"Look! I Made This!"

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"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.

"People say, '[Garry Shandling's Larry Sanders Show] ripped you off.' I tell them, 'Nobody ripped me off. I'm thrilled that that kind of thing was picked up, that people said they could do it after all.' If you're the first to do something, you can't succeed at it. You cannot."

There is no hiding the fact that Robert Altman, not long ago a provocateur and pain in the ass, is an old man; the rebel wrinkles, even if he does not tire. At the end of this month, he will go to London to begin shooting a film set between World War I and II, using an all-English cast. He mentions it often, insisting he's as excited about this project--which is based on his own story, though he did not write the screenplay--as any in his career. Altman knows it will be damned hard to sell it to a mainstream audience. He couldn't care less.

It's only within the last few months that his mythology has given way to the actual work. This summer, loving retrospectives of his 1970s films ("No one thinks I made a movie in the 1980s," he says, shrugging) took place in both Los Angeles and New York. Studios that once despised him offered to strike fresh prints of his deteriorating classics, at considerable expense ($10,000-$20,000 a pop). In August, Paramount also released a 25th anniversary DVD of Nashville, complete with Altman commentary--even though he despises such things, insisting it makes him feel like a real-estate agent guiding a stranger through a piece of property. Do not assume he harbors any bitterness about the way the system treated him in the 1970s; he bears his own share of the blame. Besides, he continues to work, and rather likes attending these retrospectives, staying for every screening. Staying until the very end.

"If I were on a desert island with a great projection system and I could press a button and see any of my films I wanted at any time, I would never look at any of them," he says, grinning. "But if one stray cat walked along who showed interest, I would run it and watch every minute of it. You're looking at it through somebody else's eyes, which is what you made it for in the first place. The cartoonist Abner Dean once had this drawing of a knoll with a dead tree on it, and hanging from the tree was all kind of junk. Coming around the knoll was this endless line of people trudging these big boulders behind them. There was this young, lithe, naked man standing next to the tree, and he's trying to enlist their attention. He's saying, 'Look! I made this!' Man, that's the business I'm in. That's what I'm doing.

"Hollywood will want me when I die. Seriously. They will when I die. In the meantime, somebody has to say, 'Let's go with this,' and the general consensus is that my films don't make any money in a mass audience, and it's true. They don't. I have a cult following, and that's not enough people to make a minority."

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky

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