Apr 2, 2015


From my piece about Robert Altman for the New Statesman:—
'Here is the Altman way of doing things. First, you get a script,  preferably by a first-timer you’ve drafted into the job, and who is therefore still brimful of curiosity about the world and less likely to complain when you change their script, like Joan Tewkesbury, the script supervisor he dispatched to Tennessee with the words “Go to Nashville and keep a diary.” She returned with a “poem” with 18 speaking parts, which Altman soon bumped up to 24.  “He didn't really cast actors so much as he cast people” said Tewkesbury.   The words “And Introducing” in the credits of M.A.S.H are followed by 20 names, most of them cast after a trip to see an experimental theatre troupe in San Francisco. Movie stars were to be avoided if humanly possible, and if not, then treated like extras. The extras, meanwhile, were treated like stars. “Why can you be more like him?” Altman told Eliott Gould during the shooting of M.A.S.H, pointing to Corey fisher, who played Captain Bandini, meaning: minimal and quirky. Gould flew into a rage and later, along with Donald Sutherland tried to get Altman fired although he later came around to Altman’s way of working. Sutherland never returned... Direct your movie. Actually that’s wrong — “direct” sounds like something school-teachers do to children to get them in a straight line. Step back and let your movie happen, like a sixties art event, or a dinner party, or a conga line. Your actors are your guests. Mike everyone up, using a specially built 8-track recording system, so nobody knows when the camera is on them, dolly and zoom between foreground and background until nobody can tell the difference, then invite everyone to view dailies. Fellini once told Altman they were the true art form — where you got see reality in the rough. “It was like a happening every night” said cinematographer Vilmos Zigmond of the dailies for McCabe, featuring copious amounts of grass, booze, even cats and dogs, animals being a key player in the Altman’s satirical bestiary, like Swift and Rabelais before him: his true quarry, the poor bare forked human animal standing buck-naked in the shower. (See also:— Altman and Nudity). Stop shooting. At some point, someone will tug you gently on the sleeve and tell you you’ve run out of money. Do not panic. Invite your lead actor into your office. Roll a joint. Devise an ending while high as a kite. That was how he and Tim Robbins came up with the ending of The Player, in which Robbins’s executive pitches the movie we have just seen. Strictly speaking it was Robbins’s idea, but Altman told him,  “I’m never giving you credit for that” and quite right too: it was the ending of M.A.S.H. recycled.   Voila! Your very own Robert Altman movie.'

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