Robert Altman: Bob & Ray

After the success of The Player, Robert Altman has turned to Raymond Carver's stories as the basis for his new film, Short Cuts. Here he chats about everything from Hollywood and the importance of male nudity in the movies to pot smoking and the likelihood of his ever winning an Oscar.

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"Is it safe to say this film's about fish?" I ask cinematic angler Robert Altman about his latest catch, Short Cuts.

"It could be," he says. "It's a lot about fish. Actually, it's a lot about Raymond Carver. It's Raymond Carver soup!"

More like Raymond Carver bouillabaisse, if you ask me. In fact, there are so many fish references in Altman's new epic that it's bound to be dubbed Fishville.

Last night at Todd-AO Studio East on West 54th Street, a small, strange mix of people came together to see an early, as-good-as-finished version of Short Cuts. I spotted the trollish Wallace Shawn, legendary jazz singer Annie Ross, Daryl Hannah doppelganger Lori Singer, Sliver phoenix William Baldwin, and the Michelle-shocked Fisher Stevens. Altman, who was also there, explained that he was showing the film to check the final sound mix and that the end titles were yet to be added, "so you won't know who the grips were."

After the movie, I was so stunned that the only grip I wanted to know about was Altman's firm one around the Oscar at next year's Academy Awards ceremony. Between the ominous opening shot of helicopters swooping in to poison the Southern California swimming pools with deadly medfly pesticide and the earth-shattering, cathartic climax, 22 major characters careen and collide in nine or so overlapping Carver tales in a slickly edited three-hour tragicomic Disney ride for grownups. It blows all of Altman's previous movies out of the water. Everything up to now has just been bait.

Today, Altman's been told that last night the screening room's subwoofers hadn't been turned on and the news is making him mildly fretful as we sit talking in a semi-darkened mixing studio in midtown Manhattan's Brill Building. "So now," he says, "our assessment of the film isn't valid as far as mixing these changes is concerned."

The changes are being made anyway, apparently, by his busy editor, Geraldine Peroni, and a clutch of technicians sitting at a mixing board fine-tuning errant sounds: intrusive clock ticks, an upstaging respirator--nothing your typical moviegoer would notice over the sound of crunching popcorn. Downstairs in another studio, Lori Singer is bowing her cello once more into her scenes and Annie Ross--whose vocals help mesh the film together--is jazzing up her Duke Ellington-Peggy Lee song "I'm Gonna Go Fishing," which soars over the eventual end titles.

"I don't have to be down there," Altman says. "They're their own best critics."

Despite the subwoofer gaffe, Short Cuts is a very good film, and these final adjustments are just going to make it better. "It's amazing," I tell Altman.

"Everybody seems to respond that way," the director says. "I'm very happy with this film. I've never had the response to any film of mine like I've had to this one. Nashville, M*A*S*H, all those pictures where I had really good response, The Player--nothing's gone this far. About a thousand people have seen it in various stages from when I first started screening it last November. A lot of journalists, friends, people who are smart enough to get it. The other shoe hasn't fallen yet."

"What other shoe?"

"The negative shoe," he says, laughing.

It may never fall. We're sitting in plush theater seats against a wall, just below the booth where scenes from Short Cuts are being projected onto a screen at the other end of the room.

"Has anyone said the film's too long?" I ask.

"Nobody's mentioned the time," he says, "except distributors and exhibitors--who haven't seen it. But time is not an issue; as a matter of fact, it's sort of a plus for this sort of film because it gives it weight. It takes on the proportions of a novel."

"You came rather late to Raymond Carver, didn't you?" Carver died of lung cancer in 1988, after a relatively short, muscular life spent churning out relatively short, muscular stories that developed a slavish following and won him prizes.

"Yeah," he says. "I didn't read him until early 1990. I was on a plane coming back from Europe and I started reading these stories. I'd read two or three stories and I'd go to sleep and I'd wake up and I'd read a couple more. I loved all of them. They're very . . ."

"Short," I suggest.

"Yeah," he says. "And when I got off the plane I thought, Wait a minute, there's a movie in here. They all mixed one into the other in my mind. It's a structure I've been foolin' around with for 30, 40 years. Multiple-storytelling, having an audience follow simultaneous stories, to keep them going in their own minds. When you get audience participation like that you get involvement."

I'm no stranger to Carver. "When you adapted the stories," I say, "you changed them and added things."

"I was never trying to do those stones specifically," he says. "It was never the intention to take a Raymond Carver story and do it as such. It was to take many of these stories, mix the characters up so that the characters in one story are characters in another story . . . Most of Raymond Carver's stories are basically about the same people. I told [Carver's widow, the poet] Tess Gallagher that I wasn't going to do an accurate rendition of the stories. In fact, the Annie Ross-Lori Singer story isn't a Carver story at all. We added that, and the Jack Lemmon story. But they're very in Carver's genre."

"Did Gallagher have script approval?"

"No, but she did approve. And I did stay in touch with her and we sent her what we were doing as we wrote the script. But all she kept saying was, 'I'm grateful that you're doing your art.' Because I was really collaborating with Carver's material."

Bob and Ray.

"It's interesting," I say, "that in The Player Griffin Mill gets away with murder, and now in Short Cuts two, maybe three, characters do the same."

"Oh, I don't imagine they ultimately got away with murder," Altman says. "I'm sure they would've been caught. I don't know about the girl in the river. I have to approach this as not knowing what happens. I'm just showing you what they do. Many people have asked if the Chris Penn character killed the girl in the river. I don't think so. But some people think a movie has to have connections and some sort of false logic. It doesn't."

"What about that list of elements needed to market a film successfully that Griffin Mill brings up in The Player --suspense, laughter, violence, hope, heart, nudity, sex and a happy ending? Was that list from Michael Tolkin's book or was it yours?"

"Ahhh, probably me; it wasn't in the book."

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