By Michael Aushenker
Before he died in 2006, filmmaker Robert Altman continued to revisit and refine a genre of film he practically singlehandedly created with 1975’s “Nashville”: the ensemble drama with overlaying sub-plots that often intertwined.
At no time did he stir up more controversy than with 1993’s “Short Cuts,” a series of intertwining stories set in Los Angeles loosely based on nine of short story master Raymond Carver’s works — the making of which documentary directors John Dorr and Mike Kaplan were given access to document on film.
On Nov. 9, in a 20th anniversary celebration for both films, American Cinematheque will welcome “Luck, Trust & Ketchup” director Kaplan and “Short Cuts’ cast member Lily Tomlin to the Aero Theater to talk about working with Altman.
Altman “was a terrific friend,” Kaplan said. “He was always stimulating and lots of fun. He was filled with energy. He was one of those people who when you’re around was a unique individual.”
Tomlin is no stranger to Altman, having had a central role in “Nashville,” considered by many to be Altman’s masterpiece and a template for later works, including Academy Award contenders “The Player” and “Gosford Park.” In addition to Tomlin, Matthew Modine, Julianne Moore, Buck Henry, Tom Waits, Madeline Stowe, Andie MacDowell, Jack Lemmon, Lili Taylor and Robert Downey, Jr. played in Altman’s Carver homage.
The road to “Short Cuts” was paved by the success of “The Player,” the much-celebrated 1992 Hollywood insider film that gave Altman’s turbulent career a hefty second wind.
Kaplan’s connection to Altman was primarily as a marketing person who had intermittently worked with the director on campaigns for his films from 1975’s “Buffalo Bill and the Indians” through “Kansas City” in 1996. While at MGM, Kaplan also helped push “Brewster McCloud.”
Kaplan said he had an instinct that “Short Cuts,” for which Altman had spent the better part of two years raising funds, “was going to be in the tradition of ‘Nashville.’ Plus the script was great. It was a fantastic project.”
Kaplan received Altman’s permission to shoot his film on the making of “Short Cuts” with a promise to be unobtrusive.
“He trusted me,” said Kaplan, who enlisted John Dorr, creator of EZTV, the first video gallery, on Santa Monica Boulevard (today, housed at 18th Street Arts Center in Santa Monica), to co-direct “Luck, Trust & Ketchup.” (To explain the title would reveal a spoiler.)
“It was a complicated shoot,” Kaplan said, “because there are 22 characters [in ‘Short Cuts’] and eight to ten families with the actors. Within that week, we had to film them while they were working as well being interviewed. They didn’t want to be interviewed until they were in character for a few days.”
Further complicating things, Kaplan had hired artist Don Bachardy, late writer Christopher Isherwood’s partner, to draw every star of the film in character at his Santa Monica Canyon studio. The portraits, which were used in “Luck,” also wound up published in Esquire and in a book companion of the “Short Cuts” screenplay.
Altman had said he purposely did not shoot “Short Cuts” in Beverly Hills, Hollywood or other high-profile locations, eschewing obvious settings for places such as Downey, Compton and Watts. Filming on the river in Bakersfield, where temperatures climbed to more than 100 degrees, proved grueling, but Kaplan said Altman handled it with aplomb.
“I’d never seen him be anything but totally confident about what he was going to do,” Kaplan said.
One of the biggest misconceptions about Altman’s large-ensemble features, said Kaplan, was that they were spontaneously crafted.
“He wasn’t a total improviser,” Kaplan said. “There was always a blueprint. He knew exactly what he wanted but always gave enough leg room of what was going to work. The location dictates what they’re going to shoot and how they’re going to shoot it.”
Kaplan described the set of “Short Cuts” as “a controlled party atmosphere that allows creativity to happen.” He said it was a little different from other Altman pictures in that “not all of the characters [eventually] bump into each other. There’s more of a randomness.”
And, of course, there were controversies. Some questioned whether the relatively verbose film was true to Carver’s sparse, controlled, economical writing. And then there was Moore’s bottomless moment on screen in the heat of a marital argument, which some critics deemed unnecessary, others naturalistic.
Kaplan’s film largely stays clear of that scene, but it does capture Moore’s warm-up for it.
“Luck, Trust & Ketchup” and “Short Cuts” screen together Saturday at the Aero Theatre, 1328 Montana Ave., Santa Monica. Show starts at 6 p.m.; tickets are $11. Call (323) 466-3456 or visit aerotheatre.com.
Kaplan will present slides of his vintage art deco poster collection at the Aero before a screening of “42nd Street” at 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 14.
‘Short Cuts’ to final cut: Robert Altman paid tribute to writer Raymond Carver in a controversial film, and documentarian Mike Kaplan was there to capture it
By Michael Aushenker