This article was originally published on Cinephilia & Beyond
The legendary director Robert Altman was given an Academy Honorary Award in 2006, “in recognition of a career that has repeatedly reinvented the art form and inspired filmmakers and audiences alike.” Although he never won a competitive Oscar, despite having been nominated seven times—two times for Best Picture and five times for Best Director—it is safe to say that the Honorary Award was an accolade that had been long overdue. The highly praised “maverick” who stubbornly went against the current of Hollywood-style filmmaking was forty-five years old when he directed the 1970 movie M*A*S*H, a black comedy war film that cleverly subverted the military comedy genre and paved the way for its director to continue delivering the unexpected by challenging the pre-existing genre tropes, a trait which he would eventually become both known and revered for. The project that fell into his lap after the surprise (s)mash hit was, therefore, right up his alley. Instead of taking up offers for big studio productions which he was advised to do and now finally could to, the auteur decided to stay true to his unique voice and continue playing with that which had not been played with before. In 1968, producer David Foster optioned a pulp Western entitled McCabe, written in 1959 by author Edmund Naughton. But Foster was not actually looking to buy the novel, as he stated on the 2009 Movie Geeks United podcast. His primary goal was meeting with French feminist writer Simone de Beauvoir, so as to get the movie rights to The Mandarins. Although many others had tried, it was Foster who sealed the deal, despite never having made a single film before. On his way out of Paris where the meeting took place, the novelist’s agent Ellen Wright gave Foster Naughton’s McCabe, which she also represented, and allegedly told the producer that John Huston and Roman Polanski were interested in it, a notion which prompted him to immediately read the book on his plane ride home. Having landed, Foster had his attorney close the deal in regards to both de Beauvoir and Naughton’s novels. Soon afterwards, screenwriter and documentarian Ben Maddow got the job of adapting Naughton’s fiction into a script.
But what Maddow’s two drafts succeeded in doing was turning the inherently anti-Western McCabe into a pretty much traditional Hollywood Western. So, when Altman got on board, Maddow was replaced with Brian McKay who was to revise the screenplay together with the director. McKay, who had previously been incarcerated for stealing money orders, was introduced to Altman through the director’s wife Kathryn Reed, who McKay was in contact with. After getting out of jail, he started working with Altman and had a draft ready after only five weeks. But during this period, the two collaborators had a falling-out, as was a common occurrence throughout Altman’s professional life, resulting in them ultimately parting ways. In McKay’s draft, the atypical elements of Naughton’s story were restored and his version was dubbed The Presbyterian Church Wager, a title that remained throughout all the subsequent versions, before ultimately being changed to McCabe & Mrs. Miller. This was due to a complaint issued to Warner Brothers by an official in the Presbyterian Church, asserting that the church was not very fond of being mentioned in a movie that depicts whorehouses and gambling. The infamous title referred to the inhabitants of the town of Presbyterian Church making a bet on whether the movie’s main character would survive the refusal of a tempting business offer made to him.
The protagonist is John ‘Pudgy’ McCabe, a gambler who comes to the aforementioned town, named after its unused chapel. Rumored to be a dangerous gunfighter, McCabe quickly finds fertile ground for his intense personality to flourish on, with the town’s alcoholic miners proving themselves ready to be at his service. McCabe decides to open a poor man’s brothel and purchases three prostitutes from a nearby town. His small-scale (and rather unhygienic) business soon becomes a profitable one, thanks to the arrival of one Constance Miller, a cockney prostitute who brings several other ladies with her and offers to run the establishment for him. Although at first unwilling to admit that the standards he had set with his brothel were far from high, Mrs. Miller manages to convince him that she would be a much better candidate to tend to the girls, their needs and their hygiene. These two diametrically opposite individuals soon become both successful business partners and occasional lovers (provided McCabe pay Mrs. Miller’s fee of $5, the highest one there is), but their bliss is short-lived. After McCabe refuses to sell his property to a mining company from a nearby town, the odds of his survival start to diminish.
I get to draw from the whole world. When we did ‘McCabe’ somebody asked, “Why are you doing this? This is the most standard Western.” I said, It’s the most standard Western story we could find that has all the elements that everybody has already seen. So, I’ve got the three killers, the giant, the half-breed, and the kid. I’ve got the whore with the heart of gold. I’ve got the slimy merchant and then this kind of blustering hero who wasn’t really a hero—that was the only difference. So the audience knows the story, and they’re able to just go in. And I’m able to go in and say, “Yeah, you’re comfortable in this story, but let me tell you maybe they wore these kinds of clothes and maybe this sort of thing happened. Maybe they didn’t all wear big hats and speak with a drawl. Maybe the hero was just this normal, well-intentioned, blustering kind of guy who stumbles on the right thing to do.” —Robert Altman
Apart from saying that Naughton’s novel was “the most ordinary common Western that’s ever been told,” Altman also called it “no great piece of writing” on the DVD commentary. And while he claims to be the one who had turned a clichéd, conventional Western into the subversive classic cinephiles had come to know and love, it has been argued that the director’s comments had not given the novel credit where credit was due, with certain critics claiming that those seemingly innovative parts of the story—like the very notion of an incapable hero—were there from the get-go. And yet, what Altman did with his cast and crew was nevertheless a true piece of cinematic art. Although the screenplay was finished and the title changed, what we saw on screen still managed to differ from that last draft, as many others were said to have worked on it during production—Death of a Gunfighter screenwriter Joseph Calvelli, Chinatown screenwriter Robert Towne and actress Julie Christie, who portrayed Mrs. Miller herself and wrote a lot of her own dialogue. Lead actor Warren Beatty credited himself as one of the main contributors and while it is true that iconic lines such as “Money and pain. Pain, pain, pain.” and the winged frog riddle were his, McCabe’s other well-known quotes were in fact taken directly from the internal monologue Naughton had written for his main character. Also, the wager that found its place in the old title was omitted from the movie and the meeting between McCabe and the hired assassin named Butler was added. All of this turned McCabe & Mrs. Miller into an ever-evolving project, with improvisations during rehearsals and additions right before the actual shooting forming the movie’s very core, thereby contributing to its magic and authenticity that left such a lasting impact on audiences, providing them with a visceral depiction of the everyday lives of plain, unheroic and in every way unextraordinary cowboys.
Altman works in such an interesting way, letting things occur in the film even if he didn’t particularly plan them. We lived in that town, you know. Everybody lived there. We were up to British Columbia and built the town as the movie was made, all raw lumber and mud in the streets. And the cast and crew lived in the buildings. It was uncanny; I think perhaps Presbyterian Church seems like a real place to the people in the movie because it was a real place for all of us. —Julie Christie in a 1971 interview with Roger Ebert
And when it came to conveying the aforementioned authenticity—and reminding us just how artificial conversations in movies usually are—Altman’s frequent usage of overlapping dialogues proved to be the missing link that, when inserted, gives McCabe & Mrs. Miller a realistic feel that many filmmakers strive for. Thanks to the technique of layered dialogue cutting, that makes it so that several characters often speak at the same time, we are forced to pay close attention, if we are to make out what they are saying. Ultimately, we give up, as we are intended to, for the purpose of such a practice, one which will become prevalent in Altman’s movies, is precisely to undermine dialogue and instead turn it into background noise. In doing this, the town of Presbyterian Church becomes a living and breathing entity, along with its characters who we come to know so little about. But that lack of information turns out to be more than enough, for life is depicted by actions, not necessarily words spoken (as the director himself said: “You don’t need to hear everything people are saying to know the world they’re living in”). And the characters in McCabe & Mrs. Miller have a lot of life in them. That being said, this strategy is also used to avoid putting the titular heroes in the forefront—we as the audience have to get involved and follow their steps and their actions carefully, while risking getting distracted by the plethora of characters surrounding them, walking in and out of the frame, going about their daily business of drinking, talking and fooling around.
Still, for a movie that puts the opening of a brothel at the center of its narrative, McCabe & Mrs. Miller remains thoroughly chaste in its depiction of sexual activities. Everything is merely implied i.e., left to the viewers’ imagination and fairly little is shown, which renders Altman’s film not only tasteful, but also shows us where his focus truly lies—on the business dynamic between the gambler and the prostitute. As Roger Ebert stated, this emphasis is clearly visible in the movie’s very title, with the ampersand denoting their entrepreneurial partnership, as opposed to a romantic liaison. Even their physical connection is a transactional one, with Mrs. Miller insisting on McCabe paying for her services, whereas he would much rather they move beyond it, for he too “has poetry in him”, although he feels incapable of conveying it. This does not mean that Constance does not care about him, because she does. Their tragedy lies in their failure to clearly articulate their needs and wants—while she does a fantastic job at hiding them from herself and restores to her secret opium addiction to get the relief she so badly craves, he feels hurt by her refusal to see them as more than mere business partners, but does nothing about it. Their romance is, therefore, something that exists merely as a potential to be utilized, yet remains never truly realized.
But even though McCabe and Mrs. Miller’s love story never managed to truly take off, the actors portraying them were a couple at the time and ended up doing the movie because they were looking to collaborate on screen. Beatty was in the position to select the roles he wanted due to the success of Bonnie and Clyde (1967) which he both starred in and produced. And although Altman initially wanted Elliott Gould to play his protagonist, the actor declined the offer for the sake of the movie I Love My Life. Altman told him he was making the biggest mistake of his life and Gould agreed later on. Thus, Beatty was cast. It has been said that the actor’s control issues did not play well with Altman’s, but that in no way affected his wonderful performance. On the topic of their relationship, Julie Christie said the following: “You had two very different types of ego working in a small area. I’m not going to go any further than that. To my mind it’s Bob’s best film. It needed the tightness that Warren brought to it and it needed the expansiveness that Robert brought to it… I think he’s a great director, a great, unique, adventurous, experimental, confrontational, provocative director.” The actress had, on the other hand, risen to prominence several years prior, when she starred in Dr. Zhivago and won an Academy Award for Best Actress for the 1965 movie Darling directed by her close friend John Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy). She was nominated yet again for her portrayal as Mrs. Miller, but Jane Fonda ended up taking home the golden statuette for her role in the neo-noir Klute.
McCabe & Mrs. Miller was filmed in Squamish and West Vancouver in almost sequential order. As the gambler McCabe was reimagining the town of Presbyterian Church by building a high-quality brothel, the film’s set was built on location to follow suit. When the only scenes left to be shot were the ones near the end—the church catching fire and McCabe’s showdown with the hired assassins—it began to snow. Beatty opposed shooting since, in his mind, they would have to film the rest of the movie in such weather for continuity’s sake. But Altman argued that the two were the only scenes they had yet to film and with nothing better to do, he wanted to give it a shot. The cat-and-mouse scene between McCabe and the people trying to execute him, as well as the church scene, were filmed over the course of nine days. The snow we see in the movie was real, apart from a few fake chunks on the ground. It is said that the crew members seized the opportunity to have some fun, so they engaged in snowball fights and built snowmen in-between takes. It is this scene in particular that serves as a testament to the atypicality of McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Here, the trope of a showdown commencing at noon with onlookers locked inside while witnessing the high-stakes shoot-off is abandoned and replaced with a rather unceremonious hunt in the snow taking place in the early morning hours, while the townsfolk are all busy stopping the fire, unaware of the gunfight even happening.
There were two other aspects of Altman’s anti-Western that contributed to its status. The first one is cinematography, done by Hungarian-born Vilmos Zsigmond, who would later become known for his camerawork on movies such as Deliverance (1972), The Deer Hunter (1978) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). Altman wanted the movie to look “like antique photography and faded-out pictures,” which the cinematographer managed to achieve by “flashing” the film negative before its exposure, as well as by using numerous filters on the camera, so that these elements did not have to be added in post-production. This technique broke new ground and gave the movie its surreal and distinctive quality. The second aspect that emphasized the atmosphere of McCabe & Mrs. Miller was the choice of music. The only three songs that were used were “The Stranger Song”, “Sisters of Mercy” and “Winter Lady” by Leonard Cohen, who had released his first album in 1967 and was still relatively unknown at the time. The story goes that the composer got a phone call from Altman right after having returned from the movies. The director told him about his work and mentioned Brewster McCloud, “a small movie that nobody saw,” which turned out to be the very same film Cohen had just come back from. After having provided the songs for McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Cohen watched the picture so as to think of a guitar riff for one of the scenes and did not like what he saw. He would, later on, re-watch it and call Altman to apologize for his previous judgment, claiming to have loved it the second time around. And Cohen was not the only one. Even though it was a box office flop, the critics adored it. It would be proclaimed the 8th greatest Western of all time in 2008 and chosen for preservation in the United States National Film Registry because of it being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.” Proof, as if any was needed to begin with, that McCabe & Mrs. Miller achieved what only few movies do and managed to age like fine wine.
“This picture is the most ordinary common western that’s ever been told. I picked the story because it’s the conventional thing. A gambler takes over a town, a whore opens a whorehouse. A neighboring mining company tries to buy him out. He refuses to sell; they send in three killers to get him. Now that’s everything you’ve heard, every cliché. All I’m trying to say is, yeah, these things happened but they didn’t happen that way. the guy wasn’t sure of himself. He was in over his head. The woman was a real whore. Which means she doesn’t like it and doesn’t like him particularly.”
Screenwriter must-read: Robert Altman & Brian McKay’s screenplay for McCabe & Mrs. Miller [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at the Criterion Collection. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
A colorful talk with Altman as he prepared an early foray into the western genre. The 15th man who was asked to direct M*A*S*H (and did) makes a peculiar western, by Aljean Harmetz, June 20, 1971.
It is 4:30 on a Friday afternoon in late December, and the Canadian darkness has fallen like a stone. Water pours down Robert Altman’s Mephistophelean beard, and an incongruously thin string of love beads circles his massive neck. At 2 A.M. the preceding night he lurched to bed, a last glass of Scotch in one hand, a last joint of marijuana in the other. But the indulgences of the night have no claim over the day. He was the first man on the set in the winter darkness of 7 A.M. He will be the last man to leave in the slippery frozen twilight. Standing In the rain with his 205 pounds zipped into a hooded, red nylon jumpsuit and the west coast of North America lying beyond his left shoulder, movie director Robert Altman looks a bit like a giant hawk, bit more like Santa Claus, even more like Alan Hale as Little John to Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood. But the over‐all impression is of a cheerful Old Nick. Only tail and pitchfork are missing.
Altman drinks ‘hot buttered rum from a silver flask. He has had no breakfast, no lunch, but “the biggest problem in shooting a movie is time to go to the bathroom.” In the few hours of daylight, he has completed 34 camera setups. He is pleased with himself, and he does not try to hide it. Later tonight, swacked on Scotch, grass, red and white wine, he will announce, “I was so good today was fabulous. I embarrassed myself.” At 46, Robert Altman is Hollywood’s newest 26-year-old genius. The extra 20 years are simply the time he had to spend, chained and toothless, in the anterooms of power—waiting for Hollywood to catch up with him. While he was waiting, he made million dollars as a television director and spent two million; fathered four children on three wives; gave up the last remnants of Catholicism for hedonism, and occasionally lost $2,000 in a single night in Las Vegas without losing half an hour’s sleep over the money.
Eighteen months ago Hollywood caught up—with a vengeance. Robert Altman had waited 20 years for the historical accident of having 14 more acceptable directors turn down “MASH.” For “MASH” Altman won an Academy Award nomination. The film was chosen as best film of the Cannes Film Festival and also selected best film of 1970 by the National Society of Film Critics. Later on this Friday in late December, Altman sits on the floor of his rented house in Vancouver, B. C.—a glass of red wine in one hand, joint in the other—casually seducing men and women alike with the intensity of his interest. There are a dozen people in the room, almost all old friends, veterans of half a dozen Hollywood wars, now in Canada with him to work on his new film, “McCabe & Mrs. Miller.”
Round and round the circle goes the joint, sealing some mystical bargain. (“All of it is a love affair,” says the screenwriter of “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” Brian McKay. “Everyone on a Bob Altman movie is there because Bob needs them to make that film. If he doesn’t need you anymore, good-by. So wrapping your whole life in Bob Altman as some people do is dangerous. When he turns off the charisma, it hurts.”) Altman will not let his 16-year-old son smoke marijuana. “He’s too young. I do what I do. I get up in the morning and go to work. If he gets stoned in the evening, he’s not committed to anything the next day.” By the time Altman lurches to his feet to take the circle out to dinner, he has consumed enough Scotch, wine and grass to put an army to sleep, but he shows no sign of wear. His energy level and his stamina are so high that he cannot easily blow out the light. (He does, however, have one other way of relaxing. He will sometimes take to his bed for weekend, switching from television station to television station with his remote control in search of a roller derby. When he finds one, he will lie, half-hypnotized, for hours, watching the skaters go round and round.)
Halfway through dinner, he rests his elbows on the table, his eyes closing, his head swaying. He is suddenly hostile. “I’ve found myself performing for you 16 times today,” he tells a reporter—infuriated at even unintentional deceit in himself. He charges forward verbally—challenging, taunting—yet neither his crude language nor his massive self-confidence can mask or take away his considerable charm. More and more uncomfortable, his wife begs him to stop. He shrugs her off. Eventually she moves out of earshot to the other end of the long table. The bill for dinner is $153.25. Altman pays it with an American Express card. He holds the plastic rectangle triumphantly. The card arrived that morning, proof that he is no longer a bad credit risk. He had been applying for it for six years.
Altman insists on driving home. Each member of the party remonstrates, protests, begs, but he is too powerful to be stopped. Eventually they give in. He makes the wrong turn and there is a silent-movie chase around the restaurant. Back at his house, Altman is handed a Scotch and soda as a matter of routine. Nobody tries to handle him. Nobody tells him he has had enough. After an hour of sipping Scotch and wine, he is completely recovered, in better condition than the others—most of whom have had far less to drink. He is still on his feet when the house empties at 2 A.M.
Altman’s staying power through the long Canadian nights is one thing. His staying power as a director is another. It is too early to make any sound appraisal of the range of Robert Altman’s talent. Says director Blake Edwards, who has been there and back again, “It used to be that there were 10 directors you were sure of. Now a guy has one great success and three failures and you look back and say, ‘What did I ever see in him?’” As a result of “MASH,” Hollywood—which rarely looks beyond immediate grosses—has chosen Robert Altman as its current hot director. In Matteo’s Restaurant, the silken executives paw at his turtleneck sweater. At 20th Century-Fox, frightened men carry the grosses of “MASH” on the backs of torn envelopes. Four years ago the Mirisch company wouldn’t allow him to direct a $5,000,000 picture. After “MAS*H,” they called and begged him to direct the film.
Offered the moon, Altman takes very small bites. “You can steal money in TV and movies. I could make $150,000 a year for the next two or three years without doing thing. By making deals that never go through, by accepting money to develop projects that are never finished.” He thinks that he has been “really lucky with the long gestation period—with failure. If I had had a hit, a imajor success, 15 years ago or even five years ago, it would have destroyed me.” From years of gambling he has learned that “it takes only one minute to become totally irrational, to think that it’s you who have done something, not the dice.” He hopes that he can remain moderately stable. It helps to have had “little minor successes. Successes can look back on and see they’re nothing. You get caught up to the point you deceive yourself. You can’t avoid the traps. There’s too much money, too much adulation, too many people saying you’re marvelous. You have to believe it.”
He admires Ingmar Bergman “who has avoided the traps by totally isolating himself.” For Altman, who surrounds himself with people from the moment he gets up until the moment he is poured into bed, Bergman’s way is admirable but impossible. Altman’s own way of “avoiding the traps” is “to start out with material I think I can’t handle. It keeps you honest. But that way, each thing you do eliminates that thing. Perhaps eventually you run out of things you can try.” “M*A*S*H” was Altman’s second film, (if one doesn’t count “Countdown,” a melodrama he was booted off in 1966 and two very early nonHollywood films.) His first major film, “That Cold Day in the Park,” was a critical and financial disaster. His third film, “Brewster McCloud,” has shown up on half a dozen Best Films of 1970 lists, including those of Judith Grist and Andrew Sarris. It has also been dismissed by Pauline Kael (“no driving im pulse and no internal consistency”) and by Stanley Kauffmann. The movie is a fairy tale for adults, a myth about bird droppings and whether man really wants to fly or only wants the freedom that he thinks birds have. People who like the film like it very much. The rest detest it.
Altman, who has never gotten along well with bosses, started fighting with MGM after the first preview of “Brewster McCloud.” “The preview cards were better than ‘MASH’ but afterward the hotel room was like a wake, because nobody had come out of the film laughing. If anybody came out of ‘Brewster McCloud’ laughing, we didn’t make the film we thought we were going to make.” The studio, eager to get rid of a peculiar film, dumped it with little preparation into vast, drafty theaters across the country. (“I wouldn’t make a film at MGM today if they gave me 100 per cent financing and 100 per cent of the profits” is Altman’s most printable comment.)
Since it cost only $1,500,000, “Brewster McCloud” will end up making a little money. Altman’s newest film, “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” may have equal difficulty turning profit. Although it is, in one way, considerably more traditional, it is, in another, considerably more peculiar. And it cost slightly over $3,000,000. Warren Beatty is John McCabe. His real-life paramour, Julie Christie, is Mrs. Miller. “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” is Western in much the same strange way that “MASH” was a war film. It takes place in the northwestern United States in 1902, and it tells the story of “a fool, a poseur, a hero with a hole and it’s that hole that makes him a hero.”
The peculiarities of “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” begin with the look of the film. Of the many attempts by directors to use color to comment on the picture they are making (Antonioni’s “Red Desert,” George Roy Hill’s “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” John Huston’s “Moulin Rouge”), “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” is closest—both technically and emotionally—to Huston’s grim use of color in “Moby Dick.” The faded quality of the color is Altman’s deliberate attempt—by methods known as flashing and fogging—to create the archaic feel of an old photograph left for too many years in somebody’s attic album.
Except for the snow sequence at the end of the film where he wanted to increase the reality of “the moment of truth” with as harsh a black-and-white effect as possible, Altman used fog filters throughout the picture. Then, before the negative was developed, the film was put on a printer and re-exposed to light. According to Altman, “adding more yellow than normal not only threw the print toward yellow but made the look of the film more extreme. Adding more blue did the same thing.” Altman’s intention was “to complement the period, the set, and the look of the people, to make the audience see the film as more real.” To him the blue and yellow suggested the faded printed material of the period—old magazines and bottle labels, aging and yellowed newspapers.
Altman’s desire to achieve reality has led him less to technical innovations than to the rejection of technical devices considered standard by other directors. Instead of ordinary, clear sound, he uses overlapping sound—characters’ voices, even scenes, blend into and interrupt each other. “That’s to give the audience the sense of the dialogue, the emotional feeing, rather than the literal word. That’s the way sound is in real life.”
On all his films he has used two cameras simultaneously and a zoom lens “to keep the actors honest, so that an actor cannot feel, ‘I don’t have to give very much in this scene because the camera is on my back.’ They never know.” He built a real town for “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” without making any effort to leave room for his cameras; instead of trained animals, he used strays that wandered onto the Canadian set. “In a sense, we created problems for ourselves,” he admits, “but a real town is not carefully constructed for cameras. And real animals don’t always behave the way you want them to. We gained the advantage of environment—hopefully for the audience, definitely for ourselves.”
Making his films “more real” is close to the core of Altman’s work as a director. He wants to catch the accidents of life and fling them on the screen hard enough to knock the breath out of the audience. He wants to weigh the screen down with vulrarity, pleasure, pain, ugliness and unexpected beauty. He wants, magically, to change two dimensions into three. Altman is, of course, doomed to failure—which he admits in his rare morose moments: “Nobody has ever made a good movie. Some day someone will make half a good one.” To Altman, a “good movie” is “taking the narrative out, taking the story out of it. The audience will sit and see the film and understand the movie’s intention without being able to articulate it.”
For his next film, “Images,” a modern Gothic horror story he wrote in one long, tormented weekend several years ago, Altman is already “trying in my head to take all the words out that make sense and to replace them with words that don’t.” In “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” the words that are there make sense, but in his attempt “to keep from being obvious, to keep the audience from seeing the devices,” Altman has clipped several great chunks of plot out of the film. His concern for emotional rather than literal accuracy has left a number of puzzling and undefined characters to wander—mostly in long shot—in and out of the background.
Altman admits that this “will confuse the literalminded,” but he hopes that “the rest of the audience will sit back and accept the film rather than anticipate it, will simply let the film wash over them. In most films so much specific information is provided that the audience is allowed to be totally uninvolved. I try to make an audience do as much work as they would do reading a novel.” The result of this approach, with “MASH,” was that large numbers of people read Altman’s antiwar film as a pro-war statement. He can only assume that “they are people who need to see children burning to think something is antiwar.” He dismisses them as “people who want a political statement rather than an artistic one.”
Altman does not like his films to make any verbal statements. He is interested in the look and feel of a film rather than in words and plot. He speak often of himself as “an artist painting a picture.” And adds, “It’s not words we’re dealing with in the films I make, not clever dialogue. I’m not interested in doing ‘A Man for All Seasons’ or ‘A Lion in Winter.’” As a result, most of the writers of Altman’s films have ended up as his more-or-less bitter enemies. By the time one of his films is finished there is nothing left of the original script except a couple of soup bones of plot and a few expletives. “Bob,” says Brian McKay, “considers a script simply as an instrument, as the tool you sell the studio.”
According to Bill Cannon, author of the original screenplay of “Brewster McCloud,” Altman “claimed I should take my name off the screen since, in fact, he, himself, had written most of the film.” Altman cheerfully admits that Ring Lardner Jr., who won an Academy Award for his script of “MASH,” “hated me. Lardner kept saying things like, ‘That isn’t a true Maine accent. You’re being false.’ Bull—. If I have an actor uncomfortable in a Maine accent, I let him use an accent he’s comfortable in. I’m interested in the behavior pattern of the characters, not in what ‘they say. In my films the actors can be creative. I don’t think one person can write dialogue for 15 people. When I read Ring Lardner’s script of ‘MAS*H,’ I was thrilled with the idea of doing it. Yet if I had done his script the picture would have been disaster.”
Lardner is publicly quite circumspect in his opinion of Altman. (His private opinions are considerably more vitriolic.) “Mr. Altman does not treat a script very carefully. He contributed a great deal to ‘M*A*S*H’ and not all of his contributions were good. He tried to do too much adlibbing.” Still, Lardner insists that “each scene came out on the screen more or less as it was intended by me on paper.” Altman disagrees. “My main contribution to ‘M*A*S*H’ was the basic concept, the philosophy, the style, the casting, and then making all those things work. Plus all the jokes, of course.”
Brian McKay, who has worked with Altman more frequently than any other writer, says, “If you want me to get in line with the rest of the angry writers, I will, but it’s more complicated than that. I think what Bob really wants is the European credit: ‘A Film by Robert Altman.’ And, often, he deserves it.” Seven years ago Altman told McKay, “Remember this. I take all the credit and most of the money when you work with me.” Through several television series, “Brewster McCloud,” “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” and a number of never-made films, McKay remembered. “Now I don’t think I’ll ever work with Bob again,” McKay says, but he looks back on the association with affection. “I can’t think of one person who was hurt from his association with Bob Altman—except emotionally.”
Altman considers both “MAS*H” and “Brewster McCloud” “almost exclusively me—my films.” For “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” he is willing to share the credit—not with his writer but with his set designer, Leon Ericksen, and his star, Warren Beatty. For “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” Altman and Ericksen built the town of Presbyterian Church on a mountaintop in West Vancouver. The town cost $200,000. Everything in it was real. The town—all raw wood, foot-deep mud and piles of manure that steamed in the freezing winter air—was created by carpenters who lived in the cabins they were building and got drunk at night on whisky from the still they had also built.
Life frozen upon a screen loses its spontaneity. The choices have been made forever. Altman tries harder than most directors to imply what lies below the two-dimensional surface of the screen. He stuffs his films with things that audiences cannot see yet of which he insists they are somehow aware. To pay for a quick call at Presbyterian Church’s whorehouse, the actors held real money in hands that were never seen by the camera. “If someone’s playing a scene and they look down and they’ve got some crappy paper in their hand, they just don’t play the scene as well,” says Altman. “I want to be able to go onto a set and open a drawer and find things in there although that drawer will never be opened in a scene. But it adds validity because the actor knows the things are there.”
The organic relationship between Altman, his script, his actors, his sets and the final film can best be seen in the town of Presbyterian Church. He built the town because his film was partly about a community in the process of being built and changed. Presbyterian Church was constructed, building by building, as each new character entered “McCabe & Mrs. Miller.” By late last December, the town had reached its peak development—cabins, a sawmill, a whorehouse, a bathhouse, two saloons and a barbershop.
“The town’s been ruined,” said Rene Auberjonois the birdlike bird lecturer in “Brewster McCloud,” the Irish saloonkeeper in “McCabe & Mrs. Miller”), who came to Vancouver two weeks before the film started last October. “Only the guys building the town were living there. I felt like an outsider. It was their town. Then the actors started arriving, and we made lit our town. We picked out houses to live in, and we had square dances at night in my saloon.”
“The town grew as the script grew,” says designer Ericksen. “Lots of things in the town changed because of the script; lots of things in the script changed because of the way the town was built. Everything happened organically.” “The film even changed because of the animals,” says Altman’s secretary, Anne Sidaris. “It changed because kittens were horn in Presbyterian Church, dogs elected to live there, chickens hatched baby chicks.” (To give some idea of the symbiotic relationship between the animals and the crew, less than a dozen of the chickens were left when the film was finished. It is assumed that the others were killed and eaten.)
Throughout the picture, it was rare for Altman to know on one morning exactly what he was going to he filming the next morning. Often, the next morning’s scene had not yet been written. Late on a winter Thursday afternoon, Altman sloshed through the rain looking for a place to hold a funeral where the camera could see the church but not the housing development on the hillside across from Presbyterian Church. An offhand suggestion by his secretary of “Asleep in Jesus” as the epitaph for the dead man’s gravestone led to a frantic search through old hymnhooks and, in Friday morning’s cold mist, to a painfully affecting scene. The music was played on a fiddle by one of the actors. Altman had only given the lyrics to those townspeople—primarily the whores—who could he expected to know the hymn. The other actors shuffled their feet uneasily or tried to come in late on the unfamiliar words. It worked. And none of it had existed—even in Altman’s head—24 hours earlier.
Later, referring to the funeral, Altman mused: “Had it been raining today, everything we did would have been different. I’m going to get accolades for ‘McCabe & Mrs. Miller,’ and all it amounts to is being open to the possibilities—using what we have.”
It is almost impossible to exaggerate the organic quality of an Altman film. Yet that quality does not result simply because one day there is rain instead of expected snow and a consequent change in the whole fabric of the film. It is agonizing for Altman to start a film. “You have to box him into a corner,” says his assistant director, Tommy Thompson. “He knows that starting means two months of working seven days a week 24 hours a day.” Once the film has begun, Altman moves eautiously, tentatively, finding out who the people are, assessing their relationships. “You can,” says Rene Auberjonois, “almost see him get sense of purpose.”
There is nothing intellectual about this groping. It is done by hunch, instinct, intuition. Altman speaks of allowing some internal computer to take over, unrestricted by his brain. “I think you have to he careful in your old age,” he says. “I think you mess up your computer, you get it so filled with cards. That’s what makes you die.”
Once the tone of his film is set to his satisfaction—which takes anywhere from three days to two weeks—he relaxes, open, within very broad limits, to whatever accidents of weather or actors’ improvisations fate has chosen to bring him. (With “MAS*H,” he ended up shooting the rehearsals because there was so much interplay between Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould. With “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” he has discovered that “Warren Beatty, unlike most actors, gets better and better with each take, and he can’t do it through rehearsals.” Altman adapted himself to Beatty, shooting eight or nine takes of each of Beatty’s scenes, despite what he calls his own “notorious past history of Printing first takes.”
Before a birthday party was filmed in the whorehouse in “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” the actresses playing the whores asked Altman if they could limit the guests to the actors they particularly liked. His first impulse was to refuse. A moment later, he reconsidered and told them to make out their guest list. After six hours of shooting, neither Altman nor his actors displayed any signs of ill temper. Occasionally, Altman crooned, “Easy now, easy, settle down,” as though he were calming nervous horses. In a heavy, black pullover and with his gray and black curly hair almost indistinguishable from his gray and black Russian wool hat, Altman looked like some bulky animal with a bald spot the size of a demitasse saucer in the center of its head.
At the suggestion of Julie Christie (“This is a festive occasion”), the east had been drinking vodka instead of water since the first rehearsal. But it was not the vodka that freed them to improvise a cake-eating scene so wild and uninhibited that even Altman was doubled over with laughter. They had been given the freedom to—encouraged to—improvise by Altman. A glob of cake fell on the hare breast of one of the actresses, and the others instinctively teased a shy, young actor with, “Lick it off, Jeremy, tick It off.” Jeremy blinked, hesitated, was pushed forward. The young actors and actresses were, it was obvious, reacting to each other as people who had lived together for two months, not as actors in a formal scene. Even after Altman shouted, “Cut,” they continued to squash cake in eyebrows, nostrils, ears.
In the final print of “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” there is almost no trace of the wild finale to the birthday party. “It didn’t seem necessary,” Altman says simply. Yet he feels that the hours of shooting were in no sense a loss. “It brought the characters to a different relationship with each other. Without it, Rene Auberjonois wouldn’t have ended up in the kitchen with that whore on his lap.” If Altman has any theory that can be phrased in a sentence, it is that “moviemaking is a collaborative art.” Leon Ericksen says of Altman: “He can be satanic or angelic but he will always let you do anything you are willing to do. Being with Robert Altman is an awfully good place for any creative person to be.”
The corollary is that being with Robert Altman can be unpleasant for less creative people. His intense anger at movie guilds and unions stems from their lack of participation in the collaboration. “The union art directors don’t realize their job is to help make a picture, not to dress a set. The union sound men don’t realize their job is to help make a picture, not to produce perfect sound. The unions are all the same. They degrade the people in them.” Ericksen, whom Donald Sutherland calls a genius, cannot get into an American union unless he serves eight years of apprenticeship as a draftsman. When Erickson says tentatively, “We’ll probably have to call the union to move that set,” Altman answers. “Bull— you move it yourself. We’ll handle it with the union. We’ll pay fines or something, but don’t want a bunch of guys trying to take it down who didn’t see how it went up.’’
For Altman, the chief participants in the collaboration are his actors. He is proud that “I don’t move my actors around. I allow them the artistic freedom to assist me.” Most of his actors reciprocate with adoration. Mike Murphy, who has been in all of Altman’s Hollywood films and half a dozen of his television shows as well, says of Altman, “Most other directors treat you like a child. Bob spoils you. He never lets you down.” As the hot-shot San Francisco detective, Murphy Starred in “Brewster McCloud.” In “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” be was offered one week’s work. He never considered refusing Altman’s offer.
Even Julie Christie was exhilarated by her work with Altman, although, at the beginning, she found it “most unnerving to work with a democratic director. Directors are little kings. Bob’s a very kind man, and his kindness makes you comfy. He has a hedonistic streak which again is very different from most directors, who get so anguished by things. Bob wants to enjoy himself. He surrounds himself with people who won’t spoil the experience as an enjoyable one.”
There are actors who have reservations. “I got a telephone call tram an old enemy last night,” Altman chortles. The call was from Elliott Gould, who, according to Altman, “had just seen ‘Brewster McCloud’ and who hated to call but hated more not to call.” He has also applied the word “enemy” to Donald Sutherland. Yet Sutherland insists that he respects Altman completely. Sutherland’s subtle reservations about Altman as a director concern the communication between the two. “Bob knows things totally rather than specifi?? ‘MAS*H’ was all in Robert Altman’s head and I knew I’d never know what was in his head. He requires an actor to have absolute confidence in him and to give oneself over to him totally. I cannot totally give myself to anyone.”
Warren Beatty also has reservations. Swigging Vichy water from a quart bottle, the picture half-finished, the constant rain beating against the walls of his trailer, Beatty says fastidiously that “my own particular taste is to know where I am from the beginning.” Beatty found it hard to work without the comfort of a finished script. Altman found it hard to work with “Warren’s concern, his nit-picking, with the way he pushed me and bugged me.” But Altman didn’t try to make Beatty stop. “He drove me nuts, but he did it for the picture. His bugging kept me honest.” Weekend after weekend, Beatty helped Altman rewrite the script, and now, the film finished and about to open in New York, Altman is willing to share the credit with his star. “Warren was involved in the picture.”
Nothing in Altman’s background could have been expected to lead him to his own mountaintop in Canada in the winter of 1970. He was born in Kansas City Feb. 20, 1925. His mother’s ancestors had sailed on the Mayflower. His father was one of the top life-insurance salesmen in the world—and one of the worst gamblers. “I learned a lot a lout losing from him: That losing is an identity; that you can be a good loser and a bad winner; that none of it—gambling, money, winning or losing—has any real value; that the value you thought came with winning $10,000 isn’t there; that it’s simply a way of killing time, like crossword puzzles.”
He was raised by Jesuits, but he wriggled out of his Catholicism the day he joined the Army at the age of 18. At 19, he was a pilot with his own bomber crew. He flew 46 missions over Borneo and the Dutch East Indies, and it never occurred to him that he was killing people, “although I don’t think it would have bothered me.” He was 22 when he came back from the war. He remembers himself as “an ass, wanting to be liked so much that I would agree with whoever I was talking to, really dishonest about myself, very anti-authority.” He married, almost immediately, the last girl with whom he had had any contact before he went to the South Pacific. “It was never a marriage. I was a real chippie chaser.” The results of the marriage were daughter, Christine, now 23, a dozen separations, and, some time in 1950 or 1951, a divorce. His second marriage also went sour. With his second wife he had two sons—Michael, 16, who now lives with him, and Stephen, 13.
During those first postwar years he was learning his trade as a writer, producer, photographer, director, set designer and film editor of industrial films for the Calvin Company in Kansas City. With Lou Lombardo, a cameraman for Calvin, Altman went to Hollywood in the early fifties. The silence was deafening. Leaving Lombardo to bang on closed doors Altman retreated to Kansas City. Lombardo—who remembers Altman as “tall and thin, just as gregarious as he is today and just as prone to go out and charge $1,000 worth of clothes to cheer himself up whenever he is down and out”—is Altman’s film editor on “McCabe & Mrs. Miller.”
A few years later Altman returned to Hollywood with a “deal” for a movie. The deal fell through. Again he retreated to Kansas City. The third time he went to Hollywood was for keeps. He brought “The Delinquents,” a low-budget film he had written, produced and directed. In 1957, he and George W. George made a documentary, “The James Dean Story.” For the next six years Altman wrote, produced and/or directed for television. He was fired with regularity. “Because the star of ‘Combat,’ Vic Morrow, couldn’t be killed off, I’d take an actor, establish him as an important character in one segment, use him three or four times more, and then kill him early in the next script, offscreen, in way that had nothing to do with the plot. That was unorthodox. It made them nervous. I used to get fired for it.”
When he was making $125,000 a year with “my pick of anything, of everything,” Altman quit television. He quit because he did not want to become “one of those hundreds of creative people who have just died in television.” He was, as usual, in debt. Between 1965 and 1967 he did nothing but go deeper in debt. He continued to live in his big, four-bedroom house in Mandeville Canyon. Although neither the mortgage nor the milkman were paid, he continued to buy what he wanted when he wanted it. “I finally begged the milkman to cut off our credit and stop delivering milk,” says Kathryn Altman, his third wife. Kathryn is tall, redhaired, beautiful and totally in command of herself. She is a woman with depth and mystery—strong, bright, witty, one of the few people Altman can’t bully verbally. (“Bob has overpowered a lot of women,” says actor Mike Murphy of their marriage. “He and Kathryn fight to draw.”) Altman finds her “exciting.” She says of him that “he has driven me crazy but he has never bored me.”
Now, as a result of “M*A*S*H,” Altman is out of debt. His wife was able to go Christmas shopping last December with cash in her pocket. “The only way we had a Christmas the other 10 years of our marriage,” says Kathryn, “was because I had charge accounts in my previous name.” The money may disappear. (Altman’s living expenses were five times as high as the $750 weekly allowance Warner Brothers provided during “McCabe & Mrs. Miller.” One week’s rental of a yacht last October cost him $3,200.) But Altman can live artistically for years on the success of “M*A*S*H.”
All his pictures share a certain desire to show up the world’s insanity, but there are also remarkable differences. “MAS*H” was crude and tough in its masculine viewpoint and in its use of women as sexual objects. In “Brewster McCloud,” man the idealist is physically and emotionally seduced by women who are capable of saving, betraying or destroying him. In “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” the battle of the sexes is fought on more even grounds although woman—the survivor—has the edge. (“Even though the women are all whores, I’m treating them nicely. I’m not portraying them as lascivious women, just as dumb girls. And that was a pretty good job for a girl, a better job than most honest women had.”)
He explains the extreme differences in viewpoint with “I’m not making any of these films about myself. I’m exploring a situation, not expressing my own fears and feelings.” His own fears and feelings are expressed in his way of making movies themselves. “His film style,” says Tommy Thompson, “is a continuation of his life style—or vice versa. Bob has to know everything that’s going on. If somebody tells you that the milk didn’t come for lunch yet, from halfway across the set he’ll roar, ‘What are you going to do about it?’ Altman has intense loyalty to “my people.” (The obverse is a suspicion of people who are not his.) Anybody who works on an Altman film—carpenter, prop man, electrician, actor—is welcome at his rushes.
Early that evening last December there were 72 people and two dogs sprawled on the floor of Altman’s Vancouver screening room. During the rushes, Altman watched the people in the room as closely as he watched the screen. “I get a reaction, a feel about the film, even this early.” In his pocket was a plastic bag of marijuana brownies baked for him by some admirer. On his lap was curled 4-year-old Matthew, his adopted son. His eyes glittering, his shoulders thrust forward, Altman watched, sipping continuously from plastic cup of Cutty Sark and soda. He has always been—at least in his work—more disciplined than he allows himself to appear. Now his life is more disciplined, too. His gambling has dwindled to football pools and friendly poker games. The big gambling simply doesn’t seem necessary to him now.
The rushes over, the room almost empty but the images from the screening still imprinted in his head, Altman whispered—half-bravado, half-epitaph:
“If they should say to me, ‘You’ll never see your sons again or your wife unless you get out of the business of making movies,’ I’d have to say, ‘Sorry, Michael, Bobby, Matthew, Kathryn. It will hurt me not to see you again. But good-by.”
Featurette from the film’s 1970 production.
Home Movies: On the set of McCabe & Mrs. Miller, an 8mm home movie shot on the set of McCabe & Mrs. Miller by Wes Taylor and Wayne Robson (both RIP) in the fall of 1970. In the footage you’ll see Rene Auborjonois, Wayne Grace, Wes Taylor, Wayne Robson, Jack Riley, Jackie Crossland, Jace Van Der Veen, Manfred Shulz and others from the cast. The snowball fight is a fun touch given that the weather played havoc with the shooting schedule.
Contact sheet of Julie Christie on the set of McCabe & Mrs. Miller, 1970.
VILMOS ZSIGMOND, ASC, HSC
“Vilmos told me that it was director Robert Altman who taught him to use zooms, starting with their first film together in 1971, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, a masterpiece that reinvented the American western. Vilmos’ contribution is essential to the dreamy, melancholic beauty of McCabe & Mrs. Miller. He flashed the negative of the entire film, giving it a suffused pastel look, and further distilled the image with double Fog filters, force developing and smoke. Vilmos laughs as he recalls his daring anamorphic cinematography: ‘I did everything I could to destroy the image! It’s all due to Altman, who was very adventurous.’ Critic Pauline Kael called McCabe & Mrs. Miller ‘a beautiful pipe dream of a movie,’ and the film stands as a classic of the American New Wave, with brilliant, gutsy cinematography.” —Zsigmond Zooms
I learned how to use the zoom lens with Robert Altman. The first week I was watching him all the time. I was only operating the second camera, so when only one camera was rolling, I was watching what he liked to do. The camera was always moving, dollying, slowly. —Vilmos Zsigmond
Zsigmond recalled many years ago in London when Altman and Stanley Kubrick ran into each other after seeing each other’s films, McCabe and 2001. “Robert,” gushed Kubrick, “those zoom lens shots are incredible. Did you do it yourself?” Altman replied, “No, my cinematographer does that.” “And you trust him?” Kubrick shot back. —Vilmos Zsigmond on ‘McCabe & Mrs. Miller’
Vilmos Zsigmond, the Academy Award-winning cinematographer and co-founder of the Global Cinematography Institute, joined the Higher Learning audience for an in-depth master class and a look back at his 50-year career at the forefront of the industry. Giving examples from his impressive resume, which includes collaborations with directors Woody Allen, Robert Altman, John Boorman, Michael Cimino, Brian De Palma, and Steven Spielberg, Zsigmond described the intimate working relationship between director and cinematographer. Other topics included on-set improvisation versus strict adherence to a script; black and white cinematography versus colour; the emergence of digital technologies; and celluloid’s important role in the history of cinema.
“One day, he decided to go into town and check out a movie. He eventually decided on Brewster McCloud, a bizarre comedy about a Houston kid (played by Bud Cort) who wants to fly. The movie was a commercial and critical flop; Cohen saw it twice that day. ‘It’s a very, very beautiful and I would say brilliant film,’ he told Crawdaddy! in 1975. ‘Maybe I just hadn’t seen a movie in a long time, but it was really fine.’ That night, the singer-songwriter traveled to Nashville to do some studio work. While there, he got a phone call: ‘This is Bob Altman,’ the voice on the other line said. ‘I’d like to use your songs in a movie I’m making.’ Cohen was flattered but had no idea who this guy was: ‘Is there any movie you’ve done I might have seen?’ Altman mentioned his smash success MAS*H, which Cohen had missed. The filmmaker then said, ‘I also did a small movie that nobody saw—Brewster McCloud.’ As Cohen later recalled to Altman biographer Mitchell Zuckoff, ‘I told him, ‘I just saw it this afternoon—I loved it. You can have anything you want.’ Thus began one of the great pairings of film and soundtrack of the modern era. The movie Altman was making was McCabe & Mrs. Miller, which legendary director John Huston would later reportedly proclaim the greatest Western ever made.” —How Leonard Cohen’s Music Turned ‘McCabe & Mrs. Miller’ Into a Masterpiece
“Without question, Leonard Cohen dominates the soundtrack of McCabe & Mrs. Miller. It’s hard not to suspect that something about his cultivated murmur seeped into Altman’s ideas about barely overheard dialogue, which come to fruition in this film and determine its aural gestalt more than Cohen does, rendering it as groundbreaking sonically as it is visually. But it’s worth remembering that definitive in some respects though Cohen’s songs are, they’re far from the only music in McCabe & Mrs. Miller—and that consciously heard or not, every bit of that music is both gorgeous and meaningful.” —Robert Christgau, Stranger Songs: The Music of Leonard Cohen in ‘McCabe & Mrs. Miller’
Director Robert Altman describes his working philosophy, often comparing filmmaking to painting, and discusses the sources of his storytelling and directing techniques he used on films like M*A*S*H (1970), McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), and The Player (1992). —Visual History with Robert Altman
Excerpts from two 1971 episodes of The Dick Cavett Show featuring Robert Altman.
Criterion’s edition of McCabe & Mrs. Miller includes a new behind-the-scenes documentary that features interviews with members of the film’s cast and crew. In the following excerpt, watch Joan Tewkesbury, who was Altman’s script supervisor on the film, and actor René Auberjonois discuss Beatty and Christie’s on-screen magnetism and their working methods on set.
Robert Altman discusses his 1992 feature film The Player, which presents the inner workings of Hollywood as a metaphor for greed in the culture; talks about several of his other movies as well, including Nashville, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, M*A*S*H, and Popeye.
On the 5 February 2002, Stephen Woolly interviewed Robert Altman for the David Lean Lecture series.
On the eve of the release of his first film shot in England, Gosford Park, Omnibus profiles the maverick American director. “Robert always surprises you,” says fellow director Kenneth Branagh. “Even if the subject matter may be familiar or the genre may be familiar, his treatment of it always has an original characteristic.” Former colleagues and associates including Mike Hodges, Stephen Frears and Stephen Altman, his son and Production Designer for Gosford Park, offer their insights into working with Altman and examine his lasting appeal.
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Photographed by Douglas Kirkland & Steve Schapiro © David Foster Productions, Sandcastle Productions, Warner Bros. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.