Altman’s Sound Theory

Robert Altman monitoring the sound on The Gingerbread Man (1998). Photo courtesy of

by Kevin Lewis

Robert Altman is a true American maverick in the tradition of Mark Twain. Many of his films are like life itself: open-ended, idiosyncratic and often perverse. In a break from the usually over scripted, cue card-driven Academy Award presentations, actresses Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep, the stars of the director’s latest, A Prairie Home Companion, brought an Altmanesque breath of fresh air to the ceremony in March, introducing the filmmaker for his honorary Oscar with a rambling, seemingly improvised discussion about why they appreciate him and the trademark use of overlapping dialogue in his work. They reminded the millions of viewers around the world of just how Altman transformed American cinema through the use of on-screen, simultaneous conversations, expressing the modern angst, frustration and inner feelings of characters––just like in the real world.

Altman taught us to discover the subtext of interaction. The many sound editors and re-recording mixers he has worked with throughout his career were all entrusted to bring this important factor of his films to life––and on their own; the director’s famed hands-off approach to his actors also extends to his sound crews. Most of them appreciated the opportunity to break away from conventional recording, editing and mixing styles to explore the psyche, the zeitgeist, of dialogue and sound.

On the eve of the release of A Prairie Home Companion, Altman spoke to CineMontage about his interest in sound and how he utilizes it in his motion pictures.

CineMontage: You’ve been unusually tuned to sound…

Robert Altman: I always have been from the beginning of my career. Sound has been a very important element in my work. Consequently, it’s something I’ve always paid a lot of attention to.

CM: Is it true that you developed the overlapping dialogue, for which you are famous, from your days in episodic television?

RA: Did you ever see any of Howard Hawks’ films? That’s where I got it from. I was a kid when he was making those films. Hawks deserves the credit, not me.

“It’s always a conscious thing to get back to simplicity. Why should the sound be removed from the original elements?” – Robert Altman

CM: The sound people who have worked with you all speak highly of the experience. They liked the fact that you’re not a micro-manager; you let them alone to do their jobs and they do their best for you for that reason. How do you approach your work with sound editors and mixers? Do you discuss with them beforehand what you need? Because you do very little ADR afterward, so it has to be done correctly the first time.

RA: Well that’s the intention. I approach every one of these men and women about this because whatever we do is what we’re gonna end up with. I don’t see any point in looping and unless there’s some reason for it [like a mistake], I don’t know why you would do it. It used to be because you couldn’t get a clear recording, but that’s not the case anymore; it hasn’t been for 30 years.

ADR goes on because I think there’s a lot of guys who make their living doing that. And they talk to some new director or producer and say, “Oh, you have to do this, you can’t do it that way…” I don’t think most producers know enough about what they can do; it’s about what they can’t do.

CM: You often move from dialogue laden or dramatic films to music films, and yet you operate the same way. Isn’t a music film much more tricky than a dramatic film?

RA: I don’t think it’s trickier. You just do it. The same elements are in both of those kinds of films. I did a film called Kansas City [1996], which had an enormous amount of jazz performances in it. It was also a melodrama and had a lot of regular dramatic scenes and things, but it was very large on music.

“All the new technology has value. You can be more thorough; you can get more complex and complicated with it and so, consequently, it’s better.” – Robert Altman

CM: Since you were born and raised in Kansas City, would you say that film is the most personal to you?

RA: No, not more than any others. It does have personal connections, because a lot of that music and those things go back to when I was a kid. I used to go and listen to those sessions. So I was kind of revisiting, going down memory lane a little bit there.

CM: In your new film, A Prairie Home Companion, like in Kansas City, the music seems more part of the organic whole, rather than just a concert sequence. There was very little separation between speaking voices and singing voices.

RA: You’re right. They were not done differently. Dialogue, sound effects, music, singing––all of those elements are mixed together all the time, so the music isn’t separated from the characters ––or the film.

CM: Eliza Paley, your supervising sound editor on the new film as well as The Company [2003], was very impressed that on the earlier film you refused to re-record the actual footsteps of the dancers because it would divorce them from the soul of the dance scenes. She said that the decision to record the Foley on location gave an authenticity to the scenes that dance sequences usually don’t have. Was that conscious on your part?

RA: Well it’s always a conscious thing to get back to simplicity. Why should the sound be removed from the original elements? In other words, if I’m going to have somebody sing into a microphone, why should I go back and have them sing into another microphone a week later and add it in, instead of what we did at that time? These are performances, they aren’t recordings that are graded by the amount of fidelity in them.

CM: Throughout your career, you have worked with some sound people for a few times and then went on to work with others. But the sound people we interviewed––who had not all worked on the same films of yours––all came to the same conclusion about working with you; they said that you left them alone to do their work.

RA: Normally, I like to use the same people, but you can’t always get in sync with their availabilities. So you have to keep changing crews. But they’re all skilled.

“I couldn’t have done Prairie on film because I was able to use many cameras and I didn’t have to have high light sources.” – Robert Altman

CM: But getting them to work the way you want, when they haven’t worked with you before?

RA: It’s a sigh of relief for them.

CM: You once said in a television interview with Charles Champlin on Film Odyssey some 30 years ago that if you cast the right actor in a role, you could eliminate 17 pages of script…

RA: Well, that’s an exaggeration, but the philosophy of it is correct.

CM: Do you feel the same way about the technical crew you bring together? If you get the right people, you can eliminate days from the schedule?

RA: Absolutely.

CM: You started out using magnetic sound, and now things are all digital. How do you feel about the new technology?

RA: All the new technology has value. I think you can be more thorough; you can get more complex and complicated with it and so, consequently, it’s better.

CM: What are your thoughts on high-definition filmmaking?

RA: Well, my last three films I shot in High Def––The Company, Tanner on Tanner [2004] and A Prairie Home Companion. I love it. I couldn’t have done Prairie on film because I was able to use many cameras and I didn’t have to have high light sources. I was able to shoot enormous takes––some of them went 16, 17 minutes long. And there was no reason for me to worry about the quality of the images.

CM: You have always been a very pro-union director. Why do you think it’s so important?

RA: Well, unions address their members’ mutual problems––and problems are real things. Instead of having to deal with an individual problem with each person, you can take a problem that goes across the board. And when you can deal through a spokesman about most of these things, I think it’s much more efficient for both sides. It leads to some truth too, you know?