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Prairie Home Companion, A - feature

The show must go on

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Donald Hutera savours the atmosphere on the set of Robert Altman’s swansong, A Prairie Home Companion.

In an ironic twist, the late director Robert Altman’s final film, A Prairie Home Companion, was anchored by death. Written by Garrison Keillor, and named after the much-loved radio programme this native Minnesotan has been producing since 1974, it’s a comic fable built round the last gasp of a similarly folksy, long-running show.

Keillor’s character-driven script is layered with music, making it a kind of Midwestern Nashville. It features a typically Altmanesque star-studded cast topped by Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin as siblings in a country music act. Lindsay Lohan is the former’s daughter. Woody Harrelson and John C Reilly are singing cowboys. Virgina Madsen is a mysterious, metaphorical Angel of Death and Kevin Kline a mock-Chandleresque security guard. Tommy Lee Jones is a nasty corporate bigwig dubbed The Axeman. Keillor more or less plays himself.

Prairie Home was shot on location in St Paul, Minnesota in the sweltering summer of 2005, and in the same theatre where Keillor’s actual broadcasts are recorded. I spent ten fly-on-the-wall hours there, soaking up the atmosphere and grabbing conversations with as much of the assembled talent as was available. Topping the list was Altman, affable even at the end of a long day orchestrating small scenes. ‘All the things we’re doing today are little tie-ins for things already shot or about to be shot,’ he said. ‘They may not make it to the final cut. But this connective tissue is the thread on which the pearls are strung.’

Questions about directorial concepts were lightly deflected: ‘Oh, I have no vision for this film. I didn’t have the slightest idea how to do it. And I’m not sure that I do at this moment. It’s just a journey. What keeps your interest is the entertainment, the music, the singing and the humour. It’s a variety show. There’s not much plot. There’s nothing to see. We’re not doing any special effects. We’re working on people’s minds. The tempo is set by Garrison and his kind of storytelling. There’s no way that I don’t rub off on what he’s written, but my mandate is to deliver his genius and not intrude on it too much.’

The Keillor sensibility - a kind of dolorous, home-spun and deep-dyed irony - was something Altman seemed to understand. ‘I’m a fan,’ he admitted, ‘not an aficionado. But this guy has got a tremendous following. There’s a chance that this movie can be like Mel Gibson’s Jesus movie and reach an audience that normally doesn’t go to the movies. They come out in droves and go to raffles and get tickets to see his show.’

Planted in front of two monitors, Altman’s graceful choreography of the two cameras in use (three for more complicated scenes) and his command of the activity over-all was fascinating to observe. And painstaking to achieve. ‘I hate this,’ he muttered, rubbing his eyes while waiting for a faulty cable to be replaced. ‘It’s just guesses, uneducated guesses. But you guys will make it come to life.’ And later: ‘Let’s just see what happens here. It won’t work, but let’s see what happens.’

Minor tensions aside, the buzz on set was upbeat. Madsen, still fresh from Sideways, was positively glowing. ‘We don’t have any trailers. All the actors are here hanging out. There’s no separation of church and state. It kind of feels like we’re puttin’ on a show. Bob’s our conductor and everybody feels like they’re playing an instrument, whether they’re in front of the camera or behind.’

If there’s a movie heaven, you can imagine that the skeptical, intuitive Altman is leading the playing.

On selected release from Fri 5 Jan

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