The following Q&A appeared in Screen International, the weekly, on February 25.
Robert Altman celebrated his 75th birthday on February 23, just two weeks after completing principal photography on his 32nd dramatic feature film, Dr T And The Women. In this ensemble piece, Richard Gere plays a gynaecologist struggling with the many women in his life - from his wife (Farrah Fawcett) to his office manager (Shelley Long) to his sister-in-law (Laura Dern). Helen Hunt, Liv Tyler, Kate Hudson, Tara Reid and Janine Turner round out the star-studded cast.
The 50-day shoot began in September in Texas and was, says Altman, "difficult but terrific". The film is written by Anne Rapp, who also scripted his 1999 hit Cookie's Fortune which was released domestically by October Films/USA Films. No US distributor has yet been enlisted for Dr T.
Altman - as experienced a producer and packager as he is a world-renowned director - is producing the picture himself with James McLindon. It is being co-financed and sold internationally by Initial Entertainment Group (IEG). Altman's agent, Ken Kamins of ICM, is representing domestic rights on the film.
From his Los Angeles editing suite, Altman talked to Mike Goodridge about the new film, his experiences in the independent world, his thoughts on the future of film-making and his body of work, which has included some of the best-loved and most ground-breaking titles in US film - from Mash to Short Cuts via The Long Goodbye, Nashville, The Player and McCabe And Mrs Miller - as well as some of its most fascinating failures.
Screen International: How did you get involved in Dr T'
I commissioned it from Anne Rapp, the writer who wrote Cookie's Fortune. I had her under contract through my company for two years. The idea for Dr T came from a short story she wrote and we expanded that into this film. She wrote the screenplay.
So it's essentially a gynaecologist and the women in his life'
He's not a philanderer. It's a comedy about a guy who loves women. It's the story of Job. He's a wonderful person but there are too many women. He's inundated. He has a wife who is almost committably unbalanced. He's got a sister-in-law and her three daughters who live with them. He's got two daughters. He's got a woman who runs his office. There are seven women who are prime in this film, and he's basically pussy-whipped.
Tell me about the casting. You're one of those film-makers who always attracts high-calibre actors.
I don't know if that's necessarily a fact. I had a script that has a lot of terrific parts in it, and that's more important than who I am. For sure.
Is it the cast that you wanted'
Like many of these films, you could do them with many different actors. But once the actors are selected, that dictates the art of the film. They become the main elements.
You're also a very accomplished producer. How do you think about the cast in terms of foreign sales and attracting financing'
It's all part of the package, it's all part of the same thing. I have to raise the money and sell it. I don't go to a producer to set my picture up for me, I set my own picture up in most cases. If somebody comes along and offers me a script and cast that I really want to do, then I'll work for hire. But in most cases I set up the whole production with my own people.
Is it a necessity for you to package your own movies'
Well, it's the best way for me to do it because then I keep control and I don't have to spend too much time selling or hustling or having to explain to people what the film is. The film's in my head, the script tells you what category it's in and the way it's going to go, but a script is only a blueprint or maybe it's less than that - an architect's rendition of the project - and then we will build it.
Obviously connected to you is the myth of the maverick and the man who doesn't work with Hollywood studios. Does this come from years of conflict'
It just comes from the way things are. The studios don't come to me for films or send me scripts, because those are scripts they control and they want them done a certain way. I am not interested in making a film for them. I want to make this kind of movie and it's kind of hard for me to explain it to people. The only thing they can grab onto in order for them to part with that much money is the cast. When Richard Gere became my partner in this, it was a different question. He's a known commodity, a bankable kind of guy, and the people with the money are interested more in what the marquee is going to look like than what the picture will look like.
But there's a certain amount of prestige attached to you.
They know I'll finish the picture and they know I have a certain cult audience, but they also know I'm not Steven Spielberg and I've never delivered a $100m picture. I'm kind of hot in Europe and I'm kind of cold in the US. I'm not in the establishment, which is fine. The simple way of putting that is that the major studios sell shoes and I make gloves. They're kind of similar but they're not the same. They'll put my gloves in a small section of their shoe store.
Is Dr T And The Women an ensemble piece like Short Cuts'
Closer to Nashville. It will be in that category. Cookie's Fortune was a small film about a small town and the people in that town and this is more of a concept, more of an idea film, not so much a story. It's an essay.
Does it amuse you that there are so many films coming out of Hollywood like Magnolia or Playing By Heart'
It is always flattering to be able to say I told you so. Nobody's imitating me, but this is a good way to make films, a philosophy, a concept. They are not stories. In story-driven pictures, if the guy didn't shoot his wife, there wouldn't be a story. In my pictures there are lots of things going on and this guy happened to shoot his wife. The film could still exist. It's just another episode.
Cookie's Fortune has that feel to it even though it has a clear story.
The leopard can't change its spots.
Looking back, do you recognise the common themes in your movies'
There was a time when I could say I haven't made two pictures alike, you wouldn't know that the same hand was on any of these films. And yet now I look back on it and of course they're all chapters of the same book, because they all carry my thumbprint.
You've been working since the 1950s. What are the good things and bad things that have changed since then in US cinema'
Well the easiest time for me - and everybody - was the '70s. The type of films that are made reflect absolutely the political temperature of the culture and we're in a very conservative time now. Artists will always take risks, but the mob is very controlled and propagandised and they're safe and consistent and that's what these companies want. They want to know that that audience is half asleep so they can keep pushing them the same, then they know what to give them.
Why do they not look back and recognise that artistic risk-taking in the '70s paid off at the box office'
It worked for a while but eventually these companies took over and the temperature changed. In the '70s hippies were around, the attitude on drugs was quite different, the attitude on social behaviour and sex and commitment was quite different. Now we are a much more conservative