FOR 30 years, Garrison Keillor has spent his Saturday nights putting on an old-fashioned radio show, "A Prairie Home Companion," the live variety program heard nationwide by 4 million listeners. But while building an institution by raising Midwestern self-deprecation and subversively folksy tongue-in-cheek storytelling to an art form, he's been harboring celluloid dreams — which is how his base at the Fitzgerald Theater was transformed last summer into the set of Robert Altman's latest film, "A Prairie Home Companion," opening June 9.
"This has been my ambition for years, to write for a dramatic medium," Keillor said. "Because I'm no good at it, and one aspires to do what one cannot do. I still have a hard time writing dialogue, because I come from people who didn't talk. We sat and chewed our food, looked out the window."
Keillor originally approached Altman with the idea of making a movie based on the characters of Lake Wobegon, the mythical Minnesota town where much of his storytelling is based, after a development deal at Disney fell apart. But after Altman and his wife, Katherine, a longtime Keillor fan, attended a live taping of "A Prairie Home Companion" on one of its regular tours across the country (it'll be at the Hollywood Bowl on Friday), the 81-year-old Altman decided that he'd rather make a movie about the onstage drama and backstage dynamics surrounding the making of a radio show. As he did in his last film, "The Company" (2003), a faux documentary about a season in the life of a troupe modeled after Chicago's Joffrey Ballet, Altman wanted to immortalize an ephemeral art form on screen.
So Keillor, 63, imagined a last night in the life of a program much like his own, "turning the show inside out" by writing a scenario based on real and imagined "Prairie Home Companion" personalities. Writing a fictional documentary about himself was, Keillor said, "an odd assignment. But I was intrigued by the idea. And I was 60 years old. When you're 60, you kind of think to yourself, 'This chance may not come again.' "
Regulars Sue Scott and Tim Russell play a fictional makeup artist and a stage manager, respectively. Regular chanteuse Jearlyn Steele plays herself. Dusty and Lefty, the singing cowboys — character sketches incarnated on the radio by Keillor himself — are reborn in the hilarious duo of Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly. "Prairie Home Companion" icon Guy Noir is now the theater's hapless security guard, played by Kevin Kline in 1940s attire. And central to the story are country music sisters Yolanda and Rhonda Johnson (Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin) and Yolanda's daughter, Lola (Lindsay Lohan). The show's live audiences were replaced here by local volunteers.
All but two scenes were shot inside the Fitzgerald, which had been only lightly art-directed for its screen debut.
"The whole movie is inside — this is all in Keillor's mind," Altman said on a shooting break, sitting in a golf cart on the sidewalk outside the stage door that served as his way station in the 97-degree heat. "This has gotta be his humor, his tempo. I can't make up my own jokes. This is really about Garrison Keillor and his sense of humanity and his sensibility and his politics. All I'm doing is coming in and interpreting it. This guy's been in charge for 30 years. He has never, ever not been fully in charge of everything, except this movie. I have to see that he is in charge."
"No, he's the master of this world," Keillor insisted later from a glass-encased VIP lounge at the back of the theater that had been built by the art department for a scene in which Tommy Lee Jones — playing a broadcasting executive — comes to shut down the show. "Bob has an amazing, specific vision. He's here painting his picture with some materials that I've provided. But he has the upper hand and so, you know, that's good to know, so we don't have to fight. We know who makes the final cut."
This was how two of America's most singular voices found a common language, each calling the other one boss and going about his work. "They're two great forces coexisting," said Richard Dworksy, the house music director, who improvises onstage while Keillor performs, and a local boy whose parents owned the theater until 1983. "There's very courteous diplomacy going on."
"Keillor and Altman are a real natural combination," said Reilly, still in cowboy get-up. "There's something similar in the fabric of 'Prairie Home Companion' and some of the more well-known Altman movies — where there's a group of people, one comes in, one comes out and there's humor in it that's based on the acceptance of humanity and all its flaws and eccentricities. There's a kind of guiding ethic to the way they do the show, but it's also sort of chaotic. And that's very much Bob's sense of 'What are we gonna do? We're gonna find what happens in that moment and I'm gonna capture it and it won't be pushed or forced until the life goes out of it.' "
Creator's licenseKEILLOR is known for rewriting right up until airtime, and much of the shoot involved Altman allowing him to hold forth from his stage, loomingly tall, in red tie and sneakers, while the house band jammed behind him and he and a rotating crew sang songs and jingles, told jokes and stories from the American heartland.
"Let's come in here now with a word about catchup," Keillor said in his homespun voice, delivering a service announcement for the fictional Catchup Advisory Board. "Yes, catchup — made from tomatoes that contain natural sunshine, which we need in this part of the country . We come from people who brought us up to believe that life is a struggle — and if you should ever feel really happy, be patient — this will pass."
Then Altman yelled "Cut!" from the back of the theater. "That was great, Garrison," he said. "Let's try that one more time." Keillor improvised another take.
"I'm a writer, and there are times when I'm very proprietary about what I have written," Keillor said. "But there are scenes which, although I did write them, I'm glad to see them kind of smudged. Bob's very good at smudging. So the dialogue is kind of overlapping and a lot of things are going on and your sentences are kind of set into a flow of things that is actually a good fate for them. Had they been spoken like lines from Shakespeare, everyone would have seen that it wasn't Shakespeare."
Keillor has spoofed himself in the bumbling alter ego of G.K. "I am not playing myself exactly," he said, adding that his Hollywood dreams did not include acting. "Well, I mean I went along with it, but I certainly tried to get out of it. My hope was to write words that other people could say, and then I could sit in the dark and watch them. I wanted somebody else to play me."
"Well, George Clooney, of course," he said. "I couldn't really give myself much to do in the screenplay, knowing what little I was capable of — I couldn't have myself fall down the stairs, or burst into tears. We shot a scene and Lindsay was weeping. She did something to herself that produced tears. I wouldn't know how to do it. I don't cry in real life so how would I do it in a movie?"
The local press had its knickers in a bit of a twist about the celebrity onslaught, reporting Streep sightings in the Marshall Field's and the restaurant habits of the cast. But not even the presence of tabloid staple Lohan did much to disturb life in the quiet city of F. Scott Fitzgerald's birth. Downtown, Starbucks opens at 5:30 in the morning and closes by 6 p.m. and solitary homeless people drift like tumbleweeds down empty sidewalks. On St. Peter Street one evening at twilight, the only other living creature on the sidewalk was a rabbit.
But Mickey's Diner at 7th and St. Peter is always open, and the filmmakers couldn't resist using the camera-ready 1930s greasy spoon as a location. "It was an Edward Hopper scene," Keillor said of one shot where Kline sits alone at the counter. "When I saw what a beautiful shot Bob made over at Mickey's, I started to think maybe I'd made a big mistake in locking him up in this building."
Keillor had finished shooting for the day and changed into jeans, which did little to lend him a casual air. For all the coziness of his on-air persona, there is an awkwardness about his person — his stature makes it hard for most people to look him in the eyes, and he seems never to slip out of character.
The extras had gone home and Altman's director's chair had been moved onto the stage for a scene in the wings with Kline and Virginia Madsen (here as a dark angel in a white trench coat, haunting the wings). "I can't remember what prompted this, but in an early stage of development, Bob said, 'The death of an old man is not a tragedy,' " Keillor remembered. "I don't think he was referring to himself. But that just stuck with me. I asked for permission to write an angel into the script, and he gave it on the condition that there be no aura."
"Look at that — that's a picture," Keillor continued in a confidential hush, deflecting attention to the white-haired Altman, a pale, distant figure in the Caravaggio-esque house light, surrounded by silhouettes of the crew. "He's in his own world up there — the world of moviemaking. To the extent that I'm responsible for giving him something to work on that he's really enthused about, I feel as if I've done a good deed in a dark world."
One night after shooting, Altman gathered a nonexclusive mob of cast, crew, family and friends for wine, beer, pizza and a glimpse of the work in progress — an Altman tradition. On-screen, Harrelson and Reilly did a musical bad joke routine, Streep and Tomlin sang sweetly, Kline became the flesh and blood of Guy Noir, and through Altman's lens Keillor was both his oddly charming self and a suddenly probable leading man.
Scenes from this meditation on little guys and big corporations, God and country, the passing of time and the end of an era — in which the angel of death is a femme fatale, dangerous and beautiful and never far — were rendered all the more poignant by the specter of Altman himself, looking finally mortal in his ninth decade on Earth.
Those assembled laughed and cheered and burst into spontaneous applause, and tears. The lights went up and Altman looked around with the stricken air of someone who wasn't taking anything for granted.
"I needed a story, and that seemed to me to be the most honest story," Keillor said, pointing out that his own show died once in 1987 before being resurrected a few years later.
"So there is some aspect of truth to this. Every show does come to an end."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times