A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION DIRECTOR ROBERT ALTMAN. PHOTO: TOM LE GOFF.
First, a disclosure. As an undergraduate in college, I became obsessed with the films of Robert Altman, specifically Nashville, which I wrote about in term papers at every possible opportunity (a 15-page shot-by-shot analysis of the film’s first two minutes, a 30-page essay for a comp-lit elective on Nashville as Brechtian theater — you get the point). My reverence for Altman — despite his occasional missteps — continues to this day, stoked in recent years by the little-seen masterpiece 3 Women, which Criterion released in 2004.
Second disclosure: I’ve had the opportunity to interview Altman once before. Shortly after moving back to New York after a year-and-a-half in Los Angeles, I was hired as a film reporter for Variety. One of my responsibilities included red-carpet duty for their party page. As a would-be director and film snob who had just run screaming from the smog of Hollywood, this was not a part of the job I particularly relished. The second premiere I covered (the first was that Othello-goes-to-high-school movie starring Mekhi Phifer, Josh Hartnett and Julia Stiles) was Altman’s Gosford Park. Before the film began, the film’s publicist introduced me to Altman and he, thinking I was a red-carpet hack (which, technically, I was), was gruff and dismissive. Annoyed at my softball questions the puff piece demanded, he stared me down, gave gruff, monosyllabic responses, then walked away. I sat through the ensuing screening too distracted by self-loathing to really enjoy what turned out to be his best film since 1993’s Short Cuts.
Nearly five years later, I got another shot at the maestro, this time to talk about his latest triumph, A Prairie Home Companion. A collaboration with radio-broadcasting genius Garrison Keillor, the film is a fictionalized retelling of Keillor’s famed variety show in St. Paul, Minnesota. The story, written by Keillor and Ken LaZebnik, is both a delightful, homespun Middle American comedy as well as a profound meditation on death, survival, family, friendship and, of course, show business.
The premise is as follows: Keillor’s prized Fitzgerald Theater is about to be purchased by a Texas conglomerate (whose Axeman, literally named, is played by Tommy Lee Jones, in a role that seems to have been written for him). Keillor and his ramshackle crew of performers and eccentric colleagues — including Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin and Lindsay Lohan as the country-singing Johnson family, Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly as the cowpoke performing duo Dusty and Lefty, Kevin Kline as the down-and-out private dick turned security guard Guy Noir and Maya Rudolph as the embattled stage manager — must put on one last show. But a higher power soon intervenes in the form of a stunning femme fatale (Virginia Madsen), who also happens to be a bona fide Angel of Death.
A Prairie Home Companion is a triumphant new chapter in Altman’s body of work — a fascinating elaboration of his longstanding love of performance and performers, and an unsentimental yet deeply empathic portrait of our collective flaws and triumphs. The film opened to rave reviews at the Berlin Film Festival and will be released by Picturehouse on June 9.
LILY TOMLIN, MERYL STREEP AND LINDSAY LOHAN IN A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION. FILM STILLS: MELINDA SUE GORDON.
A Prairie Home Companion seems to me to be almost the perfect subject and material for a Robert Altman film.
It seemed that way to me.
How did the idea come about?
Well, Garrison Keillor and I share a lawyer, and I was in Chicago shooting the dance film The Company, and Garrison asked if he could have a meeting with me. And we had some dinner there. And his original idea was to do [his best-selling audio memoir] Lake Wobegon. But I was busy shooting this other thing, so we said hello and talked about it. Then when the dust settled, I said, You know, why don’t we just do A Prairie Home Companion, do the show, and put in performers that would tell an audience that this is not a documentary. And that’s what we did.
I imagine he’s quite a strong personality himself.
What was that working relationship like?
It was great; we respected each other. Keillor and I are both guys who are used to being in charge. There can’t be two guys in charge, but in this case there were.
Was that something that you adjusted to easily?
Yeah, well, it’s his show. I mean, it wasn’t my show, it wasn’t the Robert Altman show, it was the Garrison Keillor show. And my job was to simulate it.
LILY TOMLIN IN A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION.
So in coming up with the idea to do this show, you then had to craft a narrative around that. What inspired that specific narrative, because it’s quite —
He wrote it. Ken worked with him, kept writing things. And when we would cast, he would rewrite to our cast.
Besides its comedic elements and, of course, the focus on performance, the story touches on some incredibly weighty themes. Death, disappointment, age, survival...
You would never know that the way the responses were coming in. The picture is doing very well, people are really responding well to it, but they don’t take it as a serious film. Well, we’ll see what happens when it comes out in New York.
That’s funny, because I thought it was quite a metaphysical film, not a comedy.
Well, I thought it was too. [laughs] It’s there, definitely, but people don’t want to deal with that.
How did you put together the cast?
I think Meryl joined this because she loves to sing. And she doesn’t have that much opportunity to practice that part of her art. And then we got her and Lily to do an act together.
WOODY HARRELSON AND JOHN C. REILLY IN A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION.
Were they friends?
They were acquaintances; I don’t know if they were friends. Originally I had Willie Nelson and Lyle Lovett for the two cowboys. And our schedule got pushed back and we lost both of them. And so I got [John C.] Reilly and Woody [Harrelson].
Not a bad back-up team.
Not bad at all.
You work so much with ensemble casts. What’s your method for handling those types of situations? Clearly you enjoy creating an atmosphere of confusion, which is something I’ve always loved about your films.
Well, I revel in the opportunity of confusion. I allow that to develop, to happen, to grow. We all come together and use it. We’re aware of what we are doing and we each do our part. If someone’s not aware of what we’re doing, they have to learn.
And what are you doing exactly?
These things grow. There is no “exactly” thing — that’s the whole point. That’s exactly what I can’t tell you, because I don’t exactly know, nor will I ever know. It’s a growth spot. You find a seed, you put it in the ground and you water it. If you don’t know what that seed is, you don’t know what tree is going to come out of it. So you try to know what the DNA of these things are, but different things come out of them. We need to find it — that’s what we’re all after.
Do you insist on a lot of preparation and rehearsal time before you start to shoot?
Very briefly we rehearsed Meryl and Lily for the music, and Reilly and Woody rehearsed, too. And the rest of them just came in and did it.
Do you stick with the script closely?
Depends on what the script is. In The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, I stuck to the script exactly. In Secret Honor I stuck to the script exactly. In Nashville, we hardly had a script. This was pretty much the same way, although Garrison did construct all of the scenes. But they changed, just like his show does, the minute we started to film.
This is a much more controlled environment and plot than Nashville. Yet at the same time there’s a lot of similarities that I saw.
Oh, Prairie is very similar to Nashville.
The story of putting on a show has cropped up quite a bit in your work.
Well, that’s the standard thing for me. You know, “Hey, we’ve got some old costumes up in the barn — let’s put on a show. “
What is it about performers that attracts you?
Well, I just admire them so much. I mean I love performers, I love what they do, the fact that they do it, expose themselves. I have admiration, real admiration, for them.
Visually, you take your characteristic unconventional risks in the way that you cover scenes in this film. Choices like zooming in on a certain detail and staying there for the entire course of the sequence. Do you feel like your style has evolved at all over the years?
I don’t know about my style. I don’t know what style is. It’s one’s personality. And I don’t think it’s my responsibility to define what that is.
What was it like to shoot on video?
It was great. I shot the last two things on it. I don’t see any reason not to.
I would imagine you must shoot quite a bit with multiple cameras.
You can shoot a lot; the film cost doesn’t exist. You can turn the cameras on in the morning and turn them off at night. It’s a lot of editing. I don’t even think about automatically shooting on film as a first option. I think, How can I do it in a sufficient way to get what I want? Well, in the last few years, it’s been video.
How much of a process of discovery is editing a film for you?
Well, a lot. A lot. You have all these pieces, and that’s what you have to do with the raw material: make some sort of sense, some statement, some comment with that material.
Do you spend a lot of time cutting in your head on the set?
At different times in my life I have done it different ways. You know, all of these films are just one film, they’re just different chapters, so basically it’s all stuff that occurs to me. That’s all it is.
I know you left it up to me to analyze how your style has changed, how your approach has changed over the years. But perhaps you can fill me in on how your approach to the business of getting films made has changed.
Oh, it’s always the same. Difficult, and you have to be persistent. You need somebody to put up the money for a film that you don’t really tell them what it is. You don’t get as much money as you would if you had a blueprint. And most of my films, they don’t know what it is, what it’s going to be. Or the subject matter is obviously not going to be a blockbuster.
In terms of them not knowing what it is, do you not deliver scripts at all?
Only scripts, but most people know the scripts are not going to become the film. But you have to know what it’s about. And then you have to cast it. Casting becomes the film.
Obviously the studio system of today is not nearly as receptive to filmmakers like yourself as it was, say, 30 years ago.
That depends. But I don’t deal in the studio system. Haven’t for years. They put your film in a box.
You won a Lifetime Achievement at the Oscars. And for somebody whose work and whose personality has been marked by such an antiauthoritarian, outside of the mainstream feel, what was that experience like for you?
Oh, it was great. But I’ve been nominated for five films. So it wasn’t strange territory for me. I have been nominated five times, and I could have won all five times.
You made the quite surprising admission onstage about your heart transplant.
Yeah, well, I thought I would say something. [laughs] Also I wanted to indicate that this wasn’t a death award.
And you’ve made how many films since that operation?
Most directors would have probably hung up the camera after such a life-threatening operation.
Because making a film is such exhausting work.
You can’t quit. It’s a process. I have a titanium knee. I’ve had work done on my kidneys. There’s very little of the original me left. But I just take that as a given, that’s what supports my brain.
Do you have any other projects lined up?
Do you want to talk about them a little bit?
No, because I’ve got two or three things lined up. It looks I’ll like be doing stuff in the late summer.
I know Picturehouse was a new company when you started working with them. What was that experience like?
It was truly great.
Is it your impression that maybe the landscape is getting a little bit easier now that the new crop of mini-major companies has come up, companies like Picturehouse and Focus?
The philosophy is you don’t have as much money to make the film, but the major studios have been kind of shortsighted on smaller films. So you’ve got to make it better, and you’ve got to make it for what it costs.
How would you characterize A Prairie Home Companion in the grand scheme of your body of work? Is it one of your favorite films, would you say?
I got that impression. It seems like there was a love put into this film.
Yes, but there’s love in all of them. They’re all extensions of the same film. They’re like your children. They all have different traits, but you don’t love them less for that.