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I first met Robert Altman in person in 1999, when I was producing a series of video introductions featuring contemporary directors discussing their favorite Janus films. Altman was the first Criterion director to respond to our request. We had sent a list of 100-plus titles, and he had promised to set a date quickly and make his selections. But for the next six months my discussions with his office yielded no progress, until finally they told me that he was not going to have the time to participate at all. This seemed a surprising change of heart, so Bill Becker (who had known him for many years) queried him at a Christmas party. Altman’s response was basically: 'I was planning to do it and then I looked at the list of films. All those foreign films, Bill! I can’t talk about those. I don’t really like foreign films….'
Bill then asked me to check the list and try to suggest one specific title that Altman might potentially like. I came up with Rashomon, thinking he might be interested in the multiple points of view. I was surprised when he said yes immediately, and we shot the interview while he was working in L.A. Although he was busy, he had clearly spent some time preparing in advance. He gave us some lovely personal thoughts on the film, which typically led to his ideas about filmmaking and art in general. He also surprised me by mentioning Kurosawa’s direct influence on some of his own early work. It was clearly not really true that he did not like foreign films. (I think he was probably just reluctant to speak on someone else’s work, a concern for other directors in our Janus series as well.)
I next saw him when we began work on the DVD release of Short Cuts five years later. He approached me in his office one day to announce quite firmly that he did not want to do solo scene-by-scene audio commentary—he did not like to be tied to keeping up with the film and felt it was not his strength. (Having rented the DVD for Nashville I tended to agree.) For 3 Women I took his suggestion that we just sit and talk together, referring to the film directly only occasionally. It was a great but wide-ranging discussion, and I worried that it might be too broad and rambling to work as a commentary over the film. In the end, the edited track stands as one of my favorites. Altman at his best: witty, philosophical and with a rhythm in perfect keeping with the dream-like quality of the film.
Although he could be intimidating I found him to be unfailingly generous of spirit. The last time I saw him, we shot him and Tim Robbins for our DVD release of Short Cuts. He seemed a bit tired and frail, but after a long day he still took the time to walk the room and individually thank each member of my documentary crew before he left. Each one of them told me later how impressed they were by this small but meaningful courtesy.
It is hard for me to think about Mr. Altman without remembering my friend Geri Peroni, his longtime editor, whom we also lost recently. I knew Geri for many years, and she was exceptionally bright and challenging. She loved working with Altman, so I knew he must be an inspiring person long before I ever encountered him. It seems a great hole that they are now both gone.