Robert Altman makes memorable films. Some because they are sublime, some because they are ridiculous. A few are both. His best work, the work that established him as an anti-establishment figure and a loopily cockeyed auteur, came between 1970 and 1977. M*A*S*H, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Nashville, The Long Goodbye, Thieves Like Us, California Split, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, and Three Women presented a swirling, hazy yet acute portrait of an America, past and present, that was Altman’s very own. Digging for and then dynamiting all the myths and clichés that make Americans Americans, and make movies movies, the golden age of Altman’s cinema presented a wry, sad-eyed but somehow energizing view of a culture bursting with tragic, and often laughable, desires. The films were also full of signature stylistic devices such as gauzy color, a wandering camera, overlapping voices, offhand acting, and parenthetical, episodic story structures. By the mid-seventies, Altman was revered by many as America’s Fellini.
However, over the course (and the curse) of the next ten years, from 1977 to 1987, Altman lost his sense and sensibility. His work ranged from the pleasantly competent to the screamingly bad. The “good” films of that period were his taut but tame versions of a number of plays, most notably Sam Shepard’s “Fool for Love” and David Rabe’s “Streamers.” But the bad work dominated: from the boring bluster of Quintet and Health and A Wedding, to the big-budget madness of Popeye (which banished him from Hollywood), to the pathetic unfunniness of O.C. and Stiggs and Beyond Therapy, it looked like Altman had in some way “had it.”
But just when we thought we wouldn’t have Robert Altman to kick around anymore, he came roaring back with three impressive pieces. First, HBO’s “Tanner ’88,” in which he and Garry Trudeau ran a fictional character for president of the United States, proved a clever, compelling mix of fact and fiction. Then in 1990, Vincent and Theo, a slashing look at the bonds between a punkish Van Gogh and his bourgeois brother, resurrected Altman’s high-art credentials. And finally, improbably, back to Hollywood waltzed this aging, acid dumpling of a man, where in 1992 he turned out a killer — The Player — masquerading as a fluffy comedy.
Altman was born into a prosperous Kansas City Catholic family in the winter of 1925. He was not scarred by the Depression; he may hardly have noticed it. He was lovingly surrounded by two sisters and four aunts and his mother, while his father was a larger-than-life insurance salesman, raconteur, and hustling ladies’ man. (In his adult life, Altman surrounded himself with three wives, many mistresses, and five children.) His rascally performance in parochial and public school led to two years at a military academy, after which he found himself flying B-24s in the Pacific theatre of World War II. His first postwar screen credit (as a story contributor to an obscure RKO picture, The Bodyguard) came in 1948, but that was followed by a long apprenticeship making industrial films for the Calvin Company of Kansas City.
Producer, director, designer, cinematographer, editor, and writer, Altman learned his craft banging out close to sixty films in the 1950s on subjects ranging from highway safety to the rules of basketball. Throughout the late fifties and sixties, more lucrative dues-paying followed in Hollywood, as Altman directed countless episodes of over twenty different television shows. From “Combat” to “Bonanza,” “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” to “The Millionaire,” Altman learned all the formulas, backwards and forwards, while attempting to resist them. After three films failed to spark a bankable belief in his vision, Altman finally got a gig directing a small antiwar comedy that fifteen other directors had turned down: M*A*S*H. The rest, as he might say, is or is not history.
I talked to Altman on the last two days of 1991, in Santa Monica, in an empty conference room at Skywalker Sound, where he was sort of busy mixing The Player across the hallway. Over the course of two days, our interview was interrupted at least twenty times by assistants’ queries, reports on card games, meals, phone calls, glances at the day’s newspapers and mail, and his intermittent participation in his film’s final sound mix. The breaks proved frustrating, and even Altman said at the end of the first session, “This is a terrible way to do it.” But I later came to realize that the discontinuity, the roundabouts and cul-de-sacs, the vague narrative glitches and evasions (which I’ve largely edited out), were quite perfectly Altman. The only difference between this interview and an Altman film is that he would have kept all that good stuff in.
To start, I’m curious as to what moments in your films most thrill your soul? What moments do you cherish most?
The accidents. The things that happen that are totally uncalculated, unprepared for, unanticipated, and take on the guise of a discovery. That can happen at any time in the process. In fact, I count on it happening. It’s the only time I’m truly put in the position of the audience, for whom I’m supposed to be monitoring all this activity. I’m supposed to be their ear, I’m supposed to represent the audience, until I pass it on to them. Right? I don’t have any examples . . . yes, I do. The easiest one is when Shelly Duvall’s yellow skirt got caught in the door of her car in Three Women, and everybody yelled “Cut” and “Stop the cameras.” No, no, no — leave it there. And see that it happens every time. But those are the kinds of things that, when I finish the day’s work, and change my temperature, I look back on and it puts a grin on my face.
It seems that surprise itself is fairly integral to what you think art is all about.
I think it is. If you anticipate it, you’ve already experienced it. It’s only art if it’s on a different range or level than what you’ve anticipated. If what you see is what you expect, then you’ve already done a better job than the event.
Given that bias, you prefer things that may not even make sense in a kind of linear or rational way, because that kind of making sense always confirms people’s suspicions.
Well, it can happen in a linear, rational way, but it is unexpected, usually, because it is more truthful than we all want to be. And that’s why I say they’re mistakes, because most of our activity in bumping into each other, and just having intercourse with each other, is disguising a lot of truths. The Irish, their whole culture speaks that way: that everybody lies, all the time, but you’re supposed to know that this guy is lying, and he knows that you know, and you know that he knows that you know, etcetera, and it’s very difficult for someone who’s not used to that culture to go deal with the Irish — like me. I get angry with these lies. I mean, I like my lies to be much more subtle.
So it isn’t that it can’t be written or planned or plotted, the surprise, but when it’s a true surprise it’s usually more truthful.
Are you aligning art with truth? Because it certainly can be aligned with lying.
Well, lies can be a truth. I’m aligning art with discovery. Maybe I mean discovery more than surprise, though each discovery is a surprise. You can go dig in the ruins and say, “I hope to discover an old broken pot.” And you can discover it, and it can still be a surprise: not that you found it, or that it was there, but by what it is. And those are the moments that are the most gratifying, and we kind of set up all the machinery in order to allow them to happen.
I was surprised myself a number of months ago when you gave that talk in San Francisco, when you said that “the process of making the film is the only value” in it. I mean, some artists are very attached to process, but that seemed extreme.
Well, it probably is an exaggeration. But I think it probably is the only value. Selfishly — it’s the only value to me. The afterglow, the afterburn of it is nice and it’s memorable, but it doesn’t . . . the process itself is being in the activity itself, while it’s happening, and really being out of control. It starts with the preparation. The script, the casting, then the shooting process, then editing. Then the last stage is the sitting back and grinning, or denying that you had anything to do with it.
You also said that eighty-five to ninety-five percent of your creative work is done by the time the film has been cast.
I think by the time the cast is complete, most of the work that I’m going to do, most of the creative work, has been turned over to those people that I have cast.
But from that time to the end, there’s a long road to hike, and if you really feel that way, doesn’t it get boring, tedious?
No, because it’s always full of these surprises. These surprises, these discoveries that take place are not boring. It’s more orderly, it’s more mechanical, it’s more the workaday business kind of thing — the order of what has to be done, which way it has to be done. You know, this sound mixing we’re doing right now: I sit there all day and play solitaire with the editor, and do crossword puzzles, and I make phone calls and jokes and I eat, and wish we were through with it. But it’s something that has to be done, and in the process of doing it, invariably, five, six, seven times, during the whole thing, I will feel, “Wow! I didn’t know that was going to be like that. That’s good! Leave that!”
The real movie for you is the dailies.
Well, the best movie is all the dailies.
Was that Fellini’s claim, originally?
Yeah. Bergman told me that Fellini told him that. ’Cause I had just told that to Bergman, for me. So let’s give that to Fellini.
Why is that true for you?
Because you’re seeing much more of the characters, the life of the film. You can liken it to your own computer, your own brain. All of the anticipation, all of the work you do is to bring you to an event, whatever the event is, whether it’s lunch or a statement, until it becomes history — and the dailies are like that. Because these people in this film don’t exist. Everything in this film is a lie. Everything. Then we show it to an audience as if it is a true thing — an event that happened, a piece of history.
So, in dailies, when you see the same scene being played seven times, eight times, and you see the little changes, the nuances, it’s going into your brain as if those people were real, and as if there were more options available. Do you understand that? It’s very hard to explain. So by saturating yourself with the dailies, it’s saturating yourself with that event. And even though I decide to leave this out, it’s still in my computer, my brain. I mean, I know things about a picture that you don’t know. And that can be a trap. Because if I’ve seen too much of these dailies I may make assumptions that are wrong. But I just love all that saturation, because it helps me with the progression of the film.
Does it also give you the feeling that it’s almost as if you are doing a documentary about real people?
Yes, that’s what I am trying to do. I’m trying to do a documentary about these fictitious people. Documentaries are not real at all. In many ways, this is more real. Documentaries are not truthful.
They are a slant on the truth.
They are a slant on the truth, but they are a different kind — they are still picking and choosing.
They are just as constructed, even Fred Wiseman’s.
Oh, absolutely! More so! And what we do is no different from what Fred Wiseman does. Fred Wiseman goes in and sees a bunch of old people chewing their food, and he’s doing one of those documentaries, or they’re singing in a church pew or something, and he uses that. That’s no different from what I do when I see an actor acting those things. In fact, what I’m really trying to do with the actors is to get them to be less creative and just use their own natural selves more, as if they were the character in that circumstance.
Not so much “actorial” as behavorial.
Behaviorial. Behavior is what it is.
Your films are fascinated with catching that kind of behavior, in a way that sets them apart from the films of your peers.
Well, I don’t know about that, but I know that seems to be the main thrust of all of this stuff.
Is it fair to say that some of your films are edited more than they are directed? I don’t mean this as a slight —
Yeah. Absolutely! Absolutely, absolutely. I think what I try to do is simply create an event — and that event can be somebody pouring a cup of coffee, and spilling it, or not spilling it — creating that event, and then documenting it. And whether it’s a riot, or a church fire, or a cup of coffee, I try to create the event, and then not manipulate everything to work for what you would like to have. And many times getting less than you would like to have. There has to be a whole different reason that would send me around and make a shot from the inside of a refrigerator as the door opened and somebody took something out. I mean, when I make that kind of a shot — I’m doing something else! That has very little to do with the event.
That’s not Altman cinema.
No. That doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with those shots, but for me to make that shot I may have to stay there in the dark and listen to the rest of the scene when he closes the door.
Is the kind of behavior you talk about seeking from actors — allowing them not to “act” in a way — one reason why you’re distrustful of rehearsal?
Well, probably. Or maybe I just don’t think there’s anything to rehearse. Usually, I’m laying brick on top of brick, behavior on top of behavior, and whatever happens in the first thing that I do affects every other bit of it. Say a film is composed of two hundred elements, two hundred different scenes. The production manager will tell me the cheapest way to do this, the most efficient way, is to start with Scene 23 and then go to Scene 54 and then go to Scene 33, and blah blah blah. And I’ll say, “I can’t shoot that scene till later,” and “I can’t shoot that scene till later,” but most of the others it doesn’t make a lot of difference.
You prefer to shoot in sequence, I assume.
Oh, in continuity is much better, but the best things have happened when I’ve been forced to go out of continuity. Then, you’re just shooting continuity, backwards. You’re just building in different directions. But whatever the first day’s shooting is, whatever the first thing we shoot, that affects every other shot that’s made for that picture. So if we start on Scene 24, and then go on in any order you want to tumble, that film is going to end up a certain way. If we start with Scene 4, it’s going to be different. The whole thing. So each film, if I went back and made the same thing, it would be a different film. And as many times as I would remake that film it would be a different film. And I think probably surprisingly different. The weather is never the same, the actors are never the same — they never feel the same, they never have the same amount of confidence, they never have the same amount of fear. So it’s back to Einstein and relativity: everything is in movement in relationship to everything else, so nothing is ever the same.
The process on the back end — the rough-cut screening process you go through — may not be unique, but it’s distinct. [Altman continually screens rough versions of a film to those both inside and outside his circle.] What do you learn by “reading the backs of people’s heads,” as you’ve said?
Well, I learn nothing, but I learn from my own embarrassment. I sit in that room the first time I show an assembly of film and I have twenty-five people in there, and I know who they are in most cases, or I know about them, and the film starts, and suddenly a scene goes up, and suddenly I go “Oh, Jesus!” and I cringe with embarrassment. Because I’m looking at this film for the first time through somebody else’s eyes. So, through my own embarrassment or my own glee, I leave something in and enhance it or I take something out.
How do you know what their eyes are seeing, if you’re not talking to them about it?
Because I’m the one that’s seeing, but I’m seeing it from another standpoint. In other words, it’s a way for me to try to get rid of all this knowledge that I have — so much more knowledge than you, the audience, have — because I’ve been exposed to so much more information. And also I have to come to that realization that none of you really gives a shit! You will, as long as I keep you entertained and interested and involved; but the minute it becomes boring to you and you say, “Listen I saw this about sixteen times last year in various forms,” you’re out of there.
And you can see, from the back of the room, by their body language, that they are “out of there”?
I feel it. It’s not them — it’s the fact that I know that they’re there, that’s a truth; so I suddenly have to become aware of those people, and I’m responding. I’m a different me. I’ve moved my position: from myself to myself-in-a-room-with-twenty-five-people-that-I-don’t-want-to-be-embarrassed-in-front-of.
Isn’t this process really Bob Altman’s version of a focus group? Doesn’t this serve the same function for you that the studios seek when they go out and test films?
Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. Only mine is more truthful. Because at least all the judgments that are being made about this thing are being made from the same point of view, not from several different points of view. I don’t trust what anybody tells me at these screenings, any more than I would trust the people in the focus groups. ’Cause I know how much I lie about my very, very closest friends’ work. I mean, the people that I truly love, I do not tell them my true feelings.
I don’t want to hurt their feelings . . .
If they’ve asked you for your opinion?
I don’t believe they really want it. And I just don’t have the courage to do it.
You think you’re doing them any good by lying to them?
I think it’s much more selfish than that. No, I think it would do them much more good if I were totally honest with them. But I’m not that way.
You just want to avoid the conflict?
I don’t want the confrontation. Yes. [Pause.] I also don’t trust what the audience tells me because they are not right. They’re just looking at it from their standpoint: each element of the audience, individually, has all this information that they’ve gathered in their lifetime, everything that has ever happened in the vicinity of their senses is recorded, and filed, and cross-filed, and stuffed with other things. There is a lore there. And now I’m coming in with something new and it’s reacting with their lore. They’re shuffling the information that I’m giving them in with all this other information. There’s no two people of the audience that are alike.
And no two people will have the same reading of a film.
None whatsoever. Absolutely. And I don’t really much care about them. If suddenly you are zapped with a truth ray and you say, “I hate this fucking film,” it doesn’t make any difference to me. Now, if I’ve made this film that nobody gets, or nobody likes, or nobody understands, then it’s a bad film. It’s stupid for me to make a film and find one other person that thinks it’s the greatest thing since hash. That’s great for me, but it’s kind of stupid to put out that much energy just to please one person, or to get to one person, or involve one person. So I’m trying to get to as many as possible. But if you got ’em all, then you know it would be pretty banal.
But you don’t feel you’ve ever made a bad film.
I don’t think I’ve ever made a bad film. I think I’ve made films that have not performed in an equation that justifies their manufacture. But I haven’t made a film that isn’t what we — the group — set out to do.
You once said you’d shoot yourself before you’d let a bad film out of the editing room.
I won’t do it. I’d burn it. I’d hide it. I may do that one day, but I don’t think so. Now, this is very subjective. I’m talking about how I feel.
Do you care about how “they” feel out there?
I would like them to like what I do.
Only because that will allow you to do more of it?
Yeah, and it makes me feel better. And then there is more attention turned to me. It’s like — you know, Abner Dean the artist, the cartoonist, used to draw all those naked people. There are always masses of people in his drawings. There’s one that shows a knoll, with a dead tree on it, and this lithe young man standing next to the tree. And coming around this knoll and going off into infinity is this absolutely endless line of people, trudging down this road. And they all have headbands on and they are all trudging, pulling these enormous boulders behind them. And on this tree is a board with a nail and a feather and a spring — some silly, eclectic kind of stuff — and he’s trying to enlist their attention, and he’s saying, “Look, I made this!” And I think that’s the real artistic drive, that I want to say, “Look what I did!” [Chuckles.]
The projection of the ego out into the world?
Yeah, I suppose.
It’s a useless thing you do. There’s nothing more useless than a poem or a film.
Absolutely. Absolutely. But I made this. The author wants his signature on it. But that’s what art is. Art is useless. It has no utilitarian purpose. It is only an enrichment, and then it becomes only a discovery or a surprise.
Have you ever felt like you’ve gotten enough ego gratification from your first thirty-odd films that you don’t need to make a thirty-seventh or thirty-eighth?
No. No. I don’t think so. When that happens, you don’t do it anymore. Then it’s drudgery.
You’ve never wanted not to do it, is what I’m asking.
Never came close to it. I do find that I’m more conservative now. I’m reading a lot of scripts now, because I’m looking for a film to make, or a theatre piece — and many of these things I turn down or I don’t pursue, whereas twenty years ago I would have said, “Oh, this is almost impossible, let’s do it! Let’s just try to make it work.
Just for the perverseness —
No, but — a lot of it is that. But a lot of it is: anything can be done. Anything can work.
You’ve said that the content is there no matter what you do, and that your films are more exercises in style.
[Pause.] Yeah. Yeah.
In which case, you could almost take the phone directory and make an Altman film out of it.
Well, I think that’s extreme, but it could be done. That’s the idea. We could sit here and say, let’s make a film called The Yellow Pages. You could figure it out. But now, some of these scripts tend to be too complicated, too already-worked-out, they’re too high-concept.
There’s not enough for you to discover in them.
Yeah, maybe that’s it. It’s education. By practice you learn what is a fruitless trip. I’m starting to think that each project is a pond of frozen ice, of thin ice. And I’ve got to walk — taking everything I have with me, all the people, the actors, all the musicians — we’ve got to walk from one side to the other, and there are all these steps that have to be taken. And one step that’s too heavy, one, breaks the whole fucking ice, and everybody sinks. And you lose, if you make one bad step. So maybe I calculate more of the pitfalls and the traps and the places to take that heavy step, and I tend not to do these things. But if I got down to where I was trapped, if I said, “I’ve got to go to work tomorrow or they take away my washing machine,” I would take any one of these twenty-five scripts and do them.
You’re in a sort of unusual position, in that you’re not as much of a writer as some others we think of as auteurs, and you’ve always struggled with your writing. So, in your dissatisfaction with these twenty-five scripts, don’t you wonder why you don’t do it yourself?
I think I’m probably much more of a writer than . . . or as much as, when you’re making comparisons. I tend to do more writing than not.
Let me qualify: it’s not the sitting-down-with-the-blank-piece-of-paper writing that you do, it’s the interactive writing— the collision with your source material.
Yeah, I don’t do very well at . . . I do better rewriting. I have to have the idea. Something has to make me believe that something is true. And then I can go in and adapt, and deal with it.
Why do you think that is?
I don’t know. I just don’t come up with imaginative ideas. Everything I’ve ever done has been off of something that somebody has done — that has already been there. Something exists.
Can you not make yourself believe that an original story of yours is true?
Well, to degrees. But once I find something that’s true, you can’t convince me that it isn’t. And then I have the confidence to go ahead with it.
Last year you said, “I can’t write alone. I have on occasion, but I’ve never been comfortable with it. I’ve had these little sessions with myself when I’ve said, ‘Oh, screw ’em, I’ll just take six months and I’ll go and sit there and I’ll write every word.’ And I like the way I write, but it’s too painful . . . and I always feel there’s something missing. I’m dry. I don’t have enough ideas.”
Yeah, it’s true.
What’s the painful aspect of it?
The painful part is very simple. It becomes physically painful for me to sit at whatever device, a typewriter, a computer, by myself. I mean, I get pains in my body, and I wish I could go somewhere else and do something else, and I bite the inside of my mouth, because I want to get this done, and I get sort of lost in it, and time passes a lot. It’s very much like painting. I find it’s exactly the same thing.
You used to paint quite a bit.
I did at one time. I have spurts. Maybe it’s just attention: maybe I just don’t have the concentration.
You’re never more alone than when you’re writing. Is it uncomfortable for you to be alone?
Uh-huh. Yeah. I don’t like that very much.
Has that been a lifelong thing, as far back as you can remember?
Oh, yeah. I’m very gregarious, and I always liked being with other people. There are times when I love to rest, to read, but the idea of going off and spending two, three days by a lake, by myself, would be torturous to me.
I know enough about you to know that you don’t have a self-analytical bent, but do you ever wonder why that is?
No. No. What difference does it make? I hear people say, “I love to go spend time alone,” and I think, God, don’t you get bored? Maybe they’re more interesting to themselves than I am. It’s just a matter of accepting it. I don’t think I can go back and change myself, and I don’t see any reason to do that. I can envision a much better brain, but I think you have to start over.
So there was never a wish or a regret that you couldn’t do that better?
I’ve never had a wish or a regret about anything that exists. It’s like, I’ve had friends who have had strokes, and become paraplegics, and suffer situations, blindness, what a terrible thing. But really, when something like that happens to you, that’s what’s happened to you. I don’t think there’s anything you can do about it. I don’t think what you like or don’t like, or are happy with or unhappy with, makes a whole hell of a lot of difference. I don’t think you have much control over it. It’s what that is.
You’ve praised actors to the hilt throughout your career, and I’ve not seen the same kind of praise, or respect, for writers.
Well, I don’t think the respect is the same. I praise actors because actors are thrown into a situation where they only have control over their own place on the table. They have nothing to do with the table. Writers I think of as more like myself: they’re part of the main planning board, and they have more control, and they are doing pretty much the same thing I’m doing.
The Player, which I loved — and I’m telling you the truth here, because I would certainly tell you which films of yours I didn’t like if that would make things any more interesting —
No, it would just hurt. I would think it would be a shame that you just didn’t understand them. [Laughs.]
You’d feel sorry for me.
The Player has a sort of dim view of screenwriters and writing. Kahane, the screenwriter who’s killed, is quite a bad writer —
I never say he’s a bad writer.
But June [Greta Scacchi] does, and of course what’s read at his funeral, his screenplay about the underclass, which is not in the novel, makes him out to be kind of a ludicrous, comical guy; and the writer who writes the film-within-the-film is quick to sell out his ideas. Now, I know you have had your back-and-forths with writers; you certainly bring a lot of baggage to the movie when it comes to writers.
There are hundreds and hundreds of different kinds of writers and kinds of writing, but in none of them — when it comes to writing for film — are you dealing one-on-one with your work and an individual audience. When you write a short story or an article or a poem or a tome, there’s a line between you and the audience and there is no interference. But the minute you write a play or an opera, where there are other people involved in interpreting and presenting that, you are a collaborator. You may be the main collaborator, but . . . you can take this thesis down to, “Okay, let’s do a film about a circus.” And so I hire Harold Pinter and he writes a thing about a circus. I can say, “I’m the original author of that, because that was my idea to do a thing about a circus.” But there can be a billion different ideas come out of that circus. Now you can go even further with this, and I say, let’s do something with a blind clown who doesn’t want anyone to know that he’s blind. And the guy takes that and writes it. So now, this is more my idea than it is the writer’s. So now I say Paul Newman is going to play this blind clown in the circus, but I need dialogue for one scene when he comes in and they say, “You’re blind, aren’t you?” and for the first time he has to admit that he’s blind, and he says . . . something. And I need someone to write that — I can’t think of anything. And someone writes that one line. They are a writer, but they’re just collaborating in this thing. So who’s the writer? And why does there have to be the writer?
Someone has to get the credit.
The credit, yes, but why — back to this ego thing. Where’s the artist? You go out and say, I was an actor on that picture. Or, I was a writer on that picture. Who made that picture? Sometimes, it’s the star that makes the picture. There’s an imbalance. But it’s never one person. I get the credit for most of my pictures, but that credit is for selecting the people that I collaborated with. So I’m just really a manager. And you can strip me down to having no artistic input whatsoever, other than of selection.
Isn’t that just a bit disingenuous, Bob, that you’re just the guy who comes in and turns on the lights and says go?
It’s very true, though. I think it’s very, very true. It’s just like this mixing thing. [Points across the hallway.] If I were in New York, then these people would all be doing what they thought I would like. This thing would be fine. It would be different than if I was here, but it would be as good or better.
This thing about who does what and who’s who is very confusing. How come actors work with some directors and are good, and work with other directors and are bad? Is that the director’s fault? Is that the actor’s fault? There are a million reasons. So our egos get involved with it, our livelihoods get involved with it . . .
The kind of compendium of complaints by certain writers who have been your collaborators —
I have no sympathy for them!
— that one finds, for instance, in the biography of you [Patrick McGilligan’s Robert Altman: Jumping Off the Cliff]. Where does that come from? They don’t understand the process?
Well, it comes from, it comes from . . . well, the biggest, let’s start with M*A*S*H. If Ring Lardner, Jr., hadn’t written that script, there would have been no way I would have done that picture, because it was one of the worst books I ever read in my life. Talk about sexist, racist —
Hawkish, oh, it was just dreadful. So when I read Lardner’s script, I thought, there is a real side. What I saw in his script were those operations, these guys dying on those operating tables. When I read this, I said, I know how to make this film, because I’d been working five years on another project that used a similar technique. When Ring Lardner saw the first screening of that film in New York, he came out afterwards and he looked at me in the lobby of the theatre, and said, “You’ve ruined my script. Absolutely ruined it. This is not my script. I did not write this!” He was quite put out. When he won the Academy Award for Best Screenplay, he talked about a lot of people and a lot of things — he didn’t say one word about me.
The next film I did, a guy named Billy Cannon wrote an original screenplay called Brewster McCloud, and Lou Adler had bought it, and brought this thing to me. And it was a dreadful piece of work. But there was some wonderful stuff in it, it sparked me, and I said, “I can do this, but I can’t do this screenplay.” So, everybody said fine, go do what you want to do. And I rewrote it while I did it. But in the process of making the deal with Billy Cannon, Lou Adler, as a part of his contract, had to pay a lot more money if someone else got screen credit. So I rewrote that script with lots of other people. There was lots of improvisation. And there was a book published of his screenplay and the transcript of the actual screenplay — some twenty-two-year-old guy wrote about what went on during the making of the picture — and it’ll tell you what it’s all about.
I don’t want you to feel you need to defend yourself on a case-by-case basis —
I’m not, but I’m trying to tell you how this comes about. So Cannon was furious that I was writing on his work. After he saw the picture, and the picture was deemed successful by a certain group, Cannon wrote me a letter and said, “I really like what I saw, I think we can work together again.”
Other than that, McCabe and Mrs. Miller was a book. I wrote the screenplay for McCabe. Nashville was written by Joan Tewkesbury, certainly, and myself. She was there all the time. I have writers on the set whenever I can. A Wedding, Quintet, A Perfect Couple — all kinds of films — I always have writers. I have two writers that worked on The Player that nobody knows about. The only reason that Michael Tolkin [the novel’s author] and I didn’t have a big blowout on this thing was ‘cause of Tolkin’s sensibility. He had written a screenplay. I said, “I want this to go in a different direction.” And finally, I said, “The only way I can do this picture is to collaborate with your material, but I can’t collaborate directly with you.” He said, “Okay, I’m your producer.” And he stepped back. I don’t think I could have done that. And I made changes in his book, his material, the stuff he had written, which was the only way I could see how to drive it for myself. And that is going to happen forever.
And Harold Pinter. I did two Harold Pinter plays. Harold Pinter hates my guts because I changed the number on the door from 7 to 73 because I found a set that was already existing.
I did The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial — Herman Wouk — and I got the nicest letter I’ve ever had from anybody, and he said, “It’s the first time anybody, including myself, ever really got what my play was about.”
I know — you’re a writer, and I know how you think and I know how I think. And if I write, and I give it to somebody and they change the goddamn thing, I am furious, I am furious about it.
It depends what the understandings are.
Yeah, but the understandings are mostly economic. Or they are career moves. I doubt that in most cases the writers who have disagreed with me — Ring Lardner, etcetera — would turn around and say, “If you’re going to do that to my thing, you can’t do it.” The problem is, we’re using this word “writer,” which is what throws everybody off. A writer and a screenwriter are two different things. And I think if anything I’m probably more of a writer than I am a director. Because I do very little directing, and I do a lot of writing.
Go on with that. Tell me more.
Most of my directing — I don’t direct people. It’s a misnomer. I’m just calling the shots. I’m the one who says, “We have to start here today, and we end here, and we’re going to do this now,” or I can say, “We’re not going to shoot that.” In Vincent and Theo, in the sunflower scene, where he destroys the painting in the field of sunflowers: I drove by that field every day, and one day I said, “We got to go out and shoot that.” Now, is that writing or is that directing? Julian Mitchell, who wrote the screenplay for Vincent and Theo, went along with everything I did and said, “Oh Bob, it’s wonderful,” hating every minute of it — but economically, he wouldn’t have gotten his picture made [if he didn’t]. And in the end, he got drunk and he said, “I want my name off of this picture, you’ve destroyed it, this isn’t what I wrote” (which is true), and he’s having a terrible time with himself. Because he’s made these contradictory statements, he doesn’t know what he wants.
The point is, he didn’t invent Vincent Van Gogh. He wrote a script. And I wish people would read these scripts sometimes! I wish the audience would go ahead and read the scripts — and that’s not to punish the writer or to say, “See what a great job I did with this script!” It’s that no script is taken and translated directly to the film, and when it is, these films are terrible. You can tell it immediately.
And in theatre, when you go buy your Samuel French version of a play, that’s not what the author wrote; that’s what the actors, through rehearsal, and the director, and the writer, have sat there and rewritten. Most of the dialogue in “Fool for Love,” for Eddie, was written by Ed Harris [not Sam Shepard]. Dialogue isn’t necessarily writing, it’s part of a process. This thing will never get ended.
I want to talk about your body of work. One of the things that strikes me is something that’s not there. And that’s the presence of the erotic. It’s almost remarkable by its absence. What do you think accounts for this?
Well, I’m not aware of that. I never really thought of that before. I don’t know. Maybe I’m not capable. Maybe I just don’t do that. Maybe it’s something . . . obviously all that I show you reflects my personality and all I see. I don’t know. I thought the scene I did, the lovemaking scene in The Player, was erotic.
For you, given the landscape of your work, that’s pretty demonstrably erotic. Maybe not for other films Greta Scacchi has been in. I don’t know if it’s because of your Catholic upbringing in the Midwest, or —
I don’t know. But I tell you, primarily, most of what anybody does, is imitating. I imitate the things that I like and admire. I’m showing you what I like to see. And maybe I don’t like that. Maybe I’m embarrassed by this.
I think it’s true for Coppola as well, and he said something interesting: that maybe in inverse proportion to how important eros is in your private life, you can depict it in cinema. The more important it is, the less comfortable you are in presenting it.
Well, you can say it’s in inverse proportion or in direct proportion. Each theory is just as valid. I don’t know. Maybe he’s lying to you, or to himself.
Well, you certainly, personally, don’t have a reputation of being someone uncomfortable about sex. While there are certainly sexual situations in the films — I’m not saying they’re prudish — they’ve never been comfortable with nudity, even in the seventies, when nudity was accepted. You really went against the grain.
Are you sure?
Yeah, I think so. I’m sure. Even in those situations when you do show nudity — like the shower scene in M*A*S*H or the painful striptease in Nashville — it seems you’re much more interested in depicting how you felt women were being depicted by our society, rather than delectating over them yourself.
[Pause.] That’s all I can think of to show. I don’t know a circumstance. I can’t think of a circumstance. I’m trying to think of something erotic? Whatever Francis does or whatever I do is a reflection of what we think is right. Eroticism for me ties more into voyeurism than participation. When you get into participation, suddenly the element of showing and watching doesn’t enter into it. Very few people have their friends pull up a chair in their bedrooms to watch them fuck, and have a cup of coffee. Very few people. So it’s not a natural condition.
The simplest answer is that it makes me uncomfortable. And in most cases, when I use nudity, I have a different attitude about it. A lot depends on what the person performing that will give you. I think of those scenes in Alan Parker’s Angel Heart, some of those scenes with Lisa Bonet and Mickey Rourke — I don’t think I could have ever done those scenes.
Where’s the discomfort?
I don’t know. It doesn’t occur to me. I ask the actors and what they will show me, I’ll photograph. That’s back to the documentary kind of approach.
It’s ironic, because in The Player you’re dealing with an actress who’s become known for being comfortable with her nudity, and sexual situations.
Well, she’s comfortable with her nudity but during this picture she sure wasn’t.
She’s probably trying to get away from that.
Oh, she is. She hates it. You know, there’s some show in England where they use those puppets — political things — and they made her one of the characters along with Reagan and Thatcher, and she’s sitting around saying, “Oh, Dickie” — Richard Attenborough — “Oh, Dickie, when do I get to take my clothes off?” So she doesn’t want to do that stuff. But I have to do a certain amount of sex in this film, because it’s obligatory, because it’s a film. But my whole point is to never show her nude. Which is why the girl who played Bonnie Sherow [Cynthia Stevenson], when I cast her, I said, “It’s very important that you be nude in the hot tub for this scene.” And she said, “No one ever asked me to be nude before.” And I said, “I want it for just that reason.” Because I want to give them the nudity — but I don’t want to give them the nudity that they think they’re going to see. Paul Newman’s comment, after seeing the picture, was, “You don’t get to see the tits you want to see, and you get to see the ones you don’t want to see.” And that was really the idea!
[Pause.] I think the erotic in film is a very tough situation. If you literally do arouse a sexual feeling, really arouse erectile tissue in an audience, and then, if it isn’t relieved, we move on to the chase, and you’re sitting there in your seat, and there’s this other thing going on: the blood is still pounding in your temple, and you’re not going to concentrate on what you’re supposed to. So I’ve got a lot of questions about that.
You’re known for having a healthy sexual appetite, throughout your career.
Well, yeah, but I’ve been married three times, and to Kathryn for thirty-two years, and that’s most of my career. If you’re implicating . . . if you’re talking of me being a promiscuous carouser, it probably isn’t as true as you think it is.
I’m going on what you’ve said in the past.
Or what’s been said that I’ve said.
There’s the famous quote, “I just giggle and give in.”
Well, I like to say that.
Speaking of promiscuous — there’s a nice transition — I’d like to talk about the more formal aspects of your craft. Let’s look at a couple of Altman conventions: the overlapping sound, the zoom and reverse zoom, a disjointed or open narrative, the stuffed frame, and this kind of camera that “plays around,” if we want to think of it in a promiscuous way, as opposed to focusing on — or valorizing, which is the code word now — the star, in iconic closeup. Do these things feel integral to you in your experience of your own films?
Well, they’re the way that I like to make films. If somebody says, “You’re going to make a film about a private eye,” I say, okay, I’m going to show you what a private eye really is. It’s not going to be the private eye you think it’s going to be. If I make a film about a cowboy, it’s not going to be about the cowboy you think it is. Or the banker, or the doctor, or whatever.
This camera thing — I love that, promiscuous camera, I love that. It’s just a way, if people have a tradition, if people have a given — like if I say “whore,” certain images flash in everybody’s mind, so a lot of my work is done. A lot of my work is finished. Just by me saying “whore.” So now, I go in there and I can say, “You’re wrong about whores. Because this is also what a whore is, and this, and this.” So I’m breaking down your preset ideas. And that’s consciously done, because it interests me, and not for any other reason. I don’t set out to make a genre-breaking film, but that certainly interests me.
Yeah, take McCabe. If I had not used Warren Beatty, if I had used an unknown actor as McCabe, that picture could not have been done the way it was done. I would have needed more information up front. But the minute you know it’s Warren Beatty on that horse, you got preset ideas about him. I use that. That’s part of my storytelling.
I don’t think this promiscuous camera is any different. You know the camera is supposed to do a certain thing. If nobody had ever seen a movie and I took and I showed you any of my films, they would be horrendous. You couldn’t follow them. But you’ve learned how to look at films by looking at films, and television. And now we’re learning how to fracture more. The audience has that information. But if you start showing this to a strange audience, to a bunch of desert people out there in Iraq who have never seen a film before, they don’t know what the fuck is going on. I mean, how can the rat be the size of an elephant? And the other thing is, we learned during World War II in teaching pilots how to fly an airplane that if you put sixty-four images on the screen at the same time, each with a different thing going on, the retention rate is greater than if you show them literally one image at a time.
Part of all of this that we’re talking about has to do with what we call instinct. What it really is, is using all of your senses and all of your information. That’s what we call hunches. And that’s why I think the studios are going down the tubes. Nobody can follow their hunch. The little man inside of them can’t tell them something. That is valid judgment: to say, “Jesus Christ, it just feels this way to me.” You’re getting information from everything. And you’re probably closer to being correct, because you have all that judgment, than somebody who sits down and figures it out line by line.
Do you feel there’s a politics to your style, to the style itself?
You mean, am I using it politically?
Whether you feel that there’s a political bias in the structural way in which you order a film, or disorder it, as the case may be. The tradition in the criticism of your work is that by decentralizing the hero, the icon, and by concentrating on the periphery, and by flattening the playing field, the work is intrinsically democratic, left-leaning, less hierarchical.
Oh yeah, I think it’s more . . . subversive. It’s not revolutionary, but it’s subversive.
What do you think you’re subverting when you say your films are subversive?
Uh, set ideas. Fixed theses. Platitudes. Things that say: this is this. Commandments. Attitudes, Those kinds of things. I’m saying: it’s not true. It’s true, but it’s not.
What gave you such a passion for debunkment?
I have no idea. I have absolutely no idea at all. It’s just what interested me, and I’m talking after the fact. It’s not like I sat around thirty years ago and said, “Ah, this is what I’m going to do.” I’m trying to debunk myself as much as I’m debunking somebody else. Once again, everything builds on experience. Experience is just practice. Burning yourself on the hot stove. You don’t do it again. Maybe you’re making a terrible mistake. Maybe that stove was only hot once.
So you’re like the general fighting the last war.
Fifteen years ago you claimed your films were essentially all about one thing: striving, cultural and social striving. I’d like you to reflect on that, with fifteen years’ hindsight.
I don’t know. If I said that today, I’d believe it. It sounds logical, reasonable. Striving has a lot to do with it, that’s a good word. I probably wouldn’t say it the same way today, but what I would say today probably means the same thing.
[Altman reads a personal letter while the tape rolls, glances at The New York Times, then tears up the letter.] Okay.
Okay. Before M*A*S*H you said you were “comfortable with failure.” What did you mean by that?
Yes, I was. What I meant was that I was comfortable in my life, not having attained my own goals. I was happy. And I was doing lots of television and I had work and I could feed my family and buy party favors and life was okay.
With your having been in that place, I’m wondering what the big success of M*A*S*H did?
The success, or the surprise, of M*A*S*H gave me the power to do other things, and to stretch a lot more. Brewster McCloud is a picture that would never have been made had it not been made by someone like myself who nobody would interfere with. And the only reason they won’t interfere with you is if you’ve had a previous success. This is true for all of us, Cronenberg and Soderbergh and Lynch. Everybody gets to do their own thing once they’ve kind of proved themselves. That gave me the power to make pictures that would have otherwise gone unmade. The mistake that you make in terms of corporal success is to stretch too far, and then many of these things — most of these things — are not acceptable to the audience, to a mass audience. So then you fall out of favor. It swings back and forth.
If not for the limitation on your freedom to keep making the pictures you want to make, would you care whether it was acceptable to a mass audience or not?
No. First of all, I wouldn’t know what to do if I was going to set out to make a film that I even think is going to work for a mass audience. Usually I say, “I hope it works for a mass audience,” but I am invariably kidding myself. My choices on who should be the president never agree with the mass audience. That’s always going to happen with any artist. We fool ourselves in thinking that if you are an established artist — Picasso, let’s say — you are popular. Picasso is the leading artist of the century, but he is certainly not popular. He is very popular amongst a very small number of people; the other people don’t even know about him, or they know the name — he’s a celebrity, not an artist.
One of your associates once said you were “ennobled by failure, and oppressed by success.”
Well, that’s another one of those nice statements that sounds good.
Is there any internal truth to that?
I think that’s almost a truism for everybody. Failure — the word failure — implies an effort. You don’t fail without trying. So that’s noble. The effort is noble. And success is very dangerous because it leads to complacence. And the reason you can’t have continued success in this kind of endeavor is because you strive to push beyond what you just did. I want to be more clever, more obtuse, more . . . I’m trying to show everybody who likes what I do something they’ve never seen before. So it’s very difficult. If the second thing is a bigger success than the first, then on the third thing I’ll push way out and then I’ll fail, and I’ll be forced back down to a plane that is understandable.
Well, if that’s oppression, that’s a very creative form of oppression.
Well, yeah. Absolutely.
Most people of my generation, I’m thirty-three, would be shocked to know that you were forty-five when you made M*A*S*H.
Forty-four. That’s because everybody is youth-oriented.
Right. And the fifteen years you spent in Hollywood before that, doing mostly the TV work, what did that leave you with?
A lot of practice, a lot of rehearsal, a lot of study. I mean, I did hundreds of hours of television, and every bit of that is stored in my computer, as experience, to be used each time. It gave me a great edge on people who direct pictures, who are directing their first film, let’s say an actor or writer. I had practice under adverse circumstances, I had practice working short of time and money, I had practice working for people who don’t care about quality and I learned how to “sneak” it in. You learn how to work underground.
Was it at all an embittering experience, running into that wall, again and again?
No, never. Never. Never. When I first looked at the wall and said, “I’m going to go up and batter against it,” I never had any idea of how long it was supposed to take. Time is relative. And being relative, who’s to say it was a long time? You say it was a long time because you’re thirty-three and I was forty-four when I made that picture. To me, what am I, sixty-six today? — it doesn’t make any difference to me. I don’t feel any different. I mean, I’m starting to realize that my body is wearing out, and things like that are happening, but I’m not any different than I was when I was thirty-three. I’m more experienced.
Did you have the expectation that you would succeed in doing what you wanted to do?
I never pictured myself at the end of any road. I mean, I’ve always been on the road, and I still am on the road. How could I envision myself? As some kind of king or something? Or sitting someplace where I could do any caprice, anything I wanted? I wouldn’t know how to envision myself.
You once said that there’s never been a time in your life when you weren’t in debt. Is that still true?
Do you set things up to be that way?
No, but I don’t try to . . . I don’t store money away. I never feel or think that I can’t handle whatever it is I have to handle, one way or another, on a day-to-day basis. And I’ve lived all my life that way. So I have no . . . what can happen to me? [Quietly.] I’m not going to starve. I’m not in danger of being a homeless person. Although that could happen, I’m sure. Being in debt means you just borrow from the bank. If I don’t go to work in a few months, it will be very uncomfortable for me. I’ll have to do something. So I’ll take a job. I’ll take some kind of assignment. And every time I’ve done that (which is constantly) something very, very good has come out of it. The assignment has turned into some kind of a very, very good experience for me. Whether it’s a successful experience in terms of somebody else’s yardstick is a different thing.
But, if I had played safe and done things, protected myself, and say, had $10 million in the bank working for me, and was totally secure, well, so what? What does that do to my life? It doesn’t mean anything.
Theoretically, maybe it gives you the freedom to turn down a job you don’t want to do?
Well, I turn down the job I don’t want to do until I can’t turn it down. On the other hand, if I could turn down forever, maybe I’d be like Warren Beatty or these people who go every five years and make a picture, when they find one that’s exactly right. And I think maybe that’s a little too safe. And I think it’s too dangerous. And when I see that everything is very safe, I think the picture’s going to turn out just that way, as well. So I think it isn’t any fun for me unless it’s a real stretch, a real uphill climb, unless I’m doing something that I don’t think can be done.
You’ve said, “If I could just say, ‘Call the bank and tell them I wanted $12 million . . . make it $16 million to do this picture,’ well, that would be ugly and horrendous because there’s no opposition. There’s no struggle. I mean, I have to have these obstacles to fight against or else it’s not worth doing.”
Isn’t trying to make something that’s artful, that’s great art, isn’t that obstacle enough? You say “it’s not worth doing” unless you have the opposition, from the financing sources, the banks, the studios —
L.A. Shortcuts is my current pet project, which I cannot get the money for. If suddenly I won the lottery and had $12 million and could do it myself, I would do that, because there would be a certain amount of adventure and derring-do to take my own money and do it. But if somebody came along and said, “Here’s $30 million, make it for $30 million,” that picture would be terrible. Because I could wait, and I wouldn’t have that anxiety and that edge that I think is needed — that I at least think I need — in order to be creative. That’s why I feel I can’t work, or create anything, under drugs or alcohol or anything that changes my condition. I can’t make it easy for myself. I have to really face the reality of it, and do my fantasy, but within a very hard reality.
So you wouldn’t want the kind of situation that Woody Allen had for years at Orion, where he could do whatever project he wanted, within reason. That would not have been a healthy situation for you.
No, I would have liked it, if I was always pushing, and they gave me $10 million when I needed $12 million. But I think it hurt Woody Allen. I think there’s a certain complacency in that. I think he begins to fall into similar situations, although I admire Woody Allen immensely, because I think he’s one of the few people that operates as an artist. But I think the same thing happens to Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns — they can do anything that they choose to put the energy into.
Let’s say I have a picture, and I can either put unknowns in it and scramble it through, or put in Dustin Hoffman and Robin Williams and Julia Roberts and Bob Hoskins and all those people. If you can have everything you want, there’s something, there’s some energy, some drive that disappears. That war, that struggle, where you have to gamble and you have to fight, to push through; out of that, it seems to me, the best art comes.
You mentioned drugs and booze. Would those things make it easier for you to work, and that’s why you say you —
No, I say I couldn’t do that. I mean, in that book that that kid wrote [McGilligan’s Robert Altman] there were several places where he indicated I would come into work drunk. And it just is not true. I’ve never had a drink in my body in my life when I’ve worked. The last shot of every day, the crew would know it was the last shot, ‘cause they would see someone bringing me a glass of wine. And I know people who do work on grass — millions of musicians do that. But I can’t do it, because . . . I’m gone. There’s something about being there with your feet wet in a very hard reality. The minute your obligations and decisions are finished, then you can get as wasted as you want.
Have you ever used alcohol or pot — not when you were shooting — but when you were writing, or in collaboration, working on something?
No. I mean, I’ve certainly been drunk and stoned and sat around and talked about things, but that’s a different thing.
Around Nashville, you said, “I work a lot when I’m drunk and I trust that all of it will eventually appear in my films.”
What I mean is, when I’m drunk or when I’m stoned, I’m talking and I’m thinking about things, and I was that way most of my life. At the end of the day, I don’t sit around sober in the evenings, unless I’m working. What I mean by that is that I’m working all that time — coming up with wild ideas and having arguments and discussions and blah blah blah. But I’ve never sat down at the typewriter and written anything, or never edited or done any altering when I was in an altered state. Whenever I say “never” there’s always an exception. I’m sure I could find many times when it was the opposite of that, but not when something can’t be reversed.
That again has to do with my own personal situation. All the time, the forty-five or fifty years I was drinking heavily — I say heavily and I did, I was a very heavy drinker — I never drank at lunchtime. I couldn’t do it. It’s not any moral judgment or anything, it’s just simply like putting on a blindfold. I’ve never done it. But these kind of statements come out and it indicates that I’m floundering around on the set, saying do this and do that when I’m chemicaled out, and I’ve never done that.
I think smoking grass, for the many years that I’ve done that, probably the first fifteen or twenty minutes of getting stoned, some very, very creative ideas have come out. And we’ve held onto them, and executed them.
So in that sense, you think it had a positive effect on your work?
Oh, absolutely. It’s my life. It’s the way I live my life. The way I live my life is the only thing that has any effect on my work.
When did you stop drinking heavily?
About three years ago, heavily. And it’s been about a year and a half that I haven’t had any alcohol at all.
Yeah, it’s my heart. My heart is enlarged. So I just stopped. I still smoke grass when I can. That’s medically advisable. And I sometimes turn around, spin around the room to make myself dizzy. Try to change my temperature.
Was it painful to stop?
No, just boring. Not painful at all.
How’s your health now?
Uh, it’s okay. My eyesight is getting bad. I have a problem with my right eye. That’s aggravating as hell, but it doesn’t look like I’m going to be really handicapped by that. There’s certain things I have to watch. My heart.
The years 1975 to 1985 were really the cocaine years in Hollywood —
I’m wondering what was going on for you in those years?
Well, fortunately for me, I never liked coke. I don’t like it. It didn’t work for me. It made me very paranoid and made me feel very bad, and so I never got addicted. I can get addicted to anything, but I never did that. And it was just something I was lucky to have sidestepped. And also, during those ten years, I wasn’t here very much. I was in Europe most of the time. But I have a lot of friends — the ones that didn’t die — who were really destroyed by cocaine. Certainly a lot of artists were.
I used to go to those parties, like when we were shooting Brewster McCloud and through all that period, and there would be sugar bowls full of cocaine. My only reason for not participating in all that was that I just didn’t like it. That was just fortunate. Because my personality is such that I would have become the cocaine addict of all time. My only experience with drugs, really, is marijuana and alcohol, and I suppose coffee, and years ago I smoked cigarettes.
You did opium a few times, didn’t you?
No, never. Never. Never.
So that was misreported?
Absolutely. When we were shooting McCabe, my daughter was begging me to do opium. But I never had the opportunity.
It’s become a cliché here, but do you feel you have an addictive personality?
Well, I think I have an excessive personality. I don’t know if I’m addictive. I’m excessive.
Was the gambling on the same level as the drinking?
Well, it was on the level of the drinking, but I was never a gamble-oholic. In other words, I never lost a day’s work from gambling or drinking, or any of those things. I’ve never stolen any money, I’ve never misappropriated, I’ve never lost any money, I’ve never put my family in any jeopardy or friends or anything like that. So whatever I did, in terms of that kind of recreation, all of my life, it’s never gotten to the point where it’s been damaging to anybody else. That is not to say that my behavior hadn’t been damaging to other people, and probably a lot that I don’t even know about, but I don’t consider that an issue of any kind.
Was gambling something that brought you, or brings you, a lot of joy?
No. It just was something to do. It’s something to do. I gamble at backgammon. I played football and baseball with the bookies for two or three or five years. Lost a measly amount of money. I don’t do that any more. I quit that a couple of years ago just because I started feeling silly. I started feeling like a fool: why am I putting so much energy into this? I’m as involved with the football playoffs this year and the World Series as I ever have been, but not gambling.
All this stuff — the gambling, sex, drinking, drugs — all this has been put in some kind of category that these are all the bad things.
Well, let’s correct that.
It’s bullshit. Because they are not bad things. They can hurt people, but so can obesity. It’s just, how you conduct your life and how you conduct your art is really your own choice. And these things I say about what I do, I’m telling you what I find from experience works for me and what doesn’t work for me. That doesn’t mean that’s applicable for other artists. Or that’s what Alan Rudolph does or David Lynch does. I don’t much care what they do.
No, David collects body parts in fluid.
Well, okay. [Laughs.] Whatever it is, is fine, as long as he’s not collecting my fluid!
Do you feel like Hollywood has changed in twenty years?
I think it’s basically the same thing, it’s just slid more. The power has been taken away from more people and the bottom line has become more strongly the power. I don’t know anybody who runs any of these studios who could make a decision about what to put their money into and what not to who will follow their instincts.
Their avaricious instincts or their artistic instincts?
Their artistic instincts. Just to have a feeling, a hunch. Nobody follows hunches anymore. It’s marketing, it’s market research. And it works. They’ve figured out how to make a bad picture like Robin Hood go out there and generate big grosses by the way they market it, the kind of cartoon that it is. But so what? And now everybody is trying to do the same thing on all the pictures. You’re considered not a success if you don’t win the whole thing. So we’ve got films out there like Ramblin’ Rose in direct competition with Terminator 2. That’s all there is to it. The critics say the same things about them. It’s like taking a Harold Robbins book or a Danielle Steele book and comparing it to an E. L. Doctorow book. I mean, they’re both books, so consequently both have to achieve the same thing. It’s just terrible what we do. It’s all based on money. It’s all based on how we measure, and not by the money you spend or how you increase your standard of living, but it’s the money which says you’re the most important because you’ve made the most. It’s chips. It’s markers at the table.
Hasn’t it always been that way? Isn’t that the American way?
It’s become that way, it’s become so refined at this point that there’s not any room for any mistakes. The only good things that ever came out are in the mistakes. Every film that was a breakthrough film — that changed the way films are made, and changed the way audiences see films, that has affected audiences and changed them — has been an accident. Easy Rider, M*A*S*H, Five Easy Pieces — those are pictures that should not have succeeded. They were never backed. And you can probably name twenty-five other ones that were real benchmarks that changed things. The point is that different kinds of things do get made, and will continue to get made, but now, totally by mistake. It will be a total accident.
Were the old moguls better than the new moguls?
Absolutely. Because the old moguls had control and they had passion and they had hate. They could say, “I’m gonna burn this goddamn picture! This actor is never going to work again! That actor can go to another studio!” And then the other studio would make a big hit. It wasn’t computerized. And now it is. You don’t know, now, who is the boss at Columbia? Really? You don’t know, and nobody can find out. It’s a Japanese corporation. And maybe there isn’t any person anymore that is the boss.
Maybe it’s an accountant, sitting somewhere in some office.
Undoubtedly it is. Undoubtedly it is. So Hollywood has changed. I think the people working in Hollywood have changed. Everybody is playing by the rules — all the young people that come in all talk in this vein. I hear them, in my own office, talking about “concepts” and “marketing research” and putting this star with that star in this kind of a story, and happy endings — it’s all what The Player is about. And it’s dreadful! It’s really dreadful! And that doesn’t mean that it will succeed and the artist won’t, because the artist will succeed. Because they keep growing and appealing and are not corruptible.
Twenty years ago did the executives like movies more than the executives do today?
Yes. I think so. Not a hell of a lot. But a little bit. Forty years ago, certainly. Thirty years ago, more so.
So maybe the old boy network, by comparison, doesn’t look as bad now as it did at the time?
No, there was some humanism in it. They may not have made the pictures that you and I would have liked, but they made the pictures that they liked — and that’s something.
And now they are making the films, not that they like, but that they think the sixteen-year-old at the mall will?
That’s right. That’s exactly what they have to do. A guy like Brandon Tartikoff has come out and said that. And that’s his business, if that’s the business he wants to do. But he’s wrong, because what they don’t know is that people tire of this stuff and they catch on very quickly. I’m sure if you make a Hook every year, it’s going to disappear.
Does the audience really want to see something that they haven’t seen before, or have they been so manipulated by now that what they want to see is what they’ve already seen, again and again?
No, that’s all they can tell you that they want to see, because that’s all they have in their experience. The audience will never sit there and say, “We want to see something we haven’t seen before.” But that is what they want to see. They want to be surprised. They also want some familiarity — it’s comfortable to be familiar, it’s comfortable to see Gene Hackman in a picture.
The part Hollywood gets wrong is that they are trying to service an existing market with the same material, rather than trying to create new markets. They’re not doing that, which is why you have all these numbers after all of the titles. You take a clipboard and go out to one of these lines where they’re lined up on Westwood Boulevard and say, “What movie would you like to see most?” And they will tell you a movie they have already seen. Because they can’t tell you a movie they haven’t seen. What actors do you want to see? Oh, I want to see Julia Roberts. They want to see someone that pleased them before. They don’t know that there are six thousand actresses in the world that could please them more.
Cronenberg’s take on this is that art gives you what you don’t know you want, while entertainment gives you what you already know you want.
Well, that’s true. But I don’t know how much art there is in this and I don’t know how much entertainment there is in this — it’s become more. I think the big problem is that the audience knows too much about the manufacturing of it now. They know too much of people like me talking, there’s too much bookkeeping — this picture cost $43 million, and this picture grossed such and such — I can’t pick up the fucking paper or turn on the television without finding out what the “number-one picture of the week” is. And that’s just free advertising for the wrong movie. It’s them that has the most gets the most, and gets the most gets more.
Nothing succeeds like success.
Yeah. But it will fail. It is destined to fail. It cannot succeed.
Vincent Van Gogh says to brother Theo, “Don’t tell me there’s no market for my work, it’s your job to make a market.”
That’s exactly right.
And I know you resist identifying with Van Gogh —
Because it’s such a cheap shot. And also, it puts me in a position of equating myself with that sort of quality.
But if you’re really honest, you’ve got to identify with him, on a number of important levels.
I identify with him more than I do . . . with Gaugin. Sure, I do. Because I know what his struggle is, and it’s basically the same struggle that all artists go through. They want somebody to appreciate what they’ve done.
But if they’re making a market for your work — that’s marketing. And there’s going to be some discomfort in that, isn’t there?
There’s all kinds of marketing. I guess basically it comes down to not underestimating the audience. Which most of these guys do. They say, “Oh, I like this, but everybody else won’t.” As soon as somebody tells you that, you’re dealing with a fool, the minute they say they get it but nobody else will. They don’t get it, is what they mean. Everybody is not equal. Certain people are not going to enjoy a Kurosawa film, certain people are. Certain people aren’t going to “get” one of my films, certain people are. And the intention is not to get all of these people. It’s there for all these people; it’s up to them to make the effort, not for me to make the effort. They have to make the effort. They have to be educated. I mean, my own editor for this picture, she just said, “Gee, I rented The Long Goodbye last night, and I didn’t like that picture when it first came out, but it’s really good.” Well, the picture hasn’t changed one bit. She’s changed.
You’ve spoken about trying to “train an audience,” trying to bring an audience along with you —
Absolutely. This work doesn’t exist unless an audience is half of it. If they come there and sit in front of their sets or in the theatre, and they don’t go halfway with you, and take the material in front of them and process it through their own history, it’s meaningless. Ideally, I want someone to walk out after one of my pictures and say, “I don’t have any idea what that was about, but it was right.”
Well, if they think it’s right, doesn’t that mean it just confirms what they already walked into the theatre with?
They can’t literally explain why it’s right. It’s like looking at a painting that you’re just in awe of. There are a lot of people that have never been in awe of any painting. ’Cause they don’t allow themselves to be. Who’s to say that the greatest poet in the world isn’t the person who goes up and whispers one word into somebody’s ear? And it startles them. It changes them. It scrambles their information. It augments or changes all the information they have. That’s a poet.
So for you, the lack of articulation by the audience is a sign not of their passivity, but that they had an experience that they cannot place well?
That they cannot delineate to someone else. They only know that it fits. It’s like a color.
And in time?
In time, yes, they learn that, but they have to do the learning. We can’t teach. You can only allow someone to learn. That’s what most teaching is: allowing someone to learn.
Did those hundreds of TV episodes and industrials before them make you intolerant of linearity, of cause and effect? Did all that nuts-and-bolts work propel you into a milieu where what you valued more would be oblique, or opaque, or not so definable?
I don’t know. Maybe it did. But I know the films that I was impressed by during the time I was making those industrial films, and they are the same films I am impressed by now. I was trying to do something to emulate those things. I was trying to do something like that. Everything is a lesson. Every single thing you perceive stays in your computer, and becomes mixed and tainted by every other thing you’ve learned. Like a pond. You put in some red ink, and it affects every other thing there. We’re all very, very similar, but none of us are the same. If somebody’s mother dies — everybody feels exactly the same way, more or less. There’s a certain amount of universal reaction. Now there are some people who might have killed their mothers.
We have communication, which the Bengal tiger doesn’t have as completely. A Bengal tiger walks through a rain forest at sunset, and this fantastic light comes through the mist, and a parrot calls out, and the colored light is just so. He doesn’t ran home and say to the rest of the tigers, “Hey, you’ve got to see this sunset.” I don’t think they do that. But people do. And they go so far as to paint them. And they paint them for two reasons. One, they’re amazed at their own skill of being able to do it. They’re proud of their own skill, and they want approval from other people, to tell them how good they are at what they do. But also, they just love that sunset and think it’s beautiful and want to show it to someone else. And all of those elements enter into art.
What fascinates you most about people?
The absolute differences between each individual and yet the sameness of them. I think of ants. I stand and see a little ant hill, and see a line of ants. And that’s people. And every once in a while, you see one little ant that gets out of line — you see one of them out there, about an inch from the main line. In the main line, these guys are crawling on top of one another and some of them are hooking rides maybe. And the one that goes out by himself, usually he gets stepped on. They don’t get out very far. But that’s Picasso, and Einstein, and Hitler . . .
And the Altman ant?
The Altman ant is in the middle. Well, hopefully, I’m over to one of the edges of the main stream.
But not so far out that you’ll feel someone’s heel?
Well, I’ve never been out that far. If I get out that far I’ll get stepped on.
How do you think of yourself?
I think pretty highly of myself, I think. I know that each individual is the center of the entire universe. And everything else spins around them. So everything that has ever happened in my life, in my experience, spins around me. But I’m spinning around somebody else. And I think that all my children think about is me, and all my wife thinks about is me, and everything is based on me, and I’m absolutely incorrect about that. I’m the only one who only thinks about me.
You’re supposed to get past that stage at four or five — you’re supposed to learn that the moon is not actually following you when you drive at night in a car.
Yeah, but you’re stuck with where you are — you are stuck inside of yourself. And consequently, you are dealing with your own experiences. And with pain, you can deal with your own pain, and you can empathize with someone else’s pain, and you can make pain for yourself because you feel so bad about that person’s pain, but it’s not the same pain. It’s a different pain.
Do you think everyone is lonely, essentially?
Yeah, in a way. I think everyone is basically alone. I think everyone experiences that. When you’re not alone, you say, “Oh I’m so lonesome, I want to be with someone else.” What does that mean? Does that mean you want to share what you know with someone else? Do you want them to share what they know with you? Or do you just want them to cater to you? I think being alone is really dreadful. I don’t like to be alone. I much prefer to be with people.
It strikes me that in your work, the most personal of your films are the ones that most strongly convey the sense not that we are connected, but how we are cut off from each other. I think of McCabe and Mrs. Miller. So much of that film is about what doesn’t happen between them.
That’s right. That’s right. McCabe is about a loser. The only reason McCabe is the person you associate with in that film is because he’s the one I pointed you at: “Oh, look at this one.” It’s like putting the tag on a dolphin. You catch a bunch of dolphins. Okay, let’s tag one. Now we follow that dolphin, all the way to Japan and back. God, look what he did! He killed a shark over here, and he did this and did that. But we don’t know what those other dolphins did — they probably did something very similar, and we probably could have been just as interested in them. It’s pretty much the same as what I was saying about ourselves: the world centered around McCabe. In The Player, it’s around Griffin [Tim Robbins].
Going back to Kansas City, what did growing up surrounded by women do to you?
I don’t have any idea. Except it was a fact. I suppose I became manipulative, and comfortable with women, and not threatened by them.
Well. [Pause.] I think that’s probably what people do like that. I’m sure I’m a much different person than if I had grown up with two brothers. It may not be discernible in my personality, but it certainly is discernible in my art. Not that as a specific thing, but anything that happened to me. Those are my basic chips. Nobody else can be me. And every experience that happens, every crossroads, the weather, whether it rained a certain night and didn’t rain another night, somewhere is buried in this sphere that grows, that is you.
You’ve certainly been willing to give women more focus in your films than most directors of your generation.
I have, but I’ve never done that consciously, and I don’t know why. I don’t have any idea.
Why did you get married the first two times you did?
I got married because that’s what you did. I mean, that was a progression, a goal. And I wanted to have children, and a wife, and a family, and I was in love with the person that I married. It’s what everybody else did.
So you pretty much bought into the program?
Oh, I buy right into it. I’m very mainstream.
But you weren’t fit for what comes with that, were you?
No, I think I romanticized. I had no realistic attitude about it. I can hardly even remember what my feelings or attitudes were. These were just things that happened.
If we were in for a session of Chinese Communist self-criticism, what would you say were your greatest weaknesses?
Probably egocentrism. I’m probably self-oriented. I probably misrepresent myself. I’m probably one of those people that think I know more than I actually do. All the normal things.
And as a director, your greatest strengths and weaknesses?
I don’t know. I think that has to do with the other parties involved. I have worked with many many actors. I know that actors basically like me. Generally. I know there are some actors that don’t like me at all, and I know there are actors that I can’t communicate with. I am saying things and I am looking in their eyes and I can see that they don’t “get it.” That doesn’t mean they’re wrong, because I’ve seen their work, and they’re terrific. But there are some people that you just cannot connect with. That’s a lack, I think. Again, all the things I think are weaknesses about people are their own insecurities and trying to cover up for them.
Is it fair to say you have a problem with endings, or that endings are a problem for you?
But that’s not a problem, that’s a blessing.
Let’s put the word “problem” in quotes.
I don’t do satisfactory endings because I don’t think anything stops. The only ending I know about is death.
The ultimate “cut.”
Death is, to me, the only ending. People say I don’t know how to do an ending. I probably don’t know how to do that well. I don’t think that well. I probably wouldn’t like a good ending if it were presented to me — I’d probably reject it.
One of the frequent themes in your work is the space between image and reality, or the way we lie about ourselves. So I’m curious as to how you would assess the separation between your image — how you present yourself or have been presented to the public — and your reality.
It’s probably the same as everybody else’s. I present myself according to the existing circumstance. I try to be comfortable, and hold my position of power with whoever I’m dealing with.
How are you like Nixon?
How am I like Nixon?
How are you like Nixon?
I don’t think I’m really anything like Nixon. No, I think I’m a little different species than Nixon.
You can’t find any similarities?
Well, I’m sure I could find sympathetic areas. When I was doing Secret Honor, the Nixon piece, and thinking about Nixon a lot, I could find things that I could understand. Why do you ask?
I’m asking because one of the things I get from your sense of Nixon is that even when he was at the pinnacle of power, the ultimate insider, successful, he still felt completely like an outsider and a loser —
And will he always.
— And I wonder if you shared that.
I feel a little like an outsider. And not much like a loser, but I feel like I’m not the winner. I feel like there are always other winners, who are more winners than I am. I don’t think of myself as a loser, though. I don’t have the same opinion of myself that Nixon has of himself.
What about the anger?
[Pause.] My anger is . . . couched . . . my anger is in things that don’t work out the way I want them to. And then I translate that into . . . I try to get other people . . . to support me.
It seems like your anger is generative — that it generates heat or something that’s helpful to you.
Well, I might manipulate my anger a little bit. Rarely do I have a loss-of-control thing.
But at the end of Secret Honor, Nixon’s “Fuck ’em! Fuck ’em! Fuck ’em!” — directed at all his enemies — seems like it could almost be Bob Altman on a conference call, just having heard that some major studio has decided not to finance his picture.
Oh, I could do that, yes. That was also Nixon’s “Fuck ’em!” That was his personality. But I understand that. I admire that. I like that, the way that ends. See, there’s a good ending.
And The Player has quite a neat ending.
The Player has a manipulated ending. It’s the same ending as M*A*S*H. Those aren’t endings, they are stopping places.
Which is why “Tanner ’88,” in looking at all six hours of it, feels kind of perfect to me — in that it goes on and it goes on and it goes on, and that’s Altman, that’s what you dig, really.
Yeah. That’s right. That’s what I’m showing. There aren’t any endings.
The endless serial is a perfect form for you.
Yeah, it is.
Have you thought of doing more of it?
Oh, I’ve been trying to do this for forty years.
A serial movie?
Always. I remember, when I read Tales of the South Pacific, it was before the musical was ever done, I went crazy. I wanted to make a ten-hour picture of that. Five two-hour films. You could look at them in any order. There would be no Part I. It would just meld together. The form of Nashville, the form of L.A. Shortcuts, everything that I ever put together myself usually has that form where the edges of different stories touch. And I would love to do a never-ending story, a continual serial. And I’ll do it. If someone gave me the television wherewithal to do it, I would probably rather do something for television than I would for film.
What did you learn doing “Tanner?” You said it was the “newest” work you had done?
Well, I think it was the most creative work that I’ve done. I think I broke more ground on “Tanner” than on anything else I’ve ever done.
In what sense?
In that style of crossing reality with the fiction characters. In other words, I made seven or eight characters — or Garry Trudeau and me, we made up these characters — then we take ’em out and put them into real situations, and very quickly those people become very real. The Player could not have existed if I had not done “Tanner.”
Well, I think the whole idea of using real people — the way I use real celebrities and people — in connection with my fiction. And we did this in two ways: Julia Roberts plays herself, but she’s playing Julia Roberts acting another character. And I never told anybody what to do. I didn’t tell anybody what to do. I would never tell anybody what to do. I said, I have not got the right to tell you what to do because you are not being paid as an actor, you have been asked to perform as yourself — to be yourself. How can I tell you how to be yourself? Only you can tell you how to be yourself, and it’s probably the hardest part you’ve ever had to play. It was never my intention to try to write anything for them.
You’re willing to give up a lot of control that other directors hold on to very tightly.
Oh, yeah, I insist on it. But then, I don’t know if that’s giving up control. I mean, I’m still filling the space. I’m letting them color the space. And I’m making my adjustments according to what happens.
Filling the space is a painting phrase, really. A painter friend of mine used to talk about wanting to “fuck up the space.” That was what painting was about.
It probably is!
And in a sense, what you are doing is “fucking up the space,” not just filling it.
Yeah. It’s letting that space . . . it’s like doing a living mural. I’m going to do a mural. So I take a pigment — an actor — and I put her up there by the horses, and suddenly the horses are moving, though, and the actor decides to go this way, and she gets over there in the purple, and so I say shit, this composition isn’t any good. Well, I can’t stop these pigments from doing what they are doing, but I can throw more things up there that will change it. It’s like a basketball game, I can throw a guard up there that will make this person turn and go the other way. I’m quickly sidestepping, I’m constantly moving. The minute the actor performs the first “act” I have to start moving my point of view, because it’s not what I had in mind.
Why did you not concentrate more on your painting?
Oh, I’m not really very good at it. I think I probably could have been. But I was only fairly gifted in drawing and that sort of thing.
What’s the work like?
It’s very pedestrian.
Yeah. I don’t have the courage to do abstract. And also, there’s so much knowledge I don’t have. I want it to look like this and I can’t get that, so I do something else. I’m very smug about things that I do.
Yeah. Happy. You know, I like my work.
You say you’ve loved every film you’ve ever done.
And the least successful all the more because it’s like the parent loving the kid that’s flunking out of school; he needs it more.
A lot of that is defensive. But basically, there will be pretty much of a quorum on the ones that are most successful. That doesn’t mean that the others aren’t what I set out to do, or aren’t an improvement on what I set out to do.
Does it feel like there was ever a bad period, though?
Oh, there’s bad periods. But I don’t think you could know when those periods are, till after they’ve passed. It’s pretty much like sitting at a poker table or the race track, and you get off, or you think you’re off, and you just know that you’re salty, that it’s just a bad period and you make bad judgments, bad calls, and you lose.
Was O.C. and Stiggs a bad call?
It was probably a bad call going in. I probably did it for a lot of the wrong reasons.
It seemed sad to me that in it you were quoting things from earlier films: the bird droppings from Brewster, Hal Phillip Walker from Nashville, it felt —
See, I see no reason not to use those characters. The bird droppings was a steal, but . . . I thought O.C. and Stiggs was an adult satire. It was really my own outrage at teenage pictures.
But to make an uninvolving teen picture simply as a commentary on teen pictures is a very abstract and subtle business, isn’t it?
Yeah, most people didn’t like it. Although there are lots of people that really think that’s a funny picture. I can sit and watch that picture any time with an audience. Any time!
What’s funny about it to you?
Oh, the . . . I don’t know if it’s funny, but I like it. I love the dance sequence, when O.C. and what’s-her-name go into that dance. I love that. I love her house, at the end. I don’t want to get into defending that picture too much.
I am just trying to play Joe Audience here. I have a profound feeling for a lot of your work, and then I come across other films that I really have to struggle to get through.
Well, you don’t like them. Because you’ve seen it already, and it’s not new to you, and you can see my machinations. You can see their workings, and you don’t like it. That’s understandable. And kind of common.
Like when Beyond Therapy came out, you said, “I think it’s romantic and funny and bizarre. It’s too sophisticated for most audiences. People are too lazy to get into it.”
Yeah, that’s a defense. But I think Beyond Therapy failed and was thought badly of primarily because it came out about the time AIDS became public , really public, and here was all this casual, bisexual sex, without any comments made on it. I didn’t aggrandize the homosexuality and I didn’t criticize it.
Let’s put that off to the side, because —
Well, that’s the main issue here. That’s the main issue in that picture. Otherwise that picture doesn’t . . . that picture, yeah, it’s ill-conceived. The play [that it was based on] was not very good. I shot it in Paris to make it look like New York. I said, “I’ll do that if I can shoot that in Paris.”
What does the Paris period feel like to you?
Well, I was working there on projects that never got done.
Did you feel like an ex-pat?
No. Never. There were new things there. I learned new things. Different attitudes from different people, actors. And I edited over there. I did three films: Beyond Therapy and I did a little thing called The Laundromat, which I shot on a soundstage. The things like the two Harold Pinter plays I did — those are not successful really, but, to me, it became an exercise in building those sets that they were on. And taking this absurd play and presenting it in as unabsurd a way as I could find. Those aren’t arresting pieces: nobody’s going to sit there and say, “My God, you’ve got to go see this!” I don’t think they are offensive pieces. They are exercises. They’re like sketches. I could do those a hundred more times and they would never really succeed. I’d never find the key that makes everything work.
I think you did eight straight films that were written originally for the stage, which you shot for either TV or the cinema.
Well, that’s because that’s what I could get done.
Just on a purely economic level —
Well, just the work. Whether I needed the money — I didn’t make much money on those things, but in order to work, I could not get anything else done. And those were quite challenging to do. To take a theatre piece and do it. I guess it started with “Jimmy Dean,” and then once people saw that, everybody was bringing me their plays. “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial” was much after that. That came up during the Iran-Contra trials. I was sitting and watching Oliver North and those people, for hours, for hundreds of hours. No rushing the action or anything. So somebody called me and asked, would I like to do “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial.” I said yeah, The Player is essentially about a guy who doesn’t get his phone call returned. You’ve been in that position, of having people not answering the phone when you’ve called them — Yeah. But again, I don’t think there’s anything in The Player that is any more personal to me than was in M*A*S*H. In fact, I think The Player is more like M*A*S*H than any other film that I’ve made.
Don’t you think it’s more like The Long Goodbye?
I think it looks more like The Long Goodbye. Yes, that film comes to mind the most. And in terms of the ending. But, to me, it feels more like M*A*S*H, and I don’t know how to explain that, but it does. I never would have written that story. I never would have conceived that story. But when I read it, I said, “Oh, this is something to work on.” I could empathize.
When people stopped returning your calls, in the post-Popeye period, when you decided to get out and move to Paris, did you feel like whistling “Hurray for Hollywood” and leaving in a kind of a —
No, I sold the studio [Lion’s Gate]. I sold that, because I wanted to get out of it. I was also financially in trouble. I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do. I did a couple of small plays after Popeye. I didn’t have any big picture offers. I don’t remember any. None that I took, certainly. I was always working on other projects. But I saw no reason to stay here.
“I know a cure,” you said. “I know a cure. I’ll go off to Paris and be rich and arrogant and look down on people.”
Did I say that?
Yeah. Were you being wry?
I don’t know what I was being, but that’s not true.
But didn’t you feel that there would be respect for you as an artist, which here had gotten discredited simply on the basis of the dollar?
I never had it here as you get it there. I’m sure that my going to Europe was because I was more welcome there. And so that’s where I went. Yeah, I was more accepted. But I also had projects I wanted to do there. I had had the experience of working in Europe in 1972 when I did Images. And I like the fact that things are done differently, and it was a very attractive idea for me. I never really succeeded in Europe. In anything. My success, of all the work I did at that time, was all for US consumption.
It’s funny because in America we think the audience is so sophisticated over there, compared to here — but fifteen years ago you said the audience in Europe still looked at movies as entertainment and not art, that they were twenty years behind us.
Do you think that’s still true?
Yes. I think they are the same twenty years behind.
Is that why Jerry Lewis and Mickey Rourke are the French cultural icons?
Oh, I don’t think that’s true. They create, from a very small group of people, they create their own heroes. And of course that spreads. You know, the French and Italian films we see here we think are such great films — they fail in their own countries. Fellini can hardly get a job in Italy!
So why, if films are seen as entertainment and not art, did you feel the reception would be so much better for you there, as an artist?
Well, the people who invest and buy the film and make the films worthwhile are more in tune with wanting to let the artist make the film. But their big audience is a very illiterate audience, just like it is here.
You think even worse? Even behind us?
I think everything over there is maybe twenty or fifteen years behind us. Maybe in ten years it will only be ten years behind. It’s like Canada! You go there and you see cultural things — not that being in front means quality — but you see that where the general American culture was fifteen years ago is about where the culture in Canada, in Vancouver, in Toronto, is today.
In Kamloops, in Moosejaw. What did directing for theatre in the post-Popeye period teach you? And what did it teach you about film?
I think that analytically, I figured out that the rehearsal time in theatre is the equivalent to the editing time in film. You go in, and you edit and edit and edit and edit: that’s your rehearsal. And then you present it, and it’s finished. In film, you go in and shoot, and you’re gathering all the raw material, and then you edit and edit and edit and edit — that’s the rehearsal time. You rehearse after you’ve shot. And you make the piece, and present it.
It’s all the same thing, but in theatre you don’t have the image manipulation that you have in film. You don’t have the range. But you can be much more imaginative. The words become more important. If I had to pick between theatre and film, I would stay with film. I think I would like to do one more theatre piece.
It’s interesting that in your pre-theatre period you were known as being very open about scripts — a screenplay was just a blueprint, and not more than that — but then you went into a period where the scripts were as written in stone as they ever could be, because not only were they finished, but they had been performed hundreds of times. So it was a complete 180 degrees from your relationship to scripts previous to that.
Yeah. That was a new experience for me. And I never saw any of these plays performed. Except “Jimmy Dean” [which Altman directed]. I mean, I never saw “Streamers” performed. At least I went into those things clean.
You didn’t see “Fool for Love” before you shot it?
“Fool for Love” I saw performed. But “Fool for Love” is not a play . . . Fool for Love is a film, and I think it’s one of my best films. The words don’t make that much difference to me in films generally, so why should it make that much difference to me whether they are words that somebody else wrote, or words that somebody else wrote? I mean, it doesn’t make any difference. If the actor is comfortable saying the words, then why not?
What do you mean when you say the words don’t make that much difference?
The dialogue. Usually, it depends what the intent is. It depends on what it is we have to show. If it’s radio, then the words are the only thing you have to go on — the words and the sound effects. Nobody talks about radio drama, but there’s a great art that was knocked out in its infancy by television.
In theatre the words are very important, too.
In theatre the words are more important, because . . .
The words are almost the “actions” —
Yes. In theatre, they are. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. There are endless combinations of these things. And to me, it’s almost kind of like doing the opera. I know exactly how long the opera is going to be. I cannot possibly let it go longer than the music, or shorter than the music. So when I go to do the opera, I can’t say, “Oh, that’s enough of that scene.” I have to fill that time. And that’s very unlike what I have to do with film.
Was it interesting for you to butt up against the restrictions of a script-in-stone?
Yeah. For instance, in The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, I got Herman Wouk’s message across, but I don’t think any more of the dilemma of Barney Greenwald than I do of the dilemma of Queeg. Or the mutineer. I think they all have their own dilemmas. And I had nothing to say in that play.
But you never feel you have anything to say, do you?
It’s true, it’s true: I don’t have anything to say!
So why say anything?
Oh, ’cause I’m saying what other people say, and I’m showing it to you in the context of the way it appears to me. It’s like a painting. I’m not going to make up a sunset. I’m going to paint a sunset.
And that, in itself, gives you pleasure?
Yeah. Because I’m doing something different. It’s inescapable that everything you see of mine is going to have my vague shape, like a cookie cutter, a gingerbread man, because all the material has been pushed through me. So it’s going to have a vague resemblance.
Slightly rotund and fuzzy on the edges.
More than likely. It will be recognizable as my shape. But, I am not there telling you what my thoughts or my political ideas are. You will feel what they are, but mainly I’m letting everybody present themselves the way they want to present themselves.
Which is why Nashville could be Julie Nixon Eisenhower’s favorite film —
And which is why Nixon-lovers as well as Nixon-haters can really like Secret Honor.
And which is why people who love Hollywood can love The Player and people who despise Hollywood can love The Player.
Absolutely. Because I didn’t take “ankle shots” at people, cheap shots. My only real diabolical move — in my closet I can say I got them — is the agents. I took care of the agents in The Player because there aren’t any.
Although I’m not sure that a Republican would enjoy “Tanner,” since neither you nor Garry Trudeau —
Oh, I couldn’t have done it as well with a Republican candidate. But I don’t think the Democratic candidates came off too well. You know why they didn’t come off well? Because they represented themselves. And to me, I’m not making propaganda. I’m making a film. And the film is art, and I think art is truthful. But propaganda — whether it’s positive or negative propaganda — is something that isn’t true, but you’re trying to make people think it’s true. So I believe every dog should have his day. And every time I see a character in any script I read or think I’m gonna do, and I see this great guy, I think: let’s find all the bad things about him, and show them. Or vice versa. A guy who is so rotten — does that mean that he can’t kiss his wife goodbye when he goes to catch the streetcar?
You’re naturally a contrarian.
Yes, absolutely. Why don’t you show the hero having fear? It’s not serving a cause that I think I should believe in.
One of the things in that book [the biography] is that I call some guy “the Jew with the money.” I say, “He didn’t want to be the Jew with the money.” Jesus Christ! That’s a phrase I use with anybody. I don’t think it’s an anti-Semitic phrase unless the word “Jew” is.
I got a son, my youngest son is black. His father was black, and his mother was . . . he was adopted at birth. And I still find myself — I always — I talk about “niggers.” And I have no racial problems.
Do you understand that that word is offensive to a lot of black people?
Yes, I understand. I understand also that everybody knows that word. The other day, I was in here and I thought of an old song. [Sings] “Here comes a nigger with a sack on his back, baby!” And someone said, “Shhh! You shouldn’t say that!” And I said, “Why shouldn’t I say that? That’s what’s in that song.”
Well, there you are quoting something, you’re not calling someone a nigger.
No, but most of the time when you use those phrases, you are using other people’s phrases. You’re not making those up.
Well, you’re not making up the word — we don’t make up much of our own vocabulary — but it’s the way we use it that counts.
I’m talking about the way it’s used. If you say, “That cotton-picking nigger this and that” . . . I don’t . . . I remember the last time I was in Kansas City, I mean years ago, going to a cleaning store, I don’t know how old I was, probably in my late twenties, and some guy said, “Just a minute, I’m sorry, it’s not ready yet. Get the nigger to go get the such and such.” And I was just shocked by that, that someone was referred to as a nigger, as if that was a profession. And I thought, Jesus, I grew up in this. I grew up in this! I grew up with a black woman being my nanny, and all of those things of course have to rub off, they’re in your basic chips. But that doesn’t mean that I’m a racist.
No, but if you’re talking about Hollywood, would you call Denzel Washington a nigger? Would you say, “that nigger actor”?
Oh, absolutely not. Because it doesn’t apply. It would apply only as if I called somebody “the Jew with the money.”
Because he was Jewish and had money?
No, because there’s a history of the Jews with the money, being the money people. It’s just a phrase. It’s the same phrase as “redneck.” Calling someone a redneck. I wouldn’t like to be thought of as a redneck, but people — I remember somebody once said I looked like a “redneck cop” to him. I was offended by that. I didn’t want to look like a redneck cop.
Well, how does the Jew with the money feel about being called the Jew with the money?
I don’t know. I said it to him, and I said it with humor. Bigotry is when you don’t think somebody is really of the same species that you are. It’s like disliking tall guys. When you’re around tall guys, you say, “Hey, how’s the weather up there?” And they don’t like that. But that doesn’t have anything to do with your own feelings of bigotry. If you want to see bigotry, go to Europe. Go to France, go to England, go to Canada — there’s much more than there is in this country. Go to Montana, it’s terrible. But this is tribal. This has nothing to do with — it’s an overdone thing.
Let me cut back to Fool for Love, then I’d like to focus on the last three things you’ve done. When you did Fool for Love, you said you didn’t care if it was the worst film ever made, you were going to do it for the opportunity to work with Sam Shepard on a play he wrote, and have him in it.
[Resigned.] Yeah, I said that. The idea of me making a film with the author of a play, and the author playing a part, to me was irresistible. And because I was in such a catbird’s seat. And I thought it would be fun.
Yeah, perverse and fun. It turned out to be not much fun at all.
You and Shepard had a tough time.
No, I didn’t have too tough a time, and he didn’t have a tough time. Any tough times we had, we gave ourselves. But I didn’t like him very much and he, I’m sure, didn’t like me. He just wasn’t a very nice person during that time.
And that’s why it was no fun?
Yeah. He wasn’t nice. He was very self-oriented. Kim Basinger was just terrific, I’m crazy about her. And Sam, I think, is very, very good in that picture. As good as I wanted him to be.
How did he end up feeling about the picture?
Oh, he would never say. I’m sure he hated it. We’d show the dailies, and he could come in whenever he got up — we’d work all night — and we’d look at the dailies in the morning. He’d come in late in the afternoon and we’d run the dailies for him and he’d only look at the dailies that he was in. And of course, all the flashback stuff, all the storytelling illustrations that I did, he, to this day — he says he never saw the picture, and he probably hasn’t — he didn’t know what I was doing, nor did he care, that I was showing something different than what the characters were telling. And that, to me, that time warp in that picture, is what made that film so good. I think that was a terrific film, I really liked that film. I liked the structure of it, I liked the performances in it, I just liked the picture very much. The bizarreness of it. But Sam just wasn’t very likable. I don’t know why.
“Tanner ’88.” It occurs to me that although it’s satirical about nearly everything in it, it’s really most satirical not about politics per se as much as about how we “mediate” politics.
Yes, it was more about the media, about the press, than anything else, I would think.
And it worked best for me when I had no consciousness of anyone “acting” at all.
In the beginning, there are some off notes, when it does seem “theatrical.”
Yeah, a lot of them. But after we got going and kind of knew what we were doing, we got very good at it. In the beginning, we were very nervous, and we didn’t quite know what we were doing — there was a lot of forcing in there. But I liked that a lot. That was a lot of fun. That was tough. There again is a case where we didn’t have the resources to do anything more than we did. We have ten days to do each one of those shows.
It’s funny: we like Tanner [Michael Murphy], and if you have a liberal drift, you want to like Tanner — but after six hours of it, we don’t know what the hell Tanner stands for, except that John is his favorite Beatle.
Oh, he’s a shell: he’s a very empty character. And I don’t know that having John Lennon as your favorite Beatle makes you anything.
It’s obvious that it’s written that way, that you didn’t want to develop any political agenda.
No, because the minute Garry Trudeau and I start developing a political agenda, then we’re doing propaganda. And I think I was more so than Garry. His writing was much more . . .
You didn’t get writing credit on that, did you?
No. I never did write anything down. But in the doing of it, in the construction — we created the character, we created the backstory, we created the people. But he would have a half-hour script for each one of those, for each city we would go to. And if nothing happened, I would just do that script, that was our safety. But the minute I would find something there that I could push out into, that’s what I would do. And something always happened.
There’s a fascinating episode called “The Girlfriend Factor,” which focused on inner-city Detroit —
That was the best one.
— And what was provocative about it is that the viewer feels he’s getting reality almost “unmediated” by the camera and the people working on it, and yet there is completely an artificial construct around it, like a reality sandwich, to quote the beat phrase. So you’re not sure what you’re looking at. [In this episode, candidate Tanner travels to a ghetto neighborhood and listens to the residents talk about their problems.]
Well, the people who were doing that, who were in that forum, they thought they were on a talk show. It was like a talk show without a moderator. And we just let that stuff go. It just happened. We couldn’t get the police to go into that neighborhood. They said it was too dangerous. So we just went in there, and went through SOSAD [Save Our Sons And Daughters], and these people just showed up. And we just photographed them.
Were you moved by what happened?
Absolutely. I was moved by the ridiculousness of it — that one guy showed up with a straw hat and a red bow tie and was a Reverend So-and-So, and he was one of those Bible-thumping niggers that did all that kind of neighborhood stuff, and was just a jerk of all time; there were confused, old drunks; there were really angry people there, who were women who had lost their children; and everybody there was doing their thing. And we did everything we could do not to interfere with that. And we gave it much, much more time than was ever allotted for it.
Did you intentionally bring the cassette to HBO late, so that they wouldn’t screen it before they showed it?
Well, they got everything late. They never got to screen anything. We intentionally did that. It was also how close we were getting to airtime on those things.
At the end of that episode, when Tanner finds a dead kid in the bushes, that’s not necessary. It felt like a false note.
It isn’t necessary. See, that was written. And we did it. I’m not sure I like it. Yeah, it was weak.
Why aren’t you running Tanner in 1992?
Nobody would give us the money to do it. We need about $1.2 million a show, an hour. And nobody can see it. There’s nobody you can go to and say, “Listen, this has great shelf life. This is really a historical document.” And they say, “Well, how can we sell it? We can’t sell it for reruns, nobody is interested for this. It’s not commercial.”
Our plan was to come back, and in the very first episode, he was going to get ready to go to New Hampshire and run, he was going to find out that his daughter tested HIV-positive. His daughter has AIDS. And he decides not to run, but they take him anyway, and he runs. And so we have our soap-opera story: the daughter has AIDS, how did she get it? And all that stuff. And that would have allowed us to make AIDS an issue of the 1992 election, which it will not be, even with Magic Johnson. He jumped too soon. But AIDS may be the only issue in 1996. I think we would have had a terrific year.
See, it doesn’t make any difference who Tanner is! Tanner is merely the calling card to get into the process. Again, the point is not to try to make the character make events go the way you want them to go, but make him whatever he wants. The reaction to him is what’s interesting, and where it takes us. Some people said, “Oh, I wish we could vote for somebody like Tanner!” And I said, “This guy is terrible.” And Michael Murphy got very embarrassed by it, because everybody got faked out, everybody thought Murphy could go in there with all those heavyweight politicians and talk. And he’d say, “Goddammit, I don’t sound like I know what I’m talking about.” So I said, “Well, get your ass out there and find out what you’re talking about. You can talk about any goddamn thing you want.” He got very hot one night. I said, “You’re a shell, that’s what you are, you don’t have that knowledge.” So Murphy was perfect: he’s well-meaning, he’s got the humor to laugh at himself, he looks good, he’s the perfect candidate.
Now as to Vincent and Theo, it seems the last thing that Bob Altman would want to do, the sacrosanct, PBS-style, great-artist-of-the-past thing. Was that more cheerful perverseness?
No. It was a four-hour miniseries, the way it was written. Just like PBS, just like “Masterpiece Theater.” It was a dreadful script. And these guys came and they wanted me to do it, and it just fit my time slot so well, and it intrigued me. I had tried to do a film on Jackson Pollock, and had another film I wanted to do about the art world today, a Nashville type of thing, sampling all kinds of people that are connected to it. And so I was in tune for that, so I said okay.
You’re not too excited about Van Gogh as an artist: you’ve said he didn’t have any ideas, he didn’t have any imagination, that it was all his passion and energy, but that he was no visionary, that he was not that creative, really.
No, he wasn’t. That’s right. But again, I don’t care. I’m not trying to make him up, I’m just trying to present what I see is there, and do it in a way that shows a little more of backstage.
Do you identify with him on that level — of not being the most imaginative guy? When we were talking about writing you admitted to not being imaginative in that way, yourself.
Yeah, a little bit. I don’t think identifying, personally, with anybody is . . . I don’t think I do that much anyway.
What was the juice for you in the project? The intersection of art and commerce?
The period, the culture, just the idea of being able to work in that arena. Commerce and art had something to do with it.
The film in a lot of ways can be seen as not about art, and the great artist, so much as about brotherhood, and the nature of that connection.
That Corsican brother kind of thing. The thing that makes Vincent and Theo about art and artists is that there isn’t anything about art and artists in it, other than the passion involved in what they do.
Right. Theo never says, “I think you should use more yellow in your sky.”
No. Artists I know don’t sit around and talk about painting. From a gratification standpoint — artists, painters, comtemporary painters, amateur painters, big-name celebrity painters, and just painters like this picture. And that was important to me, that it not be bullshit. As little pretentiousness as possible. I totally stayed away from Van Gogh’s letters. I think the letters are bullshit. I think the letters are part of his art, but I don’t believe them, necessarily.
Have you ever had a family relationship with that sense of connectedness: Person A gets sick, so Person B throws up?
No. I had a connection like that with my father, but I don’t know whether it was him hustling me or it was just an accident of time.
How did you have that with your dad?
Oh, I just remember a time when I was in real trouble and I was real sick. I had a boil on my foot and I was away at school. And my father called me, and said, “Are you all right?” I said I wasn’t, how did he know? He said he had a dream, had a feeling that there was something wrong with my foot. And I never knew if he was hustling me — he would do that kind of thing.
Are you very much your father’s son?
I don’t know. I hope not.
Why not? B.C. was supposed to be a very grand character.
Well, you know, he was a nice guy, but he was kind of an asshole.
How so? In what way was he an asshole?
He was kind of . . . I don’t know . . . he lived in a very narrow, very small world.
He was sort of a supersalesman and a hustler. You’ve described yourself as having kind of turned into a con man and a hustler.
Well, I can occasionally detect those traits in me. [Pause.] I find I’m shaving his face, occasionally.
Vincent and Theo almost seems like your version of Dead Ringers.
I didn’t see it. I know the story.
Compared to Van Gogh, you’re a lucky guy. You’ve succeeded, you’ve had people that have loved your work —
— All that, but on some level do you feel the unappreciated artist?
Not really. I mean, I never get enough, but I never had what he had. I mean, nobody liked this guy. Nobody appreciated anything he did. He came from this very wealthy family, and took that rebelling kind of thing, and he got off on this whole religion thing, which had to do with — you know, he had a brother, a first child born to that family, who was named Vincent. And he died within weeks, days after he was born. Buried right in that churchyard where his father was a pastor. And then, a year later to the day — same birthday — the next child was born and they named him Vincent, too. So this little kid grew up looking at this gravestone, watching his mother go out and put flowers on it, with his name on it. And I just envision that he took his younger brother by the hand and stood in front of that grave and said, “We have to make up for him!” And he told Theo, and Theo just believed him. And he had to have this connection.
It’s so rich in irony, you coming back to Hollywood and making The Player.
Yeah, it is pretty loaded, isn’t it? A lot is going to be made out of it, I’m afraid — I hope.
How does it feel?
Okay. I’ve enjoyed it. I think it’s very dangerous. I find myself falling into the system in a way which at times I don’t like, but I think that can be cured by being away from the proximity. I think it’s like going to the beach: if you spend all your day on the beach, your skin is going to get brown.
What parts of the system do you feel uncomfortable sliding into?
Oh, I find myself talking about projects and whether they will be commercial or not. I find myself wondering whether anyone is going to buy this kind of a picture or story, and having a little taste of fear of failing. But, if I had the money for L.A. Shortcuts, I’d be here for another year.
Parenthetically, what’s happened with that? I know what it’s about, the Raymond Carver short stories linked together in a Nashville-type way, and it was at Paramount for a while.
I just have to find somebody who will give me the money to make the film. I’ve got a lot of foreign money. But I get the same platitude/answer: “Oh, it’s too depressing!” They don’t want to see downers.
Well, B. B. King records sell and that’s the blues.
That’s what I tell them.
What’s The Player about to you?
It’s a movie about itself. It’s a movie of a movie that’s about movies. It turns on itself; it’s an essay. I’m sure if we took the ad and said “An Essay About Hollywood,” nobody would go see it. But to me, it’s an essay, a comment; it’s a comment on itself, of itself, by itself — which makes it as bad as it is and as good as it is. It’s probably a “bad” film.
Why do you say that?
Because it’s about bad films. So it’s a bad film the way the street people will say, “That’s bad!” Meaning, “That’s good.” Because it’s about all the worst parts of our culture, all the worst parts of this art. And if it succeeds, unfortunately, if it succeeds, it will succeed for all of the wrong reasons.
And those are?
All the things that you would assume I abhor, because I made this film, are the reasons why it will succeed if it succeeds as a film. In other words, it is a dilemma. I have created a dilemma. If people really like this film, they’ll like it for the wrong reason.
I want to know what you think that reason is.
They’ll like it for the ride, rather than the content. I can sit there and show this to everybody that I know, and they will love this film, most of them. Some of them will not like it at all, because they will feel too personally involved — they’ll recognize something in it. But most people will see it because of the surprises in it, the discovery of the actors, the stars, the celebrities. It’s just a film about itself.
One of the really rich things about it is the way it shows how desire is manipulated by film, in that the audience for The Player cheers itself, and feels above and laughs at the “happy ending” that is provided by the film-within-the-film (we sneer at it because it’s so ridiculous), while in the film itself, you deliver us —
Exactly the same thing! Not disguised even thinly.
Which we take great pleasure in.
Which you enjoy. That’s right. The target for this film is the people watching it. The bad guy in the film is the audience. The heavy is the audience. Not the studio executive, not the people that play the game, but the audience.
Do you think you’re being critical or condescending to the audience?
I don’t think I’m being condescending. I think I’m pretty much presenting it the way it is, I’m sorry to say.
And yet that’s the same audience you align yourself with, saying this audience just wants to see something they haven’t seen before, we’re not the peons the marketers make us out to be?
Well, I’m showing them something they haven’t seen before. But they won’t recognize it as that. They will recognize the wrong thing. Because what they are seeing is a very, very well-constructed piece of work.
So, is it just the guile of artifice that’s the thrill for you in making this?
It’s just taking truthfulness about situations and molding it, so that while criticizing its content, or its morality, you’re at the same time embracing it, and it seems to be okay. The best thing about this film is that it seems to have a very long aftertaste. And different people start getting the essay.
The Long Goodbye was a goodbye to Hollywood and a kind of Hollywood picture — “Hurray for Hollywood” being whistled at the end — and I wonder where that puts you vis-à-vis this film, almost twenty years later?
I don’t know. [Chuckles.] I used all the Hollywood references in The Long Goodbye because it was there — but mainly I was doing the same sort of satire, if that’s the word, that the people who created the mythical characters, as private eyes, did. The people who were disappointed with The Long Goodbye were disappointed not with my handling of Raymond Chandler, but because Humphrey Bogart wasn’t in it. In other words, I was closer to Raymond Chandler than the people who criticized me for being so far away from Raymond Chandler. They were using as their model Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep. So part of my target, and satire, was on movies. And I took this character out of a deep sleep and put him in 1973.
And The Player is similar because there’s bad stuff in there, intentionally heavy-handed, very blatant symbolism — but that’s a movie. Suddenly this has turned into a movie within a movie within a movie. So there’s no such thing as anything bad in it, because it’s all on purpose. Whether it’s performance or setup or lines or anything. In other words, I’m completely free. But this is a movie where I use movie scenes to illustrate what the movie is about, the thriller part of it. Those are “movie” scenes.
It’s postmodern in that way, in that it’s self-referential and ironic . . .
And it turns into itself and it turns on itself.
But isn’t that a cul-de-sac, eventually?
It’s spherical. It’s enveloped. It’s neatly wrapped up, like a little bag of shit.
And it chases its tail.
And its tail becomes its head. The pointed, thin end of it fans out and comes back and says, “This is the movie you have just seen.”
Why is the audience the enemy?
Because the audience is the one that demands those kinds of movies.
Well, as you sit now at the Olympian heights of your sixty-six years —
[Laughs.] At the bottom of the crevice!
— How does your future look from here?
Oh, I’ll get some more films made. Hopefully, I’ll keep working. I have no agenda other than “one after the other.”
Do you care how people think of your contribution?
Let’s do a morbid thing — let’s have you write your own obituary. That’s perverse enough for Bob Altman. What’s your contribution?
I don’t know that. I just know that whatever it is, I won’t be satisfied. It’ll be wrong. Whatever they say will be the wrong thing. No matter how bad or how good, it will be wrong. But that’s okay. I don’t really much care. I don’t think any of it makes that much difference. It’s all gone, there’s nothing to keep anyway.
Your sense that art is like a sand castle to be washed away with the evening’s tide runs so contrary to the Western view of art — that that’s what does last. Life is short, art is long.
The ideas are still there, the thoughts are still there. The actual symbol of what brings it to mind and kind of focuses it for a moment is what the piece of art itself is. It’s all so selective. I’m speaking to a very minor, minority audience anyway. We’re jacking off with this game. Sure, I like to be admired and I like people to like me and say “I love your stuff,” and all that, but that’s just a game.
You think truth is whatever gets the loudest applause?
No, I don’t. I think that’s the truth — but it’s the other side of the truth. You’re quoting Alan Rudolph now. [Laughs.]
I know, but your name is on the picture [Buffalo Bill and the Indians]. Burt Lancaster, as Ned Buntline, says, in that film, “Even the least seasoned trappers will tell you, if you don’t know what you’re after, you’re better off staying home.” The funny thing is, that’s contrary to the way you make films: you never know what you’re after, yet you don’t stay home.
Because I’m very much like Buffalo Bill. And Buntline invented Buffalo Bill. He was criticizing Buffalo Bill, who went out and didn’t know what he was going after.
And Buffalo Bill is a little bit like Willie Loman, isn’t he?
He’s like most of those sad characters. Buffalo Bill is very special, very special. My Buffalo Bill.
Why is Buffalo Bill sad and why are you sad? That’s my last question.
He’s a sorry, he’s a sad person, because he tried to . . . he kind of . . . he was made up and grew to believe his legend, knowing it wasn’t true, and consequently, in escaping that truth, he just became worse and worse and worse. He’s kind of a sad character. But that’s because he assisted in his legend-he gave interviews. And yet he knew the truth all the time.