Beginning his career as an A.D. on the sets of his mentor Robert “Bob” Altman’s The Long Goodbye, California Split, and Nashville, Alan Rudolph has in the ensuing half-century carved out his own impressive film oeuvre, refusing to submit to commercial pressures and instead focusing his attention on exploring intimate “matters of the heart.”

His 22 credits maintain the through line of these ideas, and they withstand the test of time. Rudolph’s films focus on his characters’ complicated inner lives and personal relationships, often leaving out entirely recognizable landmarks of and references to the contemporary culture.

Ray Meets Helen marks the sixth collaboration between Rudolph and Carradine, which began 40 years ago on Welcome to L.A. There Rudolph found in the actor a kindred spirit who shared his philosophies on the power of cinema to examine the human experience. On the eve of Rudolph’s long overdue retrospective at the Quad Cinema beginning this weekend in New York, Carradine sat down with Rudolph to discuss changing market realities, and how Rudolph found his home on film sets as a person who never understood “reality.”

Keith Carradine (KC): There is a core to everything that I’ve done with you and from what I’ve watched you do over the years. There is something you always want to look at, something about the way you look at things that I relate to. There’s a central theme to everything you make…

Alan Rudolph (AR): Don’t ask me what it is.

KC: From my perspective your work always seems to go straight to the heart. There’s something about the nature of the human heart and what is at the core and essence of romance. No matter what the milieu in which you’re telling your story, there is always that mystery at the center. That’s what Ray Meets Helen is about. The first project we did together, Welcome to L.A.—it was about that same fascination that you have with human nature.

AR: It doesn’t seem to be terribly popular with audiences or critics. There was a moment where Mark Isham and I were putting on the jazz score for Afterglow, and there were two days of live music that I put in the movie wherever it fit. Mark put together this great band of jazz heroes. The Coltrane-esque saxophonist Charles Lloyd and the drummer Billy Higgins, who played on the Miles Davis album Kind of Blue, were setting up instruments during a take, and Charles looked at Billy, and said “Billy, I love you.” Billy looked up and said, “Well, I love you too, and that’s why I love you.” That was the most jazz thing I ever heard. I didn’t quite get it, but I understood it. It summarizes just about everything I know.

There’s something mysterious about matters of the heart that are so completely explorable. One would think that it’s what we all have in common regardless of the flavor. It’s the most fascinating part of the experience. I just couldn’t get into the whole violence, tough guy, taking it all so seriously act. There’s a certain amount of whimsy in life. I read a nice quote, “Melancholy is when darkness takes on a lightness.” It’s not a place you particularly want to reside in, but there’s something about feeling good about feeling bad which is the essence of the blues and is certainly a chapter in most love stories.

What you do Keith, is manage to bring out the good person with complications that we all have, in the most honest way. What happens then is that the audience trusts you with their emotional investment, knowing that you may not win or lose but it’s how you play your game. That’s really fascinating. If I watch these films of ours—which I don’t—I know I’d feel the same things throughout all them. With Ray Meets Helen we were trying to do something that takes place in a familiar reality but remains a romantic fable. We purposely took fictional characters made up of old movie characters, and everything is stripped away from them, so that when you meet them that’s the beginning of their history, but you know what they’ve been through even if you don’t know the specifics. And you, Keith, have this ability to bring real behavior into the most fictional situations.

Alan Rudolph and Keith Carradine on the set of Ray Meets Helen. Image courtesy of Joyce Rudolph.

KC: On the set of The Moderns we were discussing the nature of art, and you quoted Picasso, “Art is the lie that enables you to see the truth.” There is an approach that you take to creating a painting (which all of your movies are) where you never seem seduced into trying to ape reality, the way most filmmakers feel obligated to do. You have the ability, the vision, to create a world that is, in the case of Ray Meets Helen, a fable. You’re not bound by the conventions of what people are used to seeing. Instead you seem to be able to steer all of that away to look at the nature of behavior and the essence of the heart. As you said before, you could explore that forever because it’s bottomless.

AR: An actor’s face is the best horizon you can shoot. There is a limitless range of emotion and expression to explore in the face of an actor. In any real life situation, I would probably choose you, Keith, to be the guy to handle it. I don’t care what it is. You have a way of cutting through things and getting them done. I’m just the opposite.

Geraldine Chaplin and Anthony Perkins in Remember My Name. Image courtesy of Columbia/Everett Collection.

KC: To quote Clark Gable, “And that would be your misfortune.”

AR: That’s why I don’t deal with reality—I have no concept of it. My father was in the film business, as was yours. I remember visiting these wonderful sound stages, when he was an Assistant Director at Paramount in the ‘40s, these big, cavernous cold places where all this activity was focused around this bright light, this fantastic machinery around which people would move efficiently. You look closer, move closer to the light, and it’s all just focused on someone’s face. There’s absolutely nothing real about it, and I took to it immediately. I felt at home. Because movies were the language of our household, and the whole surrounding atmosphere of living in a movie, totally made me unprepared for when things were supposed to turn real. When things get hard, when tragedies happen, I just dove deeper into the fantasy of filmmaking. It’s not fantasy; it’s not escapism. It’s looking for another side to this.

To me, reality is completely negotiable which is why film has so much impact, as a concept under assault by commercialism, since its inception. The pure mysteries of movies, to duplicate, replicate, imitate human behavior, in a way that strangers playing fictional characters can somehow tell even more truth than real people telling their real stories—I got that. I never got the real thing; I never got reality.

In my films, entirely fictional films with fictional settings, what’s so interesting is that all the behavior is totally normal. If it had been a “hyper real” Cassavetes film, people would’ve behaved the same. When you strip away the cultural and societal references, suddenly there are no advertisements for products audiences understand. When Trouble in Mind came out, everyone asked, “Where is this? What’s this supposed to be? Why are those people dressed like this?” Stripping away recognizable reference points for people seems to be like throwing away their security blanket, and they get nervous and angry. Being a masochist I guess, I kept doing it.

Would you consider Choose Me a fable?

KC: Absolutely.

AR: And yet, there isn’t an element in there that isn’t right out of real life. It’s as if my through line is more about the indefinable part of things. No one can ever tell me that things are too coincidental in my films. Please… my mother’s maiden name was Altman. There are no coincidences in life. And you seem to be the guy who understood the language.

KC: From the first time we met and spent time together, on the set of California Split, I recognized that point of view, that place to go that has nothing to do with anything realistic. It was all about emotion and heart and the stuff underneath this existence that we all muddle through. There’s an essence under that that people so often try to ignore, because it hurts. You wanted to always look at that, what’s underneath everything, in a musical manner. I don’t think there’s a higher form than music, and what you managed to do with your moviemaking is in fact musical. 

AR: Music was always in my house growing up. It feeds your interior, your interior ideas. When this comes to film, music and the emotions have a direct link and act as an audience’s guide. They trust music more than anything else because they feel it, and if it’s music that ultimately promotes a certain emotion, even if they don’t get what’s going on onscreen, they can reside there.

Hope Davis and Campbell Scott in The Secret Lives of Dentists. Image courtesy of Manhattan Pictures/Everett Collection.

KC: The average filmgoer these days isn’t you or me but is rather a younger person who is assaulted every day by energy that is, for the most part, negative. You and I, working together, have always found a way to avoid that assault, to go back to pure emotion. Major films these days are made in order to gain and hold the audience’s attention for two hours.

AR: I was never going to be commercially successful. Working with Bob [Altman], I didn’t even try. In fact, when he came to me on the set of Nashville and said, “A couple of years down the line, I’ll try to get a movie of your own creation made, but in the mean time I need you to do this.” Bob had no demands, other than to be truthful with what he was doing. I knew I couldn’t compete with this, and so I didn’t even try. I didn’t care about the commercial aspect of it, mostly because I didn’t understand. I’m really proud that when you watch any of my movies, say Choose Me or Trouble in Mind 30 years later, because they’re not slaves to the contemporary moment in which they were made, they hold up. You may not respond to them, but you can’t look at them and just say “Well, that’s what they did back then.” I hope Ray Meets Helen finds massive appeal, but I wish I had hair too…

The seed to Ray Meets Helen comes from two separate stories I read in the newspaper twenty thirty years ago. One is about an armored truck in Florida that went off the freeway, and a bunch of money blew into a nearby neighborhood. The other one was about a woman in Seattle who assumed someone’s identity and began to live their life. These two ideas really stuck with me. I started writing it decades ago. It was always a little script, a little idea I owned in case nothing was happening, which was always the case. That’s how Choose Me and Remember My Name were born. Ray Meets Helen is this quintessential small movie. I purposely brought in elements of all of the things I’ve done before. I wanted hints that they were still there.

Shooting Ray Meets Helen reminds me of what Dorothy Parker once said about writing, “It’s a miserable, miserable delight.” I wasn’t miserable, but it was delightful to watch something that, out of arcane circumstances, came some clarity that I feel really good about.

Lesley Ann Warren and Keith Carradine in Choose Me. Image courtesy Island Alive/Everett Collection.

KC: As you once said, “Hey man, if it’s easy everyone would be doing it.”

AR: Anything over three is a big film crew to me. On these mammoth pictures, I just don’t understand how you get to the essence of why you’re there—as Bob would say, “Get to the verb.” That’s why, when you see a giant movie that works on every level, it’s a massive accomplishment to be able to focus like that. Conversely, when you make a little film, the challenge is to make something that doesn’t look like such a little film.

We pissed off the entire movie industry at the time with Welcome to L.A. It was not like anything else, and no one knew what to do with it. The studio took one look and said, “You guys can have it. We wouldn’t know how to sell this.” Because of Bob’s big balls, we released it ourselves. Then the unsuspecting public comes in and doesn’t know what to make of it because they have nothing to compare it to. For me, that’s the triumph.

KC: We make them and then we duck.

AR: Make a film, tell the truth as best you can, and then duck. What I’ve heard already is that some people resist this movie because it’s not what they expect. Someone I know who likes all of my other work did not like this movie. Why? They wrote me an email, because “I expected this. I thought it was going to be this. I didn’t understand why they did that.” The reason you liked my other movies was because you surrendered to the tone of them. So why fight this? If the reason people resist this movie is because it’s too original or, comparatively speaking, it’s not in the category of what’s popular filmmaking, I would think that’s a reason to make the film. To me, in this day and age, where anything is possible, to have a little film be upsetting because it’s too original or too different would seem to me like a goal in life.

KC: If art is a lie that enables us to see the truth, then people need to stop getting hung up on the lie.

AR: You can put a crown on a clown, but that doesn’t make him king. MM

Quad Cinema’s retrospective, “Alan Rudolph’s Everyday Lovers,” runs from April 7-May 8, 2018 in New York City. Ray Meets Helen opens in theaters May 4, 2018, courtesy of TriCoast Entertainment.