THE COMPANY directed by Robert Altman, written by Barbara Turner and Neve Campbell, produced by Altman, Campbell, Joshua Astrachan, Pamela Koffler, David Levy, David Ley and Christine Vachon, with Campbell, Malcolm McDowell and James Franco. 112 minutes. A Sony Pictures Classics/Mongrel Media release. Opens Friday (January 30). For review, venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 70. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
The remarkable thing about Robert Altman is that after half a century in movies, he's still trying new things, like a dance movie. The Company, the 79-year-old director's latest, charts a few days in the life of Chicago's Joffrey Ballet, interspersed with actual numbers by the Joffrey, all shot on video, though you don't realize that while watching it.
One interviews Altman carefully. He's never suffered fools gladly, and while he may look like granddad, he's got the eyes of a particularly grouchy hawk. He doesn't for a second twinkle. At least, not after four or five round-table interviews at the Toronto International Film Festival.
We've just interviewed the manically energetic Malcolm McDowell, who plays the artistic director of The Company, and star Neve Campbell, all chipmunk-voiced enthusiasm, who took the story to screenwriter Barbara Turner.
Turner's known Altman for decades. She acted in Nightmare In Chicago, a 1964 telefilm Altman directed, and was married to Vic Morrow, who starred in the TV series Combat, which Altman produced and directed. It was Altman who suggested Turner write the screenplay for Petulia, which ended up being directed by Richard Lester.
Campbell also served as one of the film's producers. Her response to getting Altman as her director: "Some coup, eh?"
Altman's interest in the film arose from the newness of the environment and the characters of the dancers.
"Barbara Turner asked me to read the script. I thought I was absolutely wrong for it. I didn't understand it. Then I realized that my not understanding the script was a reason for me to do the film. If I'm not going to explore things I don't understand, why am I still making films?
"It was meeting the dancers that decided it for me. I was fascinated that these young women start this process at age six or seven. By the time they're 20, they walk like ducks, they've altered their bodies, and then they're finished by the time they're 35. And even with the leotard, they're basically performing naked."
On the decision to film in digital video, Altman notes, "We had no choice. The dance numbers had to be filmed in one take, complete, because we couldn't ask the dancers to come out and do retakes. They simply could not perform a number perfectly, then come back and do it again.
"We had to have a lot of cameras on them to get the material to cut them together. The only way we could afford to do that was to shoot in digital.
"Film is expensive; tape isn't. This was a low-budget movie. It had to be to be the film it is, with the one movie star we had (producer Campbell) acting strictly as a member of the company."