St. Paul Pioneer Press

Altman's Afterwords

Aug. 02, 2005
BY Chris Hewitt

Shooting has wrapped up on the "A Prairie Home Companion" movie, but I chatted with director Robert Altman just before he left town Monday (his flight left two hours after this interview). A cup of tea with cream balanced on his knee, he described how the movie — which focuses on the fictional last performance of the radio show and the final days of the Fitzgerald Theater, where it's performed — is progressing. Meanwhile, his wife, Kathryn, prepared to move them out of their St. Paul Hotel suite.

Q: How was shooting at the Fitzgerald?

People were just great. We didn't have anything but cooperation on every level.

Q: Your movies ("Short Cuts," "Gosford Park") are known for capturing a sense of place. Will this one reflect its setting in Minnesota?

It's the theater, mostly. We could have gone anywhere, really, but it just seemed proper to do it in this familiar venue (where the "Prairie Home" radio show is performed).

Q: Did you get to see much of the Twin CIties?

No. I was either there or here. I went out to dinner, I think, a total of twice.

Q: The movie went through some delays, as financing came together and cast members such as Willie Nelson and Michelle Pfeiffer had to drop out. Did you ever consider bailing?

This was our last shot at it. Originally, it was scheduled to shoot in March and we had to postpone it to July. I said, 'I've been f—-ing around with this too long. This is it for me.' That was the end. Either we started on time or I was going to have to move on.

Q: Now that filming is done, do you get a break?

Well, I had two days off here, but I can't wait to get back to it. I couldn't shoot another day, I don't think, but I'm going back today and I'll be in my editing room tomorrow. I'll see things I didn't know were there.

Q: Even though you were on the set every day, watching everything happen?

Oh, I haven't really seen the movie yet. When I'm watching it on the three monitors (Altman shot with three different cameras, simultaneously), I tend to lock on one of them. I'm checking the other two, but only occasionally. So there are a lot of surprises, lots of material there I haven't even seen.

Q: How was it working with that amazing cast: Meryl Streep, Lindsay Lohan, Tommy Lee Jones, Kevin Kline, Virginia Madsen?

That's my joy: watching actors. I wasn't really running the show. I was allowing the show to run. The actors were running it. I've never seen an actor quite like Meryl Streep. It wouldn't make any difference who was directing the picture. She transcends all that. She comes in and does her part and knocks you out. She's totally generous about it — with the actors and other people — but she's 25 percent above anyone else.

Q: Did any of the actors intimidate you?

Some people have reputations that precede them or follow them. Tommy Lee Jones came in, and he's kind of scary.

Q: There's been a lot of talk that the movie will be darker than the radio show. How so?

There's only one daylight shot in the whole movie — the penultimate shot. It's after the last show. The next morning, there's a daytime shot of them tearing the theater down, and Kevin is playing the piano and reading some narration that kind of wraps it up. And he picks up a bust of (F. Scott) Fitzgerald and walks out of the theater. Also, there's a lot of death: The death of the show, which is having its last performance, the death of the Fitzgerald, the death of one of the characters, the impending death of another — we don't know who.

Q: Who do you think will like the movie?

I have a very definite idea that this film could find the kind of audience that went to Mel Gibson's Jesus picture: People who don't go to the movies, as a rule. This movie will play well in Oshkosh, Wis. Of course, every movie now is aimed at 14-year-olds and we're not going to get them. Lindsay Lohan may bring in a few, but they're not going to go back from it with good word-of-mouth.

Q: When will the movie be released?

We don't know about that yet, but, financially, I have a deadline. I can't go on forever. I'm scheduled to be finished with the picture by the end of November (which would also make it eligible for January's Sundance Film Festival).

Q: But, at 80, you have no plans to retire?

Oh, no. I don't know what I'd do. After that, it'll be either a play in London (Arthur Miller's "Resurrection Blues") or an ensemble picture in Texas, "Hands on a Hard Body."