Mainstream Hollywood gave legendary maverick Robert Altman, 81, a big wet kiss this spring with a lifetime-achievement Oscar. Now he reaches out to mainstream America with a movie based on its favorite radio show, "A Prairie Home Companion," which opens Friday. We spoke with him after he finished shooting last summer at the Fitzgerald Theater and more recently at the film's St. Paul premiere.
Q Judging from the applause at the end of the movie's St. Paul premiere, you have a hit.
A I was thrilled. But I also think it was a loaded audience. It wasn't like it was just another movie to them. That town for years has had "A Prairie Home Companion" right in the center of it. The people didn't see the movie in a way that the rest of the world will see this as a movie. We can't expect their reaction to translate to everyone else.
Q Has Garrison Keillor indicated what he thinks of the movie, either directly or indirectly?
A No, he has not. He hasn't said anything, good or bad. In fact, [at the premiere] he avoided eye contact. But that's just Garrison being Garrison.
Q How was it working with him? Both of you are used to calling the shots. Were you worried about clashing?
A Yeah, he's been in charge for 30-some odd years and so have I. But it worked out much, much better than I would have imagined. We came upon this with two different sensibilities and yet the only reason I did this was to deliver Garrison Keillor, so I had to say "Wait a minute." I had to be very careful about not putting my own jokes in ... but really dealing with Garrison's sensibilities.
Q You've had clashes with your screenwriters before.
A I've only done something like this once before and that was "Fool for Love" with Sam Shepard, where he starred in it and wrote it and it was taken from a play of his. It wasn't a very successful relationship afterwards. But Garrison's different. I think he's a true genius and really special.
Q How was Garrison Keillor the actor?
A He was great. On the set he was the most well-behaved of all the actors. We would go to relight something and I'd say, "OK, it's going to be 30 minutes," and everybody would go to the dressing room. But Garrison would just stand there and bide his time.
Q Garrison said in an interview that, after the experience he wished he was 25 years younger so he could then devote the rest of his life to acting. Is he a natural?
A Well, he sure was good. The first scene we shot with him was the shakiest and made me wonder, but that was the first and only time I could tell that he was not confident about what he was doing. The minute we got on his stage, he was great from then on. He's a fast learner and very at ease, although I don't know how he would be at playing somebody else.
Q You've worked before with star-studded casts, but this one seemed particularly high-wattage. Is having all that star power like playing with nuclear fission?
A Oh sure, no doubt about it. But I like doing that because it takes all of my responsibility away. It makes it easy. Those people do it. I'm not up there telling them how to act, certainly. I'm just putting the pieces on the palette and they move them around. But it's always been that way. It's always been the performers. My biggest job is to accommodate them and make room for them and also to make room for their contributions and see that they get in.
Q Tell us about this cast.
A Well Meryl Streep, I'd always wanted to work with her. One of the reasons we got her to do this film is because she gets to sing-most of these people want to do something they haven't done before. I've never worked with anybody like her. She's 25 percent ahead of everybody else. Anybody could direct any picture she's in. She eliminates the director. Yet she's the most accommodating-there's never any temperament or any arguments of any kind.