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James Caan Interview

August 12, 2012 1 comment

I am developing a film story-event project that’s piecing together what happened when a confluence of remarkable talents came together to make a low budget road movie in the late 1960s and their production journey brought them to western Nebraska. The road pic was Francis Ford Coppola’s art house special, The Rain People, starring Shirley Knight. That production cemented a relationship between Coppola and a young protege, George Lucas, who was along as a production associate and to document the making of the film.  The project also connected Coppola with two actors who would go on to play prominent roles in his future pics: James Caan and Robert Duvall.  That’s not all.  The Rain People additionally led to Duvall starring in Lucas’ first feature, THX-1138and to the actor directing his first film, the documentary We’re Not the Jet Set, which profiles an Ogallala, Neb. area ranch-rodeo family, the Petersons, whom Duvall became very close to.  As I make progress on the story I will be posting interviews I’ve conducted with many of the principles involved in the films.  What follows is an interview I did with James Caan.  Look for upcoming interviews I did with Robert Duvall, Francis Ford Coppola, cinematographers Bill Butler (Rain People) and Joseph Friedman (Jet Set) and editor Stephen Mack.

 

 

 

 

James Caan Interview: From My Film Connections Project (An In-Progress Film Story-Event Project)

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

LAB: When did you and Robert Duvall first meet? Was it during Robert Altman‘s Countdown or before that?

JC: “Bobby’s older than me. We first met in ’68 when we did a picture called The Rain People for Francis (Ford Coppola). That’s when we met the Petersons. That was first, I believe.”

LB: Except that IMDB shows Countdown was released in ’68, the same year The Rain People, a ’69 releasewas in production, and so I’m thinking you two made Countdown first.

JC: “Oh yeah, you can’t argue with those fuckers. We had a lot of fun on Countdown. That was one of Bob Altman’s first features.

LAB: I thought perhaps you and Duvall might have met before that, like through New York acting circles.

JC: “No, no, because I came out here (L.A.) when I was like 21. I studied in New York. We didn’t study together. I did like an off-Broadway play there for eight months and then I did whatever television was available then. There was one called Playhouse 90. It was a three-camera show. It was like a play they put on live television. And then there was Naked City, which was a series. And then there was that Route 66, which I did in Philadelphia. But then that was pretty much it in New York.

“And then I got called out to California. But I had to know Bobby before that (CountdownRain People) because we were already goofing on each other. That’s weird though – I thought I knew Bobby before that, for what reason I don’t know. Is it age, what is it, Jesus Christ?!

LAB: So what is it that accounts for your enduring friendship?

JC: “Just kind of a blatant honesty I think. I mean, it’s not like I don’t like actors or something, but I don’t just much travel in those circles, and Bobby’s not one of those either. I mean, I know made him laugh a little bit and I like that because I like making people laugh and I guess he likes laughing or something. And Bobby’s obviously a terrific actor and really easy to work with. From day one till today I dont think there’s anyone more giving than him working on camera. Some actors are terribly selfish and they think the worse you are the better they look, so they don’t give a shit when you’re on camera, which is a horrible principle because there’s no such thing as bad acting in a good scene.

“And then I think horses. I don’t know if I was into horses. I think it was a kind of freedom and not so involved in being all withdrawn and letting the job overtake your entire life. It didn’t mean we didn’t work but we had a lot of fun. And he was a terrible practical joker. He couldn’t hold a goddamned secret for nothing. I mean, if you had something you really didn’t want out there and you whispered it to your best friend, he’d wait till there were 500 people in the room and blurt it out. That’s Bobby.”

LAB: If I’m not mistaken you were attached to The Rain People project from the beginning whereas Duvall joined the company some time later, and, that in fact he may have replaced another actor.

JC: “I think Rip Torn or somebody.”

LAB: What did you make of the young Francis Ford Coppola?

JC: “Francis at that time was very aesthetic. And he wrote the thing as a play I think, and we did it somewhere up in Columbia or somewhere. We did it as a play. It was sort of like a rehearsal thing that Francis did.”

LAB: How did the two of you meet?

JC: “I met Francis when he came out here. I guess he had seen one or two things I had done. I obviously hadn’t done too many. I think by that time he had written Patton. I think he stayed at my house. I had a little guest house, so he stayed there for awhile. We got to be friendly. Having come from the Neighborhood Playhouse with (Lee) Strasburg and all those people, he was a young guy – I think Francis is like a year older than me. He was from New York (by way of Detroit). As a matter of fact his grandmother lived around the corner from me in Sunnyside.”

LAB: What about The Rain People got you interested in doing the part of Killer Killgannon?

JC: “It was a great opportunity, a great character. Just from talking to him (Coppola) I knew he knew actors and he had already received some notoriety with You’re a Big Boy Now and obviously having written Patton at the age of 23 (24 actually) or whatever the hell he was. But obviously when I started working with him I knew he was     something special. The guy pretty much knew about everything. When you look from there to The Godfather and all the guys Francis hired…if you look at every department head, the biggest today in their departments, whether Walter Murch in sound, Gordy Willis, Dean Tavalouris, they were all pretty much found by Francis.

“There was one Francis at that time. He was the best. I don’t know how many films I’ve done but Francis is still the best.”

LAB: Duvall told me a funny anecdote about Coppola, who apparently confided he was scared of the Petersons. That struck Duvall as funny too since Coppola went on to make films about mafia killers.

JC: “Francis wasn’t a Brooklyn Italian, he was Mediterranean Italian. All art. And, well they’re (the mafia) from New York. He understood them. He never understood what my love for rodeo was by the way.”

LAB: What kind of experience was The Rain People shoot for you?

JC: “I was like depressed through that whole picture, mostly because of this character I played. I was playing this guy with this brain damage, and I’m traveling and my community was not out there with a bunch of aesthetic, ethereal actors and actresses and cameramen. We were on the road, God, for that whole picture. We started out in Long Island and ended up in Ogallala out there. I had really no idea where we were going from day to day. From there (Long Island) we went to Virginia, we went down to Chattanooga and then across the country and wound up, as I’m sure he had scouted and everything, over in Ogallala.

“There was like 18 of us, the crew and the actors. It was just me and Shirley Knight, so every night I’d go to a different Holiday Inn and play with the light switches. I didn’t know what to do, I was a New Yorker. It was tough but it was a good picture I think. It’s really a nice picture. It was critically acclaimed. It won the San Sebastian Film Festival.”

LAB: Were you satisfied with how the script’s story was realized on screen?

JC: “That got a little mixed up,…the whole story kind of took a turn. That’s some personal stuff. People were supposed to be concerned about Shirley’s problem (her character’s problem). In other words here’s a woman who had all this responsibility, not only was she married but she had a baby, it all got too much and so she decided to take this ride and then she picks up some young guy who played college football. The whole idea of the picture is he in a sense becomes the embryo she’s carrying because she had to care for him and so forth. So it was all set up. Shirley played her a little mean and tough. I think what happened with the audience and Francis is they became more concerned with me than they did with her. She was the one you were supposed to worry about.

“Some of the choices were on the mean side, so they (the audience) became more involved with what happened to me.”

LAB: How was it working with Shirley Knight?

JC: “Shirley was a little tough. I like her but she was a little tough. And then by the way when Bobby showed up we started having fun. He’s the funniest son of a bitch. He was playing this motorcycle cop and he told me, “I’ve got two kids and everything, I don’t ride no goddamned motorcycle.’ ‘Fuck it, Bobby, goddamnit you’ve gotta ride the motorcycle, you’re a motorcycle cop on the highway. It ain’t nothin’, I’ll teach you in three minutes.’ So I had to get my brother to come out and double him. Oh, man, we laughed our asses off.

“He had that one scene at night with Shirley on the bike, going literally two miles an hour before I have that fight with him. ‘OK, action,’ and the thing would sputter out. (After multiple takes) finally he made it around the corner and came to a stop. Shirley got off and he threw the kick stand down and got off and he took three steps and the son of a bitch fell over, and he just yelled out, ‘Fuck you!’ Oh, my God…(laughing). Bobby was amazing. When he’d blow up, there was nothing like it.”

LAB: What about the very young George Lucas?

JC: “George was there all the time filming. He did a documentary The Making of The Rain People. He wore a big harness and had a 16 mm camera strapped to his chest. I thought he was born with it or something because I never saw him without it.

 

 

LAB: Part of the fun that came with Duvall’s arrival on location in Ogallala was the two of you meeting up with the Petersons.

JC: “B.A. (the late patriarch of the Peterson clan and the ostensible star of We’re Not the Jet Set) “Yeah, they were a wild group. They would fight in the middle of the        living room, and oh boy I mean fist fight, and he’s (B.A.) sitting back in a chair saying, ‘Now, no hitting in the face, no hitting in the face.’ Those were the rules. With Denny Peterson I got my nose into (branding and roping).”

LAB: You were already into horses by the time you met the Petersons.

JC: “When I came from New York I got a horse right away because I think that was the thing to do. (Growing up) I always played make believe in the streets – it was Roy Rogers or wharever the hell it was. After hanging around with Denny and those guys he took me to my first branding which was at the Haythorn ranch in Bruell (Neb.).  They have a huge ranch out there. I think I had a week off for a little stretch and rather than go home I went to this branding, and then from there it got in my blood.

“Denny picked me up at four in the morning, threw me in a trailer and we drove out there. I didn’t know any of these guys and I tried to look as western as I could, you know. I even had chew in my mouth. I didn’t want to stick out like some idiot from Hollywood on this big branding. Denny and I got amongst some guys, we saddled up and rode out, they were pushing some huge herd and I just fell behind ’em yelling ‘Ha, ha, ha…’ The first few days I just wrestled these calves. One of the Haythorns said, ‘You guys keep a pushing on this herd’ – toward this water hole. They were going to top these other hills. So a bunch of them ran off and Denny left with them and left me alone with these other guys.

“I was dressed in my jeans and the oldest ranch hat. I never said a word, which for me is really difficult. I just kept spittin’ and yellin’ and pushin’ the herd, and we finally got ’em to this water hole, and all of a sudden these two or three calves just bolted and ran up this steep old hill, so I whirled around with these old boys looking and I just took off up the hill. A herd or one is not bad but two is near impossible. So I got myself in a sweat chasing one. I’d get ’em together and one would break to the left. Finally I got the two of ’em and I started driving ’em down the hill and I saw those old boys still sitting down at the water hole and one of ’em looked up and said, ‘Hey,   Hollywood (laughs),’ and I swallowed my chew and I went, ‘Yeah?’ He said, ‘You can leave them go.’ I said, ‘What’s that?’ He said, ‘They’ve already been branded (laughs). So that’s the way I gave myself up I guess.

“But boy that was some experience. Goddamned, the work. It’s a great tradition actually. These guys come from all over, the neighboring ranchers, like the Petersons.  And then all the wives, boy what a feast they put out. A spread for all the hands. They’d have all these homemade pies. You name it. By four o’clock, you talk about sleep and sore. I was done, I was hurtin’ boy. It was great.

“These range calves weigh 300 or some pounds, so I got shit on and kicked and pissed on. It was the hardest work. But it was really a big honor. Like on the fourth day they build these big catch pens in different sections and run these cattle from the different sections. And on the last day old Waldo Haythorn, who was the grandpa, gave me the honor of roping. I remember there were guys coming up from Texas, some great ropers. Everett Shaw, who was a big time roper from Texas, came up and roped for old Waldo. They do that, they invite ’em up to be some of the ropers.

“You’d be tied onto your saddle and just rope these big old calves out of the herd and drag ’em by the pit. I was flanking ’em and spread eagling for two or three days. They doctor them and do whatever they do. And they (the Haythorns) bought me a hat as a thank you gift, a nice black stetson.”

LAB: You were a ‘made man’ after that.

JC: ‘Oh, yeah, that was it. I was done right then and there. Yeah, that was pretty good.”

 

 

Waldo Haythorn
LAB: Rodeo became a big part of your life after that.

JC: “I had a friend in Vegas named Dean Shendal (one-time professional steer wrestler and rodeo star and a fixture on the Vegas social scene; he opened his Green Valley ranch and practice arena to celebrities and competitors). All the rodeo champs used to train there and practice there before all the finals in Oklahoma City. I guess that’s how I got into rodeoing. Well, listen, from that point on I became an amateur and I filled my card in a year. I became a pro. It was just in my blood.

“When I started doing these bigger films, I was the first guy they had put in his contracts that I couldn’t rodeo, which is understandable. I could understand why they didn’t want me rodeoing on the weekends.”

LAB: You were heavy into your pro rodeo career when you worked on Funny Lady.

JC: “That’s a funny story. There was an incident where…there was about four weeks left on the picture and my lawyer at the time called me and said, ‘Jimmy, a week from next Wednesday I’m going to ask you to walk off the picture.’ I said, ‘What? What are you talking about?’ He said, ‘Well, they still haven’t signed the contract.’ Mind you, I’d been on it for two months already. I said, ‘What do you mean?’ Well, it turned out they agreed to the same deal I had on Cinderella Liberty and whatever and then they discovered, you’re not going to participate in the music rights, and they weren’t going to add that, which they usually do, to the gross of the picture – whatever little percentage I had. So they were arguing back and forth.

“Ray Stark (the film’s producer) was a tough guy and his lawyer was tough. I was sneaking out anyway (to rodeo). I was roping with a kid named H.P. Evens, who was a world champion at that time. And before that Wednesday I snuck out with H.P. and entered this rodeo in Palm Springs and as luck or whatever had it I roped this steer and I think as I sat back down to (?) it the horse threw me over the front of that saddle horn and that rope just ran through my hands. I wouldn’t let it go because I won like $86 or some bullshit. I could have lost a finger.

“It finally kicked up and dallied but it literally took all the hide off between my thumb and my forefinger. Just ran down to the bone. Oh my God, I remember some guy pouring some new skin in there. I had to go to work Monday. How the hell you going to keep that from the makeup people? I move my hands a lot in this picture, I’ll wrap it up, they’ll never notice it. So I do this scene with Barbra (Streisand). Nobody saw nothing. The minute I came off I headed to my trailer and I started putting some gauze on my hand and there was this guy standing there watching me. It was Ray Stark. He came over and said, ‘Goddamnit, you’ve been rodeoing again.’ I didn’t say nothing. And he said, ‘Didn’t you read your goddamned contract?’ And I said, ‘I don’t believe I’ve got one, Ray, and there’s another rodeo coming up this next week.’ Well, that afternoon the contract got signed.

“They took away my motorcycle from me and my right to enter rodeos.”

Cast and crew of The Rain People 

 

 

LAB: The Haythorns have quite a legacy.

JC: “I knew they were huge ranchers. I think there was some trail they blazed…”

NOTE: In 1890 Harry Haythorn, Waldo’s grandfather, and helpers drove 700 horses from eastern Oregon to the family’s ranch north of Ogallala, Neb., and then to the Rosebud Indian Reservation in south-central South Dakota, and this became the basis for the Duval-starring mini-series Broken Trail.

“So I became friendly with them (as did Duvall, who’s been to the Haythorn ranch several times).”

LAB: Of course Duvall got to know the Petersons intimately when he made his documentary about them.

JC: “I know he stayed close to them, and you know Rex (Peterson) along with Shelly (Peterson) are both out here, they both work in the industry (as horse trainers-wranglers). I haven’t heard from Denny. Shelly, I think she works in the Teamsters Union. Rex is training horses out here. He’s the most like his dad I guess of the guys I know. He’s a tough old sonofabitch. He ain’t got time for a lot of how ya’ doins and stuff.”

LAB: Duvall told me his experiences with the Petersons and the Haythorns informed his portrayals of the western characters he’s played. Is the same true of you?

JC: “My interest in ranching and all that, certainly that was a foundation for Comes a Horseman. And that was a complete fucking mess. I’ll get into that because Alan Pakula (the director), may be rest in peace, I wasn’t very fond of him, but two or three out of a hundred aint bad. But he didn’t know which end of a horse ate and he was the guy I got. I put the whole picture together and I’m not one of those guys that do all that stuff. I’m kind of lazy. I go in my trailer, say my words and go back in my trailer. When that picture was first conceived I went and got Jane Fonda. It was just a story about ranch life in 1945 in Montana. Montana was the last unfenced range in the country in ’45. And this guy (his character) comes back. It was just about the ranch life,. He joins forces with this girl.

“There was no Jason Robards character. There was none of that Bonanza bullshit. And Richard Farnsworth, I gave him his first acting job. He was great. And that’s what it was. I wanted to do a semi-documentary small picture. I went and spoke to Terrence Malick, who I wanted to do it and Terry said, ‘I know I’m going to shoot myself but I only do my own stuff…’and da-da-da. So then my agent got Alan Pakula. I was about to go off and do some picture with Claude LeLouch and I spent three or four hours with him (Pakula) telling him,’ Look, here’s what it is.’ And, of course, I had the best ropers in the world out there, and some of that roping in there was pretty hairy and wicked, 1,200 pounders. I just wanted to see these two people doing their work, trying to round these cattle up and all the stuff that’s entailed, and in the middle of the story, to put it in its simplest form, I wanted somebody from some oil company to come and offer them some silly money for the right to drill a hole where they found some oil on their property, and they say no, at which point I wanted the audience to go, ‘This is bullshit, this is nonsense, they’re working their ass off, who wouldn’t take $2 million?’

“And then when they finish driving the cattle to the station at the end of the picture I wanted the audience to realize that the only reason to ranch in my mind is that you love it, it’s for the right to do it again the next year, like the Haythorns and the Petersons. The idea that most of the people in the audience don’t really love what they do and they realize that instead of that being baloney, they get it. That’s what I wanted to happen. And then I came back from France and I read this thing (Pakula’s revised script) and went to the studio and said, ‘I’m not doing this – people hanging and rape. What are you talking about?’ And one of our guys got killed doing some stunt that was added to the end of the picture. It was a horror. But Jane was great.”

LAB: The way you describe what you were after on Comes a Horseman reminds me of what Duvall captured in We’re Not the Jet Set. You’ve seen his film, right?

JC: “No, what’s so funny, I speak to him three times a week, I mean he’s my best friend, you know. He tells me what he ate the night before (he does a dead-on impression of Duvall intoning, ‘the best steak I ever had…’ I called and said, ‘Bobby, send me a copy, I haven’t seen it.’ I knew all about it. Well, so you’d think he’d have it. He told me to call his assistant but she couldn’t find a DVD copy.”

 

 

James Caan and Robert Duvall - AFI Associates & Sony Pictures Classics' Premiere "Get Low" - After Party
Old Friends, Caan and Duvall, ©Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images North America

 

 

 

LAB: He said the two of you have been looking a long time to do another project together.

JC: “Well, there’s this one project I found called Old Timers. It’s owned by this one company and for some reason they won’t turn it loose. It’s been out there for four or five years.”

NOTE: The project is being made with different actors under the new title Standup Guys.

“Yeah, I’d sure like to find something for me and Bobby. Yeah, there’s nothing I’d like better, you know. I just have fun when I’m working with Bobby. He’s at the point where he doesn’t want to do pictures with too many words anymore.”

NOTE: Caan says he has a Western he’s trying to get off the ground, but he runs into resistance from young suits who don’t know his rodeo and riding background.

JC: “‘What the hell does Jimmy know about horses?’ So I fight that all the time. I’m always Sonny Corleone. These people can’t get it out of their mind. For the first 20 years after The Godfather if there weren’t 12 people dead by page 20 on a picture I never got it. Then all of a sudden I sang and danced (in Harold and Walter Go to New York and Funny Lady) and they said, ‘Well, geez, we didn’t know you sing and dance.’ Well, shit, no one ever asked me. ‘Well, we didn’t know you were a cowboy.’ Well, no one ever asked me. (To me) Talk to some of your friends who can write – time ain’t getting any shorter, you know.”

Ron Hansen’s Masterful Outlaw Blues Novel About Jesse James and Robert Ford Faithfully Interpreted On Screen

July 27, 2012 3 comments

One of my favorite films of the last decade is long and slow, inexorable and unrelenting, poetic and profound.  It is equally expressive in its visuals and sounds as it is in its verbal narrative storytelling and dramatized actions.  The film is The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which is about as literal a screen adaptation as you can find of a great novel, in this case the same titled book by Ron Hansen.  The following story for The Reader is based on interviews I did with Hansen, who worked closely with the film’s writer-director Andrew Dominik.

 

 

Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck as the title characters, Jesse James and Robert Ford, respectively

 

 

Ron Hansen’s Masterful Outlaw Blues Novel About Jesse James and Robert Ford Faithfully Interpreted On Screen

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader

 

Consider complete the much ballyhooed return of the Western with the new Warner Brothers film, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, starring Brad Pitt, Casey Affleck and a deep supporting cast. Opening everywhere October 5, it comes fast on the heels of 3:10 to Yuma and Shoot ‘Em Up and the multi-Emmy Award-winning TNT mini-series Broken Trail.

Like these other oaters, Assassination is a big-budget, star-laden picture. Unlike them, which slavishly conform to or outlandishly bend genre conventions with action-packed fictional stories that pose as fact, Assassination is a subdued, ruminative tone poem anchored in history. It owes much of its restrained authenticity and power to native Omahan Ron Hansen, the acclaimed author, whose much-admired 1983 novel of the same name the film closely adheres to.

Assassination is more a Western by proxy, its psychologically complex characters and events drawn from thoroughly researched figures and incidents that just happen to be of the Old West. Hansen, a Creighton Prep-Creighton University grad, steeped himself in the history, just as the film’s director, Andrew Dominik, studied Hansen’s book and did his own digging into the Jesse James-Bob Ford canon.

Prior to this project, Hansen, the Gerard Manley Hopkins SJ Professor of the Arts and Humanities at Santa Clara University, had less than satisfactory experiences with adaptations of his work. Atticus was made into a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie, Missing Pieces, that he thought missed the point of his novel. He adapted Mariette In Ecstacy for a feature film that ended up re-edited against his and the director’s wishes. It’s never been released. A writer’s adaptation of Isn’t It Romantic? so displeased Hansen he did everything in his power to stop the film being made. He succeeded. Assassination proved a pleasant change.

 

 

Ron Hansen

 

 

“Andrew Dominik has made a very faithful adaptation,” Hansen said simply. “Virtually every word in the script is mine.”

Unusual for Hollywood, Dominik (Chopper), whom Hansen described as “fairly reclusive,” consulted with the author from the completion of the first draft of his screenplay all the way through a second draft, the actual shoot and the final edit. Not only Dominik, but actors sounded out Hansen for advice. The author twice visited the set, was made an associate producer and even has a walk-on bit — as a reporter remarking to a photographer making a wet plate image of Jesse’s corpse.

“About 60 reporters hover around watching the process, and I’m in the shot at the extreme left, midway up the screen, wearing a fake mustache and a bowler hat, just watching. You only see it for a few seconds, but I nailed the part. Andrew gave me one line, ‘You’re going to make a lot of money from this, Alex,’ but the line didn’t make it into the final cut.”

He’s pleased with how rigorously accurate the film is.

From wooden knobs for hanging clothes to vintage children’s toys, he said, “the attention to detail is very impressive. The sets and the costumes are just tremendous. It’s not going to look like a typical Western because,” contrary to popular depictions of those times the film shows, “people didn’t wear cowboy clothes back then. Jesse James wore kind of a bowler hat, a businessman’s suit, a watch and a fob and all that. They wore boots and they rode horses and they packed guns, but they didn’t look like a lot of the portrayals of Jesse James.”

Hansen and Dominik take a dim view of previous screen renderings of James, feeling the gritty complexity and downright danger of the man and the times was ignored.

“The film’s costume-production designer, Patricia Norris, really knows her stuff, so she didn’t have to consult with me…In fact, she ended up teaching me,” Hansen said. “The last robbery of the James gang was the Blue Cut (Mo.) train robbery and she has this train interior unlike any you’ve seen before. It looks so totally different but obviously based on her own research. It’s just jam-packed with people and in the place where you would normally put luggage people are lying as if on palettes.”

It’s rare a writer gets carte blanche access to the making of a film based on his work, especially when the adaptation’s by someone else, in this case Dominik, a New Zealand-born Aussie.

 

 

 

 

Hansen’s involvement began with a phone call in early 2004. It wasn’t the first time someone showed interest in his James novel. But this time was different.

“I got word from my agent somebody was interested in doing this. It turned out to be Warner Brothers. And from the very first Andrew Dominik was going to write the screenplay. Maybe around June my agent said Andrew wanted to see some of my screenplays and earlier books, so I sent those on to him,” he said. “Then around September Andrew showed me his first draft of the screenplay, which I really liked.

“Every once in a while I’d have a quarrel with a word and then realize he’d taken it right out of the book. I talked to Andrew a good bit about that (first draft) and then he did another draft and sent that to me, and we talked about it, too. Then I met him in December at the Ritz Carleton Hotel in Pasadena.

“We had conversations frequently after that and then the next thing I knew it was greenlighted and he was just about to head up to Canada.”

Dominik spent the first half of 2005 scouting locations in Edmonton and Calgary. Before cameras started rolling in late summer, the filmmaker wanted Hansen’s input on some casting decisions.

“He would consult with me about various actors…especially as they were interviewing people for the role of Robert Ford. ‘What do you think of this guy?’ ‘Have you seen anybody you like?’ And I would mention people I’d seen who looked like him. Andrew had two scenes for the auditions for Bob Ford. One was early on, when Bob first contacts Frank James about being his sidekick on this train robbery.

The other’s 10 years later, when Bob Ford’s alone in Creed, Colo. and has his own saloon and is about to hire a dance hall girl and she asks him what Jesse James is like. Some people could do the first, but not the second scene. Some could do the second, but not the first. Finally, Casey Affleck seemed to be the best choice.”

On his visits to the closed set Hansen was given free reign to “wander around” and to “watch scenes” unfold. “I visited the set in Edmonton September 12-15, when they were shooting scenes in Heritage Park of Jesse and the gang at his Kansas City (Mo.) home and of the aftermath of his killing in St. Joseph (Mo.). Then I went up to Calgary October 3-6 for scenes with Jesse and the Ford brothers in the house on ‘Confusion Hill’ in St. Joseph.”

He spoke to many of the principals, including Pitt and Affleck. More than making small talk, these exchanges allowed Hansen to “give them my ideas and maybe change some wording that was difficult for them.” This interaction actually began months earlier, before filming commenced.

Said Hansen, “An actor would call me up and want to know more about his character. Or about why a particular word was used. What did it mean. Would it be OK if they said this and not this. That kind of continued when I was on the set. The actors really liked having me around because they could come ask, ‘Is there something else I can say in this scene?’ Then I could just throw out a line and a minute later I’d be hearing the line said.

“Actors ad-libbed on occasion, otherwise the dialogue and voice over are straight from the book,” he said.

He’s impressed with the work of the two leads. He particularly feels Pitt’s malleable performance captures Jesse’s instability, which gave Dominik many options.

“You would see maybe seven takes of one speech he gives and he would do it in subtly different ways each time,” Hansen said. “He was really prepared for the various shadings of Jesse James’s character and to explore this guy who was really a psychopath, but a charming one who could be scary and funny and admirable within moments. And that’s true of several scenes Brad Pitt plays with Casey Affleck. He (Pitt) gets all the nuances and all the expressions. James kept people off-balance by constantly shifting his mood and Pitt does a great job of presenting that. James was a vital presence and that’s what Pitt brings. He’s constantly surprising you. You can’t anticipate what he’s going to do next.”

As in Hansen’s book, the film considers James in counterpoint to Ford, his antithetical alter ego and killer. Much has been written about each man and their relationship and motivations. Hansen finds both to be fascinating enigmas.

“Ford kind of hitched up along with the James gang because they were famous and because it seemed like easy money. He ingratiated himself with Jesse James,” Hansen said. The legend that grew in the aftermath of the two men’s fatal last meeting branded Ford a coward, but the book and the film “show that Robert Ford really wasn’t a coward, he was an opportunist,” Hansen said. “When he was threatened and felt like he was going to be killed himself, he turned on James, but it wasn’t as though James wasn’t going to turn on him either.”

 

 

Andrew Dominik conferring on location with Brad Pitt

 

 

“A lot of people still admire Jesse James,” the author noted, “and I wanted to impress on them he really was a psychopath. I wanted to do a kind of character-in-the-round the way Shakespeare does, where you see both his good and bad sides and get to appreciate what draws people to him. He was a star in a lot of ways, and he used it. If he entered a room all eyes would be on him.”

As for the James-Ford dynamic, Hansen said, “I think they were oil and vinegar in some ways, but at the same time they were feeding off each other. Ford was really intrinsic to the last days of Jesse James. It was almost as if James knew death was necessary and he was looking for the person to kill him, and he decided on Ford.”

Expectations will be challenged by the moody film, he said, which eschews “bullets flying around” and “blood” for “a character study of this dance with death between Jesse James and Bob Ford.”

Hansen, his wife, writer Bo Caldwell (The Distant Land of My Father), and his step-children attended the film’s New York City premiere on September 18 at the Zeigfeld Theater.

“I thought the movie was superb,” Hansen said.

Reviews have been wildly enthusiastic.

All this means new life for Hansen’s 24-year-old novel. Harper Perennial has reissued a mass market paperback edition and a trade paperback version with an added postscript on the writing of the book and the making of the movie.

Meanwhile, Hansen’s other Western novel, Desperados, is under option with filmmakers. His new novel, Exiles, is slated for a May release by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. It tells the story of a 19th century shipwreck, the English poet-priest Gerard Manley Hopkins’ obsession with it and the famous poem, The Wreck of the Deutschland, he wrote about it.

Jane Fonda Comes Home

July 23, 2012 8 comments

 

 

LATEST UPDATE:  Jane Fonda shares her thoughts about her weekend in Omaha on her blog site-

Jane Fonda Official Site

 janefonda.com/

 

ANOTHER UPDATE: The Film Streams Feature Event presenting Jane Fonda in conversation with Alexander Payne reminded me of the 1981 Omaha Community Playhouse event, An Evening with Mister Fonda.  The earlier event was a pull-out-all-the-stops tribute to Jane’s father, the late iconic actor Henry Fonda.  His Hollywood press agent and close personal friend John Springer, a biographer of the Fondas, interviewed the actor on stage at the Playhouse.  Much like the Jane Fonda event last night, which had Alexander Payne interview her, film clips were screened to break up the talk.  Coincidentally, I was programming a film series at the University of Nebraska at Omaha in the early 1980s and so I made sure to schedule a Henry Fonda-Dorothy McGuire film festival that showed around the same time as the Playhouse tribute.   Film Streams’ repertory series of Jane Fonda films continues.  What goes around comes around, and so the circle is completed.

UPDATE: I forgot to mention that one of my favorite parts of the Jane Fonda in Conversation with Alexander Payne event was the surprise appearance by Laura Dern.  The actress has maintained a friendship with Payne since she starred in his first feature, Citizen Ruth, which was filmed in and around Omaha.  Her loyalty to and affection for Payne was demonstrated when she was the guest star for the inaugural Film Streams Feature Event that featured her in conversation with the filmmaker.  I got to interview her in advance of that event and an excerpt from my resulting story, When Laura Met Alex, can be found on this blog.  It turns out she came to Omaha for the Fonda event because, not surprisingly, she’s an admirer of the older actress and in fact met her when her father Bruce Dern worked with Fonda on Coming Home.  Dern described how that meeting and her opprotunity to closely observe her at work helped inspire her to pursue acting with the same unvarnished honesty as Fonda.  Both of Dern’s actor parents, her father Bruce Derna and mother Diane Ladd, worked with Fonda and as fate would have it her father is about to star in Payne’s new film, Nebraska.  How’s that for synchronicity?

I wouldn’t be surprised if Payne ends up working with Dern again and somehow finds a role for Fonda in one of his future projects.

As expected, Jane Fonda came and captured the hearts of those attending the Film Streams Feature Event IV last night (July 22) at the Holland Performing Arts Center in Omaha. Understandably, it was not only an emotional evening for her but an emotion-packed weekend, much of which she spent touring old family haunts, including the Omaha Communithy Playhouse that her late father, she, and her brother Peter all acted in.  Spoken and unspoken, her father’s legacy looms large over her and she must particularly feel his presence when she’s back where so much Fonda lore is present.  Omaha is where her iconic father Henry Fonda was raised, learned his social consciousnesses, and began acting.  One of the new things I learned from the conversation she engaged in with Alexander Payne live on the Holland stage is that she did some of her growing up here as well.  I knew that her father’s sister Harriet  lived in the Dundee neighborhood where he grew up and that he came back to visit her and I knew that Peter had attended Brownell-Talbot School and the University of Omaha here  but I always assumed Jane had little contact herself with the extended family in their communal hometown.  But it turns out she visted more than occasionally during her youth, even spending chunks of the summer in town during breaks from the elite boarding schools she attended.  She even says it was in Omaha where she came of age as an adolescent in the 1950s, which became her own personal Amercian Graffiti stomping grounds for cruising in cars up and down the main drag, Dodge Street, for taking-in drive-in movies, and for participating in sock-hops, and all the rest.  She told Payne and us that her aunt Harriett arranged for girls her age from the neighborhood to meet her and made she she was invited to parties and such. She also indicated that Warren Buffett and family, who also called Dundee home, have been friends with the Fondas over the years.

I didn’t get to interview her or meet her as I had hoped, but I’m happy that Film Streams has reenaged her with Omaha and Nebraska after her being away a long time.  She was apparently last here in the late ’90s with her then-husband Ted Turner, who has ranching interests in the state. Before that, she accompanied On Golden Pond to its Midwest premiere at the Orpheum Theatre. She’s pledged to continue her relationship with this place and with Payne, who serves on the Film Streams board and is the one responsible for bringing her back into the fold so to speak.  Now it’s time the same be done with Peter Fonda.  And the same with other Nebraskans in Film, including Joan Micklin Silver, Nick Nolte, Swoosie Kurtz, Gabrielle Union, Yolonda Ross, Gail Levin, Lynn Stalmaster, Monty Ross, et cetera.  For too long Nebraska has ignored its film heritage.  It should be celebrated and I’m glad to say that Payne and Film Streams are motivated to do that.

 

 

Film Streams at Five: Art Cinema Contributes to a Transformed Omaha Through Community Focus on Film and Discussion

July 13, 2012 5 comments

The Film Streams art cinema in Omaha gets more than its share of attention and deservedly so.  It operates at a world-class level under the leadership of Rachel Jacobson.  It has the likes of filmmaker Alexander Payne and novelist  Kurt Andersen as board members and advisers, not to mention guest curators and hosts.  Its visiting artists have included Steven Soderbergh, Debra Winger, Laura Dern.  And to help celebrate its fifth anniversary and raise funds for the organization it’s bringing Jane Fonda in for a July 22 on-stage conversation with Payne.  The following story I wrote, soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com), examines the organization’s strong community orientation and considers Fonda’s legendaric status.

 

 

Film Streams at Five: Art Cinema Contributes to a Transformed Omaha Through Community Focus on Film and Discussion

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Just as Omaha’s come of age with performing arts venues, nightlife attractions, community events and public spaces, so it’s matured in cinema.

This maturation first bloomed when Alexander Payne made features here. Then the local indie filmmaking scene organized. Subsequently the Omaha Film Festival’s provided an annual juried focus on movies.

But the real growth came when Film Streams launched in 2008, thus giving north downtown a vital new anchor and the metro its first year-round dedicated art cinema. Another amenity in the transformed Omaha.

More than a showcase Film Streams is viewed as a cultural center that invites discussions around movies and their themes.

“I love that there is a place to talk about complex and difficult issues and where I am learning about and appreciating film in a whole new way,” says board member Katie Weitz White.

Board member Paul Smith says “films that would never be seen in Omaha but for the existence of Film Streams are shown and provoke a discussion amongst a diverse community of people who attend those showings, and I think it’s very healthy and enriching to our community.”

He mentions the documentaries Food Inc. and A Time for Burning as films whose subjects, the nation’s food supply and racial discrimination, respectively, became talking points following screenings.

The nonprofit is part of the new community engagement model championed by young professionals here. Perhaps no one embodies that aesthetic more than Film Streams founder-director Rachel Jacobson.

Rachel Jacobson

 

 

The Omaha native long harbored the vision for an art cinema. She enlisted artists, entrepreneurs, community leaders and business experts to help realize it. A classic networker, Jacobson’s built an enviable, pro-active board of directors and advisory board filled with heavy hitters, influencers and tastemakers.

Two celebrity players from Omaha, Payne and Kurt Andersen, are more than window-dressing names associated with it. They guest curate series and host the annual fund raiser, Feature Event. The July 22 Feature Event IV pairs Payne in conversation with Jane Fonda. Past Features brought Steven Soderbergh, Debra Winger and Laura Dern. It’s no secret Payne reels in these major cinema figures.

“That’s really all about Alexander,” says Jacobson. “We wouldn’t be able to do that without him and we are so fortunate because Feature Event provides 15 to 20  percent of the annual budget. So that’s a huge deal for us as an institution.”

The gala’s evolution reflects how Film Streams capitalizes on relationships.

“It’s been a collaboration between us and the Holland and each of the different chairs of the gala. The first chairs were Betiana and Todd Simon, the second chairs were Paul and Annette Smith. Last year it was Katie Weitz White and her husband Watie White and the Weitz family. This year’s chair is Susie Buffett.

“All the different chairs and gala committees have helped shape the event and make it into this interesting thing. Alexander’s been involved. It’s not the kind of fund raiser where we’re auctioning off stuff. We’re not talking about fund raising at the event. We raise the money up front. That way the event gets to be about our mission.”

It’s only one night but in that small window Film Streams coalesces everything it stands for by giving film-as-art a big fat community forum.

“It’s become this signature thing that’s perfect for us. The fact that we get to bring these world renowned actors and directors to town is absolutely thrilling and the conversations have been I think really meaningful and one-of-a-kind,” she says.

Similarly, the whole community development piece of Film Streams has been shaped by many participants. Jacobson says the one-page prospectus she devised “of what Film Streams was going to be,” which amounted to her version of Charles Foster Kane‘s declaration of principles in Citizen Kane, “is very similar to what the organization has become. But the way that everything’s been created has been very collaborative with the staff and the board and with everyone engaged with the organization. Even though it matches what was inside my head it really is outside of me now. It’s something that a lot more people have a hand in authoring.”

Among those varied authors is her father David Jacobson (Kutack Rock), who chairs the board of directors. The board of directors includes members of old-line art philanthropist families.

Jason Kulbel and Robb Nansel of Saddle Creek Records and Lyn Wallin Ziegenbein with the Peter Kiewit Foundation are advisory members from different generations, each exerting pull in different segments.

The broad-based support Film Streams has received from donors, granters and box office patrons has allowed it to become a vested fixture on the arts-culture landscape in a short time.

“What Film Streams has achieved in only five years in being one of the jewels in the crown of the Omaha arts scene, together with the symphony and the zoo and The Rose and the College World Series and the Bemis, is an amazing achievement as far as I’m concerned,” says Payne. “I go to other cities and they don’t have Film Streams.”

Paul and Annette Smith support the organization monetarily and as advocates. The couple sponsored Feature Event II with Debra Winger.

“We’ve been a vocal proponent of Film Streams and we do that really because we believe it plays a critical role in the community,” says Smith a Taneska Capital Management. “The way I think about this is it’s an investment of time, talent, some treasure in an organization which is a cultural asset.”

For film buffs like Sam Walker, “Film Streams has been a dream come true.” Before it the University of Nebraska at Omaha emeritus professor of criminal justice made do with scattershot screenings of art and classic films at commercial theaters and other venues. Documentaries rarely showed. Visits by guest film artists were almost nonexistent. Forget about any discussion or education.

The situation worsened when local universities and museums abandoned curated alternative film series. As cineplexes became slaves to blockbusters and sequels, the metro starved for an art film fix. Enter Film Streams. It’s already presented more than 200 first-run premieres and 400-plus classics, shown films from 43 nations and welcomed 222,000 patrons to 700-plus programs at its Ruth Sokolof Theater.

Forty-some visiting filmmakers and guests have spoken there. Dozens of panels and Q&As have followed screenings.

Payne sums up the seascape change with, “Omahans now take it for granted they can go see great movies, and that is an amazing development.”

Alexander Payne

Guest filmmakers sing its praises too.

Louder Than a Bomb documentary producer-director Greg Jacobs says Film Streams “really was one of the favorite stops” on its theatrical tour. “It’s an amazing facility and program. i just got the sense it’s a creative hub.” Jacobs notes what many observers do – that the organization takes its role as catalyst seriously.

Just as it occurs wherever the film plays some Omaha viewers “came up afterwards interested in Louder Than a Bomb as an event,” he says. “But what makes Film Streams stand out,” he adds, “is that Rachel Jacobson helped connect us with poet Matt Mason (Nebraska Writers Collective), which ultimately led to the creation of Louder Than a Bomb Omaha. I think it’s something very special when people take interest not just in the film but in the outreach activities around it. The folks there were involved enough to see the film could have an impact beyond its screening.”

“I get the sense Rachel’s innately a connector,” says Jacobs. “That’s the kind of role she plays. There’s a real desire to not just have people there but then to see what other things she can help create from that.”

“I’ve always loved the social action element of film and how it can convey ideas about issues and spark important conversations,” says Jacobson. “You can maximize the power of film by having discussions around them.”

Film Streams screened the documentaries Restrepo and To Hell and Back and hosted ensuing discussions by veterans and heath care workers about PTSD. It screened the doc The Last Survivor and hosted discussions about genocide.

“These are tough conversations to have and I love that we’re able to provide a safe place to have that kind of dialogue. That wasn’t really the initial vision, but seeing that happen has been exciting.”

She considers Omaha conducive to doing community outreach.

“I think a lot of it’s due to the nature of Omaha and how things operate, how everyone is kind of interconnected in 12 different ways. So we just have these opportunities to link to so many different organizations and individuals who in turn are willing to collaborate.

“That aspect has been really surprising. I didn’t realize how wide ranging it could be. I never really imagined how many different interest groups and demographics would be able to engage with it. It just kind of happened.”

 

 

 

 

The 100-some partners Film Streams has cultivated run the gamut from arts groups to community organizations and social service agencies to school districts and universities. One partner is the Office of Latino and Latin American Studies at UNO. OLLAS-Film Streams present a biennial Cinemateca series. It returns August 12.

“The partnership became an instant expression of these two organizations’ mutual commitment to community engagement and to the broadening of learning opportunities beyond traditional spaces,” says OLLAS executive director Lourdes Gouevia. “We continue to explore ways to encourage the Latino and non-Latino community to experience this great theater and the beauty of Spanish and Portuguese foreign films.

“This year’s Cinemateca will include food, music and audience forums guided by OLLAS faculty as well as an invited film expert from the University of Pittsburgh. The series brings in El Museo Latino as a partner.”

All that engagement has a practical side, too. “It has to be that way in order to be sustainable,” says Jacobson, who bends the ear of top business executives.

“It’s very common to find compelling nonprofits that aren’t very well run and Film Streams is a very well run organization,” says Paul Smith. “I spend a good deal of time helping Rachel with organizing the financial management of her business and she’s a very sharp person, a very quick study, and is an effective business manager. It’s great to work with somebody like that.”

Smith says while the business end is not the sexy part of Film Streams, “it’s the infrastructure everything else hangs on. You need to have a good financial infrastructure. Without that you can’t do the fun stuff.”

Payne says the best is yet to come. “Wait till you see all the other outreach programs Film Streams is going to try to do in the next five years.”

 

 

Jane Fonda: A Legend Considered

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Jane Fonda. Love her or hate her, she’s a lightning rod figure like few others in film.

When the actress appears at the July 22 Film Streams Feature Event she’ll not only carry the impressive legacy of her personal filmography but that of her iconic family. Alexander Payne will undoubtedly cover the Fonda family acting tree when he converses with her live on stage at the Holland Performing Arts Center.

“To have such a remarkable star and actress and icon, and with the Omaha connection, well, it’s in my dreams,” says Payne.

The Fondas became a noted thespian clan when Jane and brother Peter followed their father, Henry Fonda, into the family business. Papa got his start at the Omaha Community Playhouse, where the siblings did their earliest acting.

In a life and career filled with makeovers and causes, she’s been sex symbol, counterculture rebel, traitor, feminist, artist, power player and fitness guru. Today, she’s best known as a healthy aging advocate and author.

Her early career rested more on her famous name and fashion model good looks than acting ability. But she remade herself from sex kitten ingenue in mostly forgettable Hollywood and European romps (the latter directed by her Svengali-like filmmaking partner Roger Vadim) to serious actress and wannabe activist. Her commitment to challenging projects and roles set her apart from her peers.

At the dawn of the New Hollywood she was perhaps the most powerful woman in the industry, often developing-producing her own material, and usually choosing a smart balance of commercial and art properties.

She turned entrepreneur in the 1980s when she tapped the nascent fitness craze with home workout videos that went viral. Her marriage to politico Tom Hayden ended in 1989. She then married rogue media czar Ted Turner in 1991 and abruptly retired from acting.

Her 2005 autobiography made peace with her deceased father. That same year she returned to acting. The Omaha event comes just as she’s reemerging as a screen presence. Her persona’s come full circle too – from coquette to neurotic to career woman to unreconstructed yippie.

A repertory series of her work shows now through August 30 at Film Streams.

The series:

Cat Ballou

She’s the fetching, spirited title character who hires gunman Kid Shelleen to meet out justice against Tim Strawn (both played by Lee Marvin) for the murder of her father. She holds her own with Marvin in this whimsical Western comedy with heart.

Barbarella

Fonda’s an eye candy fantasy figure in this surreal, pan-sexual trip. She and the film’s director, her then-husband Roger Vadim, push the boundaries of sexual expression and liberation on screen that he earlier exploited with Brigitte Bardot.

They Shoot Horses Don’t They?

It’s a harder, jaded Fonda stripped of any glamour in a bleak story of Depression-era dance marathoners intent on oblivion. The guile, vulnerability and yearning she revealed here became her signature face.

Klute

Fonda consolidated her new serious image with this post-modern take on the prostitute-with-a-heart-of-gold convention. She’s both savvy and brittle as Bree Daniels, a New York call girl entangled with a small town detective (Donald Sutherland) investigating a disappearance in the big city. Her first Oscar win.

Julia 

As playwright Lillian Hellman she juggles writerly insecurities and triumphs, a tumultuous relationship with Dashiell Hammett (Jason Robards) and danger aiding a friend, Julia (Vanessa Redgrave) caught in the web of anti-Nazi intrigue.

Coming Home

Perhaps her most defining role came as a socially conscious war bride who has an affair with a paraplegic anti-war vet (Jon Voight). Her army officer husband (Bruce Dern) returns from ‘Nam a shattered man and becomes unhinged when he discovers her infidelity, Her second Oscar win.

The China Syndrome

Fonda makes spunk sexy in the part of an ambitious TV reporter who stumbles upon a nuclear reactor accident story. She finds just the right chemistry with cool Michael Douglas and manic Jack Lemmon in this prescient cautionary tale.

Nine to Five

Buttoned-down Jane joins Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton in taking extreme measures against their oppressive boss (Dabney Coleman) and his misogynistic ways in this proto-feminist comedy. She plays it straight and gets laughs.

On Golden Pond

This career grace note paired her with Henry for the only time on screen in a story deeply resonant with their own real-life father-daughter dynamics. Henry disliked her Method style. The cathartic project also teamed her with Katharine Hepburn. Jane came to the Orpheum for the film’s gilded Midwest premiere and later accepted her father’s Best Actor statuette at the Oscars.

At Film Streams’ invitation Fonda’s selected two favorite films – 12 Angry Men starring her father and the 1941 Preston Sturges comedy classic Sullivan’s Travels.

Tickets for the 6:30 p.m. Feature event are $35. For pre and post-event party tickets and screening dates-times, visit http://www.filmstreams.org.

For Love of Art and Cinema, Danny Lee Ladely Follows His Muse

July 8, 2012 2 comments

When I wrote the following article in the early 2000s the alternative cinema landscape in Nebraska was very different than it is today.  The profile subject of the story, Danny Lee Ladely, headed the only dedicated art cinema in the state, what was then called the Mary Riepma Ross Film Theater but which came to be known as the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center , located in Lincoln, Neb. At roughly twice the size of Lincoln, Omaha had no such venue.  Neither could one be found anywhere else in the state.  That’s changed with the addition of Film Streams in Omaha, where Rachel Jacobson is the metro’s equivalent to Ladely in running and programming a full fledged art cinema complete with screenings of the best in contemporary film, along with repertory programs, visiting filmmakers, Q&As, and panel discussions.  The Omaha Film Festival has added another dimension to the film scene.  And there have been concerted efforts to restore long abandoned neighborhood and small town theaters.  This is all familiar territory for me, as I used to be a film programmer in Omaha and I appreciate any attempts to engage and energize the cinema culture here.  Ladely was way out in front of anyone in Nebraska in nurturing an alternative film culture and what he’s accomplished with the Ross in Lincoln is remarkable, including the new facility he got built courtesy of the cinema’s major patroness and namesake, Mary Riepma Ross.   My piece for The Reader (www.thereader.com) appeared as the facility was under construction.  It’s been operational for years now and now that Film Streams in Omaha has provided a comparable venue in Omaha, the area’s once rather stark art cinema landscape has turned bountiful.  It took the vision and will of Ladely and Jacobson (who’s profiled on this blog) to make it happen.

 

 

Danny Lee Ladely in Telluride

 

 

For Love of Art and Cinema, Danny Lee Ladely Follows His Muse 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 
With his braided pony tail, arrowhead-pattern shirt, blue jeans, boots and Stetson hat, Nebraska film guru Dan Lee Ladely looks like a holdover from the 1960s, when the Gordon, Neb. native was in fact an anti-war demonstrator in college. During his undergrad days at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he earned a degree in English lit between showing films for the student council, he once led a takeover of the campus ROTC building. These days the 50-something Ladely is an activist for the aesthetic, educational and entertainment value of the moving image and more and more his cinema dreams loom large on the horizon.

As construction proceeds on the new Mary Riepma Ross Film Theater (MRRFT) at 13th and P Streets in Lincoln, the new home for the nationally recognized alternative film program Ladely’s overseen since 1973, he daily watches his dreams taking shape from the temporary office he and his small staff occupy a block away. Once the theater opens in early 2003 he plans an ambitious exhibition schedule that will give cinephiles access to see American independent, first-run foreign and classic films the way they’re meant to be seen and opportunities to meet emerging and established filmmakers. Two auditoriums, equipped for film, digital and video projection, will provide flexible exhibition space to show a large, diverse menu of feature, documentary and short films as well as video art pieces. Plans call for the theater’s Great Plains Film Festival, a celebration of regional indie film which Ladely inaugurated, to continue unreeling there every other year.

The new theater will replace the auditorium the program exhibited in at the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, located within a block of the new site.

The MRRFT is an anomaly. Where art houses and alternative film series have failed in more populous Omaha, Ladely’s program has survived 30 years in Lincoln of all places and now, in the midst of a recession, is embarking on a new building program.

It is a stunning accomplishment, especially in the capitol of such a conservative state, because the pitfalls to success in the art film market are legion. Among the obstacles to running any art house in today’s environment are: the tight economy; the fact that indie films regularly play at commercial cineplexes; and the encroaching presence of cable television, video-DVD and the Internet, media formats that feature much of the same kind of fare art houses used to be the exclusive outlet for.

Now, a film buff outfitted with a home theater system can select from the market’s glut of viewing choices and, in effect, be his or her own film programmer. In addition to this competition, Ladely’s program faces additional constraints in the form of: budget cuts, as his theater is partly subsidized by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where it is a department within the College of Fine and Performing Arts; the whims of private and public contributors it depends on for the bulk of its funding; and ever higher operating costs. All of which might lead one to wonder if this is the right time to build a new theater?

“There still is a place and a need for this program and I think people will respond,” a reflective and soft-spoken Ladely said. “I think people will come out, at least at the beginning out of curiosity, in pretty good numbers. The new building is going to do one thing for us. We were sort of hidden in the Sheldon Art Gallery. I think being in an art museum kind of put some people off and now that we won’t be there we have the possibility of a whole new audience.”

The mission of the theater, which he said he “sort of created out of thin air” over the years, has always been “to provide an alternative venue for true commercial cinema and to bring films here that wouldn’t get shown here otherwise.”

 

 

 

 

He said the proliferation of art films on cable and video/DVD has made it “harder and harder” to stay true to that vision. But the one thing MRRFT can still provide is a state-of-the-art space where you can watch these films in the manner in which they were meant to be seen, namely, a theater. He said regardless of how elaborate one’s home theater system is, “it’s still not the same” as the real thing. “No matter what happens in the future there’s always going to be a place for the film theater because film is really still a social event. Even though you’re there in the dark, there’s an audience and the audience reacts and that’s part of the experience. It’s totally different when you’re home alone.” Plus, there’s the dearth of alternative film exhibition in Nebraska, where except for the Dundee Theater, art houses have come and gone, the most recent being the short-lived Brandeis Art Cinema.

As Ladely points out, “There isn’t any other alternative place in this whole area right now where you can see these films.”

Much of what Ladely envisions has already been done from its old site in the currently closed Sheldon Art Gallery, where a major renovation under way has put a halt to the film program’s exhibition schedule until the new theater is completed. For years the program has been the state’s best and most consistent venue for presenting what used to be called underground cinema and the people who make it.

Where many like programs in Omaha once thrived but eventually folded, including those of the New Cinema Cooperative, the Joslyn Art Museum and the UNO Student Programming Organization, Ladely’s has continued uninterrupted for 30 years. How? Part of the answer lies in the fact the Lincoln program has enjoyed a measure of institutional support unknown elsewhere in this state owing to the legacy of the man who formed it and hired Ladely to run it, Sheldon’s director emeritus Norman Gesky, and to Ladely’s own passion for creating something of world-class stature. Ladely also had hands-on experience running two theaters in his native Gordon. Long a step-child of the Sheldon, where the MRRFT eventually lost favor under the man who succeeded Gesky as director, George Neubert, who cut the exhibition schedule and made life uneasy for Ladely, the theater is now poised to have its own stand-alone facility and identity.

And then there’s the one factor separating the theater from its imitators — Mary Riepma Ross. The retired New York lawyer is not only the theater’s namesake but its most ardent patron, biggest contributor and tenacious protector. A former UNL undergraduate student who fell in love with the movies as a young girl living in Lincoln, she was serving on the University Foundation board of trustees in the 1970s when then-chancellor Durwood “Woody” Varner put her in touch with the Sheldon’s Geske, a fellow film buff just beginning to shape plans for a full-fledged film program. She bought into Geske’s vision and, according to Ladely, “pledged she would support the program, which she’s obviously done. She started very early on sending us financial donations.”

In 1990, with the then Sheldon Film Theater struggling financially after a round of state budget cuts and slowly but surely being squeezed into oblivion by a director (Neubert) unfriendly toward the program, Ladely sent her a letter outlining his bold dream for a new theater space that would give the program a solid, independent foundation for survival and growth. It was just an idea. Ladely didn’t even ask for money. Amazingly, her response was to donate 3.5 million dollars in an irrevocable trust, a giant windfall for an arts organization of any size anywhere, but a truly extraordinary and unprecedented commitment for a film series in the Midwest. The Sheldon Film Theater quickly became the Mary Riepma Ross Film Theater.

Ladely, who has a portrait of his benefactress hanging in his office, said, “She’s actually the perfect patron. She has really impeccable tastes in film and she loves the kind of films we show. She sees them in New York and often writes to me and sends in articles about films she’s seen and makes recommendations to me. And very often they’re films we’re considering and we end up showing.”

 

 

Ladely with the portrait of Mary Riepma Ross

 

 

In the new space Ladely anticipates reviving some activities he was forced to abandon during leaner times, such as film retrospectives, artist showcases and screening seven nights a week. In the past he has brought to Lincoln prominent filmmakers and actors with local ties, including Joan Micklin Silver, Peter Fonda and  John Beasley. And now for the first time the theater will sell concessions, including popcorn, a new revenue stream he’s counting on to help defray expenses. He would also like to resume the theater’s long dormant touring film exhibition program and to share programs with other organizations, such as a film series it cooperatively presented with the Joslyn a few years ago.

There’s even more Ladely would like to do, but he admits all his plans are ultimately “contingent upon whether or not we can come up with enough money to keep the program going.” That’s why Ladely is using this down time while the MRRFT marquee is blank to write grants and solicit funds. Even if successful in securing enough money for the new theater’s operating budget, he is left with the nagging realization that attendance just isn’t what it used to be for documentaries by Emile De Antonio, Ricky Leacock, Albert Maysles and D.A. Pennebaker (all of whom appeared at the old theater at one time or another) or for Hollywood classics or for the best emerging cinema from places like Iran.

Even in its fattest years, he said, “if the university hadn’t been paying all the utilities…we couldn’t have survived as a stand-alone theater in a market this size.” That, and the fact the theater is about to come out of the shadows and expand in every way, has made for “sleepless nights” for Ladely, who is left “wondering how we’re going to do it.”

But, if nothing else, Ladely is an evangelist for film. He has a way of making you see the stars in his eyes when he discusses the kind of cinema he sees at the Telluride and Sundance festivals and that makes him compelled to share it with audiences here.

“I’m really interested in what’s going on now. What’s coming out. What’s the next big thing. Who’s doing what. I’m always interested in new filmmakers. And I’m very interested in what’s happening locally. One of the major things we’ll be doing in the small theater is have an open screening night where local filmmakers show their films. We’ll be able to show them in almost any format.” He said he keeps tabs on the local filmmaking scene and expects more new filmmakers to surface as technology makes moviemaking, especially the digital variety, more accessible and affordable, “That’s going to be very exciting — to see what comes out of that.”

Despite shrinking attendance for things like politically-charged documentaries, he will continue programming quality cinema regardless of how little box office potential it has, because that is part of what an alternative film series is all about, particularly one allied with a university.

“We have to balance this out between showing stuff that’s very esoteric and very important, even if there’s just one person in the audience, and showing stuff that’s more popular and generates a bigger audience. Just like there are classes that are real popular and classes that aren’t popular but are really important and you have to have, there are some kinds of films people don’t want to see but it’s absolutely important that, for example, film students see them in order to get a well-rounded education. The university has these burgeoning film studies and new media programs and I think our program definitely serves a need for those students.” Reality also dictates the theater at least break even, which means Ladely must show slightly more mainstream fare or at least indie cinema with a strong buzz behind it in the hope that better box office returns offset losses incurred on more obscure selections.

Jane Fonda Takes Center Stage at Film Streams, Where Her Life in Film is Celebrated this Summer

June 19, 2012 6 comments

The Omaha art cinema Film Streams is making a habit of saluting prominent American screen actresses.  The way it works is a guest star comes for a special evening in which Film Streams board member and world acclaimed filmmaker Alexander Payne interviews her live on stage, ala Inside the Actors Studio.  A repertory series of her work is part of the deal.  Laura Dern got the treatment the first time.  Debra Winger came next.  Jane Fonda is this year’s feted subject. Depending on your age or aesthetic or political affiliation Fonda means different things to different people.  For some, she’s an enduring star.  For others, a faded one.  Depending on your tastes, she boasts an impressive body of stand-the-test-of-time work or else a decidedly uneven euvre outside a few notable exceptions.  Many still find unforgivable her anti-war protests and vilify her every move.  Many more feel affectionate and nostalgic about her as the daughter of Henry Fonda and as one of the 1960s and 1970s biggest stars.  She’s prettty much done it all as a cinema diva – from ingenue to sex symbol to serious Method actress, the star of box office hits and critically acclaimed prestige pics, gobs of Golden Globe and Oscar nominations, two Academy Award wins for Best Actress, an Emmy for Best Lead Actress.  Retiring from the screen at age 50 and making a comeback at nearly 70.  Now, of course, as a woman of a certain age (74) she’s a supporting player or character actress who brings a rich persona and background to any role she takes.  Part of the context of Jane Fonda today is that her adventurous personal life informs her work.  Her boarding school and debutant upbringing.  Her early modeling career.  Studying under Lee Strasberg.  Her marriages to Roger Vadim, Tom Hayden, and Ted Turner.  Her activist years.  Becoming a Hollywood Player as a producer.  Making herself a fitness guru.  Her forever strained relationship with her famous father.  And her identity today as a healthy aging advocate and author.  You’ll find plenty of film stories by me on this blog.  Many happy cinema returns.

Jane Fonda

Jane Fonda Takes Center Stage at Film Streams, Where Her Life in Film is Celebrated this Summer

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in the July issue of Metro Magazine

 

The Fonda Legacy

This summer Film Streams celebrates the many faces of actress Jane Fonda.

She and one of her biggest fans, Alexander Payne, converse live on stage July 22 at the Holland Performing Arts Center for Feature Event IV, the art cinema’s annual fundraiser. A Fonda repertory series runs through August 30.

The Fonda legacy in Nebraska looms large. Her late iconic father Henry Fonda was born here. He started acting at the Omaha Community Playhouse, where Jane and brother Peter trod the boards. Henry retained deep ties to the state and the Playhouse. He once brought the entire production of his Broadway triumph Mister Roberts to town. In 1955 he, fellow Playhouse alum Dorothy McGuire and 17-year-old Jane appeared in a benefit production of The Country Girl directed by Joshua Logan.

Peter, who attended the University of Omaha, occasionally visits the Playhouse.

When the only film pairing the famous father and daughter, On Golden Pond, made its Midwest premiere at the Orpheum she came.

Unlike her father’s beloved public persona, Jane’s is complex.

Incarnations

For much of the 1960s she was a spirited ingenue and sometime vixen plying her cover girl looks and wiles more than her acting chops in cinema trifles. Her comedic work in Cat Ballou and Barefoot in the Park hinted at star potential.

Film Streams founder-director Rachel Jacobson, an admirer, says Fonda “always had a deeper, more introspective quality even when playing the lighter roles.”

When Fonda’s French filmmaker husband Roger Vadim exploited her sex symbol status in Barbarella she could have been typecast. Instead, she did a makeover from vapid party girl and blonde bimbo to social activist and serious actress.

She earned acclaim for her dramatic turns in They Shoot Horses Don’t They? (1969) and Klute (1971), the latter earning her the Best Actress Oscar. That’s when “she came out from behind the shadow of both her father and brother” (Peter made it big with Easy Rider), says film historian Bruce Crawford of Omaha.

She also drew ire for her anti-war comments and protests. By the time she divorced Vadim and married activist Tom Hayden she was branded “political.” Fonda made socially conscious projects in Julia (1977), Coming Home (1978) (another Best Actress Oscar) and The China Syndrome (1979).

Her career peaked in the late ’70s-early ’80’s with Nine to Five, On Golden Pond and her Emmy-winning performance in TV’s The Dollmaker (1984). By then she’d morphed into a home workout video diva. After divorcing Hayden she surprised many by marrying media tycoon Ted Turner and promptly retiring from the screen at age 50. Her recent return to movies comes on the heels of her best-selling memoirs and healthy aging advocacy.

“She’s continually reinvented herself and her image,” says Jacobson. “She’s just very deliberate about how she thinks about herself and her own evolution. She’s a fascinating person.”

Payne curates the Feature Event and in Fonda, 74, he’s once more chosen a dynamic figure to talk cinema shop, following Steven Soderbergh, Debra Winger and Laura Dern. Jacobson says, “The people he’s interested in having conversations with are really strong artists with great careers.” She says Payne won Fonda over by saying her appearance would support the arts in Omaha. “That’s why she’s coming.”

 

 As the title character in Cat Ballou
As the title character in Barbarella
As Gloria in They Shoot Horses Don’t They? 
As Bree Daniels in Klute 
As Lillian Hellman in Julia 
As Sally Hyde in Coming Home 
As Kimberly Wells in The China Syndrome 
As Judy Bernly in Nine to Five 
As Chelsea Thayer Wayne in On Golden Pond 

 

 

The series:

Cat Ballou

She hits all the right notes as an aspiring schoolmarm turned outlaw seeking to avenge her father’s death. Lee Marvin steals the show in the dual roles of killer Tim Strawn and gunman Kid Shelleen.

Barbarella

She fearlessly plays an over-the-top sex object in highly suggestive scenes bordering on soft-core porn in this tripped-out fantasy directed by Vadim.

They Shoot Horses Don’t They?

Her transformation began with this unadorned portrayal of a desperate, ill-fated dance marathoner under the direction of Sydney Pollack.

Klute

As high end call girl Bree Daniels she’s a raw-nerved neurotic mixed up in a dangerous liaison with small town detective Donald Sutherland in the big city.

Julia 

Fonda plays the kind of strong woman, Lillian Hellman, she clearly emulates. Her playwright character embarks on a dangerous mission abroad for a friend, Julia (Vanessa Redgrave), opposing the Nazis.

Coming Home

She makes believable the evolution from naive war bride to anti-war sympathizer who falls for paraplegic activist vet Jon Voight. The fictional awakening reverberates with Fonda’s own coming-of-age.

The China Syndrome

Playing an ambitious TV reporter fighting to cover a nuclear reactor accident the authorities want suppressed Fonda is in her element. Her subdued conviction is a welcome contrast to high-strung Jack Lemmon and Michael Douglas.

Nine to Five

Sardonic Lily Tomlin and sassy Dolly Parton are long-suffering office workers harassed by womanizing boss Dabney Coleman. Pert Jane is the innocent newbie. The women execute a militant plan to turn the tables in this feminist farce.

On Golden Pond

Jane plays out real life issues with her dad in this tale of an estranged daughter starving for affection from a father who has trouble giving it. Katharine Hepburn co-stars in the poignant drama.

Tickets for the 6:30 p.m. Feature Event are $35. For pre and post-event party tickets and for series screening dates-times, visit www.filmstreams.org.

Film Connections: Coppola, Lucas, Butler, Knight, Caan, Duvall

June 3, 2012 4 comments

 

 

LATEST UPDATE: Interviewed the celebrated actress Shirley Knight, the star of The Rain People and one of the latest puzzle pieces I needed to get to for my Film Connections story-event project highlighted here.  This blog features my interviews with Knight and her Rain People co-stars James Caan and Robert Duvall.  Soon to be posted are interviews I did with that film’s cinematographer, Bill Butler, and  itswriter-director, Francis Ford Coppola.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Interviewed legendary director of photography Bill Butler. You may not know the name but you know his work.  He was the cinematographer for some of the best films of the 1970s, including Jaws and The Conversation.  He also shot key parts of The Godfather and took over One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest from Haskell Wexler.  He’s lensed some of the best made-for-TV movies (The Execution of Private Slovick) and mini-series (The Thorn Birds).  He’s a legend in the film industry, with an Oscar nomination and a lifetime achievement award from the the American Society of Cinematographers.  And he’s still working at 91!  He just completed work on a new feature.

My interview with him concerned the Film Connections story-event project I am developing in conjunction with The Reader and Film Streams (see below).  That project connects the dots of when Butler joined Francis Ford CoppolaGeorge Lucas, James Caan, Robert Duvall, and Shirley Knight in shooting part of The Rain People in Nebraska, which led Duvall to make the documentary We’re Not the Jet Set about a Nebraska ranch-rodeo family.

Bill gave me some great back story anecdotes about The Rain People shoot.  Pretty much all the dots are connected now concerning the story I want to tell with the exception of my interviewing George Lucas.  I’ve made the requests, but so far no go.  If anyone out there reading this can help me get to Lucas, I’d appreciate it.

UPDATE:  I scored my hoped-for “interview” with Francis Ford Coppola for this project, though he ended up responding by email rather than by phone to a long list of questions I posed.  But at least he took the time to answer my queries.  Look for my Q&A with him on this blog in the near future.

I was a burgeoning film buff in 1974 when the Omaha World-Herald‘s now defunct Magazine of the Midlands ran a piece on a documentary film that Robert Duvall, who had recently gained acclaim for his work in the first two Godfather films, was directiing in Ogallala, Neb. about a ranch-rodeo family there, the Petersons.  The film, entitled We’re Not the Jet Set (1977), sounded promising enough but what really got my attention was the fact that Duvall only came to meet the Petersons and to make his film about them as a result of coming to Nebraska a half-dozen years earlier for a few weeks wors on the art road movie, The Rain People (1969), a film written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola and assisted by George Lucas.  Rain People starred Shirley Knight and co-starred James Caan and Duvall.  The Petersons had a horse pen just across from the motel the cast and crew stayed at and Duvall and Caan got to know the family by riding some of their horses. Duvall became so intrigued with this colorful clan that he returned again and again to immerse himself in their life and to shoot the documentary.  It was the actor’s first directorial effort of what’s turned out to be a distinguished body of work as a director (Angelo My LoveThe ApostleAssassination Tango).

What most struck me then and now is how these figures, who at the time were obscure, except for Knight, would in a few years come to be major players in Hollywood.  I loved the fact that they converged in the middle of nowhere for a small film that led to another film.  And as I’ve come to find out, the experience of making these films in rural Nebraska led to enduring relationships and collaborations and the inspiration for yet another film. For example, Duvall and Caan have stayed in contact with the Petersons, several of whom have wound up in the film industry as wranglers, trainers, and stunt riders.  And it was through the Petersons that Caan and Duvall met a more prominent ranch family, the Haythorns, and the actors’ interactions with them led to Caan becoming a professional rodeo competitor and to informing Duvall’s later Western mini-series Broken Trail.

Jet Set was released in 1977 to mostly strong reviews from its featured screenings at film festivals, in select art house cinemas, and on public television.  Since then the film has pretty much been unseen.  There are reasons for that.  As I have come to find out, its virtual disappearance from the market is a real travesty because the work stands with the best docs from that era.  As it happened, I saw Rain People well before seeing Jet Set, a film that until two years ago only existed for me in terms of the few write-ups I’d found about it. When I finally decided in 2010 to develop a story about all of this, including the connections and relationships around the films, I contacted Duvall’s then-production company, Butcher’s Run, and they were nice enough to both send me a DVD of the pic and to arrange an interview with Duvall himself.  Jet Set was a real revelation for me.  It’s a superb example of cinema verite filmmaking and it comes as close to pure cinema as any film, dramatic or documentary, that I’ve seen from that era, and I’ve seen a lot.

Duvall led me to his good friend Caan, whom I also interviewed.  I also got in touch with several of the Petersons and interviewed them as well.  Since then I’ve interviewed some more of the principals behind Jet Set, notably cinematographer Joseph Friedman and editor Stephen Mack.  I am in the process of trying to get interviews with Knight and Rain People cinematographer Bill Butler.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  For years, decades really, that Herald story about the film I referred to earlier stuck in my mind.  It gnawed at me all the while I worked as a film programmer and publicist in Omaha and then when I transitioned into freelance journalism.  In the era before the Internet it was hard to find much reference to the film.  It certainly wasn’t available for rental through any distributor I ever came upon.  The last 15 years or so I’ve consistently looked for opportunities to write about film and this blog is a good showcase for the many film stories I’ve filed.  The story of Rain People and Jet Set is one I longed to tell.  Since leaving the film programming world in the early 1990s I also longed to organize some film event.  Now I am combining the two longings in one project.  My in-progress story is slated to be published in some Nebraska publications and I’m working with the publisher of The Reader (www.thereader.com) and the director of the Omaha art cinema Film Streams on possible screenings and other events related to my story.

Still,there’s much work to be done: I need to make Coppola and Lucas aware of this film story-event project in hopes of interviewing them and inviting them to attend whatever is planned.  If there’s anyone out there reading this who can get this in front of them or their associates, please do.  Or if you can provide me their contact info, please do.  They are an essential part of the story I’m telling and while I’m prepared to move forward without their participation I’d rather not if I don’t have to.

My main purpose with all this is to bring this story to light and to help revive interest in these films, particularly We’re Not the Jet Set.  Recently, Turner Classic Movies added The Rain People to its rotating gallery of films shown on the cable network.  But Jet Set remains inaccessible.  I would also like to see the Lucas documentary, The Making of the Rain People, revived since its a portrait of the early Coppola and his methods a full decade before his wife Eleanor shot the documentary Hearts of Darkness about the anguished making of Apocalypse Now.  The story I’m telling is also an interesting time capsule at a moment in film history when brash young figures like Coppola, Lucas, Duvall, and Caan were part of the vanguard for the New Hollywood and the creative freedom that artists sought and won.

You’ll note I have not posted any images from We’re Not the Jet Set, and that will soon be remedied thanks to Robert Duvall and Stephen Mack.

And while this is not a film blog per se, you’ll find hundreds of articles here I’ve written about films, film artists, and film lovers.

 

The entire cast and crew of “The Rain People”

The entire company of cast and crew on The Rain People

 

 

photo
B.A. Peterson, the late patriarch of the Peterson family that Robert Duvall profiled in We’re Not the Jet Set, ©photo courtesy Stephen Mack

 

 

Film Connections: Coppola, Lucas, Butler, Knight, Caan, Duvall

An In-Progress Story

How a 1968 Convergence of Future Cinema Greats in Ogallala, Neb. Resulted in Multiple Films and Enduring Relationships

From the Melting Pot of Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Shirley Knight, Robert Duvall, James Caan and Two Ranch-Rodeo Families Came ‘The Rain People,’ ‘We’re Not the Jet Set’ and More

©by Leo Adam Biga

The complete story will appear in the Keith County News, The Reader and other publications

 

An unlikely confluence of remarkable cinema talents descended on the dusty backroads of Ogallala, Neb. in the far southwest reaches of the state in the summer of 1968.

None other than future film legend Francis Ford Coppola led this Hollywood caravan. He came as the producer-writer-director of The Rain People, a small, low-budget drama about a disenchanted East Coast housewife who, upon discovering she’s pregnant, flees the conventional trappings of suburban homemaking by taking a solo car trip south, then north and finally west. With no particular destination in mind except escape she gets entangled with two men before returning home.

Coppola’s creative team for this road movie included another future film scion in George Lucas, his then-protege who served as production associate and also shot the documentary The Making of The Rain People. The two young men were obscure but promising figures in a changing industry. With their long hair and film school pedigree they were viewed as interlopers and rebels. Within a few years the filmmakers helped usher in the The New Hollywood through their own American Zoetrope studio and their work for established studios. Coppola ascended to the top with the success of The Godfather I and II. Lucas first made it big with the surprise hit American Graffiti, which touched off the ’50s nostalgia craze, before assuring his enduring place in the industry with the Star Wars franchise that made sci-fi big business.

 
photo
©poster art courtesy Stephen Mack

 

 

Rain People cinematographer Bill Butler, who went on to lens The Conversation for Coppola and such projects as One Few Over the Cuckoo’s NestJaws and The Thorn Birds, was the director of photography.

Heading the cast were Shirley Knight, James Caan and Robert Duvall. Though they enjoyed solid reputations, none were household names yet. Caan’s breakthrough role came two years later in the made-for-television sensation Brian’s Song (1970). The pair’s work in Coppola’s The Godfather elevated them to A-list status. Rain People was not the last time the two actors collaborated with the filmmakers. Duvall starred in the first feature Lucas made, the science fiction thriller THX-1138. The actor went on to appear in Coppola’s first two Godfather pictures as well as The Conversation and Apocalypse Now. After his star-making performance as Sonny Corleone in The Godfather Caan later teamed up with Coppola for the director’s Gardens of Stone.

Among Rain People’s principals, the most established by far then was Knight, already a two-time Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee (for The Dark at the Top of the Stairs and Sweet Bird of Youth).

The experience of working together on the early Coppola film forged relationships that extended well beyond that project and its small circle of cast and crew. Indeed, this is a story about those connections and their reverberations decades later.

Old friends Robert Duvall and James Caan
photo
At New Yorker premiere of We’re Not the Jet Set: DP Joseph Friedman, Robert Duvall, Barbara Duvall, editor Stephen Mack, ©photo courtesy Stephen Mack

 

 

For example, Duvall and Caan were already horse and Old West aficionados when they were befriended by a couple of Nebraska ranch-rodeo families, the Petersons and Haythorns. The interaction that followed only deepened the artists’ interest in riding and in Western lore. This convergence of New York actors and authentic Great Plains characters produced some unexpected spin-offs and helped cement enduring friendships. Duvall and Caan remain best buddies to this day.

Duvall became so enamored with the colorful, cantankerous Peterson clan, a large, boisterous family of trick riders led by their late patriarch, B.A. Peterson, that he made a documentary about them and their lifestyle called We’re Not the Jet Set. The actor returned to Nebraska several times to visit the family and to shoot the film with a skeleton crew. It was his first film as a director and it’s easy to find resonance in it with his future directorial work (Angelo My LoveThe ApostleAssassination Tango).

He and the Petersons became close enough that at his invitation some of them visited the The Godfather set. The family and the actor have kept in touch all these years and some have visited Duvall’s Virginia farm.

On one of Duvall’s visits to Nebraska the Petersons introduced him to the Haythorns and the true-life stories of that family’s early, epic cattle drives became the inspiration for Duvall’s mini-series Broken Trail.

Meanwhile, Caan sufficiently learned the ropes from working alongside the Haythorns and their hired hands to become a professional rodeo competitor, an activity the suits in Hollywood increasingly frowned on as his career exploded.

With their reputation as expert horsemen and women preceding them, several of the Petersons ended up in the film industry as wranglers, trainers and stunt people, boasting credits on many major Hollywood projects. One member of the family, K.C. Peterson, even ended up working on a film Duvall appeared in, Geronimo, An American Legend.

None of it may have happened if that band of filmmaking gypsies hadn’t come west. Their presence certainly got the attention of the locals while it lasted but no one could have predicted the Coppola production would lead, at least indirectly, to other films and deeper connections that played out over several years.

It’s hard to imagine how else Duvall would have happened upon the Petersons as the subjects for a film.

The man responsible for bringing Duvall to Nebraska, Coppola, was a fish-out-of-water here. His parents were musicians and he grew up in urban Detroit and Queens, New York, immersed in a life of art, literature, theater and the movies. The Hofstra theater arts grad entered UCLA’s fledgling film studies program, where his work soon attracted the attention of Hollywood.

At the time he made Rain People he was finding his way at Warner Brothers. Like all the major Hollywood studios then, Warners struggled adapting to changing audience tastes and escalating production costs and began entrusting young upstarts like Coppola with productions traditionally assigned old veterans.

While directing Finian’s Rainbow for Warners-Seven Arts Coppola met Lucas, a Modesto, Calif. native and USC film school product. Eager to break from studio constraints and make their own personal art films, the two were kindred spirits, When Coppola enlisted a small band of like-minded artists for Rain People, Lucas was a natural choice. The experience of making that film convinced them to launch American Zoetrope, a counter-culture answer to the old studio system that like United Artists decades before put the creatives in charge of production. The studio’s first two projects were the Lucas written and directed films THX-1138 and American Graffiti.

The producing partners parted ways in the mid-’70s.

But for a magical time the career arcs of these and other cinema stalwarts intersected to produce some of the most satisfying collaborations of the 1970s. As fate would have it a crucial part of that intersection unfolded in rural Nebraska among area denizens whose rough-and-tumble work-a-day lives were far removed from the distorted, make-believe reality of Hollywood. Lucas’ making-of doc about the experience records it for posterity.

Situated just below the southeast corner of the Nebraska Panhandle, Ogallala was about the last place you’d expect to find a gathering of the soon-to-be New Kings of Hollywood. But that’s exactly what transpired. This is the story of how those connections led Duvall to make We’re Not the Jet Set, an underseen film that may be getting new life courtesy of Nebraska art cinemas.

TO BE CONTINUED…

Editor’s Note: As I further develop the story, I’ll be making more posts.  And when screenings and other events are scheduled in conjunction with the story, I’ll be sure to post that info as well.   I’m posting my interviews with all the key figures in this story-event project.

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