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Garrison Keillor Discusses the A Prairie Home Companion Movie

Radio Star Keillor Hits the Big Screen in A Prairie Home Companion

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Garrison Keillor Discusses the A Prairie Home Companion Movie

Garrison Keillor, Meryl Streep and Lindsay Lohan in A Prairie Home Companion.

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Garrison Keillor wrote the screenplay for A Prairie Home Companion on his laptop, writing over or deleting all previous versions as he edited and improved on his ideas. In the process of putting together the script, Keillor thinks he probably went through hundreds of drafts, some of which he claims were truly horrible.

Since he got rid of all previous drafts, we'll never know how close the first script was to what wound up on the screen. The story that survived all the edits and rewrites focuses on the last day of a fictitious radio variety show (based on Keillor's live radio variety program). Behind the scenes, the stars of the show (played by Keillor, Meryl Streep, and Lily Tomlin among others) are dealing with the end of their beloved show and the death of one of their own.

Pounding Out the Script for the A Prairie Home Companion Movie: Keillor didn’t write the film in order to express himself in a way he couldn’t on the radio. “I wanted to finish a piece of work on time and have it not be embarrassing. That was my goal. I was really working on assignment from Mr. Altman. He wanted to make a picture about a radio show. I was enlisted to write his movie. I volunteered to do it in order to keep somebody else from doing it because I could think of people I would not want to write a screenplay about A Prairie Home Companion. It was a sort of a dog in the manger act on my part. It had very little to do with wanting to express something. Anything you want to say you can say on the radio or almost anyplace.”

Stepping in Front of the Camera for A Prairie Home Companion: Keillor said Altman’s style of directing made the transition relatively easy. “Altman’s camera is moving around so much and you’re not so aware of it. I had written my part for myself, which is a great advantage, really. You stay well within the boundaries of what you can do. I wrote a small, supporting role for a tall, sort of clumsy, dour person, and I was adequate at doing that.

When you’re with a cast of terrific actors, people would think this is intimidating. Actually it’s much less so than if you were with a group of rank amateurs. People as rank as yourself, this would be terrifying. It would be absolutely terrifying, but when you’re with Meryl [Streep], Lily [Tomlin] and Kevin [Kline], you just bob along in their wake. You’re drawn along. You react. Be appropriate, that’s all you need to do.”

Life on the Set of A Prairie Home Companion: Keillor recalls one scene in particular: “Lindsay Lohan did a scene with the three of us and a few others backstage where after a character has died. She is upset that I’m not going to do a little memorial on the show for him. I’m not going to do a speech about him. And Lindsay sits in an old, wooden armchair, and rises out of it. She comes towards me accusing me of being cold-hearted. We shot that six times. And [Meryl was] there, too, and kind of came at me hard. I really felt bad. I had written the lines myself and yet they really sting when they’re put to you. And each time she had tears in her eyes. I have no idea how people do that. She had tears running down her cheeks, and Meryl and Lily comforted her and wiped her eyes and she kept weeping. It’s a whole other line of work than the one I’m in. Or it’s just an innate talent that women have.”

The Cowboy Characters – Lefty and Dusty: Woody Harrelson and John C Reilly play a couple of singing, joke-telling cowboys in the film. Commenting on the jokes used in the film, Keillor says a lot of them came from the actors. “Many of those jokes were their contribution. Mr. Altman really wanted this to be a PG-13 movie. And it was during ‘bad jokes’ that this became a PG-13 movie. He was very grateful for that. My mother went to see the St. Paul premiere and she sat there 91 years old, watching. I couldn’t remember whether Altman left in the PMS joke or not, but then you’re never sure when your mother at the age of 91 remembers what PMS is…”

The Collaborative Process: How easy was it to hand the reins over to director Robert Altman? “It was a pleasure to have somebody else be the boss. It wouldn’t have been so much fun any other way. He’s been around and he’s made a lot of movies, and he’s a great straightforward person to work for. It was a pleasure to see the people pick up characters you’d sketched out loosely on paper and make them into something fascinating. It’s hard to do that on paper. Hard for me, anyway. It was an amazing experience as a writer to be in the middle of the maelstrom - and have a good time.”

Crafting the Ending for the Film: “I just thought it was a terrific ending. The moment I saw Virginia Madsen’s walk, I saw it on a monitor screen, I just wished it would be longer. Walking past those rain-streaked windows. We don’t get to do that in radio. We don’t get to have rain-streaked windows and a woman with that long Botticellian hair. That was really stunning. The look on her face as she stood in the doorway and the looks on our faces…”

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