The Nashville Chronicles: The Making of Robert Altman's Masterpiece

Overview

Director Robert Altman's cult-film masterpiece Nashville is given its first ever behind-the-scenes viewing in this scrupulously researched book by Newsday and The Advocate film critic Jan Stuart. Written with the full cooperation of Altman, and including interviews with virtually everyone involved with the film, The Nashville Chronicles is a remarkable piece of reporting that explores both the creation of and the execution of a classic film.

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Overview

Director Robert Altman's cult-film masterpiece Nashville is given its first ever behind-the-scenes viewing in this scrupulously researched book by Newsday and The Advocate film critic Jan Stuart. Written with the full cooperation of Altman, and including interviews with virtually everyone involved with the film, The Nashville Chronicles is a remarkable piece of reporting that explores both the creation of and the execution of a classic film.

When Nashville was first released in 1975, Robert Altman had already established himself as a film director with a unique vision and a natural ability to walk the fine line between the hyperreal and the surreal. A few years earlier, Altman had earned great acclaim -- and financial success -- through the brilliant and darkly comic film M*A*S*H, later to be turned into one of television's most enduring series. That wildly successful movie was followed by a series of quirky films, all provocative and controversial, but none with the scope of vision he was to demonstrate in his next release, Nashville.

As might be expected, the making of Nashville started out just as unfocused and haphazard as had all of Altman's prior films. His improvisational style, his disdain for linear story line, his reliance on the actors to find their own ways through to the end -- all these traits promised chaos many times over when imposed on a "concept" as complicated and fraught with potential problems as Nashville was. For Nashville was not one story, it was twenty-four separate stories, all happening at once, layered and overlapping, weaving in and out. And Nashville was not conceived as a film about a city and its industry (in this case, country music), but as a film about America and its obsession with fame and success. Stuart has undertaken the mammoth task of reaching all the principals involved with the creation of this landmark film, and has succeeded wonderfully in detailing the methods and the means by which it was put together, as well as providing an intimate look at the interplay of egos among the twenty-four actors and actresses who peopled this film. Given the benefit of full cooperation by Altman, who himself sat for many hours of interviews, Stuart's book, illustrated throughout with behind-the-scenes photos, is both an entertaining journalistic tour de force and a valuable tool for students of films and filmmaking.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Rightly considered both a critical and popular masterpiece, director Altman's 1975 film, Nashville, is a sprawling, audacious and brilliant mixture of political analysis and soap opera that features 23 major characters, all on a collision course with the American dream. This love letter to the film, the director and the cast is based on Newsweek movie critic Stuart's interviews with all of the cast and crew members who are still alive. He ably evokes the artistic excitement that galvanized the set amid the chaos of the filming (Altman, a great believer in improvisation, told his actors to ignore the script on the first day of filming), as well as the tensions that surfaced when the exacting, often cranky director clashed with many of his stars. Highlights are the insights of performers like Lily Tomlin, who relates how feminism and lesbianism shaped her wonderfully tender sex scenes with Keith Carradine (who claims to have "just wanted to get laid" during the filming"), and Barbara Harris, whose insistence on relying on her improvisational training at the Second City put her at odds with Altman. Stuart is at his best detailing the strained and often painful relationships between the stars--particularly Ronee Blakley, who played the film's central character--and the director. More an overview of the film and its principal players than a sustained critical analysis or a day-by-day account of the filming, this amiable journalistic account will please the film's legion of fans more than it will film critics or historians. (Nov.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Robert Altman's early films (Brewster McCloud, McCabe & Mrs. Miller) are the perfect embodiment of the loose, improvisational, "let's try it on" spirit of the best American movies of the 1970s. In 1974, Altman assembled a huge cast for an epic musical and political satire that focused on the rapidly changing capital of country music. Some critics hailed it as the ultimate bicentennial film; Altman wryly called it his "grand motel." On the 25th anniversary of the film's release, film critic Stuart (Newsday) recounts the filming of this complex, multilayered tale, in which the lives of 24 characters intersect and collide over several days. The author enjoyed access to the director and most of the film's surviving talent, including Lily Tomlin, Keith Carradine, and screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury. Altman comes across as tough but dedicated and fully intent on realizing his vision despite a meager budget. Stuart concludes with the film's critical reception, its continued impact on new directors, and a "where are they now?" file on the Nashville company. Though he occasionally slides into publicity-agent puffery, Stuart also provides a melancholy reminder of an almost vanished era of Hollywood risk-taking. Recommended for large public libraries.--Stephen Rees, Levittown Regional Lib., PA Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780879109813
  • Publisher: Hal Leonard Corporation
  • Publication date: 1/28/2003
  • Edition description: First Limelight Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 368
  • Sales rank: 979,921
  • Product dimensions: 6.14 (w) x 9.21 (h) x 0.76 (d)

Table of Contents

Foreword 2
Getting Started: So What Can You Do On a Saturday Night Alone? 4
Something is Stirring: Stephen Sondheim at the Donmar 18
Willkommen: America Part 1: The Musicals 36
Lit by Lighting: America Part 2: The Plays 56
I'm a Believer: First Revivals Find a Home at the Donmar 76
Viagra 96
To Illyria and 'Beyond' 122
Chronology 144
Index 182
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First Chapter

One night in 1945, Robert Altman sat in a twin-engine plane 3,500 feet in the air. A pilot cadet on an advanced training session, he hovered in a backseat while his instructor, a veteran flier by the name of Lang, piloted in front with a student officer named Allen. Together, the trio comprised the right wing of a three-plane formation over Frederick, Oklahoma.

Altman was nineteen when World War II entered its final act and the Air Force captured his imagination. Forty-five years later, he would pause to wonder why in the world they were doing night formation, a strategy he insisted was rarely if ever employed in the war. For whatever reason, Lang, Allen, and Altman were in the sky, it was dark, and the young trainee from Kansas City had neglected to buckle himself in properly.

This oversight registered itself plainly enough when, within minutes of hitting the desired altitude, the pilot in the center plane was overcome by vertigo. Thinking the aircraft to his left was coming at him, he veered right toward Lang, Allen, and Altman. Seeing this, Lang abruptly pushed the controls down, sending the plane into a roll. Within seconds, they spiraled into a power dive headed straight for the ground. Altman was tossed from his seat, his body banging and knocking without mercy about the rear of the plane.

Lang cut the power precipitously, throwing the plane into a pullback that upped the g force with great severity. Amid the frenzy, Altman was mentally able to remove himself from the situation long enough to take stock and arrive at the conclusion that he had come to the end. And as he did, a calm took over. Terror vanished, and elation took its place.

The euphoria would beshort-lived. As Altman was hurtled back by the g force, Lang showed signs of regaining control. Having giddily resigned himself to an early demise, the bruised trainee became aware that his instructor might yet reverse their fate. Now faced with the possibility of survival, however minuscule, Altman became terrified.

The plane swooped close to the ground. The tops of trees rushed at them, scaring the bejesus out of everyone else in the skewed formation. Altman's instructor screamed, "Cocksucker!" at the other pilot through his radio, then called in for an emergency landing. Throwing what was left of caution to the wind, Lang ignored the standard landing pattern and brought the plane down with nerve-rattling speed.

When he attempts today to explain the perverse joy that swept over him at that moment when death seemed a certainty, the veteran Altman merely says, "I heard from people that when something is inevitable, you kind of giggle and give into it."

The sheer exhilaration of the young flier's close shave would eventually galvanize his life as a pilot of motion pictures. "I try to get in a little over my head, try to get in trouble, try to keep myself frightened," he told The Washington Post in 1975. When I reminded him of that remark twenty-four years later, he nodded and said, "There's a lot of survival connected to that. If you succeed at one thing, you've broken the back of the myth that it's impossible to do. So I try to recreate the chaos in which I've succeeded before."

For the better part of the last thirty years, Altman has endeavored to plunge himself over and again into chaotic work excursions and potentially fatal career forays that would spell curtains for filmmakers of weaker heart, resolve, and inspiration. And he has thrown thousands of daredevil actors, writers, editors, technicians, cooks, and bottle washers into the backseat, asking them in advance to kindly unfasten their seatbelts.

When United Artists asked Altman in 1973 to take on a script they hoped to produce about the country-music industry, it might have been politic to say yes. His reservoirs of goodwill among the studio mucky-mucks sorely needed replenishing. By the mid-seventies, Altman had engendered a bad-boy reputation among film moguls, just as he had among the TV producers for whom he wrote and directed weekly series in the fifties and sixties, when he had raised many a blood-pressure count with his lackadaisical respect for the script and a perverse penchant for killing off major characters after only six or seven installments. In dramatic contrast with Alfred Hitchcock, one of his short-time television employers who famously preplanned each frame of his movies within an inch of their celluloid lives, Altman regarded storyboards as straitjacketing and scripts as disposable.

His iconoclast's temperament could be tolerated, even venerated, when the results were as lucrative as they were with MASH. Since that Korean War romp certified Altman as a Hollywood player in 1970, however, he had worn out the welcome mat with a string of critical darlings (McCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, Thieves Like Us, and California Split) that flipped Hollywood genres on their heads and alienated the moviegoing public.

Rather than accept the studio's Nashville script, Altman chucked it back at them, balking at the quality of the writing. In another year, he would begin production on another scenario set amid the country-music business, a wildly ambitious epic of shit-kicking music and country-fried politics. It would be written by a former Broadway-musical gypsy with no résumé to show for herself in either arena, star twenty-four actors of whom only one was organically related to the music (who would nevertheless compose their own songs and write much of their own dialogue), and engage the help of thousands of Tennessee residents who would willingly park their suspicions of Tinseltown interlopers at the gate for the possibility of free hot dogs and trips to Disneyland. And all for a price tag that would insult the per-picture salary requirements of today's third-tier stars. Nashville would be his masterpiece.

Regardless of whether one were seduced by it or bemused by it, whether one combed the nooks and crannies of Pauline Kael's labyrinthine rave in advance or walked in cold, no one who saw Nashville when it opened in 1975 was quite prepared for what he got. It was a country-and-western concert, a political campaign, a character study (with particular emphasis on the eccentric meaning of "character"), a travelogue, an assassination thriller, a satirical comedy about the peculiar natures of celebrity, race, class, sex, and popular culture in America. And the damn thing rarely sat still, as if the director had tapped into the restlessness of the era and used it as an energy source. When one considers the films that could be said to speak to the zeitgeist of the seventies, Nashville holds an unassailable spot at the top of the list.

Acolytes of Altman would say they knew he had it in him all along, but even they would be caught off guard by what came out. Here, in varying degrees, were the prankster spirit of MASH, the insolence of Brewster McCloud, the ambling gait and catch-as-catch-can looseness of McCabe & Mrs. Miller. With Nashville, however, deconstructing the genre film was no longer an end unto itself for the director. Altman was hunting bigger game, nothing less than an epic pronouncement on the state of the union. All at once, there was a new sense of purpose and weight behind the sly jokes. The improvisational acting method had settled in and settled down, abetted by a fleet pair of editor's scissors and a hyperalert ear tuned to the sounds and rhythms of an itinerant city. No other film in Altman's loop-the-loop career employed his go-for-the-chaos philosophy of filmmaking with greater consequence — and keener foresight — than did this giddy cross-pollination of showbiz posturing and political grandstanding. What had struck some as a short attention span in his earlier films had matured and coalesced into a 360-degree view of the world that would become securely identified as Altmanesque.

Interviewing Altman upon the occasion of the release of The Gingerbread Man in 1998 (shortly after he had successfully battled the studio to retain control over the final cut), I asked him if, given the opportunity, he could make Nashville today. He responded with an unhesitating No. When I asked why, he replied, "I wouldn't have the courage."

It seemed an odd response at the time, not only as he had just weathered yet one more battle with the studio moneymen to keep his latest baby from harm's way, but because it seemed that every movie he had ever made had required cojones of Trojan proportions. As I began to talk to the cast and crew of Nashville over the following year, however, the breadth of kamikaze-style nerve that propelled this picture began to crystallize.

If only as a feat of improvisational legerdemain, Nashville's fragmentary portrait of five days in the life of the country-music business was without precedent. It was a spectacular reproach to the Hollywood studio system of honing a script. While Joan Tewkesbury's meticulously wrought screenplay offered the actors an exhaustive blueprint with which to construct their characters, Altman encouraged them to embroider with as much detail from their own lives as was required to make them at home with their assignments. Nourished by the director's generally unflappable, occasionally volatile, personality, the reward was an often unlikely merging of actor and role that would inspire startling turns and fuel some provocative psychodramas on the set. In a number of instances, as so often happened with Altman films, the resulting performances would launch an actor's career or endure as that performer's watershed achievement.

Impressionistic in form and kaleidoscopic in its attentions to two dozen characters, Nashville would inspire analogies to artists as far-flung as Fellini, Chekhov, Dos Passos, Joyce, and Doctorow. For all its ostensible literary pedigree, Nashville's uniquely self-referential deployment of a large ensemble cast would find a largely ignored parallel in the genesis and thematic content of a groundbreaking Broadway musical that premiered the same month.

Like A Chorus Line, which evolved its text from the histories of many of the dancers who would comprise its original cast, Nashville used show-business aspirants as a microcosm of American ambition. A Chorus Line concealed its origins as a support-group hash-session for dancers by assuming the shape of an audition like no audition ever known: a soul-bearing tête-à-tête between director and performer. Since Altman disdains auditions, most of the actors in Nashville landed their parts through similarly unorthodox, if less probing, encounters.

Given the movie's intensely collaborative genesis, the Nashville that emerges under Altman's stewardship is a crazy quilt of American regionalism that conceals the disparate histories of its participants. When you unthread the seams, you find that Robert Altman's Nashville is at least as much about Ronee Blakley's Caldwell, Idaho, Thomas Hal Phillips's Kossuth, Mississippi, Robert Doqui's Stillwater, Oklahoma, Ned Beatty's Louisville, Allen Garfield's Newark, Lily Tomlin's Detroit, Shelley Duvall's Houston, Richard Baskin's Los Angeles, and Barbara Harris's Second City, Chicago.

Newsweek sniffed out something to this effect when, tossing one more literary lion into the talk soup of hyperbole, it quoted Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass to kick off a cover story on the film. To Altman, however, the sound of his countrymen's music was more dissonant than celebratory. Beneath all the tunes in Nashville, the director heard America caterwauling. (Director Wim Wenders would later refer to it as a "movie about noise.") There was so much cacophony, indeed, that Altman had to devise a special multitrack stereo system to sort it all out.

While Nashville traffics in plain folk alongside its country luminaries, it is less a populist tract in the Whitman spirit than a democratic film in the literal sense of having the capacity to observe all sides of the behavioral coin. Good people misbehave, unpleasant people redeem themselves. Or they don't. Those who would be inclined to canonize Lily Tomlin's Linnea Reese and Keenan Wynn's Mr. Green while filing Henry Gibson's Haven Hamilton and Keith Carradine's Tom Frank in the discard bin need to look again.

Film is a director's medium. With what we have come to know of this particular director in the twenty-five years since the making of Nashville, we can readily make the claim that Robert Altman's pawprints are all over this movie. Yet one cannot underestimate the tempering hand of its screenwriter, Joan Tewkesbury, in Nashville's dogged reluctance to reduce its people to masks of farce or melodrama, hero or heavy. Altman has always been drawn to working with women, partly because he loves them and partly because he must sense on some level that they complement his vision. If one is able to sift out the actors' contributions from Nashville — a treacherous task at best — one finds a heady fusion of the director's and the screenwriter's sensibilities: his acerbity and her wariness, his cynicism and her empathy, his his-ness and her her-ness.

Nashville would be an astonishment if only for its brazenly promiscuous structure and the manner in which order was fashioned from a (deceptively) improvised process. It wouldn't take long after its release for observers to note that it was doubly remarkable as a harbinger of things to come in both the musical and political fronts it was assaulting.

When Altman and company set up shop in Nashville in June of 1974, it was a burg in transition. The city's skyline, defined by two forlorn towers, reflected the once low-reaching ambitions of its music business. (When I asked Altman what he thought of the town, he simply said, "I couldn't find it.") The Ryman Auditorium, the city's beloved nineteenth-century gospel tabernacle and the original locale of Nashville's violent climax, had just lost its famous tenant of thirty-one years. The Grand Ole Opry had relocated to the sprawling Opryland theme park way off in the burbs, another refugee from the crumbling of Downtown, U.S.A.

Prodded by the breakout triumph of such new-generation singers as Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, and Roger Miller, country music was beginning to bust out of the cluster of cozy houses that surrounded Nashville's lower Broadway. Musicians, songwriters, record producers, and publishers of all stripes descended from New York and Los Angeles to this burgeoning Emerald City of entertainment and high finance. Banks muscled in, hotels happened, more towers. By the 1990s, country music had expanded its demographic appeal to reach the well-heeled and well-educated of America's urban culture, making it the second hottest-selling genre in the recording business.

It would also give Bible-printing, long the city's number-one industry, a run for its money. Country music, with its twangy paeans to trailer-park Jobs making the best of a raw deal, provided a fittingly moral voice for such an aggressively devout population.

Nashville was also a victim of its new dawning. With the big-city infusion, came big-city marijuana, cocaine, and pharmaceuticals. When beloved Opry banjo picker David "Stringbean" Akeman and his wife were murdered at home by intruders on November 11, 1973, it seemed as if the other shoe had dropped with a bang. Decades before the bombing of the Federal building in Oklahoma City rendered "America's loss of innocence" an overworked cliché, Nashville was experiencing its own loss of innocence.

And so was its music. When I visited Nashville's redoubtable Exit/In club in the spring of 1999, a stunning lineup of young country performers under the banner "New Western Beat" seemed determined to regain a purity of musicianship that was sacrificed with the Garth-ing and Wynonna-zation of country. Sitting at the Grand Ole Opry two nights later, I couldn't help feel how unfortunate it was that Nashville was rejected out of hand by many of the big country stars of the day, who felt they were being trashed. The scruffy, seat-of-the-pants, let's-try-this kind of riffing with which Nashville came together seemed to have more in common with the roots of country music than what was going on at the Opry. Nashville, in its own insolent, inauthentic way, was a tribute.

But then Altman never intended to make a movie "about" Nashville. The tainted purity of Nashville's music business in 1974 merely trained an X ray on the cavities lurking behind the nation's ever-optimistic Gleem smile. Nashville would be, as Altman defended his picture upon its release, his "metaphor for America." This was an America burnt out by the scandal of Watergate and a war in Vietnam that turned a disaffected youth against the government. Twenty-five years later, it was a country struggling to shake off the scandal of Monicagate and a cultural war that saw a disaffected youth turned against itself. Anyone trying to make sense of the shootings at Columbine High School — a national obsession at the time this introduction was being written — would be very interested to see an early scene in Nashville in which a grinning parade of overrouged JonBenet Ramseys twirl major artillery as if to the manner born.

Assassination and politics came into the scenario almost as an afterthought. Between Martin Luther King, the Kennedys, and The Parallax View, political executions were already old news when Nashville premiered in June of 1975. Typically, Altman had a new wrinkle: An assassin's bullet would strike, not a politician, but a music star. John Lennon's precedent-setting murder would not occur for another five years.

The assassination of Barbara Jean was Altman's curveball, tossed into an elaborately contrived campaign for an alternative presidential candidate whose down-home populism would be likened at the time to George Wallace and, later on, to Ross Perot. "Metacontemporary" was the word used to describe the prescience of Nashville by its second assistant director, Altman prodigy Alan Rudolph, who was not alone in speculating that the film presaged the election of Jimmy Carter a year after its release. HAS FACT BECOME FICTION IN '76 RACE? fretted a headline in a TV Guide column by Kevin Phillips, who joined the Village Voice's Alexander Cockburn and James Ridgeway in accusing the president-to-be of running a "Nashville candidacy" — "all vagueness, posturing, packaging."

Carter was, perhaps, a mere cameo actor in the grand two-part Washington miniseries that has played itself out in the years between the filming of Nashville and its recent twenty-fifth anniversary. There are so many public personages invoked over the course of Altman's Opryland epic, so many tides forecasted, so many topical Pandora's boxes sprung, so many great literary stylists echoed, so many issues prodded, that it is possible to conclude, as one letter writer did in the New York Review of Books, that the movie is hollow at its core, and that its director has no opinions, no "ideas."

Those who subscribe to that line of thinking have been conned by the sheer crush of expectations with which the movie was saddled upon its premiere. Joyce? Dos Passos? Chehkov? To quote John Lennon, "Get back, Jojo." Altman never asked to join that club. While the man who made Nashville is proud of his achievement, he dismisses outright any claims to masterpiece status. Beneath the portentous wrapping of scale, length, and bloodstained Old Glory is an entertainment, one whose pleasure quotient only increases with repeated viewings. Altman, his antennae always cocked for bullshit, prefers to call it his Grand Motel.

The reality is somewhere between Vicki Baum soap and Kurt Vonnegut pop sociology. Nashville is one of the greatest tabula rasae ever to enjoy the imprimatur of a major Hollywood studio. You bring your baggage when you walk into Altman's motel, and you check out with baggage that may or may not be your own. Nashville kicks in with an auto pileup, and works its way up to a collision of politics and show business. And when crashing is inevitable, as Altman said, the best course may be simply to giggle and give into it.

Copyright © 2000 by Jan Stuart

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