I love a good movie musical and for my money they don’t make enough of them today. There are maybe more ways to go wrong with a musical than there are with other genre pics and that may be one reason why filmmakers and investors shy away from them. Nothing’s quite so awful or painful as asong and dance numbers that drag or just plain don’t work. All of which is why indie filmmaker Dan Mirvish accomplished a minor miracle with his music comedy about real estate, Open House, which just may be one of the most entertaining movies of the early 2000s. Some of you film geeks may know Mirvish as a founder of the Slamdance Film Festival, an alternative film fest that tweaks the nost of the mighty Sundance fest. Some of you may know him as the writer-director of the cult favorite, Omaha (The Movie). Some may recognize him as the man who challenged the holy of holies Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences to consider Open House and other small indie musicals like his for the long dormant Best Original Musical category come Oscar voting time. Or for the sublime prank that he and Eitan Gorlin played on the national media by inventing a John McCain advisor, Martin Eisenstadt, and watching in disbelief and horror as leading journalistic enterprises and reporters bought the ruse hook-line-and sinker. The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared upon the release of Open House on DVD. You’ll find many more of my film stories on this blog.
Crazy Like a Fox Fimmaker Dan Mirvish Makes Going His Own Way Work
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
With the DVD release this week of his 2004 low budget film Open House, an all-digitally shot feature, cinema provocateur Dan Mirvish may finally net a wide audience for the iconoclastic screwball musical comedy he directed and co-wrote.
Mirvish is something of a hero in indie film circles. First, there’s the anything-goes sensibility of his previous feature, Omaha (the Movie), a 1998 pic he marketed into both a festival favorite and industry calling card. His co-founding the proletarian Slamdance Film Festival as an alternative showcase to the bourgeois Sundance fest, whose well-heeled, major-clouted officials consider him persona non grata, cemented his place as a nettlesome indie champion. Then, despite set-backs to get other projects of his before the camera, he did what a lot of first-time filmmakers never do, he made a second feature (Open House) that fulfilled the promise of his first. Finally, there’s the cheeky campaign he waged to get the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to consider House and other musical indie pics for the dormant Best Original Musical category, a move that so offended the hidebound Academy that it did away away with the category altogether.
Leave it to this wry filmmaker to make a musical comedy about the surreal residential real estate scene, whose ripe-for-satire rituals, code words, phony props, shady dealings, desperate buyers and sellers and competitive agents, he delights in sending-up. But as in his first feature, the played-for-farce story lines unfold alongside darker themes to create a by-turns whimsical and quixotic piece that is pure Mirvish, an Omaha mensch now living in L.A. whose whack sense of humor is part John Landis and part Alexander Payne.
The inspiration for Open House grew out of the house hunting experience of Mirvish and his wife.
“What fascinated me about going to open houses was that we were allowed to rummage through the house and property of complete and total strangers. These people would entrust their entire lives to the care of their frequently distracted real estate agents. I found it very interesting to piece together these lives from their collections of photos, diplomas and other artifacts. The challenge became deducing why it was these people were really selling their houses — and how each sale was usually part of a seismic shift in people’s lives. I was also intrigued by the incredibly competitive nature of real estate agents themselves, and the depths to which they will go to sell a house.”
In its early drafts, the film was a straight, nonmusical comedy. It remained that way through readings held at Omaha’s Blue Barn Theater and a short film adaptation of the story Mirvish made for the Seattle Fly Filmmaker series. It only became a musical after 9/11, when Mirvish got the idea.
As a veteran of the frontline indie wars, Mirvish well appreciates the miracle that any film, especially a small budget one, ever gets made. Open House survived the usual pitfalls that befall projects. No matter what disasters strike, a guerilla-style filmmaker like Mirvish finds a way. As Open House star Anthony Rapp, an original cast member of the Broadway hit Rent said, “working with Dan is like jumping off the cliff every day” Or, as fellow cast member Robert Peters said, “no matter what obstacles, the train keeps running.”
“My theory is that everything will drop out on you — cast, crew, camera, financing — but as long as it doesn’t all happen on the same day, you’re OK. And sure enough that’s exactly what happened. Every single element fell through on this one. The music director dropped out three weeks before shooting. The choreographer dropped out two weeks before. But, again, because it didn’t happen all at once, we never quite panicked,” he said.
Things began inauspiciously when on the first day’s shoot, he said, “the cops showed up and shut us down” for being short on the rental of a house serving as a prime location. A check was cut on the spot to make up the difference. Mirvish sums up the incident this way: “So it wasn’t a shut down — it was a shake down.”
To avoid similar hassles, Mirvish and company eschewed permits and stole shots at a later location, a mansion that drew passersby who saw the production’s fake “open house” signs out front and meandered in thinking an agent was showing the place.
“In the middle of shooting people would just kind of wander in thinking it was a real open house and the strange thing is not a single person so much as raised an eyebrow that there was an entire film crew shooting in the house…and there were were actors singing and dancing in the living room. It’s like, It’s L.A., well of course there’s people shooting here. Why wouldn’t there be?”
- When Omaha Independent Filmmaking Took a New Turn or Did It? (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Altman on Altman: A Look at the Late American Auteur Robert Altman Through the Eyes of His Grandson, Indie Omaha Filmmaker Dana Altman, and Other Cinephiles
I first met and interviewed Omaha film producer-director Dana Altman some 15 or 20 years ago. I always knew he was related to the great American filmmaker Robert Altman but it was only a few years ago I decided to delve into his relationship with his grandfather, and then when that great lion of auteurs passed away, I wrote this piece based on what Dana and other Omaha cineastes had to say about the late great master. Of course, the story is mostly about a grandson who followed his grandfather in the business, growing up on and later apprenticing on some of Robert Altman’s pictures. It’s an offbeat story and another link in Nebraska’s rich film legacy.
The story appeared in a somewhat shortened version in The Reader (www.thereader.com). By the way, Dana Altman is a key figure in the indie film scene in Omaha, where his North Sea Films is based. As a producer and mentor, Altman was behind two seminal projects that energized the local indie film movement: the 1990s Omaha (the Movie) and 2010’s Lovely, Still; the former by writer-direcor Dan Mirvish proved that a no-budget feature made here could make a splash on the film festival and home video circuit; and the latter, starring Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn and written-directed by Nik Fackler, may just be the film that puts Omaha and its emergent filmmaking community on the map.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Since the November death of filmmaker Robert Altman, cinema’s mourned the loss of a model for buck-the-system nonconformity and get-your-film-made-no-matter-what resolve. For Omaha native Thomas Schatz, executive director of the University of Texas at Austin Film Institute, Altman’s the reason he got into film studies. “It was immediately after a screening of McCabe and Mrs. Miller (Altman’s ‘71 revisionist Western) in the Dundee Theater that I decided to go to ‘film school.’ True story.” For home grown filmmaker Dan Mirvish, the man behind Omaha (the movie) and the guru of Slamdance, the late director embodied the indie spirit.
In an IndieWire tribute, Mirvish wrote: “Robert Altman was a huge professional and personal inspiration to me. He really defined what it means to be an ‘independent’ filmmaker in the sense we know it today. No matter how much acclaim and experience he had, he always struggled to get financing and distribution, complained about his agents, loved to get a great cast, surrounded himself with his real and virtual family of crew, and had a hell of a lot of fun while making movies. And he just kept doing it.”
For Omaha filmmaker and Slamdance co-founder Dana Altman the appreciation runs deeper. The grandson of Robert Altman, he worked on three of his grandfather’s films – Popeye, Kansas City and Cookie’s Fortune – and saw the making of others. He shared privileged moments with him on set and at his Malibu, Calif. home. The experiences gave him an insider’s look at the process of a legendary artist whom Schatz said exerted “massive” influence on “generations of filmmakers.”
“He was the auteur’s auteur – an authentic original, a visionary filmmaker and an uncompromising individualist,” Schatz said in an e-mail. “Altman favored densely populated stories with multiple, interwoven plotlines. He worked with ensemble casts and relied heavily on his actors for improvisation and naturalistic performances. Visually, his restless, moving camera and tendency to compose ‘in depth’ kept his myriad plotlines constantly moving and made unprecedented demands on the viewer. The sound tracks in his films were equally complex and layered, with multi-track recording, overlapping dialogue, ambient sound and canny use of music providing a perfect complement to his visual and narrative design.”
Dana Altman viewed it all from a familial and film perspective. In addition to producing Mirvish’s Omaha (the movie), he’s crewed on such features as Alexander Payne’s Citizen Ruth, Election and About Schmidt. He’s the owner of his own local film production company, North Sea Films. He and his fellow Omahans admired how the elder Altman always marshaled on despite battles with studio executives and struggles to find financing. How his idiosyncratic vision never wavered, not after critical-commercial failures, not even after a heart transplant he kept secret from the public. Up till the end he was still scrapping, prepping a new film at age 81.
“It was always difficult for him to find financing. It was always difficult for him to make films. But he would make a film a year, sometimes two,” Altman said. “Certainly the maverick. the last thing he would do is compromise his take or his decision about what picture to make or how that picture was to be developed. He personally took them on. They were his pictures through and through. I mean, he developed the idea for Three Women from a dream that evoked the oddest visual palette for the film. It’s like one oil painting after another. Every frame of the film is just so obscure and unique and beautiful and disturbing at the same time.”
Schatz said the filmmaker was the “consummate independent, who always made films his own way and on his own terms – even if it meant making movies on 16mm or in Europe or doing cable TV series. And it was always about the art.”
The grandson echoes many others in saying that any appraisal of the late great artist must conclude that among American feature filmmakers “his struggle and fight” with the system set him apart. “Orson Welles may be the closest counterpart to that same path. But no one else,” Altman said.
Mirvish recalled an exchange with Robert Altman that taught him a lesson: “I once saw him and referred to myself as a director. He asked if I was directing anything now. ‘No,’ I sheepishly said. ‘Well, then you’re just a guy who HAS directed,’ or something to that effect. The point is, just make the next movie. It’s great advice to all of us. An Altman tactic was to set the start date, believe you’re making the movie and get the train rolling. And don’t stop…”
“It’s about doing it,” Dana Altman said.
Mirvish, also the director of Open House, considered Bob a generous mentor.
“I met him several times over the years through Dana. He was a big help on Omaha (the movie),” Mirvish described via e-mail. “The first place we screened it was in New York at what was then the Independent Feature Film Market. The night before our big screening, he (Robert Altman) asked if it would help or hurt us if he came to the screening. We’d already shown him a rough cut. We said definitely it would help. Back in those days filmmakers were lucky if they could get five people to their screening. But as soon as Bob walked into the complex, he was like the Pied Piper…everyone in the building just followed him…We wound up with a packed house. Dana and I sat right behind Bob and about two-thirds through, he got up and walked out. My heart sank. I was afraid all those people would walk out with him. Thankfully, he just had to go to the bathroom and came right back in. Even though we would go on to play in 35 festivals around the world…in terms of industry attention, that screening was really the high point for the film. We definitely became the buzz film of the market.
“His influence on me was very prevalent on Open House, too. There was one particular conversation we had with him in New York as we were finishing Omaha…that was all about how he would shoot musical scenes with the actors singing live on set. So when we decided to do Open House as a musical, we basically did it using the Altman method.”
Dana said his grandfather “very much enjoyed Dan’s work” and took a keen interest in his own work as well. “He was very proud of my accomplishments. He never would talk specifically about the work beyond, ‘That was good.’”
Mirvish recalled how Dana asked his famous grandfather for advice. “When we first came up with the notion of Slamdance back in the fall of ’94, Dana…called up Bob and asked if we should forge ahead at the risk of pissing off Sundance. ‘Sure. Fuck ‘em,’ he said. And with that, Slamdance was born.” It wasn’t the last time Altman asked Bob, which is what he called his grandfather, for advice.
Dana was born in Calif. and raised in Fremont, Neb. His mother is Christine Altman Westphal, whose mother Lavonne Cubbison grew up in Fremont. It was just him and his single mom for a while, living as hippy-gypsies until settling down to small town life. He caught the cinema bug as a 15-year old props assistant on Popeye (1980), By the time he was transportation coordinator on Kansas City (1996) and props assistant on Cookie’s Fortune (1999), he was making features, TV spots and corporate image campaigns.
He’s not the only Altman who proved his cinema chops on Bob’s sets. Dana’s uncles, Bobby, Stephen and Matthew, served key camera, production design and art department roles on many of their father’s films. Aside from a few forays in her father’s early films, including a bit part in his first feature, The Delinquents, Dana said his mother “was never really in the machine of film” like her brothers were.
Although he bears the weighty name now, Altman broke into the business on his own, under his birth surname of Johnson, not by any association with his grandpa. He apprenticed as an editor at Universal Pictures in ‘89-‘90, helping cut such series as Columbo. Then, against Bob’s advice, he left L.A. for Nebraska, just a week short of getting his Editor’s Guild card. Why? Ironically, Dana said he was disgruntled with the old boys network that determined who advanced and who didn’t in Hollywood. He only changed his name to Altman after moving back to Nebraska and starting a family. He and his wife Deanna Lee Altman are the parents of six children.
He said leaving L.A. for Nebraska is “the best decision I’ve ever made.” He did heed his grandfather’s advice when Bob urged him to change his name.
“Bob and Kathryn called and said, ‘You should give your family some heritage.’ I fought it because it’s the same thing I hated about L.A. I was incredibly frustrated watching people come into the system based on who they were, not what they could do,” Altman said. “It’s about who you know and what your last name is, not how skilled you are. It was hard for me out there seeing how it operated and now people got in the game. That’s always been the fight…that I want to be good regardless of what my last name is. That’s the most important thing.”
It’s not that he isn’t proud of the Altman tie. He just doesn’t want people to think it opened doors for him. “I mean, I enjoy it,” he said. “I don’t take anything away from it. But when people ask me — How’s your work influenced by Robert Altman? – I don’t know. I may be blood from my mother’s side, but does that make me a great artist? Does that make somebody talented? I don’t think so. I see kids that have no family heritage in the business, and they’re better than I am.”
In the end, Altman decided to claim the name, he said, “as a way of giving my kids some lineage, some heritage, some history.”
Besides Omaha (the movie), Altman’s produced the horror flick Kolobos and the comedy Out of Omaha. He’s directed one feature, The Private Public, and hopes to “get around” to another. One time he wished he’d followed Bob’s counsel was when he put his own money on the line for Private Public, something he was told never to do. The film failed to recoup his own and other investors’ capital.
In addition to doing work for clients like the Metropolitan Utilities District, he’s preparing to produce the much-anticipated feature debut of Omahan Nik Fackler, the wunderkind director of acclaimed dramatic shorts and music videos. Just as Bob took young filmmakers under his wing, Dana’s known to do the same. Altman’s uncles Bobby and Stephen may fill director of photography and production design roles, respectively, on Fackler’s film, entitled Lovely Still.
As a kid living in Fremont Altman never really harbored dreams of a life in cinema. It was all too far removed. Not that he hadn’t been exposed to that world. In the conference room of his spacious North Sea Films studios at 2626 Harney Street, Altman shows you a framed photograph taken on the set of M*A*S*H (1970), filmed in California. The outdoor image shows his grandfather, resplendent in big game hunter attire, signature beard and mustache intact, standing and holding him at age 3, his mother beside them and actor Michael Murphy, a regular Robert Altman stock player, beside her. A tent is visible in the background.
The first set he actually remembers being on is that of McCabe. The pervasive mud and miserable conditions of that Vancouver shoot are what he recalls, along with feeding goats and being repeatedly warned to stay off the rickety bridge where Keith Carradine meets his demise in the film.
But it wasn’t until a quirk of fate that Altman got his first real taste of film work. It was 1980 and his baby brother, Wesley Ivan Hurt, had been born with the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck, pinching a nerve that paralyzed the right side of his lip into a kind of whimsical scowl, making him the perfect choice to portray the infant Sweet Pea in Bob’s film version of the “Popeye” comic strip. That’s how it is Altman went with Wesley and Mom to Malta for the making of Popeye. Once there, Dana found himself enlisted in the ranks of crew supporting the sprawling shoot, “as there was always stuff to do. That’s how I got into props,” he said.
Admittedly, the Felliniesque Popeye marked “a weird one to step into” for a first film crew gig. “Yeah, a musical Popeye,” he said with a wry grin. For starters, “it was a really big, big shoot. It was really far away, in foreign territory, in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea,” he said. “Robin Williams, Shelley Duvall, Paul Dooley, Ray Walston and all these fantastic people. You were kind of transported to this weird little place isolated from the world. That’s all you’re exposed to the whole time. So for ten months, you know, you’re living the movie. We basically shot it all in this cove. Every single piece you see was constructed for the purpose of the movie. Not one item happened to be there. When we showed up it was a big rocky cove and when we left it was a city – a city of Popeye.”
He said he fell in love with the whole apparatus of filmmaking “once I was there and I saw the process…building the sets, sinking ships out in the cove, building ships that had boxing rings on the decks. I mean, it was just insane.”
Seeing it all come together under the attentive eye of Bob, the maestro and orchestrater of all this “controlled chaos,” captivated Altman.
“How his discussions – hands pointing in all directions – in one brief moment could address lighting, movement, emotion, color, timing and whatever else needed to be addressed and corrected…” he said. “He would finish the next shot, go into another extraordinary litany of problems to be attended to. Over and over again this process would occur until his hands would fly into the air and he would yell, ‘That’s great…couldn’t be better.’ Watching, listening and trying to comprehend how this was possible is what initially got me thinking about filmmaking as a career.”
Fast forward 15 years, to Altman in his late 20s-early 30s and already a film veteran. He then sought out the opportunity to work with his grandfather. “I knew I wanted to work with him and so I just threw my name in the hat and said, ‘If there’s any task you can’t find the person for, then let me take a shot at it.’” His chance came onKansas City, Bob’s Great Depression-era, jazz-themed crime riff shot in Kansas City, Mo., where the director grew up the son of an insurance tycoon and got his start in industrial films. “Bob put me in charge of coordinating a $300,000 budget to maneuver and find and build all of the picture’s vehicles. I think we ended up with 250 pre-1934 vehicles. Sedans, taxis, police cars, ice trucks, motorcycles.”
He was given the same freedom his grandfather was known to give all collaborators.
“It was hands off. I loved that because it was truly a responsibility that was tasked to me and it was pass or fail, and failure was not an option,” Altman said. “So it was my opportunity. I would get it done and get it done well.”
His passing grade led him to Cookie’s Fortune, shot in Holly Springs, Miss., where he handled all the “personal effects” for characters, including finding an assortment of pipes, 60 in all, for the eccentric matriarch of the title played by Patricia Neal.
“It was my opportunity to learn what kinds of things were important to Bob from a creative standpoint of the scene and the surroundings that make up the characters,” he said. “Every item we were tasked to find and provide and have on set and in position in the scene meant something.”
As Altman found, any prop, even if unseen on screen, adds nuance to a shot. Without such details, he said, “something’s missing, something’s not right.”
Working on Kansas City and Cookie’s Fortune he watched with a more discerning eye how Bob directed. How he was “kind and cool, relaxed and confident, prepared to – explore.” Bob’s mastery of the set, the shot, the scene, never ceased to amaze him. His letting actors play and be the authors of the scenes. There were rehearsals, Altman said, but once cameras rolled Bob didn’t intrude. He respected actors and gave them great freedom to create.
“He would allow things to develop. He had a huge amount of confidence,” said Altman, who recalled how “Bob once said as were sitting next to the video assist, ‘I just let them (actors) do this part. My job’s over. I put all the pieces together. Now I just get to watch it unfold.’ He’d say, ‘Don’t act. Just be real.’ It’s like, Man, he has all this opportunity to really define what it is and that’s when he stood back to watch it unfold,” Yet there’s a reality to what ended up on screen, with the interplay of dialogue and people’s reactions and movements. I think that’s what amazes people. What he did in that string with The Player and Short Cuts, it freaked the system out how real it could be.”
Bob used his camera as an extension of his or the viewer’s eye, subtly scanning the action, letting shots plays out in extended takes. Dana said it was up to the camera operator to capture it all. It makes for a fluid, intimate style that can be uneasy for how invasive this sense of peering-in at private moments gets. “It’s very voyeuristic, that’s what it is,” Altman said. “It’s kind of like he lulls you in and allows you inside. And I think that’s exactly how it was for him when he sat in front of a monitor.”
For Dana, like many others, watching a Robert Altman film is akin to watching a play. “You always feel like the whole scene is right there in front of you,” he said. “He almost takes the shot exactly where my brain would want to go.”
Within this richly textured mis en scene, there’s the sense, as in life, anything or nothing at all may transpire. “In almost everybody else’s work you can kind of feel this structure – that there’s a written page somewhere and it’s either going to go here or here,” Altman said. “But with Bob I’ve never been able to guess what’s next. What the next line of dialogue or the next plot line is. You never get bored. Your brain’s on fire being a voyeur in this world. It’s life unscripted.”
When crewing, there were no long talks about theory or technique. “When I was working with him, it was work,” Altman said. “I was there to facilitate what he needed. Certainly he would define reasons why. Like our discussions about what type of vehicles or how many vehicles outside Union Station during Kansas City. He showed me photographs. ‘Here, look at these pictures, this is what I want to see.’”
Away from the set, conversations rarely turned to film. “We skipped over all that stuff,” he said. At moments like these it was a grandson and a grandfather talking about life, “just hanging out,” Altman said. “It was more personal.” Always, he said, Bob was easy to be around. “No matter what, he was accessible. I never found him to be this unattainable, untouchable great artist. I always saw him, you know, as grandpa.” It was the same way with “the great talents” he got to know on Bob’s sets, including Glenn Close and Julianne Moore — “the neatest lady I’ve ever met.” He said they didn’t talk shop, but about family. Or, in the case of Chris O’Donnell, they talked golf while Altman fruitlessly tried beating the actor on the links.
His grandfather’s sets were warm and personable. “He always created that environment where he was good to be around and you sensed the people he gathered were all together…like a family. They were cool. I’ve sensed that on Alexander’s (Payne) films as well. On other films I’ve been on it’s more of a job.”
Altman realizes he “was in a position other people would love to be in.” A part of him rues not talking more film with Bob. “It’s kind of like I missed out,” he said. “He was such a fantastic, world renowned figure who it’s rare to be in the company of.” But always, he said, duty and family trumped career or professional conceit.
One of the last times he saw Bob was in 2005, as the director wrapped A Prairie Home Companion in Vancouver, where 35 years earlier little Dana was sloshing through mud in galoshes on the set of McCabe. Altman’s wife and kids made the trip up north to visit grandpa on Prairie Home. Once again, family came first.
He said his grandfather was touched by the lifetime Oscar he accepted at the 2006 Academy Awards: “He told me he was very excited about getting an Oscar for the volume of his work rather than just one (film).” Altman was delighted the Academy saw fit to honor his grandfather “before it was too late.”
When news of his death reached him, Altman said there was little time to react as “it all happened quickly. No time really for a service. I took my wife and five of our six kids and it was just us family getting together for Thanksgiving at his house in Malibu right over the ocean. Some of us stood to speak our peace and say goodbye. I miss him already.”
NOTE: Dana Altman attended a February 20 memorial service for his grandfather at New York’s Majestic Theater. He plans to attend a second tribute on March 4 at the DGA Theater in Los Angeles. Robert Altman will be posthumously accorded a lifetime achievement award at the Spirit Awards on Feb. 24; in addition, the awards committee has created the Robert Altman Award, to be given out beginning next year to a film’s director and ensemble cast.
- ALTMAN’S “McCABE & MRS. MILLER” | TSY REQUIRED VIEWING (theselvedgeyard.wordpress.com)
- ReFramed No. 4: Robert Altman’s ‘California Split’ (Short Ends and Leader) (popmatters.com)
- Check it Out: Cookie’s Fortune (lawlibraryblog.seattleu.edu)