NEW YORK — Robert Altman has the soul of a fighter. In one way or another, this elder statesman of America's maverick directors has been fighting battles since flying 46 missions over Borneo and the Dutch East Indies in World War II. But he's a subdued warrior, the kind who relies entirely on his wits and faith in his own abilities. When he defends his craft he reminds you of those peaceable sheriffs James Stewart used to play, the ones who never had to pull out their guns, because everyone knew they were the best and the fastest shot in town.
One month before he turns 73, Altman is in Manhattan in mid-January fighting a viral infection. It's a stubborn bug that's been hanging on for four weeks and has left him winded. His voice is a stalled carburetor, turning over several times till it connects with a clear sound. He coughs hoarsely and frequently but won't let it defeat him. He's got a movie to sell, and he seems to be as proud of the skirmishes he has won getting the picture finished as he is of the film itself.
Altman's fatigued smile betrays a change in demeanor from the bristling filmmaker who in September threatened to take his name off the movie "The Gingerbread Man," when the parent studio, PolyGram, took it away to be re-cut by its own editor. Test screenings of the film, an entertainingly florid film-noir cum Southern-gothic thriller based on a John Grisham story, were said to have found it wanting for tension. Altman balked, a sympathetic CEO from Island Pictures, the PolyGram subsidiary releasing the movie, resigned in support, and after the re-cut was made and rejected, the film was returned to its director.
"It was foolish," says Altman, whose laconic manner, snowy beard and Big Daddy frame suggest Wilford Brimley doing "The Burl Ives Story." "When we were doing those testings I kept saying, 'You guys are seeing this without the music, etc., etc., and you should just wait.' They didn't. But they soon realized, they gave it back to me, and I didn't show it to them until it was finished. I admire PolyGram for backing off."
The end result is an apt reflection of the imbroglio that preceded its limited release in January. "The Gingerbread Man" is a tempestuous ride, wherein a Savannah shark lawyer (played by Kenneth Branagh) finds himself caught between an angry ex-wife and a mysterious gal from the other side of the tracks who is abused by her mentally disturbed, vagrant pop (played by Robert Duvall). Add a child-custody feud, a hostile police force and a hurricane called Geraldo that, like its television namesake, goes in for the grand effect.
Indeed, there is more precipitation in "The Gingerbread Man" than in any Altman film since 1971's "McCabe & Mrs. Miller," which climaxed with a blizzard worthy of "Nanook of the North." Are we to infer any apocalyptic symbols from the director, who also punctuated "Short Cuts" (1993) with an earthquake?
"I think you always have to think about the elements in the way they affect people's behavior," he explained. "Putting an additional physical pressure on people and events just heightens their situation. In 'McCabe,' I wanted to take out the normal western devices of the chase, the gunfight, at the end of it. So I set out to do a big windstorm, so the characters couldn't hear each other because of the wind. Right before we started to shoot it, this enormous snowfall came and just covered the place for about eight days. You could walk from here to the door, and by the time you got there the tracks behind you were gone.
"That ["Gingerbread Man"] hurricane was really difficult and uncomfortable, but I really wanted it. I wanted to put this whole film in the context of that storm, like a cocoon. I didn't want the characters to have time to think. I told the weather department down there what I wanted, and they created the whole thing. They mapped out a real scenario for that hurricane--the way that it works its way past Savannah then doubles back is completely accurate."
If there is any metaphoric significance to Hurricane Geraldo, it is the extent to which it underscores the turbulent gulf between Branagh's character and his women. In "The Gingerbread Man," as in most Altman films, relationships between men and women are rarely sanguine.
"It's the way it looks to me, generally. And I wanted to put him in a position of vulnerability. He's the kind of lawyer I don't like. He's a killer in the courtroom, but the minute he gets outside his own element, he's dog meat. His ex-wife is one of the millions of women alcoholics who get through their lives but are still, basically, alcoholics. And usually their relationships fall apart. They should be doing something to help those kinds of people deal with the alcohol-tobacco problem and pay less attention to--at least decriminalize--the people who are sick like Robert Downey Jr.," who plays an alcoholic investigator in the film and was recently jailed for breaking parole on drug abuse charges.