New York -- He's been the next big thing and that old guy. He's been the flavor of the week and the bitter aftertaste. He's been "Get me Altman" and "I'm sorry Mr. Altman, Mr. Melnick isn't in. No, not tomorrow, either."
And through it all -- a career that's stretched over three decades -- he's made movies his own way, carving out, amid the market-driven corporate culture that has come to dominate the American film industry, a complex and personal body of work, from "M*A*S*H" to "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" to "Vincent and Theo" to his new film "Short Cuts."
Call him a grizzled veteran of the film game if you will, but patrician, refined and soft-spoken Robert Altman, 68, considered many to be the finest and the bravest of all American movie directors, seems far more like a dream small-college literature instructor than a major player in one of the most savagely egotistical industries on earth.
But player he is. After all, he made the definitive inside-Hollywood movie that even introduced the concept "player" to the world: his last film, "The Player," a damning, roaringly malicious indictment of the film industry that was one of the most beloved of last year's movies and almost single-handedly reinvented him as a filmmaker. Moreover, in a town that doesn't "get" irony, it resulted in dozens of offers from the very people he was ripping to shreds.
"Well, it just meant that it was easier to get the next film made," he responds laconically to the question of what he made of all the hype that attended the breakthrough of "The Player."
In fact, he insists that "The Player" was no big deal.
"It happened fast. They were looking for a director. Something had just fallen through for me, so I was available. 'The Player' was what it was, an essay on this whole thing by a writer who'd been through it. I felt that way, too, but I have no control over what the temperature is going to be when I release. You hope to be in sync. And I sometimes think that accidents in 'climate' have more to do with a film's success than anything intrinsic to the film itself.
"From my point of view," says Altman, "I've been in a straight line, not an up-and-down thing. 'Secret Honor' [his one-man soliloquy on the strangeness of Richard Nixon, funded by alternative sources] is no less a film than, say, 'M*A*S*H.' I just go in my direction."
Altman ignored the offers that came in on the heels of "The Player" and went back to "his direction," which is why "Short Cuts," a 3 1/2 -hour examination of lives lived on the San Andreas fault by non-players -- the rest of us, that is -- opens nationally Friday, after having already dominated the New York Film Festival (it was the opening night selection) and receiving near-delirious national reviews.
With its radical length, its refusal to play by the rules of formula and stardom, and its unusual source material -- stories by Raymond Carver -- "Short Cuts" is another redefinition of what is possible in feature filmmaking, an Altman specialty.
After all, he altered forever the way movie sound was recorded when he started using overlapping dialogue in a way to bring more naturalism to what's on screen.
"Jack Warner fired me," he recalls with a laugh. "I was directing a TV movie back in 1967 -- 'Countdown' it was called. 'That fool has actors talking at the same time,' Warner said. He had all my belongings delivered to the studio gate. I couldn't even clean out my desk."
But, he says, "I have no particular pride in 'inventing' overlapping dialogue. I was just trying to find a different way of doing things."
His first breakthrough was way back in 1969, when he made what was considered the most brilliant of the anti-war films, and the most hilarious: "M*A*S*H," a look at Army surgeons working just behind the lines in Korea, with then-unknowns Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland.
"I wasn't in any position to turn things down at that point in my career," recalls Altman. "I had been working on a project about World War I pilots, and it just wasn't happening. I didn't like either the script or the original novel 'M*A*SH,' but when the opportunity to make 'M*A*SH' came up, I saw it as a way to make my movie in this movie."
That fresh way of doing things extends to his use of stars and actors. In "McCabe & Mrs. Miller," his lovely, snow-dusted Western, he remembers, "Warren Beatty kept saying, 'We're the stars. Why are you paying so much attention to them?' -- meaning the minor characters. But I really like the minor characters. In some ways they're much more interesting than the stars. But the script was very ordinary and had all the cliches. It appealed to me because everybody knew the plot. It allowed me to concentrate on what was on the edges of the story. It drove Warner Bros. crazy."
Of course the film is now recognized as an American classic, one of the most original and penetrating examinations of the myth of the West.
Then there was his send-up of the private-eye genre, "The Long Good-bye," with Elliott Gould playing Raymond Chandler's famous shamus, Philip Marlowe.
"I resisted that one. I couldn't even make myself finish the book. But Elliott Gould had an idea on how to do it that appealed to me. I have to have a philosophy for each project. In this one, Gould wanted to play Rip van Marlowe, an honorable '40s detective who found himself in the immoral and drifting '70s."
That film, too, has achieved a brilliant reputation.
"Short Cuts" represents pure Altman: It's almost entirely about the so-called "minor characters": real estate saleswomen, policemen, a waitress and her limo-driver boyfriend, a prosperous couple who cannot believe the tragedy that is befalling them, a grumpy baker -- all the creations of Raymond Carver.
And it has "interesting performers" rather than stars: Lily Tomlin, ""TC Tom Waits, Chris Penn, Tim Robbins, Matthew Modine, Bruce Davison, Andie MacDowell, Lyle Lovett and so forth.
Yet the source credit for "Short Cuts" pointedly reads "based on the writings of Raymond Carver" rather than "based on stories by Raymond Carver." That's because Altman and co-writer Frank Barhydt broke down and melted together three or four different stories, used fragments from another 10 or 11, made several of the characters do double and triple duty in various corners of the long narrative, and moved the entire thing from the Pacific
Northwest, where the pieces were originally set, to Los Angeles, and provided a framing device -- a fleet of Huey helicopters dispensing anti-fruit fly spray over them all.
"We had a war room. We did everything on colored cards coded to the different stories, and we arranged them to balance to the eye. Some scenes were written just to balance it out, because we needed a blue card in a red sequence. We think of it now as 'Carveresque' rather than literally Carver. Tess Gallagher, Carver's long-time companion, says she likes it very much. She got it."
Altman was introduced to the stories on a trip back from Italy in 1986, after a film project had bitterly collapsed. "I asked for something to read, and my assistant handed me a collection of his stories. I read one or two, put it down, came back to it, read two or three more. By the time we landed, I said to her, 'Jesus, this is a movie.' I doubt I'd have considered it as a project if I hadn't come across it in that way."
He then set to work to acquire the rights to the stories but was having more financial difficulties when the opportunity to direct "The Player" came up. The success of "The Player" is what finally got the Carver project off the ground.
"I moved the story to Los Angeles for practical reasons. I could have shot it in Seattle, but somehow Seattle was too small. I wanted the enormity of L.A., from Watts to Hawthorne. The great appeal of Carver is that he understands the pain that ordinary characters have. It's very truthful. They demonstrate all kinds of forms of telling the truth, and at the same time indulge in some excesses and fantasies. I feel we're somehow inside an eggshell -- it's about to fracture and split."
Altman has been drawn before to interlocked stories: "Nashville" has the same rambling, interpenetrative structure, as do some less successful films, like "A Wedding" and "Health."
"To me, it's natural. I go back as far as 'Tales of the South Pacific,' by James Michener, which had that kind of structure. I liked the idea of doing a series of two-hour films, with major and minor characters, in which the major characters in one story were minor characters in anther. It's something I think about, but I haven't always had the opportunity to do."
But for all the single-mindedness, the orneriness, of his ways, Altman always professes amazement when he's called an iconoclast.
"It's not as complex as all that. It's just that we've seen everything by now, and there's not a lot of variation. I'm just trying to find ways to work so that I'm not bored. Some of these movies today, if I were directing them, I think I'd start being late for work."