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Garrison Keillor has turned his long running live radio show, A Prairie Home Cmpanion, into a movie, with the help of Robert Altman, working together being the ultimate compliment, he tells Andrew L. Urban.

It’s past 11pm in St Paul, Minnesota, and Garrison Keillor has just come home from a gig with an orchestra. We’ve arranged to have a phone conversation at this time, about his debut feature film A Prairie Home Companion, because next morning he’s off to New York and then on to other commitments. He’s a man with a small time window for things like spruiking the film, but he’s more than happy to stay up till midnight if necessary. He speaks with the measured tones of a bygone era, in a mellifluous voice that’s a reminder of his Midwestern politeness and goodwill. But don’t mistake that for boring.

Keillor (pronounced Keeler) has been writing and hosting a live variety radio show from St Paul, Minnesota - A Prairie Home Companion – for 32 years. “I’ve written scripts and skits and dramas and short stories and books,” he says, “but I really wanted to write a screenplay.” Which he did. He needed a director, and who better than another Midwesterner like Robert Altman from Kansas City, Missouri. The only drawback to this plan was that Keillor didn’t know Altman.

But the universe was listening: a friend of Keillor’s knew Altman’s attorney, George Sheanshang, who in turn placed a call to the filmmaker, who was filming The Company in Chicago. Recalls Altman, “George said, ‘Garrison Keillor – do you know who he is?’ I said, ‘Yeah. Yeah. My wife religiously listens to his shows and I listen to him occasionally. And I’m a fan.’ He said, ‘Well, he has an idea he wants to make a film and he wants you to make it.’ I said, ‘I’d be happy to talk to him.’”

"If you want to work with somebody on something, that’s compliment enough for anybody"

Days later, the two – fans of each other’s work in different media - met in a Chicago hotel restaurant. As Garrison Keillor tells it, you get the impression that there was no whooping and backslapping. “When we first met and in any succeeding meeting, we didn’t look each other in the eye and tell each other how much we loved each other’s work. We don’t do that in the Midwest. If you want to work with somebody on something, that’s compliment enough for anybody. Work is the ultimate compliment.”

In fact, Keillor’s screenplay – about an elderly man whose death brings together family and friends – simply did not appeal to the then 79 year old Altman. “Mr Altman said he’d pass on that idea,” says Keillor quietly.

But then their talk turned to Keillor’s famous radio show. “My first interest in dramatics was radio,” Altman told Keillor. “I remember listening to radio as a kid in the 1930s, lying on the floor like all the kids at that time. My big idol when I was a young man was Norman Corwin, who essentially created the radio drama. And the first professional dramatic thing I did, outside of a little theatre, was radio drama writing. So radio is very dear and near to me.”

Since its debut on July 6, 1974, A Prairie Home Companion has won the devotion of millions of listeners, who tune in every week for its signature blend of music, humor, and storytelling. A Prairie Home Companion currently draws over 4.3 million listeners on over 550 public radio stations, and is heard abroad on America One and the Armed Forces Network in Europe, Australia and the Far East. In 2004, the Library of Congress added the show’s debut broadcast to the nation’s registry of historic sound.

The fact that Keillor stages his program live every week also appealed to Altman, who has directed theatre and opera as well as film and television adaptations of various plays, including Streamers, Fool For Love, and Come Back To The Five And Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. As the director points out, “While Garrison’s program happens to be a radio show, it’s also a performance in front of a live, large audience. It’s a mix of radio and theatre, which made it a perfect call for me. I wanted to do A Prairie Home Companion, to do Garrison’s kind of humour, using Garrison and the other people that are on his show.”

In writing the screenplay, Keillor created a sort of parallel universe to the real life A Prairie Home Companion. The fictitious program follows the same variety show format as its model and is hosted by a tall Midwesterner named Garrison Keillor.

Keillor’s screenplay imagines the last episode of the show being broadcast. The ex-PI, now security guard, Guy Noir (Kevin Kline) at the Fitzgerald Theatre tells the story of the last episode is coming to end as a new owner (Tommy Lee Jones) has bought the theatre, intending to tear it down. But a mysterious woman in a white trench coat (Virginia Madsen) seems to be haunting the theater … The show’s cast includes the singing Johnson Sisters, Rhonda and Yolanda (Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep), along with Lola (Lindsay Lohan) the suicide-obsessed daughter of Yolanda; and the slightly off-color singing cowboy duo, Dusty & Lefty (Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly). Emotions are high as the old troupers face their farewell performances.

"a robust sensibility about life’s raw elements"

The gentle, wistful quality that floods the film is accompanied by a robust sensibility about life’s raw elements, together with a sense of humour and a playfulness with the afterlife which levitates the film. Altman’s abiding love of music (eg Nashville, The Company, Kansas City, etc) as a backdrop for his stories fills his cinematic sails as he cruises into the waters of nostalgia. But he tinges that amber glow with some blues and blacks, enough to make the film a textured and engaging work.

Published October 5, 2006


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