IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Elliot Gould Talks 'Altman' Documentary, Making 'MASH,' 'The Long Goodbye' and 'The Player'

Thursday, 07 August 2014 14:50 Written by  Jami Philbrick
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IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Elliot Gould Talks 'Altman' Documentary, Making 'MASH,' 'The Long Goodbye' and 'The Player'

Unarguably, director Robert Altman is one of the greatest filmmakers of all-time. 

His impressive resume of films include such groundbreaking classics as MASH, Brewster McCloud, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, Nashville, Popeye, The Player, Short Cuts, Gosford Park, and A Prairie Home Companion. Robert Altman’s life and career are now examined in the new EPIX Original Documentary entitled Altman, which premieres August 6th. 

Altman takes viewers through the highs and lows of the uncompromising visionary’s half-century long career in filmmaking. The documentary features interviews with Paul Thomas Anderson, James Caan, Phillip Baker Hall, Sally Kellerman, Lyle Lovett, Julianne Moore, Lily Tomlin, Robin Williams, and Bruce Willis

Another longtime Altman collaborator that appears in the new documentary is Elliot Gould, whose own impressive career has spanned over fifty years. The veteran actor made five films with Altman including MASH, The Long Goodbye, California Split, Nashville, and The Player. Gould first gained attention for his work in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, which earned him an Academy Award-nomination for Best Supporting Actor. He would go on to appear in such films as Capricorn One, The Muppet Movie, Bugsy, American History X, Contagion, and Ruby Sparks. But he is probably best known to a younger generation for his role as Monica and Ross’ dad on Friends, as well as playing Ruben Tishkoff in Ocean’s Eleven, Ocean’s Twelve, and Ocean’s Thirteen. He can currently be seen opposite Liev Schreiber on the popular Showtime series Ray Donovan

I recently had the absolute pleasure of speaking with Elliot Gould about Altman, making MASH, The Long Goodbye and The Player, as well as working with the legendary director. Gould candidly discussed the new documentary, his first meeting with Robert Altman, reading the script for MASH, his onscreen chemistry with Donald Sutherland, why MASH was so ahead of its time, Altman’s process as a filmmaker, his groundbreaking use of sound, making The Long Goodbye, playing the iconic character of Phillip Marlowe, why the movie angered so many people, appearing in The Player, and his favorite all-time Altman films.

Here is what Elliot Gould had to say about Altman, making MASH, The Long Goodbye and The Player:

IAR: To begin with, can you talk about the first time you met Robert Altman?

Elliot Gould: I had gone into New York to start a play called The Way of Life after having done my third film Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. I started rehearsing The Way of Life and the director was fired. Then I was fired and so I came back out to Los Angeles. I was asked to meet Bob Altman at 20th Century Fox and went to his office. He was there alone and gave me a script. He asked me to read it and then we made another appointment to see each other. Then he cast me. 

Was that the script for MASH?

Gould: Yes, MASH.

What was your first impression of the screenplay when you read it?

Gould: He asked me after I read the script how I felt about playing Duke Forrest, the American southerner. I said I've never questioned an interest or an offer, and that I could do it, but I’d drive myself crazy validating me as an American southerner. I have an ear, I'm musical, but this character of “Trapper” John, If you haven't yet cast “Trapper” John McIntyre than I'm your guy. I've got what you need for it. I've got the juice, I've got the energy, I've got the spirit, and so he cast me.

The chemistry between you and Donald Sutherland in that movie is just amazing and absolutely perfect. Can you talk about first meeting him?

Gould: That’s so nice of you to say. That was the first thing that Bob asked me after he cast me is if I would have lunch alone with Donald. So at the commissary at Fox, Donald and I had lunch. 

Was it as fun for you as an actor to shoot those scenes with Sutherland as it was for us as an audience to watch?

Gould: Yes, it was a great deal of fun. I think that we didn’t have any expectations for the film, for the results, but we had a great time doing it. 

There were so many memorable moments in MASH, such as the football game or the loudspeaker announcements for example. Were those all in the script or were a lot of those scenes found during production and post-production?

Gould: As far as I'm concerned it was all Robert Altman and also his editor (Danford B. Greene) that made it all work. We recently had a screening for the UCLA retrospective of Bob's work where they showed for the first time this documentary that we're talking about. So they had a whole bunch of people there who talked about it. Whenever I see MASH invariably I see something I didn't see before. That night I sat with Danford Greene and then we talked. He was very helpful to Bob. But that was Bob Altman. Bob gave life to that. 

MASH was really ahead of its time. Did you understand that while you were making it, or is that something that you can only recognize looking back years later? 

Gould: That's a very interesting question. I know that at the time Catch-22 was supposed to be the great production and the great anti-war picture. At the time it didn't succeed to the degree that was expected and MASH, which was totally unexpected, lasted through the environment. I recall bumping into Alan Alda at the Beverly Hills Hotel after MASH had become so successful. He was getting ready to do a movie actually with Tom Skerritt, something called The Moonshine War. It was like a "B" picture about booze and prohibition. I said, Alan you know how good you are and look what we did with MASH. So if we could do it then you can too. You know in your mind you are better than we are. You can do it! Of course he went on to do the television series and made all the money. But it's like that song; “They can't take that away from me.” We were there at the very beginning. 

What was Altman’s process like as a director? What was your experience working with him as an actor day to day on the set? 

Gould: He once said something to me that wasn't quite harmonious to me. He said, “I learned how to put it together in chaos and therefore I will create chaos in which to put it together.” I thought you've got some experts here and all you have to do is tell us what you want, what you're going for. His process and I reflected is in all of his work is basically about life taking its course in terms of the human quotient, of the human involvement with a human element. The element of the humanity, which is pretty complicated, he would find so much of his humor in that. 

Altman was also ahead of his time as a filmmaker in the sense of sound production and the ability to have a big scene play out where you could actually hear what everyone's saying in the background in every moment. That was one of the things I always thought was the most impressive about Altman’s films. What did you think about his use of that technique?

Gould: He knew what he was doing and he knew what he was going for. I think each of his works as an artist, and each picture had a life of its own as far as sound. He did some great sound with California Split. Every word is abstract. But your feelings are not abstract. Your feelings are true. Your feelings are real. As far as words being able to impart information not to in any way devalue the words that we have, but if you're going to have words, we want feelings and we want the nature and we want the life. 

When I was in College I was looking for some older movies to watch that would help me better understand great filmmaking. I asked my father for a recommendation and told me to rent The Long Goodbye

Gould: Oh, isn’t that nice.

Whenever I see that film now, I’m reminded that it was the movie my dad recommended. It’s a fantastic film and I think in the catalog of great Robert Altman movies it has somewhat been forgotten. What was it like for you to have a chance to play the iconic character of Phillip Marlowe and collaborate with Mr. Altman on that project?

Gould: It was beyond description. It was just great. Once he took the project on he then called me to ask me what I thought. I said I always wanted to play that guy and Bob said, “You are that guy.” That was the beginning of the picture. I remember when we auditioned Nina Van Pallandt and I remember everything about her. I remember when Sterling Hayden came on board and I asked if I could meet with him in the house that we used that was Hayden and Nina Van Pallandt’s character's house in the movie. That was the house that Bob was living in there at the beach with his wife Kathryn and his family, and eventually Bob bought the house. If you recall when Nina Van Pallandt’s character Eileen Wade is making a Chicken Kiev and having dinner with Philip Marlowe, there's a picture deep in the back of the bedroom and you could see it. That's Leonard Cohen and Leonard Cohen had scored McCabe and Mrs. Miller. With Bob it's life. The Long Goodbye means so much to me. We even started talking about the sequel to it very late on as the guy would be so much older, but his values, the values of Philip Marlowe, the values that Raymond Chandler imparted on Philip Marlowe would be the same. I'd found some material and Bob and I were starting to talk about it. As you know, in the book of The Long Goodbye Phillip Marlowe doesn’t pull the trigger, and Terry Lennox (Jim Boulton's character) changes his identity so in the picture we broke the mold. There were a lot of people who resented it, a lot of people who were angry at it. 

Why do you think people were angry at that movie? Were they upset with Altman’s interpretation of Raymond Chandler’s classic novel?

Gould: They were angry at breaking the mold, the great mold that has been made with (Humphrey) Bogart before we broke the mold by bringing it into the present. In the present it's all about life. That was really something. You just had to be true to that collaboration. Bobby told me I scared him a little bit in it. He's got that ingenious The Long Goodbye theme by John Williams and Johnny Mercer, which appears in the film 14 or so times as a different version of the same music each time. After Marlowe pulls the trigger, and (cinematographer) Vilmos Zsigmond's camera now is set and it's not moving anymore, Eileen Wage is coming back to see her dead boyfriend. Marlowe can't even look at her as he’s leaving and then he starts to dance up the road. I said my wife has a four-note harmonica. I'll take it out and play. Bob said to me, “Okay, but you'll play The Long Goodbye theme.”  I said no! I'll play an uninhibited child’s tune or you can't have my instrument. 

You also appeared in Altman’s The Player, which is another film that I think was way ahead of its time. What is your memory of making that movie?

Gould: Oh it's great. I have no role in that really, I'm just a guest at this party. But he let me, Ann Margaret, Nick Nolte and I think Cher, be announced as “Untouchables.”  

Finally, do you personally have a favorite Robert Altman film that you weren't involved in, something you enjoy watching yourself?

Gould: Oh no, I loved them all. What come to mind are Brewster McCloud, and McCabe and Mrs. Miler. Because I have my history with McCabe and Mrs. Miler since Bob and I talked about doing it together. But I don't really have a favorite. Oh my God, the sum of his work! 

Altman premieres on EPIX August 6th. 

MASH is currently available on Blu-ray and DVD.

The Long Goodbye is currently available on Blu-ray and DVD.

The Player is currently available on Blu-ray and DVD.

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