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.
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 Newman, Geraldine Chaplin, Burt 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.