Archive for the ‘Cinema’ Category


December 1, 2015 Leave a comment

Coming Attraction for 2016…
The new edition of my Alexander Payne book featuring a major redesign, more images and substantial new content that looks back at “Nebraska’ and that looks ahead to “Downsizing.”


Considering Alexander Payne’s ‘Nebraska’

Excerpt from an essay to appear in an upcoming new edition of my book Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film

Even though Alexander Payne demonstrates time and again that commercial considerations mean very little to him, following the breakaway success of The Descendants (2011) there was every reasonable expectation he might lean a bit more again in the direction of mainstream with his next film. I say again because I count The Descendants as a conventional, even mainstream work even though its protagonist rails against his comatose wife and sets out to wreck the life of the man she was cheating with, all the while trying not to lose it with his two grieving daughters in tow.

Payne soon quashed any notion of playing it safe when he announced the small, insular back roads comedy-drama Nebraska (2013) as his new feature project. It did not help its bottom line chances that the film is set in rural Nebraska, which for most filmgoers may as well be the dark side of the moon for its unfamiliarity, remoteness, and perceived barrenness. Indeed, if Nebraska conjures any image at all it is of endless cornfields, cows, and monotonously flat, uninspired scenery. When the story laid over such a setting features a confused, depressed old cuss alienated from family and friends and wandering around in a bleak wasteland made even bleaker by black and white photography and desolate late fall, post-harvest locations, it does not exactly engender excitement. The prospect of a dour, feel-bad experience devoid of life and color does not get tongues a-wagging to generate the all important buzz that sells tickets.

Of course, anyone who has seen Nebraska knows the film is not the downer it may appear to be from glimpsing a thirty-second trailer or hearing a fifteen-second sound bite, but that it is ultimately a sweet, deeply affecting film filled with familiar truths amid its very Nebraskaesque yet also quite universal archetypes.

Payne’s insistence on shooting in black and white was a completely legitimate aesthetic choice given the storyline and tone of this stark, autumnal mood piece about an old man having his last hurrah. But it also meant a definite disadvantage in appealing to average or general movie fans, many of whom automatically pass on any non-color film. Compounding the aversion that many moviegoers have with black and white is the fact that most studio executives, distributors, and theater bookers share this aversion, not on aesthetic grounds, but based on the long-held. much repeated argument that black and white films fare poorly at the box office. Of course, there is a self-fulfilling prophecy at work here that starts with studio resistance and reluctance to greenlight black and white features and even when a studio does approve the rare black and white entry executives seem to half-heartedly market and release these pics. It is almost as if the bean counters are out to perversely prove a point, even at the risk of injuring the chances of one of their own pictures at finding a sizable audience. Then when the picture lags, it gives the powerbrokers the platform to say, I told you so. No wonder then – and this is assuming the argument is true – most black and white flicks don’t perform well compared with their color counterparts. Except, how does one arrive at anything like a fair comparison of films based on color versus black and white? Even if the films under review are of the same genre and released in the same period, each is individually, intrinsically its own experience and any comparison inevitably ends up being a futile apples and oranges debate. Besides, there are exceptions to the supposed rule that all black and white films struggle. From the 1970s on The Last Picture ShowPaper Moon, Young Frankenstein,ManhattanRaging BullSchindler’s ListEd Wood and The Artist are among the black and white films to have found wide success. It is admittedly a short list but it does prove black and white need not be a death sentence.

To no one’s surprise Paramount did what practically any studio would have done in the same situation, which was to fight Payne on the black and white decision. In no uncertain terms Payne wanted to make Nebraska in black and white and just as adamantly the studio wanted no part of it. He pushed and they pushed back. He would not compromise his vision because from the moment he first read Bob Nelson’s screenplay he clearly saw in his mind’s eye the world of this story play out in in shades of black and white. It just fit. It fit the characters and the settings and the emotions and as far as he was concerned that was that. No questions asked. No concessions made.

I do not claim to know all the details of this protracted dispute or should I say discussion but I do know from what Payne and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael have told me that the issue became a point of some contention. I do not know if it ever reached an impasse where Payne more or less indicated by word or action he was prepared to walk and take the project with him (his own Ad Hominem production company brought the property to Paramount). It certainly wouldn’t surprise me that he let it be known, subtly or not, that he was willing to make the project with another studio if it came to that. It is a moot point now since Paramount eventually acceded to his wishes, though not insignificantly the studio did cut some of the picture’s already small budget as a kind of hedge I suppose against the small business they expected the film to do. The smaller the budget, and in this case it was $12 million, the smaller the risk of not recouping its cost.

Given Payne’s even temperament and gentility, I doubt if things reached the level of shouting or angry exchanges, though he undoubtedly expressed displeasure with their interference and pettiness. I have to think he wore the execs down with his patience and persistence to win the black and white battle but at the end of the day he was willing to give up a couple million dollars in exchange for realizing his vision. I know he says that losing a million dollars is a huge loss when it comes to small-budgeted films like this one and I understand that in order to get the film made within those constraints he and others worked for scale in return for some points on the back end, but I have to believe those “sacrifices” were completely worth it in the long run. I would even argue that having to work on a bare bones budget and a tight schedule worked in favor of getting this simple story right. It required cast and crew to live frugally like the characters and the frugal shoot placed a premium on efficiency, ingenuity, and everyone pulling together to make the most of what they had to work with. In truth this esprit de corps is evident on all of Payne’s projects anyway because of the tight, loyal stock company he works with from film to film to film. They are a family and a team dedicated to one purpose: getting the film made to his specifications.

I asked Payne if it ever seems like a studio plays this game in order to gauge just how strongly the filmmaker is invested in a choice or preference as well as to what extent the filmmaker can be manipulated. He seems to believe there is some truth in that. Perhaps it really is the studio’s way of testing how firm the filmmaker’s convictions are and how much the filmmaker is willing to give up or to stand fast in terms of creative control. As Paramount surely knew going in and if they somehow didn’t know they surely soon discovered in the process of setting up the film, Payne is no push over and he brooks no fools. That is true at every juncture in the process, from making the deal to pre-production to the shoot and on through post-production. It is his film and he will not be budged from any creative choices he feels are necessary, which is to say he will not be pressured into doing something for the sake of added commercial appeal.

Because Payne is not about burning bridges, except for his public displeasure over the way his first two films (Citizen Ruth and Election) were handled by the studios and releasing companies behind them, he is not saying on the record what he thinks about the way Paramount handled Nebraska. I have to think he is not pleased with the extremely limited release they gave it. At no time during its release did the film ever play more than 968 theaters according to the website Boxoffice Mojo. That is anywhere from two-thirds to a half to a third the number of theaters its main awards competitors played at during their runs. It is hard to understand why the film was not given more opportunities to find a wider audience given the outstanding reception it received from critics (making most Top Ten lists), the foreign press (five Golden Globe nominations) and the Academy (six nominations).

Hampered as it was by the limited release, Nebraska still pulled in more than $18 million domestically by this edition’s summer 2014 printing and I am sure when all the figures are added up from North America and overseas, where I predict the film will fare well, especially in Europe, its total gross will be in excess of $20 million. By the time all the home viewing rentals and purchases are taken into account a year from now, I wager the film will have done some $25 million in business, which would approximately double its production costs. That is quite a return on a small film that did not get much studio support beyond the bare basics.






Payne could have made things easier for himself and the studio by filming in color and securing a superstar. Nebraska marked quite a departure from the lush, color-filled canvas of Hawaii he captured in The Descendants and the equally verdant California wine country he committed to celluloid in Sideways. Never mind the fact the stories of those earlier films, despite the radical differences of their physical locations, actually share much in common tonally and thematically withNebraska. The dark comic tone and theme of Payne’s films can threaten to be overshadowed when a star the magnitude of Jack Nicholson (About Schmidt) or George Clooney (The Descendants) attaches himself to one of his projects. But as anyone who is familiar with the subdued star turns of those two actors in those particular films will tell you, Nicholson departed far from his trademark insouciance and braggadocio to totally inhabit his repressed, depressive title character in Schmidtjust as Clooney left behind much of his breezy, cocksure charm to essay his neurotic somewhat desperate character in Descendants. Each star was eager to shed his well-practiced, bigger-than-life persona in service of scripts and parts that called for them to play against type. Instead of their usual live-out-loud, testosterone-high roles, they play quiet, wounded, vulnerable men in trouble. For that matter, the men-children Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church play in Sideways are seemingly complete opposites but in actuality are emotionally-stunted, damaged souls using oblivion, alcohol, and sex to medicate their pain and avoid reality. The beauty of the California and Hawaii locales work as contrast and counterpoint to the chaotic lives of these lost figures careening toward catharsis. In Schmidt Omaha is the perfect washed-out backdrop for a man undergoing a full-scale identity and spiritual crisis once he retires and his domineering wife dies.

That brings us to Woody Grant, the crotchety so-and-so at the center of Nebraska. When we meet him he is near the end of a largely misspent life. Facing his inevitable and nearing mortality he doesn’t much like what he sees when he reviews his life and where he has landed. He is dealing with many deficits in his old age. His body is falling apart. He walks stiffly, haltingly. His alcoholism has been unaddressed and it contributes to his foggy mind, mood swings, propensity to fall and hurt himself, and to utter hurtful things. He seems to derive no joy or satisfaction from his wife of many years and his two adult sons. He almost regards them as inconvenient reminders of his own failings as a husband and father. On top of all this, he is poor and in no position to leave his family anything like a tangible legacy.

This miserable wretch has seized upon what he believes to be his last chance at assuaging a deep well of shame, guilt, bitterness, and resentment. His mistaken belief there is a sweepstakes prize for him to redeem becomes a search for his own personal redemption or salvation. He desperately wants something, namely a truck, to leave his boys. The true meaning of the road trip he embarks on with his son David is only revealed to us and to his boy along the way and that gradual discovery adds layers of poignancy to the story.

When Woody arrives back in his hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska word spreads he is on his way to collect a $i million sweepstakes prize. For a few moments he becomes a person of substance in the eyes of his extended family and the town’s other residents. Some family members and one old friend turn vultures and demand they get a share of his windfall as compensation for favors they did or loans they made that were never returned. But there is another side to that story. We find out Woody has a kind heart beneath his gruff exterior, so much so that he’s been known to do favors and to give money away without ever expecting repayment. That has led him to be taken advantage of over the years. Then when the truth gets out Woody has not won anything but has misinterpreted a marketing piece for a confirmation letter of his supposed million in winnings, he is publicly humiliated and made out to be a fool.

For Nebraska I Payne went one step further in distancing himself from commercial considerations by casting as his two leads Bruce Dern and Will Forte, who at first glance form an unlikely combination but in fact play wonderfully off each other. Dern’s acclaimed performance as Woody Grant earned him a Best Actor prize at Cannes and nominations from the Golden Globes and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Saturday Night Live alumnus Forte is triumphant in his first dramatic role as the sympathetic son David. The next largest part belongs to June Squibb, who until this film was a somewhat familiar face if not a household name (she played Nicholson’s wife in Schmidt). Her stellar work in a colorful role as Woody’s piss-and-vinegar wife Kate has brought her the most attention she’s received in a very long and productive career. Arguably, the biggest name in the picture belongs to Stacy Keach, a veteran of film, television, and stage who has little screen time in the picture but makes the most of it in a powerfully indelible turn as the story’s heavy, Ed Pegram. As strong as these performances are Payne did not do his film any box office favors by choosing actors so far off the radar of moviegoers. That is not a criticism, it is simply a fact. At least a dozen more speaking parts are filled by no-name actors, nonprofessional actors, and nonactors, all of whom add great authenticity to the film but whose obscurity hurts rather than helps the marketing cause.

As you will read in the articles that follow Payne is most proud of the casting and locations inNebraska. These are elements he always takes great care with in any of his films but with this particular film he went the extra mile yet in order to realize the very specific world of the story. Many of the small speaking parts are filled by regular folks – retired farmers and such – who populate the very towns or ones just like them where he shot. He and casting director John Jackson searched long and hard for just the right faces and voices. Similarly, the weatherbeaten, seen-better-times found locations look and feel so right as the homes and pit-stops of the characters that these real locations rather than constructed sets add another layer of verisimilitude.

The choice to populate the film with zero star power ultimately is not the reason the film failed to pull in more of an audience because there are plenty of films that do well with little known, non A-list names, and nonactor finds. No, the real problem with how Nebraska fared had more to do with the perception the marketing campaign for the film imposed on it. The film’s trailers did not communicate the heart and soul of the picture. None of the warmth or depth or populist appeal at its core registered in those clips. Instead, the film was represented as a cold, mean, depressive, rather flimsy sketch concept blown up to fill two hours. Anyone who has seen and appreciatedNebraska will tell you it is far more than that. It is a work replete with deep currents of regret, disappointment, melancholia, rage, nostalgia. and love. Alongside that run streams of humor, sweetness, irony, and slapstick. Then there is the sheer poetic evocation of hauntingly beautiful visuals that turn the wide open flyover terrain, roadside stops, and played-out small towns of Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, and Nebraska into haunting fields of dreams and symbols of neglect. Not to mention centers of quirky, silly, sometimes surreal goings-on.

Plenty of small indie films about similarly unglamorous subject matter have struck a responsive chord with the masses. So what kept Nebraska from resonating the way, say, Juno did or Little Miss Sunshine? No one really knows. If the creatives who make the films and the suits who finance and sell them did, if there was some sure-fire magic formula at their disposal, then every film would be packaged into a box office winner. The truth is some films catch the wave and most don’t and there doesn’t seem to be any reliable rhyme or reason for why some hit and others miss that elusive, always moving wave everyone is after.

It may take a while, but I am quite confident Nebraska will eventually find the large audience it deserves. In my opinion it will be a much viewed and discussed stand-the-test of-time film for its many cinema art merits. As good as Payne’s earlier films have been I believe this to be his finest work to date because it is in my view the fullest expression of his filmmaking talents. Visually, it is a tone poem of the first order and on that basis alone it is a film to be reckoned with. Payne and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael have achieved an expressive black and white palette whose hues perfectly articulate the heavy heart of the story. But Payne also found unobtrusive ways to position the camera and, with editor Kevin Tent, to cut scenes so as to amplify its many moments of humor without ever detracting from its elegiac, soulful mood. Mark Orton’s original music, plus the incidental music used here and there, add more nuances of mood. Payne artfully composed images for the wide screen format he shot in to glean added depth and meaning from the action. Within the same frame he intentionally juxtaposed characters with the stark landscapes, townscapes, and homes they inhabit. Many of these scenes emphasize sadness, stillness and desolation. Irony infuses it all. The result is an ongoing dialogue between people and their environments. Each informs the other and by consequence us.

The filmmaker’s economy of style has never been more evident. He has reached the point of communicating so much with simple brush strokes. Take for instance the way Woody’s harsh childhood experience is encapsulated when the old man and his family visit the abandoned farm house he grew up in. Payne has the camera fluidly glide over the detritus of this once proud home turned wreck and to peak into rooms that carry so much psychic-emotional pain for Woody, who was beaten as a boy. Payne clearly indicates this is a private, anguished, cathartic return for Woody, who has avoided this place and its memories for years.

Or consider that gathering of taciturn men in Woody’s family at his brother’s home in town. Payne arranges the uncles, brothers, sons, nephews, cousins in an American Gothic pose around the TV set, where the men engage in the almost wordless ritualistic viewing of a football game. It is at once a funny and powerful expression of their tribal, tight-lipped bond. A bond more about association by blood than affinity.

Then there are the almost incidental shots of boarded up buildings in town that symbolize and speak to the economic hard times to have befallen so many small towns like the fictional Hawthorne. In a short scene Payne conveys an important way in which the times have changed there and in towns like it when he has Woody visit the auto service station he used to own and he finds the new owners are Spanish-speaking Hispanics. Woody thus personally encounters a demographic shift that has altered the face of his hometown and much of rural Nebraska. No more is made of it then that simple reality and the brief exchange between Woody and the “newcomers,” but it is enough to say that times have moved on and the Hawthorne he knew has evolved in some ways and remained unchanged in others.





Perhaps the best example of Payne distilling things down to their simplest, purest, most elemental form is the end sequence when David and Woody are in the truck David has purchased and registered in his father’s name. David, who is at the wheel with Woody beside him, stops the truck on the edge of town and invites Woody to take the wheel and drive down main street in his new rig. What follows is one of the most moving denouements in contemporary American cinema. Woody is granted a rare gift when he accepts the invitation to take a celebratory ride down main street. As the truck slowly passes through town he wins more than any prize money could provide when four people from his past catch sight of him and look at him with a combination of awe, admiration, and surprise. It is a perfect moment in the sun vindication for a beleaguered, bedraggled man who suddenly brims with a sense of confidence and purpose. Woody leaves town on his own terms, his dignity and pride intact, at least for this short interval of time.

What makes that valedictory ride so special is that his sympathetic son David is there to grant him it and to bask in it with him. These two who began the road trip not really knowing each other and often at odds with each other have traveled a journey together that has brought them a measure of acceptance, healing, and peace. David has finally come to understand why his father is the way he is. His fondest desire is realized when he gives Woody that movie-movie opportunity to prove he is not the loser or fool this day. As Woody sits high in the cab of the truck, with David lovingly looking on from the floor, and drives past the artifacts of his past and the denizens of that town, he may as well be a cowboy sitting tall in the saddle of his horse riding into the sunset. He graciously accepts the congratulations of town chatterbox Bernie Bowen. He stares down his former friend Ed Pegram, who now looks the shamed fool. Woody’s heart stirs again for old flame Peg Nagy, whose wistful expression wonders might have been. As he heads out of town Woody says a fond goodbye to Albert, the Grant brother whose favorite pastime is siting beside the road waving at the occupants of passing cars.

Outside of town the truck stops at the bottom of a hill and Woody and David once again exchange places. Doing this out of the view of onlookers preserves Woody’s glorious farewell and signals Woody now accepts his limitations and David’s love for him. With David back behind the wheel and Woody beside him father and son drive off to meet an uncertain future together. Consistent with the way Payne ends all his films, Woody’s last ride reverie does not promise any great turnaround in his life. His problems are still his problems. The fact that that sequence plays out wordlessly and still conveys so much meaning is a testament to the work of Payne and his collaborators in extracting the essence of these scenes through beautifully executed shots that give full weight to glances gestures, postures, and backdrops.

NOTE: To read the rest you’ll have to wait for my new edition to come out.


Just finished reading the script for Alexander Payne’s new film “Downsizing.” He penned it with his old writing partner Jim Taylor. I can report that it is by-turns a hilarious and heartbreaking exploration of the human condition under extremis. It is also a very brave embrace of both kitsch and visionary science fiction conventions that we all recognize from that well worn genre. It is a kind of mashup of “Dr. Strangelove,” “Fantastic Voyage,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “The Incredible Shrinking Man,” “The Truman Show,” and “Children of Men.” If Billy Wilder had ever made a sci satire, this would have been yet. Like all Payne stories, it revels in the mundanity and banality of life even amidst extraordinary circumstances. Based on the way the character is developed on the page, I can tell you that Matt Damon is the perfect choice as the Everyman protagonist. The miniaturization or downsizing hook allows Payne to deal with all kinds of issues related to the environment – diminishing resources, diversity, discrimination, politics, et cetera. It is at once relevant and revelatory about things that communities and states and nations are grappling with today. Much more to come from me about this film after I interview Payne, Taylor and others involved in the project. But for now just know that “Downsizing” will be worth waiting for as it shoots in the spring of 2016, then gets its specials effects all synched up and undergoes a long editing process. All of that, plus scoring and mixing, will take the project through 2016 into 2017. We won’t actually see the film until weli into 2017. All of that bodes well for a story whose social themes and concerns will likely only grow more urgent, not less, in the interim.

Alexander Payne  

Tim Christian: Changing the Face of Film in Nebraska

September 13, 2015 Leave a comment

Tim Christian may not look the part of a revolutionary figure in his three-piece suit and with his button-down manner, but what he’s doing in the film space in his hometown of Omaha is provocative enough to be considered far on the fringe stuff.  Well, at least it’s breaking new ground and shaking things up in this relative film financing wasteland.  My Omaha Magazine ( profile of Christian and what he’s doing that’s getting people’s attention follows.  Watch for a future story about Christian and his film endeavors on this blog. I have a distinct feeling I will be writing about him and his film projects for years to come.



Tim Christian

Tim Christian

Changing the Face of Film in Nebraska


September 9, 2015
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Originally appeared in the September/October 2015 issue of Omaha Magazine (

Nebraska lacks an infrastructure to support a film industry. Omaha Creighton Prep graduate Timothy Christian is trying to change that. After years away pursuing a music industry and new media career, he’s returned to base his feature film financing and production company, Night Fox Entertainment, here.

Where most local film ventures are micro-sized with no-name talent, Christian backs real projects with $10 million-plus budgets boasting recognizable cast and crew. Case in point, Z for Zachariah. Shot in New Zealand, the post-apocalyptic drama stars Margot Robbie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Chris Pine. It’s directed by Craig Zobel, whose 2012 Compliance made waves. Z netted strong reviews at Sundance and will get a 2015 theatrical release.

In post-production now is the thriller Headlock starring Andy Garcia, Justin Bartha, and Dianna Agron.

Night Fox further limits investor exposure by only financing pictures with strong pre-foreign sales, capping individual contributions, and spreading capital around several projects. That model is securing local movers and shakers to buy into projects, including Tenaska’s recently retired Paul Smith, also a Night Fox partner.

Christian says film financing can be a “tough sell to people who are of a conservative investment nature,” adding, “They need to see kind of black and white what you have, what you’re doing, how the money looks, so we have to make sure the approach is right.” Once it “makes sense,” he says investors “are all interested in being part of growing a business not prominent in Omaha.”

Besides, having a piece of a project with stars, premieres, awards, trailers, and posters has a “cool” factor other opportunities don’t offer.

More than anything, Christian says people invest in him.

“People have to like you. Even if they don’t like the other people involved, they have to like you. If they don’t like you, they’re not going to want to work with you or give you their money.”

Being a Nebraskan helps him relate to investors.

“They like to deal with someone away from that Hollywood mindset. They want a straight shooter, someone who they deem as honest and down-home who has Midwest values. That goes a long way.”

Upon meeting him for the first time, some folks reveal surprise that he’s African-American.

“Once they understand I know the business, I know what I’m talking about, I know how to protect their money, then all that goes out the window.”

As a Nebraska film financier, he’s already an outlier. As an African-American doing it, he’s pushing new boundaries.

“From a cultural standpoint I think it’s really significant because it gives some hope to other young African-Americans in terms of what they can do. That means a lot.”

Christian, married with one child, mentors at Jesuit Middle School in North Omaha.

An advantage to being in Nebraska (Night Fox also has an office in L.A.) is giving investors first shots at projects otherwise being shopped only on the coasts.

His next step in making the state a film player is East Texas Hot Links adapted from the Eugene Lee play. Omaha’s own John Beasley is a producer and actor in it. Samuel L. Jackson is an executive producer. The film may shoot in-state. If not, Christian’s committed to bringing future projects here as he believes film production can be an economic engine that employs people and boosts tourism.

Tim Christian 2

Brent Spencer’s fine review of my Alexander Payne book in the Great Plains Quarterly

Brent Spencer’s fine review of my Alexander Payne book in the Great Plains Quarterly

I only just now became aware of this fine review of my Alexander Payne book that appeared in a 2014 issue of the Great Plains Quarterly journal. The review is by the noted novelist and short story writer Brent Spencer, who teaches at Creighton University. Thanks, Brent, for your attentive and articulate consideration of my work. Read the review below.

NOTE: I am still hopeful a new edition of my Payne book will come out in the next year or two. it would feature the additon of my extensive writing about Payne’s Nebraska. I have a major university press mulling it over now.

Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film—A Reporter’s Perspective, 1998–2012 by Leo Adam Biga
Review by Brent Spencer
From: Great Plains Quarterly
Volume 34, Number 2, Spring 2014

In Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film—A Reporter’s Perspective 1998–2012, Leo Adam Biga writes about the major American filmmaker Alexander Payne from the perspective of a fellow townsman. The Omaha reporter began covering Payne from the start of the filmmaker’s career, and in fact, even earlier than that. Long before Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants, and Cannes award-winner Nebraska, Biga was instrumental in arranging a local showing of an early (student) film of Payne’s The Passion of Martin. From that moment on, Payne’s filmmaking career took off, with the reporter in hot pursuit.

Biga’s book contains a collection of the journalist’s writings. The approach, which might have proven to be patchwork, instead allows the reader to follow the growth of the artist over time. Young filmmakers often ask how successful filmmakers made it to that point. Biga’s book may be the best answer to this question, at least as far as Payne is concerned. Biga presents the artist from his earliest days as a hometown boy to his first days in Tinseltown as a scuffling outsider to his heyday as an insider working with Hollywood’s brightest stars.

If there is a problem with Biga’s approach, it is that it occasionally leads to redundancy. The pieces were originally written separately, for different publications, and are presented as such. This means that an essay will sometimes cover the same material as a previous one. Some selections were clearly written as announcements of special showings of films. But the occasional drawback of this approach is counterbalanced by the feeling you get that the artist’s career is taking shape right before your eyes, from the showing of a student film in an Omaha storefront theater to a Hollywood premiere.

Perhaps the most intriguing feature of the book is Biga’s success at getting Payne to speak candidly about every step in the filmmaking process. These detailed insights include the challenges of developing material from conception to script, finding financing, moderating the mayhem of shooting a movie, and undertaking the slow, monk-like work of editing. Biga is clearly a fan (the book comes with an endorsement from Payne himself), but he’s a fan with his eyes wide open.

Leo Adam Biga's photo.

For Omaha Film Festival guru Marc Longbrake, cinema is no passing fancy

April 23, 2015 Leave a comment

Those of us who make our living in full or in part as film artists, exhibitors, historians, or journalists all come to our love of cinema differently.  It’s a very personal thing.  Marc Longbrake, one of the founders and directors of the Omaha Film Festival and a veteran crew member on Nebraska-made indie films, followed his own path in losing it at the movies.  Read my Omaha Magazine ( piece about him and his film love affair.
Marc Longbrake Web

Marc Longbrake

No Passing Film Fancy

April 22, 2015
©Photography by BIll Sitzmann
Originally published in Omaha Magazine (

Techie Marc Longbrake was in college when he lost it at the movies. Intrigued with doing something in cinema, he managed computer-aided drafting designers for his 9-to-5 but crewed on local independent film projects for his moonlighting fix.

Fast forward to today, when he’s a veteran lighting technician on area shoots, including a feature recently accepted into Sundance, Take Me to the River. Longbrake is also a co-founder of the Omaha Film Festival (OFF).

The March 10-15 festival at Marcus Village Pointe Cinema celebrates it 10th season this year. Longbrake and fellow movie enthusiasts Jeremy Decker and Jason Levering distinguish their event from other fests here with an ambitious, multi-day slate of features, documentaries and shorts, a conference of film industry panelists, and meet-and-greet parties.

The event receives 600-plus entries from multiple states and nations. A screenplay reading series complements the script competition. A team of judges spends months viewing films and reading scripts to determine which submissions make the final cut.

“It’s a pretty intense process,” Longbrake says. Getting all the moving parts in sync is a feat. He and his partners divvy up duties. Longbrake oversees the technical side.

“I deal a lot with the projection. We take great pride and care in the way we project the films we show. That’s a huge part of it.”

He also makes sure the fest connects to the local film community via social media.

This labor of love is fueled by shared passion. “It’s not been easy, it’s not been without sacrifice,” says Longbrake, a still-video photographer and lighting grip. “The fact we’ve stayed together all this time and managed to get along and to remain on the same page—I mean we’re all very different people with very different opinions—has made for a good marriage that helps us put a good product in front of our attendees.”

Longbrake and Co. displayed vision and courage launching OFF when they did as it preceded Omaha’s much-embraced art cinema, Film Streams. They saw an indie void and filled it with the help of sponsors.

He says despite the fact “we’re all broke from this, at the end of the day we know it’s a good cultural thing for the city to have,” adding, “We’ve got enough of a fan base that if we were not to do it there’d be some disappointment. I don’t know who would pick up the ball and run with it, so we feel sort of an obligation to keep it going.”

Besides, he says “it’s pretty cool to be a part of Omaha’s cultural renaissance the last 10 years.”

Occasionally, OFF features break big, giving Omaha audiences sneak peaks of awards contenders. Then there’s moments like the one a few years ago when Longbrake introduced filmmakers Logan and Noah Miller to their idol, screenwriting guru Lew Hunter, at an OFF screening of the brothers’ debut feature, Touching Home. The twins had read Hunter’s Screenwriting 434 to learn how to write a script.

“It was a great moment for the brothers and Lew to meet and it was a great moment for me to be able to put them together.”

He enjoys it, too, when Nebraska film artists such as Yolonda Ross, Mauro Fiore (see related story on page 117), Mike Hill, Dana Altman, and Nik Fackler make OFF appearances to share their passion with audiences.

Now they’re pushing for Alexander Payne to be a future guest.

Marc Longbrake Web

Hot Stuff: American comedy classic ‘Some Like It Hot’ pushed boundaries

Ribald comedies are old hat in Hollywood.  If prostitution is the oldest profession, than comedies with a good dose of sexual intrigue in them, whether you call them romantic comedies or screwball comedies, comprise one of the oldest genres since the dawn of the sound era.  However, it’s one thing to use sex as a comic lynchpin or prop – I mean, anyone can do that – but it’s quite another thing to go beyond being merely risque or naughty and fashion a really good story to support the old nudge, nudge, wink, wink, as a Monty Python bit put it, and present three-dimensional characters.  As my story for The Reader ( argues, Billy Wilder’s 1959 classic Some Like it Hot miraculously turns what would essentially be a one-joke premise or sketch in the hands of most filmmakers into a satisfying two-hour farce tinged with pathos.  Wilder’s great script. expert direction and perfect cast pull it off.  Omaha film impresario Bruce Crawford is reviving this gem for one night only on the big screen, April 24, at the Joslyn Art Museum.  Introducing the film will be Kelly Curtis, a daughter of Tony Curis, the magnetic who was never better than in this tour de force performance in which he plays the straight man for most of the picture until his character wondefully imitates Cary Grant in order to seduce Marily Monroe’s Sugar Kane.  Curtis and Lemmon are great in drag and Monroe is never more fully Monroesque than in this film, where her voluptuous figure, sensual power, and emotional fragility create a most alluring combination.

Hot Stuff: American comedy classic ‘Some Like It Hot’ pushed boundaries

Tony Curtis’ daughter, Kelly, to introduce film in Omaha

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in April 2015 isssue of The Reader (

The 1959 gender-bending film farce Some Like It Hot came at an interesting juncture in the careers of writer-director Billy Wilder and stars Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon and Marilyn Monroe.

For each legend it marked a career boost. It reaffirmed Wilder as a comedy genius after a succession of mediocre mid-’50s.dramas and comedies. It further stretched Curtis. It began Lemmon’s long, fruitful collaboration with Wilder. It represented Monroe’s last great comic role.

Paying tribute to a classic named the funniest American movie of all-time by the American Film Institute is a no-brainer for Omaha impresario Bruce Crawford. He’s presenting a one-night revival April 24 at Joslyn Art Museum as an Omaha Parks Foundation benefit.

“Some Like It Hot is to film comedy what Casablanca is to film romance,” says Crawford.

Casablanca found a magical mix of perfect casting, memorable lines and universal themes to make its wartime romance work for any generation, Hot miraculously made a one-joke men-in-drag-meet-sex goddess premise into a timeless romp of provocative puns, innuendos, sight gags and set pieces.

The 7 p.m. event will have special guest Kelly Curtis, the oldest daughter of Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, introduce the picture. Her sister is actress Jamie Lee Curtis.

Kelly accompanied her late mother to Omaha for a 1994 Crawford event feting Alfred Hitchcock and Psycho. This time she’ll share reminiscences and insights about her father, who died at age 85 in 2010. In a recent Reader interview she spoke about how Hot came at a crucial time in his Hollywood ascent.

Starting with Trapeze, Sweet Smell of Success, The Vikings, The Defiant Ones and on through Hot and Spartacus, Curtis showed a heretofore unseen range in rich, demanding parts of enduring quality.

“I think he wanted to prove to himself and to the world he was more than than just a pretty face and those films gave him a great opportunity to do that,” Kelly says. “He loved that he was given a real gift in Some Like It Hot to be able to show his comedic talents as fully as he did. Doing comedy like that is very difficult.”

The plot finds two down-on-their-luck Depression-era Chicago musicians, Joe (Curtis) and Jerry (Lemmon), needing to skip town after witnessing a St. Valentine’s Day Massacre-style slaying. The only open gig is with a touring female band and so they pose as women musicians. Aboard the Florida-bound train they fall for the band’s woman-child singer,s Sugar Kane (Monroe), only Joe’s more determined to bed her once they hit the beach.

Mail Attachment-1

Kelly Curis

Kelly says her father’s idea to impersonate Cary Grant within the context of his character posing as a millionaire in order to seduce Sugar Kane, reveals much about the man who became Tony Curtis.

Born Bernard Schwartz in the Bronx to Hungarian parents, he grew up running the streets with a gang. Talent agent-casting director Joyce Selznick discovered the aspiring actor at the New School in 1948. His quick rise to movie stardom as a Universal contract player was the American Dream made good. Kelly says it only made sense he would pay homage to Grant because the actor was his model for learning how to court women and to project a sophisticated facade.

“Once he had money my father really took to the trappings of being a suave, debonair, European-style playboy. He loved fine houses, fine wines, fine cars. He loved living the life of an Italian count. That was one of his personas and stages he went through. So I think jumping into a role like that to woo a woman is what he’d been playing at his whole life. Even back when he was in a Hungarian Jewish gang, he used his black hair, blue eyes and olive skin to pass as Italian so he could spy on the rival Italian gang I think he always pretended to be something he wasn’t just to survive.”

Much as Grant transformed himself from his poor Bristol origins as Archie Leach into the screen’s most desirable gent, Kelly says, “Tony Curtis was an avatar – it’s the man he invented for himself, which was an amalgamation of all his parts, yes, but it definitely was not Bernard Schwartz.” She adds, “Tony of the Movies is what he liked to call himself and that’s what he aspired his legacy to be.”

She says the multifaceted man she knew took his off-screen work as a painter, photographer, assemblage artist and sculptor seriously.

“It was much more than a hobby. He was constantly creating and he exhibited and sold his art late in his life.”

His heritage was important to him, too.

“My father was a lot more a Jewish man than he presented himself to the world. I think he had a deep sense of Jewish values and a deep love for Judaism. I think he wanted to be more religious but with his lifestyle and interests it just wasn’t to be.”

Kelly worked with her father on the Emanuel Foundation in raising money for the restoration of cemeteries and synagogues in Hungary damaged during World War II.

“It’s something he was very committed to and proud of and during that time we got very close. It was a very good time for us.”

Despite a “libertine” way of life as a notorious Hollywood wild man, she says her father was a staunch American patriot and conservative Republican. Yes, she says, he fell prey to the excesses of fame with his multiple marriages (six), infidelity and substance abuse problems, but he appreciated how far America allowed him to rise.

“Here’s this immigrants’ child who made it, who became rich and famous, which is why he considered himself an American prince. It’s why he loved America as a land of opportunity. The possibilities are endless. He said you just have to want it bad enough, have the talent to back it up and really go for it.”


She says her father’s career descent after The Great Race and The Boston Strangler was largely self-made.

“He didn’t transition very well into New Hollywood. He wanted to but he wasn’t really interested in letting down the facade of the young virile guy by playing older roles. It bothered him until his death he wasn’t asked to do more but he burned a lot of bridges. He went through a lot of dark years in the late ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. That could have been a lot riper time for him had he not fallen to prey to his demons.

“Here was this gorgeous man getting older, going through a mid-life crisis and perhaps an existential crisis of trying to figure out who he was and what he was. It was a very troubling time for him.”

There were a couple bright spots (The Last Tycoon, Insignificance) but mostly Tony Curtis was an artifact from a long gone Hollywood. He did live the last several years of his life sober. As his old studio peers died away and his own health failed, he could take solace in having made several stand-the-test-of-time films.

He thought enough of Hot to write a book about its making. Kelly says the movie allowed him to show “his chops” as an actor. He wrote that during the shoot he had an affair with Monroe, whom he claimed was his lover years before. Kelly says, “I don’t know if it’s just one of my father’s stories, but I would love to know.”

Tickets are $23 and available at all Omaha Hy-Vee stores.

For more info, call 402-926-8299 or visit

10th Annual Omaha Film Festival a showcase for indie writer-directors; Patty Dillon documentary about executioners among films to check out

March 11, 2015 Leave a comment

Don’t take my word for it, but the Omaha Film Festival is one of the last best kept secrets of Omaha’s evolving cinema scene.  You would think that after nine years running and with its 10th annual festival happening March 10-15 that the OFF would be ingrained in the local film culture by now, but my guess is that most residents of Omaha don’t even know it exists.  If true, then that speaks to how hard it is to get your event message heard and received amid all the competing messages out there.  For those who know about it but don’t patronize it, it’s an indication of how much there is to do in Omaha when it comes to cultural activities and entertainment options.  The festival hasn’t helped itself by changing locations a few times in its short history.  But the festival is a well-mounted event that’s worth your time if you make the effort to seek it out.  My Reader ( story about the 2015 festival highlights a few films that you might want to check out.  One of these is the fine documentary There Will Be No Stay  by Omahan Patty Dillon that finds a provocative way into the death penalty debate by focusing on the trauma of two executioners.



Showcase for indie writer-directors



10th Annual Omaha Film Festival a showcase for indie writer-directors

Patty Dillon documentary about executioners among films to check out

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in the March 2015 issue of The Reader (


The metro’s work-in-progress cinema culture has lately come of age due to a montage of things. Alexander Payne making movies and bringing world-class film artists here. A surge of indigenous indie filmmakers. The advent of Film Streams. The slate at Omaha’s “original art cinema” – the Dundee Theatre.

Often overlooked as contributing to this invigorating mix is the Omaha Film Festival, celebrating 10 years with the March 10-15 edition at Marcus Village Pointe Cinema. OFF showcases work by indie writer-directors from near and far. Three short film blocs are dedicated to Neb-made films. To commemorate the fest’s history there’s a separate bloc screening audience favorite shorts from the first nine years,

Among the feature-length documentaries is a moving and provocative work about the death penalty, There Will Be No Stay, by Omaha transplant and former stuntwoman Patty Dillon. The pic recently had its world premiere at the Big Sky (Mont.) Documentary Film Festival and will be making the national festival circuit rounds. CNN’s Death Row Stories will feature Dillon and her project in an upcoming segment. Series narrator Susan Sarandon champions Dillon’s film, calling it “a powerful and unique perspective on the death penalty.”

The film flips the typical death penalty debate by profiling two men, Terry Bracey and Craig Baxley, who worked as executioners in the same state prison and by charting the trauma that carrying out those awful duties caused them. They’re still paying the price today.

This is Dillon’s debut film as a director and getting to its premiere was a five-year endeavor. About the experience of Big Sky, she says, “It was truly a warm and gentle place to birth a first film. It was a bit surreal. You work on a project for so many years, revolve your life completely around it, then let it go for the world – hopefully – to see. You have taken your subject’s trust and just hope tyou have served their stories. It is such a controversial issue and I think the assumption is agenda or activism and that is certainly understandable. The foundation of the film is really more about dissolving human opposition, period. I was pleasantly surprised how receptive the audiences were. It’s intense watching people watch your film. They laughed, gasped, shook their heads and greeted me with many unexpected hugs and hand shakes.”



On getting the blessing of Sarandon, whose role in the death row dramatic film Dead Man Walking earned her a Best Actress Oscar, Dillon says, “Susan and her camp have been incredible. She was initially going to narrate the film and after the final re-writes she insisted I do it. She felt it served the story better. I had just received two festival rejection letters when I got the email from her assistant she had posted the trailer on Facebook and Twitter. Irony. It’s been a crazy ride indeed and I intend to keep riding it with loads of gratitude.”

OFFs roots are squarely in the state’s small but robust and ever expanding indie film scene. Founders Marc Longbrake, Jeremy Decker and Jason Levering have a history making or working on indie projects. A decade ago they saw a gap in the Omaha film scene, which never really had a full-fledged annual festival before, and they filled it.

Now that Omaha has its own version of bigger, better known festivals, area residents can see work unlikely to play cineplexes otherwise.

Festivals are the take-what-you-get buffet of cinema-going. There are choices representing different cultures, styles, genres and influences. But the menu wholly depends on what films are entered and curated for this screen feast. Some entrees (features) and sides (shorts) are safer bets than others. Some come with a track record and others are unknowns. With upwards of 100 films in play there are hits and misses, and so the operative advice is watch-at-your-own-risk.

However, if you’re a film buff with an appetite for something different, then you owe it to yourself to try this cinema smorgasbord. You can always design a sampler menu of your own choice.

Longbrake says there is a place for a mid-size festival like OFF that lacks world premieres of marquee industry and indie titles.

“There’s a ton of people out there making movies that aren’t part of the Hollywood system,” he says. “The only way to really see independent films in a theater, except for the off-chance they’re picked-up by a Hollywood distributor, is by going to film festivals. So you’re seeing a different kind of movie. Sometimes low budget, sometimes without a recognizable star, although familiar faces do turn up.

“People sometime think indie-low budget are code words for lesser quality. I would argue independent filmmakers tend to worry a bit more about the art and the story than the makers of big budget Hollywood pictures. Indie filmmakers are putting their passion, their guts, their heart, their soul and their grandpa’s money into making a film that’s personal to them as opposed to Hollywood studios that tend to be motivated to make something that needs to make them money back.”

The fest’s not all about the voyeuristic ritual of viewing movies either. The art and craft is explored at the OFF Filmmakers Conference and Writer’s Theatre program. A slate of OFF parties bring film geeks, fans and artists together for celebrating and networking.

In addition to Dillon’s film, others to check out include:

Shoulder the Lion
This self-conscious art film portrays three disparate people whose physical disabilities don’t stop them from being fully engaged artists. Alice Wingwall is a much-exhibited Berkeley, Calif-based photographer and filmmaker who happens to be blind. Graham Sharpe is a musician with a severe auditory condition. In his native Ireland he writes and performs music and runs a major music festival. Katie Dallam is a Spring Hills, Kan. visual artist who suffered traumatic brain injury in a boxing match that inspired Million Dollar Baby. Her art before and after her injury is markedly different.

In the spirit of Errol Morris, filmmakers Patryk Rebisz and Erinnisse Heuer-Rebisz use assertive techniques to create a visually stunning if sometimes overdone palette that gets inside the head of its subjects.

On Her Own
Morgan Schmidt-Feng’s portrait of the dissolution of a Calif. farm family, the Prebliches, plays like a dramatic film as tragedy and ill-fate befall the clan. The troubles of these salt-of-the-earth folks symbolize what happens to many small farm families. The story’s emotional heart belongs to Nancy Prebilich, who carries on despite losing it all.

Narrative Features
The Jazz Funeral
When an unhappy man fears his adult son may be turning into him, he concocts a scheme to spend a week with him in New Orleans to set him straight. As the pair’s insecurities and resentments come tumbling out, their relationships with the women in their lives come undone. James Morrison and Bobby Campo find the right notes as this awkward, strained yet loving father and son, respectively.

Slow West
This opening night film debuted at Sundance. It follows the adventures of 16-year-old Jay, who travels from Scotland to the 19th century American frontier in search of the woman he’s infatuated with. Newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee stars as Jay. Co-starring are Michael Fassbender as Silas, the mysterious man Jay hires to protect him, and Ben Mendelsohn as one of the hard characters Jay confronts.

Cut Bank
The closing night film is another young man in peril story, this time set in contemporary Montana. In his rural town Dwayne (Liam Helmsworth) captures something on video he shouldn’t have and bad men with mean intentions come for after him and his girl. Co-starring Teresa Palmer, Billy Bob Thornton, John Malkovich, Bruce Dern and Oliver Platt.

For tickets and festival schedule details, visit

Nebraska’s Film Heritage presented by Leo Adam Biga: Tuesday, Feb. 17, 6:30 p.m., Durham Museum

February 16, 2015 Leave a comment

Join me for-

Nebraska’s Film Heritage Lecture

presented by Leo Adam Biga

Tuesday, Feb. 17, 6:30 p.m.

Durham Museum

PLEASE NOTE: Reservations are required. Email or call 402-444-5071.


Here is how the Durham is promoting my talk:




*Nebraska’s Film Heritage
presented by Leo Adam Biga
Tuesday, February 17, 6:30PM
Stanley and Dorothy Truhlsen Lecture Hall, Durham Museum

Omaha author Leo Adam Biga highlights the story of Nebraska’s rich legacy in cinema. Several native sons and daughters have made significant contributions and established major careers in the industry, both on screen and behind the camera. To this day, Nebraskans continue to make their mark in virtually every aspect of the industry and have received many honors, including Oscar recognition. Many hometown products are regarded as leaders, innovators and trailblazers, including the Johnson Brothers and their Lincoln Film Company, Harold Lloyd, Fred Astaire, Darryl F. Zanuck, Marlon Brando and Joan Micklin Silver.

Leo Adam Biga is an Omaha-based nonfiction author, award-winning journalist and blogger. His 2012 book Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film is a collection of his extensive journalism about the Oscar-winning filmmaker. Additionally, Biga is the coeditor of Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores and the author of two e-books for the Omaha Public Schools. As a working journalist he contributes articles to several newspapers and magazines. His work has been recognized by his peers at the local, regional and national levels.

*Due to limited space, reservations are required. Please call 402-444-5071 or email to reserve your spot.. Cost of admission applies and members are FREE.

Join selected scholars for a special tour and commentary of Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen.
*March 7, 2015, 9AM and 11AM
Rachel Jacobsen, Executive Director, Film Streams at the Ruth Sokolof Theater

*Due to limited space, reservations are required. Please call 402-444-5071 or email to reserve your spot. Cost of admission applies and members are free.

Hollywood Bootcamp
Saturday, March 28, 2015, 10AM-3PM
Bring your friends for a day of boot camp…Hollywood style! Walk the red carpet, learn expert tips in costuming and make-up design, star in your own movie and much more. Plus, get your own star on The Durham Walk of Fame!
Regular Museum Admission Rates Apply
Free to Members

Katharine Hepburn Movie Series
Now – March 30
The Durham Museum is proud to partner with Film Streams at the Ruth Sokolof Theater for a series of movies that coincide with the costume exhibit, Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen.

All screenings will occur at Film Streams’ Ruth Sokolof Theater (1340 Mike Fahey Street). For details and showtimes visit


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