It’s likely that many Chewers only know Garrison Keillor from references on (“Be more funny!”). If you’re anything like me, that is. Keillor’s The SimpsonsA Prairie Home Companion has run since 1974, and today has 4 million listeners on NPR stations across America. One of whom isn’t me, but after seeing Robert Altman’s version of Keillor’s show – written by and starring Keillor – I may just be giving it a shot.
Keillor’s one tall guy: 6 foot 4 of dryly humorous Minnesotan. Interviewing Keillor in a roundtable environment was interesting, because of the way he talks – you never know when he’s done or when he’s just taking a pause. I would actually describe the guy as quite Entish.
In the Prairie film, Keillor is holding court over the last performance of the radio show, while a Dangerous Woman stalks the cast. There’s romance, death and Lindsey Lohan writing emo poetry. What else does a movie possibly need?
Q: Is this the film you expected?
Keillor: It’s quite amazing, I think. I’m still trying to figure out what it is. I’m very grateful that it all came together in some form. If you’re privy to the chaos these things start out as, especially in the mind of the writer, it’s really stunning that something actually happens and there are people on the screen moving around and saying words that are more or less your own, and doing facial expressions and gestures, and so on.
Q: What made you want to do this film in the first place?
Keillor: That’s a damn good question. Writers are restless, writers are looking for other things to put their hands to. I’ve written novels, I’m kind of a failed novelist, and I’m a failed poet—I’ve sort of kept this radio show cooking along, I’m still trying to find something I can be good at. Maybe screenplays. They are only 120 pages long, double-spaced. That’s not onerous.
Q: We heard that you wrote the poem Lindsay Lohan recites in the movie, so maybe you have a career ahead as a teen poet.
Keillor: Writing suicide poems? Yeah, I remember being nineteen. I don’t think there’s a big future in that, but if she needs me to work on her new album, I’m here for her.
Q: Was there hesitation to taking something you’ve worked on for so long and handing it over to someone else to put his own vision on it?
Keillor: No, I trusted him. He’s from the Midwest. His wife Catherine is a fan of the radio show, loves A Prairie Home Companion. Bob has listened to the show from the next room. If he were to do something truly squalid and ugly and tasteless, he’d have to face his own wife—one can’t hope for more control over a man than that. It was good to give up characters to actors I believe, I really like that. The Guy Noir that Kevin Kline plays is nothing like the Guy Noir who I’ve done on the radio. My Guy Noir is naturally older, dumpy, down-on-his luck and so on, and Kevin’s is very elegant. He’s elegant even when he’s bumping into things or he’s shutting his fingers in a drawer or dropping hot coals on his shirt front; he still retains that dignity that has always been there for great physical comedians. My guy is just kind of a dower, a straight-man compared to his, so it’s really fun to watch him do that. Kevin is an actor who over the years has been kind of held in rein by directors, as directors will do, and here he found Altman, a guy who just lets actors go wild. So it was Kevin’s chance to use every bit of shtick in his entire repertoire as an actor and put it all together for one character.
Q: When you saw the film finally assembled were there things that even surprised you?
Keillor: There’s a scene that Meryl, Lili and Lindsay shot before I got to St. Paul, in the dressing room, the three of them, that I’ve seen five or six times and it’s still it’s really amazing to me. It has to with the Lili and Meryl and their timing, and they’re taking lines that I wrote but they’re extending them and repeating them, so that they’re sort of repeating each other and overlapping with each other. And it is such a natural thing that they’re doing, a natural conversational style that I don’t associate with the Midwest somehow. Meryl’s voice especially is really a tone perfect, Midwestern voice, not a cartoonish parody. Lili of course is Lili. To me that’s an amazement what they did. And when I saw that in an early cut, I really thought that if I’d have known how beautiful that was, that would have been my whole movie right there. I just would have done it with the three of them. It all would have been in a dressing room. They never would have gone on stage. It just would have been the three of them. That’s the sort of movie I really would love. I like stationary movies that don’t move at all. So that’s all I know.
Q: What movies do you love?
Keillor: I don’t know that I love movies, I don’t think I could go that far. I wouldn’t go that far. Movie-going is a social occasion, so you go with somebody you love, and you’re there together, and you share popcorn. And afterward you talk about it, usually kind of briefly on the way home. And you’re always kind of hoping that the movie will lead to something better once you get home. It’s not like reading a book. You can love a book. I don’t know how to love a movie. I said the wrong thing! Inadvertently the truth came out of my mouth.
Q: Can you think of any movies that were profound and perhaps made things go better at home?
Keillor: Well, the sort of movies that I really love are so out of fashion. It was so long ago. I think of those movies of English working-class, which you’re following that one character, and you’re with that character, and you’re walking down the street with that character—and it’s part of town and it’s a slice of life that’s unlike your own. But I have no memory for names of directors. Mike Leigh. And movies which are simply in the midst of these people and their families, and the story seem peripheral to the characters—the characters are the great thing. And they make about four of those movies a year, and I can’t even name them, and they come to little art theaters.
Q: It’s the television age, yet A Prairie Home Companion has had such an impact on the American imagination. Why do you think it has become so wildly successful?
Keillor: I have to disagree with your assumptions. It’s not wildly successful; its success has been very carefully controlled. Its success, such as it is, has been largely due to lack of marketing and lack of publicity. Secrecy I think is the secret. You have a show that goes out and people are turning their little radio dials and they come across a show that doesn’t sound like other shows. And that’s the success of any radio show. That was Rush Limbaugh’s success, that was Howard Stern’s success. They didn’t sound like anybody else. I wouldn’t call it wildly successful It’s effect on the American imagination I think would be minimal. I don’t see it. We’re just a journal. We reflect a little aspect of the strata of human life that exist below the media. Down below the media world and the level which people are influenced by media is a level on which not much has changed. People are bringing up children and talking to their children and trying to teach them right from wrong. And people are looking at people they’ve know for twenty years and are still interested in.
Q: Would you ever have entertained the idea of this film being done by anyone else than Robert Altman?
Keillor: I’m open to offers, but it would have to be somebody I could sit across a table from and have lunch with and not feel odd. And we writers are a very intolerant people. We don’t have the social skills of producers and directors because our work is essentially solitary. So it’s difficult for us to find people we can work with.
Q: How did you decide on the songs – did you have them in mind before the script was finished?
Keillor: No, the songs as with most of the elements of the picture were really pieced together and some of them very much at the last moment. Once I came up with the basic storyline of the movie—the show coming to an end, last show—and then the accompanying storyline—the Dangerous Woman [Virginia Madsen], the dark angel moving in our midst, sometimes physically, sometimes not. Once you come up with the main story, then you certainly want to give the director a great variety of material which he can arrange. You don’t have to worry so much about form. He’ll do that in the cutting room. So you have the luxury of being able to lavish material on him and leaving it to him to make the choices. That was my great insight. Form has never been my strong suit anyway.
Q: I know the Grand Ole Opry was an influence on you, but were you a fan of the radio show?
Keillor: I went to see it a couple of times when I was in college, I listened to it sometimes as a kid—the AM radio signal came in particularly well in the winter time, so if you strung an antenna out your window you could pick up WSM, but no not in a big way. I’m very fond of the Opry but when it comes listening to music I guess I’d be more likely to listen to classical.
Q: What about Jean Shepard, Will Rogers and even the TV show Hee Haw?
Keillor: Jean Shepard didn’t really get into the Midwest. WOR—we could not get it over the mountains; WOR stops somewhere in the Pocnos, I think. We got Pittsburgh KDKA. Hee Haw–no. Hee Haw is a particular little genre of rube jokes that I was never big on. Will Rogers came too early for me. I guess I read his stuff but it never appealed to me the way James Thurber did. James Thurber and those New Yorker guys were better writers, if truth be told. Will Rogers suffered from being a topical humorist.
Q: Did you have to fend off the paparazzi for Lindsay at all?
Keillor: No, no, not at all. Lindsay came with two or three friends—maybe they worked for her, I don’t know. They were kids, girls about her age. So she was just kind of with them and she’d walk up and down the street. She was fine, she didn’t have any problems—it probably made her uneasy being in St. Paul and all those people ignoring her.
Q: Meryl Streep talks about how she came on the set after having read the script and signing on to it and then finding out that the idea that her character and yours had a past was removed. And she had to talk you into putting it back into the film. Why did you take it out?
Keillor: I thought it was implausible.
Q: Why would it have been implausible?
Keillor: I just don’t see that character and her character being involved. I wish I could—God knows I wish I could.
Q: About the development of Lindsay Lohan’s character as the daughter. She wasn’t originally in your script until you read that she wanted to be in it…
Keillor: Exactly right. She had signed on to it through an agent. But soon we were aware that Miss Lohan saying in interviews that she was going to be in a movie with Meryl Streep. So this seemed to be something she was really herself personally enthusiastic about. Well, good for her, I thought. Because I liked her in her movies, because she’s very gifted—I mean The Parent Trap is a piece of work. So I thought, Good for her. And then I read in an interview that she said she was going to be Meryl Streep’s daughter. Which was news to me, and I was writing the screenplay. But it seemed like such a great idea, just on the face of it, that once you got over being slightly offended at an actor taking over your prerogative, it just immediately made sense. The only character I had for her up to then was an aspiring, not very good songwriter.
Q: Why “not very good?”
Keillor: Because it would be funnier. But that character wasn’t going any place, and that character took a lot of space and time trying to establish. Whereas it takes no time at all to establish a mother-daughter relationship—they just do it physically; the way they walk together, you can tell: that’s the mother and that’s the daughter. And there’s a kind of a friction between them. And Meryl has three daughters who are Lindsay’s age or older so she has immediate experience to draw on.
Q: Was there something Lindsay brought to the set or character that surprised you, that you didn’t expect to come from her?
Keillor: She brought things I did expect. She brought attitude, and we really needed that. I think it’s always surprising to find tremendous competence, and she was tremendously competent and capable in scenes that I was in with her. I really enjoyed working with her, and I think I’d be able to detect indifference or impatience. But she did a scene in which she comes at me and accuses me of being cold and indifferent and she did that scene so beautifully, always with real tears in her eyes—I guess they teach them at Disney how to summon up tears—but with such fervor that, even though I’d written the words myself, they really stung, I was really hurt. She just really came at me.
Q: Did you know you were going to play yourself in the movie?
Keillor: I wasn’t sure about that. I wasn’t in favor of that. I was talked into it for the good of the team, but I still am not sure about it.
Q: Is G.K. you?
Keillor: No. He’s a radio announcer. I used to be a radio announcer, then I came up with this show on which I’m a writer, I’m a producer, I’m an amateur singer, I’m a stand-up comedian, I do everything—park cars.
Q: Would you personally do a moment of silent in tribute to someone who died? Could you see that working on radio?
Keillor: No. I’ve announced the deaths of performers who were close to the show. I think I’ve done it two or three times, and each time it was exquisitely painful. That passage that was written from personal experience.
Q: If the show were to come to a conclusion, how would you feel and handle the last show?
Q: Do you see other movies or other things you’ll do as a result of this experience?
Keillor: Well, I definitely still want to make a “Lake Wobegon” movie. I really have my heart set on that so I’m going to go ahead and do that in some way, shape, or form. I had a great time making this, so I want to do that. I don’t think the radio show’s profile is raised especially—the movie is kind of a temporary thing; it opens on Friday and boom, and then kind of trickles away, whereas a radio show keeps marching forward.
Q: So the Lake Wobegon movie would be the next movie that you want to do?
Keillor: Oh, yes, absolutely.
Q: Would you direct it?
Keillor: I could. But I wouldn’t want me to be in it. I don’t want to be in it. I can’t think what I would play. A priest, maybe. Sort of a dissolute priest. A Norwegian bachelor farmer—I could do that.
Q: Would you want to be in other people’s movies?
Keillor: No. I averted disaster once. I fooled them once, I don’t count on being able to fool them again.