Garrison Keillor, a man who talks for a
living, never dreamed of making a movie based on his beloved
radio show, "A Prairie Home Companion." But when veteran,
award-winning filmmaker Robert Altman offered to do just that,
Keillor was willing to listen.
"I didn’t want to make a movie about radio," Keillor told reporters in Manhattan this week. "But Altman wanted to make the movie. It was the last thing I had in mind."
It wasn’t that Keillor didn’t want to be on the big screen. It’s just that he had another project in mind, one based on his 16 books set in the fictional town of Lake Wobegon, where all the kids are "above average."
"I had lunch with [Altman] in Chicago in 2002 and I was trying to pitch him a ’Lake Wobegon’ movie. I’ve been trying for years to make a movie about ’Lake Wobegon.’
"But he wasn’t buying it," Keillor recalled. "He wanted to make a movie about a radio show - my radio show - and he asked me to write the screenplay, and I decided that I would rather write the screenplay than have someone else write it."
The Minnesota native said he trusted Altman with his material because the "Gosford Park," "M*A*S*H" and "Nashville" director hails from Missouri and shares his regional sensibilities.
"Mr. Altman is a mid-Westerner, and he essentially says what he thinks, and so I found it easy to work with him," Keillor added.
Written by the radio show’s creator, based on a story idea he developed with his frequent collaborator, Ken LaZebnik, "A Prairie Home Companion" is a star-studded comedy about the final performance of a fictitious radio variety show that miraculously survives the age of television, only to be snuffed out by a Texas conglomerate.
Shot mainly in St. Paul, Minnesota’s famed Fitzgerald Theater, the film casts Keillor as the show’s host; Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin as a country music-singing sister duo; Lindsay Lohan as Streep’s daughter, a wannabe singer who also writes downbeat poetry; Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly as a crooning cowboy act; Kevin Kline as a backstage security guard who thinks he’s a 1940s private detective; and Virginia Madsen as a mysterious blonde angel.
Explaining how he enjoyed being able to fine-tune the script once he knew who the players were, Keillor noted, "I had their voices in mind and that’s great to be able to write to specific voices: Meryl’s kind of modulated, Midwestern voice [in the movie] and writing for Lily, which was kind of like writing for a car horn."
Admitting how important music is to the film, Keillor insists he was always confident the actors would be able to handle the singing parts of their roles.
"We all knew that Meryl could sing - she’s sung in pictures before," he remarked. "She has a very natural, lovely voice. I didn’t know that Lindsay Lohan could sing like that. I knew that she had made a CD, but she’s a real belter. I guess kids learn that going to theater school. Lily is a dogged singer."
Although Streep, Tomlin and Kline are notorious improvisers, and Altman is known for encouraging spontaneity, Keillor says everyone stuck close to the text.
"The screenwriter was on the set at all times," he quipped. "The script police were there. You can’t really put a lid on Lily, and Kevin does a lot of improvisation, but the rest stayed pretty close to the script."
Tomlin agreed - but only to a point.
"Pretty much it was what was written, but the delivery was more improvised," she said.
For her part, Streep confirmed that she was the one who told Kline to loosen up and go off text when they were making "Sophie’s Choice" together nearly 25 years ago.
"Anything to shake the Kline demeanor; the foundations of propriety!" she said, laughing.
"That was another great director," Streep continued. "The great, great Alan J. Pakula. Only the most confident directors encourage you to play around with the script and make it your own."
Tomlin and Streep only vaguely knew each other before doing this movie together, but the actresses slipped into their "Prairie" personas quite easily while promoting the film in New York. Acting a bit like real-life sisters, the actresses good-naturedly talked over one another and finished each other’s sentences.
"That’s how families are," Streep said, revealing that she and Tomlin really only spent about eight to 10 days together on the film set.
"It just seems so amazing that it was that amount of time," Streep confided. "I said to Robert Altman: ’You’re going to ruin it for these young directors! You’re 81, you have everything wrong with you: heart, shoulders, knee, everything that could go wrong and you make a movie in 21 days, with this huge cast and it’s good and you have it edited three weeks later and done, pretty much locked.’ How about, if to every young director, the studio goes: ’Well, Robert Altman did it, why can’t you? You’re 26.’ I just thought it was amazing."
Streep then confessed there was a time before production started when she worried that her own knee surgery might keep her out of the film. The star of "Adaptation" and "The Hours" recalled that while Altman and the film’s backers gasped at the idea of her dropping out, Keillor relished the notion of writing the Oscar-winning actress into a wheelchair for the duration of the film shoot.
"He loved that idea!" Streep exclaimed. "The idea that he could confine me, so I wouldn’t be able to move Garrison went: ’Hmm. Opportunity!’ To make this person in a wheelchair and have a hoist pull her up out of the basement in the wheelchair and drop her back down! But the surgery went fine."
Despite the short amount of time they had together, Streep and Tomlin bonded off-camera just fine, they said, recalling one particular day when they unwittingly stumbled side-by-side into what could have been a very dangerous situation.
"The sky turned red and it gets real still because a tornado’s coming, but we didn’t know and we’re saying, ’Oh, it’s so beautiful,’" Tomlin recounted.
"And then we hear, ’Woo-hoo! Woo-hoo! Woo-hoo!’" Streep interjected, using her legendary talent for accents to do a loud impression of an air-raid siren.
"People are yelling: ’Meryl! Lily! Get out of the street!’" Tomlin continued.
"And we’re just thinking, ’Isn’t it weird that there was this weird sky AND a fire? This is so exciting!’ It was a tornado warning," Streep concluded.
Asked if there will be a reunion for the pair who got along so famously on the set, on the publicity trail to promote the film and even on the recent Academy Awards telecast where they presented Altman with an honorary Oscar for his body of work, Tomlin replied, "There should be!"
Streep wasn’t so sure, though.
"I don’t think so, no," she demurred. "There are real singers out there who own the territory We could do ’Wobegon,’ though."
"Or Holiday Inns," Tomlin suggested.
"I’ve been working on Garrison to get us a job on that," Streep said. "We’ve been sucking up for months."
"A Prairie Home Companion" opened June 9 at the Cobble Hill Cinema [265 Court St. at Butler Street in Cobble Hill, (718) 596-9113] and BAM Rose Cinemas [30 Lafayette Ave. at Ashland Place in Fort Greene, (718) 636-4100].