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Although Alan Rudolph has made several more-or-less mainstream films, he wasn’t expecting any job offers after he premiered Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle at Cannes three years ago. “Of all the directors working, I’m probably the last on the list,” laments the director amiably by phone from a promo stop in Atlanta. “It’s not like the phone rings and somebody says, ‘Well, what do you want to do next?’ The only person who has ever done that is [Robert] Altman, and he’s got about as much money as I do.”

Rudolph’s films, which include Choose Me and The Moderns, are usually well reviewed but never lucrative. That’s why, he says, “I have to get my next one going before anyone’s seen the last one.” After Mrs. Parker, however, the director’s phone did ring. But he “had a project I really wanted to do. So I turned down everything. Then it took about a year, and it didn’t happen. Suddenly, I pulled my head out of the sand and realized there was nothing happening. So I started to write this.”

“This” is Afterglow, the parable of an older couple (Julie Christie and Nick Nolte) and a younger one (Lara Flynn Boyle and Jonny Lee Miller) who briefly become romantically intertwined. They are “four characters in different emotional time zones,” Rudolph suggests.

“A film with four characters, and one of them’s called Lucky Mann, there’s some interpretative quality going on,” he notes. “But I think you can make a case that this is all about one couple, one marriage.

“Marriage is a living thing,” the director muses. “And it’s as much about forgiveness as anything else. I find it possibly the most unnatural human act, but also the most honorable.

“You can also look at it,” he adds, “that all of them might add up to a whole person. Julie’s the soul, Nick’s the heart, Lara’s the body, and Jonny’s the head.”

After Rudolph’s other project stalled, it was Altman who got Afterglow going. “He’s the best producer in the world, because he never shows up,” says Rudolph. “He never bothers anybody. Plus, he does the one thing that I don’t think any other producer in the world does. He never says, ‘Oh, you should do this,’ or ‘Why don’t you add this, or take this away?’ His thing is always, ‘How do we get you what you want?’

“He proved his worth as a producer in the first two days of this piece’s birth,” Rudolph remembers. Sent the freshly completed script, Altman “asked the one question he always asks of himself, and the first question he will ever ask, which is never ‘How much?’ or ‘Where?’ It’s ‘Who?’ He asked, ‘Who are your first choices?’ And I said Nick Nolte and Julie Christie, two people I didn’t know. And the next day he calls me up and says, ‘I bumped into Nick—he’s read the script, wants to do it.’ And the day after that, he said, ‘Julie wants to talk to you. She really liked it.’ I thought we’d be shooting by Friday, but in fact it took the usual eight months to get the money.”

“It’s not any different than when I first worked with [Altman]” as assistant director on such films as California Split and Nashville, says Rudolph. “He’s so smart, and he’s a true visionary. He kind of raises the level of everybody around him. Knowing that he’s there always makes me shoot higher.”

Another frequent collaborator who joined Rudolph in making Afterglow is soundtrack composer Mark Isham. Music is frequently the starting point for his scripts, the director reveals. “I wish my films could reach people the way that music does. It really is an emotional tool. It’s the best mood rearranger. It can be ambiguous and inconclusive. It’s a mood, a feeling. I always kind of start with music before anything else.”

If he taught at a film school, Rudolph speculates, he “would take a piece of film and show it. Then you put some music to it, and everybody goes, ‘Oh, yeah, it’s that.’ And then you put a different piece of music to it, and ‘Oh, it’s that.’ Then I’d say, ‘The course is over. Goodbye. That’s all I know about film.’”

The other regular in Afterglow’s company is Montreal, making its third appearance in a Rudolph film. The city stood in Paris for The Moderns and for New York in Mrs. Parker, but this time it plays itself.

“I didn’t want people to say that this is about two New York couples, or two L.A. couples, or wherever we could afford to shoot it,” explains Rudolph. “By putting the characters in [French-speaking Montreal], they’re kind of exiled, displaced from their roots. I think that’s important.”

Still, he adds, “the real reason is that you save 30 percent going across the border. And I know that town, and they’re great filmmakers. The crews are fantastic.”

Despite his reputation as a personal, idiosyncratic (and low-budget) director, for a time Rudolph alternated films based on his own scripts with work for hire on such mainstream movies as Roadie and Made in Heaven. “It was not a plan,” he explains. “I look back on it and I see the pattern. I was flat broke, and I would take anything, thinking I could do something with it. What I learned is, invariably, you can’t. Most of them I wish I hadn’t done.

“Two of them I really like,” he continues. “Songwriter and Mortal Thoughts, but they both had the same circumstance: They needed a director, now. Start shooting, literally, tomorrow. And I secretly love that, because I hate to prepare. I like to think on my feet. And I knew the companies were in trouble, so they weren’t going to bother me.

“The other three I did for studios. each one had the same pattern: The studios basically changed before it was over. One of them, we were all set to go and it changed hands before we started, and we had to recast. I’m not made for that. I think now that I’m a known—an unknown known—quantity, studios basically aren’t going to waste their quarter on the call anymore. And I’m glad. I would perish in that system.”

As an L.A. director who has worked with such stars as Bruce Willis, Timothy Hutton, and Meat Loaf, Rudolph acknowledges that he’s actually part of that system. Still, he feels outside it. “Hollywood is a monolithic structure, and it’s never going to change,” he says. “Now movies are currency, and Disney is more important to the world than Denmark.

“I’ve read a few mainstream Hollywood scripts,” he notes, “and they’re all really smartly written and almost intimidating in their execution. But they all have one thing in common: They get to that moment of truth, and they tell a lie. They refuse to pursue the truth wherever it might lead, because it may be ambiguous or confusing or unpredictable. I think as Hollywood has become increasingly successful as an industry, it can’t afford unpredictability.”

Rudolph connects this test-marketed certainty with advertising and marketing’s growing prominence in American culture. “I’ve been doing all this traveling on this movie,” he says. “And I spend a lot of time sitting in hotel restaurants by myself. I’m a world-class eavesdropper. And I swear to you, without even being cynical about it, that wit in America now is the punch line to a commercial. People really don’t talk about anything. I haven’t heard anyone engage on a big level in a long time.”

Rudolph marvels at what he calls “the corporate assault on our identities…to get their logo on your dreams. I find that advertising wants to replace our identities with their version of our identities. And most people accept the new version as them. And they’re more confused than ever. There’s never really been a map of how to feel anything, but it seems to me that there are more barriers than ever before.

“If nothing else,” he says, “I hope this film of mine has a tangled web of real emotions. I just want the audience to feel something. If you feel something about the characters, that’s good. If you feel something about yourself, that’s great.

“That’s why,” he concludes, “it’s like a soap opera, an unwashed soap opera.”

And in what sense does he mean “unwashed”?

“I have no idea,” Rudolph admits with a laugh. “It sounds right.” —Mark Jenkins