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Interview with Robert Altman

T. PETERSBURG BEACH, Fla. - The old hotel rises next to the sea like a birthday cake on an acid trip. It is pink and white and impossibly ornamented with towers and gables, and out in front there are these enormous 6-foot lemons and bananas and watermelons. The hotel is named the Don CeSar Beach Hotel, and no cost was spared when it was constructed just in time to go bankrupt in the Depression. It sat empty for years, It housed Navy officers during the war, it was restored to its former grandeur in 1970, and now Robert Altman is shooting his next movie here.

How did he find it? "I found it in the Yellow Pages," Altman says. "I really did. We were looking for a place to stay while we scouted locations for the movie, and there it was. Our location."

The gigantic watermelons are props for a scene that was shot a few days earlier. The name of the movie is "Health," it's about a national convention of health-food enthusiasts, and the watermelons served as props for the Dick Cavett Show. Cavett was filmed interviewing the leading candidates for the presidency of the health food organization.

Altman describes his candidates with relish: "There's Lauren Bacall. She plays an 82-year-old food nut that looks 30 years younger because of all the good food she eats. There's Glenda Jackson, who is the head of the Purity ticket and is holier-than -thou and dresses like a nun on safari. And then there's a splinter ticket led by Paul Dooley, who has discovered a way to use radical nutrition to breathe underwater. He conducts his campaign from the bottom of the pool."

"Health" has a few dozen more speaking roles, and will be one of those major Robert Altman movies like "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," "Nashville" and "A Wedding" in which the characters are gradually introduced to us as we get a sense of the community they form. In the case of "Health," the community lasts only as long as the convention, although some of the characters have been fond enemies for years. The conventioneers also include James Garner, Carol Burnett, Henry Gibson, Mina Kolb and Ann Ryerson.

And, by the way...could we say that this convention is connected in any way with the presidential nominating conventions coming up in 1980? Altman grins. "In a sense," he says, "we invented Jimmy Carter when we made 'Nashville.' It was about a populist candidate from the South, and so on. I guess we can catch up with him now. 'Health' is about health food and conventions and...whatever you want to make of it."

We're talking in Altman's office, In a suite of the Don CeSar. Shooting is over for the day and the director is unwinding with a glass of Scotch and water. He holds court like this many nights, talking until midnight or so - although tonight a screening is scheduled for later. Scattered around the room are his writer, his assistant director, his assistant producer, and a few actors like Paul Dooley who've wandered in to shoot the breeze.

Tonight, though, Altman has converted the office into a battle station, and is declaring war on the St. Petersburg teamsters who are the drivers on the picture. Because of a contract so bizarre, complex and specialized he claims he has never before laid eyes on a document quite like it, Altman is paying the teamsters on his picture more than anyone else is getting except for the stars, the cameraman, and Altman.

"They start with a $175 per diem," he says, "and they go on double-time at 5 o'clock and triple-time at midnight, and some of them are making $2,000 a week, just to drive a station wagon. What makes it worse is that this picture doesn't move anywhere. We're all here at the hotel. It's not like we had to he driven out someplace in the country. I've talked to the lieutenant governor about it, and if we don't get some action I'm gonna take out a full page in Variety and advise the industry not to shoot in Florida..." Every cloud has, however, a silver lining, and Altman has found an enormous supply of free extras in St. Petersburg Beach. There are scenes like the outdoor taping of the Dick Cavett Show at which Altman needs several hundred people to mill about in the background, and the locals turned up obligingly after be issues a call.

"This place has the oldest average population of anyplace I think I've ever been," he said, sipping his Scotch. "I swear half the people on the streets are in their 90s. They're so manageable as extras. They stand where you ask them to, they don't talk when they're not supposed to. They've been programmed right into the middle-class slavery of America. They worked all their lives, saved, retired down here, and now they're stunned by the total lack of anything to do. Standing around as an extra is a big day for them."

Altman's assistant, Scotty Bushnell, checked in just then with news from California: CBS was still reviewing a controversial scene in Altman's "California Split" to decide if it could be aired on the network.

"This CBS thing,'' Altman said, "has developed into the most amazing farce. They called up to say they were taking out the scene between the two lesbians. Whoa! I say. What lesbians? There aren't any lesbians in the picture. They describe the scene. It's the two hookers. They're comforting each other. Now that they're safely not lesbians, CBS is deciding the hooker question. Inflamed minds. If two women touch one another, to CBS they're lesbians."

Altman's assistant director, a Chicagoan named Bob Dahlin, turned up to discuss the next day's shooting. The scheduled scene involved a long campaign speech that Glenda Jackson was going to deliver from one of the hotel's gaudy parapets.

"Glenda is just amazing," Altman said, shaking his head in wonderment. "We're going to shoot her from the ground, so we won't be able to see if she has a script or not. So we offered to just write out the speech on cue cards and she could read it. No, she says, she'd rather memorize would sound better that way. And in order to even give the speech, she has to get up, in that tower, which means crawling on her hands and knees through 20 yards of pigeon crap. The British turn out amazing actors."

That brought him around eventually, to another subject: The success of "A Wedding" in Europe.

"It's a big hit over there," he said. "It's setting records in France. It did all right here, but there it's a bit. I guess that has to be our vindication. But here's a funny thing. Carol Burnett is getting terrific reviews for the picture, but the Europeans don't know who she is - they don't get her television show. So they call her my 'discovery.' One critic said she was a 'Shelley Duvall type.' "

Altman shook his head, rose, led a parade down the hallway to the screening room he has had constructed in the hotel. Most directors jealously guard their "dailies" - the rushes of scenes shot the day before. But Altman positively encourages his collaborators to sit in as he looks at the film fresh back from the lab. The room was half filled as he arrived; the lights went down and the screen began almost immediately. And sitting in the dark, watching the images on the screen, talking in a low voice with his editor about choices to be made, laughing sometimes, Altman became, with his cast and crew, the first audience of "Health." It was almost as if they were making the movie for themselves - which, of course, is the way it's supposed to feel.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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