When critics talk about the heyday of American filmmaking in the 1970's, director Robert Altman was not only a part of that flourishing, he was at the forefront. With movies like McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), Nashville (1975), and Three Women (1977), my personal favorites--his films did not seem to operate by any predictable formula. A new documentary, Altman, will air on EPIX, directed by Ron Mann, featuring interviews with Kathryn Altman, Lily Tomlin, Robin Williams, Julianne Moore, Sally Kellerman, Keith Carradine, Lyle Lovett, James Caan, and many other stars who worked in his films.
One of the interviewees, Elliott Gould starred in The Long Goodbye (1973), as Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler's famed fictional detective. In a recent phone conversation about this legendary director, Gould explained what made working with Altman so special.
Elliott Gould: Nothing was like what Altman did. The critic Pauline Kael really got it and that was encouraging. Altman had a mind of his own and was his own being.
How did he work with actors?
He let us be. He cast us and allowed us to bring life to whatever his design would be--allowing us to take more freedom than we would allow ourselves. I was a chorus boy and tap dancer. I understood repetition. He allowed me to break free, to live life.
Jules Feiffer, who wrote the screenplay for Popeye (1980) complained about working with Altman. He was not comfortable with the chaos. Were you?
Altman had a saying: he learned through chaos. He puts it together through the chaos. I had a dream: I was shooting a scene in some movie under the West Side Highway. The camera operator says CUT, saying I am not saying what I am supposed to be saying. There is a trailer alongside and Robert Altman comes out screaming at the camera operator, "Don't ever stop him again. He can't say anything wrong." That was so validating. A life lesson. You can't conform to what other people think.
Bob Balaban brought the film Gosford Park (2001) to Altman, thinking that the director would be freed by working with Agatha Christie's mystery genre structures to focus on relationships. The resulting acclaimed movie with its upstairs/downstairs theme was a precursor to PBS's Downton Abbey. Recently interviewed, Balaban opined, "I think the documentary about Robert Altman is great, that someone documented his amazing career and life. It's very much about his movies, a record of a great man."
A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.