- The Washington Times - Friday, January 4, 2002

NEW YORK The savory new social comedy and crime melodrama "Gosford Park" has an English setting and predominantly British cast, but the movie was hatched by American Bobs director Robert Altman and character actor Bob Balaban.

As the maverick Mr. Altman nears 76, major success continues to elude him. His style has mellowed since 1996, however, and the string of "Kansas City," "Cookie's Fortune," "Dr. T & the Women" and now "Gosford Park" is one of the best of his distinctive career.
Mr. Balaban, 56, best-known for playing humorous and mild-mannered characters, also works as a producer and an occasional director. He often is recognized for his appearance as Russell Dalrymple, who was smitten with Elaine on the TV sitcom "Seinfeld."
The versatile descendant of a famous show-business family the Balaban and Katz clan, which emerged from Chicago as major exhibitors in the silent-film era Mr. Balaban had a pair of uncles who were studio bosses. Barney Balaban became president of Paramount, and Sam Katz headed production at MGM.
"Gosford Park" takes place during a weekend hunting party at an English country estate in 1932. A murder occurs, but isolating the killer proves less important than uncovering a web of emotional connections that links several characters across class barriers not to mention decades of hidden shame, resentment and heartache.
Mr. Altman is not feeling in the pink the morning of press interviews to promote the movie. He seemed to be fighting off flu symptoms a day earlier when speaking at a memorial presentation in Manhattan for the late movie critic Pauline Kael, an influential Altman champion of the early 1970s who died Sept. 3.
"I'll start by telling you that I'm sick as a dog," he announces to reporters.
Mr. Altman recalls that Mr. Balaban approached him about cooking up a film project 21/2 years ago. The director thought he might like to try a whodunit. Although "Cookie's Fortune" and Mr. Altman's much earlier, ultrarevisionist movie version of Raymond Chandler's "The Long Goodbye" would seem to overlap the genre, he had something different in mind. He wanted to do a British-drawing-room whodunit in the tradition of Agatha Christie and her peers.
"We didn't want to get too close to World War II. Just close enough to suggest that a certain way of life might be getting obsolete," he says. "Anyway, we started from there and looked around for writers. Bob knew Julian Fellowes. I didn't. We called him, and it came to be."
Mr. Fellowes, the British actor-turned-screenwriter, had been involved in another Balaban project, the yet-to-be-realized adaptation of the Anthony Trollope novel "The Eustace Diamonds." Mr. Fellowes never had seen one of his movie scripts realized until "Gosford Park," although he is known within the industry and wrote several BBC adaptations, including miniseries derived from "Little Lord Fauntleroy" and "The Prince and the Pauper."
Mr. Altman believes the movie "has my DNA all over it," although an English writer was considered essential.
"I used to think every film I did was going to be so different from the previous one. Now, when I look back, they're all chapters in the same book," he says.
The pair say they preferred a tailor-made scenario. "I didn't want this to be a whodunit, as typically understood. I wanted it to be more of a 'Why didn't they do it earlier?' Or a 'Who cares who done it?' Or a 'Thank God, someone finally got around to doing it.' I wanted to deal with the social arena rather than crime detection. Our sleuth is a complete amateur, the little maid played by Kelly Macdonald, whose main job is to ingratiate herself with Maggie Smith as her employer, a snobbish countess. The principal detective on the scene, Stephen Fry's character, is a complete comic bumbler."
Mr. Altman likes to disarm his actors. He doesn't conceal the finished script from them, as Woody Allen often prefers to do, but he does downplay the idea of becoming too familiar with the whole.
"I suggested to many actors that they didn't need to look much beyond their own parts," the director says. "In some cases, being oblivious would be quite helpful to a characterization."
Mr. Altman believes actors tend to overprepare "as a way of overprotecting themselves."
"They never know what they're going to walk into the first day on the set. I may seem like a nice guy in my office but turn into a maniac on the floor. So they like to be prepared, to wear their armor," he explains. "What I try to do is get them to check the armor at the door."
Further discussing his method, Mr. Altman says: "I really don't do very much once the film is cast. From that point on, it's the actors. This isn't false modesty. I'm not modest at all. But with good actors in the roles to start with, I can step back and count on them to create the film. They look to me not for guidance, but for a simple, 'Was that OK?' I may ask for another take, but it may be for reasons that have nothing to do with what went wrong during the previous take."
Mr. Balaban picks up the thread of the backstage chronicle after Mr. Altman excuses himself. "I have never had a better time," he says. "To watch this thing go from being a conversation over lunch three years ago to seeing Maggie Smith done up in her costume in a real drawing room, with everybody breathing and living in this fictional world it must be comparable to having a child. You get so amused just being around a table with Maggie or Michael Gambon or whoever while Emily Watson is serving tea and Alan Bates is acting peerlessly stuffy as the butler. Sometimes as many as 17 actors in a scene, all on separate channels.
He estimates that "about 75 things" make being in an Altman movie pleasurable. "Working with him in the way you do is so specific and unique that some people find it hard to work with other directors; it's too disillusioning," Mr. Balaban says.
"I don't mean that Bob ruins them or spoils them, but you're so relaxed on his set. You believe he's in love with you, which is generally true. You wouldn't be in his movie unless he'd been looking forward to it. Then he lets you do pretty much whatever you want, which is anathema on a lot of movie sets. In our case, it enabled things to go more quickly. Once you've completed the rehearsals, it seems as if shooting the scenes flies by in a matter of minutes. Remember, none of this applies in the intimate scenes between two or three characters. In those situations, his methods start to resemble the customary way of doing things."
Mr. Balaban notes that he was a late addition to the cast. "I expected to go away once the movie was written, financed, cast and officially all set up and ready to go," he says. But "nobody else was ever cast as Weissman [a comic stooge of a fictional Hollywood producer, called Morris Weissman]. The role sort of grew over time. We tried to get a few people. Our first choice was a bit more famous than I am: Paul Newman. Anyway, he couldn't do it."
A passing reference to Weissman as an "obnoxious" character seems to sting him.
"The whole point was to play down my [characters] obnoxiousness and my Jewishness," he says. "Weissman is preoccupied with the movie he needs to produce, 'Charlie Chan in London,' which was a real movie. Fox did it two years after our story is supposed to take place. He doesn't pay attention to a lot of things because he's monopolizing long-distance lines, placing fretful calls to Hollywood. That makes him funny. But obnoxious? At all times, I tried to appear a calm, WASP-y sort of person."


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