PRINT February 2007


Robert Altman

IS NO ONE GOING TO SAY that Robert Altman was a great pothead? Let me, then. Robert Altman was a great pothead. In the war on drugs, he won. To look at his work without thinking about marijuana’s specific gifts and poisons . . . umm . . . specific . . . What was I saying? Oh. Right. Altman. Robert Altman. I met him, did I tell you that already?

Or as Fernando Pessoa says, “But he must be on fire somewhere. Otherwise, he will not cook the goose of his human inferiority.”

Six years before The Player (1992), I stopped smoking pot, for the typical reasons, but not the least of them was paranoia. And it was the ’80s, the parentheses of aerobics between the cocaine years and the advent of the age of caffeine. After Altman signed on to direct the film, I worried that I would break my abstention, which was private; I wasn’t in the program, but it held me well for that time. And Altman’s pot didn’t come out until we had been in the production offices for a week.

We were in his office, and as the joint was on its way to me I took it with a little rationalization, something like, “Altman has already told you he hates plot, so anything you can do to get closer to him will help the movie.” We were friendly but not familiar, and then, only as friendly as a writer can be with a director who hates plot, and says so. The carpet nap grew warm vines.

The script, which I wrote for David Brown after he read the galleys, had gone to a few directors. In the transition from the book, my novel about guilt had become a story about Hollywood, a subject Hollywood had avoided for years. We were asked to change the story to a steel mill. This is true. I did a rewrite for Mark Rydell, but nothing came of that. I sent the script to Chevy Chase and had a meeting with him in the Beverly Hills Hotel. He brought along a rich guy in tassel loafers, whose role other than pal of the star was unclear, but he was an early avatar of the very big money, and they gave me notes on the script and I did a few drafts for them, too. All the drafts were just rearrangements of the same blocks of story, and none of them took a long time, and like most revisions after the story and characters are set and before the reality of budget, they were useless because the thing was never going to be anything other than what it already was. Then Altman switched agencies and went to William Morris, where I was, and they gave him the script, one of the earliest drafts.

David Brown, Nick Wechsler, and I had a meeting with him. Altman took a chair while his line producer, a thin, depressed chain-smoker, distractingly hostile, slouched like an embarrassed teenager. She didn’t look healthy. Neither did he. One of Altman’s eyes was weeping, and he had a boil on his neck. He apologized. He said it would all clear up soon. He was seventy-two.

He was calmly enthusiastic but not gushing with praise, saying nothing about what he wouldn’t change or what he would; it was all very general and friendly and honest, with inevitability like a trade wind. I think he had already cast Tim Robbins.

After Altman left, David Brown, a great man, said that we should ignore Altman’s health, that Altman was a brilliant director who hadn’t had a hit for a few years and was due for one.

Altman worked with a lot of the same people, and his circus knew how to pitch the tent. The production office was happy, with the usual intrigues and alliances. He had a good cook making our lunch every day.

There are directors whose movies are just delivery systems for their self-confidence, in which self-confidence is really the thing that entertains, because it takes a bold confidence to successfully tell a stupid story, and for sure there are useful energies we suck from awful films that begin with the director’s amazing love of himself. The films of such directors are always the same, until they lose their confidence, and then their movies fail in every way—no fun for us, no money for them. Altman never told the same film twice.

To Altman we can apply Jean Giraudoux’s insight that only the mediocre are always at their best. But Giraudoux also said that the secret of success is sincerity, which contradicts what Oscar Wilde said about bad poetry being unfailingly sincere. But back to Pessoa: “Not sincerity in the absolute, but some sort of sincerity, is required in art, that it may be art.”

Some sort of sincerity: Robert Altman was a misanthrope who loved having people around, to watch their behavior. This made him a great host. He should have adapted Poe, he never made a horror film and if I’ve ever been sorry that I didn’t know him better, it’s for this, thinking about it this morning, I would have loved to pitch “The Gold Bug” to him, a story about something meaning something to people, the meaning being more important than the thing. This formula is a bit like his movies or marijuana, and the element that divides those who like his movies from those who don’t, since his movies don’t have the sharp perspectives that always point out the one thing the film wants watched.

I had forgotten how pot works, the way it rearranges the significance of things, the way internal distractions become interesting or threatening paths. It’s not a happy drug at all, it’s not two flutes of nice champagne and a pretty face and perfume in the air. After smoking a little pot with him—and other than one morning in the office he didn’t smoke during the day—some of his methods made sense, and if it was pot sense, the sense is not invalid.

As the host he didn’t cast his films, he invited actors to join him. The first call he made for casting the background movie stars for The Player was Harry Belafonte. After that, he was able to tell everyone else he wanted that Harry Belafonte was going to be an extra in this protest march against Hollywood. Schwarzenegger refused, which pissed off Altman because he’d given Arnold a nice little part in The Long Goodbye (1973). Early in the shoot he lost the center of a few scenes because, as a good host, to make his guests comfortable, he gave them too much to do, and he had to control the impulse to be generous to everyone. He held to his original plan in the party scene where Sydney Pollack confronts Tim Robbins about the rumors, while Jack Lemmon is at the piano and Rod Steiger wanders around looking at the furniture.

It isn’t that he trusted actors as much as that he loved to see them work, which is why his lighting is rarely shadowed; he needed to light enough of the set to give the actors room to move, and he mounted the camera on a custom-designed boom so that he could conduct the camera operator to float his attention through the scene.

He told me he wanted the film to be like white jazz, a distinction he didn’t define. Watching his work after he said that, I think I understood what he meant; he’d have rhythm and swing, but no deep blues, especially no faked blues, which would violate the rule or necessity of sustained sincerity. Or maybe sincerity is a mistranslation of integrity, or maybe integrity is the better word.

For a screenwriter, jazz as the model offers the scariest of all hazards: improvisation. You can’t improvise a plot, and you can improvise your way out of coherence, but screenwriters tend to be too precious about specific lines instead of making sure that the intentions of the scenes are clear enough to withstand whatever happens as the actors and director play. And the improvisations had more to do with exercises for the actors to get deeper into character than they were for dialogue, which I didn’t understand while the movie was in production, so I was out of my mind a few times on the set, at one point taking Altman outside to rant at him in a way that was primitive, stupid, and rude, and then, when the film was finished, the meanderings that upset me were gone. But he was never high on the set, and he wasn’t stoned in the editing room.

My favorite Altman films are MASH (1970), McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), California Split (1974), Three Women (1977), and Gosford Park (2001).

Michael Tolkin is a Los Angeles–based screenwriter and novelist.