Screenwriter Allan F. Nicholls on Robert Altman and PERFECT COUPLE (1979)

 Actor / Writer ALLAN F. NICHOLLS talks with TV STORE ONLINE about the under-appreciated 1979 Robert Altman comedy PERFECT COUPLE.

TV STORE ONLINE:  How did the idea for PERFECT COUPLE [1979] come to you initially?

NICHOLLS:  Well, it actually came about before we did A WEDDING [1978].   At the time I was living in Los Angeles with several displaced Broadway rock music types like myself.  We had all moved to Los Angeles from New York City to try to work in television and film.  Either in '76 or '77,  I put together a bunch of people and we rented the Westwood Playhouse and we put on this midnight concert.   It was well-received, and there were a number of us that performed as quartets or two-pieces on the stage.  It was great fun and people were talking about it afterward.  Robert Altman heard about it and expressed his regret about not having been able to see it.   His producer suggested that he produce the show himself.  So we put it on again at the Roxy Theater and it went for three nights, except this time it was: "Robert Altman Presents:"  We started calling ourselves "Keepin' Em Off The Streets".  It was a great success and out of that--we decided to put it on again at the Roxy a few months later.   The third time around we recorded the entire thing.  We had a Record Plant Studios truck outside the Roxy and we recorded the whole concert.   I have no idea where those recordings are today but I would love to get my hands on them.   From there--we all went to New York to find a theater to put on the show again.   But, Altman got the go-ahead to start shooting A WEDDING (1978) and we went off to do that instead.  

When we finished the shooting of A WEDDING--the idea of doing another stage show wasn't very appealing.  Altman said, "Why don't we just write it into a movie?"  Let's make it a love story and we'll have one of the characters be in the rock band."   I went for a walk one day on lunch and I discovered this video dating service.  It was two blocks down from Altman's office.  I went in, grabbed some of their pamphlets and went back to the office.  I said, "Bob, I've got it.  Let's have our couple meet through a video dating service."  He liked the idea and we sat down and wrote the movie.  The video dating service was something brand new at that time.  The first date that we wrote was to be at the Santa Monica Pier on the Ferris Wheel, but then we changed it to the Hollywood Bowl.  Altman wanted the first date to be at an event.  It's kind of a tradition in Los Angeles for people to go to the Hollywood Bowl and bring a picnic with them.  We decided that would be a great opening.  From there we decided to bring in the L.A. Philharmonic.  It was driving the producers nuts because we only had a million dollar budget or just over that--so we had to call in a lot of favors to get the film started.    

The script for PERFECT COUPLE was pretty loose.   It was basically boy-meets-girl-boy-loses-girl.   It was Bob's idea to develop the sexuality of all the various characters.  Which was interesting--because back in 1979 people weren't really talking about gay relationships and in PERFECT COUPLE there are three gay relationships!

TV STORE ONLINE:  It seems like Altman was really inspired by the songs that the band were doing in that stage show....

NICHOLLS:  He loved them.  I remember Roger Ebert gave the film a mediocre review saying something about how Altman didn't pay much attention to the storyline as he did to the music in the movie.   Which is funny--as I'm currently working to have PERFECT COUPLE adapted for the stage.

TV STORE ONLINE:  You hinted toward it a moment ago...One of the key themes of both PERFECT COUPLE and A WEDDING is the coming together of these two different types or cultures of people....

NICHOLLS:      They're colliding worlds....

TV STORE ONLINE:  What do you think it is about that notion that you or Altman found so fascinating? 

NICHOLLS:   Bob just liked to tell those stories.  He liked to tell stories that had something to say on social structure and culture.   He saw the families in both scripts and their dysfunction and he found that interesting as a means to make that statement.

TV STORE ONLINE:  I appreciate how PERFECT COUPLE takes the idea a step farther...The film goes so far as to alienate the lead characters from their families so that they themselves don't fit into the world from which they initially came....

NICHOLLS:   Absolutely.

TV STORE ONLINE:   One of my favorite songs in PERFECT COUPLE is "Fantasy".   That's one you wrote.  What is the origin story behind the writing of that song?

  The two main songs in the show and film were songs that I'd had in my arsenal for years.  I wrote both with friends while I was in "Hair" in 1969.   "Goodbye Friends" I wrote as a tribute to my friends Keith Carradine and Danny Sullivan.  They were leaving the show to go out to Los Angeles.   I wrote the song in between shows of a Saturday Matinee one afternoon.  It was done in that short of time.  I wrote it, and after the show that Saturday night I sung it to them. The song has been with me for a long time.    "Goodbye Friends" was used as the opener and the closer for the Keepin' Em Off The Streets concerts.   "Fantasy"  I wrote in 1971.   I was in New York City at the time and I was sub-letting Shelly Plimpton's mother's apartment. She had a baby grand piano and I sat down and just started playing.  I don't write or read music.  I just sat down and started it.  And to this day I don't know any of the notes or chords for that song.  It just came to me, and I don't know how.    The other songs in the movie I co-wrote with Ted Neeley and Tony Berg.    Ted and I wrote "Weekend Holiday" and "Love Is All There Is".  

TV STORE ONLINE:  The most impressive aspect of the music for the film is how many of the songs are constantly in a state of flux.  They are structured wonderfully...

NICHOLLS:   Tony Berg arranged the songs.  He was an amazing arranger.

TV STORE ONLINE:  How about "Lonely Millionare"?    It says on the soundtrack that actor Cliff De Young had some involvement in that track....Was he part of the band?

NICHOLLS:   He was part of the early incarnation of Keepin' Em Off The Streets.   Cliff co-wrote the song with Tony and I when we were doing the live shows.

TV STORE ONLINE:  Some of the songs have a very Disco feel to them.  Was that part of just the times in which you were working or did Disco have any influence on you?

NICHOLLS:  A little probably.  That really came from Tony doing the arrangements.  We had an amazing drummer at that time named Art Wood too.  I think he was one of the members of the band on the earlier seasons of the American Idol television show.

TV STORE ONLINE:  Was Paul Dooley always Altman's first choice for the role of "Alex" in the film PERFECT COUPLE?


TV STORE ONLINE:  So how much of the stuff in the film was improved out and then scripted out?   An example would be that great kiss that Paul Dooley shares with Marta Heflin.

NICHOLLS:  Well, almost all of it was situated.   Some things was scripted out.  Other things were improved.   Most of the great lines that Paul Dooley has in the film were from him.    We just let him go.

TV STORE ONLINE:  How about that incredible scene with Marta and Paul at the hospital--where the Doctor is sewing up Dooley's head after Marta has hit him with that fire poker?

NICHOLLS:   That was Bob.  He said, "We want the two of you to realize that you're in love with each other here..."   That whole speech that the Doctor makes about "seeing pain", came out of a discussion that Bob and I had though.  I think it came out of an old joke that Bob used to tell.

TV STORE ONLINE:  How about your big fight scene with Dooley with that same fire poker?

NICHOLLS:   We just improved it out.   We knew we were going to use a fire poker and that that line that I say, "You don't even have a fire place!"  just came in that moment while we were shooting.    The whole idea of being hit with a poker was something we took because we thought it would've been something that you'd see in a old movie.

TV STORE ONLINE:  How about the whole side-story about the parallel couple that seems to be following Dooley and Heflin in the film...

NICHOLLS:   We wanted that to be our red-herring.   We wanted to keep showing them so that audience would think that we were going to switch-over so they could see "The Perfect Couple".

Interview Conducted by: Justin Bozung

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