St. Paul Pioneer Press

"'Prairie' stage is set"

Crew readies the Fitzgerald's small spaces for Altman and Keillor's big movie visions.

June 6, 2005

Meryl Streep, Lindsay Lohan and other stars of the "Prairie Home Companion" movie haven't reported for work yet, but the film's St. Paul offices have been hopping for weeks.

Streep, who is expected to report to the set Wednesday, will be the first big name in town. The movie, a behind-the-scenes comedy-drama about the (fictional) final broadcast of the beloved radio show, boasts a director with five Oscar nominations — Robert Altman — and a starry cast, including Kevin Kline, Virginia Madsen, Woody Harrelson, Lily Tomlin and "Prairie Home" creator Garrison Keillor. It's also a rare movie that is being shot almost entirely in one place: the Fitzgerald Theater. A few scenes involving grizzled detective Guy Noir will take place nearby at Mickey's Diner.

"I've never worked on a film — and I've done 50 movies or more — that was done in one place like this," says sound mixer Drew Kunin, a 1979 graduate of Minneapolis' Washburn High School whose credits include recording dialogue and other sounds for "Adaptation" and "Lost in Translation." "It will be nice to settle in and make a home for the movie at the Fitzgerald," he says. "But it's not a very big place. We have a lot of equipment and we'll have to figure out where we're going to put it."

Josh Astrachan, who is producing "Prairie Home" with David Levy and Wren Arthur, says the close quarters may be a blessing: "We're building sets right underneath the stage at the Fitz, which makes the logistics just great. To get from one set to the other, we just go up or down the stairs."

Production designer Dina Goldman is overseeing the downstairs work. Her job includes choosing a color palette — earth tones, with lots of greens and browns — creating graphics and signage, and designing the dressing rooms where many of the scenes will take place. Keillor's actual dressing room, she says, is "about the size of a very, very small bathroom."

"The big thing is the tone of the movie, trying to figure out what world we're in — whether it's nostalgic or contemporary," she says. "We're trying to create a darker, moodier feel than the radio show." Altman has said he doesn't want the movie to look like the radio show that tens of thousands of fans have seen at the Fitzgerald, and Goldman is making that transformation happen. One thing she doesn't have to worry about: Mickey's. "It's good to go," she says. "I just think it's fantastic. It's in the movie because it's Garrison's thing and, as far as I know, we're not changing a thing."

That should save time. The modestly budgeted movie has only a five-week shoot, about half what a big-budget studio film requires, so everyone must work efficiently to get it done by Aug. 2, when filming is supposed to conclude. Says producer Levy, "If we weren't such a well-oiled machine, we would have real, real issues getting this done in five weeks."

Minneapolis native Julie Hartley is doing the oiling. Hartley's job involves coordinating schedules, keeping an eye on the budget and renting equipment. Hartley had her first discussions about the "Prairie Home Companion" movie a year and a half ago when she "auditioned" several Twin Cities theaters, in case the Fitzgerald proved too cramped to house the film.

The Fitzgerald got the part, but Hartley points out challenges. "It's a big Rubik's cube, trying to get everything to fit in and fall into place at the same time," she says, adding that the mayor's office, which has arranged parking permits and virtually free office space, has been a big help.

Hartley hadn't worked on a Minnesota movie since "Joe Somebody" in 2001, but it's been longer for Kunin — the sound mixer's last project here was 1985's "That Was Then, This is Now." "Prairie Home" has given him a chance to attend his grandmother's 99th birthday party, enjoy his favorite sandwich at the Monte Carlo restaurant and spend time with his parents in Minneapolis.

His job requires him to spend time with the actors, too. "It's hard to a hide a microphone on someone without getting friendly with them," he says. Luckily, he's worked on other projects with Streep, Kline, Harrelson, Tomlin and Madsen — familiarity that will help them hit the ground running on "Prairie Home Companion."

Kunin is an Altman fan (favorite: "McCabe and Mrs. Miller"). He says working with the respected director, who pioneered the use of naturalistic, overlapping dialogue, is exciting: "Bob's films are known for their complex sound, so it presents a big challenge. I wouldn't say it's outside my comfort zone, but maybe a little."

What that means is that, instead of recording the sound of a couple of actors who have dialogue in any given scene, Kunin will record everyone, which allows all of them to improvise. Fans of Altman's "M.A.S.H.," "Nashville" and "Gosford Park" will recognize that technique.

The director's trademarked spontaneity will also affect Goldman's design work. Altman is planning to give the movie more immediacy and flow by shooting scenes with as many as four cameras at once, so sets have to be designed to be shot from a variety of angles.

All of which, producers say, will make the "Prairie Home Companion" movie recognizable to Altman's fans and Keillor's. "The film really is its own world. Garrison has re-imagined his show for the screenplay," says Astrachan. "It should be very funny; it will have a lot of music; and it will be touching." Adds Levy, "Altman and Keillor enjoy a terrific collaboration, and the movie enjoys a synthesis of the ideas they've discussed."

It's that collaboration that the movie crew is eager to get on film. "One of the highlights for me has been watching Bob Altman and Garrison Keillor together," says production manager Hartley. "It's amazing. They are people who are brilliant at what they do, and working with them is a thrill."

No release date is set for the film yet, but she offers a preview of this coming attraction: "It's not going to be what people might expect — in a good way."