The New York Times
Lake Wobegon Goes Hollywood (or Is It Vice Versa?), With a Pretty Good Cast
By DAVID CARR
July 20, 2005
ST. PAUL, July 20 - On most movie sets, there is a quiet, persistent debate about who deserves credit for the undertaking. The Fitzgerald Theater, which is serving as set piece, soundstage and framing device for the Robert Altman film about a dying radio show that bears striking similarities to "A Prairie Home Companion," is no different.
Robert Altman and Garrison Keillor, two crown princes of Americana, would each seem to have a legitimate claim.
Mr. Keillor is the host of the three-decade-old show, the screenwriter of the film and one of its principal actors.
"No way, it's Bob's movie and I wish him luck with it," said Mr. Keillor.
Not so fast, said Mr. Altman.
"It is his movie," he said. "The content of it is all Garrison's and the pacing is all his. I'm just working to keep my own jokes out of it."
This being Minnesota, all the gee-whiz is consistent with local mores. The production, with names like Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones, Lily Tomlin, Kevin Kline and John C. Reilly- and let's not forget Lindsay Lohan - could be a petri dish of egos and conflicting desires. But those kinds of issue are not supposed to come up on an Altman film, let alone one about a radio show whose primary franchise is carefully observed decency. It is a bit of "Nashville" with a side of Powdermilk Biscuits, and the only evil emanates from the character of the Axeman (played by Mr. Jones), who has come to shut the show down.
Co-financed by GreeneStreet Films and River Road Entertainment, along with what one producer calls some "local equity from Minnesota," the picture does not yet have a domestic distributor, but will probably be seen in the United States early next year.
The atmosphere on set has a kind of Spanky and Our Gang let's-put-on-a-show quality, with crew, marquee talent and "Prairie Home" acolytes and extras mixing freely. The dailies, the traditional day's-end look at finished footage, usually include about 75 people, a vivid reminder of Mr. Altman's penchant for collaborative filmmaking. And because music is such an important part of the movie and the radio show, the set always seems to be lifted by the pluck of a mandolin or a three-part harmony rehearsal. It's a long way to Hollywood and just up the street from Lake Wobegon, with tidy little surprises tucked around every corner.
A thin young man kept popping up on Mr. Altman's shoulder during shooting recently, offering bits of advice. Paul Thomas Anderson, director and Altman-phile, is ostensibly on the set for insurance purposes; Mr. Altman is 80, so a backup director is part of the package. But he stays keenly involved because, he said, "it is invaluable to spend as much time around Bob as I can." He has no position as to whom the movie belongs to, other than that it is not his.
"Whatever chef is going to take credit for it, it is going to be a very spicy dish that I will be more than happy to dine on," Mr. Anderson said.
As an ensemble piece about a subculture, this film has numerous analogues in Mr. Altman's body of work - "Prêt-à-Porter," "Short Cuts," "The Player" - and hews closely in construction to "The Company," his recent movie about the dynamics inside a ballet ensemble. But "A Prairie Home Companion" is, to many, a kind of secular religion.
"Garrison's audience is like the Mel Gibson Jesus audience," Mr. Altman said. "This movie is going to play for two weeks in places like Chicken Switch, Arizona, because the program has such strong rural appeal."
"The cast and myself will have our own audience to draw on," he added. "I think given that we have Meryl Streep and Lindsay Lohan, a lot of different people will be curious to see what this movie is about."
The morning's work consisted of a long tracking shot that began below the stage with Maya Rudolph, who is an actress from "Saturday Night Live" and several months pregnant, feigning having her baby to get Mr. Keillor out of his dressing room and up to the stage. A boom camera swings up through the floor and captures Keillor, along with L. Q. Jones, the grizzled Peckinpah veteran, as they emerge from the stairs and amble toward their marks. It is a fluid shot, with the camera operated by Robert Altman Jr., Mr. Atlman's son.
In one of five takes, Mr. Keillor failed to remove the towels from his shoulders that protected his suit while makeup was applied. The curtain rose and Ms. Rudolph, reacting instinctively as a live television performer might, dashed out and ripped them from his shoulders.
It was a perfect Altman moment, all played out in front of an audience of 600 extras.
Mr. Altman all but hugged himself at the miscue as he watched the three monitors just off stage. It would be built into subsequent takes.
Mr. Keillor has many roles on set. He is the screenwriter, one of the central actors and the inventor of the franchise - which also makes him the worrier, the constant rewriter, the ambulatory puddle of quiet angst. Unless the director, whom everyone addresses as "sir," yells,"Action." Then Mr. Keillor is all knuckles and know-how. His energy, as they say in the craft, is more than sufficient.
"I am sort of out of my element," he said, scuffing the stage with a red sneaker. "There is tremendous anxiety, because with the radio show, you always get to do another one next week."
Mr. Keillor has spent his days doing scenes with some of the best actors working and his nights rewriting, endlessly rewriting.
"These people," he said, gesturing toward the crew, "have been tremendously amiable, accommodating all of these changes. Something I thought a week ago was terrific, and suddenly I look and see that they cannot move forward with what I have written."
Virginia Madsen, best known for her role in "Sideways," said Mr. Keillor's worries were just Minnesota Nice talking.
"You have to wonder about a guy who can walk on the set with very little experience and do a scene with Meryl Streep and not bat an eye," she said.
"All of us understand and respond to the fact that this is his baby, he is the creator, and that this is a 30-year project being immortalized on film."
Twenty years ago, Mr. Altman filmed someone else's vision when he directed the movie version of Sam Shepard's play "Fool for Love," with Mr. Shepard as the star.
"That was not a happy experience for me," he said, pushing aside a wisp of hair he was about to get clipped at the barbershop. "You start messing with someone else's art and you are looking for trouble."
But here he is, filming a version of a show conceived by his star and screenwriter. He barely knew what "A Prairie Home Companion" was when he decided to do the film, as yet untitled.
"It was just a different mountain to climb," Mr. Altman said. "Garrison and the people he works with, especially the musicians, are a sensation."
The movie is being shot digitally, so the Altman crew has managed to feather itself into the old theater with a minimum of impact. And because it is a local boy's project, the locals have taken to the filming with calm and equanimity - give or take a "Prairie Ho Companion" shirt - even though Major Hollywood Stars are in downtown St. Paul, a little city that takes pride, not offense, in its general reputation for sleepiness.
In the afternoon, Mr. Kline arrived in a long-sleeved, button-down shirt with some rather remarkable blue shorts to do a voice-over as Guy Noir, the radio show's throwback private eye character, and found exactly one young autograph seeker at the side door. He chatted, posed, and then stepped inside to examine his recently reworked script.
Actors, even relatively young ones like Ms. Lohan, know that the opportunity to work with Mr. Altman will not be available forever. But there are those who are here for other reasons as well.
Mr. Reilly, who plays Dusty to Woody Harrelson's Lefty in the show's singing cowboy duo, said, "I have been listening to 'Prairie Home Companion' all my life." Standing on the deck outside the production office and sipping a beer, he added: "I used to dream that, hey, maybe I could meet Garrison sometime, and now I am here. There is a real spirituality to the show and a decency to Garrison himself. I was glad to get here and not be disappointed when I met him in person."
"We are the outsiders coming from Hollywood," Mr. Reilly said. "And we want to get this right."