Posted in: by Kathleen Murphy, by Richard T. Jameson, Contributors, Directors, Interviews, Robert Altman

“… they take on their own life…”: Robert Altman Interviewed

By Richard T. Jameson and Kathleen Murphy

[Originally published in Movietone News 55, September 1977]

Robert Altman visited Seattle late last year in connection with the world premiere of Welcome to L.A. at the Harvard Exit. The directorial debut of his sometime assistant director and—on Buffalo Bill and the Indians—co-screenwriter Alan Rudolph, Welcome also marked Altman’s bow as a producer. As a producer, he’d functioned idiosyncratically—as one might expect. Although he consulted on the casting of the film and talked with Rudolph about the general concept, he stayed out of his director’s way from then on—even the morning he woke up to find Rudolph waiting to use his house as a key set. Come to think on ‘t, holding a world preem in the Jet City was a bit idiosyncratic, too. But the town had been good to Altman movies, and for tax purposes Welcome had to open somewhere in 1976 even though its general release wasn’t due till February ’77, and the year-end biggies would effectively shut it out of New York. So here were Altman, Rudolph, Sally Kellerman, and actor, publicist, and Barbet Schroeder–movie distributor Mike Kaplan (seen in the small but telling role of Russell in Welcome), making the rounds of the morning talkshows, meeting the press individually and ensemble for lunch, and wondering, perhaps, whether Seattle knew what to do with the world premiere of a relentlessly well, idiosyncratic art movie. Seattle, as it turned out, was wondering the same thing.

MTN would like to get one thing absolutely straight: Welcome to L.A., which placed very high on several Contributors’ Ten Best Lists in #54, is Alan Rudolph’s movie; and we regret that the interview schedule obliged us to talk with Rudolph before we had had an opportunity to see his film. We used that occasion for simply getting acquainted with Alan Rudolph: enjoying his delight in Children of Paradise, which he had just seen for the first time a week or so before; sparring over Buffalo Bill, a film we are far from appreciating to the degree he might have preferred; and coming decidedly to respect his way of standing by his work and his opinions where other Hollywood junketers often defer smarmily to the least suggestion of criticism. A day later and we might well have been worrying at the fascinating fiber of his auspicious debut. But for now, the interview of record must be Altman’s.

Altman had appeared a couple days earlier at the University of Washington, played off a packed Roethke Auditorium for an hour or so, charming one and all with his admission that he loves all his own movies, and vastly pleasing the (naturally) predominantly student audience with a laid-back attitude about film form and construction. An English prof (who happens to be a full-fledged film freak) tried to get him to comment on the suggestively rhymed imagery of the final tilt to the white sky in Nashville and Ned Buntline’s just winking away into the absolute blackness of the night late in Buffalo Bill, but it wasn’t the forum for that sort of thing and so the director just shrugged and said,

“Well ya have to tell the audience the picture’s over!” He got an even bigger laugh anticipating the final shot of 3 Women: “We’re just filming the outside of this house, see, and the people have all gone inside and you just hear them talking, and then I had to have enough footage to play the end credits over without going to a freezeframe, so it was getting a little dull and I said to the cameraman, ‘Pan over there,’ and there was this pile of tires, you’d never seen them in the film and I’d never noticed them before…”

The first of three audiences watching Welcome to L.A. the night of November 12 was less outgoing. Lines and moves that had drawn appreciative laughter at the screening a few days earlier played to a generally mystified silence. In the Exit’s cozy lounge after the show, people jammed up around the walls and left a space between themselves and the celebs (Richard Baskin had just joined up), who were anxious for feedback. The reticence bespoke respectfulness and a lack of pushiness, not necessarily disenchantment with the movie. “What are you supposed to do at a premiere?” seemed to be the unspoken question in everyone’s mind. Exit manager Jim Osteen sensed the problem and hustled the company around the corner to Boondock’s for dinner and drinks during the second show; and by the time the audience for the third show was arriving, Altman had seen the coming of the light. Just before the final performance of the evening he bounded up onto the Exit stage and boomed at the full house: “Look, forget about this being a world premiere—it’s just a movie! If ya like it, laugh, applaud, cheer. If ya think it’s a piece of shit, tell us it’s a piece of shit! But don’t just—sit!” They didn’t just sit and they didn’t think it was a piece of shit, and in the lounge afterward there was general euphoria.

We spent several hours with Altman the afternoon of the big day. This is some of what got said.

* * *

I wanted to ask you about the use of the Leonard Cohen music in McCabe and Mrs. Miller. It seemed so integral to what you were doing there—so many correspondences between his images and yours: “The Stranger’s Song” and those images of fire and ice….

Well, let me tell you this, because it’s really true, and it says something about how artists draw on one another. The things rarely go together on the same page….
When we did McCabe, I had— I didn’t wanna— The idea of a ballad came up, and I said. “I’m not gonna do that, because there’s no such thing— “You can write a ballad, and no matter how good the writer is, you write it to the picture. You’re just adding words to it. My editor, Louie Lombardo, was still fighting; he wanted a big musical score. I didn’t want that; I wanted to go with the starkness, just the natural sounds. I built into the script, and into the casting, a fiddle-player. I said, “Good, he can be the music source.” We’d put in the music box, the little Christmas music box; I said we could use that. There was a guy who played a flute…. So I said that was all we needed.
Two years before, or maybe three years before, I’d been in Vancouver to do a picture called That Cold Day in the Park. We moved into a little house in the woods we rented in West Vancouver—me, the editor, some others. We were there all winter. It really gets bleak, dark. We had Leonard Cohen’s first album there. We’d get in the house at night, sit by a fire, cook our dinners, drink, get a little stoned. It was cold outside and we were warm inside. Well, we went through three records; I mean, we wore them out. We just automatically— it was just on. And then I totally forgot about it. I know I never consciously thought about using it.
When we finished McCabe, it was really grueling. It was difficult initially because the climate was not easy, and it was a long film, long shooting. Tommy Thompson [production manager] was wiped out; he worked harder than anybody. We took off, went to Paris; I knew some people over there. One night we were at this girl’s apartment, she put on this album, and the Stranger’s theme came on. And I said, “My god, I can’t believe it. That— it’s the movie!” And I got on the telephone, called Louie directly from there, and I said “Go down and get the Leonard Cohen album, get it transferred. I’ll be back in two days.”
And it fit so well. It was phenomenal. You see, I just had it in my mind somewhere; I was following it when I made the movie, and so it fit without being explicit. So now, Warren [Beatty/ felt the same way, but he said, “You can’t use it. You’ll never make a deal.” I said, “I’ll talk to Cohen. Where is he?” He was in Nashville. So early next morning, I called him. I had to introduce myself; I figured he’d have seen M*A*S*H I said, “Did you see M*A*S*H?” He said, “Naw, I didn’t see M*A*S*H, but we hero-worship Brewster McCloud. We went into the theater one night, we saw it, and we saw it every night it was there. Can I bring my girl out and visit?” So then he came to California, saw an assemblage of the picture, loved it, said “Fine, anything you want.” We finished it, we needed some guitar transitions; he made the deal with Warners to the point it was not only easy to make, it was— He said, “That record’s dead anyway. After the date of the release of this picture, any profits from that album would be shared,” shared with us. So he was more than generous.
When the picture was finished, Leonard had just finished his second album and he was in New York, and I took [McCabe] back and we went into the studio and did some new transitions. And he wanted to take his new manager. They went to a screening room. They sat there: and I knew that this manager was not liking. You feel things. I went back to the hotel and he called me and he said, “It’s finished. You can have it [the music track] picked up at CBS,” he says, “but I have to be honest with you: I didn’t like the picture. I will do anything else you want, but I just want you to know that I’m not for the Picture”— which was the phrase he used. And it just really hurt me. And I said, “Well I’m sorry you feel that way.” But he was reacting to this manager. So that took a little of the joy out of it for me.
So the picture went out, etc. I moved to London: I was off to do Images. There was a phonecall. He said, “This is Leonard Cohen. I’m calling from Montreal.” I said, “Hello, Leonard, how are you?” He said, “I went to see McCabe with some people last night in Montreal. I just wanted you to know, I’m so proud to be affiliated with it. I don’t know what it was that bothered me: maybe I was under some kind of pressure when I saw it.” I said, “Well, I understand, Leonard.” And he said, “I just wanted you to know.”

It’s amazing—

Well, he’s a sensitive person.

—the way you put that, being warm inside and listening to that music, is exactly the kind of effect you get in McCabe—the warmth and shelter as opposed to that cold life outside….

* * *

Some of your best films were made with Vilmos Zsigmond as cameraman, but now you’re with someone else. You worked with Paul Lohmann—

Yeah, did three films [California Split, Nashville, Buffalo Bill and the Indians].

—Now you’ve got Chuck Rosher Jr. Is there a conscious principle of renewal? You just make a point to work only so long with—?

No, I think it’s more their choice than mine. Like Vilmos: I think he felt a little overshadowed by me. When you do a thing and everybody works as hard as they do and then one guy gets all the credit, and no matter how much you try to divide it up, you can’t force people to do that. They want to prove that they’re good in their own right and not just dependent on me. Same as Alan [Rudolph]: he doesn’t want to do his next picture for me, and I understand that. They go off; it’s a natural kind of thing. I think it’s healthy. Also, you get so you take each other for granted too much, and then a new guy comes in and I’m trying to show him what I know and he’s trying to show what he knows—it’s like a fresh romance: you’re digging up all the things that you put aside with your other part to expose and say, “Look, I really do this good.”

I’ve had very little experience watching movies being made. I have to go by what I see watching a movie on a screen. The first directors that I became aware of, watching the late show when I was in my teens, were people who, as soon as I looked at the movie I said “Oh, John Ford shot that. That’s Anthony Mann”—somebody with a very strong sense of visual control. And I’m curious in your films particularly, where there’s so much flow, busyness, what there— Maybe there’s no answer to this question: what difference is there between you and the cameraman in terms of what we finally see on screen? I’m not even sure there’s a question to that question!

Well, I think probably that I deal with the cameraman mostly before we start shooting. How are we gonna make— What’s our color philosophy gonna be? What’s our lens-length philosophy? What are we gonna present it? Is it gonna be a point-of-view film? Is it gonna be a look-through-the-windows film? Where are we gonna place the audience? And we do lots and lots of tests, and try different things. Then once we start shooting, that’s set up. In the case of The Long Goodbye we decided the camera’s never gonna stop moving, and it’s gonna be arbitrarily moving—not follow-movement, it’s gonna be counter-movement. There are virtually no shots in that picture (there’s always exceptions) where the camera’s not moving. See, you take a philosophy. Then, we you start shooting. In California Split we took the philosophy that the camera would always be moving in, not out; there are times when it does, but the idea that when you come into a casino and you’re a gambler, you see the whole thing; but pretty soon you don’t see what, it call comes down to what’s under that one card. And constantly having the audience sucked into that, without knowing it that they’re being done to that way. So once we start, the cameraman is mainly concerned with the lighting. Most of the angles or the physical moves of the camera, I set up. On this last picture, on 3 Women, Rosher every once in a while he’d say, “Excuse me, can I look through the camera for a moment? I wanna see how this corner’s gonna look. Where are you cutting off?” Well, he was almost dealing with me the way on some other picture I would deal with the cameraman. His concern in 3 Women was to give us this—well, in the desert we had a certain look, and in the interiors we had a different look. And I’m sure it’s different with every group.

At the University the other day you had to warn the audience who were about to see Thieves like Us in a 16mm print about the failure of the studio to provide for a hard matte, so that they’d know that in a theater, they wouldn’t be seeing all those mike booms and such. When I was watching Thieves—and I did see it in a theater—I was disconcerted by something else: the film wasn’t working on me the way an Altman normally did because, well, you weren’t shooting that sweeping Panavision epic image. Did you feel small-screen was particularly right for that film? Do you generally prefer working in Scope format?

I didn’t go to Panavision on that film because we just didn’t have the money. I wish I had. The cameraman on that film is one of the best I ever worked with—[Jean] Boffety. It added to the emptiness of the landscape that we didn’t see so much.

It was a few-people movie as opposed to a gang-on, people-all-over-the-place film, which yours more often are. It seemed to me that the very story didn’t even yield the opportunities for the normal kinds of movement, normal kinds of concentration and sprawl that you get. In away it has that kind of effect that Welcome to L.A. does: there doesn’t seem to be a whole world out there.

Well there wasn’t really, you know, in those days in those places, which is why those things were allowed to happen.

* * *

What do you think of Mr. Peckinpah? You were talking about a cut version of Buffalo Bill opening in Europe, and Fellini was protesting, and you said “It won’t do any good.” It made me think of Peckinpah, who’s had some trouble in that direction.

I don’t know much about Peckinpah. I’m not a big fan of The Wild Bunch. I loved his first picture, Ride the High Country; I really loved that. I liked his television work that he did; thought he was remarkable then. I haven’t seen any of his other films.

You never saw The Ballad of Cable Hogue? Even the accidental almost-rhyme in the name—it’s almost a companion-piece to McCabe. You talk about ballad a while ago—

They have the same editor.

Yeah, right. There’s a very inventive use of song and music there— In a way, both McCabe and Ballad of Cable Hogue could be seen—I’m not pigeonholing—as films about directors, people who create worlds and then get aced out of their films at the end. I was thinking last night about John McCabe, who goes in and builds a set and has a certain attitude towards his role, and then the big money men come in and say “Bye! It’s time for you to go away.”

But he would have gone away anyway. I mean, he would have died earlier.

* * *

[Publicist and production aide] Mike Kaplan told us a while ago that you weren’t going to do Yigg Epoxy, which had been mentioned. What about The Book of Daniel?

[E.L.] Doctorow and I still have an arrangement. We both, after the de Laurentiis thing [the cancellation of Ragtime as an Altman project], got very—I tried to stay out of his way. We became very close friends. And I pulled back from the whole thing to give him room to get involved with Milos Forman or whoever ends up doing it; I didn’t want to go like “Stand behind me.” But he interpreted that as I didn’t have a sincere interest, that I should have fought harder. I told this to some journalist and it got into The New York Times and he got mad at me. And then he called and said “Well, if Bob’s going to air our personal things to the press—” And I hadn’t, but— we just went into a cooling-off period. I talked to him last week, and I think it is more likely than not that eventually we will make The Book of Daniel, because I think it should be made. But it’s gonna be very difficult, as far as the financing is concerned, they do not want to touch it, nobody is interested.

[Altman got to talking at one point about some contemporary actors he didn’t care for personally because he could see the mechanics of the performance too readily. This led into some remarks about one of his regulars.]

…I know people who think Mike Murphy’s just a dull, terrible actor.

That’s pretty hard to believe. On the other hand, it’s amazing how he’s ignored in appreciations of your films. In Nashville, for instance, he’s so good, yet some people seem to think he’s just being there. He doesn’t announce himself.

No, he doesn’t in his own life or any other way. He just plays—

Where’d he come from? How did you come to be associated with him? You’ve probably used him more than anybody.

Murphy was— I don’t know how he even got into acting. He was a schoolteacher and a friend of my wife’s was a secretary of some television thing and she said, “Oh, this guy comes in the office looking for a job all the time and they won’t hire him and he’s never done anything and he can’t get any interviews. He’s such a nice man”—on and on. I was doing Combat. She said, “Geez, will you see him?” He came over and I gave him a real tiny part, one line; and he wsissyas … all right—it’s very difficult to be good in such a little part. And I gave him another one, and we became really close friends. And then he started doing pretty well in television. With Cold Day in the Park he said he wanted to come up and visit us when we were up in Vancouver, and I said, “Come on, you can play the pimp!” And we had this whole idea of this guy looking very Ivy League. And he did that little thing. And then in M*A*S*H he did a doctor kind of thing…. It was really unfair to him because he was doing all this utility, and you can’t ever be a star when you’re a utility in-fielder. And then in Brewster I said he was the perfect guy to do the— he really had the lead in Brewster, and I thought he was terrific in that. Then he went into McCabe and I used him almost the way I did in Cold Day, to play against the type. He was supposed to play the husband in Images and [Peter] Bogdanovich had him in What’s Up, Doc? and wouldn’t let him out of the nothing part; we couldn’t wait for him, so René [Auberjonois] came in and did that. And then in Nashville he came back after not being in several pictures.

So we’ll be seeing him again in Robert Altman pictures?

Yeah, I think so. Oh, he’s a terrific, he’s very good. He was the best in Nashville I’ve ever seen him.

That scene he played with Allan Nicholls—

Yeah, yeah!

—Cristina Raines comes in and he’s thinking “How am I gonna play these two and make it come out my way?”

I was wondering why Sally Kellerman wasn’t in Nashville. With her singing and all, it seems she’d have fit right in. In fact, when we were talking with her a while ago, there was a moment when she was talking about her career and she said, “I’m a singer!” and suddenly it was like Gwen Welles.

The thing about Sally, she’s always on the star trip. She tells her agent she has to have so much money, and we just can’t do that at times. I’m gonna use Sally in A Wedding. [As it turned out, no.] Ya gotta let Sally go away for two or three pictures and come back. Really, she’s in better shape now, with a standing of her own in acting and everything else. But when I tell Scotty [production associate Scott Bushnell] I’m gonna use Sally, she hits the ceiling because Sally will tell the hairdresser “Oh I can’t go on yet!”…


Cristina Raines and Keith Carradine in "Nashville"

* * *

How did you come to decide on Leigh Brackett as the writer for The Long Goodbye? I know she writes mystery novels in the style of Chandler, but did you think of her in terms—

No, she had that, that screenplay had been written for [producer] Jerry Bick before I came into it. She had written a screenplay. And they assumed I was gonna want another writer. I said No, I just wanted to redo some things. She came in, worked three or four weeks, and…

Did you look at The Big Sleep?

Did I? No. I had seen it, but I didn’t remember it very well.

Neither did Howard Hawks. He said in an interview one time that he’d snapped on the TV, watched it for a while, couldn’t figure it out and went to bed.

Benton’s picture is going to be very interesting, because it’s a Chandler, it’s a private-eye—The Late Show, this thing that I produced. It’s really good, and it’s got a lot of derivatives from The Long Goodbye in a way, but’ it’s softer and sweeter, and it’s very accessible, and ya like the people. The plot is very Chandleresque.

I loved his first film—I guess his only film—as a director, Bad Company.

I do, too.

Has he had just a very bad time getting a second shot, a second chance? There are so many people who made that terrific film and you never hear from them again, except as one of three screenwriters on somebody else’s movie a few years later, something like that.

He had— I don’t know what other pictures he’s been after to do, but he wrote this with the idea of doing it himself. It was sent to me—our agent is the same, he knew I’d done Alan’s picture. As a screenplay it’s not much; as a picture, it’s terrific. And I came up with the idea of casting Art [Carney] and Lily [Tomlin] in it, and I think that’s more why we sold it, plus the fact that he had done one picture and I was standing behind him, and that’s why they went for it.

Are you going to do something similar with that film, similar to this present experiment: find a Seattle or a Denver and open there?

I don’t think so. One, it’s Warner Brothers, it’s not scheduled to come out till next year anyway, and I think that we’ll do a— I don’t know what this Welcome opening out of town is going to do to us. What it might do is help start breaking some patterns. I think you could take Benton’s picture and take it down to what you would consider the worst house in town and play it, and the worst audience, and they’d like it. But I also think you could play it at the Harvard Exit to people like yourselves and you’d like it. One of those rare combinations that doesn’t leave anybody out. Whereas with Welcome, if somebody walked in off the street without any desire or preparation to see it, they’d say “What’s this all about?” We screened Late Show in New York to a small audience; a couple of people said, “We thought it was going to be a comedy”—because of Art and Lily. Well, it is a comedy, but when they say “comedy” they mean “ridiculous.”

Gwen Welles came through Seattle at the time of Nashville‘s release, and she told me something I’ve never heard anywhere else, and I’m beginning to wonder whether I heard wrong or what. She—her character—was supposed to have committed suicide in one version—

Mm-hmm. First version.

You changed it right on the street, with five minutes to go until the power was going to be shut off?

No, it was long before that. But she might have thought that, because the communications— See, when they got that script, everybody knew that we were gonna be making changes. She knew in the original there was to be an offstage suicide. Viveca Lindfors commits suicide in Welcome to L.A.

That was the impression I got when I watched the film. The other day Alan seemed to be suggesting it should have been more ambiguous.

I think it’s just right. I would have made it more explicit. Not by any shot or anything, but— There’s a character that got cut out of it, but in the script— Well, Wallace Rooney, who’s acting right here in the theater, was in it as her boyfriend; was cut out of it. She sends him out of his house—she’s really at his house—she sends him out to get her some cigarettes or something. And then she locks all the doors and goes in the bathroom. But it worked better this way.

Did you suggest her for the part? How did that come about?

I got a letter from her; she said, “We’ve never met. If you’re ever in New York I’d like to meet you. I don’t know if you know my work as an actress…” I called her and I said “I’m in New York. Would you like to come by and say hello?” She came by and we talked for an hour. I came back and we were looking for someone for this character. We had talked—we hadn’t talked directly to Joan Fontaine; we talked about a lot of different—Eleanor Parker … And then I said Viveca and Alan said “Fine.”

I have a very short attention span with films. I can sit and look at my own films with new audiences constantly (up to a point, and then I don’t look at them anymore). But I see very, very few films. There’s a lot about Welcome that I think should have been a little cleaner or expliciter or I-don’t-know; areas that bother me about it. But I sit down and look at it and suddenly it’s over, and I’m not aware that I’ve been there at all. I’ve seen it six times, and that’s rare for me. And I don’t have that authorship investment in the thing. If anything I’ll be more critical of that film than somebody’s else’s film, because I can dismiss somebody else’s film. I can’t dismiss it or Benton’s film. But Alan’s film, I just really love watching.

I think we both had the experience of starting out really liking it very much for a couple reels—

And then it falls off.

—and then feeling uneasy because things start getting a little labeled—

And then it picks up.

—But even while having those doubts, which have tended to recede after thinking about the movie and deciding really he was doing something different from what we were looking for, that’s why we’re anxious to see it again; but even with those doubts and all, there was a constant sense of “This is going, this is moving, this is alive.”

He’s got a terrific eye. Composition; the camera moves really well.

Those images stay with you a long time after seeing the movie, which is one of my criteria for a film: if it stays there and works on you, something’s there.

And yet there’s another level that picture hits on, a soap-opera level, that could make it very successful. [Altman proceeds to relate several experiences with people who had seen Welcome in New York screenings, all of whom were not especially sophisticated film viewers, yet felt compelled to express an appreciation of that particular movie.] So if that audience can stumble into this film, maybe we have a chance with it. And if we can get ’em to admit to themselves they liked the film, then they’ll automatically be expanded a little bit and they’ll feel they can go to that kind of film and it’ll be OK, and they won’t have to walk out growling “Well what was that about?”

That “I can go to that kind of film” reminds me: I got sort of that same kind of reaction from some people on Nashville. And the notion that somebody would have problems with Nashville flabbergasts me because I just climbed on and rode it for 159 minutes and wanted to turn around and ride it again. But maybe it’s that they knew all those people were onscreen at one time, coming at them, and they thought—and I’ve heard several people say to you in the last few days “It’s like Nashville, you have to see it again to get it all,” and I was quietly saying to myself “I think I got all of Nashville the first time, and I loved it—”

You get more the next time because you can stop and enjoy it a little bit—

You get maybe a different direction; but it wasn’t that I had missed half the dialogue or anything like that. But a lot of people get freaked on that: “Oh god I’m gonna miss something.”

My wife is the toughest on these things. She’ll say, “Gee, I don’t know what that’s about. She is really pragmatic. She’ll sit and look at the film. And she’s very, very tough on these pictures. She sits through the dailies and she really loves them, but—”Whaddaya have to show that for?” I won’t go to a movie with her. I’ll never forget Lawrence of Arabia. Sherif Ali starts coming toward ya, and right off the bat she says, “What’s that?” And I’m saying “Sshh!!” And she’s saying “Well what is that?” “I don’t know what it is!” She says, “Well what the hell’s it out there for if you don’t even know what it is? What is that?” I said, “It’s a storm!” And she says, “It’s not a storm, it’s a guy on a horse!”

She was in the hospital; she got out and I told her about 3 Women. She says, “What’s it about?” I said, “Well, it’s about these two girls, and they’re from Texas, and they move in together—” And she says, “Oh god, it’s not going to be one of those lesbian things, is it?” And then I knew I was on the right track.

That’s an interesting kind of creative relationship!

* * *

How much do you attempt to keep things whole in your shooting? I’m thinking of the opening of Thieves like Us for instance: a long take that starts, you’re waiting for the train to emerge from the woods, it does, and then you’re watching it, and coming around and losing it, and two guys are out on a lake in a boat, and they row toward you, and then they’re walking and talking, you get to hear them better and better. I don’t know, it must travel 420 degrees in a circle!

Yeah, that was a very complicated, a very good shot; but it worked. It’s a way— There are people who don’t know that’s one shot; that there are cuts in a picture. But it tells, it sets pace. To me, that was to tell the audience “This is the way it’s gonna go. Don’t anticipate— It’s gonna go this way.” It’s like in The Long Goodbye, that ten minutes playing out that thing about the cat and the cat food—which is really outrageous, to open a private-eye movie with. But it was humorous, it held them. It also told them something. It said, “This is the kind of picture. Don’t expect something else. This is what it’s gonna be.” And I think that that’s very important.

Now there’s other times, like in 3 Women. We open up in a very bizarre way, and I mean, it’s gonna scare people, or make them feel that something’s gonna scare them. And that’s what the movie’s about, that’s what the tempo, that’s what the movie’s about—but only in your mind, because on the screen it’s very like ordinary, ordinary, and ordinary; but I wanted to have, under all that ordinariness, this memory of this, this line of impending … something’s really taking place here. And then we start making the same strange turns. And I don’t know if it’s gonna work. I mean, I know how all the pieces work. But of all the ones I’ve done, this is one that most likely, most easily, when all the pieces go together, could go up in smoke, not be there. I really don’t—I don’t know … It has all the elements of being good—of being really good.

Did Sissy Spacek and Shelley Duvall both help write it?

No. Sissy, I found out a very interesting thing about her and I almost got in trouble early in the thing. She’s a terrific actress, really good; but I’d— See, I only went in there with a 33-page outline. And I finally got to the point where I would write the scene we were gonna do the next day—it’d be three or four pages long—and I found that Sissy really has to have the dialogue. And her great talent is taking the dialogue and making it sound so totally her own you can’t believe— And she fooled me. And suddenly I got in there, about three days of work, and it started not working very well. Shelley, on the other hand, I knew had to have the things written for her, and I didn’t think she had the range that she shows in this picture. The part was structured in such a way that Sissy’s on hand to make all the moves and Shelley would be OK. But Shelley came on … We were forced to change it: she really got good. And her monologues are pretty much like her character’s; they had nothing to do with anything specific.

One of the points of the story is, here’s a girl that’s totally a victim of advertising—Cosmopolitan, processed foods, how to decorate your apartment, how to make window curtains out of sheets, how to get a boyfriend, how you should live. The apartment is just—it’s yellow and violet and white, it’s this way, and her hair’s got a flip to it, and her clothes— And Sissy comes in, this blank face, and meets and just suddenly admires her so much that she works her way into becoming her roommate. And then the audience, we find out that Shelley is a complete failure, she’s not a popular girl at all, nobody likes her. But she’s in the middle of everything, and you start— Sissy sees her as being this very successful human being; and she emulates her to the point that she usurps her personality, and forces her into being— Shelley becomes Sissy’s mother. You see, you first see Shelley, she never stops talking, but then you realize those people aren’t listening, they’ll walk away in the middle of a sentence; she really becomes very heartbreaking. And we do some fantasy sequences where she goes into a situation and Sissy watches her and we see what really happens and then we see what Sissy thinks happens. And then when that dream is shattered and Sissy’s—this perfect person becomes non-perfect to her, she has an accident or she jumps—she goes from the second floor into this swimming pool, you don’t know whether it’s a suicide or what causes it: I mean, there’s many reasons … I don’t know. And she’s comatized for several days. And when she comes out of it, this new personality comes out; it’s a very different personality. And Shelley of course has the total guilts for this, feels totally responsible for it. And suddenly you realize that Shelley now has something real in her life to hold on to: to try to take care of this, to live this image and she’s failing on many points. And you see— It’s never that explicit, that she’s become a whore and taken over that place, and forced Shelley to live— And the ending is very bizarre.

Again, going back to the opening, you don’t know what you’re going to see—whether you’re gonna be seeing science fiction, or something on another planet. There’s artwork that we deal with that is phenomenal. We could open it very differently. If you’d look at the middle third—the middle half—of the picture, if you’d take out the first quarter and the last quarter, you’d say “Oh god, whadda we have?” We’d be having Pinkie and Millie dolls—their names are Pinkie and Millie—and there’d be a sequel, Pinkie and Millie Move to the City. I mean, it’s just so ordinary and mundane; and they do a dinner for some people they think are coming that don’t ever show up. It’s all this processed food, and wrapping up hot dogs, and canned chocolate pudding and cherries, and wine—they had Tickle Pink and Lemon Satin, and these wine goblets that are plastic, Florentine gold that you screw the bottom on; and the clothes, it’s just … It’s a real experience!

Shelley Duvall and Sissy Spacek in "3 Women"

* * *

This whole business about media and publicity, and the ways various kinds of media kill or create identity, is in most of your films. How do you feel about that yourself, as in a way a persona is created by your publicity? Does it bother you at all?

It doesn’t bother me because it’s something that is necessary to deal with. If I took the position “OK, I’m not talking to anybody ever,” then some other, somebody would create some kind of personality. If I go out and I talk to too many people, another personality is gonna be created. To try to plan that is pretty silly. Like, I won’t go on any network talkshows, I will not appear on television in that situation; I’m just not good at all, nobody really cares, there’s no reason for me to do that. These things I did up here [local TV interviews in connection with the world premiere] were just terribly painful, but I’ve been doing them here because we don’t want to appear hostile to the press. It doesn’t do any harm, and yet there’s not anybody that’s gonna get the proper impression of me through this—but it’s not important, that impression. The press is always going to create— If somebody does something you admire greatly, you put such adulation into that person that there’s no way they could ever live up to it. I mean, you say “Well geez, that guy’s just a grouchy old … artist. He don’t know what he’s doin’!” or “He’s just a regular guy.” Those exaggerations of image are gonna take place whether you try to guide them or what. If you’re seeking something for yourself, if you’re performing all the time, it’s different. I never have a plan. I’ve never gone on an interview or a college thing or anything, and ever thought about anything I was going to say. And I won’t lecture; I’ve been asked, but I say I just can’t do that. I really don’t have anything to say.

But you can get raging mad or raging bored dealing with the pseudo-event quality of some of these things.

No, it’s just— I want people to see the film. It’s part of the— You go out on the street corner and hang your paintings up and try to put the flags up. I get outraged at certain critics and certain writers that I see serving their own reasons. Of all the films we’ve mentioned, ImagesI can understand totally somebody not liking it, thinking it’s pretentious or whatever. I can read a review of that and say “Yeah, if you stand here it’s gonna look that way.” I can usually understand the points of view. It’s necessary: if there hadn’t been film critics, I’da been outa work! All those raves on pictures that have failed— Those guys sitting in the front office are really pretty dumb people, and they’re just as starstruck as anybody else. You don’t work with the same company twice. Except with Fox, I’m making A Wedding with them—I’m making the deal right now before 3 Women— They think 3 Women‘s tremendous, but they haven’t seen it put together [breaking into gleeful laughter as he speaks]. That’s what happened with U[nited] A[rtists] on The Long Goodbye; they thought it was going to be a smash and went right ahead with Thieves. But then they turned Nashville down.

But can critics work against you? I don’t know much about the business, but does anybody dislike it if critics like you?

No, but anybody can rationalize any position they want to rationalize. The critics that hurt me— In Los Angeles, Charles Champlin, in that society—not community—he, they all follow him. He got Cuckoo’s Nest its awards. I’ve never seen a paper do such a blatant commercial job at Academy Award time as he did for that picture right down the line; I think he went ‘way overboard. I don’t think they paid him or anything like that. But I’m considered more of a New York— In California they think of me as an outsider. Pauline Kael likes me; Pauline Kael didn’t like Images, didn’t like Brewster McCloud or Buffalo Bill, although she didn’t review that one.

You said somewhere—I think I read somewhere—that you had to make Images to work something out in you I’m not sure how you put it.

Well, Images was a thing that I wrote a long time ago, before I made Cold Day in the Park. I really went to Vancouver looking for locations for Images, I found a studio up there; decided we’d do Cold Day there. Then we started Images on some independent financing and the guy ran out, and we lost a great deal of money, a great deal for us … It just became a thing, “I’m gonna get it done!”, it’d been aborted so many times. The easiest thing would have been to desert it; I just decided I’d get it done. I think this is what’ll eventually happen with Breakfast of Champions, because that thing keeps getting sidetracked, and it’d be very easy to drop it.

Was Images not a success commercially?

No. But again, it had no release. Columbia released it, and it was financed by Hemdale—really crooks. Columbia I think put up $300,000 and put it in one lousy theater in New York; there was no campaign and it failed and that was it. And they had no big loss on it; they made a television sale. They burned most of the prints: I mean destroyed them.

I don’t know. If you think about Woman under the Influence, for instance, and think about Images, Images is so much better; even if you just want to talk about it as a “woman’s picture” it was 100 times better.

Audience reaction to Imagespeople in the theater, the screening room—was stronger than to any of the other films I’ve made. If you decide in the first five or six minutes of that film to go along and take the trip, we gotcha; but if you pull back and say “Oh I’m not gonna, I don’t wanna get into this,” then you’re out. And the interesting thing is that females and males see, have an entirely different experience; they come out and they’ve seen two different pictures. You take a man and a woman that both really like Imagesand it’s not that women like it more than men, I know many men say “That’s the best picture I’ve ever seen.” If you could put things in their heads and somehow project the picture they saw, you’d see two totally different films. And another thing: I have had women, when we were first screening that, come out and look at me with almost, not hate, but like I was some demon, like really I had gone someplace I had no right to go.

I can understand that. It’s kind of like getting raped, in a way. But the thing about it is the seeing. When I came out of the theater I felt like I couldn’t trust where I was walking because I had been taught not to believe what I saw; my equilibrium was gone, literally. That’s what I liked so much about it, the whole image quality.

I think 3 Women is really an extension of Images. Where we use the children’s story in Images, a fantasy of another place, we use the paintings—and my original concept in Images was that she would be a painter, a water-colorist. These paintings that Janice Rule’s supposed to do, in swimming pools, on concrete flats in the desert, an artist named Bohdi Winde that I found in Los Angeles did. And there are these creatures: there’s always three women, one pregnant, and a male; they have tails, they have scales, they’re angry, they’re in anguish, they’re from another planet; and they’re very strong, they’re scary-primeval. And the fact that I would go to that kind of thing the same way we went with the unicorns: that sets the same kind of theme. So it’s very similar. And of course the identity change; and the role that the male plays with the females in the picture is the same; the roles of birth and pregnancy and death—all exactly the same. It’s just a bigger picture.

… Films take on their own life. You start out a project—most of your work’s done by the time you start shooting; I’d say 90 percent is done when ya cast it. And then it’s just goin’ down the road, and you’re really chasing the film, trying to keep it from running off into the countryside, get to the ending. Ya start out with a concept, even a very hard concept, very defined, like a sketch, a cartoon. And when the film’s finished, those lines have been erased, there are gradations now. I used to try to fight to keep it. Now I just let it run over the lines; but there are hard lines at the outside I don’t let it run over. It’s a much different film—much different—than what I had in mind when I started. But by the time you get to the editing, probably in the editing you’ll put some of those lines back in. And yet it won’t look that way. I mean, if you’d read the script, if you’d observed the process, you’d have said “My god, it isn’t anything like what you started”; and this thing has changed so much that it’s not even the same beginning except that you have these characters … Yet when the picture’s edited and finished and you look at the screen, you say “Oh, this exactly what we started out with.” So it does come back to that, that there are no surprises—there’s nothing that didn’t happen intentionally.

© 1977 Richard T. Jameson and Kathleen Murphy

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.