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A Prairie Home Companion - Robert Altman feature

Robert Altman

Feature by Will Lawrence

IT IS fitting that Robert Altman’s last ever film should reunite him with the medium that first ignited his voracious passion for dramatics. The 81-year-old director passed away in November, leaving A Prairie Home Companion – a movie that captures the fitful exuberance of a live variety radio show – as the final piece of his masterful legacy.

“My first interest in dramatics was radio,” said Altman. “I recall listening to the radio a lot as a kid in the 1930s, like many kids would I’d never miss it.

“My hero when I was a young man was Norman Corwin, who practically created the radio drama. And the first professional dramatic thing I ever did, outside of a little theatre, was writing for radio drama, so radio is very dear and near to me.”

Indeed, the radio show that’s the subject of Altman’s movie is very near and dear to more than 4 million listeners on over 550 stations across the US.

Called A Prairie Home Companion, the show is a throwback to the 1930s, a live variety show that was recorded on stage in the Fitzgerald Theatre in St Paul, Minnesota, and regularly tours the country today. It was the brainchild of Garrison Keillor, who launched his retro broadcast in 1974.

“Garrison Keillor was inspired to start the show after reporting on the Grand Ole Opry, with its array of country stars, for the New Yorker,” explained Altman. “My wife’s a huge fan – she listens to it religiously, and I listen sometimes. I’m a fan.

“Then, by chance, my lawyer knows a friend of Garrison’s and, when I was shooting The Company, he told me that Garrison had an idea and wanted to make a film, with me directing. I said I’d be happy to talk to him.”

Keillor himself laughs at the suggestion that Altman was a bona fide fan – “he was a hostage listener,” he smiles. “His wife was a fan. But he was the guy I wanted to direct this film. When you see an all-star cast on a low-budget picture, that’s thanks to Robert Altman.”

That all-star cast comprises Meryl Streep, Woody Harrelson, Tommy Lee Jones, Kevin Kline, Lindsay Lohan, Lily Tomlin, Virginia Madsen and John C. Reilly, all of whom took a minimal salary just to work with Altman and infuse a project whose subject is so close to their nation’s heart.

It’s a testament to the cast, the director and the show’s creator – who also drafted the screenplay – that even those from Middle England will feel a nostalgic twang for a rapidly fading vision of true Americana.

The show itself is a peculiar blend of music, storytelling, sketches and spoofs, all recorded live on stage as a near-theatrical show performed in front of an audience.

It maintains a particular sensibility associated with the American Midwest, although with listeners all over the globe, the wry tone is universal.

And while the entertainment is wholesome and homespun, it remains remarkably witty and sophisticated, all the while projecting an image of some friendly neighbourhood jamboree. For Altman’s singular style of filmmaking, so precisely focused on the minutiae of human lives, it seems perfect fodder.

“The Garrison Keillor piece, while a radio show, is also very theatrical, which makes it perfect for me,” said the director.

“We shot it like a documentary, I guess that’s the word that most people are familiar with. Basically, we’re not trying to disguise the cameras, there aren’t lots of close-ups; it’s the stuff that’s caught by camera, rather than things that are staged. Everyone is miked up all the time and I’m using always two, sometimes three, cameras.”

Those cameras record the sinews and tendons that hold the show together, while the movie’s heartbeat can be felt thudding through each and every performance, echoing the loudest in the ribcages of two star performers, Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin, who play the singing Johnson sisters, Yolanda and Rhonda.

Their backstage dialogue, running in one long sequence, is truly dazzling, the two women gabbing back and forth as they peck at the gossip, while Altman, cleverly employing their dressing room mirrors, offers seemingly infinite perspectives.

“On the first day of shooting Bob shot about 10 pages of the script, which is very unusual,” says Streep. “Normally you’d shoot like a page-and-a-half! And Lily and I did some very long takes – that scene backstage went on for 17 minutes.

“They were long takes, but that’s what he’s looking for. Bob wants to see everything, including what’s between – the inadvertent things are like gold to him.”

Altman himself noted that he secured Streep’s services by playing on one of her private passions.

“Meryl did this movie because she got to sing,” he said. “In her secret mental life she’s a singer. I knew that I could seduce her by saying that she had to sing in the movie. That was worth at least $500,000. Singing was the bait. Actually, all the cast worked for diddlysquat. I on the other hand filled my coffers!”

Which isn’t exactly true. Although the long takes, of course, are.

“It’s making the actors play their characters for more than just 35 seconds of their day,” he said. “I’d rather they played 20 minutes of that day and let themselves feel the character.

“Then we’ll extract what proves the point. I know what I’m looking for, and I’m editing myself by deciding which monitors to watch, although half the time I can’t tell you what’s scripted and what’s improvised!

“With this, I barely read the script – I just knew I could watch it. I really try not to prepare. I remember years ago in TV, I’d work my finger down each line to make sure the actor was saying the right thing.

“But then I thought: “What do I care if they say exactly the right thing?” So I learned to be quite loose with the kind of thing, and sometimes it got me in trouble. I got fired from a lot of TV jobs!”

With his TV apprenticeship served, Altman, of course, built his career in film, conjuring such masterpieces as M*A*S*H, McCabe & Mrs Miller, Nashville, Vincent & Theo, Short Cuts, The Player... the list seems endless.

And every film, no matter how disparate the subject matter, proved that for Altman, the beauty of life, its true essence, would always been found in the details.

These are sentiments shared by Keillor, and articulated in the lyrics and monologues of A Prairie Home Companion, the film simply echoing the radio show.

There is one notable difference, however, in that a number of Keillor’s fictional characters are brought to life as real people in the movie.

Chief among them is Guy Noir, a PI with a penchant for Raymond Chandler-style dialogue, played with impeccable comic timing by Kline, whose narration brackets the film.

The set-up and pay-off to the movie revolve around him – these are the only two scenes set away from the theatre – playing out in and around a diner during a pair of episodes that echo the atmosphere of Edward Hopper’s great painting, Nighthawks.

That painting, and the scenes in the movie that it informs, carry the audience to a place in middle America where half-heard conversations float across the coffee cups, tempting the listener with snippets of tantalising human thought.

It’s the perfect metaphor for Altman, himself a great listener and recorder of human intricacy, even during the most mundane moments.

“Basically, this film is the Garrison Keillor show,” Altman said. “It’s his show and it’s his movie. He’s the conductor and I’m just the recorder. My mandate was to take this verbal material, a radio show and make it into something visual.”

In doing so, he has created another cinematic masterpiece. Robert Altman may now be gone, but films like A Prairie Home Companion will ensure that he is not forgotten.