INTERVIEW: Rules of the Game; Robert Altman Returns with "Gosford Park"
by Ryan Mottesheard
(indieWIRE/ 12.18.01) — “I look for genres I haven’t done before. If I’m just going to repeat myself, then I think I’d probably show up late for work,” Robert Altman tells me.
It’s the day after “Gosford Park” won three New York Film Critics Prizes, including a Best Director nod for Robert Altman, so the 76-year-old is in particularly good spirits. And today, he’s gladly playing the part of huckster, skillfully fending off questions like, “Do you ever find that these large canvas films of yours sort of go off the tracks?” or “Do you have personal favorites amongst your films?”
What I really wanted to ask, subtly of course, is how he could follow up the dreadful “Dr. T and The Women” with the sublime “Gosford Park.” Indeed, his latest is right up there in the upper echelon of his recent films — “The Player,” “Short Cuts,” “Vincent and Theo” — as far removed from, say “Popeye” as you can possibly imagine. (I’m convinced that Altman is a great chemist who, if he gets all the elements right, it’s like discovering a new favorite food. If not, well, let’s just say it’s not a very pleasant.)
“Gosford Park” is many things: murder mystery, period piece, social satire, but ultimately it belongs to that genre which has been used to describe Paul Thomas Anderson‘s films or Robert Guediguian‘s recent “The Town is Quiet” — the “Altman-esque mural.” I mention this to Altman, that he has his own genre. He snickers, says, “I have my own adjective?” indieWIRE spoke to Robert Altman about casting, ensemble pieces and the awards process.
indieWIRE: Congratulations on the New York Film Critics Prize.
Robert Altman: Thank you. It was a big surprise. We won three. [Screenwriter Julian Fellowes and Supporting Actress Helen Mirren were also singled out.]
iW: What do you think of the whole awards process this time of year?
Altman: Well, it’s all very, very important to the life and success of a film. You can advertise so much and you can get good reviews, but when they start putting blue ribbons on things. . . you get more space in the paper, people like you start calling me more.
iW: This is the third NY Film Critics’ Prize you’ve been awarded. Do you feel, in terms of the films that have been singled out by critics, that these are the best representation of your work?
Altman: No, not necessarily. I think of all these films as my children and you do tend to love your least successful children the most. You tell me the one you like the least and I’ll give you reasons why it’s my favorite.
iW: And how do you feel “Gosford Park” fits into your body of work?
Altman: I think it’s really right there at the top. I think we accomplished the kind of film we were trying to go after. The ensemble we had, I had to pinch myself every morning to be sure that all these actors were doing this film. It was the best time I ever had on a movie.
iW: Explain how the casting process works on one of your films.
Altman: We just start and it grows like topsy. In a film like this one, where there are so many characters, each new person that’s cast dictates all the other casting choices.
iW: Who were the first actors to fall in line in “Gosford Park”?
Altman: I think Kelly Macdonald was first, then probably Maggie [Smith], then Kristen Scott Thomas and Alan Bates and Derek Jacobi and then it really grew from there.
iW: Did you have any of them in mind from the inception?
Altman: You always think of actors during the writing, but they’re vague thoughts. When you actually lock somebody in, it tightens up the possibilities for all the other parts. By the time you get to the thirtieth person, the last person, it becomes like one of those egg puzzles that you put together where every piece has to fit just right. I had to be very careful that actors wouldn’t get mixed up with one another for the audience. In other words, if I had a tall guy, then I’d cast a short guy. If I’d already cast a redhead, then I’d look for a blonde. It was a very long casting process, but once it finally all comes together, most of my creative work on a movie is done.
iW: The British murder mystery is a very particular genre. There’s obviously something about genres that attracts you personally, even if you sort of disregard the genre at some point.
Altman: I’m not very creative is the thing. I’ll just say, “Well, I’ve never done a thriller” and that statement became “The Gingerbread Man.” And with “Gosford Park,” it was the murder mystery. The reason we chose a British piece, when Bob Balaban [who produced, acted and conceived the idea with Altman] and I started talking about it, was I said, “I’ve never done a murder mystery before, like Agatha Christie‘s ‘Ten Little Indians.'” In that one moment, the genre and location were set.
iW: You say you like to twist genres around. Do you feel like you disregard these genres at some point during the making of the film?
Altman: Sure. I use all the information about a genre that the audience already has. I know they have a certain amount of expectation, a comfort level. And I just try and turn it a few degrees off, where “yeah it’s this genre but you haven’t seen it this way before.”
iW: And this film doesn’t really become a murder mystery till halfway in.
Altman: It isn’t a murder mystery, really. It’s about many other things, but a murder happens to take place in it. We always knew that we did not want the