Remembering Robert Altman: 'The Best Part Was Seeing Bob in Action'
On the 20th anniversary of "Short Cuts," Mike Kaplan, a longtime colleague of the director, recalls the difficult search for financing, the party atmosphere at the dailies and a rare moment of uncertainty for the helmer.
The American Cinematheque is marking the 20th anniversary of Robert Altman's Short Cuts by screening the film along with a documentary about its making Luck, Trust and Ketchup at 6:30 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 9. Mike Kaplan, who served as as associate producer on Short Cuts and produced the documentary, enjoyed a long friendship with Altman and here recounts the difficult search for financing, the production's complex logistics, Altman's mastery of his sets -- and a rare moment of uncertainty on the part of the director, who died in 2006.
I hadn't seen Bob Altman in three days -- the longest separation since Short Cuts started shooting. All the previous locations were in the greater Los Angeles area, but this week, the week devoted to shooting Raymond Carver's So Much Water, So Close to Home, his famous short story of three fishermen finding a nude, drowned female body, filming was centered near Bakersfield, in central California, along the Kern River. It was the middle of summer and it was broiling hot.
I had been involved with Short Cuts for several years, convinced the combination of Altman and Carver could create one of Altman's great mosaics, one that could rival Nashville. Financing had been difficult and when it appeared that I had found an enthusiastic French co-producer, the first call each morning would be from Bob wanting to hear what was happening in Paris. It would often be followed by anxious calls in the afternoon, asking for any updates.
For the first six months, Dominique, the French producer who had good connections, would have concrete facts about the financing components. As time dragged on, the information became erratic and far-fetched, which I conveyed to Bob, but funding a unique, long treasured project is always a minefield. And Bob, being a supreme survivor, never gave up on a possibility. One rides on the luck of the next call, trusting it will be the one.
I had pulled the plug on Dominique several times but Bob would ignore it, asking the next morning if we had spoken.
There were various international brokers, a Nigerian oil connection and missed meetings at a Denver airport. When she said she didn't know what had happened to the last source, a former intelligence officer who disappeared while driving with cash from Cannes to Paris, it was a bad 007 scene.
We continued looking for financing while Bob made The Player, which after the critical success of Vincent and Theo, secured his second coming. He cast me as the marketing executive in The Player, a role I had played for him both directly and indirectly from Brewster McCloud (while I was at MGM) through A Wedding, and after resuming our working friendship with Vincent and Theo, it was also a way of brainstorming Short Cuts.
There was a promising meeting with a young production executive from a well heeled Japanese company, who was impressed with the cast and with whom it looked like there could be traction.
But then she asked, "How can Mr. Altman make a film with so many characters? How can you follow them?"
I said, "Think of Nashville."
She answered, "What's Nashville?"
I tried to be polite.