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Robert Altman Returns

Mitchell Zuckoff on the player behind The Player


Above is the trailer for the The Player, a film that marked Robert Altman’s return to Hollywood. Written off as a has-been, he resurfaced with this funny and sharp movie that bit the hand he wanted to feed him — Hollywood. Mitchell Zuckoff photo (below) by Suzanne Kreiter

Film director Robert Altman was known in Hollywood for two things: making movies no one else thought to make and making studio honchos crazy.

Both those traits intrigued Mitchell Zuckoff, who has been fascinated with the director since he saw M.A.S.H. more than three decades ago and realized that he had just watched a war movie in which the only shot fired ends the first half of a football game. At the time of Altman’s death three years ago, the College of Communication journalism professor was collaborating with him on a memoir, which he has turned into a 592-page book, Robert Altman: The Oral Biography, available in stores today. Altman’s most notable films include, besides M.A.S.H., McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Player, Nashville, and Gosford Park.

Zuckoff, a former Boston Globe reporter, has written several award-winning books, among them Ponzi’s Scheme: The True Story of a Financial Legend (2005) and with Richard Lehr, a COM journalism professor and former Globe reporter, Judgment Ridge: The True Story Behind the Dartmouth Murders (2003).

BU Today: How did this project develop?
One day I got a call from my agent telling me that Robert Altman, whose films I loved, needed someone to help him write a memoir on the art and craft of directing. It turned out that the editor on my last book was his editor as well. We met in his apartment in New York, talking mostly about baseball. He grew up in Kansas City, and I’m a huge Red Sox fan. The fact that we both hate the Yankees was the basis of our relationship.

We had worked together for less than a year, when in November 2006 Bob died. I was hurt personally, because I really liked him. I was also hurt by it financially. There was no contract. Then a few months passed, and some of the sadness wore off. People started talking, saying, “Wait a second, this guy has 20 hours or more of the last interviews of Robert Altman. Why not make it a biography?”

It made more sense to make it an oral biography, where Bob’s voice, and the voices of a few hundred people, could form a story about his life. And because of the nature of his films, where overlapping dialogue was one of his signatures, an oral biography, with all these voices conflicting, agreeing, arguing, and telling stories, seemed like the way to go.

Why did Altman want to write the book?
For money. Bob was a fantastic spender, and a terrible saver. The publisher offered enough money to turn his head. But deep down, he loved talking about the movies he made.

What lessons did you learn from him?
Never give up. One of the actors he worked with was Michael Murphy. Michael summed it up beautifully: “Bob was never defeated. Nothing could defeat this guy.” He was 45 before he had his first real success, with M.A.S.H. And then over the next 35 or so years, he had huge ups and crushing downs, but he just kept going. Other people would have crawled into a fetal position, given up, and you never would have heard from them again. He just kept plowing forward.

In the 1970s this guy was on top of the world. He was one of the most powerful directors in Hollywood. But between alienating Hollywood, doing things his own way, and not delivering the kind of blockbusters Hollywood loves, they wrote him off. They were done with him by 1979.

How did he make his way back?
He spent the ’80s reinventing himself, filming plays, filming TV, doing one of the first brilliant HBO series, which people forget — he wrote Tanner 88 with Garry Trudeau, who made Doonesbury. And when the ’90s come, he makes this series of brilliant movies and is again suddenly the hottest director. He’s the same guy, because he didn’t have to change.

I think that’s such a great lesson. Very few of us have the ability to be fearless in the pursuit of our dreams. Bob Altman was fearless.

What were his hallmark films?
He goes from M.A.S.H., this raucous comedy, to McCabe and Mrs. Miller, a brilliant western that’s about the real West. Then he makes Nashville, about modern times, race and celebrity, war and politics, all wrapped up in this amazing story about country music. In between he does his take of an old detective movie in The Long Goodbye. That’s what made him extraordinary.

Why was he labeled a maverick?
Because he knew how Hollywood made movies, and he did it the opposite way. Whatever people expected, he gave them something else. And personally he was a maverick, because he just didn’t take anybody’s crap. He spoke his mind, and sometimes he got into fights with studios. He didn’t care who was paying the bills. It was his project. He was the director. And so in a place where it really pays to get along, Bob Altman didn’t get along. He didn’t play nicely in the Hollywood sandbox.

Can you share some stories about the people you interviewed?
Tim Robbins was so amazing — going to his house in Manhattan, having him do his impressions of Bob, and then his impressions of himself, talking about how they were high when they figured out the ending of The Player. He’s one minute playing himself, one minute playing Bob, and then playing three other people. And he was giving such a performance that Susan Sarandon heard what was going on and came into the study just to sit next to me and watch Tim performing. That made up for the fact that when I first got there, their dog peed on my foot.

I don’t want to be cheeky, but one of my dreams was to have breakfast with Julianne Moore (CFA’83). And in a completely platonic way, I got to experience that. So meeting her for breakfast and having her talk about her bottomless scene in Short Cuts was a very memorable morning.

What would you advise students based on your experience writing the book?
When I first started flying around the country on my own dime, it was just because I loved it and it was an opportunity to follow a passion. I didn’t worry so much that there wasn’t a contract in place. Because I went after what I believed would make a great book, I got the opportunity when Bob died to write this. So, much as you need to be calculating to an extent, sometimes just let your passions take you where they go. And you’ll find the story.

Why do you love Altman’s films?
I was a kid when I saw M.A.S.H., which wasn’t even first-run, and its attitude about authority, bureaucracy, and war captivated me. I kept seeing other movies of his, and they all had this undercurrent of something that’s hard to characterize. A little bit of antiauthority, but it was more than that. It was his vision. I don’t think you ever come out of an Altman movie not knowing you saw something different.

Mitchell Zuckoff will speak about his book on Wednesday, October 28, at 7 p.m. at the Comley-Lane Theater, Mahoney Hall, UMass Lowell, 870 Broadway, Lowell, as part of the Concord Book Festival, and on Monday, November 2, at 6 p.m. at the Boston Public Library Rabb Lecture Hall, 700 Boylston St., Boston.

Robin Berghaus can be reached at berghaus@bu.edu.

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