Robert Altman: The master of subversion

In his new film Robert Altman (with a little help from a Who's Who of thespian talent) turns his satirical gaze on the English. John Walsh wonders what took him so long
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The Independent Online

Robert Altman is nursing a shocking hangover. He fills an armchair in the poshest suite at the Hyde Park Hotel, a seedy giant of 76 in a Wild Bill Hickock beard and a grey T-shirt that billows like a topsail against the swell of his bon viveur's tummy. His eyes are bleary with excess after "eight days of this promo stuff", poor man, and he sends the photographer away, to wait until he feels better and stops resembling King Lear after a night at the Blasted Heath Arms.

He looks like a man who badly needs a Jeeves to shimmer imperturbably into the room with a reviving Prairie Oyster. And he'd be right at home with a manservant, since the British class system is the subject of his new film, Gosford Park. Boasting a cast of British thespians most directors would cheerfully slit their throats to work with (including Bates, Jacobi, Mirren, Atkins, Fry, Gambon, Dance, Scott Thomas, Wilby, Northam, Watson, E Grant and Maggie Smith), and set in a stately home in 1932, it skilfully conflates an Agatha Christie mystery and a satire on class hierarchies and the noblesse.

It's the first film he's ever made in the UK, and after two hours of murmurings in the drawing-room and bitching in the kitchen, you wonder what took him so long. His cameras prowl across the opulent carpets, around the card tables and the grand piano, picking up gossip, eavesdropping on the sexual intrigues, the mortifying pleas for an "allowance", the casual cruelties and put-downs ("Green," muses Maggie Smith, surveying a slightly down-at-heel young guest, "such a difficult colour to wear, of course"). The master of overlapping dialogue and ensemble acting is entirely in his element in the land of tiered cake-stands and pheasant shoots.

Subversion is his métier. There should be a dot in the middle of his name. He's the alternative visionary, the counter-mythologist, the contra mundum king, the man who takes the settled genres of American culture and turns them inside out. He reinvented the Western in McCabe and Mrs Miller, the film noir in Thieves Like Us, the gumshoe flick in The Long Goodbye, the country'n'western saga in Nashville, the comic strip in Popeye, the medical drama in M*A*S*H. Why Gosford Park?

"I was talking to Bob Balaban [who co-produced the film and co-stars as a visiting LA producer], a friend for 20 years, and I said 'I've never done a mystery – where everyone's in a house, there's a murder, there are suspects, Ten Little Indians – that would interest me'. We talked it over, he read every book by Agatha Christie. We decided it would have to be set in England in a stately home.

"But as we went on, I thought, 'I don't want to make a real mystery, where, at the end, the inspector gets everyone into one room'. It's too, you know, Charlie Chan."

Instead, he turned up the social satire, "and as we researched, we found this really interesting stuff, that the servants had their own hierarchy and good manners, their own class structure. There were two different cultures living under one roof, and the one below-stairs was more complicated because it was territorial – the cook and the housekeeper had their own domains".

Altman's extended stay in England hasn't turned him into a native (though he now says "bloke" a lot) but he met some fine examples of national phlegm during his researches. "We talked to a butler, a footman, a housemaid and a cook, all in their nineties, all retired from a life in service. We found a woman called Violet who'd worked at Chequers and for Bernard Shaw. They told very different stories about what happened, but sanitised it. None of them was at all rebellious. The cook had worked for the Duke of Westminster for two years, and hadn't a bad word about anyone. I said to her, 'Didn't anybody ever fuck around? How'd you end up getting married?' She blushed and said, "Oh, we never met on the premises'."

He laughs with real amusement. "The butler was called Arthur. He was 85, he'd come on the set in full livery and bring us butlering items, saying, 'You should put this in your set'." Altman recalls a moment when Arthur was checking the authenticity of the dining-room – the silverware, the napery, the ruler for the distance between place settings. The director rolled the cameras and, under his instructions, Jeremy Swift, playing a footman, picked up a spoon, breathed on it and gave it a surreptitious polish. An agonised yell came from behind the monitors: "Oh, NO NO NO NO, NEVER! OH MY GOD! – "He just went red in the face. I said, it's OK, I won't use it in the film."

He was intrigued to find that visiting servants in the 1930s were called by their employer's choice of name, when below-stairs. "It's amazing, but logical. You wonder why they would do that, and you realise these servants had no identity, and their names would be changed many times. A girl might come into a household at 14, say her name was Penelope and be told, 'That's too difficult. You'll be Betty'."

He is famously good with actors, a brilliant orchestrator of ensemble casts. Were English ones as troublesome as their American peers? "American ensembles don't have the same structure, because all the British actors have theatre experience," he said at once. "Gambon and Jacobi and Helen Mirren, they're used to being in a room with a lot of other actors. It's something to do with the culture. There's a set of manners and rules imposed on English people as children, which means they hide their own emotions, they 'behave well'. They become actors, and it's natural to them to play Jack the Ripper, to play the fool. It's very hard to get Americans to play such parts. Their agents wouldn't let them do it, for a start."

Altman comes from Kansas, the son of a rich insurance salesman, schooled by liberal Catholics, who organised trips to local cinemas. At 20, he joined the Army Air Force, flew as co-pilot on bombing missions to Japan, and did his training just outside LA. He took up acting, married the first of three wives, LaVonne, and appeared as an extra in Sam Goldwyn's The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

He switched to scriptwriting, then, for 20 years, until M*A*S*H made his name, he toiled in the least appealing corners of the cinematic vineyard. He learned filmcraft back in Kansas City with the Calvin Company – makers of industrial movies and government documentaries – but was fired several times for his experiments with overlapping soundtracks (it drove the clients nuts). Then he was hired in 1955 to make a low-budget film about juvenile crime; it became The Delinquents, and was admired by Hitchcock, who called Altman in to work on the Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV show. "We only had one meeting," he recalls. "He was OK. I wasn't a big Hitchcock fan, though I think Rear Window is his best – I like that business of taking away one of the senses, of being confined to a wheelchair. But mostly his films are too, ah, linear for me."

He parted company with AHP after a dispute with the Teamsters Union, but stayed in TV, doing stints on Bonanza, The Whirlybirds, and Maverick starring a young Roger Moore. As he went through the Sixties, picking up any bits of work that were available – car chases, aerial sequence, police dramas – one can see how his busy, eclectic imagination was fed by popular genres, just as his satirical impulse was fed by the frustration of not being able to make the movies he wanted.

M*A*S*H changed all that. It came out almost alongside Mike Nichols' film of Catch-22. Nichols' film had a huge budget and Orson Welles; M*A*S*H was made for $3.5m by a TV director with no stars. It was Altman's only smash, made $40m worldwide, won Best Screenplay Oscar and the Palme d'Or, and made his name. "I had a big sign put up in my office," says Altman. "It said, 'We Caught 22'."

"I've been very lucky," he says, reviewing his career. "There's never been a film-maker who's had a better shake than I've had. Whether the films came my way, or I went and got them, doesn't make much difference. I've never, in 35 years, not had a film to do. They were always films of my choosing, and I've always controlled the destinies of each one."

Even when the studio tried a re-edit themselves, as they did with The Gingerbread Man? "They tried to take it away from me," he growls. "They tested the film, and it didn't test well. But I couldn't make the movie that would test well. I deplore that process. You'd never reshoot a movie because of what a focus group says. If the film fails, it fails. But if it starts getting mutated, it's certainly gonna fail because you're making it something that it's not."

Does he ever see a time when Hollywood can make a blockbuster about the events of 11 September? There were lots of voices raised at the time saying it should never happen... "Well, I hope my voice was the strongest," he says. "All of us in the business, we all made training films for that event. Everything you saw had already happened in the movies. We have a responsibility when we make films – we are fostering and supporting a certain mentality..."

With the possible exception of the four threatening crop-duster planes that prowl across the LA night in the credit sequence to Short Cuts, he has never had any truck with agents of violence or destruction. Why? "Because it's never interested me – and I don't know how to do those special effects. It isn't real. I'm interested in real human behaviour." Always as a satirist? He muses. His great handsome face is like Mount Rushmore. "It's the window I look out of. It's what interests me. Taking what everybody thinks is normal and saying, 'Yeah, but it's not really that, it's this'."

'Gosford Park' is out on 1 February