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Remembering Robert Altman: 'The Best Part Was Seeing Bob In Action'

The American Cinematheque is marking the 20th anniversary of Robert Altman's Short Cuts by screening the film along with a documentary about its making Luck,Trust and Ketchup at 6:30 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 9. Mike Kaplan, who served as as associate producer on Short Cuts and produced the documentary, enjoyed a long friendship with Altman and here recounts the difficult search for financing, the production's complex logistics, Altman's mastery of his sets -- and a rare moment of uncertainty on the part of the director, who died in 2006.

I hadn’t seen Bob Altman in three days -- the longest separation since Short Cuts started shooting.  All the previous locations were in the greater Los Angeles area, but this week, the week devoted to shooting Raymond Carver’s So Much Water, So Close to Home, his famous short story of three fishermen finding a nude, drowned female body, filming was centered near Bakersfield, in central California, along the Kern River. It was the middle of summer and it was broiling hot.

I had been involved with Short Cuts for several years, convinced the combination of Altman and Carver could create one of Altman’s great mosaics, one that could rival Nashville. Financing had been difficult and when it appeared that I had found an enthusiastic French co-producer, the first call each morning would be from Bob wanting to hear what was happening in Paris. It would often be followed by anxious calls in the afternoon, asking for any updates.

For the first six months, Dominique, the French producer who had good connections, would have concrete facts about the financing components. As time dragged on, the information became erratic and far-fetched, which I conveyed to Bob, but funding a unique, long treasured project is always a minefield.  And Bob, being a supreme survivor, never gave up on a possibility. One rides on the luck of the next call, trusting it will be the one. 

I had pulled the plug on Dominique several times but Bob would ignore it, asking the next morning if we had spoken.

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There were various international brokers, a Nigerian oil connection and missed meetings at a Denver airport. When she said she didn’t know what had happened to the last source, a former intelligence officer who disappeared while driving with cash from Cannes to Paris, it was a bad 007 scene.

We continued looking for financing while Bob made The Player, which after the critical success of Vincent and Theo, secured his second coming.  He cast me as the marketing executive in The Player, a role I had played for him both directly and indirectly from Brewster McCloud  (while I was at MGM) through A Wedding, and after resuming our working friendship with Vincent and Theo, it was also a way of brainstorming Short Cuts

There was a promising meeting with a young production executive from a well heeled Japanese company, who was impressed with the cast and with whom it looked like there could be traction.

But then she asked,  “How can Mr. Altman make a film with so many characters? How can you follow them?”

I said, “Think of Nashville." 

She answered, “What’s Nashville?”

I tried to be polite.

Somehow, Short Cuts submerged into the background as I found myself in the middle of Bob’s bravura 10-minute, 25 character opening for The Player, walking from Dina Merrill’s studio office with Annie Ross and Frank Barhydt (Short Cuts' co-writer), past Fred Ward as the film buff security chief describing Orson Welles' legendary opening tracking shot in Touch of Evil, which Bob was now both acknowledging and satirizing, having to get our lines out before reaching the window where JoanTewksbury and Pat Resnick were pitching production head Tim Robbins on a new project.

Sixteen years before, Bob startled me by asking me to act in Buffalo Bill and the Indians -- and later, to also spearhead the film’s publicity. He loved consolidating costs. Playing Cowboys and Indians with Paul NewmanGeraldine ChaplinBurt Lancaster and a host of new friends at the foot of the Rockies was a peak experience. But those scenes never involved the precise timing of this complex shot, which we worked on for several days, setting and re-setting positions for 14 takes – perhaps an Altman record.  I wasn’t a trained actor; after the first run-throughs, I realized this required precision timing. We were a relay of movement, dialog and technique that had to be coordinated with each action that preceded and followed -- like well-oiled machinery. There wasn't the usual Altman maneuverability. My stomach was in knots; I had to validate Bob’s trust in my being able to do it.

Ironically, the take used in The Player lost my final line, “That’s what we get paid the big bucks for, Annie.”

It went off screen. Perhaps it reflected the difficulties in financing Short Cuts

The different roles in the years of my Altman experience – actor, distributor, publicist, confidant, new best friend -- played out on the three hour drive to Bakersfield. The Player had opened to rave reviews, won the New York Film Critics award as the year's best film, and was nominated for major Oscars. More importantly, it was Bob's biggest commercial hit since M*A*S*H and that paved the way for The Player players (New Line Pictures and Avenue Pictures) plus a new one (Spelling Entertainment) to step up to the plate for Short Cuts at the 1992 Cannes Film Festival, when Bob received the best director award.

When the money was there, he told the financiers I had to be involved. He didn't have to; we never had a contract during the years I was hunting for funds, but that didn't mean anything to Bob. I had become part of Short Cuts. I would have some kind of producer credit and was expected to handle the marketing, which I accepted, on the condition of making a documentary about the film, which I felt was too important not to be recorded.

Bob had never allowed anyone else's camera on set. He agreed, providing the camera was unobtrusive and he liked the cameraman. Trust again.

I had the candidate. John Dorr conceived the first video gallery in the United States, EZTV, a combination showcase and editing facility for video work in West Hollywood, which he believed would free artists from the high costs of filmmaking. He was a Yale graduate, a film scholar and a mellow enthusiast who always saw possibilities no matter how difficult the endeavor.

We had presented Barbet Schroeder's The Charles Bukowski Tapes at EZTV, which was their biggest hit, and Bob had been there for special runs of Secret Honor, his film of Richard Nixon unraveling starring Philip Baker Hall, my gold standard for single performance films. John admired Altman, but crucially, his sensibility could merge into the Altman company. He had already made his first feature videos, including Dorothy And Alan at Norma Place, about Dorothy Parker and her husband, Alan Campbell.                        

We had planned to drive to Bakersfield together but my publicity hat demanded an earlier appearance as a local reporter wanted to watch the filming.

The heat was stifling; the location a good 40 minutes from the Red Lion Inn where the company was staying. Bob nodded across the hotel restaurant as I explained to the young journalist that his sets were always closed. It was impossible to know how an Altman film would turn out so it was premature to cover the shooting. But I had brought along a recent article in which an unidentified woman's body was found in the Kern River, close to our location. The similarities to Carver's story were uncanny. Carver's work was set in the Pacific Northwest, but Bob had transposed the settings to southern California suburbia, cooking his own recipe of “Carver Soup.”

Together with a promise of appropriate stills from the location, there was enough to write about. The local press was satisfied.

 

Bob came over after dinner, excused himself to the journalist, then turned to me: "We have an early start. Walk me back to my room."

He looked tired but wanted the news.

Short Cuts' ten-week shooting schedule was divided into weekly divisions for each of the nine Carver stories and poem that would comprise the tapestry. Each set of actors were only available for a week, during which time we also had to conduct a full interview for the documentary and shoot Bob directing a key scene in their section.

It was vital to schedule this extracurricular work when they were comfortable with their characters. So our filming took place on either their third or fourth day. Waiting until day five -- their last -- could be precarious.

In addition, I had proposed that artist Don Bachardy paint the actors in character, in costume, within their week's time frame. Don had drawn nearly every major cultural figure in the last 50 years, first having access through Christopher Isherwood, his life partner, before his work developed its own significant reputation.

Bachardy's style captured the interior feelings of his subjects in intensive four-to-six hour sittings, which paralleled the sharp observations of Altman and Carver. To most directors, this project would be dicey, potentially interfering with production time. Bob, however, jumped to its uniqueness. It would be the largest cast portraiture ever undertaken from life sittings.

In effect, we were making another 90-minute film during this intricately scheduled major production. A multi-colored chart detailed how the 22 principals were juggled between their locations for Short Cuts, their interview time on set and Bachardy’s studio in Santa Monica Canyon, where they would arrive from wardrobe. This was accepted as part of the Altman experience. Anne Archer sat twice, once as housewife “Claire Dane,” and again as the clown, which required four hours in makeup. Don became another member of the company, never missing dailies, watching the actors become their characters.

Only Jennifer Jason Leigh questioned the paintings. She came to my office after receiving the request for portrait time, shyly asking to see Bachardy's work. I pulled out a book of his black and white drawings, covered the names of the luminaries, and we played a recognition game for 20 minutes. She smiled like a little girl each time she correctly identified Katharine HepburnWarren BeattyTennessee WilliamsFrancois Truffaut, Elton JohnVincente MinnelliLillian GishAndy WarholNatalie Wood and Montgomery Clift. Her concerns were calmed.

 

Bob and I began walking down what seemed to be a mile of maroon corridors in the Red Lion Inn, heading towards his room. "How are the portraits coming?" he asked. 

Don had already completed Andie McDowellBruce Davison, Lily TomlinFrances McDormandPeter GallagherJulianne MooreMatthew Modine and Lyle Lovett and we'd have images to show him in a few days.

We talked in shorthand.  

Then his voice changed -- without skipping a beat in his gait.

"I have no idea what I'm going to shoot tomorrow," he announced. 

We were at his room.

He opened the door and began undressing.

"I don't know if I can pull this off. I'm exhausted."

He climbed into bed in his undershorts.

I said something innocuous like I'm certain it will work out -- worried at never hearing this tone before, Bob always the master of assurance when it came to filming.

He pulled up the covers, deep in a maze of thought, then closed his eyes.

"Turn off the lights as you leave," he said.

 

The day's scenes were the most crucial for the story of the three fishermen -- played by Fred Ward, Buck Henry and Huey Lewis. They discover the naked body of a woman near their campsite, and decide to leave it in the water while fishing, rationalizing that nothing can be done until their weekend is over when they'll alert authorities.  

I missed the crew bus so drove hurriedly after a sleepless night, nervous about John finding the set, Bob's fears repeating in my head…"I don’t know what to shoot tomorrow."

My trepidation was heightened at the location. The campsite was hundreds of steep feet below the top of a cliff where two large generator trucks, equipment vehicles and the catering bus were parked -- the first two on a slant. Camera and sound equipment were being lowered on winches. It was rough, uneven terrain; the entire operation the most physically dangerous I had ever encountered on an Altman film. 

At the bottom, I looked for a friendly face to get a grasp of what was happening. The actors were working their props near their tent; the realistic body was floating underneath a high ledge, tied to a rock; a camera was about to be taken off a winch. The heat was a brutal 107 degrees --  slightly cooler if you were near the water. Allan Nicholls, the first assistant director, had left to attend his brother's funeral in Canada. It felt chaotic.

I spotted Joyce Rudolph, our engaging still photographer, who always knew the state of the day's shoot. Heading towards her, I approached the river... and there was Bob… ensconced atop a high director's chair, confidently observing the action, nibbling on watermelon and pineapple from a large fruit plate held by production designer Stephen Altman, who was conferring with his father about the first shot. Not a smidgen of anxiety on his face. 

Joyce pointed to a figure in the midst of the crew, camera in hand, at ease. It was John, perfectly merged with the company -- as usual.  

"Got some great stuff," he grinned. "Stevie balancing the fruit, making his way towards Bob; the actors cleaning fish; the crew navigating the rapids in rafts.

During the day we filmed Bob blocking Buck and Fred starting a campfire; commanding Huey to piss into the river, his character unaware of the body below his urine stream, and precisely describing to cinematographer Walt Lloyd the elongated "S" master shot he wanted for the body reveal. 

He devised and filmed 18 set-ups by the end of the day, more than any single day’s work in the previous three weeks. His control was instinctive; his creativity bubbling.  Maybe last night was an aberration.

 

Years later, director Mike Hodges told me a film came alive for him once he had his locations.

Mike was inspired after his solitary week in Wales when he found what he wanted for I'll Sleep When I'm Dead and everything became real as he buoyantly moved around the period rooms and buildings during a location trip to Italy for Mario and the Magician, determining angles, practically cutting scenes in his head. 

Mike never displayed a volatile temperament. That was part of Bob's mercurial nature. But I hadn't witnessed it before with Bob in creative mode and I felt privileged he had revealed it to me. As soon as he was on location, surrounded by his movie family, he was in his element and his talent quickly determined how and what he would shoot.

In the Altman oral biography, an ideal format for the overlapping voices and impressions of the hundreds of interviews woven together by Mitchell ZuckoffDanford Greene, the Oscar-winning editor of M*A*S*H, describes a comparable situation in That Cold Day in the Park, the first Altman film to gain any critical attention,

“Leon Ericksen built this large apartment set on a big soundstage in West Vancouver. He made it extra large so that Bob could get a camera into every place in that set… Bob could walk onto a set he’d never been in, look around, and in 30 seconds, if that, he’d say, “Okay, the camera goes here and we’ll put the tracks over there. He just laid a shot out so fast.”  

When we saw the dailies of the Kern River scenes, there was an audible gasp at the beauty of the “S” shot as the camera curved down the bends of the animated river where the actors were fishing, before settling on the floating body. It synchronized perfectly with Bob’s instructions to Walt. When we cut it together, it was a key example of Bob’s directorial skill, succinctly illustrated. 

But when we saw the Short Cuts rough cut, the master shot had been segmented, with intercuts of the fishermen speaking. Perhaps Bob felt that in the context of the feature, it called too much attention to itself. However, I didn’t want to lose it in the documentary, trusting that he wouldn’t be upset at my using material he hadn’t chosen for his film, recognizing it worked for what we were doing.

 

Dailies are a communal happening on an Altman film, the time at the end of a hard worked day when everyone gets together to celebrate and unwind.

Bob encourages everyone to attend, regardless of their position, watching reactions, seeking opinions, analyzing footage. There is no hierarchy. Good food and drink are in abundance. Visitors are welcomed. Ingmar BergmanLouis Malle or Andrew Sarris and Molly Haskell might be in the audience. 

Bob relished that time. In the documentary, he quotes Fellini telling him, “The best film is all the dailies. It’s like seeing the mistakes. You see what’s going on in people’s minds. You haven’t yet distilled those thoughts.”

Besides seeing their work, I believe there was also a subconscious reason everyone looked forward to dailies:  Kathryn Reed Altman, Bob’s wife, would be there. Gracious, witty and very perceptive, Kathryn put everyone at ease. She was infallible in being able to smooth over ruffled feathers. Like Bob, she knew everyone’s role in the production, was seriously curious and on many occasions held things together when Bob had too much to drink. She did it seamlessly -- a natural charmer with a third eye watching out for unexpected rubs.

She also avoided the limelight and stayed out of range when we were filming but we managed to catch her unawares several times.

When going to an Altman party, it was always to see Bob and Kathryn. Their life was a creative team. Though one might be tired at the end of the day, knowing Kathryn would be there, fresh and lovely, was a boost to the occasion.

In the oral biography, director Mark Rydell says, “She was the absolute cornerstone to his career. He could never have done what he did without her. She deserves as much credit as a filmmaker as he does.”

Lauren Hutton adds, "I used to call her Kathryn The Great. She knew everything that was going on…and could be blind when she had to be.”

 

On set, Bob was consumed by the details of filmmaking and despite his self-deprecating statement that "80 percent of making a film is the casting. All I do is turn on the camera," he was the very active center, all knowing.

If our documentary Luck, Trust & Ketchup works, it’s because it illustrates a comment made by Bob’s sister, Joan Altman Sarafian, who first watched her brother direct industrials in Kansas City, their hometown.

"If you wanted to see a really good film, you would film Bob making a film," she said. 

There have been subsequent records of Altman working, but ours was the first and remains the most extensive.

We were anticipating Bob choreographing Peter Gallagher destroying his home furniture with hammer and chain saw. On the first rehearsal, the crew were holding back laughs watching the “slice and dice” destruction. Bob and Peter were deadly serious, counting the moves, hearing the breaks in rhythm that would compose the sound design, watching out for safety. They went back and forth several times…Peter first, then Bob adding a lamp to be smashed, Peter again, then Bob pacing it from start to finish, his long fingers punctuating the action.  

Bob getting a wild line from a young child (“Daddy, can I have a monkey?”), while parents Tim Robbins and Madeline Stowe stand by, is an exercise in handling and frustration. Hearing Jack Lemmon’s audition for his egg trick, something the consummate actor had wanted to do his entire career, confirms Bob's judgment. And it’s fun watching Bob crack up at Jennifer Jason Leigh’s phone sex calls, hearing the dialog she had diligently researched.  

I think Bob was always aware we were there – his antennae never resting. But there was one unplanned scene, spontaneously staged, where he was the star and he responded effortlessly. 

Poet Tess Gallagher, Raymond Carver’s widow, had frequently spoken to Bob from the time he optioned the stories. She’s an intellectual force and was a significant contributor to the film. However, they had never met until we were half-way through production. 

I became the liaison and met Tess at the airport, where we hit it off immediately. It reminded me of meeting Anthony Burgess a few weeks before Clockwork Orange opened. World renowned directors and writers often circle each other when one is adapting the other’s work. With Stanley Kubrick, who had never met or spoken to Burgess, he had been reluctant to have the meeting but recognized the importance of Burgess approving the film, which he did, stating Kubrick had found “the cinematic equivalents” to his prose. 

With Bob, there had been genuine collaboration with Tess, and through her Raymond Carver, so there was little stress about her presence.

After her interview and before the still session with Bob, she told us she had brought him presents–several of Ray’s shirts and ties. She opened a brown paper package

Although this was new territory, we had to get the presentation on film, but how? The schedule was tight. We’d have to shoot between set-ups, which were brief as the location rooms were small. We’d also have to film with Bob seeing John’s camera in a space he hadn’t expected. We needed his full frontal reaction.

Allan Nicholls, the A.D., said he'd signal us when he thought there'd be enough time. John was ever eager and we showed Tess the layout of the house so she’d know where to go. As Bob was talking camera to Walt Lloyd, Tess entered from the front door, followed by John.

Bob looked surprised, saw Tess, eyed me quizzically, then immediately went along with whatever was in the works. Bob was eating a creamsicle and never broke stride as Tess gamely gave him Ray’s clothes. He examined the shirts and ties, held them up for size, joked about the ink stains, and said he was honored.

I couldn’t wait to see how it looked.

We had been having very positive reactions to Luck, Trust & Ketchup.  Michael Masucci, EZTV’s number two, was now editing after a major loss, the death of John Dorr, who died of complications from AIDS during the Christmas holidays. John had told me of his condition when we began, which was never an issue. He hadn’t missed a day of filming and his sense and sounding board were greatly missed.

The screenings often included an assortment of actors and colleagues who knew or worked with Bob but I wanted an opinion from an independent source, a tough one.

Then director Lindsay Anderson came to town. Trial by fire.

I had produced and persisted in getting Lindsay to direct his last film, The Whales of August. We had been great friends since O Lucky Man!, except during Whales, when I hadn’t realized he looked on filmmaking as a war, the opposite of Bob's inclusionary approach.  Each day had been a battle, usually unnecessary, between Lindsay and Bette Davis, two imposing forces. But now, post Whales, we were good friends again.

Lindsay always spoke his mind, was charming, charismatic, and a devastating, esteemed critic. I had introduced him to Bob years before and they liked each other. Lindsay even admired more than a few Altman films. However, there was always a risk in soliciting his opinion, which he could deliver with piercing punches, friends or not.

In 1992, he was in L.A. when Bob was about to have his first screening of The Player.  Bob always wanted a wide and diverse audience at his screenings, feeding on their responses. However, the first screening is the one when everyone is tense -- Bob, most of all, his relaxed side lost when facing the unknown. 

I was in his office a week before the invitees were selected and was allotted five seats to fill.

"But don't invite Lindsay," Bob declared. 

“I wouldn't,” I replied, knowing the vulnerability full well.

When the lights came on at the end of the screening, it was obvious The Player was going to be a big hit. Bob was exuberant, nerves vanished.  

He rushed up, smiling.

"You can invite Lindsay now," he sad.         

We got together with the Altmans a few days later to see Sally Kellerman perform at The Rose, a nightclub in West Hollywood. Sally has great style and a warm, husky voice. Lindsay loved how she interpreted the standards and volunteered only a mild critique of her newer material.                                                     

Before Lindsay’s current visit, he had sent me a tape of his autobiographical documentary, Is That All There is?, which he had just completed for the BBC. It was a masterful work -- moving, inspiring, inventive. But it made me more wary that I was exposing my film to him. Why was I running this gauntlet?

He was staying with me in Venice. The television on which he viewed the documentary was in the bedroom. I left him with water and snacks and closed the door, occasionally creeping up to hear any reactions. Once there was a laugh.

When it was over, I waited a few minutes, then looked in. It seemed like he hadn’t moved.

"it's very good," he said definitively. "I have only one suggestion."

The film was structured chronologically, with Bob saying goodbye after the last shot, rushing to leave the set as was his tradition…on to the next.

I waited for Lindsay’s words.

"Freeze frame on Bab as he's leaving," he said.

The film now ends with the freeze frame.

 

When I had shown Bob the rough cut six weeks before, he was in the final stages of finishing Short Cuts. It was a raw, rainy New York afternoon. 

Scotty Bushnell, Bob’s unpredictable right hand/producer, was, as usual, glued to his office, chain smoking. Scotty could be both a firm ally and a sly enemy, depending on how she assessed the territory, guarding Bob’s sphere against a potential rival gaining too much favor.

Alan Rudolph and Allan Nicholls were also there, pals since Buffalo Bill.  

We moved into the room facing the street where a smaller than expected television was facing a couch. It was damp. The rain streaked down the windows.

Scotty’s smoker’s cough had developed into a cold.  She hacked regularly throughout the running. I was unsure if it was deliberate and hoped Bob would ask her to leave. These were less than ideal conditions and I feared Bob’s response, which could kill everything.

When it was over, Scotty slumped off without a word, taking a phone call. Alan and Allan were sending good vibes but silent, awaiting Bob’s verdict.  We went into his office – just the two of us. He sat behind his desk and looked at me. I was concerned about his response to seeing the “S” master which wasn’t in his film and Tess’ surprise visit. 

He began rolling a joint.

Finally, he said,  "I never thought it would be this artful." 

Stammering that I planned to cut ten minutes by the time he came to L.A., he added, "I don't have to see it again. I know how good it is."

 

In 2007, I was doing the festival circuit with Never Apologize, Malcolm McDowell’s celebration of Lindsay Anderson. The film had premiered at Cannes and had received many festival invites. When the head of Berlin Docs called, I assumed it was for Never Apologize, but he wanted to show Luck, Trust & Ketchup. It was then 13-years-old.

I was greeted by Mamoun Hassan in Berlin, whom I had briefly met at Lindsay’s apartment years before. Mamoun had been a key film executive in England, largely responsible for funding Anderson’s Britannia Hospital,  and was a well respected writer and teacher. He was going to moderate the Q&A the next day.

We had dinner and for the next two hours exchanged Lindsay stories.

At the end he said, "I didn't want to say anything about your film because I want to keep the Q&A fresh tomorrow. But I think it's the best film I've ever seen about the making of a movie." 

I was floored.                                                                                           

I hadn’t watched it in 10 years. By the end of that screening, a lump rose in my throat as Bob walked towards his waiting car, saying goodbyes, waving to the crew before the frame froze.

Eight months before, in November, 2006, he had passed away after winning his fight against various health problems for several years.

I called Kathryn to tell her how well the film was received.

"The best part was seeing Bob in action," I offered. 

He was definitely in the room.