Garrison Keillor on Altman's "A Praire Home Companion"
(from brinkzine.com 6/30/06)
Garrison Keillor seems tall enough to be a basketball player, but he looks more like a Sunday school teacher or the social director on a nearly empty ship. Among celebrities he stands apart, a humble genius who created, writes, hosts, and is chief cook and bottle washer of NPR’s unique signature program—a Midwestern variety show with an intriguing songs and stories, real and fictional characters, that surely is transmitted through space and time warp from a parallel universe. After more than thirty years on the airwaves, “A Prairie Home Companion” now comes alive on the silver screen courtesy of maverick director Robert Altman. Fittingly, Keillor provided the screenplay and plays G.K., a variation on the real fellow who hosts the radio show, who serves as the human hub that his all-star castmates (Meryl Streep, Lili Tomlin, Kevin Kline, Lindsay Lohan, Virginia Madsen, Woody Harrelson, John C. Reilly, etc.) revolve around.
Q: It is the television age, but you have a radio show that still is wildly successful and wildly popular. Why do you think it touches people so strongly, including the people who made the movie?
Garrison Keillor: I have to disagree with your assumptions. “A Prairie Home Companion” is not wildly successful; its success has been very carefully controlled. Its success, such as it is, has been largely due to lack of marketing and lack of publicity. Secrecy I think is the secret. You have a show that goes out and people are turning their little radio dials and they come across a show that doesn’t sound like other shows. And that’s the success of any radio show. That was Rush Limbaugh’s success, that was Howard Stern’s success. They didn’t sound like anybody else. I wouldn’t call it wildly popular and its effect on the American imagination I think would be minimal. I don’t see it. We’re just a journal. We reflect a little aspect of the strata of human life.
Danny Peary: You’re from Minnesota, a Midwesterner, but I know Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry was an influence on your show. Were you a fan of the radio show?
GK: No, not in a big way. I listened to it sometimes as a kid—the AM radio signal came in particularly well in the winter time, so if you strung an antenna out your window you could pick up WSM. I went to see it a couple of times when I was in college. I’m very fond of the Opry but when it comes listening to music I guess I’d be more likely to listen to classical.
DP: What about the impact of Jean Shepard, Will Rogers and even the TV show “Hee Haw?”
GK: Jean Shepard didn’t really get into the Midwest. We could not get WOR over the mountains; It stops somewhere in the Pocnos, I think. We got Pittsburgh KDKA. “Hee Haw”--no. “Hee Haw” is a particular little genre of rube jokes that I was never big on. Will Rogers came too early for me. I guess I read his stuff but it never appealed to me the way James Thurber did. James Thurber and those New Yorker guys were better writers, if truth be told. Will Rogers suffered from being a topical humorist.
Q: After all these years, what made you want to do this film of your show?
GK: That’s a damn good question. Writers are restless, writers are looking for other things to put their hands to. I’ve written novels--I’m kind of a failed novelist, and I’m a failed poet. I’ve sort of kept this radio show cooking along, I’m still trying to find something I can be good at. Maybe it’s screenplays. They are only 120 pages long, double-spaced. That’s not onerous.
Q: You wrote the poem Lindsay Lohan recites in the movie, so maybe you have a career ahead as a teen poet.
GK: Writing suicide poems? Well, I remember being nineteen. I don’t think there’s a big future in that, but if she needs me to work on her new album, I’m here for her.
Q: Was there hesitation to taking something you’ve worked on for so long and hand it over to Robert Altman to put his own vision on it?
GK: No, I trusted him. He’s from the Midwest. His wife Catherine is a fan of the radio show--she loves “A Prairie Home Companion.”--and Bob has listened to the show from the next room. If he were to do something truly squalid and ugly and tasteless, he’d have to face his own wife—one can’t hope for more control over a man than that. Once you come up with the main story, then you certainly want to give the director a great variety of material for him to arrange. You don’t have to worry so much about form. He’ll do that in the cutting room. So you have the luxury of being able to lavish material on him and leaving it to him to make the choices. That was my great insight. Form has never been my strong suit anyway. It also was good to give up my characters to actors, I believe. I really like that. The Guy Noir that Kevin Kline plays is nothing like the Guy Noir who I’ve done on the radio. My Guy Noir is older, dumpy, and down-on-his luck and Kevin’s is very elegant. Even when he’s bumping into things or he’s shutting his fingers in a drawer or dropping hot coals on his shirt front, he still retains that dignity that has always been there for great physical comedians. My guy is just kind of a dower, a straight-man compared to his, so it’s really fun to watch Kevin do him. Kevin is an actor who over the years has been kind of held in rein by directors, as directors will do, and here he found Altman, a guy who just lets actors go wild. So it was Kevin’s chance to use every bit of shtick in his entire repertoire as an actor and put it all together for one character.
Q: Would you ever have entertained that this film be done by anyone else than Altman?
A: I am always open to offers, but it would have had to be somebody I could sit across a table from and have lunch with and not feel odd. We writers are a very intolerant people. We don’t have the social skills of producers and directors because our work is essentially solitary. So it’s difficult for us to find people we can work with.
Q: While writing, the script, did you have a clear vision of what you wanted to take from your radio show and set down in cinematic format?
A: Most of the elements of the picture, including the songs, were really pieced together as we went along, some of them at the last moment. They important part was to come up with the basic storyline of the movie—the show coming to an end, the last show—and then the accompanying storyline of the Dangerous Woman [Virginia Madsen], the dark angel, moving in our midst, sometimes physically, sometimes not.
Q: Is this the film you expected?
GK: It’s quite amazing, I think, although I’m still trying to figure out what it is. I’m very grateful that it all came together in some form. If you’re privy to the chaos these things start out as, especially in the mind of the writer, it’s really stunning that something actually happens and there are people on the screen moving around and saying words that are more or less your own, and doing facial expressions and gestures, and so on.
Q: Were there things that surprised you that you might not have considered special before you saw it work up there on the screen?
GK: There’s an early scene that Meryl, Lili and Lindsay shot before I got to St. Paul, in the dressing room, the three of them, that I’ve seen five or six times and it’s still it’s really amazing to me. It has to do with Lili and Meryl and their timing, and their taking lines that I wrote but extending them, so that they’re sort of repeating each other and overlapping with each other. And it is such a natural thing that they’re doing, a natural conversational style that I don’t associate with the Midwest somehow. Meryl’s voice especially is really a tone perfect, Midwestern voice, not a cartoonish parody. Lili of course is Lili. And when I saw that in an early cut, I really thought that if I’d have known how beautiful that was, that would have been my whole movie right there. I just would have done it with the three of them. It all would have been in a dressing room. They never would have gone on stage. That’s the sort of movie I really would love. I like stationary movies that don’t move at all.
Q: What movies do you love?
GK: I don’t know that I love movies. I don’t think I could go that far. Movie-going is a social occasion, so you go with somebody you love, and you’re there together, and you share popcorn. And afterward you talk about it, usually kind of briefly on the way home. And you’re always kind of hoping that the movie will lead to something better once you get home. It’s not like reading a book. You can love a book. I don’t know how to love a movie. I said the wrong thing! Inadvertently the truth came out of my mouth. Well, the sort of movies that I really love are so out of fashion. I think of those movies of the English working-class, in which you’re following that one character, and you’re with that character, and you’re walking down the street with that character—and it’s part of town and it’s a slice of life that’s unlike your own. And the story seems peripheral to the characters—the characters are the great thing.
DP: The casting of teen idol Lindsay Lohan was a surprise to many people. Is it true that she wasn’t originally in your script until you read that she wanted to be in it?
GK: Exactly right. She had signed on to it through an agent. But soon we were aware that Miss Lohan was saying in interviews that she was going to be in a movie with Meryl Streep. So this seemed to be something she was really herself personally enthusiastic about. Well, good for her, I thought. Because I liked her in her movies, because she’s very gifted—I mean “The Parent Trap” is a piece of work. And then I read in an interview that she said she was going to be Meryl Streep’s daughter. Which was news to me, and I was writing the screenplay. But it seemed like such a great idea, just on the face of it, that--once I got over being slightly offended at an actor taking over my prerogative--it just immediately made sense. The only character I had for her up to then was an aspiring, not very good songwriter.
Q: Why “not very good?”
GK: Because it would be funnier. But that character wasn’t going any place, and she took a lot of space and time to establish. Whereas it takes no time at all to establish a mother-daughter relationship. They just do it physically; the way they walk together, you can tell: that’s the mother and that’s the daughter. And there’s a kind of a friction between them. Meryl has three daughters who are Lindsay’s age or older so she has immediate experience to draw on.
Q: Was there something Lindsay brought to the set or character that you didn’t expect to come from her?
GK: She brought things I did expect. She brought attitude, and we really needed that. I think it’s always surprising to find tremendous competence, and she was tremendously competent and capable in scenes that I was in with her. I really enjoyed working with her, and I think I’d have been able to detect indifference or impatience. She did one scene in which she accuses me of being cold and indifferent and she did that scene so beautifully, always with real tears in her eyes—I guess they teach them at Disney how to summon up tears—and with such fervor that, even though I’d written the words myself, they really stung. I was really hurt. She just really came at me.
Q: Did you have to fend off the paparazzi for Lindsay?
GK: No, no, not at all. Lindsay came with two or three friends—maybe they worked for her, I don’t know. They were kids, girls about her age. So she was just kind of with them and they’d’d walk up and down the street. She was fine, she didn’t have any problems—it probably made her uneasy being in St. Paul and all those people ignoring her.
DP: Did you know you were going to be in the movie?
GK: I wasn’t sure. I wasn’t in favor of that. I was talked into it for “the good of the team,” but I still am not sure about it.
DP: Is G.K. you?
GK: No. He’s a radio announcer. I used to be a radio announcer, then I came up with this show on which I’m a writer, I’m a producer, I’m an amateur singer, I’m a stand-up comedian, I do everything—park cars.
Q: Meryl Streep talks about how she came on the set after having read the script and signing on to it and then finding out that the idea that her character and yours had a past was scrapped. And she had to talk you into putting some of it back into the film. Why did you take it out?
GK: I thought it was implausible.
Q: And the Angel of Death walking around back stage is not?
GK: No, it’s not. I don’t think so.
Q: Why was that past romance implausible?
GK: I just don’t see my character and her character being involved. I wish I could—God knows I wish I could!
Q: Would you personally do a moment of silence in tribute of someone who died, as GK refuses to do? Could you see that working on radio?
GK: No. I’d never do that. But I’ve announced the deaths of performers who were close to the show. I think I’ve done it two or three times, and each time it was exquisitely painful. That passage was written from personal experience.
Q: Is there a reason you wrote a movie in which the radio show dies off?
GK: It’s a good story. It’s a very simple storyline.
Q: Are you afraid of that day?
GK: No, no.
Q: If the show were to come to a conclusion, how would you handle the last show?
Q: Do you expect the radio show’s audience to increase because of the movie?
GK: I don’t think the radio show’s profile is raised especially—the movie is kind of a temporary thing; it opens on Friday and boom, and then kind of trickles away, whereas a radio show keeps marching forward.
Q: Now that you’ve made this film, do you want to act in other people’s movies?
GK: No. I averted disaster once. I fooled them once, but I don’t count on being able to fool them again.
Q: What about doing music for other people’s movies?
GK: No. I’m not a musician.
Q: You’re a good songwriter.
GK: I got lucky a couple of times.
Q: So do you see other movies or other things you’ll do as a result of this experience?
GK: Well, I had wanted to make a “Lake Wobegon” movie. I had a great time making this, so I want to go ahead and do that. I really have my heart set on doing that in some way, shape, or form.
Q: So the LakeWobegon movie would be the next movie that you want to do?
GK: Oh, yes, absolutely.
Q: Would you direct it?
GK: I could. But I wouldn’t want me to be in it. I don’t want to be in it. I can’t think what I would play. A priest, maybe. Sort of a dissolute priest. Or a Norwegian bachelor farmer—I could do that.
Q: Outside of the realm of radio and film and writing, is there anything you’d love to do that you haven’t yet done?
GK: Well, I want to get into a car and drive around the western United States for a few months. I don’t know when I’m going to get to do that. But I don’t think I really have any desire to ride in a boxcar anymore. And I’ve no real need to learn to play the guitar anymore. I just don’t think the world needs another mediocre guitarist. And my desire to learn French is receding. So I think I’ve given up on most of my dreams.