HOW I GOT HIRED BY ROBERT ALTMAN
A Cameraman's story, by Oliver Stapleton.
I was home one Sunday night in 1995 when the phone rang. I'm pretty off-hand when I pick up the phone as it is usually for my wife or children.
"Ya", I said.
"This is Bob Altman", a voice drawled from far away...(I live in Devon UK).
"Oh," I said.... "Er....Robert Altman... the Director?"
"Yup, that's it... I would like you to shoot my next film" he said.
"Really?" I said, "What's......?"
"It's about the beginning of the Jazz era where I grew up...Kansas City..I'll send you the script. If you like it give me a call."
"Great", I said, "I'll look forward to it".
That was how I met - or didn't meet - Robert Altman, or "Bob" as he liked to be called.
When I get hired to shoot a movie usually there is usually a tedious process of Agents, Meetings, Discussions, Delays and Negotiations to deal with that sometimes go on several weeks. Altman just cut through all the unnecessary stuff, sent me a script and a couple of weeks later I was on a plane to Kansas City.
I arrived at the hotel around 8pm, tired from the flying and equivalent to about 4am UK time. I hoped there would be no messages and I could go straight to bed. I made it to the room but when I opened the door there was a handwritten message under it. "Room 1517, Bob.". I dumped my cases, went up the elevator and knocked on the door.
He opened the door himself and stuck out a large right hand to shake mine and offered me a even larger "joint" (spliff) with his left hand. I was transfixed for a moment thinking: "If I don't smoke the joint, he'll think I'm a twit; and if I do, I'll collapse in a heap". I reckoned collapsing was a better option than being considered a twit so I took a few tokes of the first joint I had smoked in around ten years. Whilst I was puffing away I was being introduced to the room full of regular Altman co-workers who were all about to go out to dinner and swiftly included me in the outing.
By the time we were sitting at the Restaurant my entire sensory system had gone haywire and I only remember being unable to get my fork from the plate to my mouth. Bob's dope was not for part-timers...my eyes were burning, everyone looked really weird and I was convinved that I was about to die.
I guess I passed the test as I started work the next morning. We had the usual chats during pre-production which involved (amongst many other things) studying McCabe and Mrs Miller for it's "look" and Bob explained to me that he hired me because he didn't want Kansas City to have the "Altman look" ie a wandering zooming lazy camera style, but a more precise and tight kind of framing that I guess he saw in the many films I had shot (and operated) with Stephen Frears. This was made a bit harder because his son Robert Reed Altman was the operator and so I didn't have the kind of the control that I usually have.
On Day 1 of the shoot things more or less fell apart on the first shot as Bob wanted to put the camera on the jib arm that he owned and shoot on the zoom. I wanted the camera on a dolly with a fixed lens. Not only was I a huge Altman fan but also, who the hell was I to suggest shots to Bob Altman? Anyhow, I argued my case based on the fact that he had hired me in the first place for a different approach for the film, and Bob tried to forget some of his old habits. Pretty soon we fell into a rhythm and made the movie.. a movie that I love and audiences didn't. During the course of the film I learned a whole other approach to film making which I really appreciated and have tried to take on to working with other Directors, although with limited success! Bob was Bob and only he made films the way he made them.
Amongst the many things I remember well are the following:
1. Bob always talked to very individual "extra" or "background artist" as they are now called. Whilst I was lighting he sometimes went to his trailer and played poker with the 1st AD who always lost (wise move!), but if there were extras on set I would hear him talking to them in turn. He's find out what someone was interested in, say Insurance, and then ask the next person to buy an insurance policy from him. He'd move to the next and set up another conversation. When it came time for "ACTION" the background didn't just mime talking (which always looks fake) but actually had real conversations. This also meant the actors had to "compete" against the background which sometimes freaked them out as they were accustomed to the reverential silence that usually accompanies shooting. In this way the atmosphere of the scene always had a reality to it that gave it that "Altman" touch.
2. No discussion about "continuity" was ever allowed. If an actor decided to hold his knife and fork round the other way for Take 3 and Take 5 then so what: "that's what editing is for" is how he would reply if the Script Supervisor decided to mention it. I have seen the devastating effect of overbearing Directors and Script Supervisors who become so obsessed with continuity that the Actor can no longer deliver any kind of performance as their mind becomes cluttered up with worrying about whether they pointed on this line or that line. Bob liberated Actors form the tyranny of Continuity: unfortunately today's obsessive use of Monitors and Playback have given rise to a horribly technical kind of Directing which is quite detrimental to performance.
3. Remote heads were forbidden. Bob thought that "handles" give a coldness to the camera style that makes it feel remote and mechanical. There's no arguing this one.
4. He would set up the "Dailies" or "Rushes" in the main production office and when it came time to view them everyone was ordered into the theatre and damn the phones. Wine and Cheese were served and Bob would have a small mixer for the sound with which he would control music and the dialogue. If there was "mute" material, he always had some music ready to go with it so it wasn't so boring to watch. Bob made rushes an "event" and I'm told that in the early days they were usually followed by a screening of one of his films!
The part of the film that was turned into Jazz '34 was a particularly difficult and tense part of the shoot. Bob quite deliberately hired two Saxophonists from opposing backgrounds: one "learned and classical" in training and the other more or less self taught (Joshua Redmond and Craig Handy). These two would get up and blast off these incredibly dynamic and competitive solos which is exactly what Bob wanted for the film as that is how jazz started out. We shot it as a multi-camera shoot: I would be telling the Operators what to do from a bank of monitors that Bob and I looked at. If I got it wrong he would just tap on a particular monitor with his finger which was the signal that the shot was either too similar to another shot or he just didn't like it. Nothing was ever "playback" which Bob loathed and detested: even to the extent that in dialogue scenes, if there were musicians out of focus in the background they played live and were recorded live. This went against all "received wisdom" of film-making as it makes cutting much harder and... so on. I loved it once I got over my previous training!
I got home at the end of the shoot to get a phone call from Bob saying the last days work had "flicker" on it. There was talk of reshooting, but then Bob said: "Ah never mind, we'll fix it". And fix it he did.
Like many great Artists, Bob didn't have much time for his children whilst they were small, but he had two of them working with him on Kansas City in key roles: Stephen Altman who designed many of his films and Robert Reed Altman who operated many of them. The Altman Roadshow seemed to roll along on a more or less permanent basis and if you were "in" you were in and when you were out, well, happy memories hopefully. He was not a great "nuclear family" man, but rather an even greater "Human Family" man, which included thousands of actors, technicians, extras and just everybody and anybody who would join with him and tell a good story.
Unfortunately our paths only crossed once or twice after that on commercials (one for Cigarettes!), but I'll always remember him for the unique and particular individual that he was. There was only one Bob Altman and with him passes a whole way of shooting films that is unlikely to be repeated in this world of computers, on-set editing and schedule paranoia. I was lucky to be included in his Big Family for a short time...
I asked him once which of his many films was his favorite and he replied:
because they need that extra bit of help."