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Altman Meets Agatha 

by Ed Symkus

It was only a matter of time before maverick film director Robert Altman got around to assembling an ensemble British cast, sticking them in an environment where they would constantly bump into each other, then having them all talk at once.

That's pretty much what most of his films -- sans the British actors -- have been about through most of his career. M*A*S*H had a sprawling cast, all in the confines of a Korean War medical outfit, overlapping each other's dialogue. Nashville kept the big cast in the music town of the title, with everyone yapping. Both The Player and Short Cuts showed the nasty sides of many denizens of L.A., each character talking but not listening to anyone else.

His newest, Gosford Park, is very similar to the others, and very different.

"Bob Balaban and I have been friends for many years," says Altman of the origins of the film. "He came to me a couple of years ago, and we were talking about doing something together. I said I'd never done a whodunit and that would kind of interest me. We talked about an Agatha Christie kind of thing, and immediately that put it in England and gave it a period and a shape.

"Balaban was working with the writer Julian Fellowes on a project that they were doing for Tony Hopkins," he adds. "So I said, 'Let's see if Julian is interested,' then I called him, told him what our parameter was, and hired him. I didn't think this would ever really happen, but we put it into development and the first script he came up with was pretty good. We brought him out to L.A. and started adding elements to it."

The story they came up with is a combination of murder mystery and peek at the British class system, one of those upstairs-downstairs things that shows the hard-working servants and the lolling-about rich folks, and the bad feelings that go back and forth between them.

Set in 1932, the film boasts a very accurate representation of the times and of the upper-crust living situation, right down to the number of forks (five!) at each place setting.

"The actors all knew about the class system and they were willing to learn a lot more about it," says Altman. "I didn't want to put myself in a position to be criticized for going to England, making the film about them and being wrong about it. So we were careful. We had a cook and a butler and a housemaid who were all in their 90s, who had all been in service at that time. They were on the set when it was applicable."

Altman's decision to hire some of the hottest British actors "both new and established" resulted in having a film peopled with -- aside from two Americans (Balaban and Ryan Phillippe) -- Alan Bates, Eileen Atkins, Michael Gambon, Helen Mirren and Maggie Smith right alongside Kelly Macdonald, Jeremy Northam, Clive Owen, Kristin Scott Thomas and Emily Watson.

"I went over a year ago in November, sat through that dreadful joke of an election," says Altman in reference to the fight over Florida, "and we cast it very carefully. I knew first of all that I had to have recognizable people in many of these parts, or you couldn't have followed it. And I wanted them to be separate. If we had a tall guy, then I got a short guy, so you could help the audience tell people apart."

And then he started putting his actors through their paces. Rather, he stepped back and let them do their work.

"This is an actors' medium," he explains. "My job is to draw the blueprint, cast it, and once it's cast, I would say 85 percent of my creative work is finished, and it's handed over to them. And I sit there and watch 'em. I could not be an actor. I don't have the slightest... I could be the... well, anybody could be the president. We've proved that. But I don't know anything about acting, I don't know how these people do that. I'm in awe of them. They stand up there naked, you know: They're very noble."

But a look through Altman's credits shows that way back in 1947 he was indeed an actor, with a bit part in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. He can be seen briefly, drinking at a bar.

"I was in Walter Mitty because Norman McLeod, who directed it, was a friend of my dad's. I had just gotten out of the Air Force, and I was at dinner at his house. I was broke and he said he was doing this picture, would I like to be in it. And I said sure. So they hired me as an actor, even though I was only an extra. But I got the actors' salary and I got to go sit in the make-up chair, and I had my first pass made at me by the make-up man.

"So I had a lot of experience, but I had no plan of being an actor."

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