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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

The cast and crew of the latest Robert Altman film wrapped up work this week. For the past month they've taken over the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minnesota, home of the popular public radio show "A Prairie Home Companion." The show also happens to be the subject of the film. "A Prairie Home Companion" creator Garrison Keillor wrote the screenplay, which is a fictional account of life on the show. Keillor plays himself acting with Hollywood stars including Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones, Kevin Kline and even the young starlet Lindsay Lohan. NPR's Lynn Neary visited the set.

LYNN NEARY reporting:

Garrison Keillor stands on one of the sets of the "Prairie Home Companion" movie, a makeup room fashioned out of storage space in the basement of the Fitzgerald Theater. Rehearsing a scene with actor Woody Harrelson, Keillor, known for his Midwestern reserve, is surrounded by cast and crew dressed only in a shirt, boxer shorts and red socks. He holds his pants in his hands as director Robert Altman gets the scene rolling.

(Soundbite of "Prairie Home Companion")

Mr. ROBERT ALTMAN (Director): All right. Here we go. Action.

Unidentified Man #1: How long you been doing this?

Mr. GARRISON KEILLOR ("Prairie Home Companion"): Doing what? Putting my pants on?

Unidentified Man #2: Yeah, been doing that.

Unidentified Man #1: How long you been doing radio?

Mr. ALTMAN: You can go to your--in other words, right on the top I just want to get a shot of your red socks.

NEARY: Though Keillor's radio show is performed in front of a live audience, film acting is a new experience for him. And as the screenwriter, he made sure he didn't give himself a part that's too emotionally demanding.

Mr. KEILLOR: Meryl Streep wept real tears on my shoulder. Lindsay Lohan tears ran down her little cheeks. Real tears coursed down her pale cheeks. I couldn't do that, so I didn't write it in.

(Soundbite of "Prairie Home Companion"):

Mr. ALTMAN: Let's just go through this once now. Start it from the top.

Mr. KEILLOR: Mm-hmm.

Unidentified Man #3: Rehearsing again, thanks. Quiet, please.

Unidentified Man #1: How long you been doing this?

NEARY: Keillor may control the script, but the set is Robert Altman's turf. The director is now 80, old enough that the insurance company requires a stand-by director just in case he can't finish a film. In this case, it's Magnolia director Paul Thomas Anderson, but Altman is fully in charge and oversees every aspect of the filming. As rehearsal goes on, the director decides that Keillor and Harrelson should be playing chess during this scene. Keillor sees an opening to convince Altman that he could do the scene fully clothed.

(Soundbite of "Prairie Home Companion")

Mr. KEILLOR: Well, if I'm playing chess I don't need to wrestle with my pants then, do I?

Mr. ALTMAN: Well, I just--I like--what I'm talking about is that you're wrestling with your pants and doing that and he's made his move and you look down and you make your moves very fast.

NEARY: By now Keillor is used to the idea that Altman doesn't change his mind easily. Originally, Keillor approached Altman with an idea for a movie about Lake Wobegon, the fictional town made famous in Keillor's stories. That didn't interest Altman, but he said he would make a film about the radio show. Keillor hesitated, but Altman wouldn't back down. So the radio host finally agreed to write a fictional version of his own show, and the film director returned to his first love.

Mr. ALTMAN: My first exposure to drama was in radio. That's really what got me started into the film business.

NEARY: Altman fell in love with radio back in the days when masters like Norman Corwin ruled the airwaves. He's never lost his fondness for the medium.

Mr. ALTMAN: The great thing about radio is that you spark the audience's mind so when the creaking door opens (he makes creaking sound), everybody has their own door they visualize. The audience is more active in the drama.

(Soundbite of "Prairie Home Companion")

Unidentified Man #3: Let's stand by, please. Pictures up. Thank you.

Unidentified Woman: The number is nine.

Unidentified Man #3: Here we go now.

NEARY: Altman is well aware that making this movie means putting a face on characters known to radio audiences only by their voices. He's cast Kevin Kline as Guy Noir. The cowboys Dusty and Lefty are played by Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly. But there are also some characters that aren't a part of the radio show. Virginia Madsen plays an angel with a key role in the plot. A longtime fan of "Prairie Home Companion," Madsen says she learned about the part from her manager who had never heard of the radio show.

Ms. VIRGINIA MADSEN ("Prairie Home Companion"): And I said, well, who are my scenes with? And she said, `Guy Noir. Does that make any sense?' And I said, `Well, yes, that's my favorite character from the show.'

NEARY: Madsen doesn't think fans of the show will be disappointed in the fictional film version that Keillor has created in the script.

Ms. MADSEN: It's a heightened version of "A Prairie Home Companion" and, you know, story--good storytelling is good storytelling. It's always going to work, no matter what medium it's in.

(Soundbite of "Prairie Home Companion")

Mr. JOHN C. REILLY: (Singing) There she sits.

NEARY: As the singing cowboy, Lefty, John C. Reilly has taken on a part which Keillor performs on the radio show. Reilly says working with both Keillor and Altman has been a thrill.

Mr. REILLY: It's the perfect synthesis of these two personalities because the way that Garrison seems to have worked over all these years is kind of a loose, controlled chaos, you know. People just coming up with ideas and he's a sort of master of ceremonies who invites all these different people to the party and then he just sort of creates this very fertile atmosphere and all the sudden there's some great entertainment born out of it. And that, from my experience on this movie, is exactly how Robert Altman works.

(Soundbite of "Prairie Home Companion")

Unidentified Woman: In case you want it instead of the chair.

Mr. ALTMAN: You going to be seated, Woody?

Mr. WOODY HARRELSON: Well, I was thinking at first we'd stand, putting on my holster here.

NEARY: Actors like to work with Altman because he's collaborative and encourages improvisation. Altman reads the script before filming, but doesn't rely on it while shooting.

Mr. ALTMAN: I have to have--ask somebody how was that? Did they say everything? Did they leave something out? And many times I'll say that was great and the script girl will come to me and says, you know, they didn't say the part about killing the fish. I'll say what was that? She says, well, that's the important part of the scene. That's the point of the scene. I'll say, oh, we have to do that again and don't forget about killing the fish.

(Soundbite of "Prairie Home Companion")

Mr. ALTMAN: Can you hear me in there?

Unidentified Man #5: Yeah, we can, Bob.

Mr. ALTMAN: That's pretty good, Bobby. That's a pretty good shot.

NEARY: Even if Altman sometimes doesn't pay complete attention to his words, Garrison Keillor doesn't seem to mind. He is fascinated by the entire process of filmmaking and knows this is a rare opportunity to watch his own work brought to life by a master.

Mr. KEILLOR: I don't think there's any director quite like him. By the time you're 80 years old you learn a lot of tricks. So it's amazing to watch an 80-year-old man bring all of his experience to bear on something that I was responsible for creating--creating the bones.

(Soundbite of "Prairie Home Companion")

Unidentified Man #6: Roll top, please.

Unidentified Man #7: Rolling.

Mr. ALTMAN: And action.

Mr. KEILLOR: So now it makes me wish that I were in my mid-30s so that I could do this again and again and again, you know, for the next 40 years. I really love this little world that I stumbled onto in old age.

(Soundbite of "Prairie Home Companion")

Unidentified Man #8: Let's cut, let's cut.

Unidentified Man #9: That's a cut.

NEARY: Now that the filming is completed the editing process begins. Producers hope the movie will be ready for release next spring. The radio show with Garrison Keillor as host will continue uninterrupted. Lynn Neary, NPR News.

(Soundbite of "Prairie Home Companion")

Mr. REILLY: (Singing) I'm just a lonesome stranger whose luck is running thin. I'm awful tall and...

NORRIS: You can hear more about Garrison Keillor's moviemaking, including an impromptu dance with Meryl Streep. That's at our Web site, npr.org.

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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