Master And Servant

Robert Altman has always seen America with a skeptical eye. "M*A*S*H" (1970) was a black comedy about field surgeons in the Korean War. "Nashville" (1975) examined a lonely cross-section of the population in the country music capital. "The Player" (1992) crucified Hollywood and the hypocritical studio execs who've repeatedly written Altman off. With the director's newest film, "Gosford Park," Altman goes abroad, this time putting England's social mores under the microscope.

Set in 1932 during a shooting party at a country estate belonging to a Sir William McCordle (Michel Gambon), "Gosford Park" serves up, with relish, the contrasting worlds of the ruling and working classes. In Altman's signature style, the movie boasts a stellar ensemble cast (Maggie Smith, Kristin Scott Thomas, Helen Mirren, Derek Jacobi, Emily Watson, Alan Bates and Ryan Phillippe, among others) and weaves together several intersecting story lines. And, oh yeah, there's a murder in the middle of the film. Altman always thought of the movie as "'Ten Little Indians' meets 'The Rules of the Game'," he jokes.

Shortly before the film expanded from limited release into 500 theaters nationwide, the 76-year-old director talked to NEWSWEEK's Abigail Kuflik about the movie's evolution, his future activities and his longtime animosity toward Hollywood.

NEWSWEEK: Did the movie start out as a murder mystery or a comedy of manners? Or was it always a combination of the two?

Robert Altman: The murder--the Agatha Christie part of it--was the plot, the story line. But that wasn't what it was about. I call it not so much a whodunit as a who-cares-who-done-it. Several critics said the picture was wonderful, except the plot wasn't very good and Altman was very sloppy because they knew who did the murder immediately. I don't care. And some people--I'm talking about friends of mine--said, "I still don't know who really did the killing." But I did [the film] that way to indicate that this is not important. This is not a murder mystery; it's a social comedy in which a murder occurs.

What were the biggest challenges for you, a quintessentially American director, in making a movie that is quintessentially English in its characters and setting?

It was all new territory for me. Anything I knew about this arena I knew from other movies and literature. But the screenwriter [Julian Fellowes] was my technical adviser, as well, and he was on the set every moment that we shot. I was determined to get all the protocol right because I didn't want to be criticized as a foreigner coming over and doing a film about English manners. I wanted to be accurate. That was the main thing. And--I thought about this in the beginning--an American is probably the best person to do this because I'm not hampered by the facts or the truth or the fact that it's part of my own history. I don't have an attitude about it.

Would you say the sympathies of the movie are more with the working class, those who live downstairs?

Yes, it's two societies living in the same space. The downstairs society was actually more complicated, more complex than the upstairs. And we made the choice to stay with the downstairs people. Literally, there's not a scene with the upstairs people where there isn't a servant [present].

Why do you have one real person, composer and playwright Ivor Novello, among all the fictional characters in "Gosford Park?"

I have two real things--Ivor Novello and the [1934] movie "Charlie Chan in London." Everything mentioned about that picture was factual. So I had these two truthful or factual rails going down the middle of this thing. Otherwise, everything can be a caprice--"Oh, I'll do this." You need something to keep you straight. I just look at this like two railroad tracks.

But the Novello thing is very interesting. Thirty-five years ago or more, I was working on a film project which ultimately--you can say this--became "M*A*S*H." It was about World War I flying. It was called "The Chicken and the Hawk." In doing all that research and trying to find World War I music, I came across this Ivor Novello, and I studied up. I had a little library of stuff about him. Then that [project] never happened. When we got to "Gosford Park" and the first outline--I added Novello at that time. I was literally sitting in my office and straight across from me I could see my library. Something just flashed on me about Ivor Novello and I shot straight in there and pulled out the research I had and said, "What about this guy? He wrote all this stuff at this time." So we added him to the mix.

In the movie, the patricians seem bored by Novello's songs, but the downstairs people love them.

Once again, that's truthful. The very near royalty upper class didn't go to movies, they didn't go to entertainment. It was not stylish for them to admire popular entertainment. But for the lower class, of course it was. So that played right into our hands. I used that. Once Novello starts playing [in the film], he plays six songs in a row. Once we got into that, I had to be damned careful that the audience wasn't going to say, "Christ, I'm going to listen to this guy play more?" But by having Maggie Smith sitting at that bridge table, saying, "Don't--don't encourage him," and then they laugh, it's OK, because [as an audience member] you can either be from the servants' side and like the guy--or you can be from the posh side and be bored to sobs by him.

As a veteran moviemaker, what changes have you seen in Hollywood over the years?

When I worked originally, [it was] in the studio system. Not originally--my first couple were independent--but "M*A*S*H" was a Fox film and I did several [other] films for Fox, mainly because of Alan Ladd, who liked my work. It [Hollywood] changed because they have this thing now that they have to own everything. I don't mean literally own, but they have to possess it. They have to have input. We're not in the same business, I guess, is what I am talking about. I have a little conceit in ["Gosford Park"] when, at the party, Claudie Blakley's character says, "My father had a glove factory--one thing I do know about is how gloves should fit." My kind of stock line about Hollywood in interviews for the last 20 years or more [has been], 'Well, they sell shoes, I make gloves.' And I believe that's accurate. It's not that I don't work with the major studios. It's a mutual agreement. There's nothing evil about it. We just don't do the same things. And no film director has had a better shake than I have. I have never in 32 or 33 years not had a film that was of my own choosing; I have never had a film cut on me or taken away from me. I don't think anyone else can say that.

Talk about when the business changed.

During the '70s all the studios were starting to change their character. There was a great deal of freedom. A lot of really wonderful stuff was done in the '70s. That's because there wasn't a Louis B. Mayer and a Harry Cohn. The studios were changing and during that change, the artists really kind of got control. We really were able to do what we wanted to do and change the direction. Then the agents came in and took over the mainstream stuff and they became the heads of the studios, and agencies started to run [Hollywood]. And right now it's the same way. Films now are made not because it's a good script or a good property--it's who's going to be in it and "Will Nicole [Kidman] do it?" And then they have agents, and the agents say, "She's got to be in every scene." I don't mean to single her out, but that's the way films are constructed. Everything is packaged. They don't have to read the script. They say, "How about Angelina Jolie?" I say she's too old or too young or she's too tall or too short. Well, that doesn't make a difference--you can change it. All they care about is what they sell these things on--the name on the package.

What's the new movie you're going to start shooting in May?

It's a comedy called "Voltage." It's about these big engineering firms in the early 1990s-gulf war time. They built all the airplanes. Another Bush was president, Colin Powell was there and so was Mr. Cheney. The "cast" was the same. It's based on a book by Robert Grossbach called "A Shortage of Engineers."

Engineers don't sound like a topic that would lend themselves to comedy.

Go out to Long Island and you'll see these defense factories that employ 6,000 people in two-story buildings that are like ant farms, and all that stuff going to waste and the corruption and they're all government-contracted. Comedy is what it is.