From the Radio to the Big Screen
For more than three decades, storyteller Garrison Keillor has been making audiences laugh, tap their feet and occasionally grab a hankie via his weekly public radio variety show, A Prairie Home Companion. In June of 2005 the show threw one of its good-natured jabs at famed director Robert Altman (Nashville, Short Cuts, Gosford Park) by airing a skit in which Altman was portrayed directing a film entitled People Standing Around Talking and Using Hand Gestures. A few weeks later, Altman began production to bring a fictional episode of A Prairie Home Companion to the big screen.
The film, slated to release June 9, features Altman's distinctive multi-character, naturalistic cinematic flavor and Keillor's wry and sometimes whimsical screenplay (and low-key performance as a radio announcer). The movie also boasts a stellar cast (including Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Kevin Kline, Tommy Lee Jones, Virginia Madsen, John C. Reilly, Woody Harrelson and rising starlet Lindsay Lohan), most of whom not only stand around talking and using hand gestures, but sing too.
Keillor has long held a special place in the hearts of many Christians for his humorous but ultimately affectionate and respectful treatment of religious people, especially the Norwegian Lutherans of his fictional Lake Wobegon. Christian Movies Today recently had a chance to sit down with Garrison and ask him about filmmaking, writing, and going to church. In all three areas, for Keillor the story is the thing.
How long have you been thinking about a Prairie Home Companion movie?
Garrison Keillor: I started thinking about it when Mr. Altman told me to start thinking about it. I had been working on another project, a screenplay about a small town in Minnesota, but then he wanted to make what he called a "fictional documentary"—whatever that may be—about a radio show. So I started to think about it right then. And we had our disagreements but we settled those fairly soon because I was in the driver's seat, I was the writer.
My first thing was: "I'm not going to do a Lake Wobegon monologue, I'm not going to stand up on stage and tell a story, won't work in movies." He said, "OK." He wanted to do some scenes in which actors are doing radio dramas. I said "No, no I'm not going to do that. I am going to take the characters that I use on the radio show, the cowboys Dusty and Lefty and the detective Guy Noir, and I'm going to make them characters around the fringe of the movie." He wasn't sure about that but he accepted that and I think I was right. I just don't think it would have worked to have people standing holding scripts in their hands by the microphone. To me it seems a little precious, and I didn't want the movie to be like that.
How long have I been thinking about it? I guess two and a half years.
Will there ever be a Lake Wobegon movie?
Keillor: Oh yes, absolutely. I have a couple of screenplays that I'm working on. One is based on a book I wrote called Wobegon Boy. And the other is a story that takes place there in the summer and it has a pontoon boat and it has a wedding and it has 24 Lutheran pastors and it has a man who loses his pants. And I really like it. It's sort of a knockdown drag-out comedy. And it would give you a chance to cast the parts of 24 Lutheran pastors, which would be a beautiful opportunity for middle-aged male actors in Minnesota.
I suspect as excellent as the movie is, there will be a minor outcry that there is no appearance of Lake Wobegon …?
Keillor: But it's not a Prairie Home Companion radio show. It's a show called The Prairie Home Companion, but the person I play is not me, and people can see that—I'm an announcer, not a writer, in the movie. I wouldn't know how to play a writer. The characters are fictional.