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A little synergy on the `Prairie'

Garrison Keillor's voice fuses with Robert Altman's vision as the homey radio hit `A Prairie Home Companion' goes Hollywood.

May 28, 2006|Kristin Hohenadel | Special to The Times

St. Paul, Minn. — FOR 30 years, Garrison Keillor has spent his Saturday nights putting on an old-fashioned radio show, "A Prairie Home Companion," the live variety program heard nationwide by 4 million listeners. But while building an institution by raising Midwestern self-deprecation and subversively folksy tongue-in-cheek storytelling to an art form, he's been harboring celluloid dreams -- which is how his base at the Fitzgerald Theater was transformed last summer into the set of Robert Altman's latest film, "A Prairie Home Companion," opening June 9.

"This has been my ambition for years, to write for a dramatic medium," Keillor said. "Because I'm no good at it, and one aspires to do what one cannot do. I still have a hard time writing dialogue, because I come from people who didn't talk. We sat and chewed our food, looked out the window."

Keillor originally approached Altman with the idea of making a movie based on the characters of Lake Wobegon, the mythical Minnesota town where much of his storytelling is based, after a development deal at Disney fell apart. But after Altman and his wife, Katherine, a longtime Keillor fan, attended a live taping of "A Prairie Home Companion" on one of its regular tours across the country (it'll be at the Hollywood Bowl on Friday), the 81-year-old Altman decided that he'd rather make a movie about the onstage drama and backstage dynamics surrounding the making of a radio show. As he did in his last film, "The Company" (2003), a faux documentary about a season in the life of a troupe modeled after Chicago's Joffrey Ballet, Altman wanted to immortalize an ephemeral art form on screen.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday June 03, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
"Prairie Home Companion": An article about the movie "A Prairie Home Companion" in Sunday's Calendar misspelled cast member Richard Dworsky's last name as Dworksy.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 04, 2006 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 0 inches; 22 words Type of Material: Correction
"Prairie" actor: An article about the movie "A Prairie Home Companion" last Sunday misspelled cast member Richard Dworsky's last name as Dworksy.

So Keillor, 63, imagined a last night in the life of a program much like his own, "turning the show inside out" by writing a scenario based on real and imagined "Prairie Home Companion" personalities. Writing a fictional documentary about himself was, Keillor said, "an odd assignment. But I was intrigued by the idea. And I was 60 years old. When you're 60, you kind of think to yourself, 'This chance may not come again.' "

Regulars Sue Scott and Tim Russell play a fictional makeup artist and a stage manager, respectively. Regular chanteuse Jearlyn Steele plays herself. Dusty and Lefty, the singing cowboys -- character sketches incarnated on the radio by Keillor himself -- are reborn in the hilarious duo of Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly. "Prairie Home Companion" icon Guy Noir is now the theater's hapless security guard, played by Kevin Kline in 1940s attire. And central to the story are country music sisters Yolanda and Rhonda Johnson (Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin) and Yolanda's daughter, Lola (Lindsay Lohan). The show's live audiences were replaced here by local volunteers.

All but two scenes were shot inside the Fitzgerald, which had been only lightly art-directed for its screen debut.

"The whole movie is inside -- this is all in Keillor's mind," Altman said on a shooting break, sitting in a golf cart on the sidewalk outside the stage door that served as his way station in the 97-degree heat. "This has gotta be his humor, his tempo. I can't make up my own jokes. This is really about Garrison Keillor and his sense of humanity and his sensibility and his politics. All I'm doing is coming in and interpreting it. This guy's been in charge for 30 years. He has never, ever not been fully in charge of everything, except this movie. I have to see that he is in charge."

"No, he's the master of this world," Keillor insisted later from a glass-encased VIP lounge at the back of the theater that had been built by the art department for a scene in which Tommy Lee Jones -- playing a broadcasting executive -- comes to shut down the show. "Bob has an amazing, specific vision. He's here painting his picture with some materials that I've provided. But he has the upper hand and so, you know, that's good to know, so we don't have to fight. We know who makes the final cut."

This was how two of America's most singular voices found a common language, each calling the other one boss and going about his work. "They're two great forces coexisting," said Richard Dworksy, the house music director, who improvises onstage while Keillor performs, and a local boy whose parents owned the theater until 1983. "There's very courteous diplomacy going on."

"Keillor and Altman are a real natural combination," said Reilly, still in cowboy get-up. "There's something similar in the fabric of 'Prairie Home Companion' and some of the more well-known Altman movies -- where there's a group of people, one comes in, one comes out and there's humor in it that's based on the acceptance of humanity and all its flaws and eccentricities. There's a kind of guiding ethic to the way they do the show, but it's also sort of chaotic. And that's very much Bob's sense of 'What are we gonna do? We're gonna find what happens in that moment and I'm gonna capture it and it won't be pushed or forced until the life goes out of it.' "


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