Ron Mann‘s new documentary “ALTMAN” is an in-depth look at the life and times of filmmaker Robert Altman (M*A*S*H, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Nashville, The Player, Gosford Park, and many more.) While refusing to bow down to Hollywood’s conventions, or its executives, Altman’s unique style of filmmaking won him friends and enemies, earned him world-wide praise and occasionally scathing criticism, and proved that it IS possible to make truly independent films.
Was there ever another director so alternately reviled and acclaimed by critics and executives alike? Or one in whose hands no script (if there even was one) was safe? Poet, prophet, scalawag, gambler, outsider, raconteur, husband, ex-husband, father, grandfather, lover, heart transplant recipient, Robert Altman never ceased to paint a cinematic portrait of the world around and within him. The perplexing, enigmatic joy of human behavior expressed in his art changed the manner in which films are made and experienced. Indeed, much of what is now labeled “independent cinema” can be traced to Altman and all the tools in his toolbox.
With its use of rare interviews, representative film clips, archival images, and musings from his family and most recognizable collaborators, Mannʼs Altman is a dynamic and heartfelt mediation on an artist whose expression, passion and appetite knew few bounds.
As part of a roundtable discussion, David Teich sat down with Robert Altman’s wife Kathryn, as well as friend and frequent collaborator Bob Balaban. Anticipating the film’s theatrical release on, the group discussed all things Robert Altman, filmmaking, Hollywood convention and much more.
Q: Kathryn, when did you decide this film should be made?
Kathryn Altman: After Bob died in 2006, [I heard the idea of making a film] being mentioned on and off, but I never got interested. Then…Ron Mann came to me at the Toronto Film Festival. I was there for the Altman retrospective, and I liked him immediately. And when I inquired about him, the feedback I would get was so reassuring. People would say, “He’s a great documentarian, a great filmmaker, but he’s a little quirky,” and I thought “Oh, that’s good,” or, “He’s certainly not middle of the road.” And I thought those were favorable [characteristics] for anyone who wanted to [make a documentary about] Robert Altman’s life.
Q: (To Bob Balaban): And how did you become involved?
Bob Balaban: I’m only here to be helpful in any way I can. I’ve known Robert all my adult life. And over the years Kathryn, Robert and I got to be friends. I made an insignificant little film about him for television about 15 years ago, and I felt like I got to know him more by doing that. Then I came to him with a germ of an idea that became ‘Gosford Park,’so that’s how I got involved with his work and his life in a direct way. And I had the enormous good fortune to find [screenwriter] Julian Fellowes and bring him on. He’d really never done anything before, but Bob instantly loved what he wrote and we got to make a movie together.
Q: Do you think that the diversity of Bob’s films is one of the things that sets him apart as a director?
KA: He never did the same thing twice. He really enjoyed new circumstances. The army films, the country-westerns, the dream films–every one is different, yet they were really all the same in a lot of ways, because they had that Altman thread running through them.
Q: In what ways does this film help us understand how Robert Altman’s personality affected his work?
BB: There are many directors whose films you can understand and appreciate without knowing too much about the directors themselves. You can see all of Robert’s movies, never having heard of him before, and still enjoy them. But what’s great about the documentary is that it adds understanding [in terms of] what his point of view was, and what his humanity was, and what his personality was. It’s very informative on all sorts of levels—simply experiencing a little piece of almost all of his 41 movies, and being so inside his point of view while you’re thinking about his movies. You really start experiencing, as Kathryn said, the many ways that he was making different versions of the same movie all his life. The same things interested him—his fascination with complex human beings who are ordinary people. He was really talking about humanity. These were very flawed characters—they could be good people or bad people—but he loved them. He loved the actors. He got so much pleasure out of watching interesting human beings and interesting characters. That’s the reason for all of his movies—to live with people that he liked.
Q: Kathryn, how did his filmmaking career affect your personal life?
KA: It was an adjustment. Prior to ‘M.A.S.H.,’ he had done four to five years of television. We were settled in California, we had children and a nice little house with a nice little swimming people and a nice little dog–then ‘M.A.S.H.’ came out, and all hell broke loose. It was a big adjustment because we had six children between us…He took responsibility late in life that we should’ve probably insisted that our children have a higher education rather than just going right to the set…We have four sons; they’re all behind the camera. We have two daughters; they’re not…[Our sons] are still on the set, they’re still working. It didn’t come easily to Bob, and it’s not coming very easily to them [either]. But they’re doing well.
David Teich: In Variety’s review of this film, the critic writes that “Altman put his work first and his family second.” Kathryn, what’s your opinion of that comment?
KA: That came from one of our sons, Stephen. We did the narration for the film—my four sons, two daughters and myself. We read stuff that we felt, and Stevie read that line near the end of the picture. He said, “Dad’s priority was really his filmmaking and blah blah.” Of course he regrets it. He said, “I knew when I was reading that line I should’ve rearranged it.” And that’s what stuck. It’s baloney. And that’s a nice word for it.
Q: Did Bob ever consider trying to be more commercial in his filmmaking?
BB: The Hollywood movie-making machinery always tried to take Bob over in some way, but he just had to be who he was… Of course it was harder to raise money for his films because he wasn’t making the movies to make money, and people sensed that. But Bob got to make movies that he loved passionately; he never did anything except what he wanted to do.
Q: Kathryn, can you talk about which of his films are your favorites, and why?
KA: He was asked that question a lot. His answer, and I have to say it’s mine, was, “My films are like my children. I’m always the closest to the one that’s least successful.” (Laughs.)
David Teich: Kathryn, in what ways would ways do you think Bob’s work drew on his personal life?
KA: I suppose all of his films did…Maybe his background growing up in Kansas City, in Middle America—that whole Midwestern thing came through in a lot of his stuff. So did being affable and open to everyone, and comfortable, and comfortable with himself.
BB: He’d also been in the army.
KA: He was a pilot.
BB: He flew planes!
KA: A bomber. He never really talked much about it. I’m sure it had a great influence on him.
Q: Just how important is it for people to see this film?
BB: I think it’s an invaluable documentary for anybody interested in movies or life, which is kind of everybody I suppose. For filmmakers, it’s basically a film course. To understand the way his mind, heart and soul were operating, then seeing the movies hearing and him talk—it’s kind of like going to college…And an awful lot of people in this world, who now only see things when they find them by mistake on Netflix, don’t necessarily know the scope of his career. But after watching this documentary, you can instantly go, “That movie interests me, I’m going see that now.” I think that because of the volume of viewing this film is going to eventually get, with media being the way it is right now, a trove of his movies is going to be opened up that people had no idea existed. Everybody knows about ‘M.A.S.H.’ and‘Gosford Park’ and ‘Nashville,’ but I think a lot of his movies will be hidden treasures for people.
KA: I think the film depicts his life perfectly. I just hope everybody enjoys it and get to know more about him. I’m really proud of it, and my children are proud of it. I think Ron Mann has done an exceptional job.