By Sven Mikulec
Convinced people would always connect Raymond Chandler’s legendary detective Philip Marlowe with the iconic superstar Humphrey Bogart, Robert Altman wasn’t interested in making The Long Goodbye. “I don’t want to do Raymond Chandler,” he said, feeling he had nothing new or worthwhile to say about the subject. After reading Leigh Brackett’s script for the proposed film, however, Altman had a sudden change of heart. The great science fiction writer and author of several prominent film classics, such as Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep, also based on Chandler’s writing, Brackett envisioned a dark twist at the end of the film, a shocking departure from the standard Philip Marlowe character that completely won Altman over. The filmmaker agreed to do it only if the ending remained intact. Brackett’s script gave him exactly what he needed: the inspiration for creating something entirely different, something original and new, out of the typical material that became so ingrained in private-eye movies it was considered cliché. Altman’s The Long Goodbye sheds entirely new light on the genre, dancing between paying respect to film noir and its clear subversion. Bogart’s Philip Marlowe was a man of a high moral code, dressed in black and white suits, dryly delivering witty remarks and jokes as he strolls around a dark world of crime and viciousness. Elliott Gould’s Marlowe, on the other hand, is a man obviously taken from another era, a 1950s detective thrown in 1970s California, a man who exhibits the same characteristics that made Bogart’s Marlowe so cherished, but deliberately adds a peculiar twist on most of them. Altman’s vision of Marlowe, a good, out-of-place guy slowly descending into the darkness that surrounds him, was so unexpected that it comes to no surprise the film did rather badly at the box office at the time of its release, causing an outrage among those viewers who expected to see Bogart’s reincarnation and a typical noir detective story. Even then the film had its champions among prominent film critics, but its stature among regular film lovers grew steadily over the years, becoming one of Altman’s best and arguably most unfairly underappreciated works of art.
Brackett approached the subject with great creative freedom, but also with a certain sense of clear responsibility to the material. Having penned one of the greatest film noirs ever made (alongside William Faulkner), she knew Chandler’s work really well, just like she knew what kind of changes needed to be made to make a film that would be both relevant and engaging in the seventies. Altman further enhanced her screenplay and filled the movie with a gallery of interesting casting choices for the supporting characters. Sterling Hayden, Nina van Pallandt, fellow director Mark Rydell, ex baseball star Jim Bouton, even a young Arnold Schwarzenegger in an uncredited but memorable role. No acting choice would signify such departure from the public expectations, however, as that of Elliot Gould. Thanks to Altman’s collaboration with the great director of photography Vilmos Zsigmond, The Long Goodbye also stands out visually: Zsigmond used experimental exposure techniques so Altman’s Los Angeles would have a certain faded look, resembling old postcards, as Altman later confirmed they aimed for. Furthermore, Altman and Zsigmond kept the camera moving, hoping to achieve the effect of the audience becoming aware of their voyeuristic position, as though they were witnessing something secretly, uninvited and intruding. The film was edited by the master Lou Lombardo, the man who came to prominence after editing Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch a couple of years earlier. John Williams, who composed the score with Johnny Mercer, put only two songs in the soundtrack: ‘Hooray for Hollywood’ is used at the beginning and the end of the film, while ‘The Long Goodbye’ is ingeniously and originally used throughout the picture, in different versions and played by different instruments: from radio music and supermarket muzak to hippie chants and Mexican street players.
The importance of The Long Goodbye lies in the originality of Altman’s approach and his distinct vision that enabled him to tell a new story on the basis of something that had already been explored countless times. Made in 1973, after MASH and McCabe & Mrs. Miller and before Nashville, this film continues Altman’s ambition to explore, alter and subvert the classic themes of American filmmaking. What is also especially interesting in this film, even though it might seem as just an unimportant fragment of the bigger picture, is an unforeseen instance of sheer, shocking violence that could be understood as Altman’s comment on the irresponsibility of the cinema regarding its casual portrayal of violence in an increasingly violent world. Interesting to examine on several layers, perpetually open to analyses and discussion, Altman’s The Long Goodbye is without a doubt one of the most memorable and distinguished films of the seventies, and perhaps an ideal reminder to contemporary Hollywood that it’s perfectly fine to resort to remaking old classics when in need of fresh material. As long as, like Brackett and Altman taught us, what you have to say is important and worth listening to.
Screenwriter must-read: Leigh Brackett’s screenplay for The Long Goodbye [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
“Originally I didn’t want to do it. I’ve enjoyed reading Chandler, though I never did finish The Long Goodbye, and I liked those 1940s movies, but I just didn’t want to play around with them. I was sent the script by the producers and at first I said, I don’t want to do Raymond Chandler. If you say ‘Philip Marlowe,’ people just think of Humphrey Bogart. Robert Mitchum was being proposed for it. But I just didn’t want to do another Philip Marlowe film and have it wrap up the same way all the other films did. I think it was David Picker, the production chief at United Artists, who suggested Elliott Gould for Marlowe—and then I was interested. So I read Leigh Brackett’s script—she wrote the script of The Big Sleep for Hawks—and in her version, in the last scene, Marlowe pulled out his gun and killed his best friend, Terry Lennox. It was so out of character for Marlowe, I said, ‘I’ll do the picture, but you cannot change that ending! It must be in the contract.’ They all agreed, which was very surprising. If she hadn’t written that ending, I guarantee I wouldn’t have done it. It said, ‘This is just a movie.’ After that, we had him do his funny little dance down the road and you hear ‘Hooray for Hollywood,’ and that’s what it’s really about—Hooray for Hollywood. It even looked like a road made in a Hollywood studio. And with Eileen Wade driving past, it’s like the final scene in The Third Man! I decided that we were going to call him Rip Van Marlowe, as if he’d been asleep for twenty years, had woken up and was wandering through this landscape of the early 1970s, but trying to invoke the morals of a previous era. I put him in that dark suit, white shirt and tie, while everyone else was smelling incense and smoking pot and going topless; everything was health food and exercise and cool. So we just satirized that whole time. And that’s why that line of Elliott’s—’It’s OK with me’—became his key line throughout the film.” —Robert Altman
“Talking with Elliott Gould is a unique, enriching experience. He philosophizes, he riffs, he free-associates in an erudite, non-linear way that recalls jazz. Jazz—which is how he describes the movie we’re talking about Robert Altman’s masterpiece, The Long Goodbye, in which he unforgettably stars at Philip Marlowe. I met with Gould recently in Los Angeles to discuss Altman’s seminal picture, and the conversation moved to multiple subjects—Altman, Bergman, Chandler, Bogart, identity, freedom, how you can’t double cross a cat… so many things. It’s never not fascinating talking to Gould…” —Kim Morgan, Elliott Gould: The Long Goodbye
The name Leigh Brackett, already surely familiar to every true fan of the literary genre of science fiction, is a name that should be celebrated by every film lover as well. Born exactly 101 years ago and often referred to as The Queen of Space Opera, she started writing and publishing her stories in various science ficiton pulp magazines at the beginning of the 1940s and soon established herself as one of the leading representatives of the space opera subgenre, but continued to work in various different genres with equal skill and success. Her 1944 novel ‘No Good from a Corpse,’ a hard-boiled mystery novel in the style of Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett, not only introduced her to a wider audience, but steered her career towards the movie business, another field where she would become a prominent figure. Howard Hawks was so impressed by this novel that he asked his assistant to call “this guy Brackett.” In fact, this statement basically sums up the challenges and obstacles Brackett had to face on her way to becoming one of the most important writers of the century. She succeeded at distinguishing herself as a highly competent, original and strong voice in a field practically reserved for men, and in the early stages of her career she had to put up with a lot of skepticism and outright criticism for being a female writer of science fiction. Moreover, the nickname The Queen of Space Opera was mostly used as a degrading term, not a compliment: the subgenre she found most interesting and inspiring was then regarded as a lesser form of writing, some sort of an ugly child of science fiction and fantasy. But she stuck with it, defended it, becoming its champion and claiming science fiction should never be put into drawers and confined with labels.
Her Hollywood dossier consists of a series of classics she either wrote and co-wrote: The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo, The Long Goodbye, Hatari!, El Dorado, Rio Lobo and The Empire Strikes Back. For George Lucas’ Star Wars sequel she managed to write a first draft before losing her fight with cancer, and Lawrence Kasdan later took over and changed her material, but her role in the creation of probably the best Star Wars film can’t be ignored, as it was her who carved out the story with Lucas, and the biggest fans of her writing claim to easily notice her spirit and words in both the plot and the dialogues of the movie. But even before George Lucas pushed the genre of space opera into mainstream, Brackett had already been its champion and representative. The mentor to Ray Bradbury, a masterful storyteller of limitless imagination, exquisite writing skills and quite an impressive range, Leigh Brackett was ahead of her time just as she was ahead of most of her colleagues.
This interview by Steve Swires was conducted several years before her death and the post-humous release of The Empire Strikes Back, her final screen credit.
From what you’ve said, it sounds as though it was a very lively atmosphere around the sets of the Hawks films, with his spontaneously creative working habits. It must have prepared you, then, for Robert Altman, who I understand also likes not to inform the cast as to what they’ll be shooting the next day. In fact, many times he doesn’t bother to worry about it himself. How were you brought into the project of writing the screenplay for The Long Goodbye?
Elliott Kastner, who was the executive producer, used to be my agent at MCA a long time ago and we’re good friends. He remembered The Big Sleep and he wanted me to work on The Long Goodbye. He set the deal with United Artists, and they had a commitment for a film with Elliott Gould, so either you take Elliott Gould or you don’t make the film. Elliott Gould was not exactly my idea of Philip Marlowe, but anyway there we were. Also, as far as the story was concerned, time had gone by—it was twenty-odd years since the novel was written, and the private eye had become a cliché. It had become funny. You had to watch out what you were doing. If you had Humphrey Bogart at the same age that he was when he did The Big Sleep, he wouldn’t do it the same way. Also, we were faced with a technical problem of this enormous book, which was the longest one Chandler ever wrote. It’s tremendously involuted and convoluted. If you did it the way he wrote it, you would have a five-hour film.
I worked with another director who was on it before, Brian G. Hutton. He had a brilliant idea which just didn’t work, and we wrote ourselves into a blind alley on that. It was a technical problem of plotting—the heavy had planned this whole thing from the start. So what you had was a prearranged thing where everybody sort of got up out of several boxes and did and said exactly what they had to do and say in order to get you where you had to be. It was very contrived and didn’t work. Brian had to leave because he had another commitment, so when Altman came onto it I went over to London for a week. He was cutting Images (1972), which was a magnificent film—beautiful, powerful. We conferred about ten o’clock in the morning and yakked all day, and I went back to the hotel and typed all the notes and went back the next day. In a week we had it all worked out. He was a joy to work with. He had a very keen story mind.
Mark Rydell played the character Marty Augustine in The Long Goodbye. He is an old friend of Altman’s, so I imagine they were able to work together more easily. Rydell claimed that he knew intuitively what Altman’s conception of the movie was, which many critics, as well as many members of the audience, missed—the satirization of the genre of the private-eye film, by placing the conventions of the forties in direct conflict with the realities of the seventies. Were you aware of Altman’ s intentions during your story conferences?
Actually, I was more aware of the construction of the thing, which is more my department. What he does with it after he gets the script is something else again. I don’t think I was quite as aware of the satire as I became later.
Jay Cocks of Time magazine accused Altman of mocking “an achievement to which at his best he could only aspire,” because he tried to demythologize Philip Marlowe. I imagine a lot of critics who are in their forties and fifties now grew up with the myth of Bogart as Marlowe, and hated to see the end of the film in which Marlowe murders Terry Lennox with no remorse. In fact, after he commits the murder, he dances down the road whistling “Hooray for Hollywood!” You are responsible, to some degree, for helping to create and propagate that original myth with The Big Sleep. Then you turned around and helped to sabotage it in The Long Goodbye. Do you consider that a betrayal of your earlier values?
No. Actually the ending, where Marlowe commits the murder, was in the script before Altman came onto it. The ending of the book was totally inconclusive. You had built up a villain. You feel that Marlowe has been wounded in his most sensitive heart, as it were—he’s trusted this man as his friend; the friend has betrayed him. What do you do? We said let’s just face up to it. He kills him. In the time that we made The Big Sleep you couldn’t do that because of censorship, had you wanted to do it. We stuck very closely to Chandler’s own estimate of Marlowe as a loser, so we made him a real loser—he loses everything. Here is the totally honest man in a dishonest world, and it suddenly rears up and kicks him in the face, and he says: “The hell with you.” Bang! I don’t know whether we were right to do it, but I don’t regret having done it. It felt right at the time. This was the way it turned out.
What do you think of the conceptions and characterizations of Marlowe as portrayed in the other film versions of Chandler’s novels?
I thought Murder My Sweet (1944) was a beautiful film. The others all had points of excellence and also points where they didn’t quite come across. The experimental business of “I am a camera” in Lady in the Lake (1946) didn’t work too well. It has been said that Philip Marlowe was sort of the son of Sam Spade. As Chandler said: “Down these mean streets must go a man who is not himself mean.” In other words, here is the knight in shining armor with a shabby trench coat and snap-brim felt hat. I think he is a universal folk hero who does not change down through the ages except in the detail of his accoutrements. He’s not carrying a sword but a .32 automatic. The essential is that here is a man who is pure in heart, who is decent and honorable and cannot be bought—he is incorruptible. I think the concept was damn good, a very moral concept.
What did you think of Gould’s performance, miscast as he was?
I thought he did a beautiful job. However, the thing about Elliott is that he isn’t tough. His face is gentle, his eyes are kind, and he doesn’t have that touch of cruelty that you associate with these characters. —Leigh Brackett: Journeyman Plumber
A rare conversation Brackett had in 1974 with Starlog Magazine, four years before her death. In this captivating piece, Brackett discusses her beginnings as a writer and a successful Hollywood screenwriter, her collaboration with William Faulkner on the script for The Big Sleep, working with Howard Hawks, as well as huge movie stars like Humphrey Bogart and John Wayne. This copy of the magazine also includes a beautifully detailed account on how she and her husband, renowned science fiction writer Edmond Hamilton, met and fell in love. It’s a delightful read and we encourage you to give it a chance. Don’t only read the interview, read Leigh Brackett’s scripts as well. An inspiring woman who opened numerous doors for others and a great writer who used to sit in front of a typewriter and let the story develop itself.
Film critic Tony Macklin visited Leigh Brackett in 1975 for an interview that took place at her farm house in Kinsman, Ohio, where she lived together with her husband and fellow sci-fi writer Edward Hamilton.
Elliott Gould remembers Robert Altman by Jon Zelazny. This article originally appeared at EightMillionStories.com on November 14, 2008.
I finally had a meeting with David Picker, who was running United Artists, and he gave me the Leigh Brackett script of The Long Goodbye. I’d always loved the Humphrey Bogart pictures, but that first draft was set in the past. It was like a pastiche: very sweet, and very convoluted. But I needed a job. Peter Bogdanovich was set to direct—
That would have been a pastiche.
But he couldn’t see me in the part! Picker told me Bogdanovich thought I was too new; he wanted someone like Lee Marvin or Robert Mitchum. But Picker wanted me, so Bogdanovich left. Then Altman heard about it and called me. I told him I’d always wanted to play that guy, and he said, “You are that guy.” That was how it began. He asked me to read the novel, as well as Chandler on Chandler. I did, and discovered I was exactly the same age as the character, and the same height and weight.
I read The Long Goodbye about six months ago. It’s kind of hard to fathom. The movie really nails that elusive quality of it. And Marlowe is a pretty elusive character. How did you begin to imagine filling out the life of this guy?
Well, the guy has a life whether there’s a book or not. Then Bob called me and told me the whole opening of the film as he was envisioning it, the whole sequence with Marlowe and his cat. He loved that. He said, “This is what the picture is about!” More importantly, the story was now set in the present.
The next thing was to cast the two main supporting roles, Roger and Eileen Wade. Bob wanted his friend Dan Blocker to play Roger, but then Blocker died… and not only did Bob not have any back-up in mind, he was actually thinking of dropping the project! I thought we should go for John Huston… until Sterling Hayden showed up. My god, Sterling fucking Hayden! I had seen The Killing (1956) twelve or fifteen times; I knew Dr. Strangelove (1963) very well. I wanted to meet him beforehand, so we sat down in that room in the house where we’d shoot it. He’d just come back from Ireland, where he’d been working with R. D. Laing, the famous psychiatrist and avant garde writer. So we talked… and I knew that Sterling knew—that I knew—that Sterling knew I understood him! I didn’t know Sterling had kidnapped his children, and went out to sea. He wrote a book about it. I didn’t know he’d fought with the underground in Yugoslavia during World War II.
Yeah, he was an OSS agent.
Then Bob wanted to test Nina Van Pallandt for Eileen, which I didn’t quite get, but… if that’s what the Old Man wanted, I would go along with it. Van Pallandt had never acted before. Formerly half of a Danish folk duo, she shot to fame in the early 1970’s as the jet-set mistress of literary fraud Clifford Irving. She went on to appear in several other films, including American Gigolo (1980).
Which idea seemed crazier? That cat for ten minutes, or Nina Van Pallandt?
The cat for ten minutes wasn’t crazy at all. And Nina… no, nothing seemed crazy to me. We went to MGM to do the screen test, and pick out my wardrobe, which was a blue jacket, a mismatched pair of blue pants, a white shirt, and a tie. The tie was key to me. It was a red tie, with very tiny American flags. Which was really how I saw Marlowe: a very unorthodox patriot. I did a screen test with Nina; some written scenes, and some improvisation, and she was fine.
I didn’t want to bring this up until later, but I’ve actually been working for many years on the sequel to The Long Goodbye. It’s based on a short story of Chandler’s called ‘The Curtain.’ I first had a treatment done, and sat with Bob while he read it, and he told Alan Ladd the only person he would to do it with was me. Now Alan Rudolph has written a script, and the working title is It’s Always Now. And it’s not that I have to do it, but that guy is still me. And now he’s of this age, but internally he’s still the same.
Did you see Poodle Springs (1998)?
Poodle Springs sucked! Bob and I talked about it. Even with that wonderful British writer, Tom Stoppard, it was absolutely fucking horrible!
I asked because it depicts Marlowe as an older man. Would your sequel fit in that lineage?
No! It’s Always Now! It’s right now! Fucking Tom Stoppard… this isn’t for you! Nobody has cracked this yet. I’m being very candid with you here.
I thought Poodle Springs was adapted from Chandler’s last, unfinished story. Does ‘The Curtain’ take place after Poodle Springs?
Aha. You have a very logical mind. No, ‘The Curtain’ came very early, even before he wrote The Big Sleep. We took the story and moved it to the present day. It seems unlikely that I’ll actually get it made, but I’ve got everything in place, except for the money. The Chandler estate is supporting it. Because I played Marlowe once, I have their approval to play him again. They regard The Long Goodbye as the only film that properly represents Chandler, aside from the original films with Humphrey Bogart.
And it means a lot to me to have Alan Rudolph attached to direct. He was our 2nd Assistant Director on The Long Goodbye.
The last picture I saw of his was the one with Julie Christie. Afterglow.
That wasn’t Alan Rudolph.
Sure it was.
Okay, if you say so. I want to see Afterglow. I heard it’s really good.
She’s very good in it.
Originally, Bob and I had talked about doing a series, another Chandler/Marlowe story every other year, all set in the present. Right now, I know Clive Owen is trying to do Trouble is My Business with Frank Miller, but they haven’t cracked it. I think Marlowe should live in the same apartment he had in The Long Goodbye. The car I don’t think we need. That was my actual car, by the way. I thought it would be too obvious, Marlowe driving this old car, but Bob loved it. Eventually I gave it away, and now it’s on display at Harrah’s in Reno. I went to see it. They painted it canary yellow, and it’s parked next to the car James Dean drove in Rebel Without a Cause. I don’t want it now. I drive a Honda Civic.
Because there’s so little in The Long Goodbye about the larger circumstances of Marlowe’s life, did you create your own little biography, or backstory for the character?
When we were shooting the key scene in Ocean’s 11, where Clooney gets the whole gang together at my place, Steven Soderbergh walked up to me, and out of the blue asked, “The ink on the face. Was that an improvisation?” I’m just standing there, blindsided. Finally, he says, “You know, The Long Goodbye. It just seemed like such unexpected behavior.” And I told him, “That was the kind of space Robert Altman gave me.” That moment came out of the circumstances of the scene. The actor who was playing the detective really shoved me. I didn’t mind him “acting” rough with me, but he wasn’t acting. I still had that ink on my fingers, so I smeared it under my eyes, and said, “I’m getting ready for the big game.” Now I’m committed to that action. I didn’t know if Altman would like it, but I ran with it. So I went from “the big game” to mimicking Al Jolson. That’s an example of an improvised, irreverent moment. Another was when I brought up Ronald Reagan at the scene at the beach. I was a little drunk there, and I don’t really drink—
I was going to ask about that. Your voice actually goes up in pitch—
I was freaked out; I didn’t know what was going on. Until I look at her—and I don’t want to see it the way it wants to be seen, I want to see it for what it is. And she’s crying; being manipulative. All those cops are there, and they don’t know what going on. It wasn’t written that I throw a bottle through a window; it just came out in that moment. And the Old Man just let me fucking go!
It’s an amazing moment. The only time in the picture Marlowe really loses control.
Not the only time. I almost died on that beach!
You mean in the surf, just before that? It sure looks dangerous.
We did that at about three o’clock in the morning, to catch the high tide. My motivation was simple: I loved Sterling Hayden, and I wanted to save him. I was a pretty good athlete too, so I hit the water that first time, and I’m heading for those breakers… and it suddenly occurs to me that I’m not in a tank at some studio, this is the fucking Pacific Ocean! I’m fully dressed, I’m starting to breathe harder, I’m getting concerned; I’m starting to lose control! I looked to the shore, where the lights were, and the people looked so tiny. Then I’m in the breakers, and I couldn’t feel the bottom, my legs started turning to jelly, and my inner voice said to me—for the very first time, I heard it—it said, “You can’t go down, Elliott. There’s no one here to bring you back up.”
You see it plainly in the film. The camera’s so far back, you can see there’s no one out there with you.
It took every ounce of strength and will to pull myself out, and then I had to go up the beach right away and start acting that scene with Nina! And we had to shoot it another two times! I was standing under a hot shower between takes, thinking, “I almost drowned! I almost died!” So we did it a second time, and the third, and each time I came out and had to do that scene, I got a little hotter. And by the third time, man, it was like an out-of-body experience or something!
When I saw that footage in the dailies, you know what made me weep? When Roger’s dog, his Doberman, runs through the water holding his cane. I told Bob that was so fucking beautiful, it was like Da Vinci to me!
I was going to ask about Marlowe’s recurring line, “It’s okay with me.” That was something you improvised, and then it sort of became his catch phrase?
All that talking to himself was not in the script.
Were those after-dubs? It sounds like a lot of your muttering was added in later.
No, I was doing it as we made the picture. I said, “It’s okay with me” the very first day of shooting, and Bob loved it.
How did you come up with that trait, his muttering? It’s certainly one of the biggest differences between your Marlowe and Humphrey Bogart’s.
He was a guy who lived alone. When he wakes up, he’s like Rip Van Winkle. He has nobody to talk to, so he talks to himself! What does he know? Do you know Nina Foch? She’s a big acting teacher out here. She said to me once, “That picture would have been more successful if you had been quiet.”
Was that something you decided before you started shooting?
It all came out in the moments. Beginning to end. Right up until that final moment… which really recalls The Third Man, I think.
One of the things I love most about the ending is it finally turns “It’s okay with me” on its ear. All through the picture, the line implies that Marlowe doesn’t much care what other people do, but in that last moment, we finally see that in fact it’s not okay with him. He cares very much about what people do. So what you initially introduced as a toss-off becomes the crowning irony.
I remember when I first showed it to Donald Sutherland. When it came to the ending, he said, “Oh, I see. It’s all about morality.” The fact that this film has survived, and endured, and come to be considered something of a classic… it’s very gratifying. —Elliott Gould Remembers Robert Altman
Elliott Gould on starring in The Long Goodbye.
ALTMAN DESCRIBES HIS PARTICULAR WAY OF SHOOTING
“I decided that the camera should never stop moving. It was arbitrary. We would just put the camera on a dolly and everything would move or pan, but it didn’t match the action; usually it was counter to it. It gave me that feeling that when the audience see the film, they’re kind of a voyeur. You’re looking at something you shouldn’t be looking at. Not that what you’re seeing is off limits; just that you’re not supposed to be there. You had to see over someone’s shoulder or peer round someone’s back. I just think that in so many films everything’s so beautiful, the lighting is gorgeous and with each shot everything is relit. My method also means you don’t have to light for close-ups; you only have to accommodate what may happen, so you just light the scene and it saves a lot of time. The rougher it looked, the better it served my purpose. I was worried about the harsh light of southern California and I wanted to give the film the soft, pastel look you see on old postcards from the 1940s. So we post-flashed the film even further than we did on McCabe & Mrs Miller, almost 100 percent.” —Robert Altman
On the 5 February 2002, Stephen Woolly interviewed Robert Altman for the David Lean Lecture series.
To celebrate the upcoming 50th Anniversary of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, Film Comment will be making some classic pieces from our archive available online. This week, read Jan Dawson’s transcribed and edited 1974 interview with Robert Altman, FSLC’s 1994 Chaplin Award Gala honoree.
Robert Altman 1984 interview on being a director.
VILMOS ZSIGMOND, ASC
Vilmos Zsigmond, one of the all-time great cinematographers, who shot McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Images, and The Long Goodbye for Altman.
“For this picture, we had a difficult job. We were making a today picture, but we wanted the look of 20 years ago. It is very difficult to talk about it in words, but we did not want to re-create the ’50s, but to remember them. So what we decided to do was to put the picture into pastels, with a shading toward the blue side. Pastels are for memory.” —Vilmos Zsigmond
“In The Long Goodbye, we practically never knew what Sterling Hayden was going to do. We made marks on the floor so just in case he hit that mark we knew where the focus would be. Sterling would say to me, ‘Is that my mark?’ I told him to forget about it, like it wasn’t even there—that he should step anywhere he wanted. At the end of the show it was really nice when Sterling came to me and said, ‘Vilmos, you know what? I was never so happy in any other picture before. I didn’t know why but now I understand. It was because, in every other picture, half my performance went down the drain because I had to step into marks. And if I didn’t hit the marks, they would stop the camera and tell me I couldn’t do this and I couldn’t do that.’ He was happy in The Long Goodbye because he did not have to concentrate on the mechanics of his performance.” —Vilmos Zsigmond, Masters of Light
In a frank discussion that covers his beliefs and work ethics, Altman explains how he has survived the Hollywood jungle (“don’t worry the accountants and they won’t worry you”) and describes how he has been in and out of favour with the film industry since he made ‘M*A*S*H’ in 1970. When Barry Norman suggests to Robert Altman that he is a maverick, the film director denies it but says “not everything has to be done the same way.”
Paul Joyce’s documentary profile of Robert Altman, with contributions from Altman, Elliott Gould, Shelley Duvall, assistant director Alan Rudolph and screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury. Originally broadcast on July 17th 1996 in Channel Four’s Cinefile 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 The Long Goodbye © E-K-Corporation, Lion’s Gate Films, United Artists (MGM/Photofest). Altman with Elliott Gould image courtesy Of U-m’s Special Collections Library. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
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