June 4, 2006: Q&A with Robert Altman

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

Mainstream Hollywood gave legendary maverick Robert Altman, 81, a big wet kiss this spring with a lifetime-achievement Oscar. Now he reaches out to mainstream America with a movie based on its favorite radio show, "A Prairie Home Companion," which opens Friday. We spoke with him after he finished shooting last summer at the Fitzgerald Theater and more recently at the film's St. Paul premiere.

Q Judging from the applause at the end of the movie's St. Paul premiere, you have a hit.

A I was thrilled. But I also think it was a loaded audience. It wasn't like it was just another movie to them. That town for years has had "A Prairie Home Companion" right in the center of it. The people didn't see the movie in a way that the rest of the world will see this as a movie. We can't expect their reaction to translate to everyone else.

Q Has Garrison Keillor indicated what he thinks of the movie, either directly or indirectly?

A No, he has not. He hasn't said anything, good or bad. In fact, [at the premiere] he avoided eye contact. But that's just Garrison being Garrison.

Q How was it working with him? Both of you are used to calling the shots. Were you worried about clashing?

A Yeah, he's been in charge for 30-some odd years and so have I. But it worked out much, much better than I would have imagined. We came upon this with two different sensibilities and yet the only reason I did this was to deliver Garrison Keillor, so I had to say "Wait a minute." I had to be very careful about not putting my own jokes in ... but really dealing with Garrison's sensibilities.

Q You've had clashes with your screenwriters before.

A I've only done something like this once before and that was "Fool for Love" with Sam Shepard, where he starred in it and wrote it and it was taken from a play of his. It wasn't a very successful relationship afterwards. But Garrison's different. I think he's a true genius and really special.

Q How was Garrison Keillor the actor?

A He was great. On the set he was the most well-behaved of all the actors. We would go to relight something and I'd say, "OK, it's going to be 30 minutes," and everybody would go to the dressing room. But Garrison would just stand there and bide his time.

Q Garrison said in an interview that, after the experience he wished he was 25 years younger so he could then devote the rest of his life to acting. Is he a natural?

A Well, he sure was good. The first scene we shot with him was the shakiest and made me wonder, but that was the first and only time I could tell that he was not confident about what he was doing. The minute we got on his stage, he was great from then on. He's a fast learner and very at ease, although I don't know how he would be at playing somebody else.

Q You've worked before with star-studded casts, but this one seemed particularly high-wattage. Is having all that star power like playing with nuclear fission?

A Oh sure, no doubt about it. But I like doing that because it takes all of my responsibility away. It makes it easy. Those people do it. I'm not up there telling them how to act, certainly. I'm just putting the pieces on the palette and they move them around. But it's always been that way. It's always been the performers. My biggest job is to accommodate them and make room for them and also to make room for their contributions and see that they get in.

Q Tell us about this cast.

A Well Meryl Streep, I'd always wanted to work with her. One of the reasons we got her to do this film is because she gets to sing-most of these people want to do something they haven't done before. I've never worked with anybody like her. She's 25 percent ahead of everybody else. Anybody could direct any picture she's in. She eliminates the director. Yet she's the most accommodating-there's never any temperament or any arguments of any kind.

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.

Q So why did you decide to go public now?

A For one thing, people had found out. It no longer was secret. Right after the operation, I did lie about it to some of my friends and family. But over the years, I'd confessed. There was no reason to pretend anymore.

Q That would explain the requirement that you have a stand-by director, who turned out to be Paul Thomas Anderson.

A Paul was very, very generous to do this. It's amazing, I was really surprised. I never would have asked him to do it. He was at my side every moment I was shooting and he was a fantastic help. He never intruded, he never overrode me. I couldn't even say goodbye to him, I would have broken down in tears.

Q Certainly you aware of the homage he's paid to you with films such as "Boogie Nights" and "Magnolia."

A He told me he was a big fan of mine. I saw him after "Boogie Nights" and he said, "I just ripped you off." [chuckles].

Q Was he the first stand-by director you'd ever had?

A I had to have someone on "Gosford Park" too, Stephen Frears ["The Grifters,"Dirty Pretty Things"]. Stephen never came to the set, he just agreed in case I croaked or something that he would come and take it over. Stephen said, "For God's sake, get rid of Maggie [Smith]. Finish working with her before you croak. I couldn't possibly work with her, I'd be terrified."

Q On the whole, then, did the movie come out the way you initially envisioned?

A I wouldn't know. Making a movie is like chipping away at a stone. You take a piece off here, you take a piece off there and when you're finished, you have a sculpture. You know that there's something in there, but you're not sure exactly what it is until you find it.

Q You've been described as a maverick for most of your career. Now you've been anointed with an Academy Award by Hollywood's mainstream. Is that a strange transition?

A I don't know how much of it sinks in for me because the road I've taken has, for me, been the easiest road. I followed my nose and I don't see those kinds of things that other people say they see.

My ambitions are basically the same as everybody else's ambitions. I want to make a lot of money, I want a lot of success, I want a lot of admiration. But basically, you go back to your own sensibilities and what interests me.

Q That was particularly true after "M*A*S*H" put you on the map in 1970.

A After that, I had my choice of hundreds of projects-they offered me millions to do a "M*A*S*H" sequel. Instead, I did this picture called "Brewster McLeod." My agent said, "What are you doing? Listen, we can get this and this," but it never entered my mind not to do that picture.

Q "M*A*S*H" remains a sore spot with you.

A Well, I had a big falling out with [distributor 20th Century Fox]. I got zip for directing. My son who wrote [the movie's hit song] "Suicide Is Painless" when he was 14 years old, he made 10 times as much money off that picture as I did.

Q What about the TV series?

A I just got infuriated about the TV series. It was the opposite of what the sensibility was of the film. It became a racist, pro-war series. It became a thing that the enemy for 12 years was always the dark-skinned person with the slanted eyes -- no matter what platitudes they said.

Q Garrison originally approached you about making a movie about Lake Wobegon. He's still talking about that. ...

A I'm sure he is.

Q And some people are speculating that you will direct it. Is there any foundation to that?

A We haven't discussed it. I have no question that Garrison has the will to make that movie. And if he has the will, he'll probably get it done. But I have no idea if I will be involved.

Q If you're not making a Lake Wobegon movie, what is your next project?

A I'm going to do "Hands on a Hard Body." It's based on a documentary about a contest at a Nissan dealer. It was an endurance test. A group of people had to stand around a truck keeping at least one hand on it at all times. They ended up dealing with fatigue, of course, but with a lot of other issues, too. And the truck was given to the last one standing.

Q The last one standing. Sounds like we're talking about you.

A [Chuckle] Let's hope so.

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