Hollywood remembers a town that time forgot

Three of the stars
Three of the stars from "A Prairie Home Companion;" Garrison Keillor, host of the radio show, Meryl Streep and Lindsay Lohan.
Photo courtesy of Picturehouse

There was a nervous expectation in the air as a constellation of stars strode out onto the platform at the St. Paul Hotel to talk about the "Prairie Home Companion" movie. They are some of the biggest names in the business: Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Lindsay Lohan.

They sat on either side of the two men whose collaboration brought them to St Paul -- Robert Altman and Garrison Keillor. Keillor responded to a question on whether the images he had seen on the screen matched the images he'd imagined as he wrote.

Altman and Keillor
Film director Robert Altman and Garrison Keillor talked Wednesday morning about their collaboration on the "Prairie Home Companion" movie.
MPR Photo/Euan Kerr

"Radio does not create visual images, the listeners do," Keillor said. "We draw black lines, very simple black lines, and people fill in everything. And so I brought in this man to fill in everything. He did pretty well. It could have been worse."

"Adequate," Altman opined, leaning into the mike.

The "Prairie Home Companion" movie tells the story of the last broadcast of a radio variety show that bears a striking resemblence to the show Garrison Keillor presents to public radio audiences each weekend.

Keillor plays the presenter, G.K. The bulk of the rest of the cast play the performers on the show. It's a bittersweet story, with lots of music and a little romance and drama thrown in for good measure.

Everyone on the platform spoke about how much fun they had making the film. But veteran director Robert Altman wanted to make one thing very clear.

Singing cowboys
Woody Harrelson, left, and John C. Reilly portray singing cowboys Dusty and Lefty.
Photo courtesy of Picturehouse

"Nobody says much about this, but the theme of this film is about death," Altman insisted. "Everybody dies, and it's all about death. People come out at the end clapping their hands and singing, 'In the Sweet Bye and Bye.'"

Keillor stepped in at that moment, adding, "Lindsay does not die, so the sequel will be a Lindsay Lohan film."

It's clear the cast has been thinking about the meaning of the film. Meryl Streep plays Yolanda Johnson, one of the Johnson Sisters singing group. When she was asked what she thinks the movie is about, she laughed softly to herself.

"It's like a clown, a Fellini clown," she said. "It's very funny and it's dressed up in a costume, but there is something else going on there. It's very complicated and that's why I said to them, 'I don't know how you get the money, to pitch this to the financiers.' Because you can't pitch it. It's very simple and it's very complicated at the same time. It's really fun to watch, and it's a really serious little movie."

Guy Noir
Kevin Kline plays Guy Noir.
Photo courtesy of Picturehouse

It's clear that Altman and Keillor, both known for their iconoclastic work within their respective mediums, have greatly enjoyed working together. Altman admitted it is a strange marriage.

"There's two of us who, for the last 35 years or so, there's nobody been in charge but us," Altman said. "We come together and it's like 'Unh-hunh?' So it's a delightful and strange relationship. But it's Garrison's picture."

Which is in itself strange, because Keillor says it's Altman's picture. Keillor said he just delivered a screenplay.

"The screenplay is an assortment of scenes and ideas, and he is the one who really shaped it," said Keillor. "He is also the one who wanted to make a picture about a radio show. I never did. And I went along with it because that's what he wanted to do. And I thought it would be fun, which it was."

Keillor said he thought he was writing a comedy. Much of the cast talked about how much they enjoyed singing and telling jokes.

Meryl Streep
Actor Meryl Streep.
MPR Photo/Euan Kerr

John C. Reilly and Woody Harrelson plays the Singing Cowboys Dusty and Lefty. Reilly admitted there is always potential for disaster when two creative people get together, but Altman and Keillor quickly found a way to collaborate.

"Bob and Garrison are these two big, sort of the sun of their own universes, and I was really impressed at how they got along," said Reilly. "Garrison kind of ran things the way he always does onstage, and Bob was always running things behind the cameras. And these two titanic egos kind of -- that sounds bad, but they are well respected, very accomplished men. So I was really impressed at how they found great common ground to make it happen."

The film has been doing well out on the festival circuit. Altman said he was pleased at how at the world premiere in Berlin, audiences who had very little knowledge of "A Prairie Home Companion" or Garrison Keillor gave the film the audience award.

Part of the reason for the early success of the film is its all-star cast. Meryl Streep was one of the first to sign on.

Three of the movie's stars
Cast members of "A Prairie Home Companion" answered questions at a news conference Wednesday morning. Shown here are, from left, Kevin Kline, Lindsay Lohan, and Virginia Madsen.
MPR Photo/Euan Kerr

"You know, this is an ensemble piece," Streep said. "I wasn't drawn just to my little part of it, but the whole thing. I loved the writing and the opportunity to work with Robert Altman, who I dreamed of working with all my life. And this was my chance and I got to sing. So it was like a no-brainer."

Soon after Streep signed on, Lily Tomlin joined up too. She plays the other Johnson sister. Lindsay Lohan signed on shortly after that, even though there was no part for her.

Keillor says he wasn't sure what do. It came as a surprise to him when he read an interview with Lohan, in which she announced she'd be playing Streep's daughter in the film.

"But I thought it was a great idea," Keillor said, "and so I wrote in the part and I named it 'Lola,' after the character in 'Damn Yankees,' because 'Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets.'"

Keillor says that one of the things he learned during the making of the movie was the strength and depth of the local filmmaking community. Not only were many of the technical staff found locally, but almost all of the funding too.

Bill Pohlad, who was a producer of Ang Lee's "Brokeback Mountain," invested. Minnesota Public Radio's parent organization, American Public Media Group, was also a minority investor in the film.

Keillor says he hopes he will get to make a second film soon. He is working on a screnplay about Lake Wobegon.

Crowds gathered Wednesday evening for the local premiere of the "Prairie Home Companion" movie at the Fitzgerald Theater. The film goes on general release June 9.

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