Robert Altman gazes out the window of a high-speed Amtrak train bound for Boston. Facing him, Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline examine a plate of breakfast pastries; across the aisle, John C. Reilly strums a guitar. All three star in Altman’s new movie, A Prairie Home Companion, and they’ve reunited with the director on this April morning to do some promotion in Beantown, where Streep is to be honored by a local film society. ”I never dreamed there would be snow up here,” Altman marvels, as a freshly dusted New England landscape whizzes by. Streep guesses they’re passing through Waterford, Conn. ”Old Watertown…ba-ba-ba…” Altman sings, suddenly reminded of Frank Sinatra.
He asks a train attendant for a ”glass of hot tea, with milk” and, to a rapt audience, talks about his career, which has spanned six decades, yielded more than 35 movies, and earned him seven Oscar nominations. (The first was for 1970’s M*A*S*H, the most recent was for 2001’s Gosford Park.) ”I think all my films are just one film,” the 81-year-old director explains. ”I really do. They’re just chapters.”
The Prairie chapter is a particularly poignant and personal one for Altman. Based on Garrison Keillor’s beloved public-radio variety show about a made-up Minnesota town called Lake Wobegon, its wholesome folks, and their down-home values, the movie chronicles the final broadcast of a (fictional) Prairie show, deemed too old-fashioned by a corporate bigwig played by Tommy Lee Jones. Streep and Lily Tomlin star as a past-their-prime singing-sister act, Reilly and Woody Harrelson as goofy cowboy musicians, and Kline as the show’s bumbling security guard. Interweaving live musical performances with backstage goings-on, the film is a bittersweet look at the archaic, dying art form of radio drama. And in wistful and funny ways, it explores human mortality: from Virginia Madsen’s angel of death, to Streep and Tomlin’s lyrical odes to deceased loved ones, to the comically awful poetry authored by Lindsay Lohan’s character.
Known as a maverick for his refusal to play Hollywood studio games — all of his movies from the last 19 years, including Prairie (which cost under $10 million), were independently financed — Altman speaks honestly and fearlessly about most everything, including his own ”old age.” At the Oscars in March, he shocked many viewers by revealing he had undergone a heart transplant 11 years ago. Now, when asked how Prairie‘s life-and-death themes resonate with him, he responds with a hint of a wry smile. ”I’m aware of it…. I do wake up and face it most mornings.” He then quotes a British WWI ditty: ”’Death, where is thy sting-a-ling-a-ling?”’ The octogenarian is equally frank about why his friend, Punch-Drunk Love director Paul Thomas Anderson, was at his side on the Minnesota Prairie set every day. ”I have to have a standby because I’m so old, and they wouldn’t insure me,” he explains. ”On Gosford Park, I had…what’s his name? Stephen Frears.”
In his typical deadpan delivery, Altman jokes that it was “the impossibility” of making a movie about the decidedly nonvisual medium of radio that sparked his interest in Prairie. “No,” he adds more seriously, “I’ve always been a Keillor fan. I was in Chicago doin’ that dance film” — that would be 2003’s Neve Campbell starrer, The Company — “and Garrison came, made some kind of overture about, would it interest me? I said of course.” The collaboration made sense: One of Altman’s hallmarks is his ability to juggle ensemble casts with interconnecting story lines. And his free-flowing, largely improvised features like 1975’s Nashville (considered by some to be his masterpiece) and 1996’s Kansas City revolve around music. “I trusted his movie instincts,” says Keillor, who wrote the screenplay and appears in the film as himself.
A tribute to his reputation as an actor’s director, the accomplished cast that Altman assembled boasts seven Oscar-nominated performers. “All these people are super-duper,” he says. “I really admire actors and what they do. They’re the ones that have their ass on the line and risk making a fool of themselves.” For Lohan, clearly eager to prove herself a grown-up thespian, hitching a ride on the Prairie wagon as Streep’s morose daughter was a shrewd career move. But Altman, who wasn’t too familiar with the ingenue before casting her (“I saw that Mean Girls thing she did,” he muses), has only this to say about her place in his movie: “If we didn’t have name actors, the picture wouldn’t be made. She’s got a nice aura. And she’ll bring [a different] audience to the picture.”
Not that Altman has ever paid much attention to commercial viability. He’s leaving that to Bob Berney, president of Picturehouse, the mini-major joint venture between HBO and New Line, which ponied up $3.75 million last October to distribute the film. Working closely with public radio to target Keillor’s mostly older audience, Berney has launched a “very aggressive” media campaign trumpeting the star-studded cast. Earlier this month, Streep, Reilly, and Madsen joined Keillor and Co. at the Hollywood Bowl, where they performed a live Prairie show for 15,000 people. All told, Berney is optimistic about Prairie‘s June 9 bow on 650 screens. “It’s a great time for an alternative film to open,” he says. “People have had three or four big movies come and go, and they’re ready for something [else].” And what does Altman think? More deadpan. “Hopefully we can pay the bills,” he says.
“Stories don’t interest me so much — never did, really,” Altman declares, between sips of lemon tea. As movies like 1971’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller and 1993’s Short Cuts make clear, the Missouri native favors a naturalistic, meandering style of filmmaking — the more overlapping dialogue the better — often with long, uninterrupted takes. “Our first day, we shot a 10-page scene! Nobody does that,” notes Streep. “He just has amazing confidence and understanding of the whole process of moviemaking.”
But even Altman gets anxious on the job. Resting in his office last July in downtown St. Paul’s Fitzgerald Theater, where the bulk of Prairie was shot over just 22 days, he expressed dread about a tightly scripted segment in which the cast would discuss the death of one of their fellow players. “It’s the most written scene that we’ve done in the whole picture. There’s actually dialogue and response,” he said, sounding drained. “Consequently, it’s a very difficult scene for me. In fact, this morning, I was thinking, ‘Can I just scrap this?'”
He didn’t, of course. He shot it, and he seemed pleased with the results. Still, his self-doubt and weariness seemed to take on an existential weight. “I don’t think it makes a hell of a lot of difference what I do, other than turn the switch on in the morning,” he said. “I’m not being funny with you here. I truthfully ponder this a lot.” He even wondered if Prairie could be his last project. “I don’t know that I have the energy or the longevity to do any more,” he admitted.
It’s a possibility that those closest to him do not seem ready to consider. Four-time Altman vet Tomlin has known the director since 1974, when he cast the Laugh-In star in Nashville, her first movie. She tears up at the thought of losing her friend. “I don’t even want to suppose it’s possible…” she says, her voice cracking. “No, I don’t subscribe to that at all.”
Back on the train, now just 30 minutes away from Boston, Streep and Kline reminisce about working together in Sophie’s Choice, and Altman sings a jingle about Abe Lincoln. The man is in high spirits, betraying none of the exhaustion from nine months earlier. He has plenty to whistle about: Prairie screenings have been generating favorable buzz. And a month prior, he finally took home a long-overdue Oscar — albeit an honorary one. “It felt good, I enjoyed it,” he says. “There wasn’t any anxiety. I wasn’t sitting there wondering who was gonna get it.”
He’s also no longer wondering if Prairie could be his swan song. Altman is eyeing a September start date for Hands on a Hard Body, an adaptation of the 1998 documentary about an endurance contest, which he hopes will star Chris Rock, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Billy Bob Thornton, and Hilary Swank. “I do not intend to retire at all,” he says firmly. “Someone may retire me, but I’m not going to have anything to do with it.”