Turner, Altman and “The Company”

By Jan Lisa Huttner

After a long professional acquaintance that began on an episode of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” director Robert Altman and screenwriter Barbara Turner’s new film The Company is now playing in theatres nationally.

Filmed here on location last fall, “The Company” is a dramatization of life in Chicago’s famous Joffrey Ballet Company.

When Altman and Turner first met, she was a New York-trained actress and he was a promising young television director. She was also the wife of actor Vic Morrow, who became famous in the role of Sergeant Chip Saunders on the popular ?60s series “Combat!” Altman was one of the show’s primary directors during “Combat’s” first season.

The next time Altman and Turner worked together was on a TV project called “Nightmare in Chicago” (their first joint credit in the Internet Movie database). “I had a great experience on “Nightmare,” said Turner during an interview at the Palmer House Hilton, “Anybody who works with Bob has a great experience, even way back then.”

Although she still thought of herself as an actress, Turner had already tried her hand at several screenplays. “Vic and I wanted to work, so we wrote a movie. We actually got a little bit of interest. Then we wrote something for television together. We tried to raise the money, and we got very close, but we never raised enough.”

After Turner and Morrow separated, she read a promising story in New Yorker magazine, and with some prodding by her new companion, director Reza Badiyi, she wrote a screenplay.

(Badiyi, who became Turner’s second husband, is best remembered now as the creator of the unforgettable opening title sequence for “Hawaii Five O.”)

The new screenplay sold almost immediately. “It was really weird. I went to Bob with it, and Bob read it and he thought it was good. So he was going to do it, but just before they were supposed to start shooting, it fell apart? Then Bob read a novel called “Me and the Arch Kook Petulia,” and he called me and he said: ?I think you could do Petulia. It reminds me of you.’ So I wrote that screenplay.”

In the end, Richard Lester, not Robert Altman, ended up directing “Petulia.” Nevertheless the film, starring George C. Scott, Julie Christie, and Richard Chamberlain, was a critical success, and Turner’s writing career blossomed. She’s made numerous television and theatrical films since, including “Georgia” (starring daughter Jennifer Jason Leigh) and “Pollock” (directed by actor Ed Harris). In 1978, she received an Emmy nomination for her adaptation of Alison Lurie’s novel “The War Between the Tates.”

A few years ago, Turner got a call from her agent. “He just said; ?You’re going to meet Neve Campbell.’ I met with Neve a couple of times, and she said she wanted to do a film about a dance company, and what it’s really like to be a dancer. I have always loved ballet. We talked about where the company should be located, and I said: ?What about Chicago?’

“To make a long story short, we decided on the Joffrey Ballet. Fortunately we had access to it through friends. When it was done, I sent the script to Bob. I just wanted his opinion. Bob is a genius, so I am thrilled that he liked the script, loved the script, and wanted to do it above a lot of others.”

Unlike recent Altman films such as “Gosford Park” in which innumerable internationally-known actors all play ensemble roles, the focus of “The Company” really is on the (relatively anonymous) dancers of the Joffrey Ballet. It is the very antithesis of a typical Hollywood “star vehicle.”

“Neve could have had a $30 million movie,” said Turner, “But this is a very low budget film. It’s low budget because it’s going to be done in the way it should be done. It’s about the Joffrey dancers, with Neve (a member of the National Ballet of Canada before her acting career took off) as just part of the company.”

That said, Chicago theater aficionados should keep their eyes open for local headliners such as Barbara Robertson, currently starring in a revival of Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. This is surely one of the pleasures of seeing a film made in your own hometown.

Jan Lisa Huttner is the creative director of FILMS FOR TWO: The Online Guide for Busy Couples. Read her complete interview with Barbara Turner on www.film42.com/chats.