The first thing that strikes you about Robert Altman are his eyes--vivid blue sapphires set deep in a large, slightly ruddy face. Altman looks different in person than he does in photographs; the face is less mephistophelian and more delicate--gentle, almost vulnerable. "I don't have anything to say," he begins, "but I'll answer any questions." His voice is higher than one would expect, viscous and slighly drawly, the vocal equivalent of the corn syrup produced in his native Kansas. For over an hour Altman answers questions from the 30-odd reporters sitting in front of him. He responds patiently and candidly, even when faced with questions he's obviously answered a hundred times in a hundred interviews. Below, some of Altman's responses to questions posed at the press conference.
Q: How much improvisation is involved in your films?
A: Quite a lot in the early stages. We use improvisation in rehearsal and up to the time we set the scene. Most people seem to think we turn on the cameras and let people do what they do. That's not really true: by the time we shoot scenes, they're pretty much fixed...You might just say that using improvisation allows me to rewrite at a later stage.
Q: Many viewers seem to consider you an unorthodox filmmaker. Do you agree with this assessment?
A: I really can't say...I suppose you must judge me in comparison with other directors. I'm often surprised, after my films are finished, when I'm told by a lot of critics what they're about. They sound even stranger than I though they were...
Q: Do critics influence you much?
A: My personal temperature is controlled a lot by them...My work isn't influenced because each film is done by the time they write about it.
Q: Are you interested in making any kind of social comment in your films?
A: No. They obviously reflect my point of view, express what I see...I'm not a propagandist, I'm trying to show things as they are...
Q: Were your feelings about the characters in "A Wedding" as unaffectionate as many critics have seen them to be?
A: No, on the contrary. Most of the characters in the film are derived from members of my own family and families I've married into and out of...
Q: Casting seems an important element of your films...you seem to place a lot of responsibility on the actors.
A: I feel casting is a great portion of the creative input into a movie. Once that's done, the actors have to take over the job of creating...I control it, I give them room. I try to cast people who can draw on their own resources and experiences...or else I go for actors technically competent enough to create characters...
Q: What's the key to your relationship with actors...why do they like to work with you?
A: I have to guess at this. I respect actors, encourage them to flex their muscles and work as a team. There's always trouble with temperaments, of course, but even with the huge cast in "A Wedding" there wasn't a bad guy in it...we couldn't find the "prick of the pic."
Q: What's your philosophy of women in your films?
A: I don't have any philosophy, except that I let each film take its own course. I don't have any point of view other than what I see...I was criticized for the treatment of Hot Lips in "M*A*S*H*," but that's how I saw women treated when I was in the Army...I see women as people...
Q: You've mentioned your dislike of TV...how do you feel about television violence?
A: It's overstated, a pet subject. Violence does have a part in art...I suppose I'm against TV more than I'm against violence.
Q: Well, how would you change TV?
A: I'd try to get it to go on strike, do everything I could to keep it (the strike) going. People just don't recognize the insidious effects of television...People don't read anymore, they just turn on the tube...They get so used to things being made obvious and explicit, getting hit over the head...I don't know how to combat it.
Q: Could you explain the killing of the young couple at the end of "A Wedding"?
A: It was the serious point of the whole film. I believe you've got to pay for your laughs in a film--or else it's Mel Brooks. I was trying to point out people's lack of concern with tragedy that is not their own--and rightly so, since it's the only way we can survive. The people in the film are like those in the audience--and they react the same way.