Filmsparks — 50 Years DFFB: Wolf­gang Tum­ler — A lit­tle mis­un­der­stand­ing

One sum­mer, maybe in 1974 or 1975, I was in Cal­i­for­nia for one of my first tele­vi­sion report­ing jobs. It was about a self-help group for drug addicts. At the same time, the Film Board had set up a schol­ar­ship pro­gram, under which a decent amount of mon­ey was made avail­able to vis­it and observe famous direc­tors or pro­duc­ers abroad at work. To qual­i­fy for the schol­ar­ship, all you need­ed was a cred­i­ble invi­ta­tion from such a per­son. Because I didn’t just want to be a reporter all my life, but also want­ed to try my hand at the dra­mat­ic arts, I was inter­est­ed, and some­one gave me some con­tacts in Hol­ly­wood – to CBS, George Lucas and Robert Alt­man. So, dur­ing my trip to the drug addicts’ clin­ic, my aim was also get an invi­ta­tion to be a so-called “guest observ­er”. At CBS, it was quite impres­sive but rather anony­mous. I didn’t like it. I left out George Lucas imme­di­ate­ly, because he had just left the roman­tic streets of AMERICAN GRAFFITI for STAR WARS. That was too tech­ni­cal for me – but I did go to Robert Altman’s.

Back then he had a lit­tle pro­duc­tion build­ing in West­wood which was beau­ti­ful by Euro­pean stan­dards with smells from the kitchen, nar­row stairs and var­i­ous pro­duc­tion nois­es behind every door. This relieved me of any fears I might have had, and so with good inten­tions I approached the then very fat Robert Alt­man who was squeezed in behind a large desk. His “What can I do for you?” was the only mea­gre, but quite friend­ly open­ing for my lit­tle talk about my wish­es, dreams, self-assess­ment, enthu­si­asm for Alt­man, and so on. The man looked me up and down, grum­bled half coher­ent­ly, half impa­tient­ly, and while talk­ing I was try­ing to think of what else I could say to con­vince him to allow me to be a future guest observ­er. He didn’t reveal any­thing of him­self. At some point, I could think of noth­ing else, and that was it. Now it was up to him to decide. But some­how it didn’t seem like enough or con­vinc­ing enough. I searched my mind for my ace card, and there it was. There was one thing I had com­plete­ly for­got­ten: “By the way, it won’t cost you a cent,” I sud­den­ly said and was proud that I didn’t say “pen­ny”. “It’s all paid for by a Ger­man fund, and if that’s not enough, I’ll bring my own mon­ey too.” I looked up to see Altman’s reac­tion. Should I stand up already for a hand­shake? Alt­man looked me right in the eye, as his eyes got small­er and small­er.

“Are you say­ing, I can’t afford you? Are you telling me, I can’t pay you?” In slow motion – like the moment before a head-on col­li­sion with anoth­er car – thoughts, bet­ter said reflex­es, raced through my mind. Was I at the wrong par­ty? Was this clever, cre­ative man with the Euro­pean-style pro­duc­tion build­ing the same man I just sat down in front of? Did I do some­thing wrong, some­thing ter­ri­ble? When? Where? Altman’s worlds cut through this buzzing in my head: “Out!” And his pow­er­ful fin­ger point­ed me to the door.