new generation of filmgoers?

RA: Well, it's no different than any of the other films during the process of making them. You're inside of them. I call it "inside the bubble." So you're not getting all the outside information; you're really dealing with what the actors are doing, and how it's clicking, and you're building it from the inside. And some of them are a little more together than others, but you never know. To me, these films are all like children. You hope you can help them get a start, you hope they survive, you hope they do well, but you can't make it happen. And you can't change it either. People ask me which films I love the most, and I'll tell you, like your flesh-and-blood children, you tend to love the least successful ones the most. To me, every one of these films is as good as the other. Just because one wins a gold medal and the other one gets knocked out in the first heat, that's just what happens. But that doesn't have any reflection on the quality of the creations.

AC: You reteamed with Texas screenwriter Anne Rapp for Dr. T. and the Women, having previously worked with her on Cookie's Fortune. How did the two of you hook up in the first place?

RA: Anne was married to a friend of mine while she was working as a script supervisor, and we used to go hang out at the racetrack together. So I've known her for a long time. And then I heard through mutual friends that she'd gone to Ole Miss for a couple of years and was studying writing. So I called her and told her I'd like to see some of her work and she sent me three short stories, the first of which was called "Dr. T." It was a four-page story about a gynecologist in Dallas, a little essay kind of story, and I put her under contract right then and there.

AC: What was it specifically that drew you to the story of Dr. T.?

RA: [laughs] Oh ... I dunno.

AC: Well said!

RA: You know, it's like, why do you like a girl? Well, she's got nice legs, she eats steak, she likes the same kind of wine I do, and, I dunno, suddenly it all clicks.

AC: Fifty-plus films in 40-odd years. Not too shabby. What does Robert Altman do on his days off? Do you even have days off?0

RA: Well, I'm going to England at the end of October. I'm getting ready to produce and direct a film over there which starts shooting in March.

AC: You taking Anne along with you on this one, too?

RA: No, she's doing a couple of things now for Sydney Pollack. I think I'm gonna get out of Texas for a while and see what else is out there. And just remember, if we're lucky, you'll get to keep Bush as a governor for a few more years. end story

Dr. T and the Women kicks off the Austin Film Festival October 12, 7pm, at the Paramount. Screenwriter Anne Rapp will be in attendance. Tickets are available at the Paramount the day of the show or in advance by purchasing a film pass, $41, good for all festival films. Call 469-SHOW to charge tickets. 800/310-FEST or

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