Robert Altman: My films are always the director's cut

He does things his way. Always has. So, Mr Pitt, you needn't bother auditioning. David Usborne meets a master
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The Independent Culture

Robert Altman has a confession to make. He had been shooting his immensely successful Gosford Park, which opened in 2001, for a full six weeks before he even thought of the single element that eventually gave the film something approaching a storyline. He noticed that two of the actresses playing important "below stairs" parts, as servants in the stately home that gave the film its name, looked awfully alike.

Robert Altman has a confession to make. He had been shooting his immensely successful Gosford Park, which opened in 2001, for a full six weeks before he even thought of the single element that eventually gave the film something approaching a storyline. He noticed that two of the actresses playing important "below stairs" parts, as servants in the stately home that gave the film its name, looked awfully alike.

What actually happened was that he was sitting in the cast tent on location when Helen Mirren walked by, in costume, on her first day on set. Except that Altman was sure it was one of the other actresses in the star-laden cast, Eileen Atkins. He called out Eileen's name, but, of course, Helen walked straight by without responding. Then he realised his mistake - and, after a brief panic, had a revelation.

"I thought, 'Shit, I'm in trouble, they look like sisters. They look like the same person'. And they did, there was a great similarity. But then I thought, let's make them sisters." And he did. And the sibling relationship thus created enabled Altman to give the film, a period mystery, some kind of narrative denouement. "I think the film would have fallen flat if we hadn't had that final catharsis."

If you know anything about Altman and his work, you will also know this is quite an admission, because storylines have never been his greatest priority. Hollywood loves neatly signposted beginnings, middles and ends, but Altman does not care for them. They spell predictability, and that, for him, is poison. His is a far more elliptical approach. It is the only way to do anything new, he says. Audiences should leave the cinema wondering a little, not knowing exactly what happened. They especially should not know the plot before the movie is even halfway done, which, he contends, is so often the case nowadays.

The episode on the set of Gosford Park is also illustrative of the unusually organic nature of Altman's film projects. In other words, if the direction of a film changes halfway through its making, as it did in this instance, he celebrates it. "This is a growing kind of process. It's almost like painting. You know the outline at the start and you know pretty much it's going to be a guy walking out of the door and a dog barking over here. But then, as you do it, things start changing around." He is well known for letting his actors improvise and depart from the script, overlapping one another's dialogue even.

All of this will help you to make sense of his latest offering, The Company, in which Neve Campbell stars as a dancer in the real-life Joffrey Ballet Company of Chicago. The film, which opened in Britain to generally poor reviews last week, could have been a vehicle for a classic tale of "dancer faces daunting odds, overcomes them through great courage, shines in the company and, of course, falls in love along the way". Fragments of all that are indeed in the film, but they are jumbled up, exquisitely observed but never brought to any climaxes or obviously gratifying conclusions. Really, there's no story here at all. As Altman, who once made TV documentaries, says, the film is not about Campbell's character, appealing though she may be, but about a year in the life of the company itself. "It is looking under the rock of this company to see what they do there, who they are, as much as we can."

You may be disappointed, but what he has not done is make another kind of Billy Elliot. And thank God, says Altman. That is precisely not what this director, who is 80 next year, is all about. "I could have made it Billy Elliot. But I'm afraid I would be late for work making Billy Elliot. Everybody knows that story. You know exactly where it is going." But wouldn't that have made it more accessible and therefore more successful at the box office? Altman acknowledges that it was hard raising the cash for this movie - because it is the Billy Elliots that become smash hits.

"I am not in the business of making a hamburger that is the cheapest to make and I can feed the most people with and make the most money on. I am not against that sort of thing. Great work is done. But we're feeding an audience of 14-year-old boys, primarily. That's the audience, that's where the money is. We have just diluted ourselves in America all these years, because we have been exposed to all this crap. In Europe, the films are more discriminatory. You don't have these films that keep playing - meet the parents or meet the godparents or meet the grandparents..."

This is almost a rant. Except that Altman, sitting on a couch in his loft-like Manhattan office, which he describes as his "tomb" - the walls are covered with posters of his myriad movies, going back to M*A*S*H and including Short Cuts, A Wedding and The Player - is not angry. He looks a bit of a bear, but a gentle, contemplative one. He is simply describing what he does, which is different from most of his peers. What is fantastic is that he has managed to get away with it.

But nor does he come across as arrogant or smug when he allows himself to say this: "Nobody has had a more successful career than I have. You cannot name a film-maker who ever lived - I have done 40 films and many, many miles of television - who was more successful. Because you will never see, 'Altman's great film of the Seventies, the Director's Cut'. Because you have never seen a film of mine that wasn't a director's cut. I have never permitted it."

The studios are "always trying to homogenise their films into something they have seen before so they can compare it". Somehow, Altman has managed to ignore them.

He even ignored them on the day of this interview. Our talk was preceded by a meeting with some studio bigwigs who will be financing his next film, to be called The Widow Clare and to star Kate Winslet as a recently bereaved wife fending off the advances of young men swarming around in a Deep South town. One of the money-men suggested that it would be nice to have a "good actor" take one of the other parts. Well, of course, responded Altman. But then the guy said that what he really meant was Brad Pitt. And Altman flatly demurred. "He might do it, but I am not going to do it with Brad Pitt, because Brad Pitt destroys the whole thing, because too many people know him. You can't just pull a name out of a hat. Cast Brad Pitt as Charlie, and to the audience he is not Charlie, he is Brad Pitt."

Getting something new for audiences - surprising them - is Altman's biggest challenge and preoccupation. "We've gone through a thing of trying to explain everything to everybody so much, so there is no mystery, nothing for the audience to do." He makes no apology that in The Company there are scattered pieces of narrative - amid several long and luminous sections of dance by the Joffrey - but no more. "We were able to do the impression of what would become a story and not follow it through. I didn't have to tell you how any of those things came out."

What Altman says he was after - and found - was the truth about the inside workings of the Joffrey. He admits that when Campbell, who also produced the film, first approached him to direct it, he hesitated. An opera buff for years, he knew nothing about ballet. "I said, I'm not going to do this. And then it occurred to me, why shouldn't I have the joy of learning something new? I didn't know anything about country music, and I did Nashville."

And he became fascinated by the contradictions in the lives of the dancers - who are the cast of the film - alongside Campbell, who was a professional dancer before retiring because of injury and turning to acting, and Malcolm McDowell, who plays its director with exquisite bitchiness. "It was very important to get across what those company members feel and also how isolated they become, how it's very hard for them to have relationships outside their world because of their discipline."

I ask him whether he minds that he's turning 80. "Yes, I do," he replies, awkwardly shifting his large frame in the couch. He adds that he has to contend with the usual aches and pains, which perhaps explains his well-publicised penchant for pot-smoking in the presence of friends (and even the Prime Minister).

He offers an easy metaphor for how he hopes people will feel after seeing this film. As though they have just left a dinner party with friends and also people they had never met before. Going home, they try to decipher who everyone was, what their place was in the scheme of the friendships. They guess that someone is someone else's husband, but their partner puts them right, because they got it all wrong.

"These days in movies, you know everything and you know how it comes out. But in life, you never know how things come out. Death is the only ending that I know about."

'The Company' is on general release