By Gregory Crofton
The idea came to him while he listened to a “Robert Altman: The Oral Biography” (2009) in his car. Make a documentary about this hugely influential American filmmaker, a man who mocked Hollywood with THE PLAYER and pulled off many other impossible films like NASHVILLE,
Mann’s documentary is told by Altman himself relying on homes movies, old interview footage, photographs and clips from his films. His widow Kathryn Reed also narrates, as do his sons and daughter. It’s a comprehensive look at his career – one filled with smash successes like M*A*S*H, and low points which included being fired a couple of times – all endured with the goal of bringing more realism and creativity to the screen.
The Belcourt Theatre showed Mann’s ALTMAN Monday as part of its month-long retrospective on the filmmaker, which includes 19 features and three short films. Mann was joined by Kathryn Reed and Michael Murphy, an actor who appeared in many of Altman’s films, for a question-and-answer session following the screening.
Mann fell in love with the sultry sound of Reed’s voice, (which he heard listening to the oral biography) and that’s really what inspired him to make the documentary. Mann called the author of the book, Mitchell Zuckoff, who told him that if he wanted to make a movie about Robert Altman he must speak to the director’s wife. He found her in Italy at the Torino Film Festival, which was hosting an Altman retrospective.
He asked if she’d be willing to work with him, but added he had no idea how the film would turn out. Oddly that appealed to her because it was the same film sensibility her husband had. To learn more about Mann, Reed watched his films, which include titles like: IN THE WAKE OF THE FLOOD (2010), KNOW YOUR MUSHROOMS (2008), GRASS (1999) and POETRY IN MOTION (1982). She also asked around about him.
“I said ‘You ever heard of this Canadian film documentarian?’ ‘Oh yeah he’s really good, but he’s not the middle-of-the-road you know.’ And I thought ‘Well that’s really good.’ That was followed up by ‘Well you know he’s a little quirky.’ That was even better.”
Once Mann got the job he left for University of Michigan at Ann Arbor where Altman’s papers are archived. He planned to stay for just a week but instead stayed all summer. “It was almost as if he left a trail for me to follow,” Mann said. “And I thought what I would do is have him tell his story in his own words.”
Altman was a risk taker. He refused to repeat himself. He embraced technology. He was self-effacing. He liked to gamble. He liked to throw parties. Whether it was a Thanksgiving feast with his family, or an open-bar gathering of the crew and his actors to watch the dailies he’d just filmed, his aim was to create a family-like atmosphere where creativity could flourish in an effort to “try to get the illusion of reality.” Along the way he revolutionized cinema, brushing from its shoulders remnants of the stage.
He also helped upend television with a 12-episode series for HBO’s TANNER ’88. It was written by satirist Garry Trudeau and starred Michael Murphy as a candidate for president. A blend of scripted television and real life, Altman called it his best work.
All the partying and sports gambling – Altman in his prime looked a little like Tony Soprano – might have caused his heart to become enlarged. He received a heart transplant in 1995, a successful procedure because he died from cancer in 2006. Altman completed 39 feature films and had a remake of the doc HANDS ON A HARD BODY (1997) ready to shoot before his death.
“I had done six, seven films and I was so proud of myself because I thought none of these films are alike,” says Altman in the doc. “And then 10, 12 films more, and I look at these things and think ‘Hmmm.’ These really are all just chapters of the same book. They’re just different chapters.”
Watch a trailer for ALTMAN below.