The Altman Sound

The spaceshot movie Countdown (1968) featured the overlapping dialogue that became an Altman trademark – and is said to have gotten him fired from the project and banned from the studio lot!  This technique presented challenges to the technical crew as well as to the actors.  Altman’s notable sound mixers included James Webb and Robert Gravenor, who are credited with creating “that whole process of simultaneous multitracks for production sound.”  It has been suggested that the reason there were 24 characters in Altman’s Nashville was because of the music industry’s common use of 24-track recording.  Each character was recorded separately and then brought together physically and metaphorically via the sound mixing board.  Among the realia included in the Altman Archive is a Yamaha 802 sound mixing board.


Tolios 02001.tiff

Script page from Countdown, 1968, written by Loring Mandel.

The quintessential and recognizable Altman trait of using overlapping sound and dialogue has been pointed to as a symbol of the messiness of real life, of making characters behave more as their real-life counterparts do.  It is so much a part of how he is known as a director that Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep used it brilliantly in presenting him with an Oscar for Lifetime Achievement in 2006.

Even in various screenplays with different writers, by the final drafts they seemed to indicate in some way Altman’s desire to use overlapping dialogue.  Not surprisingly, the Altman Archive, contains documents that reflect how this signature overlapping was achieved, being carefully written down.  There are a number of subtle marks within the scripts:

  • In Countdown (1968) the writer puts the dialogue of two characters side by side
  • In McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) parenthetical cues begin to appear, but are very sparse and subtle
Tolios 048.02.jpg

Script page from McCabe & Mrs. Miller, 1971, written by Robert Altman and Brian McKay.

By the time of The Long Goodbye (1973) Altman's technique had evolved and there are entire pages of parenthetical cues, clearly stating how overlapping is to occur.


Script page from The Long Goodbye, 1973, written by Leigh Brackett.

Songs & Rights