St. Paul Pioneer Press

'There's no place like 'Home'

by Chris Hewitt
July 20, 2005

The characters from the "A Prairie Home Companion" radio show are famously "above average," in the words of their creator, Garrison Keillor. But the movie version is "adequate."

"That was adequate" is the catchphrase you'd have heard Monday on the set of "Prairie Home," shooting this month at the Fitzgerald Theater. It's a favorite way for director Robert Altman to indicate he's shot enough takes of a scene. When an actor gets a "more than adequate," says Virginia Madsen, who plays an angel, "that means it's good."

"It's that Midwestern reticence," says Keillor as he watches a scene from a balcony at the theater, noting that Altman grew up in Kansas City, Mo. "The distrust of superlatives is rather strong."

Distrust or no, they're flinging superlatives at the Fitzgerald. "I love this movie!" shouts Madsen, who earned an Oscar nomination this year for "Sideways" and showed up on the set on her day off, to hang out and take pictures. "Wonderful" is how co-star Maya Rudolph, a regular on "Saturday Night Live," describes the footage shown to the cast and crew a week ago. "Terrific" is the word Keillor uses to describe Meryl Streep's singing, and "knocked it out of the park" is what he says Lindsay Lohan did with her big number.

Music, a central element in the radio show, will also be central to the movie. "It's like this all the time," says Madsen, referring to a pianist and guitar player practicing Monday as Altman set up a shot on the Fitzgerald stage. "The first time I walked in this building, Meryl and Lily (Tomlin) were on stage, singing 'My Minnesota Home.'"

She's right. Music is everywhere. Kevin Kline, a cigarette clenched in his teeth and paper towels stuffed around his neck to prevent make-up from staining his starched shirt, improvises harmonies to a hymn that will appear in the film. Occasionally, he sits at the on-stage piano and plays Cole Porter standards. The "Prairie Home" band tinkers with tunes. Jazz pianist Butch Thompson, who performed on early "Prairie Home" broadcasts, clutches a clarinet just offstage. Singer Jearlyn Steele is introduced. Actor John C. Reilly, who plays singing cowboy Lefty walks across the stage, humming one of the silly tunes he and Woody Harrelson (his compadre, Dusty) improvise on the spot.


Technically, the Fitzgerald is empty — there isn't a show there all month — but it has never seemed more full. A large platform carrying a 15-foot-long camera rig juts out from the right side of the stage, covering several rows of seats. Red, green and brown cables snake across the theater and into the balconies — a crew member follows a red one, chanting, "Where is this one going? Where is this one going?"

The theater has been transformed in other ways. The lobby has gone from beige to green, with a colorful mural of a forest painted on the wall and a ticket counter installed just inside the front door. The basement is crammed with sets. The right side of the stage is jammed with monitors on which Robert Altman and his crew watch the progress of a scene that is being shot with three cameras.

A few feet from the left edge of the stage is Guy Noir's office, decorated with World War II girlie postcards, garish red neon and an antique fan circulating Kline's cigarette smoke. The sound booth is now an office for Tommy Lee Jones, who reports to the set this week to play a greedy businessman planning to scuttle the radio show and demolish the Fitzgerald.

Monday, most of the activity was centered on the stage, where scenes were being shot with Keillor, Kline and show-within-the-show performers, as well as Tim Russell and Rudolph, who play "Prairie Home's" irritable stage manager and assistant stage manager. Standing behind Altman, you can see one of his signature, take-in-all-the-action shots come together. It's an early sequence in the film that combines three scenes — an elderly couple has their picture taken on the "Prairie Home" set, stagehands bustle about, Guy Noir saunters onto the set. It appears chaotic, but the shot itself is fluid and graceful, with the kind of calm elegance that characterizes the radio show.

"Mr. Altman likes to design shots that are very complicated and that require everyone to be tremendously focused," Keillor says.

That includes the extras. When their clapping skills are needed, dozens of them — dressed according to rules that include "no red," "no all-black" and "pretend it's autumn" — are herded back and forth from their "holding area" across the street at the Minnesota Business Academy.

"Girl in the dark, we need to lose you," says Altman, dealing with an extra whose presence is too distracting. The extras chuckle nervously, and Keillor, who interacts often with the extras, cracks, "It's a harsh business."

Indeed, it is. "A Prairie Home Companion" has been coming together since Keillor approached Altman with a script for a movie about Lake Wobegon more than two years ago. Altman was familiar with "Prairie Home" — "His wife listens to the show, so I think he listens accidentally sometimes. It's a minor irritant to him," claims Keillor — but didn't like the Wobegon idea. He wanted to make a fictional, documentary-like film about the show, an idea that Keillor cottoned to.


The very pregnant Maya Rudolph and her partner, Paul Thomas Anderson, are friends with Altman and his wife, Kathryn, so she knew about the project more than a year ago. Anderson, who wrote and directed "Boogie Nights" and "Magnolia," also is working on "Prairie Home." He has no official title, but he works mostly with Altman and the actors, and his director's chair is labeled "Pinch Hitter."

"The project came and went, people came and went, but I'm still here," Rudolph says, adding that she decided her character is not from here, because "I can't do the accent and I'm not going to bother to try. Besides, Meryl and Lily are doing it, so why bother?"

Streep, Tomlin and Lohan have finished their scenes and left town. But Tommy Lee Jones, L.Q. Jones, Mary Louise Burke, Harrelson, Reilly, Madsen and others remain at work, as does Keillor, who plays a version of himself known as G.K. Two distinctions: unlike Keillor, G.K. does not write the show; and unlike Keillor, G.K. has had an affair with Streep's character.

At one point, Keillor deleted that relationship, but Streep asked him to put it back in. The script continues to change — Keillor wrote a new scene Monday morning and is working on another — and sometimes it changes back. Streep, for instance, almost dropped out of the movie when she had knee surgery. Keillor says he wrote a revision with her character in a wheelchair, being lowered to the Fitzgerald stage on a winch, but he switched it back when a "laughing" Streep called to tell him "she had spent two days on crutches and now she was running up stairs and she would rather play the part on her own two feet."

Another phone call provided Keillor with what he says was the best day of the entire process. As Keillor looks down at the stage, he comments on how moving it is to see actual stage hands from the radio show play stage hands in the film. He recalls how difficult it has been to put the movie together.

"The best day was when I was on the road with the (radio) show," says Keillor. "It was, I think, the third week in June, and I had voice mail from Altman, sounding like a 25-year-old and saying he had finished the first day of shooting with Meryl and Lily, and that Lindsay had moved everyone with her performance as Meryl's teen-aged daughter. That was the high point for me — knowing that it was actually happening."