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ALTMAN, ROBERT: Cookie's Fortune

Famed for his inventive brand of overlapping (and often improvisational) dialogue and an acknowledged master of modern camera technique, Robert Altman's quixotic career has been uneven at best, yet he remains a pivotal figure of contemporary cinema, a true maverick responsible for many of the defining motion pictures of his times. Now aged 74, Altman is still bucking the system, but his latest films, such as Cookie's Fortune, represents a softer, gentler Altman, or does it? PAUL FISCHER spoke to one of America's foremost filmmakers.

Robert Altman does not suffer fools gladly. Tough, opinionated, feisty and fiercely passionate, the Missouri-born director has no time for mainstream Hollywood, which he satirised so beautifully in one of his best films, The Player. When, for instance, his take on John Grisham's The Gingerbread Man was savaged by critics and the public alike, he attacked the film's distributor, PolyGram, in no uncertain words. "Those studio guys sell shoes. I make gloves. It's that confusing. They don't know what to do with my movies once they get them. PolyGram Films purposely sabotaged The Gingerbread Man for me because I refused to let them edit it. They only cut 50 prints and then would only let the picture play in a market for a couple of weeks, even if it was selling out. In America, I'm known as the pain-in-the-butt. In Europe, I'm Mr. Altman. That's why I go abroad to get funding for my movies."

"I tell actors the truth."

Still the maverick, the outsider, the director willing to make films his way, he enjoys more the passion he has as a director, and more importantly, an actor’s director. He loves actors, one of the few American directors to make that admission. "I tell actors the truth. I tell them exactly how much money I have for a particular role, but I promise to work around their schedules," says Altman. "I run my sets almost like a theatre director. Actors love to have that kind of creative input. About 80 percent of my creative input ends after I've assembled the cast. I watch them wander into the fog and only offer guidance if I truly see they're in trouble."

He admits to even being "in awe of actors; I just can't understand how they can do what they do. So I just love to watch them do that."

On his latest film, the delightful Southern-set comedy Cookie's Fortune, Altman gets to direct another feast of talent: Glenn Close, Julianne Moore, Liv Tyler, Chris O'Donnell, Charles S. Dutton, Ned Beatty, Lyle Lovett and Patricia Neal. The Cookie of the movie is eccentric matriarch Jewel Mae ‘Cookie’ Orcutt (Patricia Neal), strong-willed inhabitant of a Holly Springs, Mississippi manor with her black houseman Willis (Charles S. Dutton). Cookie is estranged from her only family in town, nieces Camille Dixon (Glenn Close) and Cora Duvall (Julianne Moore), but that doesn't stop the overbearing Camille from considering everything connected to her family her business. That's especially true when Camille visits Cookie's home, only to discover a scene which could potentially bring embarrassment to the family, and contrives a story to cover it up. Her story sets in motion a strange chain of events, which finds innocent people jailed, secrets revealed, and plenty of Wild Turkey consumed.

"Like the vampires, I don't have any mirrors in my house, so I don't see myself very much."

For Cookie's Fortune, Altman's most commercially successful film in years, the director returns to familiar territory: America's Deep South. Asked what it is about the Southern character that appeals to him so much, Altman responds that "maybe it's more defined, which makes it easier for the audience." But he loves the South, and he loved developing "these extraordinary characters and see them come to life."

In what can be described as a chequered career, Cookie's Fortune is his 39th feature as director. Always the iconoclast, one wonders how hard it is for him to still come up with original stories that fuel his artistic temperament. "If I couldn't come up with a story a year, it'd be pretty weak, wouldn't it?"

Altman has no time for the Hollywood establishment, and what he describes as a plethora of consistently bad filmmaking. "I'm at times amazed at what the general critical public perceptions are that I don't agree with. I mean, when you look at something like Titanic, how am I supposed to read that? Just the very fact that picture won all those Academy Awards surely must make you wonder about that film, or for that matter, the Academy Awards."

It's no wonder that Mr Altman has, more often than not, been on the periphery of mainstream Hollywood. Maybe Altman sees himself as an outsider looking in. " 'In' is not any place I choose to be in that respect. I'm not particularly interested in these special effects films nor am I particularly interested in most of these teenage films. I guess I'm not being put in a category and yet that itself has created a category all its own." Which begs the question: How does he see himself these days? "Like the vampires, I don't have any mirrors in my house, so I don't see myself very much."

"Am I imitating myself?"

Altman is about to start shooting his 40th feature film, Dr. T and the Women, written by his Cookie's Fortune screenwriter Anne Rapp, a social satire set in Dallas about a gynaecologist whose world is dominated by women. As he approaches 75, some four decades since his career began, the filmmaking process for this heavy drinking and self-confessed pot smoker can only get tougher. "I have more of my own baggage to fight my way through. I'm also faced with these problems of: Am I imitating myself? Is this something I've seen before? Am I being too cautious about it?" However Altman perceives himself, the establishment would prefer to distance itself from this Hollywood maverick, and the man himself wouldn't have it any other way. "I don't know what the establishment is anymore. For me, the 'establishment' comprises of people with popcorn in their hands."

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Cookie's Fortune

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