Friday, February 14, 2014

The Paul Dooley Project: Part 4 - Paul Dooley talks with TV STORE ONLINE about Robert Altman's A WEDDING (1978).

In the last of The Paul Dooley Project for TV STORE ONLINE actor Paul Dooley talks about working with Robert Altman on A WEDDING (1978)...

TV STORE ONLINE:  When someone brings up A WEDDING (1978) to you...What are your first thoughts on the making of that film?

DOOLEY:  It had ten stars in it, and it had fifty actors in it.   I don't really remember the acting I did in the film as much as the great company of actors that I worked with on A WEDDING.   Lillian Gish, one of the first ever movie stars is in the film.   There were so many wonderful actors that worked on A WEDDING.   My favorite memory is just being part of that family that made the movie.   Normally, a director will bring an actor in for a week to shoot his scenes and then he'll leave and he won't get a very good opportunity to get to know the other actors.  But with Altman, he brings you in at the beginning and even if you only have a couple scenes he'll keep you there the entire time he's shooting because he may decide later on that he wants to put you in the background of a scene that he's shooting.     We shot A WEDDING in eight weeks.  It was my first job with Altman.  Geraldine Chaplin was in the film. Carol Burnett was in the film. Desi Arnaz Jr. is in the film...

TV STORE ONLINE:  Pat McCormick too...

DOOLEY:  That's right.  Pat was a good friend of mine.  I once was a roommate with Pat for an entire summer years ago.  We were working up in the mountains at a resort, so I got to know him very well.

TV STORE ONLINE:   Could you talk about Altman's innovative technique of recording the sound with actors on the set, and in particular, on the set of A WEDDING?

DOOLEY:  Yeah, he had that technique of putting microphones all over the place on every film he shot.   He would do that when he had to shoot crowd scenes.  Most directors would never do that. Usually they'll just body mic an actor and use a couple boom mics, but Altman wouldn't do it that way.   Altman had a cart with sound decks on it.  That recording system could handle eight tapes at a time.  Basically, that meant that he could record up to sixteen mics at a time.  Normally, we would do two or three takes and then we'd switch the mics over to another sixteen actors and then do another two or three takes.  All of the sound in Altman's films overlaps.   He told me once that he used to get fired all of the time when he was trying to work in television because of how his soundtracks were always so "muddy".   But he liked them that way because he felt that that was the way soundtracks sounded in real life.    He liked it that way because he could do wide master shots and that way you could see all of these people talking at the same time in the frame.    Some considered Altman an amateur in his early days for doing it that way, but it eventually became his signature style and you can really hear how great it works in M.A.S.H. (1970).

TV STORE ONLINE:  You shot A WEDDING in Chicago didn't you?

DOOLEY:  It was just outside of Chicago on one of the lakes. It was close to Waukegan, Illinois.  The house we shot in was owned by the Armour Meats family.    But the house was on the market at the time so that gave us all of the time we needed to shoot the film.  We did two days of shooting in a church and then the rest of the time in that house shooting.

That house had something like twenty bedrooms in it and all of the actors paired up and we went in groups and we all used the bedrooms for our dressing rooms.  I shared mine with Pat McCormick who played "Mackenzie Goddard".

TV STORE ONLINE:  So that underground man-cave that we see in A WEDDING was actually part of that house?

Oh Yeah. That was the basement to the house.  But it was more like the size of a night club.

TV STORE ONLINE:   Your character "Snooks Brenner" is one of those dads that flies off the handle very easily...That type of character seems to suit you.   You played a similar character in BREAKING AWAY (1977) as well...Why do you think that hot-head father suits you so well?

DOOLEY:  Well, that character is really just my own father.  When I played "Snooks" or when I played the Father in BREAKING AWAY that was really just me playing my own dad.   My dad never said much, he never smiled much either,  but when he said something it was always against whatever was going on around him.   I'm always cast as a Father who is a little bit withdrawn and isn't comfortable showing his emotions.   You can see that at the beginning of SIXTEEN CANDLES (1984) even.  I play it well because it's like mother's milk to me.    Part of it too, it that even though he is like that, he always ends up being known as a grouchy guy with a heart of gold.  By the way the name of the character "Snooks Brenner" came to Altman when he was working on the script for A WEDDING.  He had been down south shooting THIEVES LIKE US (1974) and he was staying in an apartment at the time and his next door neighbor was named Snooks Brenner.

TV STORE ONLINE:   Snooks is such a fun character in that film....I love that exchange between Snooks and Desi Arnaz Jr.'s character where he says to Snooks, "Can I call you Pops?"  And, Snooks responds, "You can call me Snooks."

DOOLEY: Yeah, and I had a lot of confidence that Altman would like improvisation.   The first words that I ever spoke in A WEDDING are in that wedding scene.   In the scene they said, "Who gives this woman to this man?"  Normally a father would step forward and say, "I Do."   But I stepped forward and said, "Snooks. Brenner. I Do. Me."  I made a moment out of it.  I took a chance, but I knew what Altman liked so I knew he would use it.

TV STORE ONLINE:  What about working with Carol Burnett?

DOOLEY:  Well, I had known Carol before because I had worked with her up in the mountains too.    Altman wanted us to play husband and wife, and he was delighted when he found out that we had worked together before.   I had a lot of fun coming up with those dialogue exchanges with Carol.   There's that scene where Carol comes back in from out in the garden where she has been with Pat McCormick.    Carol comes in and I say, "You're late. Where has you been?"  She says, "I'm sorry."  Then I say, "You're about the sorriest little liar I've ever seen...."  I made up all of those lines...

TV STORE ONLINE:  I can't imagine that the script for A WEDDING  was really fleshed out....

DOOLEY:  They had an outline that was about twelve pages long.  When I first got to Chicago, they gave me a notebook that was about fifty pages long.   Every page had the name of a character on it with a back story starting with Lillian Gish.  As you got through the notebook the back stories got shorter and shorter.  Near the back you saw "Security Guard" and it said, "She has only been at it for a month." Then the very last entry in the notebook said, "Gypsy Violinist" and it said, "She's a Gypsy that plays Violin music."    I never saw a script.   Usually they'd give us a page a day or two before we were to shoot a scene.  You'd have to memorize your dialogue that morning as you were in make-up.  It wasn't really hard and the best part about Altman is that he never cared whether you paraphrased his dialogue or not.

TV STORE ONLINE:  Could you talk about that great confrontation scene with everyone on the Brenner side of the family?

DOOLEY:  Right, Snooks finds out that his daughter is knocked up!   She's not even the bride, she's the sister.  My daughter was played by Mia Farrow.   I call them all together and Snooks says, "Is it true? Are you going to have a baby?"  She says, "Yes."  Snooks says, "OK, are their any others?"  Mia starts counting on her hands and then she borrows her Aunts' hands to finish the counting...

TV STORE ONLINE:  Was that scene scripted out?

Yeah, it was.   I threw in that line when Snooks walks out of the room and says, "Hell of a wedding.."

TV STORE ONLINE:  There's a great underbelly in A WEDDING that something isn't quite right between the two families in the film....

DOOLEY:  Right, the rich people didn't like Snooks' family because they were too poor and the nouveau riche didn't like the old money because they were too snobbish...

TV STORE ONLINE:  That is a theme in Altman's work...He does that in PERFECT COUPLE (1979) as well as in GOSFORD PARK (2001)....

DOOLEY:  Right, I think he was concerned with that.  I think he really wanted to stick it to the rich.

TV STORE ONLINE:  Could you talk about that great scene in A WEDDING where everyone is gathered for the unveiling of the painting and it turns out to be a portrait of a topless Mia Farrow?

DOOLEY:  Yeah, none of us had actually seen that painting until we started rolling the cameras.  All we knew was what Altman had said which was, "They're gonna unveil the painting and everyone is supposed to be shocked."   So when they actually unveiled it, that was our actual response.    Then Altman went around from our perspective and shot the painting...  I had a feeling though before we saw it that it was going to be something surprising, I didn't guess it would be a nude though...laughing

TV STORE ONLINE:  I just LOVE Snooks line there, "Did you pose for that!?!?"

DOOLEY:  Yeah, we improvised that.

TV STORE ONLINE:  Snooks has the instinct to run over and take care of the painting...

DOOLEY:  Right, Altman said, "Go over and try to take it and the security guard is gonna stop you."

TV STORE ONLINE:  My favorite shot in the film is that visually stunning wide-shot that comes at the end when the Brenners' pull up on the highway in their car and see what they think is their daughter's car which has just crashed into that tanker truck and exploded...

DOOLEY:   That was a good scene. I thought we all were able to make that very tragic.   Then our characters go back to the house and realize that the people that were killed in that scene weren't actually Snooks daughter and her new husband, but some of the bridesmaids..

TV STORE ONLINE:  And the greatness of that sequence is that its a punchline...

DOOLEY:  Right, that was Altman's idea.  He thought it would be funny if these people came back in a state of tears only to find out that their loved ones weren't actually killed and their response was to throw a party...laughing

TV STORE ONLINE:  With that bickering between in-laws...There seems to be so much truth in that even all these years later after the film's release.  In-laws aren't getting together usually...

  I imagine that a lot of fathers resent paying for the wedding when the other family has the money to help too.  I'm sure if you scratch that surface you'll find that problem.

TV STORE ONLINE:  Of the handful of films that you worked on with Robert Altman...Which one do you think is his best and why?

DOOLEY:  I think POPEYE is the best (1980). I like it best because of the actors and the environment in which we shot it.   None of us actors thought that we were shooting in Malta.  We all felt like we were actually living in Sweethaven.   It was a great experience.  We shot that for six months and that had been the longest I had ever worked on a film.  POPEYE didn't work because at the end there was a chase and it was a chase with boats, and boats only go about five miles an hour.    Altman was really good at creating characters and place and dialogue.   I didn't think much of O.C. & STIGGS (1985) and I don't think H.E.A.L.T.H.(1980) is that great of an film overall, but I really think PERFECT COUPLE and A WEDDING are great films.

Really though, it doesn't matter when you think about. The most important thing about working with Altman wasn't the work that we were creating, but the experience of making it with him.

Interview Conducted By Justin Bozung
For more with Paul Dooley please visit his website HERE: