“How does a filmmaker’s choice of subject and form influence the construction of reality within their films?”

Reality in film is a very debatable subject that many have tried to explain and define. In view of the fact that, film is nothing more than an illusion, a recreation of an event or a situation; it is very difficult to set the boundaries between reality and fiction - truthfulness and imagination.

Several people state that the movement of realism not only in film, but also in art, were it was first applied, literature, science, or even philosophy was something that existed way before its “official” creation. The need of telling the truth, and representing reality was always the absolute need of man. All realists need to express one thing, the truth. Realism came to capture the truth, by unfolding its meaning, beauty and sincerity through time and space (Nochlin, 1971).

In Films based on true events or true stories the ways to construct reality are straightforward since the story and most of the characters are based on true events and real people or communities. One must define the period and place that the story takes place, research the characters enough in order to portray them as close to reality as possible, and use the appropriate style and form in order to enhance the reality of the film. A very good example of this type of filmmaking is the well known work of Ken Loach, the recent film, ‘City of God’ by Fernando Meirelles, or the film ‘Gummo’, by Harmony Korine, a film about the after life of a town/community somewhere in USA hit by a hurricane. The director in this case uses real people, real places and brings the audience right into the heart of the problem with its vulgarity, violence and ugliness it truly encloses. A filmmaker which has used the tools of filmmaking in order to tell a story as close to ‘real life’ as possible, is the American director Robert Altman. Director of such films as, ‘M*A*S*H*’ (1970), ‘Brewster McCloud’ (1970), ‘McCabe and Mrs. Miller’(1971), ‘California Split’ (1974) , ‘Nashville’ (1975), ‘Three Women’ (1977), ‘The Player’ (1992), ‘Ready to Wear’ (1994), ‘Gosford Park’ (2002), ‘The Company’(2003) and many others.

Robert Altman uses the tools of filmmaking to “enhance the sense of reality in his films” (Aljean Harmetz, 1971, In: Sterritt, 2000). His films are not all based in true events, however he usually surrounds his stories with true events, places and people. Examples are: ‘M*A*S*H*’, a black comedy set in a community of army doctors and surgeons in the Korean War, ‘Nashville’, a collection of stories that occur during a festival of country music, in Nashville, USA, ‘The Player’, a satire about movies and Hollywood, set, in a n actual Hollywood production office, ‘Ready to Wear’, a murder mystery and satire of the world of fashion in Paris, etc. The need to reach reality has led Altman to discard and overrule some technical devices used by usual directors. As a substitute to ordinary and clear sound he makes use of overlapping sound, where characters voices, background noise and dialogue from the extras, are blended into one another, thus giving the sense of a real space, with real people having a truthful dialogue. “That is to give the audience the sense of the dialogue, the emotional feeling, rather than the literal world. That’s the way it sounds in real life”. (Aljean Harmetz, 1971, In: Sterritt, 2000)

On all of his films he has used multiple cameras simultaneously as well as the zoom lens, something that other directors avoid to utilize. This abnormal use of film tools is employed by the director to enhance the honesty of the acting. The actors are not always aware who is being filmed when, thus forcing all actors in the scene to give their best and their full concentration. The zoom lens, which is used extensively in Altman’s films, permits the filmmaker to isolate moments and people throughout the scene, without interfering with the actor’s performance. The camera lens in Altman’s movies presents more by showing not as much; it redefines relationships of characters and permits the audience to gradually identify the space and it’s surrounding. It simulates the feeling when someone’s focal point adjusts for a moment or two on an event that he is interested in, and partially ignores what happens around him.

The foundation of Altman’s effort as a director comes down to making films ‘more real’. He wants “to grab the accidents of life and throw them to the audience” (Aljean Harmetz, 1971, In: Sterritt, 2000) in order to surprise and alert them. He always attaches to his movies authenticity, crudity, pleasure, pain, viciousness and unanticipated attractiveness. All these elements are real and everyday people experience them in their everyday life.

Altman treats his script simply as an instrument to accomplish the practical ‘making’ of the movie. On set, Altman allow his actors, which he personally casts and have faith in, to be creative. He does not hesitate to alter dialogue, add elements to a scene or even add scenes, when such an opportunity is presented (Kolker, 1988). An example of that technique or originality happens extensively in the film ‘M*A*S*H*’, were the script was altered in such a level, that the writer refused to accept the Academy Award for Best Screenplay. His movies rarely have a specific plot with a beginning, middle and end. This might also be the reason why many people who are not accustomed to watch movies in such a way are not able to understand his movies and enjoy them as they should.

Altman believes that “filmmaking is a collaborative art” (Sterritt, 2000) and that all people involved in the project should influence the final product. The head collaborators in the creation of his films are his actors. He explores the situation and the moment together, with them, adding on some way validity in the conflicts and problems of the movie.

With the film Nashville, many of his coworkers state that he stretched out his personal style and at the same time pressed the conception of collective filmmaking ahead of the conventional limits. His actors write dialogue based on their character, they restructure their characters, integrating characteristics drawn from their own lives. They are encouraged to discuss, debate, modify and investigate the character with the director and his other collaborators. “The Altman of ‘Nashville’ could be called a realist” (Sterritt, 2000). In this film the camera becomes an extensive, broad observer of reality and events while the sound is nothing more than a panoramic collection of dialogues and noises. The audience is provoked to be involved, select what to hear and what to see.

The most famous trademark is the complex sound design in Altman’s movies. He uses what is known as the eight-track system, a method of recording sound on set, on separate tracks. This system allows the filmmaker to be in command of the balance, intensity and variety of all the different sounds, which later on postproduction will work on. Sound is considered by Altman as a fundamental ingredient of the process of filmmaking. The director makes sure he captures as much sound, dialogue, and image possible during production, in order then to work with on post- production.

The methods used interfere with the ‘reality’ of the moment, since he is altering and manipulating sound later on. One could debate the level of ‘realism’ that Altman actually has in his films and how much of it he controls. Nevertheless, the reason he interferes with the sound and image is for practical reasons because for example in the film ‘M*A*S*H*’, actors talk simultaneously in the scene thus forming a sense of chaos and confusion.

“His movies are filled with objects and people, with movement, with talk and sounds and music woven into casual and loose narratives that create appearance of spontaneity and improvisation” (Kolker, 1988). The relaxed attitude and comfortable sense of the films is warily planned. His films try to reinstate the narrative and subject matter, urging the audience to focus and cautiously pursue the different dramatic energy that it offers. In Altman’s films the audience is not allowed to sit down, relax and passively watch the film. The spectator has to take part to that assembly of characters, situations, mystery and reality.

Written by Konstantinos Vassilaros


Kolker, R. Phillip. (1988). A cinema of loneliness: Penn, Kubrick, Scorcese, Spielberg, Altman. New York: Oxford University Press.

Nochlin, Linda. (1971). Realism, style and civilization, Chapter: Introduction. Harmondsworth. Penguin Publications.

Sterritt, David (general editor of interviews). (2000). ‘Conversations with filmmakers’ series: ‘Robert Altman interviews’. USA: University Press of Mississippi.

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