Actor Keith Carradine and director Alan Rudolph met over 40 years ago when they were both employed by the late, great Robert Altman. They went on to make six films together, starting with 1976's "Welcome to L.A." and continuing through "The Moderns," "Choose Me," "Trouble in Mind," "Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle," and most recently "Ray Meets Helen." Rudolph's work is the subject an ongoing retrospective at New York's Quad Cinema. I was lucky to be able to spend an hour with the two of them last week. A transcript follows.—MZS
1. A STAR TO ME
Do you remember how you two first met?
AR: I think it was both.
KC: But that was casual, because I was not in either of those pictures. Alan worked on both of them, and I would come and visit and say hi.
AR: But you were like, a star to me! [Laughing] I would go, “Oh God, if he’s not famous, he will be!”
But you know where we really connected? I can tell you exactly when it was. It was when we went out to shoot the album covers on “Nashville.”
KC: That’s right. That’s right. Alan was second unit director, but it was before we shot the movie…and we were doing the album covers [for the opening credits], me and Christine Raines and Alan Nichols, and we were playing [the characters] Bill and Mary and Tom.
AR: The photos!
AR: And when I wrote “Welcome to L.A.,” it was for Keith.
KC: And then we did “Choose Me.” He came to NYC and I was doing Foxfire here. We went out to dinner, and Alan says, “Listen, you want to make another movie?” And I say, “Yeah.”
He says, “Here’s the deal: [talent manager] Shep Gordon and Teddy Pendergrass have got this song.” Teddy needed [financial] help because he’d had his accident, and he had this wonderful song. Alan said, “The song is called ‘Choose Me,” so that’s what we’re gonna call the movie. I haven’t written it yet.”
KC: And then Alan said, “What do you want to do?” And I said to him, “God, you know what I’d like to do?” He said, “what?” And I said, “Can you write and let me do everything nobody lets me do?”
And that’s what he did!
I’m curious as to what Robert Altman didn’t let you do, because it seems like he let you do a lot.
KC: Well, I got to do a lot for Bob. But in "Choose Me," what Alan wrote for me was a kind of a classic leading man role, which I had never been given to do.
It was kind of a Paul Newman part, now that you mention it.
KC: It was! It had mystery to it, the guy was handy, he could fire right, he could do all this stuff.
I watched the movie again recently, and I wrote some of the hero’s skills down here, because it was so funny to me, seeing so many of them piled onto a single character. You’re playing a guy who was a poetry teacher, a photographer, and an ex-soldier...
KC: And a spy!
That’s right! A spy, too.
KC: And everything else.
AR: Don’t forget he was a pilot.
KC: That scene where Genevieve [Bujold] looks through my scrapbook and sees all of this stuff, I’ll never forget somebody saying to me who’d seen the movie, “I loved in the movie when she saw your scrapbook and she went, ‘Oh my god, you weren’t a liar at all! You’d actually done all that stuff!’ And I said, “How do you know he wasn’t a liar?” [Laughing] They said, “Well, there it was! The pictures,” and I said, “Yeah, but we made those for the movie. The guy could’ve made them up, so how do you know?”
2. IMPOSING A NARRATIVE
AR: "The Moderns" was the first idea for a screenplay [we could do together], and I wrote a pretty bad draft when I began.
KC: By the time we finally got to do that movie, we’d been trying to do it for 12 years.
What was your fascination with that subject matter?
AR: I just thought, there’s probably a romantic appeal to Paris in the twenties, but there was one book I'd read about it somewhere along the line that I read that kind of broke the myth down. It wasn’t necessarily a novel. I think it was kind of a historical book. But after I read it, I started to realize that, “Oh, everyone thinks Paris in the ‘20s was the birth of modern art, and this is where the world changed, and it’s never really like that. History is never what people recall. It’s usually a bunch of anonymous things that happened that somebody then redefines later as one thing." You know?
They impose a narrative on it.
AR: Exactly. You’re the journalist, so you can say that!
So, I started doing research – not real research, because I’m not smart enough to do real research – but I’d get art books and I’d look at them, and if you do that, you realize all the breakthrough art, the real “modern” art, was done around 1906-07. Cubism was earlier even, and [Paul] Cezanne [and the Impressionists] were earlier than that. The ‘20s was when it became popular. The scene in 'The Moderns' where the guy says, “This doesn’t match my wallpaper”—well, that’s what Paris in the ‘20s was. It was when the money came in and the Americans discovered all this amazing art. Suddenly it’s being described as the era of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald and all of this.
But the real work was already done…and the people who actually were the great artists, the breakthrough artists, Bréton and the thinkers—they left. They couldn’t take Paris in the ‘20s. They thought it was a joke. And it was, to some degree.
The unglamorous portrait of the era was what I found most striking about that film. At the time I saw it I was a college kid. There was a little art scene in my city, Dallas, and I thought, “Gosh, this movie is not terribly different from what I’m seeing right here in my hometown.”
AR: There’s no difference.
KC: The first time we tried to make “The Moderns,” we all in Paris together, I was doing this movie Michael Ritchie was directing called ‘An Almost Perfect Affair,’ with Monica Vitti and Raf Vallone. We shot in Paris for about a month. I had worked with Francine Racette, Donald Sutherland’s wife, on a Jeanne Moreau film, and we were friends. She and Donald had a three-bedroom apartment in Le Marais which I rented from them. I was staying there for the month I was shooting this movie, and Alan and Joyce [Rudolph, his producer and wife] came over. They came over and hung out with me, and basically, we were all living on my per diem while we tried to get "The Moderns" made! That was our first attempt.
I had a sketchbook and charcoal and pencil and I was copying Cezanne sketches, trying to get my hand going because that was the character. That was what he did—he was a forger. We spent a month together in Paris. It was one of the great times in my life that I remember, the time with Alan and Joyce trying to make that movie.
And of course, as it would happen a number of times, it all fell apart and ended up not happening. It wasn’t until 12 years after that that we finally got it made.
AR: Keith’s character kept getting older because we couldn’t get the movie made! [Laughs]
How did it finally get made?
AR: Did you know Jon Bradshaw at all?
KC: He was a writer for Esquire, wasn’t he?
AC: An editor. He started off as one of those gonzo journalists. Bradshaw was always going off to India to do a piece about the bandit queen or something like that. He’d go all around the world, and he was a very fascinating man. He was married to Carolyn Pfeiffer, the movie producer. And he caught wind that I wanted to do ‘The Moderns.’ We were in Paris together. We’d sit in the cafes, looking like all the phonies in ‘The Moderns,’ and one day I said, “I’m so fucking tired of discussing this movie. How are we going to get it made?”
And Bradshaw—who hated Hollywood but knew everything about it, knew all those people, went to all those parties; that’s how much he hated it—Bradshaw said, “I know a guy. I’ve heard of somebody who’s going to take over Fox as one of the executive vice presidents. They haven’t fired the other guy yet, but my sources tell me that like, Thursday, this new guy is going to take over.”
“Thursday,” I said. “You know everybody’s turned this movie down. Everybody.”
He said, “I’m going to get us on the lot.”
So we got in my car, drove to Fox, he got us on the lot, we had a parking space outside the executive office, and we waited and waited until this guy drove up about three in the afternoon and walked in there and then Bradshaw goes, “OK, that’s him!” And we go into this guy’s office, his first day on the job, and Bradshaw went right to the bar—which was always stocked for the executives, as you know—and poured himself a drink, and said, “We’ve got a movie for you!” The guy said, “Well, I’d love to read it!” And of course he turned it down.
And then Bradshaw said, “Here’s how we’re going to get this movie made.” Esquire had put "Two-Lane Blacktop" on the cover of the magazine, and Bradshaw said, “I’m going to get us on the cover of this magazine. I’m going to talk them into it, because it’s the most rejected script in Hollywood. That’s going to be our angle.” And he wanted me to give him all of our rejection letters. Well, you know, they don’t give you rejection letters in the movie business. Whenever I got a script rejected, they’d just say “no” and hang up the phone. So I said, “Bradshaw, I want to make a movie, not a trivia answer.”
Well, Jon Bradshaw was a big drinker. He was a chain smoker. Joyce taught him how to eat one vegetable. He’d never eaten a vegetable in his life. He died one day trying to get healthy on the tennis court. He was 48.
At the time of Bradshaw’s death, I had another film planned. It was actually the first and only real movie I would’ve made—big-time producers had come to me with a great script—and I just threw the whole thing out the window. I was also writing a movie for Bob [Altman] at the time, and I threw that out the window too, to make ‘The Moderns.’ I said to Carolyn, “I don’t care if we do it this movie in my living room or your backyard, we’re going to get this movie made!” And somehow we stitched [the money] together and we went to Montreal to shoot it.
[Wistfully] I think if Jon Bradshaw was still alive—
KC: —we’d still be talking about trying to make the movie!
AR: A movie about a 65-year-old painter!
KC: Set in Paris in the ‘50s!
3. NOT A BAD HAND
AR: Here’s a great story about “The Moderns” and Keith. The movie’s about a forger, right? Well, I was worried about how were actually going to get all of these paintings forged. Who was going to paint these Cezannes that get ripped apart? Who was going to do the Modigliani?
Keith was shuttling between Montreal and New York, and one day he’s in his agent’s office and he says, “I’ve got a guy you gotta call. Someone mentioned that they knew a forger, he just got out of prison. Here’s his number. He’s a Frenchman. His name is David Stein.”
We got in touch with David Stein and said, “We’re making a movie, will you do some forgeries?” He’s like, “I just got out of prison!” We explained that it was all legal, because it was for a movie. So he said, “Sure, I’d love to.”
His studio was beneath an old, derelict theater on Broadway. So I go down in there, and there’s David Stein—by the way, this isn’t the great story, I’ll get to that one in a minute—and there’s stacks of the same issue of Architectural Digest from 1985. On the cover is Donald Trump, standing in front of a [Fernand] Léger. And I said to David Stein, “Why do you have that issue?”
And he goes, “That’s my Legér in the picture.”
“You mean a forgery? Does that asshole know it?”
And he said, “No. Don’t tell anybody! People know.”
So I said, “This Trump guy bought your painting thinking it was a Legér?”
And he said, “Yeah.”
KC: Trump bought the forgery thinking it was a Legér that he got for a really good price!
AR: I said to David, “Is that how it works when people buy a Legér? You can try to get a good deal?” He said, “Yeah—but Trump got this one much cheaper!”
Now here’s the story I was gonna tell you before I told you that other story. We go to Montreal, and I want David Stein to meet Keith. It’s the week before shooting and we’re all staying in this crummy hotel. It was hotter than hell. Keith had a room at the end of the hall, he had his door open, and I said, “Have you ever seen Le Demoiselles d’Avignon?” and he said, “Not in person.” I said, “It’s a huge painting.” It was on the cover of some art magazine. I gave the magazine to Keith. “Here it is. Paint that, just to get in shape.”
So Keith, on his own, started in on it. He was just painting it on probably a 24x36 canvas. He’s just working from the magazine cover. Keith is painting at the end of the hall with his door open, with some music on. And I’m walking down this long hall with David, and we stopped in the doorway. Keith didn’t know we were there. David said, “Who’s that?” and I said, “Well, that’s Keith, he’s painting this Picasso.” And David said, “You don’t need me! That’s as good as it gets!”
And he’s right. I still have that painting!
KC: When I did d’Avignon, it was the wrong size for the painting and the wrong shape, so I had a whole extra five or six inches at the bottom that I didn’t know what to do with. So I put the Hollywood Hills and the old “Hollywoodland” sign underneath at the bottom and titled it "Le Demoiselles d’Hollywoodland." You can see it in the film for a moment.
I guess I have a pretty good eye and not a bad hand. I’m not really a painter, but I can do a copy.
Alan, before that, had given me Kees van Dongen’s "Montparnos Blues" that he was using as the model for the tone of the film. He said, “This is the movie, right here. This is the sensibility, this is the feeling.” So I copied that. But I changed it. In the original Montparnos Blues the faces are all very amorphous and nondescript, and it has five figures in it, but there are seven principal characters in the movie, so I added two more figures to the van Dongen [copy], and then I put everybody’s faces from the movie in the painting. And they actually used that as the poster.
A: You know, “Ray Meets Helen” is really good. But it’s different good from “The Moderns.” They’re both great. But this one’s a distilled movie. Everything’s right down to the bare bones. if you’re waiting for a regular movie to break out, forget it, it won’t happen.
How’s that different from everything else you’ve ever directed, though?
A: I’m glad you say that! But you probably didn’t say that after you saw the first movie of mine, or the third, did you?
Yeah, you’re right. I think the first movie of yours that I saw was “Welcome to L.A.” on cable. But I was just a kid, and you don’t make movies for kids, so of course I didn’t understand it.
AR: I once had somebody tell me that movie isn’t the kind of movie you can watch while you’re doing something else. I said, “WHAT?” [Laughs] That’s right up there with, “I loved your script—I was laughing so hard I had to pull over!”
AR: You think that’s bad? My agent saw, “Breakfast of Champions" and said [small voice]: “I’m so glad you do what you do.”
That’s right up there with “It was interesting.”
KC: [Rolls eyes heavenward] Oy!
AR: [Kurt] Vonnegut told me what his agent said about one of his books: “Well, you did it again!"
4. LONGHAND AND SHORTHAND
When an actor and director work together many times, it’s said that they develop a shorthand. My question for both of you is, what was the longhand, and how did you get it down to a shorthand?
KC: I wish I could answer that, but the truth is, I don’t think we’ve ever communicated differently than we do right now, and we’ve been communicating that way for 40 years.
How do you communicate?
KC: The thing I noticed about Alan, when we first started to get to know each other, was that I really responded to the way he sees things. He’d say something, and I'd think, “Oh—I get that.” There’s something kindred here in terms of the point of view—just how Alan sees stuff, particularly his sense of irony and humor.
AR: Irony’s dead, you know. And I’m going next. I read that in a piece about irony the other day.
KC: There were also books that we shared that we both loved, Kurt Vonnegut’s in particular. That was kind of where it started.
AR: As far as the shorthand versus the longhand, I didn’t know the longhand, whatever that as, because I had no training. If I could go back and redo that, I’d learn the longhand. But of course, that’s like saying if I could go back and do it again, I’d be taller.
AR: My respect for actors was almost an illness, because I recognize just from being the other side as an assistant director, “Whoa, they have something!” But I don’t know what it is.
Then you work with Altman, and…You know, Bob didn’t talk to actors.
KC: No. He wouldn’t talk to you. I tried to get him to talk to me on "Nashville." I tried talking to him because I had a problem. I said, “Bob, I’m not feeling good.” He said, “You’re fine, you’re fine,” and just walked away.
AR: When I was working with Bob, writing for him, and I knew I wanted to make a film, I figured, “If I just kind of hang around closer than I normally do, he’ll say whatever it is you’re supposed to say, and then I’ll pick it up and try and use it.” But he wouldn’t even talk!
[Paul] Newman said one time, “That Altman. He doesn’t talk to you, but when he does, he says two words.”
I think it was on “Buffalo Bill and the Indians,” Bob was on a crane or something, doing some shot. It was a scene with Paul and probably Sitting Bull or somebody. Bob’s back was killing him. He could barely walk. He said, “Get me down.” And I thought, “Oh God, what’s Bob doing now?” He gets off the crane, he can barely walk, but he walks over to Paul, and he goes, “Crowd him.”
And then he walks away, gets on the crane and goes back up.
Newman said later, “Best direction I ever got in my life.”
Some filmmakers go pretty far the other way, though, right?
AR: Yes! I worked with Elia Kazan for one day. I was assigned to his film “The Arrangement.” I thought he was a god. I was an assistant director trainee. It was my third job in the business. And there on set you’ve got Elia Kazan, Kirk Douglas, and Faye Dunaway. They were doing a scene with Douglas and Dunaway on a couch. They did 75 takes. I couldn’t tell the difference between 3 and 46.
I thought, “I will never make it in this movie business. I don’t know what a director would be looking for.”
I was reading about William Friedkin on "To Live and Die in L.A." He didn’t do more than four takes of anything if he could help it. There was one scene in the movie that’s all done in one shot, one of the best scenes in the movie, and the actors didn’t even know Friedkin was filming. He rolled film on a rehearsal without telling them! And on the other end of the scale you’ve got somebody like David Fincher, who does 50 to 100 takes of everything, even if it’s just a shot of a person putting a packet of Stevia in their tea.
AR: You just reminded me of that great Mike Nichols quote: “Making film is like making love. You don’t know how another person does it.”
AR: But back to what you were asking: I didn’t know any “acting” buttons to push. I didn’t have the lingo. So I just started talking about the characters as if it was real behavior. So even if the actor is playing some guy with weird hair in a fictional setting, whatever he’s saying to that lady has some meaning! I wanted it to be as if these were two people on a street corner that I just happened to be overhearing.
As a director, you’ve got to be somewhat of a psychologist and whatnot.
[To Carradine] But I’ll never be a good enough director to walk up to you and just say, “Crowd him.”
KC: It’s so simple.
AR: I’m just not advanced enough for that!
KC: Yeah, but you’ve done great by me.
All I know is, when Alan and I work together, he makes me better. I don’t know what that means, or specifically how it happens, but it happens.
5. THE GHOST OF BOB ALTMAN
AR: I’ll you one thing I didn’t learn from Bob, but that I learned by working for Bob, and that’s how to record dialogue. I worked for Bob on “California Split” during the development of the 24-track recording system. Every actor had their own mic so they could talk all over the place and then you could go mix it later.
Bob said to me, “I need a lot of extras in this movie. We’re not going to go with the extras guild. They’re all supposed to play gamblers and drug addicts and everything.”
So I went to Synanon. You know what that was?
It was a drug rehabilitation program that eventually turned into a cult.
AR: That's right. So I went to all the ex-drug dealers and ex-gamblers from Synanon and said, “You wanna play that in a movie?” We paid them $10,000 or something to use any amount of people we wanted, to have them down at the racetrack and the gambling clubs. They loved it because they could do what they were doing, but they weren’t addicted anymore. And we put mics on all of them! And Bob said, “You just create another movie around George and Elliot [with the recordings of the recovered addicts talking].” In dailies he’d bring them up. Bob loved this other movie I was making [with sound] behind the main action, you know? Real characters doing real shit.
What else did you learn from Bob?
AR: I learned that when something wasn’t working, just throw in an extra or a character that wasn’t in the script and wasn’t in the take before that, to interfere with what’s going on. You know, the scene is two people talking and you just have people bump into them in the middle of the scene. They’re not expecting it, but they keep talking.
Nobody could do that like Bob, because he was more interested in the guys who were bumping into the main actors than in whatever the scene was supposed to be about. I swear to god, half of his movies, the star is barely in the frame. He’s just on the very edge of the frame, and the movie’s all about the other stuff.
That thing Keith was talking about earlier, the thing you two share—what do you think it is?
AR: I love his heart, and his understanding of the human condition.
[To Carradine] If you were an asshole, I don’t think you’d be any good in my movies.
AR: You have to act to get through the function we’re all here for, but it’s the invisible, the stuff that you are, that is most important. Keith is cracked—which is what I like about him! But he’s got a human understanding.
And Keith has saved my ass, I can’t tell you how many times. So many times! Because everything we do together has got absolutely no money attached.
I mean, “Ray Meets Helen”—hell, you probably financed “Ray Meets Helen” and you don’t even know it! We went to your house and got into your piggy bank!
You went digging through my couch cushions?
KC: [To Rudolph; indicating the interviewer] Ya got 75 cents out of him.
AR: No, really, though: the lessons here are: A) Work with Keith, and B) Necessity is the mother of invention.
I was re-watching some of the movies you did together in preparation for this. One of the things that struck me is that you often are listening with your camera instead of telling people where to look. You pick what people are going to see and you don’t waver.
KC: No, he doesn't.
When I watch movies and a lot of TV shows that are made now, you can see that they’ve covered it with multiple cameras because every single person who speaks even a syllable gets their own close-up. You don’t really do that in your movies. You're not afraid to listen with the camera and have things happen off-screen.
AR: Well, we don’t have multiple cameras!
KC: [Laughs] No, we don't. But Alan doesn’t do that. And you know, life doesn’t do that, which is what I love about the way Alan sees things.
I learned how to work that way early because I started out with Bob, pretty much. I think the second or third film I did was “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” and I learned how to work with him right away. Bob would say, “Don’t make plans. Read the script, but don’t make a plan for what you think it’s gonna be, because that’s not what it’s gonna be.”
AR: I tell you, there are filmmakers who have probably made ten or fifteen movies, and if they were never exposed to that idea, they’re missing out on one of the great gifts of filmmaking.
You know…I’d love to keep talking about Altman.
I think it’s great you’re both still honoring the man.
AR: Well, he’s still here.
KC: He’ll always be a part of us.
AR: [Points] He’s sitting in the corner over there, going, “Listen to this bullshit!”
AR: But really...As an [assistant director], I’d done enough stuff to know how Hollywood worked and how a movie was shot, and TV. I learned my craft from the guys who were working in the ’30s and '40s, which was great. But now here’s this guy Robert Altman. You’re working with him, and you read the script and you go, “OK, that’s what we’re doing today!” And that’s your mindset, because of how you learned from the others, you know?
But that’s not the way Bob worked. You know, people are going through the scripts for Bob’s movies going, “Where is that? What page is it on?”
The last two days of shooting [“The Long Goodbye”], we were down in San Diego and then Mexico. He and Katherine took Joyce and I out to dinner. I’d been to his house several times, but this was the first time when it was just the four of us. I remember Bob and I were coming back from the men’s room, and Joyce and Katherine were sitting at the table, and I was so fascinated by something I’d just lived through and contributed to but didn’t grasp entirely, and I said to Bob, before we got to the table, “Can I ask you something? Do you always change the script this much?”
He just stopped right there and he took a look at me, and he said, with that x-ray vision of his, “I haven’t changed the script. I’m following the script.”
Now, I don’t think there’s a line of dialogue in the movie that was in the [original] script. And so I thought, “Oh...He’s telling me to go fuck myself.”
But he meant it. And I learned what he meant.
You know, later, Bob would say, “The script’s the blueprint,” or “it’s the clothesline that we hang everything on.” It’s like how I’d have to go to Nick Nolte’s room [while shooting "Breakfast of Champions"] and break down letters that characters had written to someone that aren’t even in the movie. He’d have a script in large letters, Nick did, projected on the wall and everything. Then you’d get on set and he’d completely throw it away and start behaving.
6. THE PROCESS
I’m fascinated by the different rituals that actors have. I just interviewed Giancarlo Esposito, and he told me that before he plays a role, he buys a blank notebook and begins writing down details of the character’s biography. Tom Hardy draws pictures of his characters. Do you have anything like that?
KC: [Long pause; looks interviewer in the eye] No.
So your process is “Eh.”
KC: No, my process is [waves hand in the air dismissively].
AR: The truth is that Keith has a photographic memory. If you write a new scene, even if it’s five pages, he’d walk away for two minutes and then walk back in: “Got it.” And that’s it.
KC: What I was really going to say about my process is, I just want the result to be the truth.
AR: Like Spencer Tracy.
KC: And if it’s the truth, we’ll be OK. However I can get to that, however I can glean what that is and make sure I’m not lying, that’s all that matters.
It’s funny, my old man—golden age of Hollywood and all of that—he had a thing that he liked to say: “Acting is a subject about which a great deal may be learned, none of which may be taught.” I always understood what he meant by that.
I came to New York City and began my professional life as an actor in the Broadway cast of “Hair.” But right before that, I was in this acting class with my brother David and a buddy of ours named Jeff Cooper. Sharon Tate was in that acting class too. Justin Smith was the teacher. I remember doing a few scenes in that class, and I don’t remember anything from it.
AR: Except who was in it!
KC: Except who was in it. And also one other thing, which is: at some point, I decided that I was four or five years old again and playing Make Believe. And somehow, I managed to figure out how to just keep on doing that.
An even better description I heard was from Gary Busey’s kid Jake. He was visiting Gary on a set. I think Jake was six or seven years old. He was watching his dad work and he said to him at one point, “Dad, I know what acting is. You’re pretending, only you’re pretending you’re not pretending.”
That’s a great way of putting it.
KC: It’s genius.
People often ask me, “Well, who do you model this character on?” Unless I’m playing an actual person who existed, or exists, I can honestly say nobody, because it’s fiction. All I try to do is find whatever part of me—whatever my honest behavior would be, if that was where I was and what I’d be doing—and try to put that on the screen.
AR: [Noticing a publicist waving at him] I think we’re being kicked out!
KC: You know we could do this all day.
I bet you could!
KC: [Grins at Rudolph] I never see this guy, you know? The best thing about all of this was he came to me with a script for a new movie, all I cared about was hanging out with him, and so of course I said yes. And here’s the result! I get to hang out with Alan.