Monday, March 18, 2013

"Bob loves chaos, he revels in that kind of stuff and he loves to be surprised by something he doesn't expect." - An interview with Michael Murphy

There were many actors with whom Robert Altman worked with on multiple occasions, but no actor collaborated with the director as often as Michael Murphy. At the very start of his career, Murphy appeared in the Combat! TV series directed by Altman before going on to become a key player in some of his greatest films – M*A*S*H, McCabe & Mrs Miller, Nashville – and then playing the beleaguered presidential candidate in Altman's extraordinary HBO series Tanner '88. I recently had the pleasure of talking to Murphy about his long relationship with Robert Altman, and some of the other directors he has worked with during his career.

I was prompted to contact you after re-watching Tanner '88 recently to write an article marking its 25th anniversary.

Boy, the time goes fast! [laughs] 25th anniversary, huh?

The thing that really struck me about it was how modern it feels. Looking at the commentary on the political machine, the media and the spin, it could have been a show made about politics today.

Yes, very much so. He was very prescient with that whole thing. As we went out there it just evolved and that was perfect for Bob, because he was the kind of guy who just loved to let it happen. All of that press business and television was really beginning to become more and more important, and as we went along we got more into that. These days you can't even turn your TV on without getting a blast of it, I mean over here this last election was going on for three years and they're already talking about the next one! You have all those cable channels and talking heads, they all have their own ideas and most of them are wrong. One of the most interesting things I found about this last election was when Romney was beaten soundly, he was just astonished that he lost! He was so sure that he was going to win and he said it publicly, that he couldn't believe he lost.

The fun thing about Tanner is that it comes after seeing you play so many slick, untrustworthy politicians in films.

Sure, Nashville, that kind of thing.

But Tanner is a good guy. He's an idealist who just has to play a cynical game.

Yeah, he really was a good guy. It's interesting, the way it evolved. We started him out to be a good guy and an idealist, and his daughter was more cynical then he was, if you think about it, Cynthia Nixon was just out of college when she played that part. As we went along we picked up a lot of very interesting actors in Washington and New York and a lot of them played very tough writers and press people. The further along the series went the more this guy just went from pillar to post and I just sort of went with it, and Bob loves it when things change and he's surprised by what's happening. We never had a hard and fast bible we had to go by, we kept ourselves on the move, and I think this guy just got whipped until he didn't know where he was.

One of the things I love about Tanner '88, and this is true of many Altman films too, is that it often feels like it is on the very edge of chaos, and you have no idea where this thing is going to go next. What was it like to be working in the middle of that? Did you guys feel in control of the story?

Well, we were out on the road with the regular candidates, as you saw, and we never got busted by anybody. I would stand outside factories and say, "I'm Jack Tanner, I'm running for President" and they'd say "Good luck," you know, and I'd be standing there next to Bush! [laughs] He just figured I was one of the guys, I couldn't believe it. So it just took on a life of its own and of course Bob loves chaos, he revels in that kind of stuff and he loves to be surprised by something he doesn't expect. We were shooting all that stuff on video, which was before they were using video on everything, so we could have cameras everywhere. For instance, I would have my entourage and we had our cameramen there, but then we also had actors playing press guys who were shooting stuff, and sometimes the networks would shoot stuff they couldn't use so they'd send it to us. All kinds of things went on. Bob loved it, and he has said publicly, as I'm sure you've read, that he considers it his most creative work. I just wish he had been around for this last election, he would have loved it! [laughs]

I want to go back to when you first started working with him. You appeared in the TV series Combat! and I believe that was your first credit.

Yeah, it was. I had done one other little bit in this thing called Saints and Sinners with Nick Adams, and I think it was about the press or something, I can't remember exactly. I played "FBI Man No. 1" or something and I just looked around the room, but that got me into the union. When Bob put me in Combat!, that was my first real job, where I actually got to play some scenes and say some lines.

What was your first impression of him? Was his directorial style established at that stage, or was it something that developed later?

I remember going on set and asking Vic Morrow, "Do you want to rehearse this?" and he said "Oh, he's never going to shoot this stuff, don't worry about it, we'll be winging this." – What? I was just out of college, I thought you were supposed to learn your lines! [laughs] I remember we sat down for lunch out on the back lot at MGM and he said to me, "What would you say in this scene?" and I said, "What would I say?" He was just so easy and fun and relaxed, there was never any tension on his set. I remember going home and thinking, "This is too easy, it's just guys talking to each other," and there was none of the tension I learned at theatre and drama school. Of course, the more I learned that method the more difficult it became for me to work with these "normal" guys who want you to hit your marks and say your lines letter-perfect. In the movies it's all about those split-second things, it's got to be real, and that's what Bob was so good at. He was more interested in capturing human behaviour than he was in getting the lines.

I guess those qualities that made him so beloved by actors were the same ones that caused so much trouble for him with producers. You never knew what you were going to get with him and you couldn't control the outcome.

That's exactly right, you never knew what you were going to get. Tanner was a very good collaboration, because Gary Trudeau, who controls everything 100% on his comic strips, was a huge fan of Bob, and they had come to him first. He liked the idea but he didn't really want to do it, so he said, "If you can get Bob Altman to do it then I'll do it," figuring he would never do it. Bob said yes, and they were off. This thing changed daily, depending on who we would run into on the road, so Gary was faxing us lines of dialogue and scenes that we could do, and we'd do what we could with them but sometimes we'd be on a different set, or something had happened that had changed everything. Gary liked it and they had a really good collaboration, but you're exactly right, he made producers a little crazy. However, it was right on the cusp of that era when the directors had all the power, so most of those guys backed off, but he did get fired many times. He always had money problems and all this stuff and I thought "Well, he'll do a picture the way they want it and get his car back from the impound," but he never did! When he had his back against the wall he was just as much a maverick as he was when he was successful.

There's an anecdote I like from the first screening of M*A*S*H for the studio, when one of the executives apparently stood up halfway through and said, "What's he doing? This fool has got everybody talking at the same time!"

You know, the first time I witnessed that happening was actually on a movie before M*A*S*H called Countdown.

That was one he got fired from, right?

Yeah. It was very interesting, because in those days assistant directors were studio guys who were told to keep the thing running but also keep an eye on everybody, so if there was anything weird go on they had to go right to the studio and let them know what's happening on set. It was just a kind of mundane script about astronauts and Bob was interested in other stuff, for example the wives who lived on these military bases and were drinking all day, or the immaturity of these young guys racing around in their Corvettes, which of course was not the picture Jack Warner was interested in making. Of course, we were all talking all the time and overlapping each other, and we were using those little mics instead of the booms for most of the stuff. This guy apparently went back to Jack Warner and said, "They're having a lot of fun, there's a lot of laughing and carrying on, and they're all talking at the same time, it's crazy." I was sitting in a chair one day waiting to do something, I looked up, and there was Jack Warner on the set. None of the old guys at Warners had ever seen the guy, and there he was on Altman's set, poking around. He was sort of jovial about it, but when he saw the picture, not only did he think it was insane because they were all talking at the same time, he thought it was a Communist plot! [laughs]

It was a race to the moon, the Russians had gotten there but we weren't prepared and we were behind the Sputnik thing, this was the storyline. So we were able to shoot a rocket up there with a little shelter on it, and Jimmy Caan was going up there in the shelter so we could say we were on the moon, and then we'd work up a way to go up and get him, but time was of the essence. They shoot Jimmy up there and he lands on the moon and finds these two dead Russians, and they've got a Russian flag and he spreads it out, and then he puts the American flag alongside it. Then the camera pulls back – we're out in the desert – and you see the shelter off to the left and Jimmy walking in the wrong direction, so you know he's doomed. Bob's point was that the whole thing was so fruitless and crazy, you know. Well, Warner just went nuts. [laughs] They threw him off and we had to reshoot the ending so there was a happy ending, you know, Jimmy found the shelter and the music swelled, it was all very American and heroic. I think he even replaced the American Flag above the Russian flag, as I recall. It was nutty.

I read a quote from Altman on his firing from Countdown. He said, "Being fired from Countdown was great for me, because each time something like that happens, you get a battle scar and you know how to protect yourself in that situation again." That seems to be one of his defining characteristics, that he never let any setback get him down for long.

I've never seen a man pick himself up off the floor like Bob, ever. He had an iron will in that department. It was certainly part of his personality, he was just that guy, but a lot of these guys had all fought in World War II, and he had flown 50 missions in the South Pacific before he ever made a movie. That was such a huge thing in their lives, I mean, what the hell is a studio going to do to you after you've had that experience? Although he was only in his 30s when I met him he seemed like a real man, and I looked up to him that way. He was a big guy and he didn't suffer fools gladly in terms of the guys in the office, but on the other hand I never ever saw a moment of tension on one of his sets, I never saw him berate an actor, he never fired an actor, that never happened. He really had great respect for actors because he couldn't do it, he'd say to us, "How do you do all that stuff?" but he was always very encouraging and he had all his fights with the office.

When they saw M*A*S*H they said, "What the hell is going on? All that blood, people are swearing." But he had it in his contract that he could show the director's cut once, so we took it up to San Francisco where it was a Saturday night and they were showing Butch Cassidy, I think it was, so it was a young crowd and when they showed the picture people were just pounding on the floor. Vietnam was going full blast and everybody got that, and it was just the right city at the right time. So now all these guys from the office who weren't going to release the picture are congratulating each other in the lobby on what geniuses they are. That night turned it all around, and Bob's quote on the picture was "That film wasn't released, it escaped." [laughs]

It was part of that first wave of films that showed the studios were out of touch with the public and it was the filmmakers who had their fingers on the pulse.

He was certainly the vanguard of that whole movement. Easy Rider came along when all of those old guys were making Rock Hudson and Doris Day movies, and they didn't know what to do. For a while there it was a very interesting and creative time to be working, until they grabbed it back with great gusto.

Altman's McCabe & Mrs Miller is even more daring in many ways, as he pushed his ideas about visuals and sound as far as they would go. It's my favourite of all of his films. It's such a beautiful and sad picture.

Yeah, I loved it. That was another one that was troubled. What happened on that picture was that we shot it in Canada and he had a lab up there. Usually in London or LA you'd hook up all the films together and just run them through the baths together, but he had a lab up there all to himself, it was the only picture being made at the time, and it allowed him to experiment with it. They took that film and put it through a process call "flashing," which means they partially exposed it, and this is the risk-taker of all risk-takers. It came out of that with this dark, grainy, old-fashioned look and then you had the sound on top of that. But he got hammered by the critics and the picture wasn't much of a hit because it was so dark and people thought it was unintelligible, and half of that was because it was in theatres that had these little sound boxes and it didn't sound as good as it did in the studio, where we had control of it. It has caught on now and it's kind of a classic, but there's a famous thing about Warren Beatty not even being very happy with it.

But he's so great in the movie. I love that scene where you come in to town to try and negotiate a deal and he's drunk and acting like a jackass.

These two lamebrains – me and the old guy – we come to town and it's so innocuous, right? He wants to go home because he doesn't like the food and the other guy doesn't want to be there, so they leave town and send the killers in. If we had stayed and really tried to buy it, McCabe would have lived, but he was being a jackass and we weren't in the mood for it. I remember saying to Bob, "What do you think of this character?" – and this is the way he directs – he said, "Oh, he's somebody's nephew." That was all you needed to know, you know?

He nailed the character in a few words.

Yeah, and he was always like that. We worked so well together and had such a shorthand going on, it was great. We understood one another so well.

But while you grew up as an actor alongside Altman, it must have been a strange experience for more established movie stars who were used to conventional shoots to come in and adapt to Altman's methods.

Most of those guys, Warren included, are very controlling, and I understand why because they've got careers to worry about, they're nervous about that stuff. Warren was very hands-on with Bonnie & Clyde and the stories about him are legend, he wasn't a guy who just went out for a role, he took charge of everything, almost from the beginning of his career. So there was a little bit of friction there because he was too worried for Bob, and Bob knew what he was doing, but it turned out to be something for him to be proud of. I like his work in the film very much.

A few years later you worked with Altman on another one of the great films of that era with Nashville. What was it like to be part of something as vast as that film, which had so many different characters and storylines going on simultaneously?

Thinking back on it – I'm just thinking of this as I say it – first he takes M*A*S*H, and he fills it with all those guys from Second City who were good at ad-libbing instead of just having extras walking around the camp. They make up all those scenes and all this crazy stuff is going on, and you know the story about Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland trying to get Bob off the picture, because it's the same thing, they have careers to protect, they're supposed to be the stars, and they felt it was getting away. Then he goes on and he make McCabe, and it's the same thing again, he fills this town with all these interesting people and it becomes a conglomeration of talent, and then Nashville was the big one, with all those characters. I remember we all went down to his house one day to have what he called a "rehearsal" – which meant we all sat around and talked about it – and he said, "I've put all of my money in film stock so you can do whatever you want. You can take these characters as far as you can take them because you know them better than I do, but if you bore me I'll just cut to somebody else." I remember shooting a scene with Geraldine Chaplin where we just talked until the mag ran out, yak yak yak, and he used about 10 seconds of it, he had so much wonderful footage. Joan Tewkesbury wrote it, and it was a cohesive script, but there was so much stuff that just happened instantaneously. It was pretty remarkable.

I'll give you a great example. At the end where they shoot the girl at the Parthenon, we were sitting around waiting to get the band up there and I was just supposed to go and stand on the stage. I saw him walking over to me while I'm drinking a cup of coffee and he's got Alan Garfield in tow, and he says, "Now you two guys go up on stage and have a fight," and then he tells Garfield, "and let Murphy win it." You know that scene where I finally turn around on him after he's been bossing me around the whole picture? I finally turned on this guy and I watched the colour drain out of his face. I thought, "This guy's going to have a stroke," and my voice went up an octave – next time you see it you'll get a kick out of this – and you hear me say, "Ok, B-B-B-B-Buster, I've had enough out of you!" [laughs] Of course, Bob loved that because it was so nakedly vulnerable and it wound up in the movie.

It's the kind of moment you just can't make up.

No, it was purely a reaction to watching this guy and thinking he's going to fall down. It was the strangest thing. But that was a good example of what he loved to do, it was all about human behaviour.

Having worked with so many directors in your career, is there anyone whose approach to filmmaking is comparable to Altman, or was he a total one-off in that regard?

He is a one-off in that regard. I mean, there were guys I loved working with. I loved working with Woody, who's a close friend. We worked together on Marty Ritt's movie The Front, so we met as actors, and I loved making Manhattan with him, he was so much fun. Nowadays they say he is more strict, but in those days it was like going out to dinner with a friend, you look at those scenes we had and we're really spinning on his dialogue. The more I talk about it the more I think that maybe he and Bob were kind of alike, you know, Woody had a little more structure but he wanted everybody to loose, and neither of those guys would ever come up to you and tell you how to play a scene. Even when I was a kid Bob never did that, it was nothing but encouragement.

A number of years later you were cast in Magnolia. That was a film that was often compared to Altman's work and Paul Thomas Anderson himself has talked about how much of an inspiration Altman was to him.

Oh yeah, he was very up front about all of that. He always said Bob was his favourite and that he grew up on his movies, and he laughingly said, "You know, I'm just ripping him off here!" [laughs]

He was Altman's backup director on A Prairie Home Companion too.

He sure was, and I've seen the photos of the two of them sitting side-by-side looking at the video screen while a scene is being played, and the two of them are riveted. I talked to him about it and he said it was just great, he said he had a wonderful time and he learned so much, just sitting there with his favourite guy. When I did Magnolia, that was a little ode to Bob. He wrote me this letter and said he'd like me to do this part, and I knew with Henry [Gibson] also being in it that he was saying something about Bob.

And your scene is with Julianne Moore, who worked a couple of times with Altman herself.

There are great stories about them two. Do you want me to go off on these tangents?

Please go ahead.

He called her up one night when she was just starting out in her career. The phone rings – this is how Bob always did it – and he says, "This is Bob Altman and I want you to be in my next picture." She thought it was a joke, but when she realised it was Altman she said yes, of course, but he said, "I want you to read the script first because there's frontal nudity and it's non-negotiable." She read the script and called him back and said she'd do it, and then she said, "And I have a surprise for you, I'm a real redhead." Bob thinks that's such a cute story he starts talking about it in the press, and she sees these lines saying "I'm a real redhead," and she was trying to be taken seriously as an actor, so she called him up and said, "Bob, don't talk like that in these interviews. I want to be a serious actress and it's embarrassing." So he said fine, he wouldn't talk about it anymore. A few weeks later they're having dinner – Julianne and her husband, Bob and Kathryn, and a couple of other people – and Kathryn, Bob's wife, starts telling that story, but Bob cut her off and said, "Kathryn, stop. We're not supposed to talk about Julianne's pussy." [laughs] At his memorial service at the Golden Theatre in New York City she got up and told that story. When she came out with that last line, it brought the house down.

When I worked with her, it was real interesting because it was the first scene if the first day on the picture. We were doing that scene across the desk from one another and they shot my stuff first, because they had to get the rain through the window, they wanted to get that out of the way. So I'm sitting across the table and she starts that monologue, and I got so mesmerised by her I went off a couple of times. I forgot that I had to shout, "Linda!" [laughs] I was just sucked in, it was the damndest thing, you could feel the heat coming across that table, she was extraordinary. Then they turned the camera around and I thought, "Well, she can't do it any better than she has done it already," but boy she ratcheted that thing up a few notches, and I did it again! I forgot to throw my "Linda!" in there. I was so sucked into what she was doing, it was one of the best moments I've had working with another actor. You know, they say acting is listening and boy was I listening! [laughs] Since then, I've gotten quite a few parts based on that scene, but it's all her work, I'm just sitting there looking at her. Everyone seems to remember that scene.

You worked with Robert Altman so many times, but I wonder if there were any particular films of his that you would have loved to have worked on, or if you have a personal favourite of the Altman films that you didn't appear in.

God, I like so many of them for different reasons. Let me preface that by saying, the feeling you get when you're not in one of his movies is never, "Oh gosh, I didn't get a part," it's always, "I'm missing out on a hell of a good time." [laughs] That was always my big regret. I liked his Philip Marlowe thing with Elliott [Gould] an awful lot.

The Long Goodbye. That is a great film.

And talk about a picture that was off the mark. It's hard to figure, if they had put Jack Nicholson in that role would it have been as big a picture as Chinatown? I don't know. I loved the idea of a Jewish Philip Marlowe with a cat.

I guess if you did make a safer choice and cast a big star it wouldn't have been the same movie. The whole personality of the picture would change.

That's true. Casting was always so interesting with him. I never forget when we were doing McCabe, Warren was going to do it and then for some reason he wasn't going to do it, then he was, then he wasn't. I remember listening to him having a conversation one night, and he was saying, "Well, we'll make him an older guy and get George Scott, or we'll make him a Jewish merchant and get Elliott in." I mention that because it shows how eclectic his mind was, he could think of a picture going in so many different directions and it would be fine. I can see Elliott being a guy way out of his depth in the west, trying to keep a bar running, or something. It would have been a very different thing but it would have been great. That was how he operated. Trying to think of other films I loved, I would always see them and think there were so many wonderful things in all of them, whether you liked the picture or not. California Split was another great one, where he really got that LA gambling scene down, that was really good.

It's true what you say, every Robert Altman film had something special going on in it. They couldn't have been made by anyone else.

That's for sure. I was thinking back on his television days, even. If you look back on his early Combat! episodes, he didn't really have time to mess about there but if you looks back on his work he did some really wonderful stuff on that show. He was doing sort of French new wave filmmaking when he was shooting those episodes, he picked up on that and applied it to the series, so he was always out on the vanguard of that stuff. The other thing was that he was always captivated by, from the very beginning, was sound. Even when we shot with the boom – and you can't do anything with it because it's one track – he was still having everyone overlap, everyone was talking at once with one microphone. When he started using those clip-on mics and they figured out how to put everyone on their own track, that was about the time of The Long Goodbye, so he could fiddle with that all the time. He loved playing around with that.

Michael, thank you so much for taking the time to share your memories of Robert Altman with me this evening.

You know, I think back on it and I just had the time of my life. I've had a really blessed career because I was there at the right time and got to do so much with him and other guys I liked and respected. It was a wonderful time to be hanging around out there.