The trio chat about turning the radio show into a feature film
If you've ever heard the radio show, A Prairie Home Companion, then you know what kind of off-humor, Mid-West style, off the cuff show it is. If you haven't heard about it, find a station that plays it and listen.
It's about a group of folks from Minnesota that have a stage show as a radio act. Garrison Keillor, who's in the show, decided to write a screenplay about it, and call it A Prairie Home Companion. He found one unbelievable cast to act in it, including Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin, who play the Johnson sisters; Lindsay Lohan plays Meryl's daughter. Also in the movie are John C. Riley and Woody Harrelson, who play the cowboy team of Lefty and Dusty; in the radio show, Garrison plays the part of Lefty. The movie follows the last night of the radio stage show and the emotional and funny end of the program; it's being bought out by Tommy Lee Jones. Legendary director, Robert Altman took the helm on this film.
We had the chance to sit down with Garrison, Lily, and Meryl who spoke about working with Robert Altman; Garrison on writing the material and working with such an amazing array of actors. And Meryl filled us in on playing a completely opposite character in the upcoming The Devil Wears Prada.
Here's what they had to say:
How do these ladies compare to the people you usually perform with?
Garrison Keillor: I usually don't work with other people; I do the whole show myself. It's an amazing tour de force; they were perfect and they were part of this picture before this screenplay was written. I think Meryl signed onto it somewhere around the second draft when it was still kind of a crappy piece of work.
Meryl Streep: I don't agree.
Garrison Keillor: And then Lily came on soon after, so I had these two people in mind as I was writing these characters. It was just an amazing gift to writer to have actors in mind - these two actors I should say.
How many drafts did you got through; how long did it take?
Garrison Keillor: Well, I write on a laptop, so it's impossible to count drafts anymore. It was many hundreds, not worth talking about.
Lily, was it hard for your to adapt to another comic sensibility not your own?
Lily Tomlin: No, I'm a big fan of Garrison's and I've listened to A Prairie Home Companion for a very, very long time - except for one period when he went someplace and we didn't know where he went and we felt really left abandoned.
Garrison Keillor: She redid the whole part herself; she completely made it her own.
Lily Tomlin: Yeah I did; I redid hers (Meryl's), too. I was very busy. No, I didn't think about it; you think of yourself as an actor and come in. I love Garrison's sensibility anyway, so it's something I relate to and feel rapport with. And you just want to do the part, just come in and do justice to your character and serve the movie and story. And I don't want to embarrass myself with Ms. Streep. I want to be good enough to play with her, so I wanted to be just good.
Meryl Streep: Or, if you do embarrass yourself, you want it to be really funny.
How did you establish sisterly camaraderie?
Lily Tomlin: You want to know something really hilarious? Because I thought we looked so different, no one's going to believe we're sisters.
Meryl Streep: I thought we looked alike.
Lily Tomlin: I tried to make your nose like mine; I mean my nose like yours.
Meryl Streep: I thought something was happening at night; I felt that.
Lily Tomlin: I had noses molded and everything, but my nose is too wide. I couldn't; when I put it on, I looked like I had like a really -
Meryl Streep: But we both have that long, you know -
Lily Tomlin: Yeah we do, somehow it was just an absolute blessing, wasn't it? Bob (Robert Altman) must have known. I don't know how he would know because I looked and I thought, 'Oh, we just don't look anything alike; who's going to believe we're real sisters?' I believed that they'd believe it, but in my mind I had the doubts. Plus you need busy work to do, so I spent a lot of time having noses sculpted.
Garrison Keillor: Which one of them do you look more like?
Lily Tomlin: I didn't look like anybody when I had this prosthetic on; I looked like, we don't know who it was. It was another person; there was someone who worked with you and had done a prosthetic for you, and I hired him.
Meryl Streep: Kevin Haney maybe? He gave me a neck that made my neck go in the back here. (on Death Becomes Her)
Lily Tomlin: Yes.
How was it singing in the film?
Meryl Streep: I didn't prepare too much; we just like had three days I guess to get ready. I like to sing and it's just really fun to sing, and I don't get too much. And at my house I'm not allowed to because, you know, your children can't stand it when you sing at home.
Lily Tomlin: Or show any kind of happiness or joy -
Meryl Streep: Or anything really. Don't show anything or just don't be there, so it's been hard to wait till everybody's out of the house because there's a lot of them to sing. And anyway, I was really glad to be able to do it; so much fun, pure joy.
Garrison, how was it acting in front of a camera as opposed to performing for radio?
Garrison Keillor: Well, Altman's camera is moving around so much, and you're not so aware of it. And I had written my part for myself, which is a great advantage really, so you stay within the boundaries of what you can do; I wrote a small, supporting role for a tall, sort of clumsy, dour person. And I was adequate at doing that. And when you're with a cast of terrific actors, people would think that this is intimidating, but actually it's much less so than if you were with a group of rank amateurs, people as rank as yourself, this would be terrifying. It would be absolutely terrifying when you're with Meryl and Lily and Kevin, you just bob along in their wake. Really, you're just drawn along; you just react, be appropriate, that's all you need to do.
How does Mr. Altman's fluidity as a director work?
Lily Tomlin: It's about not knowing, the fluidity of the camera. You never know where it is, so you're never performing for the camera or feeling that the camera is right on you, looking at you. And you're not stopping and starting as Meryl referenced, and he's just so unflappable. He's so even, he's not absolutely uproarious about something, he's not crestfallen about something; he's just so - it's like he accepts whatever is presented to him, and yet he's cast it so well. And he's involved here and whatever's going on, and it allows you to just be.
Meryl Streep: It's confidence; it has to be something good about getting old. One of the things is that you just don't stress about some stuff that made you so worried.
Lily Tomlin: Did I already say this here about not singing well? Did I already mention that? I called him and I said I practiced for two months singing, almost every day because I'm not accustomed to singing, and I had to sing the harmony, and it's not so easy for me. I called him part way in, and I went, 'Bob, I don't know if I'm going to be able to sing that well when I get there.' And he said, 'Ah, well if you don't sing well, you just don't sing well.' And it's just that easy; however I would have sung, that's how Rhonda would have sounded. And it's like when we did Nashville; when children were cast, my character's children were supposed to be deaf, the first two kids that were brought to us, those were the kids. We're not going to see a bunch of kids; we see the kids that come to us. But intuitively, he goes with it. Julie Christie came on the set to visit, and of course he puts her in the movie. 'That's a good opportunity, oh.' You don't see anything change in his face; he's talking the same level, the same - did you ever see him change, a big bunch of ups and downs or anything like that, responses?
Garrison Keillor: I thought that was my effect on him. He's like that all the time?
Lily Tomlin: Yes, and suddenly Julie Christie's in the movie. It's not like he says - I'd be there going, 'Oh boy! We can put Julie Christie in the movie!' He's just going along with his beautiful fingers, and that's it.
Meryl, how was it playing the mom to Lindsay Lohan, a teen with a darkness to her?
Meryl Streep: I don't think she's any darker than any of the other teens that I know. It's very easy to feel motherly towards her, and in fact she was younger than three of my kids. And I feel it's so hard for these young actors; I mean, she turned 19 on our movie. It's a different world that they're coming up in; there's so much money to be made off of their personal lives, and people are bound and determined to make that money. And I felt protective of her; I felt bad for that world that we have given her and a generation of kids.
Lily Tomlin: And I wanted to go to a rave club; she was maternal, and I thought I couldn't believe that she didn't relate to me as a contemporary.
Garrison, did you use this screenplay as an opportunity to say things you couldn't on radio?
Garrison Keillor: I wanted to finish a piece of work on time and have it not be embarrassing. That was my goal, and I was really working on assignment from Mr. Altman; he wanted to make a picture about a radio show. I was enlisted to write his movie, and I volunteered to do it in order to keep somebody else from doing it, people I would not want to write a screenplay about A Prairie Home Companion. So it was a dog in the manger sort of an act on my part; it had very little to do with wanting to express something. Anything you want to say, you can say on the radio or you can say it almost anyplace.
Meryl, how is it gearing up for a summer movie press tour with two films?
Meryl Streep: I was just trying to convince them that I've been talking about The Devil Wears Prada all during the Prairie thing so I can get out of some of that.
Have you ever seen a live production of the Prairie Home radio show?
Lily Tomlin: I've only seen it once live; I saw it last summer at the (Hollywood) Bowl, and Garrison is so funny because on the radio you don't get to see all that. And his expressions standing up there, I said, 'This is so good for the movie; this show's even funnier live than it is on the radio.' The sound effects person, everything that went on that night at the Bowl was so hilarious, doubly hilarious.
Garrison Keillor: It didn't look that way, looking at you sitting in the audience. You looked sort of glazed over; I was watching you every moment, like a hawk.
How much of the dirty jokes were written, collaborated, adlibbed by you and the other actors?
Garrison Keillor: Many of those jokes were their contribution. Mr. Altman really wanted this to be a PG-13 movie, and it was during Bad Jokes that it became a PG-13 movie. He was very grateful for that. My mother went to see the St. Paul premiere, and she sat there, 91-years-old, watching. And I couldn't remember if Altman had left in the PMS joke or not, but then you never are sure if your mother at the age of 91 remembers what PMS is.
Meryl Streep: I don't think they had identified it until recently.
Meryl, is your character in The Devil Wears Prada character one you relish and go wild on?
Meryl Streep: It's really fun; the movie's a really fun, it's an eyeful, it's an eyeful, that's for sure. And I was incredibly restrained; I restrained my inner virago, it's all pulled back because that's the way really, really powerful people experience. That's her; it was so nice to do this character in Prairie. It's like the opposite, the unzipped; this one was really fun, much more fun for me to play.
Lily Tomlin: But the other is more like you, don't you think?
Meryl Streep: (says nothing, but laughs)
Garrison, was it easy to cede control of this film to Mr. Altman?
Garrison Keillor: It was a pleasure; it was a pleasure to have somebody else be the boss. It wouldn't have been nearly as much fun any other way. He's been around and made a lot of movies and he's a great straightforward person to work for. And it was a pleasure to see other people to pick up characters that you've sketched out loosely on paper and make them into something fascinating. Hard to do that on paper, hard for me anyway; so it was an amazing experience for a writer to be there in the middle of the maelstrom and have a good time.
Garrison, did you know that kiss was coming at the end from Meryl?
Garrison Keillor: No, she threw that in. G-d knows what motivation there was; some kind of Electra impulse, something we need to discuss in a calm moment.
Meryl Streep: He was always trying to recede off into the shadows and lurk around and watch and not be in it; I just didn't think that was fair.
Lily Tomlin: Yeah, she ran out and dragged him on.
Meryl Streep: I dragged him on.
Is the end of this movie a sign to come with your real show?
Garrison Keillor: No, no, no, no; I just thought it was a terrific ending, I loved the ending. The moment I saw Virginia Madsen's walk - I saw it on a monitor screen - and I just wished it would be longer, walking past those rain-streaked windows. We don't get to do that in radio, we don't get to have rain-streaked windows and woman with that blonde Boticellian hair. That was really stunning, and the look on her face as she stood in the doorway, and then the looks on our faces.
Lily Tomlin: Oh, I looked totally goofy.
You can see Garrison, Lily, and Meryl, along with Virginia Madsen, Kevin Kline, John C. Riley, Woody Harrelson, Lindsay Lohan, Tommy Lee Jones and Maya Rudolph in A Prairie Home Companion. It opens in limited theaters June 9th, widely in the coming weeks; it's rated PG-13.