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Robert Altman on how '3 Women' was inspired by a dream


There aren’t many more filmmakers as significant to the history of American cinema than the late Robert Altman, a director inextricably tied to the culture and history of his country. Infusing each of his films with themes that explored the United States’ politics, sociology and personality, Altman is responsible for the likes of McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Nashville, The Player and more, with each film providing a further jigsaw piece in the director’s eclectic image of America. 

Having enjoyed a career that lasted for 55 impressive years until his tragic passing in 2006, Altman’s influence spanned genres and decades, going on to inspire the likes of Martin Scorsese, the Coen brothers and Steven Spielberg among many others. Celebrating and criticising American sociology to create a comprehensive picture of its makeup, Altman never shied away from the harsh truths that faced the contemporary United States. 

Commenting on the freedom of his own cinematic style, Altman described his career by saying: “I don’t think there’s a filmmaker alive, or who ever lived, who’s had a better shake than I’ve had” in Conversations at the American Film Institute with the Great Moviemakers. Continuing, Altman explained: “I’ve never been without a project and it’s always been a project of my own choosing. So I don’t know how much better it could be. I have not become a mogul, I don’t build castles and I don’t have a vast personal fortune, but I have been able to do what I’ve wanted to do and I’ve done it a lot”. 

Among his classic 20th century films is 3 Women, a strange ethereal film written and directed by Altman that starred Shelley Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Janice Rule and Ruth Nelson, a film that follows two roommates who share a bizarre relationship in the Californian desert. Peculiar and unsettling, the film occupies a strange Avant-garde space that seems as if it’s broadcast live from an otherworldly dreamscape. 

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As Altman reveals in an interview with the BFI, however, 3 Women is indeed directly inspired by a dream the director had, telling the publication, “3 Women literally came from a dream. It didn’t come from a dream in the way that I dreamed this, what I dreamed was that I was making this film. Or was going to”. Continuing he said: “I woke up and took the yellow pad next to my bed and wrote a sketch for 3 Women and went back to sleep. Then I dreamed more of it and woke to write some more”.

Once the film was written, Altman cast it, then described “two of the fellas that worked for me at the time came into the bedroom and I told them to go down to Palm Springs because we were going to shoot this in the desert,” then the director woke up once again. 

“Then I woke up. There was sand in my bed from my son, I hadn’t written anything down,” Altman fascinatingly remarked, adding: “I had dreamed the title, 3 Women, and this image of where it took place”. Grabbing the telephone and calling an associate, Altman announced that he’d “found a terrific story” and the rest is history. 

Whilst the specifics of the 3 Women narrative were down to the writing talents of Robert Altman and the uncredited screenwriter Patricia Resnick, it was the essence of the movie that originated from the power of dreams. Watching the enigmatic film back, it’s really no surprise at all.