Altman’s visual style was as unique as his script structures. Through camera work and editing he created a frenetic pace to his movies that kept the audience interested. Whilst both of these elements were made to seem effortless in his films, they are quite hard to recreate.
Firstly there are long takes, often with multiple people talking and not always in conversation with one another. The camera drifts from conversation to conversation. This is common in Short Cuts, for example the cake shop, where characters enter, order and chat in various parts of the shop, including outside. This is a nightmare to achieve at speed, especially because of the complexity of sound on location and in the edit. And this isn’t including complicated camera moves, which are all through Altman movies, but are best exemplified by the opening scene of The Player. Whilst we had a scene in Watching & Waiting with a steadicam, it was broken into parts through cross wipe editing and had music across it. A scene with dialogue will pose a greater challenge. We used very little motion camera work on The Ballad of Des & Mo, which frustrates some viewers, who feel it could’ve been more cinematic. So, let’s try and work it in… here’s some Short Cuts for you:
The ensemble nature in some of Altman’s films means that he stayed relatively mid-to-wide for a lot of the character improvisation. This is fine as long as you are happy for everything to be in focus in a seventy-two hour situation, otherwise the focus-puller has a job on their hands. It’s tempting to shoot multi-camera to get the coverage, but the editors will hate that as you’re just sending tonnes of data into the edit suite. Striking the balance between the freedom to improvise and have coverage, and not shooting too much, is where the success of this film can be made or broken.
Music is the other obvious element that permeates Altman’s films. In Nashville and Short Cuts the music is explicitly part of the storyline, which is an interesting area to explore because the previous 72’s have always relied heavily on the success of the music, so there could be scope for expanding there. Derry obviously has an incredibly influential music scene, so after the Altman research, focus should go onto exploring that.
The other component of Altman’s films that worries me slightly is the use of satire. He found dark comedy in the strangest of topics. I would love to see what he would have made in Derry, but I’m not overly convinced that satire is what Derry needs right now. Whilst I think that the comedy value is important, and the need to laugh at the desperateness of the situations we find ourselves in, I don’t know that here it fits the purpose. Comedians would argue that it is a prime situation for satirical content, but I’m not sure that it fits the ethos of the 72 project. The project is meant to build communities and encourage collaboration, not pick on anyone. The challenge is an obvious one; the tone of this film will be critical to its success.
We’ve got our work cut out then…