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"I am an entertainer," proclaimed the matinee idol, playwright and composer Ivor Novello, the real-life historical figure at the center of Robert Altman's new movie Gosford Park. "Empty seats and good opinions mean nothing to me."

Altman at age 76 might well say the same thing. Although his only break-out hits have been M*A*S*H and The Player, he's been following his muse for more than four decades to challenge and amuse himself, and as big an audience as he can find -- not to court critics or to push a social or artistic agenda.

One of Novello's biographers wrote: "Nobody was ever less of a snob. His only standard was quality; he would have nothing which, in achievement or texture, was second rate." You could say that of Altman, too. Some of his greatest accomplishments have come from bringing his own rich textures and unpredictable qualities to familiar and often lowdown genres. He took on the private-eye movie in The Long Goodbye, the gambling movie in California Split, the Western in McCabe and Mrs. Miller; even Nashville, his masterpiece, is an epic variation on the backstage musical.

Now comes Gosford Park, a charming picture that contains elements from TV series like Upstairs, Downstairs and films like The Rules of the Game and The Shooting Party, and places them in the structure of an Agatha Christie whodunit.

It's said to be a change of pace for Altman, but aside from its 1932 time and rural English place, it's a quintessential Altman film. With an amazing cast, it follows two sets of characters -- masters and mistresses, and their servants -- over the course of a shooting party at the estate of Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) and his wife, Lady Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas). The visiting aristocrats include Charles Dance as Sylvia's brother-in-law and Maggie Smith as her aunt. The servants on the staff include Alan Bates as the head manservant, Helen Mirren as the housekeeper, Eileen Atkins as the cook, Derek Jacobi as Sir William's valet, Emily Watson as the head housemaid and Richard E. Grant as the first footman. The visiting staff includes Kelly Macdonald as Smith's maid and Clive Owen as Dance's valet. And then there are a few wild cards. Jeremy Northam plays Sir William's cousin, Novello, whose status as a movie star means nothing to the nobles; Bob Balaban plays a Hollywood producer of Charlie Chan films -- and his standing as a moviemaker means even less to them, especially since he brings along Ryan Philippe as a suspiciously confident and clumsy servant.

A murder occurs, suspects are questioned, and the crime solved -- for the audience, if not for the authorities. Yet the murder mystery is itself one big red herring. The genuine mysteries are those of human behavior: the kinds of blindness and denial that the higher aristocrats live in (the shakier ones are desperate and needy) and the awareness and discipline and sometimes the irony that sustain a life of servitude. And why does the upstairs-downstairs lifestyle continue to enthrall audiences? In Altman's hands, there's no mystery -- it's all heartbreakingly funny and beautiful.

You're known for working on American subjects with American actors and using your intuition and your knowledge of them personally as well as professionally to collaborate with them on performances. Here you are working with English actors who come out of a more formal tradition. How did you experience the change?

It was wonderful. People ask, how can an American go over and get so deep into another culture? I say look at the terrific job John Schlesinger did on Midnight Cowboy with an American culture. You don't have to be one to act one. Lily Tomlin taught me that in Nashville; I just remember her saying that. You don't have to be one to act one.

Of course, all these actors are theater-oriented and trained. They all respect one another and there are no agents on the set. Everyone gets paid the same thing and no one has a special dressing room or a special hairdresser. Basically, I kind of funneled the actors into characters. I put them in a part and they responded to it. You know, they're all theater actors. Derek Jacobi was in the theater every night. So I said, "Derek, I can't use you in this picture other than in this really kind of small part and get you into the theater on time." He said, "I don't care if it's small, I want to be in this film." All of those people are like that. But that couldn't happen here. The agents wouldn't have them do it.

Can any of their strengths be transferred to the American scene?

Maybe, but I doubt it, because mainly these people are generous with one another. I think the real problem here is the agent thing: chasing these big salaries. And who's going to get the biggest trailer? And everybody comes with their own hairdresser. I'll never do that again. I did that with Miss [Helen] Hunt on Dr. T and the Women, and I'll just never do that again. I mean, it's pointless -- the agents and the managers coming in and saying they have to have this and this. Everybody in our company on Gosford Park was a peer, and they all were good people.

In "Gosford Park" you play a lot of games, including ones with simple identification -- that the visiting servants are named for their masters, for example.

I tried to figure out some way to avoid that -- but it would have been denying what was true. You had these two different cultures living right under this roof, and it was just amazing. I figured out that the upstairs part of the film is a comedy and the downstairs part is drama. I didn't think of it as I was making it, because I don't think of things that way; but I do think that probably it is correct. I learn about what it is I'm doing by talking about it afterward. Otherwise, it would be calculated.

You also play games with our sympathies. At first we may feel sympathetic with the parvenu Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) simply because of how condescending all the aristocrats who leech off him are to him.

I'm not trying to make a film about good guys and bad guys. It's about guys.

And about women, too! And not just veteran performers: Camilla Rutherford, who plays Sir William's daughter, is visually funny, like an illustration out of "Alice in Wonderland" with her hair sticking out every which way.

Camilla Rutherford hadn't had any stage experience before -- she'd been a model -- but boy, she's hot. She's very funny in a very nerdy way; it was courageous of her, I think, to do this kind of part.

You're thought to have a structure problem in your movies, yet isn't this movie all about social structure?

And at the end of it you see the structure starting to come apart. All these people living under one roof and yet there's two separate societies there. It's fascinating. And, actually, the below-stairs society is more complicated than the upstairs society. There were more hierarchies below. We didn't get into the scullery maids too much. And the boys who were waiting on the table when the servants were having their dinner. They were all waited on.

You do a lot about the relationship between the masters and the servants.

And the masters all feel the servants just are crazy about them!

There's one character that sticks out ...

Ivor Novello? He is just a great character. He wrote, I think, 250 popular songs, he had as many as four musical shows in the West End at the same time; he had starred in six silent American films, Garbo was his friend; he did The Lodger with Hitchcock and it was such a big success that he did it again -- and it flopped that second time. But what happened to him was that during the Second World War he got caught, arrested, really, for getting illegal petrol for a lady friend -- when I say friend, I mean friend, for him -- and they put him in jail for some time. It was a disgrace -- he was never knighted, which he would have been for sure. It just kind of destroyed him. Most Americans don't know much about him. He was gay but he had one partner for life and was monogamous. We read all those biographies and it was never mentioned, because that sort of thing wasn't spoken of until much, much later in the 20th century.

Everything about him was factual, and it was all his music -- Jeremy Northam just played it and sang it great. And the other character like that was Bob Balaban's character, the producer of the Charlie Chan movie who's doing research for the next one of the series. Everything related to Charlie Chan in London is factual. Not Balaban's part itself, but everything he mentions about the studios, and who was running the studios and all the actors they were going to use.

Music is always so important to your films; were Novello's songs central to your concept of the film?

They were the center stuff. Then Patrick Doyle did the score, which I wanted very minimal, as a tie-in to complement the Ivor stuff. I just didn't want to have big music of any kind. I tried not to have any over-music, I preferred the music to be indigenous to the material and I'm very happy with the way it turned out.

The most touching part of the film is when the servants listen to Novello playing.

They love him, they love that sort of entertainer; the upstairs people are like Maggie saying, "We'd never see it."

Another theme is the gossip that goes on between upstairs and downstairs -- it's almost like a kid's game of telephone.

We wanted to tell the whole story through below-stairs gossip. Of course, Kelly Macdonald, who plays Mary -- she's sort of the tour guide; she's also Charlie Chan. She was the first person I cast. I think we first saw her here in Trainspotting; she's just a remarkable Scottish actress. First person I cast, marvelous.

The movie is partly an homage to Jean Renoir's "The Rules of the Game," with a bird hunt instead of a rabbit hunt. But it's also part Agatha Christie -- and she had her share of class-consciousness, too.

Sure she did. Our shorthand for talking about the film was "Agatha Christie meets Rules of the Game."

You're known for gathering all your actors on location and getting them to congregate off the set in dinners or parties. Did that happen here?

I was a little disappointed that the get-togethers didn't happen, and I couldn't figure out why I couldn't make it work that way until I realized that I was the only one on location. Everyone else, when they finished work, went home. But some of these actors, like Michael Gambon and Tom Hollander, when they were on call but didn't have to come in, they'd come in anyway just to hang out with their mates. So everyone really loved doing it. And that's the most important thing: They were all comfortable and had a terrific time and liked what they were doing.

People who haven't seen the film shouldn't read this, but Helen Mirren is really potent, and the revelation of her relationship to Eileen Atkins is sensational.

That didn't happen until we were six and a half weeks into shooting. The first day that Helen came to work she got her hair and her wardrobe stuff done. And I was in the dining room and I looked up and I saw her walking across; I thought it was Eileen. I called out "Eileen" and she didn't answer. And then I looked over to my left and there was Eileen sitting there and having lunch. And I thought, my God, I've done a terrible thing and I'm in real trouble, because I was so careful not to have people that the audience would mix up with one another. And I thought, my God, I screwed up here, because these girls look like sisters. And Julian Fellowes, our writer, was sitting at a table, and I said, "Let's do that, let's make them sisters." And this couldn't have been done if this were a studio, Hollywood-oriented movie. Couldn't happen. And without that growing out of the fabric of making the film, I don't think it would have the emotional impact it has.

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