Short Cuts
Robert Altman’s Raymond Carver Movie

Somewhat alarmingly, the first thing that Robert Altman says to me, after we’re introduced, is: “The dyed-in-the-wool Raymond Carver fans are not gonna like it.” We’re in Los Angeles, where Altman is shooting his latest film, Short Cuts, which is based on the work of one of America’s most beloved writers. Carver, who died of lung cancer in 1988, inspired a short-story renaissance in the mid-1980s and is read by millions around the world. Hollywood’s best-known maverick, Altman, seems to be warning us: He is not making an homage to Carver.

Instead Altman has taken nine Carver short stories and one poem, unraveled them into scenes, and then freely rewoven them into an episodic narrative that includes characters and stories of Altman’s own invention. He has assembled one of the most remarkable ensemble casts in any American film, and advance word points to star performances scripted to reveal the emotional confusion of contemporary life: Matthew Modine plays a woefully literal-minded neurosurgeon bent on prying a confession of adultery from his artist wife (Julianne Moore); Tim Robbins is a conniving motorcycle cop who cheats on his wife (Madeleine Stowe) and disappears his children’s dog; Christopher Penn and Robert Downey Jr. are pot-smoking chums whose efforts to pick up two young girls end in the brutal murder of one; Jennifer Jason Leigh is a young mother who pays her bills by providing phone sex to patrons, including the bishop of her parents’ church; plus Andie MacDowell, Jack Lemmon, Lily Tomlin, Lyle Lovett, and a dozen others in characterizations of domestic disaster, which is primary Altman material.

In his thirty-five up-and-down years, Altman has made thirty-five motion pictures, including M*A*S*H, Nashville, and last year’s The Player, which won him an Oscar nomination for direction and boosted him to new bankability. Overnight, Short Cuts went from turnaround at Paramount to an independent production budgeted at a modest $12 million, an almost ideal outcome for a director who has repeatedly said that he will never work for a studio again and then has been forced to.

Notorious for his temper and feuds, fabled for his drive and stamina, Altman, at sixty-eight, remains physically formidable. Tall, broad-shouldered, big-bellied, he has been called a cross between Santa Claus and Mephistopheles. He is bald, with a white mustache and goatee, and light blue-green eyes that stare intently, and he has the pale complexion of someone who has given up cigarette smoking after a lifetime and who enjoys heavy drinking. His lips are often compressed, perhaps a bit stern, and then they break mischievously into a disarming smile. Tonight he is dressed casually in a navy-blue windbreaker and a light-colored shirt and slacks, as if for an outing to a ball park.

We’re at dinner on the terrace of Granita, Wolfgang Puck’s lavish restaurant in Malibu. Limousines are lined up outside. The patrons are, for the most part, beautiful and, in the Hollywood manner, gaze openly across the tables at one another.

Altman speaks firmly yet softly, and I feel compelled to reassure him that Ray Carver fans won’t be such a hard sell. Altman gives me an a-lot-you-know look. So I tell him I’d like to see all the footage he’s shot so far.

He smirks slightly and makes a helpless motion with his hands. You couldn’t see it all if you had a lifetime. He’s shot forty hours of film so far and has two weeks left in a tight ten-week schedule. He runs his hand across his brow, which is capacious and furrowed with a monumental frown.

Joan Tewkesbury, his screenwriter for Nashville, arrives. She is handsome and sinuous, tanned and a bit windblown as from a day on the beach. Altman pecks her check and, when she’s seated, leans across the table toward her and asks about her work. For a moment there’s no one else at the table. A look of complete trust and vulnerability comes across her face as she admits some uncertainty about what she’s writing. Altman encourages her. He asks about a mutual friend who’s recovering from cancer. His sympathy is palpable. The table is quiet for a moment.

Tess Gallagher, Raymond Carver’s widow, arrives, and there’s no mistaking the poet among the movie people. Gallagher is black Irish, with long, thick, reddish-black hair, sumptuous red lips, and thin-penciled, arched eyebrows that give her a Kabuki look. She wears black velvet and dark-green silk that catches the color of her eyes. Laughing, she tells about a poetry conference she’s just attended. The poets gave her a hard time about “going Hollywood.”

Altman laughs. “You’ll never get the Pulitzer now.” He has a way of absorbing everything, containing and unifying it, creating a good feeling.

With us at the table are some of those closest to Altman: his wife of thirty-three years, Kathryn; his co-writer on Short Cuts, Frank Barhydt; his associate producer, Mike Kaplan; and an old friend, blues singer Annie Ross, who has a major part in the film. Altman suddenly looks around the company and says, “I have an idea for the film.”

Kathryn, a slim, alert redhead who knows everything about her husband’s work, grins a razor-sharp grin and ribs him, “Tell us, Bob.”

“We’ll make it into two films,” he says. “It would be a way of having a four-hour movie. The two would open simultaneously. They would have the same characters but different points of view in stories that overlap. If you see one movie, you’ll want to see the other. A kind of Alexandria Quartet on film.” It’s something he’s wanted to do ever since Nashville.

“Two films,” Altman muses. “We’d call one To Hell with Love, and the other The Punishing Kiss or Prisoner of Life.” Everyone in the know laughs, and Altman explains to Gallagher and me that the titles are from original blues numbers composed for Short Cuts by Elvis Costello, Doc Pornus, and Dr. John and performed by Annie Ross. Ross, a pale, red-haired beauty somewhat decayed and softened around the edges by nights in the clubs, looks shy under this sudden attention, and Altman asks the rest of us what we think of his two-movie idea.

Everyone nods and begins talking at once. Mike Kaplan, round faced and with the attentive expression of someone minding business, says, “We’ll get double ticket sales.”

“That’s what we want!” Tewkesbury says, and Barhydt, a spare, soft-spoken, freckled man who looks as if he’s careful not to get too much sun, explains that he’s doing the storyboard to see if the two-film concept will work.

Everyone nods. There’s a lull, and Tewkesbury says supportively, “Another night when we’re all sitting around nodding at Bob.”

The two-movie idea is a pet theme that Altman has offered up time and again during the past twenty years. He is known for shooting long, baggy films and is sincere about the two-movie idea as an innovative solution to editing, yet it’s hard to escape the impression that the idea is part of his standard drill, the skillful show that he puts on for journalists. He’s not a thinker and has learned to stay away from spontaneous, intellectual observations about his work, preferring instead prepared anecdotes and sometimes vague, metaphysical-sounding analogies. His work is highly intuitive and original; his aesthetic, well established, and in the course of studying him I will become versed enough to know approximately what he’ll say when asked a question. There are no new answers except in the ongoing work itself, and the quickest route to appreciating Altman’s reinvention of Carver’s work is simply to join the Altman circle, to hang out, watch, and listen.

Altman tells part of a story he’ll be filming tomorrow: A daughter goes to see her mother at work, upset because a neighbor boy has been struck and killed by a car. The mother responds, “I hate it when kids do that.” Altman laughs telling it, and Joan Tewkesbury gasps as if punched in the gut. “Oh! That’s hard,” she says, and Altman continues, ‘And then the daughter goes home and pops herself.’ He grins a small Mephistophelian grin in the recognition that cruelty is what happens in life, and that’s what he’s filming.

He wants his audience to get the movie’s drift without being able to put it into words. He wants his audience to participate. He wants each viewer to see it differently.

“I don’t like it if it’s too literal.”

“I don’t like the question Why?”

“I don’t like perfection,” he says emphatically.

He believes that scenes are interchangeable; the sequence, variable. “There are no absolute stories, only versions.” The only ending he knows is death.

“There is no ending,” he says, closing his fist. “You just squeeze it off.”

I ask him how he came to Carver’s short stories.

Altman reads stories, he says, when he’s anxious, because that’s where he finds ideas, the implication being that he’s anxious when not working. (He is almost always working.)

“Novels are harder to work from,” he says. “They’re their own films. Stories are poems.” Altman is a lyrical filmmaker, and Carver, a poet before he was a fiction writer, is a natural for Altman. “I first read a book of Carver’s on a plane flying back from London, and I knew I had to make a movie out of his stories. I saw they could be interwoven.”

How does he compare the deceptively simple effects of Carver’s fiction with the techniques of his own filmmaking?

“The difference is I have a hard edge.” He points to his water glass. “I have a glass, it’s right there. In a story, the glass is right there, too, but it explodes only in the writer’s mind.” Altman lightly flicks the glass. “In a film, I drop the glass and it breaks, or maybe it doesn’t break.”

Likewise, he speaks of working with actors as a process of control/no control. An actor comes down to work dressed a certain way, unshaven. Who told him not to shave? Someone told him. He told himself most likely. It must be right. It’s him. He knows. So I don’t worry about a lot of that stuff. In Short Cuts, Altman’s actors have been performing unscripted lines picked up from reading Carver stories that Altman sent out as preparation.

A pause falls in the conversation. Altman is comfortable with silences. Things happen, or they don’t. He smiles slightly. Whenever he smiles, his sweetness, his femininity, and feeling show. He’s in the habit of following his feeling, which guides him to the essence of things. He says humorously, “I’m wallowing in Carver.” He makes the motion, rolling his massive shoulders.

Gallagher, laughing, fires back, “You’re snacking on him.”

It’s exactly the kind of irreverence Carver would have enjoyed. His stories are made up of such moments. The similarities between Carver and Altman are striking: Both are big men, good storytellers who know the downside of life, and in their work they share the motifs of alcoholism, violence, low comedy, black humor. Both are gamblers with faith in luck. Both made long journeys to the top of their art. Both have large audiences overseas. Both are quintessentially American, gritty in the contemporary mode of dirty realism, descended from Twain, Hemingway, Hammett, and Sherwood Anderson. Both tell stories about marriage, domesticity, the wear and tear of daily intimacy. Both are concerned with isolation and disintegration.

Altman admits that there is little correspondence between his Kansas City background and what people call Carver country beyond language. “Carver’s people were from where? The Ozarks. There’s the language, a rhythm. You recognize it when you hear it.” I ask Altman if he’s having a good time making the film. He answers with an enthusiastic “You bet!”—one of Carver’s characteristic phrases.

Altman lingers, telling stories after the meal’s done, he and Tess and Kathryn well matched in conversation about Ireland, theater, astrology, marriage, and the uses of irony, Altman somewhat dominating by his size, his age, his accomplishments, and his force of presence. Finally Kathryn says to her husband, with a sly smirk, “Are you done?”

Her banter seems born of an earlier time, when life was more difficult and the relationship was being worked out in earnest. Altman wasn’t always easy to live with, and Kathryn is obviously not a woman to sit idly by no matter what goes on. She has said of Altman, “He has driven me crazy at times, but he has never bored me.”

I first met Ray Carver in New York City in early September 1984, at a publishing dinner to launch Gary Fisketjon’s Vintage Contemporaries paperback series. Many of the new VC authors and their friends were there: Richard Ford, Toby Wolff, Jay McInerney, Tom McGuane, Jim Crumley, Ralph Beer—a distinctly male crowd, and what struck me most was that, as we geared up to move to a nightclub, Carver, amid teasing about running off somewhere to see a woman, put himself in a taxi and headed for his hotel room, alone. By the ginger way he got himself into the cab and laughingly ducked the barbs all around him, there was no doubt that he meant to keep himself out of trouble. But he was fair game for the friendly taunts that followed him into the cab. We were witnessing the Good Ray, but all of us knew about the Bad Ray, the one who was Lord of Misrule himself, the one who broke a whiskey bottle over his first wife’s head and felt that his children were “eating him alive.” Reformed, Carver was fast becoming the most famous short-story writer in the world, and the facts of his life were well-known, partly because they were often the stuff of his writing and because fame brings a peculiar public intimacy.

As I got to know Ray, I saw his unreserved friendliness—the product of a decision to live each moment fully. His friends often remarked that he would take anyone just as they came, and consequently people told him everything about themselves. His generosity, his willing suspension of disbelief (even to the point of gullibility), made him a good listener. The other side of it was that he couldn’t keep a secret and would tell anyone’s story if it was a good one.

There is a well-known anecdote: A friend of Carver’s once told him about taking a walk when out of the sky a huge salmon fell onto the hood of a jeep nearby. Apparently a pelican dropped the fish from its bill. Later the salmon turned up in a poem of Carver’s, and the friend asked if Ray stole it. Carver pondered a moment and replied, “I guess I must have, since I don’t take walks.” Carver’s goodheartedness had a profound effect on people. His death was widely mourned, and today the desire to know more about him is pervasive. His friends are often approached by readers who want to ask something without knowing what to ask. They want to hear talk of Carver, to sense the presence of the man whose stories moved them so much. In fact, so great have the esteem and reverence for Carver grown that wags among his old friends are calling him Saint Ray.

For Altman, who has previously adapted the work of such writers as Raymond Chandler, Sam Shepard, Kurt Vonnegut, and Marsha Norman, filming Carver is perhaps the most ambitious project to date in terms of literary scope. When Altman says the dyed-in-the-wool Carver fans aren’t going to like the film, the context is not only book-to-film but also Altman’s desire to overturn preconceived notions of artistic forms. Readers’ familiarity with Carver’s work and a century of Hollywood filmmaking have conditioned an audience response that Altman wants to enliven to spontaneity. The question is: Can Altman overcome a Hollywood law that says art seldom does well at the box office?

Altman’s producers, Cary Brokaw and Scotty Bushnell, are on the set. Brokaw produced The Player and initially turned down Short Cuts. His doubts centered on touches of misogyny and misanthropy in the script, and he worried that the film wouldn’t be bankable. But the success of The Player changed Brokaw’s mind. He is a big, friendly man with a shock of gray hair curving onto his forehead. I’m a little surprised to learn that he’s on the set every day. Altman, passing by, comments, “He’s here every day because it’s easy and I pay him.”

Between takes, Brokaw explains the financial aspect of the film. He raised the $12 million for the project by selling domestic distribution rights to Fine Line for $5 million and the foreign distribution rights to Spelling Entertainment for $7 million. Then he took these pledges to a bank and discounted them for a loan. At this point Altman comes over and leans on me, like a bear, affectionately. I tell him, “Cary’s explaining about the money.”

“Yeah, tell me about the money,” Altman jokes and wanders back over to his monitor.

A little chagrined, Brokaw calls after him, “The check’s in the mail.”

As an iconoclast, Altman has at times suffered wrath and neglect of Hollywood. His rise as a filmmaker was arduous, beginning with industrials in Kansas City and a tumultuous career as a TV writer and director. Characteristic of his path was his getting in trouble for doing an antiwar script for Combat. “What’s the matter?” he asked his executive producer. “Are you afraid your kids will grow up hating war?” He was well into middle age when he was selected, after twelve other directors refused, to do M*A*S*H. It was his first big hit. Since then he has been on the outs and back in numerous times. Now, according to Brokaw, Altman is in his golden age. “Bob is a lot less angry these days, with good reason. The Player was his comeback film. Still, he hasn’t changed his mind about politics or the industry. Robert Altman will never be defanged. His anger is healthy. He doesn’t equivocate. He says what he wants to do and does it.”

Altman’s own comment on the Hollywood establishment is assumed to have been given in The Player, which details the greed and guilt of a studio executive. Altman, however, denies that the film is a satire on the biz, preferring to say that the film is a metaphor for America. But he’s not slow to say what he thinks of studios. “They’re afraid to rise from just below the line of mediocrity. They’re afraid that if they do, they might fail. And they probably would.”

Altman’s coproducer Scotty Bushnell is a veteran of Altman films. Her role includes casting, costuming, and what Brokaw calls on-line production. She is on the set from morning to night while Brokaw comes and goes from his office. Bushnell, who is past middle age, smokes and has dark circles under her eyes and a quiet, easy-to-miss wit and cheerfulness beneath a weight of exhaustion and gloominess. She is reading a newspaper while Gallagher and I talk with Altman about an opera he will direct in Chicago “When does it open?” Gallagher asks.

“October 31,” Altman replies.

From behind the newspaper, Bushnell says, “What are you going to wear?”

“I don’t know,” Altman says indifferently.

“It’s going to be Halloween, you know,” Bushnell says.

Altman turns toward her and says irritably, “I’m going to dress as a witch and go as you.” Bushnell flinches and sinks behind the paper, and one can’t help receiving the impression that she, and others over the years, have carried Altman’s shadow for him.

The day’s filming takes place at a bakery in a strip mall in Van Nuys. Andie McDowell shows up, waiting to go on, and Mike Kaplan introduces me as the reporter from Esquire. “Oh,” MacDowell says, “I saw you walking around with that notebook.” She seems wary of reporters and generally protective of herself. She’s here to do her job. Period.

I have one question for her. I’ve heard her say that there are almost no good roles for women in Hollywood films. “Ohhh,” she explodes with exasperation. “They only want you if you have a voice like a woman, a body like a girl, and a mind like a man.” But she likes working for Altman. “He called up and said, ‘I don’t care what you look like, whether you’re fat or thin, just be real.’ ” A look of pleasure and justification passes briefly across her face and changes again into irritation. “If one more person asks me to lose five pounds, I’m going to be sick. I don’t want to go through it anymore, and I don’t want my daughter to go through it either. We’ve made some progress but not much.”

As the shooting resumes, MacDowell carries the scene. She is playing the mother of a child killed by a hit-and-run driver. She has come to the bakery after hours to confront the baker who’s been making harassing phone calls because she forgot to pick up the birthday cake she ordered for her son. MacDowell and her husband (Bruce Davison) push their way into the bakery, and after tense words MacDowell says fiercely, “Our son’s dead. . . . He was hit by a car the day I ordered the cake. We’ve been waiting with him until he died. . . . There are no more birthdays for him. He’s dead, you bastard. Goddamn you.” She aims a fist at the baker but her husband restrains her.

Her husband tells the baker, “Shame on you.” And the spell of hatred is broken. The baker softens and apologizes and offers the couple bread to eat.

In Carver’s story “A Small, Good Thing,” the scene continues for long moments, the baker explaining that he is not an evil man. He speaks of his loneliness and of the sense of doubt that came to him in his middle years. He is childless. His days are all the same, his ovens endlessly full, endlessly empty. But he’s glad he’s a baker, because feeding people is a good thing. He shares his bread with the bereaved couple, and they stay and talk into the early morning, with no thought of leaving. Carver offers a sustained moment of tenderness, amelioration, and connection.

In Altman’s film, the scene ends with a more tentative sense of connection: The mother asks to see the cake she ordered for her son. The baker, shaken, responds that he threw it away, and at that moment the bakery vibrates violently with an earthquake. Cut. That’s the last we see of those characters. It is a more fatal ending than Carver’s, a darker ending. But watching it, we have no way of disentangling what’s Carver’s from what’s Altman’s. Altman has retained Carver’s vision and layered it with his own.

During a break, Gallagher and I are outside on the sidewalk when a well-dressed businessman and his wife walk by and pause to ask, “What are you filming?”

Gallagher, who never misses an opportunity, replies, “It’s a Robert Altman film.”

Impressed, the man says, “Oh! What’s it called?”

Gallagher says, “Short Cuts.”

The man replies with less interest, “Oh.” He nods.

Gallagher considers him, then says, “It’s based on short stories by Raymond Carver.” The man doesn’t respond. His wife takes his arm, peering around him.

Gallagher continues, “A great American writer. You should read him.”

The man makes a noncommittal sound, and the couple moves off.

Each day, following the shooting, Altman’s cast and crew gather to watch rushes from the previous day. During our visit, Altman provides a special showing of key scenes: Tom Waits, playing hilariously hungover, down-but-not-out opposite Lily Tomlin, goes to the café where she works to try to win her back one more time. He appears entirely ludicrous with pigeon feathers in his hair. He has spent the night on the ground outside their trailer home because he wouldn’t sully their bed by sleeping in it when he was drunk. He swears he won’t drink anymore. He wants her back. She narrowly consents, and they make a mutual pledge, “Till the wheels come off.” Tomlin goes to serve a customer, and Waits turns conspiratorially to the man next to him and brags, “How’d you like to be married to something like that?“ Deadpan, the man replies, “I am.”

Gallagher, who consulted closely on the film, likes what she sees and feels relieved that Altman has “not simply scalped Ray’s material. . . . He’s engaged Ray’s stories on a very deep level.”

Does she think the film will be a hit?

“You bet,” she says.

Altman, however, is wary of praise. He’s inside his vision and wants to guard it. He’s faced with making a unity of the myriad scenes. He bids us goodnight and heads toward his office, walking with the rolling gait and slight hunch of an old sailor who’s got work to do and a steady pace for doing it.

Six months later, on the night that Gallagher and I are to see a rough cut at Altman’s Manhattan studio, Altman admits the hope he denied during the filming. “People who like Ray like the film,” he says, visibly relieved. He bounces on his toes and gestures nervously. The film is long, he says. Three hours and seven minutes. “It’s like a six-foot child. It needs a bigger bed.” The distribution people would like it shorter.

On the way to the screening room, Geri Peroni, the film editor, comments that everyone is excited and nervous to have Gallagher there: She is the most important viewer; her opinion, the most crucial.

In the moments before the film begins, Lauren Bacall arrives, followed by Mike Nichols and Diane Sawyer, Jonathan Demme, and Larry Rivers.

From the first, the film is strongly engaging. There are ten main plots and several subplots, skillfully interwoven in such a way that, while we don’t always know what story we’re following or why, we nonetheless read continuity into each scene and into the movie as a whole. We feel that each moment is probable, inevitable, essential.

Carver fans will recognize episodes from his stories but will also see that, in many cases, the characters’ names, actions, circumstances, and motivations have been changed. The setting of Ray’s stories in small towns near Sacramento, Tacoma, and Portland have been localized to suburban L. A., which Altman thinks of as nowhere, hence anywhere. Ray’s stories take place over a span of decades; the film occurs across four days yet incorporates atmosphere and ethos from the present back through the late 1950s by way of Carver’s sensibility and reference points.

The collective emotion underlying the movie is anger. It comes in sudden, unexpected volleys that subside into various shadings of demand, seduction, revenge, mockery, denial, manners, play, and cajolery. The movie is a blues improvisation on all the moods and tones of anger. Annie Ross’s music provides the lyrical spell. Demonically vamp, she plays a middle-aged singer, Tess Trainer, whose teenage daughter is the pincushion for her mother’s hatred. Trainer’s opening number, “To Hell with Love,” plays throughout the film, deepening and slowing to mournful bass notes as the collective anger moves toward tragedy. The refrain of the song is: Forget what other people do / When it comes to me and you / To hell with love.

Quietly, at the film’s center is Claire, whose name says it all: She is clear. When her husband comes home from a fishing trip and makes love to her and then confesses that he and his buddies discovered a drowned woman and left her in the water while they fished, Claire (Anne Archer) immediately understands the betrayals involved; and greater than the separation she feels from her husband is her need to go to the woman’s funeral, in some measure closing the human circle that her husband and the other men ruptured.

In Carver’s fiction, fate is juxtaposed with the characters’ urge to get it right. In Altman’s film, the urge is simply to live. While Carver was interested in the soul’s capacity to question, Altman is not much interested in conscience. He seems to believe that people’s actions are determined by grief and the adrenaline that flows from their fast-paced lives. What Altman and Carver share is a clear eye on the illusions by which we live and the resilience with which we survive the continual shattering of our fondest ideas of ourselves.

The movie issues a warning about gender roles. Altman shows women as complicitous in how they’re used in the sex trade and in how they facilitate male betrayals. In the film, women seem to admit that men are different and need phone sex or multiple lovers. Altman seems to indicate that men have not been allowed intimacies on other levels, so all their relationships go to the sexual and become frustrated and perverted.

In Short Cuts, sex is a shorthand used by people who can’t communicate, so sex can be juxtaposed with violence, underscoring the thingness of people. No one wants to be who she or he is. Yet everyone wants to touch someone. There is great desperation in the film over our living in this heedless way. Why can’t anyone feel anything? Why can’t anyone respond?

When the lights come up, everyone seems stunned. Altman announces, with a big sweep of his arm, that we’re going to Elaine’s and anybody who wants to, can come, dinner’s on him: a grand gesture, given there are eighty people present. Betty Bacall comes up to him and puts her hand to his cheek and with a look of love says, “You just don’t quit, do you?”

At Elaine’s, Gay Talese and his daughters are seated at a front table. Danny Aiello is at the next table, and we fill up the back.

Altman is guardedly expansive, while all of us who have seen the film for the first time are a bit wrung out, shaken. Tess Gallagher is relieved and tired. She feels the sadness of the lives in the film but is exhilarated by its vivacity and exuberance.

It is an entirely original film, someone tells Altman.

He nods and says, “But not in such a way that you can’t occupy it?” His hands reach toward the center of the table, as if into the heart of the film.

He says, with a shrug, that he will open it in stages, at twin-plexes, in urban areas, and let the audience build. He expects Short Cuts to be popular with college students, film fans, the hip, and the literati, and, he says, smiling humorously, with “the guys who want to look at pussy.”

He means Julianne Moore, who plays a wife caught with her pants down. Moore took the role, telling Altman she wanted him to know she was a natural redhead.

“Yeah,” Altman says, “a guy from Paramount called me up and said, ‘Yeah, I heard about your movie: It’s three hours long and it’s got full frontal nudity.’ ”

“Both sexes,” Gallagher says.

“Oh, yeah,” Altman says brightly. “I’ve never done one without the other. Huey Lewis did the big thing for us.”

The rating, Altman cracks, is going to be hard R.

The talk turns briefly to Ray. Altman notes that people who have seen the movie are buying Carver’s books, and his publisher is issuing a collection called Short Cuts, with an introduction by Altman. The film script will be published with an introduction by Gallagher.

Short Cuts,” Altman concludes, “is the novel that Carver never wrote.” Hearing this, I can’t help wondering: Would Ray have wanted all this?

You bet.

Originally published in Esquire.