Welcome to Filmmaking Tips, a long-running column in which we gather up the shared knowledge of a particular filmmaker and assemble it all into the internet’s favorite thing: a list. This one is about the filmmaking of Robert Altman.
It’s sort of fitting that Robert Altman was nominated 7 times for Oscars but never won. He was naturally gracious when awarded an honorary statue for a truly distinguished career, but handing him the hardware earlier might have been a bit like offering an anchor to a man as a reward for clearing a new path out of the jungle.
A product of the wide-open mindset of the 1970s, Altman nonetheless successfully navigated decades of changing tides within the industry, carving out a career that took him from effective workman to pioneer to contemplative auteur.
So here’s a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from the man who was always a bridesmaid and yet still a legend.
The filmmaking lessons we can learn from Robert Altman
1. Think of Your Career as One Long Movie
“It’s all just one film to me. Just different chapters.”
This may be one of the most famous quotes from Altman – aside from his semi-misquoted line about no one having made a “good” movie yet – and while it’s a harrowing suggestion for a first-timer to even try to consider a gargantuan task as the first chapter, it’s also an open invitation to place Altman’s career into the context of a 60-hour feature.
That creates some fantastic connections (Popeye to Ready to Wear is a favorite) as well as some complications considering the man was constantly trying to experiment with the capabilities of the art form within the confines of mainstream delivery. If his full career is to be seen as a singular film, it’s undoubtedly a stream of consciousness.
But there’s some practical advice here, too – about a willingness to evolve in the same way a story would. In that sense, the advice isn’t so much about looking at the bigger picture as it is about freeing yourself to make something new every time you step behind a camera. After all, if the characters all stood still chapter after chapter, it would make for a pretty dull book.
You don’t go from The Delinquents to A Prairie Home Companion without breaking a few eggs.
2. No One’s Ever Made a Good Movie
That’s not exactly what he said, so Altman cleared up the comment with eloquence (in a sweet turtle neck) and a hint at what filmmakers should be striving for.
“I feel the medium of film has not yet really been explored. In other words I think that when we started film, we took it from theater, literature, and we were an extension of another art form. It’s still that way. It’s getting away from it, and I think eventually somebody will make a film that’s purely a film, and the audience can respond to as such. . . the only limitations are the linear ones. It has length. It has its beginning and an end and it takes a certain amount of time.”
There’s your heading. Go out and explore.
3. Don’t Restrict Your Actors
4. The Safe Studio System Will Never Be Safe For Original Voices
“Altman says his troubles with Fox are symptomatic of a general malaise in Hollywood. Many of the major studios are being run by people with little practical knowledge or experience about the movie industry, he says. Lacking sound instincts about what the public will buy at the box office, they try to protect their flanks by making advance sales to pay-cable systems, video disk distributors, and other markets willing to pay up front for movies not yet made. But those secondary markets are only interested in ‘safe’ projects with established stars, so it’s getting more and more difficult to float an original project or a movie starring unknowns.”
Sound familiar? Good, because it’s what Roger Ebert wrote in 1980. Thirty-three years later, we’re still living this studio reality. Some may say it’s gotten worse, but the gut-level wisdom is that it’s the same shit in a different decade.
In 1979, Altman directed a political satire called Health where a powerful group is attempting to choose a new president at a health food convention (which is probably a real thing). It languished on the shelf even as Altman bargained with Fox to release it, but after missing the organic 1980 pre-election summer slot, it lost momentum with the new bigwigs and got buried. There’s still no home video release.
The symbolism is hard to ignore. A champion of independent thinking in the 70s (not to mention a master satirist), Altman’s sharp take on Americana was sitting dusty on a shelf by the end of the decade while his next picture was a bigger budget adaptation of a cartoon starring the breakout comedian from Mork and Mindy.
There will be cycles of fresh ideas and renewed interest in storytelling, but sailing the waters of the studio system is always going to be a process of looking for the biggest wave. Bring a life vest.
5. Don’t Be Shackled By Your Vision
After A Prairie Home Companion, Altman was asked if the movie came out the way he envisioned it. Altman dismissed the premise, saying:
“I wouldn’t know. Making a movie is like chipping away at a stone. You take a piece off here, you take a piece off there and when you’re finished, you have a sculpture. You know that there’s something in there, but you’re not sure exactly what it is until you find it.”
With the freedom he gave his actors and the miles of improvisation he shot, Altman could never be realistically labeled as a control freak, so this statement is unsurprising. You may have a driving need to transfer your exact mental picture to digital space, but if you aren’t that tight-fisted, feel comfortable breathing easy. A film may be a rock waiting to be chiseled, but it’s also a rock bigger than any one person.
6. Never Take Advice From Anyone
This got ironic fast.
What we’ve learned about filmmaking
His entire career is impossible to parse as a singular entity, but maybe the best theme to emerge from all of it is exploration. Or discovery. They go hand in hand at any rate, and with that last bit of advice where Altman effectively said he wasn’t going to give you a map for your journey, there’s a sense that everyone will either have to blaze their own trail or be boring.
That airy advice to be your own director doesn’t have much practical advantage, but if there’s one to be found it’s in being open to asking questions and dismissing false limitations. After more than a century, there is a language of film and a theoretical structure to what it looks like, but even as conventional as a lot of his movies turned out to be, it’s easy to imagine that Altman would scoff at that characterization and start walking West.
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