Ron Mann's new documentary, Altman, examines the life and career of the late filmmaker Robert Altman through the prism of a single word. Neat trick, that.
Mann's doc, a teaser for TIFF Cinematheque's upcoming Altman series Company Man, asks a number of the late director's collaborators - among them Robin Williams, Lily Tomlin, Michael Murphy, Julianne Moore and Bruce Willis - to define the term "Altmanesque," and then illustrates their answers with a story about his innovative filmmaking methods.
It's a lot of fun, even if it's not exactly what Mann's American backers wanted.
"They thought I'd lost my mind, because I'd filmed [people like] Williams and Tomlin and only used nine seconds of them," he laughs, sitting on a couch in his Toronto office. "I just asked them one question."
The documentary, which gets a regular release this fall, is the result of a request from the director's widow, Kathryn Reed Altman, who introduces it with Mann Friday night.
"She called me and said, ‘I'd love for you to make this movie,'" Mann says. "It was a challenge. She asked me what I wanted to do, and I said, ‘I don't know. The process is organic, and I'll come up with something. But I'll tell you one thing: I'm not gonna fuck up.' That kept me up for two years in the middle of the night."
Mann had seen Altman around - they were both at Cannes in 1978, where Mann snuck into Altman's press conference for 3 Women - but the two filmmakers never met.
"The closest I ever got to Bob was on the same letterhead: we were both on the advisory board for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws," Mann recalls. "I used to see these memos, and it was Robert Altman, Hunter S. Thompson and me. Good company, on paper."
With Kathryn Altman's endorsement, Mann started digging into his subject, interviewing friends and family and discovering that Altman had left not one, but two massive archives, divided between collections in Los Angeles and Detroit.
"I went to UCLA and found a lot of behind-the-scenes [reels] he had shot that never were released," Mann says. "And at the University of Michigan, I looked at where Bob was interviewed for his movies. He had a publicist, there was an itinerary, so it became like a trail around the world to find the actual interviews he gave. There were about 400 hours of material in the end."
As a result, Altman speaks for himself more often than not, explaining the technical choices and philosophy that resulted in his glorious widescreen movies, bursting with rambunctious action and detail even as they tell carefully crafted stories.
"I love his metaphor of film as sandcastles," Mann says. "You get together with a bunch of your friends, the tide comes in and washes it away, and it's just this idea remaining. It's almost ephemeral.
"But I don't believe it, because these films do last forever. I think Bob is immortal. His work stands forever, as long as someone doesn't botch up the aspect ratio."