A Prairie Home Companion Movie, A Prairie Home Companion is a 2006 ensemble comedy directed by Robert Altman. It was Altman’s final film; he died in November 2006. The movie is a fictional representation of behind-the-scenes activities at the long-running public radio show of the same name.
A long-running live radio show is in danger of being canceled by new owners of the company that holds both radio station “WLT” and the theater where the show is broadcast. The film takes place on the night of the show’s last performance. The show has two visitors: an angel calling herself Asphodel (Virginia Madsen) comes to comfort the people who work on the show and to escort one of them to the afterlife, while “the Axeman” (Tommy Lee Jones), a representative of the new owners, arrives to judge whether the show should be canceled. He makes it clear that the show is not what he considers modern popular programming, and though he too is escorted by the angel, the show is shut down anyway. In an epilogue at the end of the film the former cast members are reunited at Mickey’s Diner. Their conversation pauses as they are joined by Asphodel.
To receive insurance for the shoot, Robert Altman had to hire Paul Thomas Anderson as a “backup” director to observe filming at all times and be prepared to take over for Altman in case of his incapacity. Using the working title The Last Show, principal photography for the film began on June 29, 2005, at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minnesota (the usual venue for the radio show). Filming ended on July 28, 2005. The film was the second major picture (after North Country, starring Charlize Theron and Harrelson) to be filmed in Minnesota in 2005.
Because the Fitzgerald is a rather small building, other stage theaters in the Minneapolis-St. Paul region had been considered as stand-ins. With some effort, the necessary film equipment was crammed into the structure. The basement was also used for sets due to lack of space. Set design had to make the show more visually interesting, and fake dressing rooms were used in the film (the movie’s production designer noted that Keillor’s actual dressing room is “about the size of a very, very small bathroom”). Mickey’s Diner, a downtown St. Paul landmark, is also featured.
On November 1, 2005, the Star Tribune reported that an early screening in New York City for film distributors resulted in a heavy bidding war. Picturehouse bought the rights, and company president Bob Berney, “aiming to capitalize on the name recognition of the 31-year-old radio program, recommended that the title revert to A Prairie Home Companion. ‘At the screening, Garrison said that to broaden the film’s appeal, they were thinking about changing the name to Savage Love, so we may have an argument there,’ Berney said.”