Stories close to home: Short Cuts, the latest film from Robert Altman, is drawn from nine stories and a poem by Raymond Carver. Here Altman the director talks about Carver the writer
Wednesday 23 February 1994
I look at all Carver's work as just one story, for his stories are all occurrences, all about things that just happen to people and cause their lives to take a turn. Maybe the bottom falls out. Maybe they have a near-miss with disaster. Maybe they just have to go on, knowing things they don't really want to know about one another.
In formulating the mosaic of the film Short Cuts, which is based on nine stories and a poem, I've tried to do the same thing - give the audience one look. But the film could go on for ever, because its like life - lifting the roof off the Weathers' home and seeing Stormy decimate his furniture with a skillsaw then lifting off another roof, the Kaisers', or the Shepherds', and seeing some different behaviour.
We've taken liberties with Carver's work: characters have crossed over from one story to another; they connect by various linking devices; names have been changed. And though some purists and Carver fans may be upset, this film has been a serious collaboration between the actors, my co-writer Frank Barhydt, and Carver's material.
When I first spoke to the poet Tess Gallagher, Ray's widow, about wanting to make this film, I told her I wasn't going to be pristine in my approach to Carver and that the stories were going to be scrambled. She instinctively recognised and encouraged this, and said Ray was an admirer of Nashville, that he liked the helplessness of those characters and their ability to manage nevertheless. She also knew that artists in different fields must use their own skills and vision to do their work. Cinematic equivalents of literary material manifest themselves in unexpected ways. I feel I've had discussions with Ray through Tess. She's been a real contributor to the film.
I read all of Ray's writings, filtering him through my own process. The film is made of little pieces of his work that form sections of scenes and characters out of the most basic elements of Ray's creations - new but not new. Tess and Zoe Trainer, the emotionally displaced mother and daughter played by Annie Ross and Lori Singer, provide the musical bridges in the film - Annie's jazz and Lori's cello. They are characters Frank Barhydt and I invented, but Tess Gallagher felt they were consistent with Ray's characters and could have come out of his story 'Vitamins'.
Raymond Carver's view of the world, and probably my own, may be termed dark by some. We're connected by similar attitudes about the arbitrary nature of luck in the scheme of things - the child being hit by the car in 'A Small Good Thing'; the marriage upheaval resulting from a body being discovered during a fishing trip in 'So Much Water So Close to Home'. Somebody wins a lottery. The same day, that person's sister gets killed by a brick falling off a building in Seattle. Those are the same thing. The lottery was won both ways.
One of the reasons we transposed the settings from the Pacific Northwest to Southern California was that we wanted to place the action in a vast suburban setting so that it would be fortuitous for the characters to meet. The setting is untapped Los Angeles, which is also Carver country; not Hollywood or Beverly Hills, but Downey, Watts, Compton, Pomona, Glendale - American suburbia, the names you hear on the freeway reports.
We have 22 principal actors in the cast and they brought things to this film I wouldn't have dreamed of. Only three or four of these actors ever appeared together in the film because each week we began another story, with another family. But we gave the cast all of the original stories, and many went on to read more of Ray's work. The first family we filmed were the Piggotts, Earl and Doreen, played by Tom Waits and Lily Tomlin. Their work was so superb that I thought I'd be in trouble, but all of the actors stepped up to that level, going beyond or sideways from my expectations, taking over and redefining their roles.
Writing and directing are both acts of discovery. In the end, the film is there and the stories are there and one hopes there is a fruitful interaction. Yet in directing Short Cuts, certain things came straight out of my sensibility, which has its differences, and this is as it should be. I know Ray Carver would have understood that I had to go beyond just paying tribute. Something new happened in the film, and maybe that's the truest form of respect.
Extract from the introduction to 'Short Cuts' by Raymond Carver, published by Harvill, at pounds 6.99.
Robert Altman 1993.
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