Monday, June 16, 2008

The Nashville Chronicles: The Making of Robert Altman’s Masterpiece, by Jan Stuart

Jan Stuart narrates the making of Robert Altman's 1975 film in The Nashville Chronicles: The Making of Robert Altman's Masterpiece (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000). The book is not a scholarly work. Rather it is written from the perspective of an admirer of the film. Stuart is a film reviewer for Newsday, so he understands films and the film industry. His writing style is casual, chatty, and informal, sometimes hyperbolic. Stuart makes no bones about his enthusiasm for Nashville or for Altman. His book is most useful in what it reveals about Altman's filmmaking methods. It is less useful in explaining the film, but Stuart's frequent use of interviews with various actors, writers, crew members, and Altman himself, along with his discussions of the screenplay and of the changes Altman made to it, provide glimpses into what Altman was seeking to convey. The introduction makes clear Stuart's conviction that Altman sought to make this film not about a large Southern city but instead about contemporary America: Watergate, Vietnam, etc.

Especially interesting is the discussion of how Joan Tewkesbury came to write the script, which was a major shaping force for the film. Her vision of a movie that interweaves the lives and characters of 24 individuals is important. Altman significantly altered her script as he shot the film (he told the actors to "ignore" the script), but he preserved the multi-narrative nature of the script's narrative along with many of its themes and patterns. Interlayered, intertwined multiple narratives focused on characters became a paradigm for many of Altman's films following Nashville.

One of the most interesting changes Altman made to the script: in Tewksbury's original script the assassination victim was Hal Phillip Walker. Altman decided to make Barbara Jean the victim, against Tewksbury's wishes. He wanted the film to have a contemporary political dimension in addition to others, but he also wanted to intermix politics, the music industry, and the burgeoning celebrity culture, where ultimately the death of an entertainer can seem as significant as that of a president or political candidate.

Altman shot so many hours of film that he seriously considered making two works: Nashville Red and Nashville Blue, which he thought could tell the same story from the perspectives of different characters. Funding difficulties, the editor's lack of enthusiasm, and commercial issues nixed this idea. The single film really took shape as Altman cut and edited the film down to its current form. Shortly after the film's release there was talk of making a Nashville miniseries that would use scenes and songs cut from the film.

Despite advance critical notices that hailed this film a masterpiece, it did not fare well at the box offices. By the time of this book's publication in 2000 Nashville had earned only some nine million dollars at the box office, a paltry figure in 1977 and now. I suspect revenues from tape and DVD sales would raise the figure.

In the middle 1980s Altman considered making a sequel to Nashville using the original actors and characters (excepting Barbara Jean, of course). This sequel came close to being filmed, but ultimately the project was postponed and then cancelled.

Stuart's book offers interesting accounts of the reactions of the city of Nashville and of the country music industry to the film. There was, not surprisingly, a lack of enthusiasm, and in some cases outright disdain Country music stars found the film's music amateurish and of course did not appreciate the satiric, edgy portrayal of their industry.

Stuart's book is full of interesting anecdotes about the actors who appeared (and did not appear) in the film. Robert Duvall was initially slated to play Hamilton Haven but dropped out because of the low pay Altman was able to offer. There were rivalries among various actors, personal problems and insecurities, that influenced how they participated. Altman himself treated his actors in a variety of ways—as a father, as a tyrant, as a taskmaster. He never fully revealed his thinking to the actors, often goaded them to get better performances, told them to ignore the script, criticized them when they did not give the performance he wanted or when they did not show up to view the dailies. They stood in awe of him—and some of them didn't like him. Altman himself said that he stood in awe of the actors. How he interacted with them in his film is one of the most interesting aspects of the book.

Any admirer of Nashville will enjoy this book—for what it reveals about Altman as a filmmaker, for what it reveals about how the film was conceived and made, and for the anecdotes and gossip and information about the various people involved.

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