"Popeye is going to bring people back from space and down to Earth," director Robert Altman shouts above the din of several Moviolas. "It’ll satisfy the kids and the kid in the adults. It’s really a wonderful fantasy!"
Altman is fixed behind an editing console at his Lion’s Gate Films studio, carefully monitoring footage from his latest movie, Paramount Pictures’ and Walt Disney’s Popeye, an $18,000,000 musical extravaganza starring Robin Williams and Shelly Duvall. […]
From James Dean to Popeye
Preparing for Popeye
"Eyerything is a change of pace for me," says Altman, "but I think I was prepared for this film. Musically, I think Nashville and A Perfect Couple helped get me ready for it. Popeye can be considered satire and I’ve done satire before, but never in this form. In fact, I’ve never seen anything like Popeye done before.
"I must admit that the way I got involved with Popeye was a little strange," Altman says with a sardonic smile. "The film’s script had already been written and was given to my agent, Sam Cohn, to be offered to another director; Sam raved about the screenplay, but a couple of directors turned it down. He couldn’t understand that because he thought that Popeye was a wonderful project. Although nobody had ever thought of Popeye in connection with me, Sam asked me to read it. I was fascinated by the script, because I couldn’t see how it could be done. I told Sam that I’d love to take a shot at directing Popeye. Sam called Bob Evans (the film’s producer), and Bob said, ‘Terrific!,’ so we made our deal.”
By the time Altman was hired Robin Williams was already set to play Popeye, but the remaining roles were still open. Altman’s casting plans fed the gossip columns for several days, when it became known that he wanted Shelly Duvall to portray Olive Oyl and that Paramount Pictures was leaning towards Gilda Radner. Many film fans felt that Altman’s final decision was prejudiced since he had "discovered" Duvall when he put her in Brewster McCloud and later worked with her in four additional pictures.
Casting A Comic Strip
Next, Altman had to find a location where he could construct the backdrop against which all of Popeye is played, the mythical village of Sweethaven.
"We needed a warm climate where we could build the entire Sweethaven community," the director explains. "Sweethaven had to look like a New England fishing village, so the location also had to have a lot of water. We couldn’t shoot it in a real northern fishing town because we had to film Popeye during January, February and March due to Robin Williams’ Mork and Mindy shooting schedule. We chose Malta, an island in the Mediterranean, because it had the best facilities. Unfortunately, the weather turned out to be not what we expected. The wind was very, very bad. Working on the sea is always unpredictable.”
A Faithful Adaptation
When Popeye’s production was an- nounced, many of the character’s fans be- came extremely apprehensive when they learned that Robert Altman would direct the film and that Harry Nilsson would score it. One media maven even quipped, "It’s going to be Popeye on quaaludes." There was additional concern due to Hollywood’s bastardized adaptations of most comic strip and book heroes. Fortunately, there seems to be little need for anxiety. Popeye’s screenplay was written by Jules Feiffer, the famous New York cartoonist and author of Little Murders and Carnal Knowledge, reknown to comics enthusiasts for his marvelous volume, The Great Comic Book Heroes.
How does Altman. feel about his association with Walt Disney Productions, Popeye’s foreign distributor?
"If someone had told me five years ago that in 1980 I’d be making a film for Walt Disney, I would have thought it very humorous," quips the director. "I wouldn’t have believed them. Disney’s actually been very, very supportive. I think they’ll do a terrific job of releasing it around the world. Our involvement will even help the ticket sales. A lot of people are just going to want to see what Altman’s doing with a Disney picture!"
Living with the Critics
Altman might just be more worried about Popeye’s financial future than his words let on. His films of the past few years— Buffalo Bill and the Indians, 3 Women, A Wedding, Quintet, and A Perfect Couple—have all performed dismally at the box office. Some critics have even proposed that Altman’s sole motivation for directing Popeye was the project’s major commercial appeal.
"There’s no question that if Popeye is a success people are going to say that," Altman admits with a sigh. "If it fails, they'll say something else. I can’t prevent those criticisms. My reason for getting involved with Popeye was that I hadn’t done anything like it before. It was something new."