NEW YORK — It’s no exaggeration to say that director Robert Altman, who made his first film, “The Delinquents,” in 1955, has had one of the most interesting and erratic careers in the movie business.
His credits include any number of critical hits — among them 1971’s “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” 1992’s “The Player” and, most recently, 2001’s “Gosford Park” — but perhaps even more misfires, including 1980’s “Popeye,” 1994’s “Prêt-à-Porter,” and 2000’s “Dr. T & The Women.” Though he has been nominated five times, Altman has never won an Oscar, and “MASH,” which grossed $73 million when it was released in 1970, accounts for his biggest box-office success.
Despite the ups and downs, however, Altman, who will turn 79 in February and whose latest film, “The Company,” about a corps de ballet, hits theaters this week, shows no signs of slowing down. “I was never more prolific than I am now,” Altman says in a suite at the Essex House. In fact, he starts shooting his next project, which is about the art world and is tentatively titled “Paint,” in March.
“It isn’t any harder to make films now as long as you can wake up in the morning,” he explains. “What else can I do with my day? But I don’t think your art gets any better — the films get more facile, they get more efficient. But there’s a danger in becoming so efficient, and the best way is to focus on something that I don’t know.”
That’s the philosophy behind “The Company,” which Altman filmed among dancers at the Joffrey Ballet. In the movie, a main dancer, played by Neve Campbell, attempts to distinguish herself from the rest of the ensemble. Campbell and screenwriter Barbara Turner brought Altman the idea three years ago, and because of his lack of knowledge about the dance world, he was hesitant to pursue it. “But the more I got thinking about it, I thought, this is actually why I should be doing a film about dance,” Altman says. “When I made ‘Nashville,’ I had never been to Nashville. But, if you know everything about something, why are you doing it? I don’t think I’m any different from a reporter who goes to the Congo and comes back with a story about elephants.”
And indeed, though “The Company” features a large cast of characters and the overlapping, sometimes indistinguishable dialogue that has become the director’s trademark, it has a documentary feel. “It’s very truthful,” Altman says. “And I don’t really have anything to say — the audience knows all the stories: Oh, here’s the dancer who gets hurt, or the difficult impresario. I didn’t bend the elements to fit what I had in mind. I shot what they do. I just had a bit of control over the connective tissue.”
The “connective tissue” is a love story between Campbell and a short-order cook, played by James Franco, and even those scenes Altman “shot like a pas de deux.”
The director insists, however, that he “didn’t learn anything about dance” as he was making the movie. “A few nuances, yes,” he says. “But mostly the price that these dancers pay, what they have to give up and what they can win at best. It’s a very melancholy world to me. By the time they’re 19, they walk like a duck. There’s no future, there’s no money in it. They don’t have any social lives. But I don’t mean it to be depressing. What I’m really trying to do is show a day in the life.”
It is not Altman’s aim to be accessible; he purposely obscures details in his film so that they are mysterious and more enriching upon repeated viewings. “When I make a film, I say, ‘Pay attention or you’re going to miss it,’” he explains. “Don’t expect me to do your work for you. If a film isn’t appreciably better the second time around, it’s probably not a good film.”
For his next project, however, Altman is entering more familiar territory: the state of commercial art. “Paint is dead,” he says. “When you go down to Dia, you see a paper bag and there are maggots and somebody’s garbage in it, but it’s actually a film.
“But I’m not trying to say what is good art or bad art, or what is good or bad fashion,” Altman adds. “I’m really more of a reporter who says, ‘That’s the way it looks to me.’”