Altman could get final Oscar shot with 'Prairie'

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Altman archives: Having interviewed Robert Altman a number of times over the years for this column, television shows and in front of an audience in Westwood after a 2002 screening of his wonderful "Gosford Park," I was saddened by the news of his passing.

"Gosford" went on to earn seven Oscar nominations, including best picture and director, and which won the Oscar for best original screenplay (by Julian Fellowes). It also received five Golden Globe nominations, including a best director win for Altman. Over his long career as a filmmaker Altman received seven Academy Award nominations, going back to "M*A*S*H" in 1971, but never took home the Oscar gold (although last year the Academy did give him an honorary award).

Altman's well received last film, "A Prairie Home Companion," which opened last June via Picturehouse, could put him back in the Oscar race for one last time this year and give Academy members a last opportunity to honor him. "Prairie," which received a fresh 80% rating from the critics on Rotten Tomatoes' Tomatometer, features an ensemble cast with such stars as Kevin Kline, Virginia Madsen, John C. Reilly and Meryl Streep.

As today's Filmmaker flashbacks report, I want to share with you my conversation with Altman after that "Gosford" screening. I started out asking him to go way back to "M*A*S*H" for some memories about making what became his first big hit movie.

"I think it was a film of its time," he observed. "It was released in 1970. We made it at Fox and Fox had three wars going on at that time -- 'Patton' and 'Tora! Tora! Tora!' and this little film 'M*A*S*H,' which was destined to go to the drive-ins. We shot on the back lot there and stayed under budget and undercover (so as not to) draw attention to ourselves. They were fighting these two big wars (both involving high profile World War II stories while 'M*A*S*H' was an irreverent look at surgeons in a Korean War medical unit). We finished the picture and (Fox studio chief) Darryl Zanuck had been in Europe the whole time. He knew nothing about the movie. But we finished the film and made a first screening for Zanuck.

"When Zanuck came back, we screened the picture in a little screening room (at the studio). He had a couple of 'nieces' with him from Europe. Thank God for 'nieces.' When the picture was over, he said, 'This film is very good. But cut all that operating stuff out.' And his men (on the production team) said, 'Yeah, cut all the operating (scenes).' These cute 'nieces' (liked it). One of them said, 'Oh, that's exciting.' They were kind of the only ones who got it."

Fox arranged to sneak the film in San Francisco: "It was (shown at a theater that was) screening 'Butch Cassidy.' It was one of those big theaters with 2,000 people there. Dick Zanuck (Fox's production head at the time) was there. The crowd just went crazy at the end of this. I went over and shook Dick's shoulder and said, 'Let's pay attention to these people here. Don't let them cut this picture.' And they didn't. So we managed to escape."

"M*A*S*H" was not the kind of ensemble cast film that Altman became known for making over the years -- like "Nashville," "A Wedding," "Short Cuts," "Ready to Wear" or "Gosford." I asked what accounted for his developing the ensemble cast as his trademark. "I think I (realized that) if I had enough actors around and a couple of them weren't doing too well, I could just cut away to the other actors," he replied.

"If I was stuck with (big stars like) Myrna Loy and Bill Powell, then they'd be pretty good. But I'd just gotten into the system and (this ensemble approach) was a way of painting that I like. I like actors. I have no idea how they do what they do. I admire it, but I just don't understand it. But it's okay with me."

We talked mostly about "Gosford," which at the time was an Academy contender in multiple categories including picture and director. He'd shot it outside of London and many members of its cast were English actors who were willing to work for weeks doing scenes in which they often had no dialogue and were just standing there in scenes as part of a group.

"I don't think that film could have been made in America," Altman pointed out. "I think the reason is that all of these actors in this film work in the theater. They're used to working not to one eye (but) to an audience. So it was not difficult for them to (work this way in the film). Nobody ever asked me where the camera was or whether it was on or not. They (the actors) were on all of the time and they had to have an ensemble (approach) as part of their culture. It's hard (to find that) in the culture that films are in. I didn't see an agent all the time I was in England. Nobody complained about the size of their trailer. Nobody said, 'Oh, I have to have this.' They were all there to do it and we all had a good time. I've had experience in many, many, many films in America, but it's difficult because the set up is different."

Asked what it was like working with him on the set, Altman told me, "Well, I'm the last person to ask that. I'm inside the bubble. I'm just in there doing this thing. I think what happens is all of these actors -- every actor who comes in -- are prepared in some ways. They've got back-up ideas. They probably know all the lines. They've gone through (the scene) in their head. Now when they get there and there's 17 of them instead of one and a mirror, they're not getting the responses or the other actors aren't doing exactly what they thought they would do. The scene doesn't seem now to work around them. It's working around every one of the 17 actors in the scene. And you really just have to leave that alone and this community of the scene finds its voice.

"And then you find it's all flowing together the way it should. It's coming from not one director or one two-dimensional script or anybody saying, 'Do this' or 'Do it this way.' I purposely move the cameras arbitrarily every scene for a stylistic thing. I did the same thing in 'The Long Goodbye.' But, basically, so that the cameraman could sit there and light one person. By the time we got to that person, we had to find his arc in the whole scene and (with) some of the actors we could have gone on (for) 20 or 30 minutes it seemed, as long as the scene would play. It was a very delightful experience. I wish more actors would get into the ensemble (style). It's amazing what you get from other actors."

Would he prefer to shoot in continuity if he could? "Yes, I would," he replied. "I think many (good) things could come out of that. I do that as much as possible. But it (isn't) feasible in many cases. And, actually, not doing it, I think, has its advantages, as well. Sometimes when you're forced to jump ahead and you do something, then that's done so it kind of helps you with a target as you're going through the scenes leading up to it. But generally I love to be in continuity (if possible)."

In talking about how he works as a filmmaker, Altman observed, "What we start out with is two dimensional. A screenplay is two dimensional. The drawings for the sets are two dimensional. Then you put these live people in it (and it becomes) three dimensional and it all changes. I really does take care of itself. It's just something that happens. When you get that many artists together, they're all artists. I'm watching and listening to them. I'm not telling them (how to do it). We all have an idea what our target is and what this film's about and so we just all kind of do our jobs. It should happen all the time and it can happen all the time."

Of course, I couldn't end my conversation at the time with Altman without asking him about his 1992 hit "The Player," in which he had a little fun with Hollywood and the business of moviemaking. "I've never really made an original film," he said. "I can't think of an original film and when I do, I don't do that well. But what I do is find a copy. As long as I have something to copy, I can put my own spin on this. It doesn't have to be (as it was), but I've got some familiar place to start the audience. I'm taking you on this trip, so I'll get you secure (and thinking), 'Oh, I know what kind of film this is.' And then I can turn the tables a little bit. That's basically it. In 'The Player,' the table turn was that we made a little fairy tale out of it. I mean, people say, 'Oh, wow! You were really tough on Hollywood.'"

Reflecting on what he'd just said, Altman added with a smile, "Tough on Hollywood? 'The Player?' That was a bedtime story."

And so, a last goodnight and fond farewell to Robert Altman at 81.

Thanksgiving talk: With last weekend down about 21% from last year, it will be tough for this Thanksgiving to outperform 2005's "Harry Potter" driven holiday weekend, but next November could look good by comparison.

As strong as last weekend was with its two $40 million-plus openings, there wasn't much chance that it would come close to matching Warner Bros.' $102.3 million launch this time last year for "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire." Moreover, last year's pre-Thanksgiving weekend also saw the arrival of 20th Century Fox's "Walk the Line" with $22.3 million. This time around Fox has "Borat" in the marketplace and while it's a huge hit with over $91 million in ticket sales, its third weekend take of $14.5 million was a lot less than "Line" opened to a year ago.

The usual pattern for films opening the weekend before a holiday weekend is that they do about as much business over the extended weekend as they did over their first three-day period. If that holds true, Sony's "Casino Royale" and Warner Bros.' "Happy Feet" should each do somewhere in the area of $40 million. Insiders are expecting a strong first place opening for Disney's "Deja Vu," produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, directed by Tony Scott and starring Denzel Washington and Val Kilmer.

"'Deja vu' is tracking very, very well," one marketing pro told me. "I mean, that's clearly number one. 'Deja vu' looks very strong and so does 'Bobby' (going wide via The Weinstein Company and MGM). Those look like the strongest contenders (arriving for Thanksgiving)."

As for the holdovers, he speculated, "I would say that what 'Happy Feet' did in three days last weekend it will do in five days next weekend. Bond usually drops precipitously, but this one may hold better because of the (good) reviews and the curiosity value (of Daniel Craig as the series' new 007). I think the number one film probably will be 'Deja vu.' In five days for that kind of (strong action) picture, $50 million's not a stretch."

If he's right "Happy," "Casino" and "Deja" will gross about $130 million over the five day holiday weekend. That would almost match the $132.5 million that "Harry Potter" ($81.3 million), "Walk the Line" ($26.9 million) and Paramount's launch of "Yours, Mine an Ours" ($24.3 million) grossed for five days last Thanksgiving. So the real question becomes how strong will the rest of the holiday weekend's new entries be and can they outperform their opposite numbers from last year?

Key films -- those grossing $500,000 or more for the five days -- last year took in a hefty $231.1 million, which was up 5% from $220.1 million in 2004. To equal last year's total, the rest of this Thanksgiving weekend's films need to generate about $101 million in ticket sales on top of the $130 million that the three big pictures seem likely to contribute. It's doable, but whether or not it happens will depend on how much business the bottom half of the marketplace generates.

Looking at the holiday weekend's other new arrivals, the marketer explained, "I don't think there's much power in the rest of the pictures. 'The Fountain' (Warner Bros.) is not tracking at all. That looks on the weak side. I'd say $10-12 million. And then you have the picture with Jack Black (New Line's 'Tenacious D In: The Pick of Destiny'), which is tracking okay but not sensational. Jack Black has a following. It could do $10-12 million. And then you have 'Bobby,' which is tracking fairly well (but is only going into about 1,700 theaters but, he thinks, could do around $20 million). And you also have 'Deck the Halls' (Fox), which is not tracking spectacularly, but it's a kid's picture and it could do its share. I'd say it's certainly a candidate for at least $20 million."

If he's right, these four arrivals could account for another $60-65 million in holiday weekend ticket sales. Add that to the $130 million that the big three could generate and you've got about $195 million from the top seven movies. If the remaining key films can gross about $26 million more, last year's $221 million will be matched. If, however, there's a shortfall from any of the openings or key holdovers, ticket sales will come in below last year.

Whatever happens, this Thanksgiving looks good in the sense that although there's no "Harry Potter" type mega-franchise film in the marketplace to count on, there's a depth of product that really wasn't there last year.

Looking ahead to next year, it could be hard for the films currently showing up on release schedules to outperform this Thanksgiving. Next Thanksgiving's movie mix at this point is made up of fantasy action adventures for adults and animated features for family audiences. The pre-Thanksgiving weekend (Nov. 16-18) will see Paramount's fantasy action-adventure "Beowulf" open. Directed by Robert Zemeckis, it stars Angelina Julie, Anthony Hopkins and Brendan Gleeson. The film is set in the sixth century and revolves around the battle between the warrior Beowulf and the monster Grendel. Also opening that weekend is Lionsgate's animated comedy "Foodfight," directed by Lawrence Kasanoff ("Mortal Kombat: The Live Tour") and featuring such voice talents as Hilary Duff, Haylie Duff, Charlie Sheen and Eva Longoria. Its story involves the after-hours antics of some lively supermarket produce.

Next year's five day Thanksgiving weekend -- from Wed., Nov. 21 through Sun., Nov. 25 -- will bring two wide releases. Disney's "Enchanted," directed by Kevin Lima ("Tarzan," "102 Dalmatians") and starring Amy Adams and Patrick Dempsey, is a fantasy family film that begins in the world of animation where a peasant girl and a prince fall in love, which leads to the girl being banished from the cartoon kingdom by an evil queen. The girl winds up in the very real world of New York, where she finds love. But then her animated past returns when the prince and evil queen come looking for her in New York. In the end, she must choose between staying in New York or returning with her prince to the land of animation for a fairy tale ending.

Also on tap for next Thanksgiving weekend is Warner Bros. and Village Roadshow's sci-fi fantasy action-adventure "I Am Legend," directed by Francis Lawrence ("Constantine"), written by Akiva Goldsman ("A Beautiful Mind," "The Da Vinci Code") and Mark Protosevich ("The Cell," "Poseidon") and starring Will Smith. The film's setting is post-apocalyptic Los Angeles where one man is pitted against a horde of vampire-like creatures.

At this point, that's what's showing up on release schedules for next Thanksgiving, but in the months ahead new titles could be added and current plans could change. For now, however, Thanksgiving '07 is shaping up as all original titles with no dependable, predictable blockbuster franchise episodes. This Thanksgiving, of course, will benefit from having the Bond sequel, "Casino Royale," and the animated penguin movie "Happy Feet," which although it's an original has a degree of familiarity because its penguins recall last year's high profile penguin documentary "March of the Penguins."

If what you'd really like to see is another mega-blockbuster franchise to anchor Thanksgiving, don't despair. It's on the books, but you'll have to wait a while -- until Nov. 21, 2008 when Warner Bros.' opens "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," the series' sixth episode. The Thanksgiving '08 marketplace, by the way, will also include a high profile animated sequel in DreamWorks Animation's follow-up to its 2005 hit "Madagascar," which opens Nov. 7, 2008 and will be well established in the marketplace by Thanksgiving. Those two titles could pack a powerful boxoffice punch and if they get some help from a few good originals, Thanksgiving 2008 might really be something for Hollywood to celebrate.

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.updatehollywood.com
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