It seems Garrison Keillor is set to conquer the world. The media world, that is. He’s a best-selling author, an admired public radio personality and now, an actor/screenwriter. Though unfamiliar to many in Hollywood, he’s making a major entrance, of sorts, with this weekend’s release of ‘A Prairie Home Companion.’ Recently he sat down to talk about the film, the future of public radio and romancing Meryl Streep.
Q: Can you talk about how this came to be a film?
KEILLOR: I need to see your press cards first of all. Do they still have press cards? They do. I’m a writer and we operate in isolation and we never see other writers. I didn’t want to make a movie about radio. That’s the last thing that I had in mind. I’ve been working in radio for years. Mr. Altman wanted to make the movie. I had lunch with him in Chicago in the summer of 2002 and I was trying to pitch him a Lake Woebegone movie. I’ve been trying for years to make a movie about Lake Woebegone and this was going to be my fourth attempt. I’ve struck out three times, but he wasn’t buying it. He decided that he wanted to make a movie about a radio show, about my radio show and he asked me to write the screenplay and I decided that I would rather write the screenplay than have someone else write the screenplay. So that’s really the motivation. It’s kind of a backward story. I feel as if I did it more or less on assignment.
Q: Have you ever filmed the shows before?
KEILLOR: It was on the Disney Cable Channel for a few years in the late ’80’s. We did a 25th Anniversary DVD. It was kind of a big, glossy thing. I never saw any of the videos. I wasn’t that curious about how that looked, but when he wanted to make a movie about my radio show I wanted to create a movie radio show that wouldn’t be exactly like mine. He wanted to have a few things in there. I do a monologue in there and I stand up and talk about a small town in Minnesota and he wanted to include that. And he wanted to include radio drama where the actors are holding scripts and doing parts and a sound FX man is doing the horses hoofs and so on. But I didn’t want to do that. So I got to lead him a little ways down my path and then he took the screenplay and he took it back up his path.
Q: Was this your first try at a screenplay?
KEILLOR: I have written two stale screenplays. I think that I have two ships that sank under me and so this was going to be the third to go down.
Q: What are the challenges of doing a screenplay versus other forms of writing?
KEILLOR: Finding people to do it with you – investors of course are important – but finding people you want to do it with you who you care to be around on a regular basis. This is not easy. Writers do not have the same social skills that other people have because we spend so much of our time alone and so we’re very intolerant of people who are loud or pushy, who are deceitful and especially people who are deceitful in flattering us. I find that very painful. So Mr. Altman though is a Midwesterner and he essentially says what he thinks and so I found it easy to work with him.
Q: Did you have any input in casting the film?
KEILLOR: None. Zero. They didn’t consult me at all. I don’t know enough about movies. I don’t know enough about acting. I know nothing about directing a movie. They’d do better to ask the doorman. He knows better than I do.
Q: Was he looking for people who could sing the songs?
KEILLOR: I don’t know that that was a factor. I mean, we all knew that Meryl could sing. She had sung in pictures before and she has a very natural and lovely voice. I didn’t know that Lindsay Lohan could sing like that. I knew that she had made a CD, but she’s a real belter. I guess that kids learn that going to theater school. Lily [Tomlin] is a dogged singer. She’s a rote singer.
Q: Did you know that you would be in the film when you were writing?
KEILLOR: I wasn’t aware of that. I just wrote the character and then as I realized it might be I realized I should make the part smaller if I were going to be doing it.
Q: How did the people that you work with feel when they heard that they were going to be in this movie and that you were going to be writing it?
KEILLOR: Well, they were dumbstruck of course and they suspected that I had gotten them into it, but I did not. I didn’t figure out how to do that until about the eighth or tenth rewrite. Then I figured out how to get my pals into a movie. You write them in by name. It’s as simple as that.
Q: When did the casting take place during your writing process? Did you know at any point who you were writing for or was it all blind?
KEILLOR: No. At first I knew that Meryl had signed on. She liked the script or she wanted to work with Altman or something. So she had agreed to be in it and so I designed a character for her. Then Lily came in and I made them sisters and I knew that they would be those people. We almost lost Meryl very late because she had a knee operation and she thought that she wasn’t going to be able to do it, which would’ve been a disaster. So we rewrote, I rewrote the screenplay to put her into a wheelchair and made her chair bound, which included having her hoisted up on a crane. She was going to be lifted and that might’ve been interesting, but then she recovered quickly and she was back in. But I had their voices in mind and that was great, to be able to write to specific voice and then the combination of those two voices. Meryl is that kind of modulated Midwestern – she was Midwestern in the movie – voice. And then writing for Lily, which is kind of like writing for a car horn.
Q: Why did your character choose not to do the obituary for the character that dies?
KEILLOR: That’s an interesting point and it’s a difficult point for that character that I play. I think that he is suspicious of the falsity of tributes and he also – when Lindsay Lohan says, ‘Well, don’t you want people to remember you when you die?’ He says, ‘Yes, but I don’t want them to be told to.’ So it’s the falsity of tributes and he’s also, as Meryl Streep’s character suggests earlier, he is afraid of emotion and there is no doubt about that. He is afraid of weepiness. He does not want to expose his emotional vulnerability. It’s an awkward point, but it’s based on the truth. On my show, I occasionally mentioned performers who died, performers who had been important to the show and it’s just always been really tough for me. I was doing the show up in Tanglewood when I got the news from Nashville that Chet Atkins had died and he was very close to us and he was such a wonderful person. Of course he’d been failing for a long time and I’d seen him failing, but still, walking out on that stage just sort of impromptu and telling people that he had died was just one of the hardest things that I had ever had to do. Then to sort of frame some kind of tribute to the man was hard to do and it’s such an awkward moment. So when his widow asked me to go down to Nashville and speak at his funeral – Chet was not a religious person and so it was at the Grand Ole Opry – I did that. But I wrote that. I took a long time to write his memorial speech. It was a tough thing.
Q: Do you think that your show would’ve been the same kind of phenomenon if it were a cable show or something that was filmed or was visual rather than being on radio?
KEILLOR: I don’t know enough about cable to really answer you. I think that television though requires a different sort of devotion from people and people’s lives change and they are no longer able to sit captive to a screen whereas radio is portable. With a show like ours you don’t really need to keep in touch with it every week, and the iPod has been a friend to a radio show like ours. People download this very quickly and they carry it around with them so they can listen on demand. The internet has been a great gift to radio. The secret though I think is really lack of publicity. I think that every attempt that we ever made, and thank God that we gave it up, every attempt we made to publicize the show worked against us. I think that it works better under the radar, completely under the radar.
Q: How did it backfire? Was it a backfire or did it just didn’t work – can you give me an example?
KEILLOR: The essence of a show like ours is, I think, people feeling like they have a personal connection to those people on the radio and as far as I’m concerned they do. I meet a lot of people who listen to the show and I feel comfortable with them and so I feel that we have a connection. I don’t exactly what it is, but it’s there. But the moment that people see your face on television or see your mug in the newspaper then they realize that it’s not just you and them. It’s you and them and what are these other people doing here? It breaks the connection. Marketing works against listenership.
Q: How do you think the fans will react to this then?
KEILLOR: [Laughs] They’ll be surprised at who else is in the theater with them. It’ll be a real catholic experience especially out in those red states.
Q: How has satellite radio changed what you do?
KEILLOR: Oh, not at all. I don’t think so. Satellite radio to me is kind of a niche that has more to do with music formats and I don’t think is that important to the sorts of things that I do.
Q: Do you think that it will become important?
Q: Have you ever thought about doing something similar to this show on either Xm or Sirius? Have you ever been offered something like that?
KEILLOR: No. I’ve driven around in rental cars that have satellite radio and I can certainly see what the appeal was, but my reaction after experiencing satellite radio as a listener was that Clear Channel paid way too much for those stations back then. I’m glad that I don’t have stock in that company because those FM format stations, that’s Death Valley. They’ve got only one way to go.
Q: With all the new media around like we’ve been talking about, what explains your devotion to public radio after all of these years? Is that because it’s where you got started?
KEILLOR: No. Public radio is a booming part of the industry. Its growth is simply phenomenal. Its growth has been led by its flagship news programs. ‘All Things Considered’ and ‘Morning Edition.’ But it’s growth has also brought along tremendous shows like ‘This American Life’ our of Chicago and ‘Fresh Air’ out of Philadelphia. These shows have a kind of genius behind them and they’re original. The great thing that has happened though is the internet which makes it possible for people to download and listen to stations, listen to shows long after they’re broadcast. This is a new thing in radio. Radio was once like making a castle in the sand and then the tide comes in and sweeps it away and now I think that younger people are discovering the power of audio in it’s many different storytelling modes. I think that hip hop and rap have been important here because words are being put together in sort of a narrative form. Whatever one might think of hip hop or rap it certainly is a way long step higher than the kind of pop lyric that I grew up with or disco which was very repetitive. It’s very articulate and it plays with words. So I think that it’s a young person’s medium and I just see the technology being all in the favor of people who are doing original things. People were worried about the internet for some reason. I can’t even remember what the worry was exactly, but the worries had to do with like them feeling that the printed word was really the guardian of individuality, the hallmark of individuality, but audio can be as well and now you have these methods for putting things at people’s fingertips whenever they want them. Who could not be in favor of that?
Q: Working with Altman who improvises a lot and then having a script for this, how did those two worlds come together?
KEILLOR: The screenwriter was on the set at all times. The script police were there. Lily you can’t really put a lid on her and Kevin [Kline] does a lot of improvisation, but the rest no. It stayed pretty close to the script as I have here. Every word that I’ve said. I have a transcript for this in my pocket [Laughs].