“That’s the Movie, That’s the Kind of Overlapping Mess That Bob Loves:” Joan Tewkesbury on Writing Nashville
Robert Altman’s Nashville is one of the towering achievements of 1970s New Hollywood Cinema, a portrait of the hub of the country music scene by juggling a myriad of characters, from self-appointed king of the community Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson) to its biggest star, Connie White (Karen Black), from the emotionally fragile Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley) to comically intrepid BBC reporter Opal (Geraldine Chaplin) and campaigning politician Hal Phillip Walker (Thomas Hal Phillips), a presence seen but never heard. A huge, highly accomplished cast — which also includes Ned Beatty, Shelly Duvall, Lily Tomlin, Keith Carradine, Barbara Harris and a very young Jeff Goldblum — plays characters whose lives are constantly overlapping and intersecting as they roam around Altman’s grand canvas. To mark its release this week on Criterion, Filmmaker spoke with Nashville’s screenwriter, Joan Tewkesbury, about the process of creating this classic of its era.
Filmmaker: I’m very interested in the craft of screenplays and would like to know how you worked on Nashville. Maybe the logical way to start is by talking about your previous collaboration with Robert Altman, Thieves Like Us. You were one of a number of writers on the film, right?
Tewkesbury: I was the [only] writer. Calder Willingham had done a script 10 years before and according to the Writers Guild if you are the first one who adapts a novel, it’s like “til death do you part,” you get a credit. And then Bob put his name on it too, obviously, because we talked a lot about it. But Bob didn’t know writing. Basically, I adapted the novel; it was a terrific novel in that all the dialogue was there. But with Nashville, Bob just said, “Go to Nashville and see what’s up.” So having worked with him on McCabe [and Mrs. Miller] and having seen M*A*S*H* a thousand times and knowing all the players in it and also having some sense of some of the people that he wanted to work with all the time, Nashville became really a piece of choreography. The first time I went [laughs], I went on the official tour where they showed you Patsy Cline’s hairpins and the Bible and all that. And the next time I went back, I went unannounced. Bill and Taffy Danoff gave me some recording studio that I could slip into like Opal, [the journalist in Nashville]. And so it was really a series of observations connected to my personal story. For Bob it was like if you gave him too much room it got sloppy and fuzzy and messy. I come from [a] dance [background], so it was really like choreographing these various things for these various locations. Believe me, no one would let you do that now.
[As a screenwriter,] you’re writing a comic book to music or math and trying to get the emotional bits at the right highs and lows. Some people are great storytellers, like off the top of their head they can sit over the kitchen table and tell you this story that breaks your heart. I’m like a vacuum cleaner and so my craft really involves circling and getting a lot of information and then… It’s like cooking: You try some of this and you try some of that until you have order. Order is really important. Bob and I talked a lot but he was shooting Thieves when I went to Nashville the first time and then he shot another film. And so I just kept adding characters and then he added the political line and the assassination and we sort of went from there. Polly Platt quit because she hated the assassination. She was going to production design and but we managed to get along fine [without her]…
Filmmaker: Was it originally conceived as such an expansive film, such a large canvas?
Tewkesbury: Yes. There were 18 characters to begin with and then by adding the political line that added a few more with a very specific purpose. The Hal Phillip Walker character that Michael Murphy plays who you never see, the intention of the threads of dialogue shifted dramatically because of that. The beauty of the film also was that nobody was politically correct and everyone was given permission to state their opinion. Or you would plant an opinion. Certainly Henry Gibson had a lot of opinions, as did Barbara Baxley. And but with Geraldine [Chaplin] doing Opal, all you had to do was plant a seed and she would take it from there. She was quite amazing.
Filmmaker: How much of the dialogue was suggestive and how much was pinned down? Did you give people a lot of room for exploration and ad-libbing?
Tewkesbury: It wasn’t adlibbing actually as much as the script came in at 175 pages so, first of all, nobody let you get away with that. The reason that it did was because Bob had never been to Nashville so there was a lot of description in the first draft [and there] was also a lot of information for the actors so that they kind of knew [their characters’] backstory. And yes, there was a lot of dialogue that I made up. But then what happened was that the actors were given permission to expand or contract [their dialogue]. [In the case of] Barbara Baxley, she wrote 11 pages for her monologue about the Kennedys. She brought it to me about three days before we shot that scene, and we went through and edited what wasn’t necessary or what you could get to quicker. That was the pattern: I would meet with the actors a few days before they were going to shoot and just go over what they were thinking about. Lily Tomlin shifted the tone of that scene between herself and Keith [Carradine] in bed, which was terrific. Ronee Blakley came in the morning that we were shooting and she had written this thing overnight that she wanted to do and that too worked. I mean, it was amazing what she did. But it has to be contained in a certain kind of atmosphere where’s everybody’s willing.
I was new at this when I was working with Bob, and everyone said, “Oh God, how can you stand to have somebody do that?” and I said, “Excuse me, it’s a collaborative medium. If someone has a lot to offer, why do you shut it down?” Again, I had come from the world of dance and working with Jerome Robbins where every eyeball turn was choreographed, and I hated it! So I was extremely willing to see what spontaneity the actors would bring to this, and they all brought a lot. The one sequence that absolutely was written was the striptease which Gwen Welles did. She, of course, added the white sweat socks, but other than that the scene is exactly as written.
Filmmaker: What was it like to have so many characters that you were trying to have a substantial understanding of? It seems like a different process of writing than a film with just a few protagonists.
Tewkesbury: Yes because every single character is just as important as the next character. It was imperative to see every single character every single day so I laid out a grid. It was like Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday or whatever at the top of the grid, and then down the side were all the characters and time spans, morning, noon and night. I simply had to make sure that you saw each character every single day. And even if they weren’t foreground in a scene, they were there. Nashville was so small and it was built in a circle; that construct, that pattern is what informed me how to set up the grid. When I was there, I would see people in the morning and then I would see them at midnight or the middle of the day or all over the place. So it was true and it was a logical way to handle the comings and goings of all those characters; each character was the star of his own movie in his own head.
Filmmaker: I love the way that’s done and the way it’s not commented on; it feels like a bunch of college kids in a small campus. [Tewkesbury laughs] It feels like this very small world even if everybody doesn’t know each other.
Tewkesbury: Right, it’s kind of the way Nashville was at that time, because all those musicians had those dumb names like Frog or Pig and they all knew each other at least to say hello if not to have a conversation with because they all played in each other’s sets and they all went drinking at the same place or they all played at the Grand Ole Opry. So the character that Murphy plays, he’s the Yankee that comes into the mix and goes, “Jesus Christ what is this!”
Filmmaker: You mentioned Opal in relationship to the research that you were doing. Were you doing something similar to her, in the sense that you went around with a notebook or with a microphone trying to capture the world of Nashville?
Tewkesbury: Yes, I sort of waved at people or tried to slide in and be as invisible as possible. The best information I got was when I was sent to the recording studio where they did religious music. There were three engineers and I walked in in the middle of a session of a black Baptist choir, and it was transcendent. They just sort of lifted you off the ground. I became friendly with them in that I could ask them questions about where to go, what was important, what wasn’t and they were incredibly helpful and very generous in that way and that’s how I got to the Exit/In.
Oh, and the other scene that’s absolutely intact as written is the scene in the Exit/In. That’s where the other piece of spontaneity grounded itself because the night that I went, I sat down and this man came up, the Bob DoQui character, and said he’d just gotten out of jail on premeditated murder. He worked two shifts at the hospital and then he would come to the Exit/In, because it was open until four in the morning, before he’d go back to work at seven in the morning. I said, “Do you sleep at all?” and he said, “Oh, I had a lot of time to sleep.” He had gotten himself out, he had studied, he had done the whole law thing in prison and had gotten himself released. So he was shoving a joint up my sleeve and there was a girl that was having a bad reaction to some drug she’d taken at a table in front of me. Barefoot Jerry was on the stage singing the words to this song, “The Words Don’t Mean Anything at All” and the Exit/In had a radio station so all of that was being transmitted out into the world. And I thought, “This is it, this is the movie.”
Filmmaker: What was it like to approach the process of writing an Altman film when your brief was just to go find the movie? Was it intimidating to have such a lack of parameters?
Tewkesbury: It wasn’t intimidating but you just wondered what in God’s name you were going to do. The first time I went there was like a three-day courtesy trip [organized] through the music people, and that didn’t give me very much. The next time I went back, I stayed for seven days. And by just wandering [around], I got a lot of information, sort of by osmosis and especially knowing who was going to direct this thing. And the Exit/In was the last night that I was there and so it was a perfect culmination because when I walked outside I said, “That’s the movie, that’s the kind of overlapping mess that Bob loves.” And so, then it became very clear and then I could sit down [and write]. Bob didn’t want to hear about it. I said, “I’ve got it. I know what’s going on.” He said, “Fine, go do it.”
When I handed in the first draft, he said, “I hate it.” But he really didn’t and everybody around him thought it was really terrific and all of that. See, he hated it until he could put his two cents in and then it was fine. But for him scripts were more like road maps. And this one was a very specific road map and Bob always felt like he had to resist against something. There wasn’t much for him to resist against in this because it had been structured just for him. So, as we added stuff and created more of these characters [he gained] this feeling of ownership. It was fine after that, but there were always those ups and downs with Bob.
Filmmaker: Unlike with Thieves Like Us, he didn’t take a writing credit himself…
Tewkesbury: No, he wanted to and my attorney wouldn’t let him. [laughs] Bob liked to put his name on everything and she said, “No, this is Joan’s script,” and she happened to be Bob’s attorney too. He was not very happy with that, but it worked out fine.
Filmmaker: After that second trip to Nashville, how quickly did you write the film?
Tewkesbury: About three or four weeks. Once you’ve got it, you do it. The problem is when you can’t get the structure. You may have the story and you may have the character or you’ve got a [problem] and you just go, “Jesus,” but once the thing that rings the bell inside of you goes off, it goes very fast. The thing that kills you is when you’ve done several scripts for hire and no one can come to agreement and you’re doing rewrite after rewrite after rewrite based on committee. And that’s just when I say, “Okay, the party is over, goodbye.” I can’t do it.
Filmmaker: After Nashville, this was kind of the creative experience that you always aspired to having again?
Tewkesbury: Oh sure. And as you go on and you realize that nobody’s interested in recreating that experience because they don’t get it. So what I learned to do was just to filter stuff in when I began directing or when I began or writing other kinds of things that there was a lot of the spirit of what Altman provided for everyone, that crept into all of us who ever worked closely with him. And it was a godsend because the most important thing on his set was the humor, the ability to have a sense of humor about what was going right or what was going wrong. And I feel that there’s not very much of a sense of humor these days in the working conditions. A sense of humor allows everybody a sense of creativity, from the key grip to the actor to the director to the woman styling hair. It sees you through a lot of long hours.