Altman Took Me Gambling

By Robert Chilcott

aria.jpgAria, 1987

In a panel discussion at The Electric Cinema, producer Don Boyd and directors Franc Roddam, Charles Sturridge and Bill Bryden discuss the making of Aria, recently released on DVD by Second Sight.

Don Boyd: In 1982 I’d had about four or five years of spectacular success as a film producer (I’d started my career as a director) and then I had one of the most spectacular falls one can have in this crazy business. A film of mine collapsed, I was defrauded, banned by the unions, broke, completely and utterly out on a limb in every sense, I couldn’t even walk across Wardour Street. What on earth am I going to do to revive my career? – the Julian Temple section is quite ironic in many ways – and I thought, I know, I’m going to combine the two things I love most, cinema and music, and find a bunch of collaborators that I admire immensely. And I had good luck. I met a great guy in America called Jim Mervis, who was working for MGM at the time, in the music department. He said “We’ve got this big catalogue of music, and we can’t do anything with it, it doesn’t make any money, how can we do something?” I said I’ve got exactly the idea for you – we’re going to make a movie with some of this music. We pitched it to MGM, who turned it down, we then went to RCA Columbia, and they said if you get one great director attached to this set up, we’ll back it. So I went directly to Frederico Fellini, who was a hero of mine in every sense, and incredibly he said yes. Look at this catalogue and come up with an aria and I’ll visualise it, film it, as long as you stick to your promise that you can allow me to do what I like. And that was the catalyst, a, for the money, and b, for a huge array of great talent, because it wasn’t that difficult to persuade a bunch of very talented filmmakers that to be in the same company as Fellini wasn’t a bad idea. (Fellini later dropped out due to illness).

Franc Roddam: When Don called up at the beginning and said “I have Nic Roeg”, who’s one of my cinematic heroes – and by the way, he’s local – and we had Ken Russell, one of the great exponents of using opera and music in film, we all adored him. Jean Luc Godard, film intellectual, Robert Altman, great cinema hero, and contemporaries of mine, like Bill and Charles, and Derek Jarman and Julian Temple, and I thought this is a fantastic opportunity. So we were all trying to make new films in Hollywood, and doing all sorts of other work, and then we were offered this sum of money, it wasn’t very large. Derek Jarman shot his on Super 8, mostly, and a bit of 35mm, and he gave some money back to Don, which was extraordinary. I went $5000 over and put the money in myself, Jean Luc Godard shot his, didn’t like what he’d shot, and shot another one at his own expense. So there was a fantastic commitment from all the directors. As a director you very rarely get the opportunity to do exactly what you want. Opera was a rarefied thing for me, I came from the North of England, working class, opera was very rarefied, the closest we got to opera was church music. I loved church music, loved the choir, loved singing. You grow into opera – when you’re young it’s pitched too high, too esoteric, too extreme. As you get older you move towards opera. I think I started with Bellini, a very beautiful opera called Norma, and there’s a very beautiful aria called Casta Diva. And then I realised it wasn’t really good for filmmaking, it was too imperious. So I looked through Dons suggestions of the rest of the arias available, and came across Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde by Richard Wagner., and I thought this is so piercing and beautiful. At the time, MTV had started and people were making rock & roll videos, and I remember I never wanted to make one because I found them quite verse chorus verse chorus and by the time you got to the third verse they became boring, something flat about them. I loved this piece because it ascended for about 5 minutes, it just kept on going and going, so dangerous, emotionally. I’d spent a lot of time in the desert, in Arizona, I love the American west. I made a film about Native American Indians, I lived on a reservation for 9 months, so it was just an area I was familiar with. The other thing was Vegas, and all the grandeur of opera that I didn’t have access to as a child, opera is so grand, so expensive, and I thought of Vegas and all these millions and millions of pounds of free lighting glaring out at me. Not only did it have that Teutonic value that Wagner had, but also the incredible grandeur and expense.

aria-2.jpgAria, 1987

Charles Sturridge: It started with this very unlikely phone call “Do you want to do this film about opera?” “What do you mean a film about opera, I don’t know any opera” “Well you just have to pick an aria and you can do anything you like”, which is a very odd thing to be asked to do. So I put the phone down and thought this is never going to happen, it’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard, and didn’t think anything more about it. And about four months later Don rang about 7 at night and said “Remember that thing about opera – I’ve got a meeting tomorrow, I have to take some storylines in. Could you write your storyline?” So I sat down and wrote two pages of story, and that’s exactly what we shot. And it’s the most curious experience I’ve had in filmmaking, and then I suppose it was maybe three months later we shot it. We shot exactly what was on this piece of paper. that’s the most enduring memory, the kind of muscle it gave you, and you can see the kind of mad, stupid, embarrassing and good choices that were made out of that bargain, that’s what so curious about it. having that kind of privilege, and having no-one saying does it have to be black and white, could you have a slightly different girl, all that kind of stuff. Nobody interfered. And that’s Don’s greatness as a producer, he encouraged us and really allowed us to do what we wanted.

Don Boyd: All the directors were extremely disciplined. There’s this myth that directors aren’t disciplined, that they spend money, and they do things they shouldn’t do, badly behaved, but that’s PR to a certain extent. Ken Russell was an enfant terrible. He’d made some extraordinary brilliant films, very successful, but he was known to be very difficult to work with. and I’ve know Ken from the early days of my company, but because it was a huge music experience I didn’t want to go to Ken, it seemed a cliché, I thought he would laugh at me, been there, done that, not again please. But he was pissed off, fed up, he’d heard about this film and wondered why I hadn’t asked him. And he jokes now that what he was left with were the dregs, Puccini! And whilst we were preparing he wrote me a small 2 page hand written letter, it described what he wanted to do, in scrawly hand writing. When we were beginning to prepare I had to go and visit him in Genoa, he was doing an opera called Mephistopheles, absolutely characteristic of anything Ken does – there were boos and cheers at the end, absolutely extraordinary. And he said “Don, I promise on the day we start shooting I will give you a shot-list, and how we are going to deal with the music.” I said “You don’t have to do that, Ken”. And on that first day he came up to me in the morning at 8am and gave me a typed out 4or5 page scenario, and every shot he had planned with the seconds of the aria. And then he set about shooting it. And he camera operated in those days, and over 4 days he shot extremely meticulously, never had a single bad moment, never shouted at anyone, never screamed, went about it extremely efficiently, and then shooting finished. And then Mike Bradsell, the editor, got the material, and 24 hours later, literally – and Altman took four months to edit his so this puts it into perspective – Bradsell rang me and said “Don, will you come and see it? We’ve finished it” And what you’ve just seen now was what Bradsell showed me, and it was precisely what Ken had written out on those two scrawly pages. Extremely precise. As Frank said, in Godards case he reshot it. Altman didn’t shoot a frame until two hours before the end of the four or five days we had to shoot his section. He spent the whole time preparing the group of people, the prosthetics, the clothes. On the stage he had a big crane, a luma arm, and the cameraman was playing around with it for days – what on earth is going to happen, this was a very expensive theatre in Paris, and then Bob did something quite magical, again an example of the precision and approach that great directors have. He used the crane 180 degrees, he did seven takes, and he changed the focal length of the shots, the size and movements of the shots, through each of these seven takes, re-jigging the mad audience in front of him in between each take, during this two hour period. So at the end he had accumulated the equivalent of 250 set ups in two hours. Most movies are maybe ten or eleven set ups a day, but that was the kind of genius at work. He knew what he was trying to achieve. Bill had the unlikely task of helping me piece it all together.

aria-3.jpgAria, 1987

Bill Bryden: I want to pay tribute to Don in two respects. We went to Cannes. Don discovered two stars. One was the girl who was the muse of Derek Jarman, and she was just golden and we all knew she was going to be a star and she is now Tilda Swinton. The other person who was going to be a star was a public relations boy – I found myself with Robert Altman talking to Iraq radio, and we couldn’t refuse because this boy was absolutely brilliant at his job. And he’s now Matthew Freud. And I have to thank Don for the beginning of my relationship with John Hurt.

Franc Roddam: It’s very interesting, when you are casting something, with a casting director, all the young men who came to the casting session, all looked exactly the same, all bodybuilders, all beefed up, same teeth, same muscles. I wanted someone who had a kind of poetic quality about them. And I saw this kid in the street, a painter, quite a tough kid, and I literally stopped him on Hollywood Boulevard and said “do you wanna be in a movie” and I thought he was going to punch me. So anyway, he’s never acted before, and Bridget Fonda was just finishing college, I saw something in the society pages of the New York Times that she was about to graduate, and I thought, wow, let’s get her first. So I put them together, and what’s interesting for me is the sincerity of their performance. What happened was that they met the day before shooting. She came from New York, he drove from LA. They fell in love on the first night, had a five day fling, which is the length of the movie shoot, and were completely sincere throughout the whole thing, we had to prize them apart, so I was very lucky in that respect.

aria-4.jpgAria, 1987

Bill Bryden: The best thing about Cannes was that the best restaurant in the South of France, the head chef came to see the movie, and he said “you have given me a marvellous menu – can I give you my marvellous menu? And the whole set of directors, actors, cameramen all went to this restaurant and I don’t think any of us have had a better meal since.

Charles Sturridge: Robert Altman took me gambling. He was the kind of person you wanted a director to be – big, powerful, like a bear. As we went into the casino his wife said “Whatever you do, never do this again. I live my life like this, I watch my money go into this casino day after day”. And he lost 1500 pounds, and we won 800. It was wonderful such a fantastic treat to be taken out by Robert Altman and shown how to gamble. The lesson I learned was how to win and never do it again.

aria-5.jpgAria, 1987

Franc Roddam: We all went to Cannes together. We were feted. But after about four or five days old rivalries came out. John Hurt and Ken Russell both realised they were paying alimony to the same child for twenty years. And they started fighting in the restaurant. John Hurt said “It’s not my child, for God’s sake – it’s called Ben. Ben Hurt? Are you out of your mind?” And then they started throwing bread rolls at each other.