Nice article in today's Minneapolis Star Tribune
Maverick director Altman gathered an all-star cast for 'Prairie Home' film
Published August 7, 2005
"Was anybody killed?" Robert Altman yelled.
Luckily not. While shooting a curtain-raising scene at the Fitzgerald Theater, the red velvet drape that reaches the footlights rose smoothly. But the heavy fire curtain behind it missed its cue, dropping toward the acting company like a guillotine before halting with a bang a dozen feet above the stage.
There was a murmur of nervous laughter, a swift investigation of the malfunction and another call for "Action" from the director.
With the avid concentration of a media-addicted teenager, the white-haired Altman monitored a bank of three video screens simultaneously. One feed came from a 15-foot robot camera crane, its telescopic arm gliding to and fro like a hummingbird, the other two from a pair of wheel-mounted cameras dollying and panning in concert.
The scene he was creating was a visual maze, with gospel queen Jearlyn Steele singing a hymn in the foreground, a gaggle of musicians performing in the middle distance and actress Virginia Madsen drifting along the rear, her blonde Botticelli ringlets and white trench coat radiant in the stage light. Ed Lachman, the film's veteran cinematographer, rendered the picture in a beautiful palette of ruby, taupe and dark teal -- the muted hues of an old hand-tinted photograph.
With laser-like focus on pacing and composition, Altman instructed Madsen to linger here and move quicker there and reminded the cameramen triangulating the scene to "keep floating" with the restless, inquisitive motion that is the director's trademark.
A prolific maverick, Altman's career spans five decades and three dozen feature films, including "M*A*S*H,"Nashville,"Gosford Park" and "The Player," a merciless Hollywood satire that equated movie executives with murderers and summed up his uneasy position in an industry that regards him with reverence and suspicion. Altman has not been good at making fortunes for studios, but he routinely encourages his casts to outstanding performances.
And that, as Garrison Keillor will tell you, is why seemingly half the Screen Actors Guild spent last month in St. Paul working for a pittance on "The Last Broadcast," a movie inspired by Keillor's radio program "A Prairie Home Companion."
The plot concerns the cancellation of a long-running radio variety show by a rapacious media company -- the sort of collision between talent, greed, ambition and politics that "Nashville" presented. Keillor supplied the script and is one of the stars (making his entrance in his underwear), but it is Altman's involvement that brought Madsen, Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Kevin Kline, John C. Reilly, Lindsay Lohan, Woody Harrelson and Tommy Lee Jones to the project.
"They're all here because of their admiration for Altman," Keillor said, "based on his pictures, of course, but also on his career as a famous independent. He's been in and out of the system; he's had his hits and other pictures that obviously weren't hits, but the man has kept on going. He's an enormously productive, steady director who has always followed his own path. And this is unusual, and out of regard for him at the age of 80 they were lining up to get into this picture."
Altman's wife was a fan
Keillor had approached Altman about making a film set in his fictional Lake Wobegon, but Altman's wife, Kathryn, was a fan of the radio show's flow of song and story and sound. "You just find yourself getting hooked on it," she said, and her husband recognized a good fit with his fluid filmmaking style.
"He wanted to make a fictional documentary about 'A Prairie Home Companion.' So I accepted that's what it would be," Keillor said.
"He's a very graceful man to work with. Altman's way of working is different from most studios. If you were working with Disney, say, you would sit at a table with 12 other people, and they would offer you a lot of advice. Conflicting advice. And it would be couched in Joseph Campbell mythic terms. 'I see the grail, but what is the quest and where is the hero's wound?' And you get these memos, all of the notes from these people, and they're inevitably contradictory. It needs to move faster here. No, it needs to move slower here.
"But with Altman, he looks at your rough script, and his comments are almost invariably positive but very specific."
On the set Altman is assured, decisive, energetic and at ease directing large ensembles through complex interactions.
"We're older, but his energy level is incredible," said his wife, who has observed every film he has shot. A misstep during an all-night shoot at Mickey's Diner landed him in a wheelchair, but Altman was quickly on his feet again.
For insurance reasons, director Paul Thomas Anderson ("Magnolia") sat at Altman's elbow throughout the filming in case a heath crisis or production delays required someone else to take the reins. As it turned out, Altman zipped through his 25-day filming schedule two days early. Anderson, 35, occupied a director's chair that read PINCH HITTER on the back, running private messages to actors in distant areas of the Fitzgerald set when Altman didn't want to express himself by microphone.
Everyone remarks on the easygoing rapport between Altman and Anderson, 45 years his junior.
"I think the age difference makes it a little easier than it would be for peers," said Reilly, who has acted in three of Anderson's movies. "But beyond the fact that there's a sort of mentor-student relationship, although that's not entirely the whole picture between Bob and Paul, there really is a mutual respect. Bob really does trust Paul's opinion about things much more than a teacher would trust a student's opinion about something.
"I think they recognize in each other a kindred spirit. When you look at Paul's movies, certain things certainly are an homage to Altman -- the way he threads stories together and how much he loves actors, the way he encourages people to go crazy and fill in the blanks in a screenplay."
Altman said the secret to a satisfying career is to make only projects you believe in. He lost money on some projects and had unpleasant clashes on others, he said, but he never made a picture merely to advance his career or stay busy. "What would be the point?" he asked, his eyes agleam with wolfish intelligence. They didn't all succeed, he granted, but he said he tends to favor his "less successful children."
Peanut butter & White Castles
If film schools offered How to Run a Set 101, Altman would write the textbook. The atmosphere in the theater was so convivial that actors didn't want to leave when their workday was over. Madsen, an Oscar nominee this year for "Sideways," reported for duty two weeks early because she wanted to hang around the set.
"When he called, he said, 'Come play with us.' I knew I would have a good time. I'm usually a real tourist when I'm on location, but here I've been on set every day," she said.
On any given day a visitor to the Fitzgerald might see Kline serenading the crew with a medley of pop standards on the house Steinway, Reilly practicing rope tricks with local singing cowboy Pop Wagner and Maya Rudolph of "Saturday Night Live," hugely pregnant, communing with Anderson, the father of her child. Keillor roamed the theater between takes, incessantly rewriting.
Although the modestly budgeted film couldn't offer the performers amenities such as personal trailers, and the catering ran to peanut-butter sandwiches and White Castles, Reilly said all that was missing from the shoot is what you don't want: "Laziness and apathy and cynicism and bloated, overpaid, understimulated people. Everyone's here because they want to be here."
Madsen said, "It feels like we're in a play here. It feels like we're in a homemade show and like we're a company. Even Garrison has really opened up. He was very funny and very nice from the beginning, but he was a little removed. But now he's just hanging out, and he's funny in the makeup chair in the morning."
Reilly observed, "Even though it seems like it ought to happen on every movie, it doesn't happen on every movie. Maybe two out of 10 times you get a sense of a real community and everyone getting along and treating each other fairly. Usually it's much more of a hierarchy kind of a setup. So it really showed a lot of wisdom in Garrison and in Bob that they picked each other, because what Bob creates on a film set Garrison has been creating in this theater for 30 years -- the sense of an extended community and a really inclusive feeling. It's a perfect marriage, these two guys, the way that they work."
Rudolph, who plays the radio program's assistant stage manager, said it was an easy choice to make her screen debut with this film rather than a prefab comedy based on one of her "SNL" characters.
"When Bob Altman calls, you answer," she said. "If you ask any comedian, they'd like to do all kinds of stuff. But the opportunities are limited because people just see us as the characters that we play. Those times are shifting -- definitely Adam Sandler showed more than one side, especially in [Anderson's film] 'Punch-Drunk Love.' So when [Altman] called and said, 'I've got a movie for you; do you want to do it?' I said, 'Are you crazy, of course.'
"I've never been in a nine-minute scene before that was like being in a ballet. We did a scene that included three songs. I ran in, I dropped all my papers, I ran out stage left, came back and Meryl and Lily were singing, then Garrison came out and he sang and Jearlyn came out and she sang! If I talk to another actor about appearing in an Altman film, I'll tell them not to hesitate, run to it."
'A precious time'
No one seemed eager to see the film conclude. Reilly speculated about releasing an album of his Dusty and Lefty cowboy duets with Harrelson, or maybe making an appearance in character on the radio show. Madsen used her new digital camera to document the shoot because "this is such a precious time. It needs to be recorded."
Keillor wants to get Kline to reprise the Guy Noir character in a detective comedy, and to make that Lake Wobegon movie, and he savors the memory of performing scenes with some of this decade's finest actors:
"We were shooting a nighttime scene at Mickey's [Diner]. A guy with a hose was keeping the streets wet and the windows rain-streaked. Kevin Kline was inventing bits of business with the salt and pepper shakers and his tie and I had to sit there and try to keep from laughing.
"That was where we said goodbye to Meryl Streep. That was her last scene, in Mickey's. At 3:30 Sunday morning, the associate director announced, 'Mr. Altman has released Miss Streep,' and we all stood there in the intersection of St. Peter and 7th and gave Meryl Streep a standing ovation. It was a great night. We started about 6 at night, and I headed home about 5:30 in the morning. Decided I would not be going to church after all."