Robert Altman: Building Story

November 27th, 2009

What follows is taken from the best book I’ve read about film since Simon Callow’s two books on Orson Welles, Robert Altman: The Oral Biography, by Mitchell Zukoff. Altman was the despair of screenwriters, whose scripts he regarded as vague suggestions, to be modified and improved by literally everyone working on the film, from the stars to the people putting out lunch.

Obviously, he’s talking about a completely different medium here, but this strikes me as a vivid picture of what writers go through when they have the courage to give their characters control of the story.

“Making a film is like painting a mural.  You’ve got this big wall to fill and you’ve got a subject, and the only difference is, as you go up there and you’re painting it, you’ve got living pigment.  So you’ve let me paint a horse over here in the upper-right-hand corner and you turn around and look back and the horse is moving across the stage and you have to quickly paint a fence.   You have to kind of control it, but you’re dealing with a living thing that’s really forming itself.  So you’re sitting up there doing damage control all the time.”

The only change I’d suggest (and believe me, I don’t put myself anywhere near Altman’s level) is you have to decide whether to paint a fence or just let the horse go and see where it winds up.  As someone who just finished (maybe) a book that the characters completely took out of my hands, that process feels very familiar.

Ring any bells with any writers out there?

3 Responses to “Robert Altman: Building Story”

  1. John Lindquist Says:

    One TV series comes to mind where the actors thought so highly and deeply of their characters that they would be alarmed at what the show’s writers would come up with from time to time – the series being the old “Stargate SG-1.” The actors probably could have ad libbed fresh episodes of their own during the writers’ strike and come up with richer character development in doing so.

    I can’t write for sour owl poop, but readers and viewers are often inspired to put their special spin on the brainchilds of others. Speaking of spin, I once dreamt that The Pleasure Fair was singing your “Counterclockwise” song (in 3/4 time!) and I regret not writing down the melody upon waking up.

  2. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Hey, John — Thanks for dropping by. I think that’s true of the “Second Generation” Star Trek series, too — I knew Patrick Stewart and he and Jonathan Frakes contributed heavily to the shaping of scripts.

    And you’re dead right about deriving inspiration from the work of others. If I hadn’t read about a dozen really superlative writers, I doubt I’d ever have had the vocabulary I needed to write my own books. So why didn’t you write down that melody??? I don’t think the Pleasure Fair recorded much in 3/4 time (only “East-West,” which we didn’t write, comes to mind). Think I’ll ask Robb.

  3. John Lindquist Says:

    A lot of times those darned melodies just vaporize.

    “Talk” (side 2, cut 5 of the Pleasure Fair LP) is in 3/4 time. I have what is possibly the complete Pleasure Fair (and Rainy Day People) in my iTunes library, and I still think “Put It Out Of Your Mind” is a masterpiece. Think I’ll play it when I’m on the air next which will be Dec. 12.

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