In a career that has spanned more than three decades, Ron Mann has made a name for himself as a counter-culture historian, making documentary films on everything from comic books to poetry. With his springy white hair and warm, easy smile, Ron quickly puts people at ease. In conversation he’s relaxed and engaged, but when the subject turns to one of his passions - mushrooms, say, or music - his curiosity and excitement is infectious.
In May of 2013, I spoke with Ron about his most recent project, a retrospective of the life and influence of Robert Altman, one of his heroes and a pioneer in the world of independent cinema. At the time, Ron was in the process of editing the film and he wasn’t sure how it would turn out. Since then, the film has been screened at festivals all over the world, receiving accolades for its thoughtful portrayal of an American icon. Altman has now made its way to London, and cinephiles can get tickets for the screening on October 16th at the BFI.
You’ve covered such a wide range of topics in the documentaries that you’ve made. How did you end up making a movie about Robert Altman?
Well, I’ve always made films about my heroes and Altman’s a hero of mine. Initially, it was inspired by Mitch Zuckhoff’s book, Robert Altman: The Oral Biography, which I’d read. I called Mitch and he said that if I wanted to make a film about Bob, I should talk to Kathryn, his widow.
And it just happened that my friends in Torino were putting on a retrospective of Bob’s films that week and Kathryn was supposed to be there, so I went on the hope that I would meet her. I was there for two days and hadn’t heard from her, but then on the third day she called me. We went for lunch and she asked me what kind of movie I wanted to make, and I said, “I don’t know! I’ll find out!” A few months later, after watching my movies, she called me and said, “Bob would want you to do this movie.”
What made Altman one of your heroes?
I grew up on Robert Altman films in the 1970s. I’m an old guy, and for me he was someone who changed film-making. You always knew you were watching a Robert Altman movie in the same way that you knew you were watching a film by Fellini or Bergman. His work was really distinctive. They didn’t sound like any other movies, they didn’t look like any other movies, and they were counter-cultural. In the film, what I’m really telling, beyond Bob’s career, is how his films had an impact on independent film-making.
You’ve been editing pretty heavily these days.
Yeah, I’m knee-deep in it. The film is a compilation film, using interviews that Bob did over the last fifty years about his art and career and it includes home movies, and personal photographs, clips from his films… so there’s a lot of material that I’m going through. Kathryn has been incredibly helpful. But I’ve really been working instinctually on this film. I feel like I’ve been guided by higher powers because everything has been falling into place. I’m trusting my luck, which is what Bob would do.
So what would be your Robert Altman primer, for someone who wants to get a sense of the canon.
I like California Split. To me, that film is just loose and free-wheeling and captures the whole spirit and essence of Altman. Tanner 88 is still as relevant and fresh as it was back when it was made. I just re-watched Nashville again and was just completely absorbed by the multiple storylines and characters. I also like Brewster McCloud. It’s very of its time, but it also takes a lot of chances and it’s very, very funny.
The great thing about Bob was that he was a gambler, he took risks. These were artistic, risky projects. He really did gamble in his life, like go to the track and drop two hundred dollars on a horse, whether he won or lost. And he took those chances in his filmmaking. That’s something that people don’t do, and it’s a good message to put out there, I think, that to play it safe is not to play at all.
Altman is screening at the London Film Festival on the 8th and 16th October.