The long fade-out? Not for Mr. Altman
Robert Altman was 79 when I met him, and he had just finished shooting “The Company” and was happy to sit down with me and talk about doing another movie, “A Prairie Home Companion.” We did that, and when I saw him last, in New York 10 days ago, he was tickled pink that he’d gotten financing for a new picture and was in pre-production.
He loved working. He loved almost everything about it: the long brooding over casting options (“casting is 90% of my job”), the scouting of locations, and the hubbub of the movie set with the crew, the extras, the people with the headsets and clipboards, the stars and their hairdressers. He could get impatient -- “What am I waiting for?” he’d holler over his god mike from the command post -- but his set was pretty loose because he loved actors and wanted them to be happy.
“A Prairie Home Companion” had an all-star cast simply because everyone wanted to work for him. Meryl Streep signed up almost before there was a script, and that put us on the map. Kevin Kline wanted the detective part, John C. Reilly and Woody Harrelson wanted to be singing cowboys. We shot the picture in July 2005, and Mr. Altman seemed so frail when I met up with him, I said, “Are you sure you really want to do this?”
I had seen him walk gingerly across the floor, arms slightly out, as if he were on a tightrope, an assistant walking close behind him, and I felt sorry for an old man facing the long uphill march of a movie and wondered if maybe he’d just as soon sit in a sunny garden in Malibu and do the crossword. He didn’t wonder about that at all. “I want to go out with my boots on,” he said. “I don’t want to sit around and wait for it. I want to be missing in action.”
He seemed to thrive on work and got stronger through five weeks of shooting, winding up with an all-nighter at Mickey’s Diner in St. Paul, shooting an interior scene and then a Hopperesque exterior with Kevin emerging, lighting a smoke, and crossing the rain-soaked street. When the movie wrapped, Mr. Altman retired to his editing room on West 56th Street in New York, and a month later he called everybody to come see the rough cut. He loved sitting in that little screening room in the West Village and watching the thing over and over with other people. When he was working, he was in heaven. He had figured out how to live without regrets. Each time he saw the movie, he saw it new and fresh.
He was a very young bomber pilot in World War II, and perhaps that’s one reason he didn’t fit into the Hollywood system. When you’ve flown through clouds of shrapnel and survived, you have less respect for the corporate point of view. And he was a smartass, and that didn’t help. But what really made Mr. Altman an independent was the fact that he wasn’t about long-term planning or risk management, he was about doing the work. He believed in taking big chances and doing it with a whole heart. He didn’t mind being talked back to. He said, “If you and I agreed about everything, then one of us is unnecessary.” But he was the captain of the ship. He didn’t care for meetings in which people discuss the arc of the story and whether we need a conflict at this point or not.
I had first tried to interest him in making a movie about a man coming back to Minnesota to bury his father, a winter movie. “There haven’t been many movies made in winter,” I said. “You would quickly find out why there haven’t,” Mr. Altman said.
He declined. “In the end,” he said, “the death of an old man is not a tragedy” -- a line so good, I wound up using it in the movie we did make.
He died in full flight, doing what he loved, like his comrades in the Army Air Force who got shot out of the sky and vanished into blue air -- and all of us who worked with him are left with the clear memory of seeing an old man doing what he was passionate about and doing it at the top of his game.
In my memory, Meryl and Lily Tomlin are on the set, sitting in front of a long mirror, and Lindsay Lohan is reclining on a couch, and Mr. Altman is sitting in his high canvas chair in the shadows, having just instructed Bobby the cameraman on the timing of the dolly shot, and he says, “Let’s do one.” A distant warning buzzer sounds, and the assistant director calls out, “Quiet on the set.” Mr. Altman leans in and peers at the picture on his monitor, and here we go again. This may be good. This may be the best yet.