LOS ANGELES - Robert Altman is in an unsettled frame of mind these days. He has moved his Lion's Gate Films out to a large, nondescript factory building in West Los Angeles, and there he sits and broods about the current state of the American film industry. "We are adrift," he declares. "There is nobody at the helm. There is no rudder. The bridge is cut off from the rest of the ship. You don't negotiate with them anymore. You plea bargain."
Altman's nautical images are inspired, no doubt, by the six months he has just spent filming "Popeye" on location in Malta. But his depression is caused by the fate of his previous film, "Health," which he says is being held hostage by the 20th Century-Fox Film Corp. The film, a comedy about a convention to elect the next president of a national health food association, was shot in Florida in 1979. It was ready to be released this summer, in time for the political conventions. It still sits on the shelf at Fox.
And Altman sits on a footstool in his new headquarters, sips from a scotch and soda, and talks about it. On the wall behind him are the framed posters of some of his hits: "M*A*S*H" and "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" and "Nashville." But he sounds half-serious when he wonders, out loud, whether he'll make another film after "Popeye."
"The situation that 'Health' finds itself in ought to be some kind of a warning," he says. "Briefly, the studio doesn't like it. It was made under the previous management at Fox, which didn't like it, and the current management hadn't even seen it until recently. Now they don't know if they'll release it.
The mathematics are simple. It was a $6 million film. If they keep it on the shelf it can be carried on their books as a $6 million asset and make them all look good for the stockholders. If they release it and it fails, it's a $6 million loss. "What they've offered me, in negotiations, is a chance to open the film in one city and see how it does. But it takes three weeks to see how a picture does, and then several more weeks to line up bookings in other major cities, and by then the moment has passed. This is a comedy about a political convention, and it obviously should have come out in July or August." Altman says he made a counter-offer to the studio, to sneak preview the film in four cities, using his own advertising campaign instead of the studio's - which he hates. If at least 70 percent of the sneak preview audiences rank "Health" as "excellent" or "good," then the movie would have a wider release. Altman is still waiting for a reply.
"All I really want now for the film is a mercy killing and a decent burial," he says. "I think it's a good film and I'd like people to see it. So many movies have gone down the tubes this summer that mine might as well have a chance."
Altman says his troubles with Fox are symptomatic of a general malaise in Hollywood. Many of the major studios are being run by people with little practical knowledge or experience about the movie industry, he says. Lacking sound instincts about what the public will buy at the box office, they try to protect their flanks by making advance sales to pay-cable systems, video disk distributors, and other markets willing to pay up front for movies not yet made. But those secondary markets are only interested in "safe" projects with established stars, so it's getting more and more difficult to float an original project or a movie starring unknowns.
The stars of "Health," however, are hardly unknown: Altman's cast includes Carol Burnett, James Garner, Lauren Bacall and Glenda Jackson. "So what do they say?" Altman asks. "They say they want to sell it directly to TV, because Carol's big on TV. That damages my position, because I am not yet in the business of directing made-for-TV movies. And it hurts all the stars because they worked on small salaries against a percentage of the box office, and now there wouldn't be any box office."
Altman is talking in his office, a large, long room on the second floor of a building that was formerly used to manufacture airplane seats. He gets up and leads the way downstairs for a tour of his facilities, which include the most advanced movie sound system in Hollywood. Lion's Gate Sound is his pride and joy, a facility that has already done the sound tracks for such non-Altman projects as "Roadie." It's an incredible 32-track system with a console that resembles the command deck of Starship Enterprise and can create sound tracks of a complexity undreamed of before the system was unveiled.
In addition to his sound mixing studio, Altman has a sound stage in the works. And the building houses his semi-permanent staff of assistants, associates, collaborators and proteges. By the time Altman arrives at his screening room for a private preview showing of scenes from "Popeye," maybe half a dozen people are following him.
We camp out on the floor or in director's chairs and watch rough cut footage from the big musical Altman's been shooting since late 1979. "Popeye" will star Robin Williams (with amazingly realistic forearm bulges, just like in the comic strip) as the legendary sailor. Shelley Duvall, who surely was born to the role, will be Olive Oyl, and Paul Dooley is Wimpy. The scenes we see (kidnappings, barroom brawls, Popeye becoming a lodger at Olive's family rooming house, Popeye discovering the incredible truth about his father, Wimpy polishing off countless hamburgers) are high-spirited, filled with vitality, and there is an intriguing roughness about some of them, as if Altman had deliberately stayed away from the canned and packaged feel of a lot of movie musicals.
If "Health" is all but a lost cause, Altman obviously feels "Popeye" is not. But he has no idea what he'll do next. "I sincerely doubt that you could get a good small dramatic film made today," he says. "It looks like the only pictures of any value in the next few years will be independent productions - on everything else, they're selling the deal, not the movie.
I don't know if I'll make another film. I'd sure like to. I have three projects, but I don't know where to take them. The first project, there's probably a chance I could get it sold because it's about women. A hot topic. The second project would be a serious study of professional bodyguards: Who were those five guys they killed when they kidnapped Moro? The third project...it's sort of like 'M*A*S*H,' and even after 10 years, that's still the film they think of when they see me coming. They want another one. I mention 'M*A*S*H,' and the project looks hot.
"But...I dunno. In some circles I'm the kiss of death. Now I understand they're even blaming me for the poor box office for Clint Eastwood's 'Bronco Billy.' Too many people saw the ads and confused the movie with my 'Buffalo Bill and the Indians,' they say." He performs a somewhat hollow chuckle.