Garrison Keillor on the Death of Filmmaker Robert Altman

Garrison Keillor, host and writer of A Prairie Home Companion, talks about film director Robert Altman who died Tuesday at the age of 81.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Film Director Robert Altman died last night at a Los Angeles hospital. He was 81 years old. Altman was a maverick in Hollywood, known for his distinctive style, ensemble cast and irreverent movies, like the war satire M*A*S*H that launched his career more than three decades ago. In the years since, he's worked on dozens of films - Nashville, The Player - more recently, Gosford Park.

While promoting his movie Dr. T and the Women back in 2000, Altman told NPR's Jacki Lyden that with all the movies he's made, he could never pick a favorite.

Mr. ROBERT ALTMAN (Film Director): You know, it's like your own children. All these films, I love them all. And we tend to love our least successful children the most, for they seem to need the most protection. But when they're finished, they're finished, and they're disconnected from me. That cord is cut, and all I can do is observe them and pray for them and hope that they succeed in happiness.

But each one of those things mean the same to me. The sighs or the success is not really an issue with me. I hope that they make money. I hope they're successful, because it gives me more power and makes it easier for me to do the next film. But I love them all.

CONAN: Robert Altman, speaking with Jacki Lyden six years ago. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Robert Altman's last film was A Prairie Home Companion, about the popular radio program. It was released earlier this year. Garrison Keillor is the host and writer of the radio show A Prairie Home Companion. He wrote the screenplay of the movie and appeared in the film. He joins us now from his office in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Garrison Keillor, I'm sorry for your loss. Nice of you to talk to us today.

Mr. GARRISON KEILLOR (Host, Writer, A Prairie Home Companion Radio Show): Well, thank you. Thank you for talking about Bob today.

CONAN: We note that sense of chaos that he pulls together so brilliantly on the screen. As you were there on his set observing what he did, did it look like chaos that could be preserved?

Mr. KEILLOR: As the screenwriter, of course, I didn't feel there was chaos. But there was an element of chaos, because Mr. Altman really loved actors. He adored actors. And he never was a controlling director who would tell people exactly what they should do. He wanted them to know where the camera was so they wouldn't bump into it and they wouldn't accidentally look at it. And he was very exacting about cameras.

But with the actors, he really gave them their own heads, and oftentimes they amazed him.

CONAN: I guess from time to time, they would use their own words, too. And as the screenwriter, I wonder if that was okay with you.

Mr. KEILLOR: Well, it just was how it was. And that was how he worked. I had -was as free as could be writing the screenplay, but once we got into production, then it was Mr. Altman's movie. And that was clear.

CONAN: Was he having a good time?

Mr. KEILLOR: He was a man who loved making movies. He loved everything. He loved the chaos and the sociability of it. And he loved the actors. I guess he liked the cutting room, the editing room, too, though. I didn't get to go there. But he really loved sitting in a screening room and watching that thing over and over and over in advance. He loved what he was doing right up to the time he left.

He was working on a new picture, Hands on a Hard Body, and was excited about that. I saw him about a week ago in New York.

CONAN: Back in a news conference in May, Robert Altman said A Prairie Home Companion was a movie about death. Now in the fictional movie, that's the last night of that radio show. We're glad to report that part's not true. But what do you think he meant that it was a movie about death?

Mr. KEILLOR: Well, that's how he saw it. There's a character in it, the Angel of Death, played by Virginia Madsen in a long white trench coat. And she goes and stands invisibly next to people and smiles at them. And it's her job to lead them up to God, or wherever they go.

I asked his permission to put an angel in the script, and he thought it was okay. And once we started shooting, he became fascinated with that character and lighting her in just the right way. And he practiced, rehearsed her, making her walk across the balcony of the theatre. He really loved that character.

And that's the last scene in the movie - her walking into the open door of a diner and looking at the people sitting around the table.

CONAN: We just have a few seconds left with you. But before you got the amazing opportunity to be directed by Robert Altman, I'm assuming you saw his work the same way the rest of us did - in the movie theatre. What do you think we're going to miss?

Mr. KEILLOR: Well, we'll be able to go back and look at all of his pictures over and over as often as we like. I just honor him at his death. To be 81 and to be in love with what you're doing and moving forward, that's the way to live.

CONAN: Garrison Keillor, thanks again.

Mr. KEILLOR: Thank you.

CONAN: Garrison Keillor, host and writer of the radio show, A Prairie Home Companion, who wrote and acted in the movie directed by Robert Altman of the same name. He joined us from his office in St. Paul, Minnesota.

When we come back from a short break, Leroy Sievers tells us how life has changed since he was diagnosed from cancer almost a year ago. If you have cancer and would like to share your stories about how your life has changed, give us a call: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org.

I'm Neal Conan. We'll be back after the break. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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