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Continued: June 4, 2006: Q&A with Robert Altman

  • Article by: DEBORAH RYBAK and JEFF STRICKLER , Star Tribune
  • Last update: November 21, 2006 - 4:20 PM

Lily [Tomlin] I knew, of course, we've worked together several times [including "Nashville" and "Short Cuts]. Kevin Kline was another actor I'd always wanted to work with. He did an awful lot of shtick in this. But it's what I first saw in a film called "Soapdish" and "A Fish Called Wanda." I just thought he was hilarious in those and told him, "That's what I wanted you for." Lindsay Lohan comes from a different planet. But she's got the stuff, she really does.

Q Actors say they love working with you. Virginia Madsen came into town early just to hang around the set. Why are you so popular?

A Truthfully, I insist that they do what they became actors to do. I want them to create something and not just hit marks and say words. So they all love that because they're playing. It's called playacting. Their contributions are not only welcomed, but are accepted and used. I was surprised that Virginia responded so well to this Angel of Death part because she's a real realistic method actor. But she just loved it.

Q You've always had the reputation as a fast filmmaker, but a 23-day shoot? Is that a new record for you?

A When we came into this, I didn't think we'd make it. I figured we'd be a week over. I really did. I just thought there was no way we're going do this, except by putting in six day weeks. But the crew was great, and Garrison, his people and the band really made the difference. They were the best I've ever worked with.

Q What is the most difficult part of filmmaking for you: the shooting, the editing or the selling of the final product.

A The most difficult of course is the preparation and shooting. The preparation is really filled with the most anxiety. On this film we didn't know who we'd end up getting because there were all these cast drop-outs [because of delays in getting the film financed].

Q Who's going to come see this film?

A Ultimately, the audience for this film is gonna be the "Prairie Home Companion" audience. We're gonna get it out [to theaters] on the basis of Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones and Kevin Kline and Woody Harrelson and all those people, and myself. That's gonna crack the first wave. But if the critics initially don't like this, we've still got a chance of surviving. And there will be a lot of them who won't like it, because it's a very strange piece.

Q But isn't that what we've come to expect and love from you?

A Well we do, but they [some critics] don't. They come in late. They come in after the fact, a lot of them. Still for one reason or another, my films have held up through the years.

Q Why do you think that is?

A It has a lot to do with the time they were made. I hit just the time, starting in the early '70s when all this stuff was saved on tape and then DVD. Had I been five or 10 years earlier, I would have just been a B filmmaker. It's the timing. Look at what's being made today? It's changed. Audiences have changed. The presentation has changed. The 14-year-old boys -- who have always been the major audience -- have changed. The films have always been made for them, but there was a time when films were made for grownups, too. I don't think they are now.

Q Before "Prairie Home" was even finished, people were comparing it to "Nashville." Did you?

A I had many, many flashes of "Nashville" while shooting this film. Many, many, many. It took me right back to that period. But the musical performances in ["PHC"] are stronger. Some of Meryl's songs are just knockouts. They just break your heart. [Singing cowboys] Woody Harrelson and John Reilly were a surprise. I never knew what they were going to deliver. They were strange, very strange.

In one of the more tender scenes, they learn about the death of [another character] and then John Reilly had this fart machine and in the middle of this sadness these farts come through. And I said, "Wait a minute, what is this? We can't do this!" And then I thought, "Well, why can't we?" It was hilarious. Just hilarious.

Q You dropped quite a bombshell at the Oscars when you announced that you had a heart transplant 11 years ago. Why did you keep that secret?

A I was scared that no one would hire me. At that time, there was still a stigma attached to it. A big stigma. Actually, I think I was healthier after the operation than some people who have bypass surgery because I was completely cured. But when you mentioned "heart transplant," you got a very negative reaction. It triggered people's imaginations, and not in a good way.

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