By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
That is why he pays for his own films, lining up a distributor only after his completed product is in the can. Indeed, Altman and Richard Gere put up the cash for Dr. T and the Women, opening Friday, and secured a deal with Artisan to distribute the film only a few months ago. It's the only way the director knows he will retain final cut. The moneylenders will not corrupt his sacred temple.
"It wouldn't have been a problem if I had wanted to go out and do M*A*S*H 2," Altman says. "I cannot tell you the amount of money I was offered to do that. They want you to repeat what is the sure success--or what they think is a sure success, and there is no such thing. There isn't anybody who's ever lived in this business--in this art, whatever it is--who's had a better shake than I have. I've never been without a film, I've never been without a film of my own choosing, and I've never had a film edited on me. The last time I had final cut on a studio film was when Alan Ladd was at Fox. I did five films over there, and at that time nobody bothered with me.
"I make these films for a million and a half, and I didn't make any money out of it. If I go a year without working, I'm in trouble. I'm not gonna starve to death, but I am certainly not a wealthy man, and as someone who's done 37 films, I should be better off. But I wouldn't have it any other way, because the minute you start taking their money, they have control. My main thing has always been getting the film made. I staked out this path, because it's just the way I wandered through the landscape and created my own path. I didn't have any great plan. It just occurred. Now, I know what it is. It costs so much money to make these pictures that most people are so thrilled when somebody says, '[Miramax boss] Harvey Weinstein's gonna put up the money, but he's gonna cut your film, and you're gonna have to use Gwyneth Paltrow.' They do that, because it's a means to an end. But I just don't know how to operate that way."
In Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Peter Biskind tries to make the case that Altman was "a rebel from the word 'go'": He was born into a prominent family (his old man, B.C. Altman, sold insurance when he wasn't "gambling, whoring, and drinking," writes Biskind); and, at the age of 19, Robert enlisted in the Air Force and served as a copilot flying against Japan at the tail end of World War II. He married young, moved to Los Angeles, got divorced, moved back to Kansas City, made industrials for the Calvin Co., married again in 1954, had two sons, and divorced again in 1957. He made his first films during this period--The Delinquents, a low-budget rebel-without-a-cause picture,and a 1957 documentary about the life and death of James Dean--and moved back to L.A., directing episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
He worked in television for nearly a decade, directing and writing episodes of The Whirlybirds(where he met his third wife, Kathryn), Maverick, Peter Gunn, Combat!, U.S. Marshal, Bonanza, and a single episode of Route 66, among many other shows. Unlike such filmmakers as John Frankenheimer and Arthur Penn, who worked in live television before making the leap to feature filmmaking, Altman didn't need liberating from the shackles of the small screen. He moved to film only after he managed to piss off his bosses at the networks; Biskind recounts how, in September 1963, he told Varietythat the Kraft Suspense Theater--his employer at the time--was "as bland as its cheese." He was only too happy to commit career suicide. The man craved constant rebirth, and film provided him with that chance.
Nevertheless, Altman would return time and again to television; unlike many of his peers, he doesn't find such work beneath him. Indeed, perhaps his best work was for the small screen: Twelve years ago, Altman and Doonesburycreator Garry Trudeau debuted Tanner '88, a fiction-meets-fact miniseries starring Altman-regular Michael Murphy as a presidential candidate who encountered the likes of Bob Dole and Gary Hart as they begged for votes along the rutted campaign trail. HBO, which initially aired the series, has never chosen to rerun it; and it's not available on video or DVD--despite the fact that Altman continues to sell the series to European television (very little of Altman's work is available on home video; half his career is missing). In 1998, Trudeau and Altman would work together again on a jittery, half-brilliant pilot for a series called Killer App, about an Internet startup desperate for venture capital. The show wasn't picked up and has never aired, because "it was too smart for the room," as Altman says.
"When I moved to film, I was in the A-level of TV directors, and I was working all the time," he says. "I was doing my own thing. I was producing my own things; and I was really intent on changing the way those things were done, so I wasn't just looking to get out. I was smart enough to know that to go out and do a feature that's bad isn't gonna help me at all. I was looking for a piece of property that had some value. Films were just a bigger scale, that's all, and I went back to TV many, many times. Tanner is as creative a work as I've ever done. I don't know of anything that's any better than that. If I hadn't done Tanner, I couldn't have done The Player. The whole idea of mixing fiction and fact was brand-new.