Robert Altman was a maverick and an iconoclast who turned a number of genres on their heads. M*A*S*H was an antiwar comedy; The Long Goodbye was a new version of a film noir; Popeye was certainly not your typical family film based on a cartoon character. And of course there's McCabe & Mrs. Miller, a "revisionist Western" that replaces the customary climactic shootout with a sequence where the hero sneaks around and hides, trying to stay out of it. Everything about McCabe & Mrs. Miller was different from the Westerns people had grown up with, which might account for why it was commercially unpopular at the time. Its reputation improved, though, and now it's considered one of Altman's best. Here are some behind-the-scenes facts to enhance your enjoyment.
1. ITS WORKING TITLE WAS THE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH WAGER.
Though the film was based on a 1959 novel by Edmund Naughton called McCabe, the working title was The Presbyterian Church Wager, referring to a bet by a few of the townsfolk over whether McCabe would be killed after refusing to sell his businesses. (The town is called Presbyterian Church, after its most prominent structure.) Robert Altman said that during production, Warner Bros. was contacted by leaders of the Presbyterian religion, asking them not to use the name of their faith in conjunction with a story about brothels, gambling, and so forth. The title was changed to John McCabe, and eventually to McCabe & Mrs. Miller.
2. ELLIOTT GOULD TURNED DOWN THE LEAD (ALLEGEDLY) BECAUSE OF BITTER M*A*S*H FEELINGS.
Gould had starred (with Donald Sutherland) in one of Altman's previous films, M*A*S*H, which had had a tumultuous production. According to Altman, he offered the role of McCabe to Gould, who rejected it. "He was kind of cold, and I didn't get it," Altman said. While McCabe & Mrs. Miller was being shot, Gould contacted him. "He told me this story that he and Donald [Sutherland] had gone in and tried to get me fired from [M*A*S*H]," Altman said. "I was just shocked by it. Gould says, 'We were wrong.' Well, I agreed with him on that." All was forgiven, and Gould appeared in a few more Altman films thereafter. (Gould, by the way, says that while there was definitely tension on M*A*S*H, he never tried to get Altman fired. "That's not true at all," he told an interviewer in 2014. "I think that [Altman] had had some problems or challenges with management and studios and administrators. But there was never a thought of that.")
3. THE STARS WERE A REAL-LIFE COUPLE WHO HAD NEVER WORKED TOGETHER BEFORE.
Hollywood playboy Warren Beatty and British bombshell Julie Christie had an on-and-off relationship for several years, during which time they made McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Now, how they both came to be in the film depends on whom you ask. One Christie biography says she was signed on before Beatty was. An Altman biography says the same thing, adding that Beatty's participation was necessary to secure financing. But a Beatty biography says he agreed to do the film after meeting with Altman, and subsequently "convinced Christie as well." So, who knows?
4. THE SETS WERE BUILT BY AMERICAN DRAFT-DODGERS.
The film was shot near Vancouver in 1970, when many young Americans were fleeing to Canada to escape the Vietnam draft. Some of these men were hired to help build the town of Presbyterian Church, and even lived in it along with some of the crew.
5. SOME OF THE SETS WERE STILL BEING BUILT WHILE THE MOVIE WAS BEING SHOT.
Since the movie was shot mostly in chronological order, and since the turn-of-the-century town was supposed to be expanding over the course of the story, it made sense to save time by building some of the sets on camera. Carpenters, dressed in period clothes, can be seen in the background in some scenes, doing actual construction work.
6. THE FILM WAS PHOTOGRAPHED IN AN UNUSUAL, AND RISKY, MANNER.
Altman and his cinematographer, Vilmos Zsigmond, wanted a scratchy, old-timey look for the picture, and arrived at a method that the studio bosses never would have approved of if they'd known about it. The technique is called "flashing," and it meant lightly exposing the film negative before shooting. That makes it hard to set the exposure and increases the chances of the whole batch being botched. The studio didn't like the way it looked, but there was nothing that could be done after the fact—which is another reason Altman did it that way.
7. THE CINEMATOGRAPHY WAS INELIGIBLE FOR OSCAR CONSIDERATION.
As distinctive as the photography was, earning mentions in many of the reviews, it was ignored when the Academy Award nominations came out. Or not ignored, really: dismissed. Since Zsigmond was not a member of a cinematographers guild, his work was ineligible. He joined the American Society of Cinematographers in 1973 and was subsequently nominated for four Oscars, winning in 1978 for Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
8. AMONG THE PRODUCTION COSTS: $500 TO RESEED SOMEONE'S LAWN AFTER A DONKEY GOT LOOSE AND ATE IT.
The shooting location, a rural area near Vancouver, was sparsely populated, but it did have neighbors. One of those neighbors had to be reimbursed for the cost of reseeding his lawn after a donkey from the McCabe set got free, wandered over, and chewed it up. Warner Bros. officials were surprised to see the expenditure listed, though it certainly wasn't the first time that a Hollywood film had incurred expenses because of some reckless jackass.
9. THE NEGOTIATION SCENES WERE INSPIRED BY ALTMAN'S EXPERIENCES WITH AGENTS AND CONTRACTS.
Altman said in the DVD commentary that the scenes of McCabe haggling with the Shaughnessy representatives over the sale price of his business were inspired by his own observations of agents negotiating actors' contracts.
10. THE ACTORS CHOSE THEIR OWN COSTUMES, WHICH THEY HAD TO MEND THEMSELVES.
Altman's costume people assembled a vast collection of period clothing of all types, which they hung on racks in one of the buildings in the "town." The actors, from the leads down to the extras, were given free rein to choose their own ensembles, within certain guidelines: one pair of pants, maybe a couple of shirts, a coat, etc. Then they had to wear those clothes for the entire shoot, and care for them as real frontierspeople did, i.e. without the assistance of a wardrobe department.
11. IT'S OK WITH THE DIRECTOR IF YOU CAN'T MAKE OUT SOME OF THE DIALOGUE.
Like most of Altman's films, McCabe & Mrs. Miller has naturalistic, overlapping dialogue. Instead of one person saying a line and then another person saying a line, the characters talk like real people do, interrupting each other, stammering, speaking over one another, and trailing off. Zsigmond asked Altman about it. "I don't understand what the people in the background are saying," the Hungarian cinematographer recalled saying. "'Well, Vilmos, you've been in noisy bars. Do you hear what those people are talking in the background? I want a soundtrack which is real. Sometimes you don't understand what they are saying.'"
12. A BAD PRINT OF THE FILM LED TO SOME BAD REVIEWS EARLY ON.
The intentionally desaturated picture and deliberately unclear dialogue were part of Altman's design, but only up to a certain point. When the first two prints were struck for critics' screenings, they were a rush job with even poorer sound and picture quality than Altman intended. Critical reception was largely negative until new prints were struck and people were able to see the film properly.
13. ALTMAN MIGHT HAVE BEEN SUBCONSCIOUSLY INFLUENCED BY LEONARD COHEN.
The director bought the Songs of Leonard Cohen album in 1967, listened to it frequently, fell in love with it ... and then forgot about it. By his own account, two years later he was in Paris, thinking about McCabe, for which he already knew he didn't want a traditional orchestral musical score. A friend played the Leonard Cohen album, and Altman said, "That's the music!" He immediately reached out to Cohen to get permission to use a few of the songs, which fans of the film know are eerily appropriate. Altman had heavily revised Brian McKay's screenplay, and Cohen's lyrics must have seeped into his brain. "It was uncanny how the lyrics of those songs fit the film," Altman said. "I think subconsciously, that must have been in my head."
DVD features and commentary by Robert Altman