Lily Tomlin and Virginia Madsen were on hand to introduce the festival's closing night screening of Robert Altman's A Prairie Home Companion at the Castro Theater. Tomlin asserted how much they loved making the film and working with Altman and Garrison Keillor and Madsen expressed how wonderful it was to be back in San Francisco again.
"And, of course, I got to work with Meryl Streep," Tomlin boasted, adding as an aside, "Although she wasn't my first choice." The audience laughed loudly and she feigned innocence, "What?!!"
"So enjoy it!" Tomlin encouraged the audience, "We loved making it. And we had a great time in Minnesota—right in Garrison's home town where he broadcast his show—and, anyway, we did good."
Madsen added, "We had an incredible time in a beautiful theater—not much different than this one—and so it's very appropriate to be watching the show in this space tonight and, hopefully, you'll enjoy it."
After the screening they returned to the stage where Graham Leggat launched the Q&A by asking the obvious question: What was it like working with such a brilliant ensemble cast and with such a brilliant director?
"Well, it's easy and fun usually," Tomlin offered even as Madsen stated, "Very difficult!" Tomlin explained that Madsen had a really hard part but that she did it so great. "When I saw it on paper, I thought, no one's going to be able to pull this off." "I didn't have to sing," Madsen countered. "I know, that's true, you didn't have to sing," Tomlin agreed and with just the right touch of smugness added, "but … I did."
"I was worried about it," she admitted, "because I'd never really sung a part. I mean I'd sung as characters, just for fun, like on the television show but I was supposed to sound like I could sing. And I told Bob, I took lessons for two months before I went up so I could sing the harmony and I said to Bob, 'Bob, I'm not sure. What if I get there and I can't sing very well?' And he said, 'Well, if you can't sing well, you just can't sing well.' " That helped ease her worries. "I think you did a tremendous job," Madsen complimented Tomlin and the audience concurred with a round of applause.
"That's kind of typical of Altman though," Tomlin stated, "to be so unflappable like that. Even in Nashville I told him, I said, y'know, I don't think Linnea can go to bed with Keith Carradine's character. And he said, 'Well, if the time comes she has to go to bed with him and she can't do it, she just can't do it.' "
Tomlin was asked if—after working with Altman several times now—if his way of handling her or her way of working with him had changed over the past 30 years from the first film to the last?
Tomlin responded: "I think Bob is absolutely the same artist and the same man." She turned to Madsen, "He kind of leaves you on your own, don't you think?"
Madsen agreed, "Yeah, sometimes that's not a good thing." She continued, "No, he does. He said to me the other day that someone was commenting to him on how—why is it that you just make a phone call and any actor will show up and all actors want to work with you?—and he said, 'I think it's because I allow actors what they were meant to do.' In a way that's true. He gives a tremendous freedom, leaves us alone, but also you always kind of feel this gentle hand, guiding you."
"And he's absolutely in charge," Tomlin added, " but he's just very laid back and quiet about it." She started wiggling her fingers, explaining, "And the reason I'm doing my fingers is because he has beautiful fingers; his hands are gorgeous! I've known him now for over 30 years, even though I've only done three movies and only had a tiny part in The Player, but, it seems the same as when we did Nashville, y'know? He's just an older man now. But he's still just as sharp and the same personality and he just seems to know what he wants and what he's doing. We sort of just have fun. You always have the feeling that you can't make a mistake. And John C. Reilly—yesterday we were in Minnesota—and he said something like, 'And if you are making a mistake it's because Altman wants you to.' "
Tomlin went on: "I've said this too about him: It's like going to a playground with a bunch of other kids who play the same games you do and you know there's not going to be any drive-bys. First of all, his style, if you do something really awful, he doesn't have to use it, he can just cut away from it."
Tomlin was then asked how she got her wonderful Wisconsin accent. "I practiced," she said, "but, I'm from Detroit, it's not terribly radically different but it certainly is different and Meryl and I got together and of course she's an accent master. But I have to say, in this case, her mother-in-law's from Wisconsin. So our biggest concern was would we go too far? Particularly me. Would I go too far? Because I've never seen her go too far with an accent." The audience cut up and, again, Tomlin acted like she didn't know why they were laughing, "What? And we just kind of worked on it. I worked with a dialect coach too. You want to be able to speak as fluently as you would in your own dialect, y'know? You don't want to think about it or else you can't really perform."
Madsen reminded her that she also sang as well but Tomlin noted that singers don't sing so heavily in their accent. "Yeah," Madsen responded, "but you could still hear it in certain places." "A little bit, yeah," Tomlin admitted. Madsen insisting on praising her mastery of the accent until Tomlin, in a perfect Wisconsin accent, stated, "That's mighty nice of you." Finishing up her answer, Tomlin said, "So we just worked on it. We wanted to do it so we did. I still worried, I was thinking, 'Oh God, I think I laid a little too heavy on that part.' But I feel fine about it."
The two actresses were asked about the timeline of the movie because it's about a stage performance. Was it shot chronologically when they were filming or did they jump around like a normal film shoot?
"I can't remember how much it was or wasn't," Tomlin said. "I think it was pretty much but certainly not entirely. The nature of the way it was done, a lot of it was interchangeable. There were just certain moments that you … because you're going onstage and backstage and you could have anything playing in the background so I don't even remember. And in the editing process I'm sure they had quite a bit of flexibility."
"Technically what they were doing on stage was quite remarkable," Madsen offered. "It was amazing. Sometimes they had four cameras going at one time and there'd be one camera—it's not that different from this house here, just a bit smaller—but we had a crane coming all the way from those seats [gesturing to the back of the Castro] all the way up onto the stage and flying around, while there was a track here, another camera on the dolly, and maybe one or two cameras backstage. So sometimes as they were building all of that, I could go downstairs and I could kill someone or Lily could be drinking backstage."
"Not nearly enough," Tomlin countered, "but originally in the script—because Meryl had a knee operation or something—and originally she was going to be in a wheelchair so they had made a hole in the floor to drop her down and bring her up, see? She was supposed to be in a wheelchair a lot of the time and then she said she didn't want to do it and I said to Bob, 'Well, let me be in the wheelchair!' I thought it would have been great to make that entrance, y'know, go up and down, but he didn't do it and I didn't have any dibs on the wheelchair anyway. I was going to be able to be pushing her, pushing her everywhere we were going, and I liked that. Constantly in touch…" Madsen corrected her, "In charge."
"There's certain things that you plan to do for a movie," Tomlin explained, "for your part, that never necessarily make it in at all, y'know, a very small percentage of stuff. That scene in the dressing room, we were the first day to shoot, it was a very long … it was a 20-minute scene and Bob would just let us shoot it from beginning to end over and over again and we loved that because that's where we'd talk over each other because we'd forget part of the story and the other person would pick it up and it just became a real style with us and made that intimacy of the sisterhood…."
Madsen inserted, "It's one of the best scenes I think that's ever been shot on film, that stuff in the dressing room." The audience concurred with applause. Madsen said Tomlin was also modestly leaving out the fact that Altman would shoot maybe one or two pages, three pages a day, and then one day would demand, "You're going to shoot the first 10 pages right now" and they all just had to go in there and do it.
"It was a solid script," Tomlin said and then started laughing remembering the filming of the dressing room scene, "but, yes, we fooled around and a lot of times Meryl and I got to where we had a lot of fun together and we would try to make each other laugh. That's why I had that thing in my mouth, y'know? She wouldn't know what I was doing during the scene because she'd be talking and she was so great and all of a sudden she'd look over and catch a glimpse of me in the mirror, y'know? And another time I put weights on my legs and I got up and started doing my exercises. So we never knew what would be in it. And the best part that was left out was that we had tried out for the Lawrence Welk show when we were four little kids. And I was still bitter, 45 years later, I was still real bitter and sore about it and felt that we didn't get the job because we were more talented than the Lennon Sisters." In summary Tomlin thought she should have just had a movie with Yolanda. The audience liked the idea and applauded. "I'm only kidding, y'know," Tomlin laughed, "kind of."
One audience member commented on how much she loved the radio program and wondered why Keillor did not include his "News from Lake Wobegon" monologues? "He did that on purpose," Madsen answered. Asked to talk further on that, Tomlin said, "I think he's hoping and planning that he'll be able to do a film about Lake Wobegon. I don't know if I'm supposed to say that or not. I think originally he may have been thinking he would do Lake Wobegon and somehow he and Bob decided they had better do the show first and, hopefully, later be able to do Lake Wobegon. Because all of us in the diner eventually … you can see the angel comes and we're probably goners and I guess we won't be in Lake Wobegon. Except that damn Lindsay, she escaped the diner, and she'll probably be in Lake Wobegon."
The actresses were asked if they had listened to Prairie Home Companion before? Were they fans of it? And what was it like to work with Garrison Keillor?
"Yes, I knew the show very well," Madsen answered, " I had been listening to it for years. I'm also from the Midwest, north of Chicago, and so it was kind of comforting settling in, trying to settle in Hollywood, and still having that on the radio. I remember my manager calling me and saying, 'Oh my God, you're not going to believe this. Robert Altman wants to call you.' And suddenly I'm deer in the headlights. And I said, 'Well, what's it about? Is there an outline? Is it all improv?' And she said, 'Well, I haven't finished it yet, it's a little strange, I haven't gotten to your part yet but you're called The Dangerous Woman and it has something to do with the Prairie?' " Madsen excitedly realized her manager was talking about Prairie Home Companion and that, if she was going to play the Dangerous Woman it meant she must be in Guy Noir's world. Then she wondered who was going to play Guy Noir? Would it be Garrison Keillor? Then when she found out Guy Noir was going to be played by Kevin Kline, she got excited to think she would get to kiss Kevin Kline! But then, of course, she read the script and found out she was an angel and so much for the kiss….
Tomlin riffed on what Madsen had said earlier about the multiple cameras and never knowing when the camera was on or not. The one thing that didn't get into the movie that just broke her heart was in the scene where she and Yolanda (Streep) were talking about their mom and Yolanda was describing how their mom would be down on the floor scrubbing, commenting how growing up they didn't have any luxuries, no vacations, nothing, and Rhonda (Tomlin) said, "Yeah, but, we had a lot of fun. Remember when Mom would boil an ear of corn and throw it on the floor and all us kids would play like we were pigs eating the corn?" Tomlin started busting a gut on stage remembering that improv, insisting it "was really heartfelt" but it wasn't on camera, it was just one of those adlibbed moments where she was playing with Streep, trying to make her laugh. Streep was playing it straight, seriously sentimental, and then when Tomlin said that about the pigs and getting on the floor and eating the corn, Streep's expression was priceless! "It wasn't meant to be facetious in any way," Tomlin laughed, "it was truly heartfelt, because it was a family story that I've always loved."
Madsen recalled that moment, sitting out in the audience. "Every day I'd just hang out at work all day. Sometimes they'd dress me up in the morning and decide they could use me and Bob would say, 'Throw the angel over there in the corner.' And I'd go, 'Okay.' 'Nah, nah, get her out!' It was so funny. I could sit in the audience and I could watch these guys perform all day long so I remember the corn."
"And of course Kevin [Kline] was hilarious!" Tomlin remembered. Streep and she would be on stage singing and then the audience would start tittering and they knew "that guy was back there doing something!"
Which reminded Madsen that you had to make sure your microphone was turned off if you weren't in a scene because everyone had a microphone on, Altman was one of the pioneers of all of that, and if you were in the audience, you had to make sure your microphone was turned off or else you'd be picked up laughing at the improvs. "Because all the stuff that you've seen was really performed live. They weren't doing this to playback. Unless it was somehow technically necessary. All the stuff that you're seeing is really performed live." "And no fixes!" Tomlin added. "So if you messed up," Madsen explained, Altman would often like it. "Not that you messed up," Madsen said to Tomlin.
"No," Tomlin responded dryly, "but Meryl did! God!" The previous night at the St. Paul premiere Tomlin sat next to Streep in the Fitzgerald Theater and said it was so much fun because Streep and Kevin Kline are really good friends, and every time Kevin would do something, Streep would laugh loudly, "just tickled to death."
One woman in the audience commented that it seemed like a lot of people in the audience—as well as everywhere else in the nation—have a really intimate relationship with A Prairie Home Companion. It's an oral medium, it's voices, and unless you're lucky enough to see it live, most of the time you're just listening, she said. So she wondered how it felt to actually infiltrate this radio, this medium, and actually change it from within and help its evolution to a picture format?
"I'm not sure if I understood that or not," Tomlin joked. Madsen said, "I was just thinking I never thought of Garrison in quite that way. I don't think we really changed anything. I just think it was really incredible to meet Garrison Keillor. Because, you know, I had seen his picture on a bookjacket. And I guess I thought like many of us, I thought he was smaller. You meet this towering man, he's like 6'6" … and he's totally and completely neat and he's very eccentric and he was wearing these red sneakers everyday and I was always running around taking photographs and I took this really—I thought this really cool picture of his sneakers where one was kind of moving and there was a cool kind of red stream coming off of that because, y'know, it's the most that Garrison will ever dance. And I was like, 'Garrison, wow, check it out, look at this great photograph, I want you to have it!' And he was like [mugging a deadpan face]. And that was his whole reaction to the photograph, it was so strange, and he was like [stated drolly], 'Very interesting.' But he was fascinating to watch and I actually found the picture later taped to the camera thing. But he's a very unique individual and I think he opened up a lot. Maybe that's the only thing we did change, he opened up a lot to us."
Tomlin continued: "Last night in Minnesota he was almost playful. I mean, relatively speaking. It's true we were kind of like intruders into this family that was so solid and that had been working together so long but they made it really easy and comfortable for us. Because they were so well-oiled and worked so wonderfully and easily together, we were just absorbed into it, and the theater, and it was just a big support for us. We were the ones who really relied on them. The band is so exceptional. But Garrison is—well, to answer your question about radio, this is what I wanted to tell you—I went to see him at the Hollywood Bowl last year before we started the movie and I had always listened to the radio show and I loved it and I loved all of Garrison's humor and all the stuff they did, and as I sat at the Bowl watching the show live—which was going to be similar to what we were going to do—it was twice as funny in the theater because Garrison, he has that little scowl that he wears, y'know? You don't get that on the radio necessarily but no matter what they were doing he had that expression on his face and the show was very funny live and I thought [this] will go well for the movie, visually."
Someone asked if the duct tape scene with the man who was making all the different sound effects was improvised. Tomlin answered, "No, not entirely at all. I'm sure it was scripted, I can't remember now, but because we had to like kind of make it … we didn't really learn it and know it, we were kind of reading it and fooling around with as it was on the page as they often do in radio, y'know? You saw Garrison reading stuff too as if he's reading commercials and so on. I think with that gong thing, that came after a couple of takes, I don't know if Meryl had that idea, or somebody finished that section, but, that came up and it worked well to button up that sequence."
An audience member asked what they thought the bust of F. Scott Fitzgerald represented? Madsen said, "Altman would tell you that the movie is just about death" and offered that maybe Fitzgerald was just "another dead person." But then she furthered, "The theater is called the Fitzgerald theater. And it is Garrison's base, it's his hometown, it's where they often performed the show for obvious reasons."
"Maybe in contrast…" Tomlin ventured and then switched gears, "I don't know what it meant frankly. It just was. Altman is very, y'know, he treats things as a matter of serendipity anyway. So, y'know, the fact that the bust was there and everything, somehow it's just going to work into and become part of the play. He takes what comes. So they certainly didn't plan it, y'know, I mean they didn't say, 'Well, let's pretend this is Fitzgerald, we have the bust of Fitzgerald here and it will be metaphorically … something very important.' I think it just happened to be there and, I don't know, Kevin read those lines as if he didn't get who Fitzgerald was entirely. I mean, I knew he did as Kevin but as Guy Noir, he didn't get it." She capped off her response with saying Fitzgerald was "a local boy", qualifying that such a distinction wasn't that impressive, since "even Jesus was just a carpenter in his hometown."
Graham Leggat cued them to speak about the previous night's premiere in St. Paul. Madsen offered, "They built a screen like this [gesturing to the Castro's screen] in the Fitzgerald Theater that we filmed in so you were sitting in the audience watching the audience and the show that you were watching while you were watching yourself watching yourself. It was very surreal and very bizarre."
"Because a lot of the audience were sitting in that film!" Tomlin explained and then she and Madsen proceeded to overlap dialogue comparable to any of the film's funniest sequences.
Madsen: And they also had a parade, which we were all picked up by horses and carriages….
Tomlin: White carriages!
Madsen: White carriages and the high school marching band…
Tomlin: …the high school marching band…
Madsen: …with the big feathered caps and…
L: Thousands and thousands of people from St. Paul, thousands on the streets, thick, thick, and they were so thick that the cops on the horses had to say, "Get away from the back of my horse. Get away from the back of my horse."
V: It was like being the Beatles for example.
L: I felt like I was an astronaut!
They started joking about what it was like to be in different carriages. Tomlin exclaimed, "I wish I had been in your carriage, you don't know what it's like sitting next to Meryl. She got bouquets and people running up and throwing flowers at her."
Madsen: And she was on the cover of the newspaper this morning, did you see that?
Tomlin: [Jokingly disgruntled.] Yeah, I did. She was on the cover and Lindsay was on the cover.
Madsen: Lindsay's picture was this big and Meryl's was half a page.
Tomlin: And then it was like this … like some big teeth on the side, which was my profile. [With weary resignation] Oh, that's okay.
The laughter finally calmed down and the actresses were asked about Dusty and Lefty's song, if it was a collection of old jokes or were they written for the movie? And if they were written, if Garrison wrote them?
Tomlin answered, "No, I think they were—unless Garrison did write them many years ago—to me they're familiar old classic bad jokes, y'know. At least I've heard of most of them." She turned to Madsen, "Have you?" Madsen responded, "They were really bad old jokes." Tomlin qualified, "I think the PMS and Mad Cow was probably not as old as three boobs." Madsen then admitted that some of the jokes were not as funny to her as they were to the guys, that one of them had actually upset her, but she wasn't going to repeat it though people in the audience wanted her to.
"That's also the eccentric thing about [Garrison]," she noted, "is he has this incredible political wit and sarcasm and such intelligent humor, especially in his commentaries and monologues, but then he has like potty humor. [Her Chicago accent comes out in the word "potty".] He has like this ten-year-old boy humor and—when you listen to the show, you're like—How are you even doing that?"
Tomlin suggested it was because they were "refined girls." Madsen laughed, "Oh yes. It's too insulting to us. We're too sophisticated." Tomlin summarized, "The cowboys were pretty cute, it's true. They're like bad kids but they're really cute." Madsen then brought up that there was a fart machine on the set, which reminded Tomlin of when there was a fart machine on the set of Huckabees which the guys—Mark Wahlberg and Dustin and everybody—were totally into. "Especially Dustin, you think he's going to be the most intense, serious artist in the world and there's nothing he enjoyed more than dragging out that fart machine!" Topping off the audience laughter Tomlin shouted out, "And sometime he didn't even use the machine!"
One woman in the audience asked Madsen about her role as The Dangerous Woman, how it was interesting to watch a femme fatale and an angel of death character being woven into the film. She wondered what it was like for Madsen to play that part, especially given what she had said to Tomlin earlier about Robert Altman thinking the movie was about death.
"I think that also kind of grew as we were shooting because I don't think anybody really knew what was going to happen, or what I was going to wear, y'know? He wanted me to glide so … and I kind of walk like a truck driver so they were like, 'Maybe we should build her a platform on wheels. Maybe she should be on a string and fly.' It kind of grew as we were going along. He then decided to kind of have me here and there and then just see what would work in the final cut. I was really kind of at a loss because how are you going to play an angel? I went to him one day and I said, 'Well, you know, it seems like I don't remember humor.' I was trying to figure out what made me stay, after I take Chuck, what makes me stay? Am I just so attracted to these wonderful people, is it making me reminisce about life? And I'm going on and on and on, all my actorspeak and he said, 'Well, I think that all depends on how long you've been dead.' And I then I said to him, 'Right!! Right.' I started thinking about it, I was writing in my journal, it could be years, a month, and then he said, 'Stop thinking about it so much. Just be dead.' But really, then we started doing it in different ways and it was gradually—to answer your question—it was gradually woven in like day to day, giving me something to do because I wouldn't leave."
Another audience member asked Madsen if she had patterned The Dangerous Woman after Sally Kellerman's character in Brewster McCloud?
"No, he specifically didn't want me to pattern it against anything. He just wanted it to grow day to day because I was even saying the way that I speak and the way that I look and, y'know, I had a lot of questions but he just wanted me to be a blank slate and I think he wanted it to grow out of the experience that was going on in the theater and I don't think I was that much a part of it in the beginning but then suddenly I was over there, then I was in the window of the house, then I was up there, it just kind of grew."
Tomlin offered, "I think it's so typical too because Altman, he was really fixed on you being the angel. I think that's a big part of his gift. He just knows that, somehow he's intuitive and he knows if he casts Virginia he's going to get what he's going to need. …He just trusts enough that it's going to fill out and come to fruition because he's picked the right person."
Finally, the two were asked what the reason was for the constant camera movement throughout the film?
"I think that's very much Altman," Madsen answered. "I think the cameras in his films are always like a character in the film. At least, I feel that way. He's always experimenting with new technology and new ways of watching people and new ways of telling stories with the camera being very much involved so I just think that this time it was even more fluid motion that he could do with more cameras."
Graham Leggat then leaned in to Tomlin and asked if there's anything further she'd like to say.
"No!" Tomlin said succinctly and thanked the audience for coming, waving with a huge, radiant smile.