How Robert Altman helped me justify being lazy in film school – Pt. 2
I had found what I had been looking for, cinematically speaking, but what of Altman’s interaction with his cast and crew? I mean, love him or leave him, nobody makes films like Altman. The man’s even had an “esque” attributed to his name! As in: “That film’s very Altman-esque.” No small accomplishment.
Of course a film starts and ends with clarity of vision, and Altman never doubted himself there. In AFI’s Directors series, he states that he firmly believed that every film he’d ever made was his best, at least while he was making it. This level of confidence was a double-edged sword for most folks that had to work with him. It was as though he had already completed the film and was just waiting for everyone else to catch up. That sounded mighty familiar to me.
He was generous with his actors, however, and depending on that actors approach this was either a curse or a blessing. If Altman had bothered to hire you it was probably because he had already thought you could take of business. Why would you ask him how to do your job? Most actors enjoyed the freedom. Donald Sutherland, who played “Hawkeye” in M*A*S*H, tried to have him fired. There’s a story during the filming of McCabe & Mrs. Miller where Warren Beatty, who starred as McCabe (Although I’m sure he would have made a lovely Mrs. Miller), wanted to reshoot a scene Altman had already deemed completed. After a bit of verbal tennis, Altman agreed to the reshoot then, snuck off set and went to bed while Beatty indulged himself. No surprise, Altman’s version made the final cut.
Studio execs in particular had a hard time with Altman’s “I’ve got this,” attitude. He couldn’t be bothered with their notes, often times maintaining his modus operandi until they came around to his way of thinking. Dear god that must have been annoying! I’ll have to ask my professors.
Altman himself held no grudges. “How can I be mad at them? They sell shoes. I make gloves.”
As I began delving into his later films, I realized that there simply hasn’t been, and most likely never will be, another Robert Altman. His films are unique, and they are uniquely his. He was recognized by the Academy in 2002 for his brilliant GosfordPark, which featured an all-star cast (Including Bob Balaban, whom I have an almost inexplicable soft spot for) and more of his trademark layered dialog and even more layered storylines. It won for Best Screenplay, but lost both the Best Director and Best Picture to Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind.
Altman’s swan song came in 2006 in the form of a sweet, sentimental collaboration with NPR’s Garrison Keillor. A Prairie Home Companion chronicled the last performance of a staged radio show that mirrored Keillor’s own. Its characters are as close as family, but the rest of the world seems to have lost use for them. As they try to keep their collective chin’s up, even as an “axe man” (A nice, subtle Tommy Lee Jones performance) looms over the shows final moments, we get a glimpse into Altman himself. Altman, like the cast of A Prairie Home Companion, staunchly refused to quit doing what he loved. He passed away shortly after making this one. They say he was in preproduction on another film even as he lay in his deathbed.
Every show’s your last show
—Garrison Keillor, A Prairie Home Companion
I later learned that, due to insurance reasons, Paul Thomas Anderson himself had been Altman’s back up director, even shooting a few scenes while Altman was out sick. Both of my idols on the same set at the same time! What I wouldn’t give to have been there, even if I had to fetch coffee.
I remember thinking about Altman at a very specific moment in film school. We had been given an assignment in our directing class to shoot, edit and screen a commercial or PSA of our own design. We only had the school’s equipment (and what little we may have procured on our own) and our fellow classmates as cast and crew. We had two weeks or so to complete this project. I waited.
Eventually (the last day we had to shoot, to be precise), I sat down and wrote a strange little PSA about the benefits of having facial hair. Minutes later I was corralling a small cast and crew, the cream of the crop, and shooting. More minutes later I was hunched over a laptop editing. Even more minutes later I was handing in my final project, which got an “A,” thank you very much.
It struck me that that was how Altman would’ve have done it; within his own timeline and on his own terms. It helped that he was good. I like to think I’m alright too. I’d better be, because Robert Altman has created a monster.