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ScreenTalks Archive: Robert Altman on Gosford Park

still from gosford park
6 Nov 2017
42 min listen

In this conversation from 2002, Robert Altman talks to film and TV producer David Thompson about his British period drama 'Gosford Park'.

About Robert Altman
After a stint as a co-pilot in the US Air Force, Robert Altman moved to California, deciding to enter the world of filmmaking on a whim. Starting as a director-for-hire on film and television in the nineteen fifties, Altman didn’t become a household name until 1970 with the release of Korean War satire 'MASH'. The film’s success led to a string of nearly forty mould-breaking movies, in every conceivable genre, often featuring sprawling ensemble casts. In this conversation from 2002, Robert Altman talks to film and TV producer David Thompson about his British period drama 'Gosford Park'.

Gosford Park (2001)

Set in 1932, the film depicts the lives of upstairs guests and downstairs servants at an English country house party, disrupted by murder and its ensuing investigation. Written by Julian Fellowes, whose 'Downton Abbey' was originally intended as a spin-off, Gosford Park’s thirty five-strong ensemble cast is a Who’s Who of UK actors, including Maggie Smith, Stephen Fry, Kristin Scott Thomas and Alan Bates.


black and white photo of robert altman

ScreenTalks Archive: Robert Altman

In this conversation from 2002, Robert Altman talks to film and TV producer David Thompson about his British period drama 'Gosford Park'.


EEJ: Ellen E Jones
DT: David Thompson
RA: Robert Altman
EEJ: Hello and welcome to the latest in our series of Barbican ScreenTalks. Every month we bring you classic conversations with some of the world's leading filmmakers and film fans, hand selected from our formidable Barbican archives. 
This month we hear from one of the most subversive and influential directors to work in Hollywood, and a conversation recorded four years before his death. Robert Altman was born in Kansas City, Missouri in 1925. After a stint as a co pilot in the US Air Force, he moved to California deciding to enter the world of filmmaking on a whim. Starting as director for hire on film and television in the 1950s, Altman didn't become a household name until 1970, with the release of Korean War satire M.A.S.H. Over a 50 plus year career, Altman racked up five Best Director Oscar nominations, as well as the Golden Bear at Berlin, the Golden Lion at Venice and the Golden Palm at Cannes. He also helped to launch acting careers from the likes of Elliott Gould, Shelley Duvall and Keith Carradine. In this conversation from 2002, Robert Altman talks to film and TV producer David Thompson about his British period drama Gosford Park. Set in 1932, the film depicts the lives of upstairs guests and downstairs servants at an English country house party, disrupted by murder and the ensuing investigation. The screenplay was written by Downton Abbey's Julian Fellowes. And in fact that TV series was originally intended as a spinoff of Gosford Park. And Fellowes isn't the only significant name attached to the film. The 35 strong ensemble cast is a Who's Who of UK actors, including Dame Maggie Smith, Stephen Fry, Kristin Scott Thomas and Alan Bates. In the interview you're about to hear, Altman explains his surprisingly practical approach to casting and why British actors in particular are such a joy to work with. He discusses his planned follow up film Voltage, still sadly unmade, and he reveals why he was so keen to include swearing in Gosford Park. On that note, please be warned this interview contains some strong language. Some of the audience questions and this recording a difficult to hear. So I'll pop back in from time to time to help out with those. But for now, I'm Ellen E Jones and this is Barbican ScreenTalks with the masterful Robert Altman.


DT: Well, now you've seen the film. I don't need to tell you who did it because he did it.

RA: We have souvenirs, we sell them in the lobby... 

DT: You said that what interests you doing this film was it was a genre you hadn't approached before. Obviously, what a lot of people being fascinated by is how much you've gone into the British class system. So where does all that come from? 

RA: My partner, producing partner on this, Bob Balaban, who plays Maurice Weissman in the film, is sort of a Renaissance man. He's an actor and a director and a producer. He does everything. He came to me, it's not two and a half years ago, he said, is there anything our company, that we could develop together? And I said, well, I've never done a whodunnit. I said, you know, one of those Agatha Christie things, everybody at the big country house and there's a murder and butlers and upstairs people and blah, blah, blah. And we just started spinning in a funny way from that. Then, Bob knew about a writer, Julian Fellowes, who had done some work for him, and he said, this guy might be good for it. So I didn't think it was going to really go anywhere. But all of these kinds of ideas, you have to just put in the ground and see if they do grow or not. Julian rode up, I never saw him. I hired him over the telephone, actually. And I said, well, here's kind of the things we're looking for and do an outline or so and he sent us a rather complete, good outline. And I got very excited about it. So he came over to America and then we started adding this and subtracting this and going through the normal process, the way these scripts are developed when they don't come from the previously published or known source. And so it grew like Topsy. 

DT: How much of the upstairs downstairs thing came from you and Bob Balaban? 

RA: Well, Julian the script all came from him. It's hard to think back. I mean, I'm quite sure if we sat around and said, whose idea was this? About six people will say that was mine. You really don't remember. It's like you have a discussion that whether... what kind of washing machine to get, so whose idea was this your wife? Or yours? But I think it was hers. No I think it was mine. But it also comes from the same. 

DT: How did you feel about making a film in England?

RA: Best working experience I've ever had in my life. And I've done 38... some odd films and several kilometres of television. So it was great. It really was. And that's just the way it grew. 

DT: And you've got this remarkable ensemble cast. Obviously, names that are familiar to a lot of us. Was that relatively easy to assemble? 

RA: Well, it turned out to be, I mean, I started asking people, I knew we were going to have a lot of people in this, a lot of characters. And the big problem was, how does the audience separate, in that, if you saw this film for the first time, just now, I'm quite sure that you're not sure of... now wait a minute, was she married to him? Whose sister... well I didn't get that part. But in my defence, I'll suggest that if you go to a party with 30 or 40 people in it at someone's house, and you get in your car and start driving home. You're saying, I like that blonde. Which one was she married to? Oh, I didn't know that I thought she was... So you really, nobody ever knows everything. And we knew that was a problem with the film. So by casting Maggie Smith, when you see Maggie Smith, you know who she is the next time you see her, you don't have to wonder, you don't have to go in and say which one was she? So about half of these people, more so in Britain, are known. But it was very important to help the audience separate and keep track of who's who. So if we've hired a tall guy, I said, OK, now for that part, we got to get a short guy. So you have to help the audience. I've seen too many really good films myself. Afterwards, I said, you know, I just I got a mixed up. I didn't know which one was who? Was it Russell Crowe or was it blah blah blah?

So that was a problem. And that's the way we chose to solve it. And everybody loved this script. All these actors liked it, they all wanted to play in it. And suddenly, we had a kind of a hot little item on the hands. And it was wonderful. 

DT: Some of the actors have been quoted in the press is saying that you sent them a memo that they have to be prepared to be around at all times. Is this true? 

RA: Well, it was not a memo, which is part of the deal. And so many American actors, which most of my experiences with, they'll say, Oh, I'd love to be in the movie - six days. Hell, I'll be there. I can work. I said, no, no, this is 10 weeks. And then their agents come in and they said, don't do that picture. The agents don't want him to do it. But this film, like Alan Bates, he worked I'd say the first six and a half weeks of shooting. He was working five days a week. And I don't think he had five words to say, he was bubbling in the background there. But he was there all the time. And the great thing I found out about working with these particular actors, and it's the philosophy of the English actor, I think it's so related to theatre, and to doing ensemble pieces and that sort of thing. They all were there and knew what they were doing. And I never saw an agent the whole time we were shooting. And had I had any American actors, where we would let their agents get near us, they would be out measuring trailers, saying he has 17 more steps to walk to the set than she does and I want my client's trailer moved closer! And then of course, everything falls apart. But we didn't have that here. It was great.

DT: In terms of the casting there, was it the people you chose? Or did they sometimes read the script and suggest they might want other parts? 

RA: So, yeah, I had a wonderful casting, a woman here named Mary Selway, who knows the territory. And we saw a lot of people. We spent a lot of time again, I didn't want two people who might be the best actors in the world, but if they are similar, I'm afraid the audience would get mixed up with which one was was he or she. So we tried to do everything we could help separate them. And of course, the real plot of all that is, if you liked the picture, you really have to go see it again. And again...

DT: And pay? 

RA: Oh, yeah. Well, if you pay then I can pay them and maybe even I can get paid!

DT: I mean, I think it's very fairly evident that you have more sympathy for the characters below and above. Would you say that's true? 

RA: Well, I think in the first place, the philosophy of the film was we never showed with the upstairs people, unless there was a servant present. I couldn't just arbitrarily go into a room between, say Charles Dance and Geraldine Somerville and play a scene, unless there was a servant there, then it brings out that well, some of these people treated the servants as if the dog or the cat was in the room. They were very candid. Other times they posture or withheld things from the servants. So we decided that we would tell the story through below stairs gossip. So every scene in the below stairs, areas, there is some piece of plot information being delivered. And you have to have strong rules. So you just can't arbitrarily say, oh, here's a good idea. Let's go do this. So you have to have some strong rules that you must abide by. And I think it gives the audience a sense that oh, there's some truth here. For instance, tt came up, I don't know the protocol, but Julian Fellowes, who wrote this screenplay and who was on the set for every scene we shot. He is 'of the manor born', I think. So I could say whether it's supposed to be Lady Constance of Trentham or Lady Trentham of Constance - I don't know those things. But I said we have to be correct. Because first place I know I'm going to be, if this film gets out, I know I'm going to be under scrutiny as an American, coming here and doing a film that's about British manners, culture, history, etc. So I wanted to be correct. I didn't want to... 

Oh I'll tell you a funny thing, Julian Fellowes' wife, Emma, is a Lady in Waiting for Princess Michael. So when we had our premiere or screening a few months ago, Princess Michael - who is a girl - but I didn't, I didn't...So I was introduced her after the screening. And everybody said, Oh, it's like everybody's polite, in most society, oh, it's just wonderful. However, she says, you know, the tea set that Maggie was served breakfast on that morning, that was 1942. That was made in 1942. Not before that, so there's a big error there. And I said, well, honey, I'm glad you liked it. 


But so we were careful about that we had technical advisors, I had a housemaid, a cook, and butler, footman butler, who were all in their mid to late 80s, who had all been in service in this time. And they were available to the actors. They were on the set all the time. So we had a lot of checks, we did try to make it right. And I find in my experience of doing this for a long time, that the more you stick to what is a truth, the better it is, because that is what it is. For instance, this thing of calling the visiting servants by the names of their employers. That came up and I said, what is that about? And I said, well, that's what they did. That's how they did it. And I said, well we don't have to do that. I said, if we do that, I mean Christ, it's hard enough to keep track of who's who anyway! And I thought, well, if that's what it is, then let's do it that way. So we did that. And the other two kind of straight lines we had was the Ivor Novello character, that Jeremy Northam played. That was all as historically factual as we could be. The same with the film, Charlie Chan in London. Bob Balaban who played the Weissman part was not, but everything that was mentioned about that film, all the actors that were mentioned in it, all the plot points, all the studio heads, everything that was and that film was made a year later. It was made 1934.

DT: Because the detail that always used to worry me was this business of The Lodger because I always think when he's talking about The Lodger, the first thought is the Hitchcock film from '27 or something, but then he actually remade The Lodger in Hollywood. 

RA: Yes. 

DT: Which was a flop, right?

RA: Yes. So Ivor Novello starred in The Lodger, which was Hitchcock's film. The silent film. And it was a big, big hit. And then later when Ivor became more famous, renowned, he revised it and did it and that was the film that was a flop. So in that scene when he's talking to Maggie Smith, and she says, talking about The Lodger, he's talking about the second Lodger that was made within a year before that scene took place.

DT: A number of critics picked up on this and it was my thought to that, obviously, is that you've been preceeded as an American looking at English society in this particular way by Joseph Losey, I suppose. I wonder whether that was something that ever occurred to you because I think you were an admirer of Losey.

RA: Well, I thought Losey... I think The Go Between and some of Joe Losey's films that he made are marvellous. And he was a bit of a remittance man himself. So... did I answer you? 

DT: I guess honourable stepos to follow. Perhaps we should open it up? 

EEJ: First question. Can you tell us about the film's title? Does it relate to anywhere in particular?

RA: No, it's just Gosford Park is a name. I didn't want to give a title that codes you something. Gosford Park. I think there's a Gosford in Ireland. In fact, we were put on notice when we started when the first publicity came out about this by, I think was a 90, some odd year old gentleman from the north of this country, who said that was the name of his family house, and certainly no murder ever occurred. And he was demanding that we cease using the name. And if we did, he would sue us. He hasn't sued us and we continued, and I don't think we've done any harm. Also wasn't even sure he would be interested by the time that picture came out. 

EEJ: In most of your career, you've been more of a star maker than a star user. Do you prefer working with lesser known actors?

RA: Well, in the first place, most of the earlier films that I did in America, I wasn't going to attract Humphrey Bogart and people like that. And I think that's probably what got me headed toward this sort of ensemble kind of work that I like a lot. And another thing is that I haven't done very many films in which there is one or two lead characters that are the whole film. I did do a film in which there was only one actor in it was called Secret Honour with an actor named Philip Baker Hall. But most of the films I've done have been smaller ensemble kind of pieces. Plus the fact that you get down to the level that these films cost to make. I in M.A.S.H,  going back to M.A.S.H and Nashville, the films that you know, you may be familiar with here. We paid those people like $1,000 a week. I mean, we paid them to slightly overscale. We couldn't pay the salaries that we demanded. So those movie stars are name actors were really not available to me for for quite some time. And still aren't.

DT: Richard Gere was the recent exception?

RA: Richard Gere, but Richard read that script and decided I want to do this. It was really my producing partner for Dr. T & The Women. But in most of the other films, a lot of the people that I have used have since become better known. Not because of the films he did with me, but because of their own talent and tenacity. And luck.

EEJ: There's no mention of location in the film's credits. I wondered why that was?

RA: Well, now I can say this. This is the strangest thing. This place we shot belonged to a family named Byng. It's very close to London. Everybody slept in her own bed. All the actors slept in their own beds if they chose to [laughter]... So we had to sign a contract that we never tell anybody where we were shooting because they didn't want to be exposed. So we did that and, and then suddenly when I came back on this last trip, I see big articles. Robert Byng showing people around, oh yes, this is place they shot the film... I guess since he let the cat out of the bag, I can throw the bag away.

EEJ: How have American audiences reacted to the film? Has the response been different to the UK?

RA: The film in America is doing fantastic. I mean, I have a smile from here to there. The film has been very well reviewed, very well received. It won awards, it was nominated for here and there, and this and that. And they really get it and we wondered about that because I showed the film first to a public was here, we opened the London Film Festival. And I didn't know how it would, what the balance would be. But it seems to be received basically the same in both countries. Although, sometimes the jokes in America are a little funnier here, and sometimes here, they're a little funnier. I mean, we get more response. But basically, it's not the same, the audience does not react the same. It's just a little different. But it seems to work both places. I think, you know, the first place America's made of Anglophiles, the language and, this will make many of you wince, but it's similar. 


And the emotions are and and honestly, there's been a lot of films that have, that will educate people to this kind of culture and existence of this kind of culture and you've seen them through 40, 50 years ago. It's working both places. We're going to show it in Germany next week at the Berlin Film Festival, and it'll open in France in March. It seems to be being received very well there. So, you know, maybe this will work. But I think if it does, it's because of the films that have come before it. In fact, we use this a lot when you started. You said, oh, there's Maggie coming in and getting out of that old car and oh, this is one of those films. I like these. And so we try to really go down familiar paths. And yet, just give them a little twist or a curl here and there. 

EEJ: How did Ivor Novello end up being part of the story?

RA: Well, about 35 years ago, I was working on a project about World War One flying and in putting that stuff together, in doing research I came across Ivor Novello. 'Keep the Home Fires Burning'. You know, he was a phenomenal character. And he's unknown in America. But at the end of this film, and going into the Second World War, Ivor was arrested for getting illegal petrol for a lady friend. And they put him in jail. And that prevented him from ever being knighted. And consequently, he kind of disappeared from the international scene and then it really kind of ended. But he had one time had, I think four musicals in the West End at the same time. He's written 250 popular songs. He starred in about six, seven movies. Garbo was his dear friend, he did silent films in Hollywood and here. And Noel Coward was kind of the second banana to him. But then that problem of reputation in class again, raises its head and kind of ruined his life. 

EEJ: The camera seems to be constantly on the move throughout the film. Can you talk about your visual style?

RA: Well, the reason of the way we shot the film is I find that so many of these period films, they become very precise and kind of precious in a way. People speak slower. They don't make grammatical errors. They don't speak unless spoken to and there's a lot of formality. So it becomes kind of a - and the same way, the way they're shot. The films are shot and so when it comes to the big line that ends the scene, where Lawrence Olivier says, loved her? I hated her! And you know, and the cameras in for a big close up on him. And I wanted to destroy that. And I don't say this in a derogatory way, but the Merchant Ivory, because these people were very helpful to me and all this, but this thing where it's kind of laid out o0n a silver tray for you to look at. And I also knew that if you don't pay attention to one of these films of mine in a way, you're not going to get it. Television has destroyed so much of the theatre in in film, is that you know, the bloke will be sitting there and he gets up to go and get another beer and comes back and he says, did he kill her yet? I mean, everybody knows what's going to happen. Everybody knows at the end every person's everything. And I wanted to put you on notice to say pay attention or you're not going to get it. 

I kept the camera arbitrarily, those camera moves were not so they ended up at a certain place at the right time. We had two cameras and most of the scenes and I would start one over here and one here and say okay well now we start when we say action, is the word I think, this camera just arbitrarily starts moving and the cameraman is back panning to whatever. The other camera is going the other way. So there's always movement. Now, one good thing about that is the cameraman cannot light this too beautifully, because by the time he gets it lit for your close up, the cameras already moved away from that. And sometimes the key line, Maggie Smith says, oh, there's not a jealous bone in my body, she's out the door and so on her back. Rather than going in to underscore it for you. So what really we're trying to say, I think is, pay attention or you're going to miss it. And it's the same reason for the, I don't know if there's a rating of the film here in Great Britain?

DT: 15, right?

RA: Because in America, you're a PG 13, which means if you're 13 years old, you can go see it. And then there's an R, which is restricted, and then you have to be with a parent. And so we gave the film to the rating board in America. The studio or the distribution company called me up and I remember this woman was very distressed. She says, Mr Altman, I've got some terrible news and she says, you're getting an R rating. I said, well, great. That's the plan. And she says, but think of all the people... I said, I don't want 13 year old people coming in to see this movie, especially boys, they're not going to like it. They're not going to get it. They're not going to have the patience for it. So I don't want the wrong audience. But yet that's the salesman, the selling companies, they want everybody they say, I don't care, make it. So that's why we're getting these films, I think that really get down to the lowest common denominator. 

DT: Presumably it's an R because of the language? 

RA: Yeah, there's 12 fucks in it. And I think you're allowed 4.


RA: I don't know who made those rules. But I did that on purpose and so that we would definitely get an R rating because I don't want to attract the wrong audience. 

DT: Just to get back on this business of the camera movement, though. I mean, it's not only how the audience see the film, it's also the atmosphere that creates on the set, isn't it? 

RA: Well, the actors, you know, there's 25 actors in the scene and moving around, they don't know whether the cameras on them or not. So consequently, they're off of this thing that's 'I'll save my big moment for my close up'. Because one, there were very few close ups in the film. And secondly, they just didn't know. And those scenes, we don't just do little three words here and three words, these scenes, you know, every time they run six, seven minutes. We'd do the whole scene. Then the second time, we would shoot the same scene. The cameras, as far as the actors were concerned, seem to be doing the same thing. The lighting was the same. There was nothing that made it any different than they were just doing another take. But we actually were filming other people and other things at that time. They got to the point where they were on stage. They were never off stage. And they just fell into that, which meant they're performing all the time.

EEJ: Can you tell us about the scene where we discovered that Eileen Atkins and Helen Mirren are actually sisters?

RA: They were not sisters in the script. Really, without this last scene between Helen Mirren and Eileen Atkins when she breaks down, if that scene were not in this film, I do not think that this film would be doing it. I think it'd be admired, but it would not have this popular feeling that it does. We were six and a half weeks into the shooting. And nowhere in our minds were those two women to be sisters. I was sitting in the dining room and I saw Eileen Atkins come in. And I looked up at her and I said, oh gee she looks terrific. And I looked over and there was Eileen sitting at the table eating and I looked back, and I said, what, who is it? And it was Helen Mirren. First time we've seen her in her wig and make-up and costume. She'd come out to do a still photo that day. And I looked at her and I looked at Eileen and I said, I'm in trouble. I said, these women look like sisters. And Julian Fellowes, who's the writer was sitting across me and I called him over and I said, look at this. And then I got the two ladies together, and they came over and I said, you know, I made a big mistake here. And I said, let's make him sisters. And he said, fine. And that happened right there. And had this been a big budget movie with lots of high powered producers on it, that never could have happened, that change. And I think if we had not done that, I don't think this picture would be enjoying the kind of success that it seems to be now. 

EEJ: You mentioned you've made 38 films, what are your plans for your 39th?

RA: I'm starting to film in New York called Voltage. It's sort of an ensemble piece about an engineering factory in 1991. And this is a place that makes little miniscule things for big aeroplanes. And it's during the time when the leadership of America was a man called George Bush, Colin Powell and Cheney. Only it was 1991. And it's the time that they chose not to cause Saddam Hussein too much problem. And also to protect oil interests, I think, that they let him go. And it's kind of interesting that we're now having the results of that today.

EEJ: The film alludes to the idea that Hollywood could be the new aristocracy. Do you think things were changing in the 30s is people began to look up to film stars rather than the upper classes?

RA: Well, this was 1933, was the end of that indentured servitude, so to speak. I mean, at the beginning of the century, most women were not educated. And if they didn't have somebody take care of them, they didn't have much choice except going to do service like this or prostitution. And the lady and the house on the hill would come down to the village and here's a 13 year old girl and they say, OK, we'll take her and she'll be a scullery maid up in the house. And the parents were happy to do that. Because one, they knew she'd be looked after and protected and wouldn't be on her own. She'd be fed, and also it gave an extra space in their bed. So instead of being fourth children in that bed there'd be three. And then of course, then the First World War came along, and women started being educated and jobs kind of opened up that were not possible before that, and then at this time and say 1933, 32 and we are, by the time the Second World War was, you know, they were handling rivet guns and flying aeroplanes and doing all sorts of stuff. So it changed the social structure. That doesn't mean that there are aren't houses and maids and butlers and people who have jobs like that, but they can make their own choices more now. 

DT: You were alluding to the Ivor Novello character who becomes almost like a modern celebrity. 

RA: Oh, yes. Novello was not a posh. He was a Welshman. And he became a big, big star. But Maggie Smith's character says it. She says it's so interesting to have a movie star, a film star visiting but after the first flush of recognition, there's not much to talk about is there? All of that seems to be in there. I think Julian Fellowes, who wrote the screenplay, did a really masterful job.

EEJ: Arnold Schwarzenegger made an early appearance in your film The Long Goodbye. Did you cast him yourself?

RA: No, there was an actor in that film named David Arkin, who played one of those characters, and he said, I got a friend, a guy I just met and he looks terrific. He's got the damnedest muscles you've ever seen and, and I said, well, fine, bring him along. We'll use him as one of the guys. Arnold doesn't talk about that film. He doesn't remember that film. But I like him. Arnold is terrific. 

EEJ: Ofall your films, which is your favourite?

RA: Do you have children? How many? Which is your favourite?


I tend to love my least successful children the most. 

DT: But you're pretty happy about this one?

RA: But I shamelessly say I like them all. I really do. No, I love this film.

EEJ: Could you talk about the film's music?

RA: You mean the background music to the score? Well, I use Patrick Doyle to do this score. He had done a lot of music for my good friend, Ken Brannagh. And I like Patrick and I said, I just, I just need a pad. Sometimes you need music to help the audience shut out the rest of the world, just to keep them in. But it's not. I mean, it doesn't tell you that something's going to happen. It's not it's just kind of an atmosphere. I try to always in the beginning of conceiving the film, I'd love the music to be indigenous. I always say okay, there's not going to be any violins that you can't see. It's not going to be music coming from nowhere. I've never achieved that. 

DT: And with A Long Goodbye...

RA: For The Long Goodbye, we took the same... It appears in every... It's the same 'da da da dada' - that's a Johnny Mercer. 

DT: You hear it as muzak, in the doorbells... 

RA: The doorbell rings, anything. Yeah. And that was sort of, it became a character in itself. And Gosford Park, I love what Patrick did. He really gets you in that. I don't understand music. I don't understand very much of anything really. But it's something that's visceral, and it's kind of inside of you and yet it doesn't. I try not to lead what the action is going to be. I mean, we don't hit those chords and you think, oh, I better be scared. But each case it's a different thing. When one day I will go down with music. 

DT: Time for a couple more, I think?

EEJ: Did you have any problems when it came to editing the film?

RA: Well, I had less problems with this film than any film I've ever done. I think the editing went together like that. There's very few scenes that aren't in this film. There are about three scenes I shot between different characters where I had one, say one plot point that I had to get out to the audience. So I shot it in a scene with Geraldine Summerville and Charles Dance. And I shot the same information in the scene with two of the other characters. And I think I did the same thing with two other characters who I didn't know when I got to that point that I want to see these people or these people. So I did that two or three times. So obviously, only one of the three choices was used. Because that's what got the information across. But other than that, the film is there's nothing in... In fact if we go to do the DVD and they say, now we'll put in all the scenes that were cut out. There aren't any. But I think that's just that everything worked, just went together. And then we looked at it and said, This is what it is.

EEJ: There are lots of stars in the film. How did you go about directing them?

RA: I don't think that I directed anything. No, I'm serious. By the time that a film is cast, we have the script and we have the cast. About 85% of my creative work is finished. If an actor comes to me and says, how should I play this scene? I will never give him a direct answer. I will say oh, are you gonna wear those those boots? Oh, let's see if we can't get brown boots or anything. Because the minute I say that da da da... they're taking 360 degrees of possibilities and narrowed it down to six. And afterwards the film's no good and the actor says I was in that film and you know, it wasn't very good was it. Oh I just did what he told me to do.

But the truth of the matter is, is that what I want to see is something I've never seen before. So how can I tell somebody what that is? So I really am looking for something from these actors in these scenes, that that can excite me. And I think that's, that's valid, but it is truthful because I don't... I sit there and I watch it, and I'll watch it. I think it'll work. But really, if I see what is at the height of my imagination, and the whole film is done that way, it's not gonna be a very good film. The real communication from this quasi-art medium comes from the actors, the performers. They're the ones that can not say something, walk a certain way, something in the background happens. And you as the audience, if you're hooked in this, if you get caught up in it, you go, I don't know what it is, but but but but but that's right! That's right. And that's the kind of emotion that we're trying to give to you people. The faces that are sitting there and looking at it, we're trying to, for that time, just transport you away from that. If any film came out the way I envisioned it going in, I mean, I promise you it'll be a bad film. I promise you. 

DT: Well I don't know what you envisioned for this but I think it turned out pretty well. Please join me in thanking Robert Altman. 

EEJ: Thanks for listening to this Barbican's ScreenTalk with Robert Altman. If you haven't subscribed to this podcast, you can do so via iTunes or Acast.

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