July 28, 2005
St. Paul, Minn. — Time moves differently on a movie set. The crew on the A Prairie Home Companion movie say shooting has been moving at lightning speed. In fact they'll finish two days ahead of schedule.
But that doesn't mean things really happen fast.
It's about 11:30 in the morning. Dozens of people are on hand at the Fitzgerald theater, waiting for the crew to get set up for the first shot of the day. Tim Russell is one of them. He's a well known voice to Prairie Home fans, or rather many well known voices, specializing as he does in impersonations. But on this set, no impersonations are needed.
"Yeah, working with Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Kevin Kline, John C. Reilly, 10 academy award nominees, and/or winners. It's been pretty exciting!" he says.
In the movie Russell plays the stage manager of a radio variety show producing its very last performance. The show has been bought out by a southern religious network, and the stage manager is trying to hold everything together one last time.
But unlike the fictional final Prairie Home in the movie, Russell says the film-making has all gone remarkably smoothly.
"There are no 'diva moments.' Somebody was saying usually there is an average of six diva moments, but nobody wants to throw the first one with Robert Altman. So it's self governing, you know!" he smiles.
Up on the stage two camera crews practice possible moves for a scene between Garrison Keillor and Virginia Madsen. One camera hangs from a boom, allowing it to swoop around at will. Every take is filmed from at least two different viewpoints. It will make editing easier later.
Robert Altman sits off to one side in a black folding chair with his name across the back. This is the man who made "M.A.S.H.", "Nashville," "The Player" and "The Company." He is 80 now. He's hunched over a little, taking it all in, watching what the cameras see though two video monitors. He doesn't say much, but it's clear that everyone is focused on what he wants.
It takes the better part of an hour, but finally the cinematographers are ready to go. The shout goes out for people to silence their cell phones, then the cameras roll.
The two cameras slide silently in front of the actors. The scene is tucked in a back corner, so most of the crew can't see what's happening. Almost everyone listens in on headsets as Virginia Madsen speaks to Keillor. She plays an angel of death dressed in a white trench coat.
She tells a story about how she died when she lost control of her car as she laughed at a story he was telling on the radio. The scene is improvised, but first time though Madsen realizes she's missed something. She apologises and the word 'Cut!' booms across the in house P.A. The crew sets up for another take, and goes again. It all seems very laid back, but that's deceptive. This is highly organized, and very little is left to chance. Yet it's all done with the Altman style in mind. He likes to blend scenes together to create an organic whole.
Saturday Night Live actor Maya Rudolph plays the assistant stage manager in the film. She says it's a different way of making a movie.
"In some cases in other films, you might do one scene here, one scene there," she says. "But we collapse them together because of the way the cameras move, and they flow together so easily, and they breathe, so sometimes you'll be jotted down for three scenes in the day, but you'll do them all in one, and it becomes a nine minute scene. And it's so exciting to get to perform and not be continually stopped in the middle of it."
For an industry as notoriously ego-ridden as the movie business, it's strange how the people working on the Prairie Home movie seem eager to give credit to everyone else for how well things are going. Robert Altman credits Garrison Keillor's script.
"Basically he's a bit of a genius," he says. "I find that I try to keep my own sensibility out of it because after all this is 'A Prairie Home Companion.' And I want to deliver that to the audience. I want to deliver Garrison Keillor and his sensibilities, not Bob Altman and his."
But Keillor sees things differently.
"Mr Altman is an experienced director. At 80, you kind of know what you want. And he is a fearless director, and so he is really moving rather swiftly towards his goal."
Keillor says he has enjoyed learning the film-making process, and working with the actors on the film. He insists that even though he has a lead role in the film he has used his position as scriptwriter to make sure he doesn't have to actually do any real acting. He points to the scene with Virginia Madsen.
"My first line was 'I'm sorry.' My second line was 'I'm so sorry.' My third line was 'Fondue.'" He laughs gently. "You see how I designed this part for myself. I can do these lines."
When asked what he hopes will come out of the making of this film Keillor says he hopes that it is good enough. Good enough to justify Robert Altman's two years of effort.
"And I am hoping it's good enough to get me the chance to do another one," he says. "That's what I am really hoping for."
Keillor says he's been working on a Lake Woebegon script for a couple of years, and now he's looking forward to returning to it with newly-gleaned knowledge.
Keillor's co-star of the day, Virginia Madsen knows more than a little about what makes a successful film. She co-starred in "Sideways," this year's indie-hit movie. She likens Keillor and Altman to two old lions who have both surrendered a little to one another to create something special. She says the atmosphere on the set reminds her of "Sideways."
"It's kind of like having the thanksgiving feast," Madesen says. "You know that's a holiday that only comes once a year. And when you walk off a film like "Sideways" you go, 'well, maybe five years from now, I hope I'll have another experience like this.' But to have this come along! And this one, it's even richer."
Rough editing of the Prairie Home has already begun. The film will be released next year.