Film Scouts Interviews

Robert Altman on "Kansas City"

by Karen Jaehne

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Even during the celebration of auteurs that occurs at Cannes, money talks, and the press conference began with a question about the nature of director Robert Altman's law suit with the production company of both "Short Cuts" and "Kansas City." In a nutshell, Altman was scheduled to do a sequel to "Short Cuts," but CIBY 2000 reneged on funding it.

Q: What is your relationship to CIBY 2000 now?

Altman: As everybody who reads the trade press knows, I've filed a lawsuit against them for breach of contract. I shouldn't be talking about this, but CIBY 2000 is very typical of the film production companies in Hollywood. They say they want to work with independent filmmakers, but when it comes down to it, you have to hire lawyers to make them keep their word. And they have more money than you and basically, they say, we'll wait you out. So as usual, lawyers are making all the money, not filmmakers.

Q: So you're back to the majors?

Altman: That's not a viable alternative. The kind of pictures they make, I don't want to make. And the kind of pictures I want to make, they don't know how to sell or market. I mean, every once in a while, a project will come up, and they say, let's get Altman to direct this - I get offered pictures all the time, but...

Q: When did you first conceive of "Kansas City?"

Altman: Oh, about 8, 10, maybe even 12 years ago. Frank and I wrote the story of the two women, but that was just a kernel to riff on. We figured we could make this for television, as a film - anyway.

Q: When you thought back on Kansas City as the place you grew up, there must have been lots of little stories and situations that popped up in your mind as ways to tell a story about your hometown. Why did you choose this one?

Altman: I felt it had to be a melodrama to make it work. I didn't want to do anything like a documentary about the town - or about one of the players, the jazz musicians. But I wanted to make a picture like jazz. It occurred to me about four years ago, what I had to do was make the picture AS JAZZ. To use the jazz as the formal construct.

Q: Music also played a big role in "Nashville."

Altman: Yes, but in "Nashville," music was one of the characters. Here it's different - jazz is the style, not another voice.

Q: What is jazz to you?

Altman: It's just the first music I ever heard. It's like the basic music "chip" in my brain. I was probably 8 years old when I first heard it and it affected the way I do everything in my life. Probably how I make movies. The first song I know of as the first song I "heard" is Duke Ellington's "Solitude."

Q: How did you contact people like Joshua Redman to be a part of the movie? Do they know you? Are you one of those people who's known to be a big jazz fan?

Altman: In a way, but it was really Hal Willner, a musical producer who did the "Short Cuts" music for me, took on the assignment. He put together an enormous catalogue of songs, and we cut it down to about 20. Then he started putting together the band from about 3 sources. These are basically guys who are competitive - not just as musicians but even philosophically. We put it together the way a jam session happens. Guys walks in off the street and started playing - without charts or sheets. Y'know?

Q: I know, but it's really rather amazing. What order did they come in?

Altman: First was Joshua Redman, then Chris McBride, uh...Mark Whitfield, then there was a group who played together a lot - they came in. Then we went to James Carter - he had a group. Craig Handy - nobody knew him, but he'd been with Mingus, and Mingus' wife suggested him - he turned out to be great. He played the Coleman Hawkins character.

Q: Visually, would you say the film mirrors your memories of Kansas City at that time, or did you have a vision of what it should or coud be that you layed on?

Altman: What am I supposed to say? It's Kansas City as I want to remember it. Probably years of using your imagination has an affect on your memory, and then you're also involved in creating a work of art, so how are you going to retrieve the exact Kansas City of 50 years ago? It's not Kansas City, but I am the kid who grew up there. Anyway, Everything was based on something factual - except the character of Blondie...

Q: ...and the kidnapping itself.

Altman: Well, not really. Remember that particular kidnapping is made up. But remember, kidnapping was quite common then, particularly of women. That's the reason we put in that riff about the Lindberg kidnapping, because it was only the death penalty passed after the Lindberg case that put a stop to all that.

Q: That's odd - "kidnapping was common then"...?

Altman: Yeah, it was acceptable crime. It was a logical act - sort of like holding up 7-11 stores now.

Q: The narrative is not the point of the film, though, is it?

Altman: Of course not. I'm not concerned to tell you how something got there, I'm not dealing with plot, who's talking to what...we did it like the song. The moon is out, the clouds are blue and I love you. Or you broke my heart the day you closed the door - that's what the film is. Mood and music, the emotion. I tried to make this whole film like a song. So all these questions about if I'm satirizing or commenting on society are irrelevant. I'm creating visual jazz.

Q: How do you talk to your cinematographer? How do you explain the look you want?

Altman: Well, it depends on where you shoot. If we're on the street, there's only so much you can do. But in a studio, you have more control. Here, I chose the closest thing to black and white than you could do in color.

Q: Do you talk in terms of painting, palettes, other movies, photographs...?

Altman: In my mind, I talk in terms of murals. I think of the screen as a blank wall, and you start with the things you can't control. Then you form the look of your mural - you put in the horses...

Q: ...the've been said to typecast, and not to direct actors too much.

Altman: Well, by the time I finish the casting, I'd say 80% to 90% of the creativity that I'm responsible for is done. I want them to be who they are, but to show me something new, something I hadn't thought of - so they have a lot of freedom, in some sense.

Q: The women seem to be like birds - Jennifer Jason Leigh is this little nervous little sparrow, darting here, dashing there, but Miranda Richardson is like this big swan - she moves slowly and is maybe just as mean as we've heard swans are. After all, she shoots Blondie in the end.

Altman: Ah, the mercy killing - not everybody gets that.

Q: There's a mysterious connection along the level of "Three Women." It seems to be a very personal film.

Altman: All of them are. "Three Women" was. A lot of people want to compare it to "Thieves Like Us" but that's only because it's in the same time period. That was a different kind of construction and story. I didn't even use any music in "Thieves Like Us" - I used radio mostly. Of course, I used radio here, too...

Q: And at the beginning of your career when you were directing television, you did several episodes of "The Roaring Twenties." Do you think any of that crept in?

Altman: I hadn't thought about it, but who knows? Essentially, everything I am and have ever done can potentially affect any work I do now, so it's safe to look in my subconscious for influences, traces, personal patterns. In every film, I'm trying to do something different. Everything I do has to pass through me, so it's going to resemble me - my shape. But I don't see that. The truth is, "Kansas City" to me is what happened when I worked as a jazz musician in film.

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