Ron Mann's 'Altman' Lets the Director Speak for Himself
By Ron Deutsch
Hollywood likes to tell stories about itself. But like the movies it makes, it often sacrifices reality for a good story. One such story goes something like this: In the late 1960s, the studios had lost direction and weren't in touch with the new generation of moviegoers. In this confusion, a group of young rebel directors were given free reign to turn out a slew of films that would change cinema forever. When they name these rebels, they typically include Francis Coppola, Martin Scorsese, William Friedkin, Peter Bogdanovich and Robert Altman. What many don't realize is that Altman was at least a decade older than those others. Altman had a long career directing episodic television before he burned that bridge over then-sponsor Kraft's refusal to let him cast a black character in an episode of Kraft Suspense Theater. He declared the program "as bland as their cheese" and for the next couple of years he couldn't get any television work, so he decided to make feature films. Altman was always an iconoclast, and a film made about him, according to director Ron Mann, had to reflect his impertinent spirit.
"I could have done a life and times, American Masters, typical television-style, commercial film," Mann says of his homage to Altman, simply entitled Altman. "But how could I make a conventional film about an unconventional filmmaker? It's what I've been pretty much against throughout my own career."
What Mann (Comic Book Confidential, Grass) decided to do, as opposed to what he considers to be a "conventional" documentary—which he goes on to describe as "interviews with insiders who tell war stories, and illustrations"—was to let Altman, who passed away in 2006, speak his own words from beyond the grave: "It was more intimate to have Bob in his own words tell his own story." And he blends Altman's voice with home movies, photographs, behind-the-scenes footage, film clips and on-camera interviews with him.
That is not to say Altman is the only voice one hears in the film. There's Altman's wife Kathryn and his kids who contribute to the picture Mann paints. And there's a handful of others, such as members of Altman's loosely-defined "stock company," including Lily Tomlin, Keith Carradine, Sally Kellerman and Elliott Gould. Those actors are not there to "tell war stories," however, but are all asked the same single question: "What is your definition of 'Altmanesque'?"
Robert Altman on the set of his 1993 film Short Cuts. Photo: Joyce Randolph. Courtesy of Epix
"Even the actors and the people I interviewed were surprised that I only wanted to ask them one question," Mann says. "You really don't get a sense of the person in the conventional documentary. I could have adapted, for example, Mitchell Zuckoff's book, which is a very [journalist George] Plimpton-esque oral history of Bob, which inspired the project in the very beginning. But I went to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, where Bob had gifted his archive, and he left a trail for me to follow."
That trail, as Mann notes, he found in Altman's archives. "Bob had kept a record of all the interviews he had done over his career, and so I was able to track them down. It's amazing that he left us such an audio-visual record of his life, which allowed me to make a film in his voice. Most documentaries don't have access to the source.
"I'm not really a spiritual person," Mann continues. "But I sort of felt like I wasn't in control of this movie. It was almost like I was channeling Bob. 'What would he do?' I kept asking. It just sort of fell together in this kind of organic way."
Although they never met, Mann grew up with a deep appreciation of Altman and his films. He even wrote a paper in college on 3 Women and Images. "For me, he was America's greatest director," Mann asserts. "Bob's work is completely of its time. Bob was a naturalist. He was after human behavior and he portrayed things as they really are. Maybe that's why as a documentary filmmaker, I have that affection for him. He was someone who was technically innovative. He changed the way sound was recorded, the way the camera moved. He was older than the other counter-cultural directors, but he had this independent streak and definitely thought like a young person. I mean, here's a guy who made a short film about pot in 1965. Bob was really prescient, leading us to where we were going. He also reflected what he saw and made people look through his window. As a whole his work stands out as a portrait of America of the late 20th century."
Robert Altman (right) on the set of his 1977 film 3 Women. Courtesy of Sandcastle 5 and Epix
Mann began the project two years ago, and recalls, "When I first met Kathryn [Altman], she said, 'What do you want to do?' And I said, 'I have no idea. How do you scale a mountain?' But one thing I told Kathryn in the very beginning when she gave me permission to make this film was, 'I am not going to fuck up.' And that promise to Kathryn was what kept me up nights for two years. And when I showed it to her, she just went through a box of tissues while she watched it. And she thanked me, saying I really captured Bob—his playfulness, especially. To me, that was the most important thing, more than any reviews or what anyone could ever say. When you're representing someone else's art, there's a tremendous responsibility that's given to you, and she trusted me."
Unfortunately, Mann says, "The US broadcaster, Epix, was appalled" when he showed them the film. "They were upset with me because I wasn't giving them a television documentary. Epix looked at my cut and said, 'Ron, you have to hire a story editor.' And I said, 'What?!?' Look, I'm a nice guy and they gave some money, so I thought, 'Okay.' I went through their list of suggested story editors and on this list was a guy and I called him. He comes in and looks at the cut of the film and says, 'Don't touch a frame of this.' And this was their approved story editor." So with that and the family's approval, Mann's film was left alone.
Both Mann and Altman have made films covering similar territory: comic books, marijuana, jazz and the food industry. "I don't want to stretch it," he says, "but I never thought of how he and I have covered a lot of the same territory. I make films about my heroes, people who I've felt are important to give recognition to and to amplify their work. So I connect with Bob on many levels."
When asked what he discovered about Altman he hadn't been aware of previously, Mann responds, "Kathryn. It takes a very special person to be married to a filmmaker and he was very fortunate to have found that very special person."
Returning to the process of making Altman, Mann notes, "The other thing is that I let the materials determine what the film is. I don't preconceive. I'm open. When I went to the University of Michigan I had no idea—I thought I was going to be there for a week—and I stayed six weeks. I started off with one assistant and by the end I had four assistants scanning photos from hundreds of thousands of photographs. And the technology has changed so I can adapt differently to making documentaries. For example, they had all the unit photography from the sets of all of Bob's films. The contact sheets would have about 40 photographs per sheet, which were 1 x 1-1/2 inches; you couldn't even consider using those images 20 years ago. But now with digital scanners you can blow them up." He also had to up-res many of the film and video clips.
Robert Altman, flanked by actress Shelley Duvall and screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury, at the 1974 Cannes Film Festival to promote Thieves Like Us. Courtesy of Epix
"The other thing that allowed me to make this film," Mann continues, "was fair use. Ten years ago there was an economic censorship. It was impossible to do this kind of filmmaking. Of course I had to license a lot for this movie, but if it weren't for having fair use law, this film would have been impossible to make."
Another factor was that Altman's life didn't follow your typical three-act Hollywood story structure. This is a man who was "left for dead in the 80s," after Popeye was panned, Mann says. "He had to give up Lion's Gate [his production company]. He moved to Paris. He completely reinvented himself and started to adapt theater. People talk about his comebacks, and Bob would say, 'This is my third or fourth comeback.' He was more prolific in the '80s than ever before," thanks to the boom of pay television and home video players, which gave him an outlet to direct such productions as Come Back to the Five & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, and Tanner '88 with Gary Trudeau (Doonsbury). Then he became the Hollywood darling again in the 1990s with the success of The Player, which mocks the studio system.
"It was just hard to decide which films to focus on," Mann explains. "It would have to have been a mini-series. I could have worked on this film for years, absolutely.
"I found it important to spend time on Secret Honor, which was the opposite of an ensemble film, which people don't expect," Mann continues. Secret Honor was a one-man performance by Philip Baker Hall as a fictionalized Richard Nixon, which the then Hollywood-exiled Altman made at University of Michigan under the guise of teaching a class, using students as his crew. "Or Tanner '88, which changed television. Then there are personal favorite films of mine, I just couldn't figure out how to fit in, like 3 Women.
"There's lots more I would have loved to put in," Mann concludes. "But somehow, as Bob once said, 'The film will be what it wants to be.' So that's basically how it happened. At a certain point, I was able to say, 'Okay, I think this is good enough,' and let it go. I read a story Harry Belafonte told and it goes like this: 'Two jazz musicians are on an ocean cruise. In between sets they go out on the deck and smoke a joint and contemplate the ocean. One of them says, "Man, look at all that water." And his friend says, "Yeah, and that's just the top."' My film is just the top. There's a lot more Bob underneath."
Ron Mann, director/producer of Altman. Courtesy of Epix
But there's one final question: What is Mann's definition of "Altmanesque"?
"My definition of 'Altmanesque' is 'heroic independent filmmaking. But it's more of a Rashomon thing. It's why everyone has different definitions of it."
Altman airs August 6 on Epix.
Ron Deutsch is a contributing editor with Documentary Magazine. He has written for many publications including National Geographic, Wired, San Francisco Weekly and The Austin American-Statesman. He is currently associate producing the documentary Record Man, about the post-war music industry.