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How did Robert Altman stay in business?

Director Robert Altman poses for a portrait during the Sarasota Film Festival in April 2006

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

MARK AUSTIN THOMAS: The recent death of director Robert Altman has caused film critics to speak wistfully about his unique independent style. He was loved by actors but not always popular with studios. Altman was that rare breed of director, like Woody Allen, whose films often didn't make lots of money but always drew a loyal following. Mike Speier is Managing Editor at Daily Variety. I asked him how a director gets work in Hollywood when many of his pictures don't make very much money.

MIKE SPEIER: It's a great question, and it's a weird question because a lot of people wouldn't be able to do that now, but Robert Altman has a history. He has a backlog of films that people adore and that alone allows people to say 'I want to be in the Robert Altman business' because of the history.

THOMAS: You know, he wasn't very political, he didn't seem to care about courting favors with studio heads at all.

SPEIER: No. Not at all. Not at all. He was famous for his battles with anyone in a suit and especially in the 1970s where, you gotta remember that's where Robert Altman made his name was the '70s with Nashville and with M*A*S*H and all those movies that were kind of against the establishment and that's where he made his mark. And so he tried to carry that into the '80s and the '90s. When the movie business changed and became conglomerized, he was kind of left out in the cold. While he still made movies, people didn't quite listen to him as much any more.

THOMAS: Altman made great art, he didn't chase the dollar. Is there a lesson here or did he just hit his stride in a different time, different era?

SPEIER: Hit his stride in a different era, and the big movies did make some money. I mean they were critically acclaimed beyond nay films of their time. He was one of those mavericks of the '70s like Scorsese, like Coppola, people that made movies that critics liked and that the people went to. The problem is that, later on when the Spider-Mans came around and when Star Wars changed the method of filmmaking to be the blockbuster, there were then divisions of people and there were people who said, 'look it's a business, we need to make money and support our stockholders and our huge overhead.' And then there are those small movies which we adore and Robert Altman's in that category.

THOMAS: You mentioned M*A*S*H. It seems like M*A*S*H is a contradiction to the Altman image. It made a lot of money, it led to a very popular TV show, and it's probably the film he's best known for.

SPEIER: Right and good for him, but after that he only made a few more of those. And again you have to go back to M*A*S*H, Nashville, The Player. Those are like the three key Robert Altman movies in his oeuvre because those are the ones that a lot of people know off the top of their heads. Then he made, recently, a lot of movies that nobody wanted to see, but of course he came back with Gosford Park a few years ago which was nominated for a lot of Academy Awards. So every time he made a few really big stinkers like Dr. T and the Women or The Company, which no one saw, then he would come back with a movie that said 'oh boy he's still around.'

THOMAS: I actually like the Women, but I notice you didn't mention Prairie Home Companion.

SPEIER: No, no, but that's a very unique case, A Prairie Home Companion, because it exemplified the type of business that surrounds Robert Altman, which is he can get any actor in the world. He got Meryl Streep, he got Lindsay Lohan, he can get anybody. Everyone has nothing but good things to say about him — the creative community. Now the company that made the movie, Picturehouse, was a new company, this was their first movie to come out of there. When I say big, that's what I mean because a Robert Altman "big movie" is A Prairie Home Companion.

THOMAS: Mike Speier is Managing Editor for Daily Variety. And in Los Angeles, I'm Mark Austin Thomas. Thanks for joining us. Have a great weekend.

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