Previously Unpublished: A Highly Altman-centric Interview with Bob Balaban
I don’t pretend to speak for all freelance writers, predominantly because there are more than a few folks in my field who are way, way more successful than I am, but one of my biggest problems used to be that I’d get an opportunity to talk to someone, take advantage of that opportunity, only to suddenly find myself in a situation where I had no place to run the resulting interview…or, more specifically, nowhere to run it that would’ve been cost-effective for me to take the time to transcribe it and lay it out.
If that sounds cold, I apologize, but if you need to pay your mortgage and a paying gig comes up, well, what are your options, really? You have to set aside the interview that doesn’t pay in favor of something that does pay.
I say it used to be one of my biggest problems because these days I try not to put myself in a position where it happens, because I hate to leave publicists hanging after they’ve been kind enough to set up the conversations. When you think you’re going to be able to sell a piece and you suddenly discover that you can’t… Well, let’s just say that it doesn’t make them very happy. Plus, it also makes me feel extremely guilty, because I certainly intended to place the piece…and who would’ve thought I’d have trouble placing an interview with Bob Balaban talking (predominantly) about Robert Altman?
The conversation was tied to the release of the 2014 documentary Altman, and somewhere around here I’ve also got an interview with Kathryn Altman for the same project, so you can probably expect to see that pop up on here sometime in the semi-near future. For now, though, it’s just Bob…and this is not a bad thing, I can assure you.
Before we get into the interview proper, this is a word-for-word transcription of the back-and-forth that went down before we began:
"Hi, Will, it's Bob."
"Hi, Bob. How are you?"
"I'm good. How are you?"
"I'm doing well. It's a pleasure to speak with you."
"I'm eating toast. If it bothers you, I'll stop."
"No, no, I'm not very easily offended. You're okay."
It just feels right, doesn’t it? I mean, really, to my mind, it’s about as Balabanian as a back-and-forth gets.
Okay , on with the interview!
The first time - and, actually, the only time - you appeared in one of Robert Altman's films was Gosford Park, but my guess is that you ran in similar-enough circles to have at least crossed paths with him prior to that.
I knew him pretty well. We were friends at that point, which is why the movie could happen. I'd known him... I met him when I was about 22. He interviewed me for Brewster McCloud, which - thank God - he had Bud [Cort] do. But it was great meeting him. And then we had a lot of mutual friends, and I ended up in his screening rooms. I remember going to the screening of the David Rabe play Streamers. I remember I went on the set - because Tim Robbins is a friend of mine - and I would go and watch him filming The Player. He would invite me to dailies.
He was, as you probably know, because it's famous by now, one of the few directors - and possibly one of the only directors - who basically invited anybody to dailies that he saw that he thought would enjoy watching them. [Laughs.] He just loved it. It was ostensibly a social experience, but I also think it was a very interesting learning experience for him to just sit with people who didn't necessarily tell you anything or do Joe Farrell screenings where they give you cards to fill out. He was just, like, "What does it feel like to be in a room with different people? Let's see how they're reacting to things. It's a great thing to do!" He was very, very open about all of that stuff. I made a very modest little 20-minute short documentary about him for television called Directors on Directors and had a wonderful time. We spent a day together in Savannah, and he let me dog him around and ask him questions and watch him preparing for the night shoot and do a location scouting, and then I hung around with him on the set and cobbled together a little brief thing about him that was really fun.
So when I sat in my office in New York about 12 years ago and was reading some Agatha Christie and thought, "Wouldn't it be interesting to see Robert Altman directing an Agatha Christie movie?" And then I made a lunch date with him and said, "Would you ever like to do something like that?" And I laid out the barest of circumstances, and he said, "That's pretty interesting, but I'm more interested in the servants. I'm not that interested in those fancy people." I said, "Well, why don't you just have it be from the servants' point of view, and it's kind of like Upstairs, Downstairs as a murder mystery in England in 1932?" And he liked that idea. And then I dragged in Julian Fellowes, because I had worked with him. Unknown though he was, we had a mutual friend, and Julian had done a rewrite for me on an Anthony Trollope novel [Eustace Diamonds] that I was trying to make, and he did a great job. And then I wasn't supposed to be in the movie, but at the last minute Robert said, "Well, we can't find anybody who's available to go to England for these 10 weeks, so why don't you do it? You'd be a funny American movie producer." So I was the funny American movie producer, and I played that.
As a director yourself, what did you learn from Altman on that front?
Well, I guess I kind of suspected it, but one of the biggest surprises was that he was unbelievably happy, relaxed, and focused, and easily concentrated on the set. I suspect it was the happiest time of his life when he was actually shooting. But it was not chaotic. There was no feeling of the bustling energy that was in the frames. What there was is a massively powerful director at the helm who never had to express power or act out power. Because he was powerful, and he knew what he wanted. And it's a great feeling when you're trying to control 120 people and you can do it with the batting of an eyelash because everybody loves you and wants to do what will make you happy, not because you're afraid of them. It's a great thing. So that was kind of a surprise. I didn't know what that would be like. I'd watched him on sets three or four times before, but not long enough to really get a real sense of the depth of that relaxation and contentment that exuded from him on the set. So that was great. I loved his shooting style, so I have attempted to emulate that when possible when I direct. [Hesitates.] What was the question? What did I learn from him?
Right, as a director.
I also watched the ease with which he could absorb 28 principal characters. I had to sit there with my cheat sheet. Who's married to her? Who's the Count? What part was that? Where did she live? It was as if there was a memory chip embedded. And he loved large amounts of characters. He knew exactly how they were different, he could work with them, he could have improvisational sessions with them, so now he knew who their other relatives were that you didn't even hear about in the movie. It's really just his nature to... [Hesitates.] I don't know if it's a psychological trait. It doesn't have a name. It's like the opposite of prosopagnosia. [Laughs.] He could just retain and love and cherish vast amounts of people who were related together.
As you know, many of Robert's movies were - to many people - really a continuing family saga, even though their hats changed, their countries changed, their accents changed. But many of them were really a family, and you were just watching a family. He didn't like to end his movies necessarily, because for him they continued, I think, in his head. I don't think they were over when they were over. And that's interesting: he who made movies that were often continuing family sagas, even though they were members of the Army, or they were all living in Gosford Park, or they were all in Nashville singing. But they were really a family. And then he brought his family with him, worked with his family, and they were completely a part of his life. Wherever he went, he was never without them. I think it's an interesting thing to watch and experience with him that there was no line drawn between his being a movie director, his being a father, his being a husband. It was all one thing.
You said you had the opportunity to watch him on sets a few times. Do you recall which one was the first?
I'm trying to remember. Maybe The Player. I think I saw dailies of Streamers. I know I saw cuts of it. And The Gingerbread Man, and...I forget what else. Oh, and I saw footage... I wasn't on the set, but I think I saw Cookie's Fortune footage as well, because I knew him pretty well by that point.
With the episode of Directors on Directors you mentioned, it must've been at least a little intimidating to know that you were - at least technically - directing Robert Altman.
Well, I didn't direct him. As the somewhat untrained and modest documentarian that I was, what I really wanted to do was somewhat contrary to the assignment, as I could hardly call myself a director in the presence of Robert Altman. I tried to stay out of the way as much as possible. And I do have some lovely reminiscences of him on set, just watching him with his family. Stephen, his son, being the production designer, and another one of his sons being the camera operator, which is a very critical thing to entrust your son to do. My God, I'd be terrified. [Laughs.] One slip of the finger, and you've ruined an entire scene by being out of focus. You've got to be perfect all the time. But he wasn't. It would've been intimidating, except that I was already intimidated, so there was no new intimidation.
Like Altman's children, you came from a family with a history in the entertainment business.
Mm-hmm. In a very different way, but yes.
Indeed. But did you always have an interest in the business, as it were?
No, I didn't know anything about the movie business. But I loved movies. And I was a puppeteer. My firsthand experience... Until I was 10, I would go with my father to collect box office receipts from various theaters that they owned in Chicago, and I'd watch pieces of movies, always wishing I could stay more.
I went to screenings of movies. I saw I Am a Camera, which very few people have ever seen anyway. It's based on The Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood. It's the precursor to Cabaret. It starred Julie Harris. When I was eight, I went to see it. It was an unrated movie, because it didn't pass the censorship code. [Laughs.] And after the movie, I said to my mother, "What was bad about this movie, Mom? I didn't there was anything too exciting about it." And she said, "Well, you know, when they say things like, 'I loved making love to you,' it means they actually had sex." "Oh. I guess I get it..." So I never really understood that.
I was on a film set when I was 10. My grandfather was at MGM during the musical years and produced a lot of interesting things, and Singing in the Rain, I think, was one of the last movies he was involved in producing. But they were doing a movie called Meet Me in Las Vegas, and I got to watch a giant movie being shot firsthand from my own little director's chair that they had made for me. And it was quite influential. I never recovered from that.
As far as your acting career, you had kind of left-of-center choices in both films and theater at the beginning, but was that by design or circumstance?
I'm surprised that you'd notice I did anything at the beginning. [Laughs.] I wish I had a more rational explanation for what interests me, but...I'm just interested in whatever I happen to be interested in! There's no rhyme or reason. I probably have some actual more logical thoughts when I'm looking to direct or produce something now.
I'm hopefully going to be directing and producing a movie based on John Updike's novel Gertrude and Claudius in Denmark next spring. We hope. It's the prequel to Hamlet, and it's really interesting, and I think it'd be a terrific movie. We're tiptoeing with the Danish government and possibly shooting at Elsinore Castle. And it's Shakespeare's 400th anniversary of the first performance of Hamlet next year, I believe. and we hope to be able to make it and then have it out in time to help celebrate it.*
*Sadly, Gertrude and Claudius has yet to come to fruition. But, hey, there’s still the 410th anniversary!]
You mentioned the fact that you at least talked to Altman about Brewster McCloud, but I know that you actually worked with the film’s eventual star, Bud Cort, back in Strawberry Statement.
Yes, I did. Bud and I were good friends. I would be good friends with him now, but we don't live anywhere near each other.
Were you doing predominantly theater until Close Encounters of the Third Kind?
I was certainly doing theater. I used to be in one play after another for a bit of time.
Did you always have a goal to make your way in front of the camera, or were you happy doing theater?
Uh, my goal is to stay alive and work. I'm not that refined.
So to jump back to your directing career, your first time behind the camera was - I think - the TV movie The Brass Ring.
Mmm. It used to be called Only My Mouth is Smiling. They changed that title. I'm not sure my name was even on it.* It was one of the first things I directed, although I had made a short film before that that got some awards. It's very modest, but it did get me some jobs. And I directed the pilot for the television series Tales from the Darkside. And probably a few other little things. But that was certainly one of the first things I did, yeah.
*As it turns out, Balaban’s name is not on The Brass Ring, although if you’re of a mind to watch it, it is on YouTube.
How did you find your way into directing in the first place?
I worked with Sidney Lumet in Prince of the City, and when it was over, I said, "I'd love to apprentice myself to you, because I really want to learn how to do what you're doing." I'd gone to film school, I'd taken editing courses, and made little absurd short films, but never seriously. So I was so excited by watching Sidney direct Prince of the City and by being in the movie. And he said, "Sure! Come watch!"
So I spent five months dogging him around on Deathtrap, through pre-production, all through production, and then ending up in the cutting room and seeing the first preview. So my wife wrote me a short film, and I made the short film and realized instantly - although I didn't put it into words - that I was so happy to be doing it. Even though it was an impossible experience with no money, we were rushing, and we had no resources, it was great. So I guess I got bitten. I mean, I don't do it that much, but I do it whenever I can.
And I know you've gotten the high sign, so I'll bring it full circle and close with this: do you have a favorite Robert Altman film that you consider to be underrated?
Um... A lot of them, I think. I tend to like all of them. Maybe 3 Women is somewhat underrated? But I think it's great.
Excellent. Well, it's been very nice to talk to you again, Bob. We chatted a few years back, when Close Encounters first made it to Blu-ray.
Oh, gosh, yeah.
And now my daughter is old enough that she can start to read your McGrowl books.
Oh, that's very sweet. Thank you! Well, I hope we talk again. Take care!
Post-script: When Bob and I were talking about his earliest directorial efforts, he mentioned the pilot for Tales from the Darkside and “probably a few other little things.”
Well, as it turns out, one of those “other little things” was a project that fascinates me and that I’d love to do a larger piece about someday: it’s called Invisible Thread, and it’s a 41-minute Penn and Teller film that includes appearances by - hold onto your hats - Evan Handler, Florence Stanley, Deborah Rush, Andy Warhol, Dick Cavett, G. Gordon Liddy, James Randi, Lydia Lynch, Peter Wolf of the J. Geils Band, Joe Franklin, and The Residents.
God, I loved the ‘80s…