Here’s what makes it all worthwhile…
And here, dear friends, is ultimately why I do what I do in spite of the sparse pay and the insecurity that comes with being a writer. It is a mashup of two heartfelt emails sent me by a young, then-aspiring filmmaker named Bryan Reisberg who shared how impactful my Alexander Payne book has been for him. As you will read below, since first writing me he found financing to direct his screenplay Big Signficant Things. More recently yet he’s informed me that the film premiered well at the South by Southwest Film Festival and that he found a theatrical distributor for it. His pic is now showing in select theaters this summer. He may even come to Omaha with it before the year’s out. Reading how my accounts of a world-class filmmaker inspired this talented young man to recalibrate his own approach to film and to get his vision from page to screen is perhaps the greatest compliment I’ve ever received. Credit must also go to Alexander Payne, for his insights that I shared with the world.
File this one under you never know how your words or work or actions affect someone. Thank you, Bryan, and I look forward to meeting you one day.
Dear Mr. Biga,
I’m writing to thank you for your wonderful book.
You don’t know me but I’m a young filmmaker in NYC and I purchased your book on Alexander Payne I think back in November of 2012. I was always a fan of Alexander Payne’s work, and was simply searching for anything I could find on him. I wanted to write and tell you that your book has helped me immeasurably as a filmmaker.
I read your book a few months ago when I was finishing a screenplay, with the hopes of turning that into my directorial debut. I immersed myself into your articles, and then further into Payne, his inspirations, references, and then dove headfirst into classic American and Italian Cinema from the 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s. The started the most focused and intensely rigorous academic study of film I’ve done, and it was nearly 4 years after graduating from college. Probably because I was working towards a physical film.
I graduated from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts in 2009 and work with my friend and production partner, Andrew D Corkin, whose last feature film he produced was 2011’s Martha Marcy May Marlene.
I imagine now, being a bit older than I was while in film school I have much more of an interest in the academia of filmmaking.
Your articles and interviews became a critical (and previously absent) entry point to discover and dig deeper into learning more about directors, films, and film history. I came to not only respect and admire Payne as a filmmaker, but also as one of the best teachers I’ve ever had. And I can say that to date, starting with your book, what I’ve learned about the craft and history of cinema has been unparalleled and invaluable.
Well, since reading your book, I’ve completely changed how I watch films, what I watch, and it has given me such a wonderful tool and jumping off point to film that I don’t feel I’ve ever had before. And since reading your book, and working on developing this first film, as of 2 weeks ago, we’re fortunate to have gotten this project, my first feature, fully financed. We head down to Mississippi in 2 weeks to prep, and then shoot in the month of May. It’s pretty surreal, since I’m sure you know that indie film financing is very difficult…
…I was fortunate enough to have my screenplay financed so that I could direct my first feature, BIG SIGNIFICANT THINGS, which I completed back in May of 2013.
And it was just announced that my film will have it’s World Premiere at the 2014 SXSW Film Festival. Mark Orton, who I’m sure you know did the score for NEBRASKA, is composing the score for my film.
I wouldn’t be here without Alexander Payne and your book. Well, maybe I’d be here, but I wouldn’t be nearly as (hopefully) knowledgeable and skilled as a filmmaker.
So I just wanted to extend my gratitude, and thank you from the bottom of my heart.
What do Oscar-winning filmmaker Alexander Payne and WBO world lightweight boxing champion Terence “Bud” Crawford have in common?
What do Oscar-winning filmmaker Alexander Payne and WBO world lightweight boxing champion Terence “Bud” Crawford have in common?
These newsmakers share the same hometown of Omaha, Neb. but more than that they share an unflinching loyalty to their roots. Payne could elect to or be swayed to make films anywhere but he repeatedly comes back to Omaha and greater Neb. to create his acclaimed works, often resisting studio efforts to have him shoot elsewhere. Crawford doesn’t get to call the shots about where he fights but for his first two title defenses he did convince Top Rank and HBO that Omaha could and would support a world title card. Besides, it’s tradition that a world champion gets to defend his title on his own home turf. And when there was talk his first title defense might move across the river to Council Bluffs, he wasn’t having it. Now that he’s been proven right that Omaha is a legitimate market for big-time fights and is a formidable hometown advantage for him, he will undoubtedly press to fight here over and over again and opponents will certainly resist coming into his own backyard. As he moves up a division and the stakes get higher, there may come a time when the CenturyLink and Omaha can’t provide the same pay-day that a Las Vegas and one of its mega venues can. Whether Omaha could ever become a main event host for fighters other than Crawford is an open question. The same holds true for whether Neb. could ever attract a major feature film to fix its entire shooting schedule here outside a Payne project. The only way that will happen, it appears, is if the state enacts far more liberal tax incentives for moviemakers than it currently offers. But that is neither here nor there, as Crawford’s done right by Omaha and his adoring fans have reciprocated, just as Payne has done right by his home state and his fellow Nebraskans have responded in kind.
The Crawford parallel to Payne goes even deeper. Just as Payne maintains a signifcant presence here, living part of the year in his downtown condo, serving on the board of Film Streams and bringing in world class film figures for special events, Crawford lives year-round in Omaha except when he goes off to train in Colorado and he owns and operates a boxing gym here, the B&B Boxing Academy, that’s open to anyone. Just as Payne looks to grow the film culture here Crawford hopes to grow the boxing scene and each has made major strides in those areas. A major Hollywood film besides one of his own still hasn’t come to shoot here, though he’s lobbied the state legislature to give studios and filmmakers the incentives they need. No world-class fighter has emerged here yer as a protege of Crawford’s or as someone showing promise to be “next Bud Crawford.” Similarly, “the next Alexander Payne” hasn’t announced him or herself yet here.
Another way in which these two Omaha figures – each so different on the surface, wth one the product of white privilege and the other the product of Omaha’s poor inner city – are similar is that each has been embraced and endorsed by the Omaha establishment. They’ve been honored with the keys to the city, feated at banquets and preened over by the media. When Mayor Stothert showed up for a photo op with Bud at his pre-Thanksgiving turkey giveaway and Warren Buffett appeared at his most recent title defense, you knew that Crawford had made it.
I don’t know if Payne and Crawford have met, but I would enjpy the intersection of two different yet not so different Omaha’s meeting. At the end of the day, after all, each is in a segment of show business or entertainment. Each is a professional who has reached world class stature in his profession. Each has worked and sacrificed for his craft and been rewarded for it.
I have been covering Payne for going on 20 years, I have been covering Crawford for two years. I admire both men for having come so far with their passion. I congratulated Payne on his latest achievement, the film Nebraska, one in a long line of filmic successes. And I now say congrats to Terence “Bud” Crawford on defending his WBO world lightweight boxing title in his hometown of Omaha for the second time in five months. The 11,000-plus fans on hand Saturday night at the CenturyLink arena were there to support their own and they roared and cheered and gave shout-outs to Bud, who’s become a much beloved folk hero here. Feeding off their energy he displayed a full boxing arsenal in thoroughly dominating a very tough challenger in Ray Beltran. Every time the pressing Beltran tried to trap Bud along the ropes or in the corners, the champ used his superior quikness and agility to turn the tables on Beltran with sharp counterpunching, By the last few rounds Bud was doing the attacking, thwarting the few rallies Beltran mounted and frustrating his foe at every turn. It was an impressive boxing display and further proof that the talk about Bud being pound for pound one of the best fighters in the world today is no hype. He’s the real deal and almost certainly the best prizefighter to ever come of Nebraska. As I articulated above, the fact that he remains rooted to his community and brings his success back home reminds me of what filmmaker Alexander Payne does in another arena, filmmaking.
The main event turned into a love-in and as much love as the crowd gave to one of their own Bud gave it right back. It’s a beautiful thing that’s happening in what can be a brutal sport and a heartless game.
Look for my new story about Bud in the Jan./Feb. 2015 issue of Omaha Magazine. I’ll have something in a upcoming issue of The Reader as well. Meanwhile, you can read my previous stories about Bud at these links:
You can find excerpts of my many stories about Alexander Payne on my blog. You can also buy my book, “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film,” which is a collection of my extensive journalism about the artist and his work. You can preview the book at, www.facebook.com/LeoAdamBiga,
Nebraska Film Currents
©by Leo Adam Biga
Monday night’s David O. Russell-Alexander Payne cinema summit got me to thinking about past film royalty visits to Nebraska. In the annals of Neb. film history, precious few notable Hollywood figures have come here to shoot or to make public appearances or for that matter to make private appearances. I don’t claim to have an exhaustive history of these cinema drop-ins, but the ones that come to mind, include:
Much of the MGM 1938 classic film Boys Town was shot in Boys Town and greater Omaha, which brought director Norman Taurog and stars Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney here, and all of them, along with studio czars, came for the world premiere here; Read about it at-
Cecil B. DeMille, Barbara Stanwyck, Joel McCrea and other principals from the 1939 film Union Pacifc came for the world premiere here.
Robert Taylor hunted at Ducklore Lodge and may have been a guest at the Storz Mansion on Farnam Street.
James Stewart was also a guest at Storz Mansion parties.
In the mid-1950s Henry Fonda and Dorothy McGuire, both at their peak fame, came to do performances of The Country Girl as a benefit to fund construction of the new Omaha Community Playhouse – each was an OCP alum – and Henry’s daughter Jane was part of the cast as well; Henry Fonda came back many times to support the Playhouse and the Stuhr Museum.
In 1965 Betty Grable starred in the national touring company production of Hello, Dolly at the Omaha Music Hall. Another national tour of Dolly starred Carol Channing at the Orpheum Theater.
In 1967 Otto Preminger was one of two guests of honor at a Creighton University film festival – the other was experimental filmmaker Stan Brackhage.
A year later Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Shirley Knight, James Caan and Robert Duvall came for the last few weeks shooting on the road movie, The Rain People, which Coppola wrote and directed; Lucas was along for the ride to document the making of the film; in the ensuing years Robert Duvall returned to Neb. several times to make the documentary We’re Not the Jet Set about the rambunctious Ogallala-area ranch-rodeo family, the Petersons; Read about all this at-
Jane Fonda, who did part of her growing up in Omaha, came for the regional premiere of On Golden Pond at the Orpheum Theater; some 30 years later she sat where David O. Russell did for an interview Alexander Payne did with her at the Holland.
Marlon Brando paid a visit to his birthplace and hometown in the 1980s and did an awkward but entertaining television interview with Peter Citron.
Joan Micklin Silver (Hester Street, Crossing Delancey) came back to her home state to accept a Sheldon Film Theater tribute in Lincoln; read one of my many pieces on Joan at-
Peter Fonda, who’s been known to pass through unannounced, picked up the same award from the Sheldon.
Jack Nicholson, Shirley MacLaine, Debra Winger and Jeff Daniels were in and around Lincoln making the James Brooks film Terms of Endearment; Winger and then Neb. Governor Bob Kerrey became romantically involved and were frequently seen together in Lincoln and Omaha.
Too Wong Foo filmed here with Wesley Snipes, Patrick Swayze, and John Leguizamo in and out of drag.
Sean Penn filmed The Indian Runner in and around Plattsmouth with principal cast members Viggo Mortensen, David Morse, Patricia Arquette, Charles Bronson, Sandy Dennis, Dennis Hopper and Co.; Penn returned as an actor for The Assassination of Richard Nixon written by Omaha native Kevin Kennedy.
Alexander Payne has directed four of his six features here and those projects have brought a gallery of notables to Omaha and thereabouts; Citizen Ruth (Laura Dern, Kurtwood Smith, Mary Kay Place, Kelly Preston, Swoosie Kurtz, Burt Reynolds, Tippie Hedren, Kenneth Mars); Election (Matthew Broderick, Reese Witherspoon); About Schmidt (Jack Nicholson, Kathy Bates); Nebraska (Bruce Dern, Will Forte, Stacy Keach); Buy my book about Payne and his work at-
Payne has brought Laura Dern, Debra Winger, Steven Soderbergh, Jane Fonda, the principal cast of Nebraska and most recently David O. Russell as the special guest for the Film Streams Feature event; Read my pieces about Payne’s latest Film Streams cinema conversations at-
Bruce Crawford has actually hosted more cinema legends in Omaha than Payne, having brought Ray Harryhausen, Janet Leigh, Patricia Neal, John Landis,Debbie Reynolds, Shirley Jones, Patty Duke and most recently Tippi Hedren; Read some of my interviews with these legends at-https://leoadambiga.wordpress.com/…/09/06/unforgettable-patricia-n…/ and https://leoadambiga.wordpress.com/…/hollywood-legend-debbi…/
Bruce Crawford with Debbie Reynolds
Gabrielle Union visits her hometown of Omaha now and again but never for any film function; Read two of my profiles of her at-
Yolonda Ross (Go for Sisters) has been getting back more frequently to her shared hometown of Omaha for film related events; Read my profiles of her at-
Nick Nolte made a surprise appearance at his Omaha Westside High School class reunion a few years ago.
Nick Fackler worked with Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn, among others, on his Lovely, Still made in his hometown of Omaha; Read two of my stories about Nick and Lovely, Still at-
EXTRAS: I have interviewed several more film notables who have passed through Nebraska, including Robert Duvall, James Caan, Shirley Knight, Laura Dern, Bruce Dern, Bill Cosby, Mickey Rooney, Danny Glover, Swoosie Kurtz, Marg Helgenberger, Dick Cavett and Jon Jost; my inteviews with them can all be found on my blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, with the exception of Rooney and Helgenberger.
And I have interviewed all three living Oscar winners who reside here: Mauro Fiore, Mike Hill and Alexander Payne, whom I’ve interviewed dozens of times. My pieces about these film figures are also on my blog.
Masters David O. Russell and Alexander Payne matched wits at Film Streams Feature VI event
©by Leo Adam Biga
NOTE: My story about the parralel careers of Payne and Russell that appeared in advance of Feature VI can be found on this blog.
The smart banter between David O. Russell and Alexander Payne at last night’s Film Streams Feature VI event in Omaha gave a glimpse into why these two cinema masters have enjoyed a long friendship. They are both brilliant in their own way. Highly educated and well-read, yet deeply in touch with gut instincts. They both come from ethnic American backgrounds. The both had lengthy experiences abroad. They’re both steeped in classic cinema. As good as they are at creating images, the written word is everything for them. They both extract great performances from their actors.
They are both urbane men with dry wits. But where Payne seems a bit more guarded or stiff, at least in public settings like these, Russell seems somewhat looser. Where Payne is a very well grounded and considered person, Russell comes off as more idiosyncratic and certainly more neurotic, almost as a virile variant of the middle-aged Woody Allen.
Their nearly parallel careers give them a certain relationship by proximity since each emerged in the mid-1990s as new filmmakers to be watched and each has experienced similar fast ascents, followed by uneasy hiatuses, giving way to recent strong runs that have cemented their places in the top ranks of writer-directors. As they discussed in their conversation last night and as is readily evident in their work, each is a humanistic storyteller. What wasn’t discussed and what is also clearly seen in their work is that time and time again each returns to themes of people in conflict with society or their family or the group. Their protagonists are all at war with someone or something and on a search for meaning or redemption or revenge or getting-what’s-mine. Even with their careers on a major roll, they seem to think they’ve just figured out who they are as filmmakers and to suggest that the best is yet to come, though they also acknowledge that nothing is guaranteed in the fickle business of making films.
Of all the Film Streams Feature events (I’ve seen five of the six), this was the most spontaneous of these annual gatherings when Payne or sometimes Kurt Andersen engages a special film guest in conversation before a live audience at the Holland Performing Arts Center. Much of the spontaneity this time had to do with the fact that Payne, as he indicated in his opening remarks, did no preparation for the event. That’s because he and Russell go back 15 years or so and they do know each other and their work well enough to just be real and go with the flow up on stage. Part of it was just two old friends ccomparing notes. Payne asked probing questions about Russell’s motivations, inspirations, methodologies, and the like. Sometimes Russell returned the favor to ask Payne questions. Before Payne could even get to any of his questions though Russell, as he did several times about various things on his mind, went off on a riff about Omaha and Payne’s “secret tunnel to Omaha,” where he said Payne is “like a super cinema hero.” Russell described how his appearance in Omaha came to be. It seems that Russell was being badgered by the organizer of the Capri Film Festival in Italy to appear there. He’d been a guest at Capri before but he neither had the time nor inclination to go again, and so he thought Payne might be a good fill-in for him. Russell said he broached the option with Payne but Payne said he was no more interested in Capri than Russell. Then Payne switched everything around by asking Russell to be the guest of honor at Feature VI. One favor had been replaced by another. Russell said upon arriving here he observed all “the levels of plaids and pastels” and “kind-faced Midwestern people,” prompting him to tell Payne, “I felt like I was in one of your movies.” In a short but intense series of stops around the city Russell got to see the home of Omaha Steaks, which it turns out was a kick for him because he said he’s been ordering steaks from there for years for his father and now that Russell has discovered the company’s products extend well beyond steaks he’s going to ply his old man with seafood and desserts. “I bet he won’t see that coming,” he deadpanned. Then he went off on a weird but hilarious description of visitng the offices of husband-and-wife architects Michael and Laura Alley, the co-chairs for the event, and how at one point the Alleys and the Simons from Omaha Steaks were sitting, posed-like, in a glass booth that reminded him of sculptures in an “art installation.”
Russell also referred to Payne’s apartment at the Paxton Manor as “your very flat, very spacious prairie home.”
Last but not least he opined about his instant romance with the Jackson St. Books store in the Old Market, where he said he knew upon entering the place “I’m going to do some damage in there.” He said he picked up several things for friends and then he turned to Payne to say, “And I got you something. I’m going to save it for the end, because that’s showmanship.”
There was an extended discussion about, as Payne put it, “How do we search for ourselves through the films we make?” Russell, who earlier said, “I have a very childlike nature,” answered that he’s come to realize, “I’m a romantic.” He said amidst the every day anguish and horror of life being lived he must find meaning in the journey and discover passion for the pleasures of life, whether true love or fine wine or good food or engaging conversation or interesting people. “Existential despair is a privilege. I’ve learned that lesson.” He asserted his interest in making movies, not films, that touch people’s hearts. “I’ll carry that Frank Capra banner all the way.”
He referred to the one misstep in his filmography, I Heart Huckabees, which has actually become a cult classic, as variously “my mid-life crisis movie” and “the train wreck movie.” He said he made it at a time when he was too analytical in his approach to his art. “You can overthink something. That’s not a good thing. I just think I overthought it.” He said now that he’s in his 50s he’s in a better place then he had been for a while. “I realized more who I was at 17 than when I was 40.” He said at age 40 he was in a kind of “captivity.” Now that he’s rediscovered himself in his 50s, he said, “I wouldn’t trade it for anything – the wisdom.”
Payne described how he was already an admirer of Russell’s work in Flirting with Disaster but then was astonished by what Russell achieved in Three Kings, when Russell moved from the intimate family comedy-dramas of his first two films to the large scale, epic masculine action of an adventure movie set amidst desert warfare. Russell said, “There’s kind of a beauty to making a movie on location.” Payne inquired if Russell was intimidated taking on such a big, sprawling project, and Russell replied, “I think all good endeavors are frightening.”
Payne said he was blown away again when Russell made the leap from I Heart Huckabees to The Fighter. Payne said that at the time of The Fighter’s release he actually ran into Russell and told him, “Since when did you become a master filmmaker?” Payne spoke with admiration for the “very aggressive and sophisticated” way Russell uses hand-held cameras in-tight to create intimacy and immediacy with his characters and for the way he captures the visceral sense of movement and action in his films. Russell said it took time for him to arrive at how he wanted to use Steadicam and to achieve great depth of focus. He acknowledged that much of his maturation as a filmmaker is because he never stops learning or striving to be better. “It’s a great thing to learn your craft,” he said.
Russell described what he’s after in making his storytelling urgent for audiences: “I want you to be propelled and grabbed by the throat.”
He referred to going through a “ponderous period” of filmmaking when his shooting schedules were longer and his decision-making process was more protracted. After gaining more clarity he said, “I became very lean. Thirty-three days on The Fighter.” The same for Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle. Payne expressed envy at how fast and effective Russell can work. Russell said he now has the mind set for his work as – “I approach it like a gun is at my head and that this is the last chance I have to get it right. We must feel grateful for the privilege of what we get to do.”
Russell also spoke candidly about the diffcult period he went through in that six-year hiatus between Huckabees and The Fighter. His personal life was full of challenges then and professionally he coulnd’t get a project off the ground. He sort of lost himself then and had to find himself again. His confidence, too. His ego took a hit as he went from the top of studios’ lists to mid-way down those same lists. “I was at my lowest time. I had been humbled. That can happen quickly in Hollywood. I don’t need to learn that lesson again.” He described how Mark Wahlberg, whom he helped make a star, returned the favor when he asked Russell to direct The Fighter after Darren Aronofsky left the project.
Payne observed how much Russell loves his characters and actors. He asked if Russell ever writes specificially for certain actors and Russell said he didn’t used to but that he increasingly does, especially as he’s come to work with a company of actors from film to film to film, acknowledging that Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale have become muses whose gifts he loves to explore and push to new levels. “I do feel a kinship and a connection to them.” He said the rich canvas of life these actors flesh out in his films is all around us in the people we encounter every day. “”Simply being in love with a character is almost enough reason to make a movie.” He said his own colorful Italian-Russian extended family of people who love each other and hate each other “is a gold mine I haven’t even begin to draw from” but that he clearly intends to mine.
Payne said, “Making a film is an extension of my life. Once we’re shooting our raw material is human behavior.” Truth in behavior and speech is what Payne and Russell go after and are very good at getting right.
Russell flipped it around and asked Payne, “What about you?” (meaning, does Payne write for certain actors) and Payne said, “Rarely, I write more literary characters,” adding though that he wrote with Jack Nicholson in mind for About Schmidt and George Clooney in mind for The Descendants.
In taking some questions audience members wrote out, Russell responded how he feels about remakes, saying, “I’m allergic to remakes.” As to whether there are any films he wished he had made, he promptly answered, “The Godfather,” adding, “The best pornography to me is to watch The Godfather and pretend that I made it.”
Nesr the end of the program Russell, clearly eager to unveil to us, the audience, and to Payne, his host and friend, the surprises he had in store, asked for stagehands to bring out a newly pressed album with music from American Hustle and a phonograph to play it on. “It’s a like the Letterman show now,” he cracked, as Payne undid the plastic sheathing around the album and placed the disc ona turntable and set the needle on the Duke Ellington and Electic Light Orchestra tracks, respectively. “Now it’s entertaining,” Russell observed. “Look how sexy it is,” he said, referring to the vinyl he and Payne help up at one point . Later, when the charactersitc scratches sounded, Russell said, “That’s psrt of the fun – that sound. That’s the fun of a record.”
Then Russell presented Payne with two books, one an early edition of the Sinclair Lewis satire, Babbit, and the other a Phelps County (Neb.) History in two volumes.
The evening wrapped by Payne asking Russell what we can expect next from him and the filmmaker mentioned the project Joy, a true story to star Jennifer Lawrence that is to get underway in late 2015 and a family story he’s developing as well. ” And for you Mr. Payne?” Russell asked. Payne confirmed what was recently reported in the media – that he is “an exploratory period for Downsizing, his big budget “science-fictiony” project with Matt Damon slated to be the lead, at least on a handshake deal, and with Alec Baldwin on board in a part as well. But as Payne cautioned, nothing is greenlit and there are dozens of more parts to cast and much more financing to secure. If it should come together, Payne would make Downsizing in late 2016, and the locations are yet to be finalized, too. You can bet that Payne will want to shoot at least part of it in Neb., but as he stated while he’s been ‘victorious so far” in getting the four films he wanted to make here made here “I may not be”in the future. Russell practically chided state legislators here for not offering tax credits to make it more attractive for Hollywood to make projects here . He said in no uncertain terms that film production “does create jobs for truck drivers and for carpenters and it does provide added business for restaurants and hotels.” It is a fight Payne has been waging for years in his home state.
Payne thanked Russell for being his guest and the gracious Russell offered, “It was a gift to me.”
New American Cinema auteurs, colleagues and friends David O. Russell and Alexander Payne to headline Feature VI
Omaha’s film culture is richer for having Alexander Payne as a native son who cares about growing the cinema landscape in his hometown. His commitment to this cultivation and nuturing is perhaps best evidenced by the active hand he takes with the annual Feature fundraiser for Film Streams, the Omaha art cinema he supports. Because he can, each year he asks another world-class film figure to join him on stage as his special guest for a cinema conversation. In the past, it’s been Laura Dern, Debra Winger, Steven Soderbergh, Jane Fonda, and the principal cast of Nebraska. This year it’s his fellow auteur David O. Russell (Three Kings, The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle). The Nov. 10 event at the Holland Performing Arts Center will add to the string of impressive film confabs he’s made happen. This is an especially appealing event because Payne and Russell, each of whom is a writer-directos, have enjoyed parallel careers as leaders of the New American Cinema and the Indiewood movement. Their respective bodies of work the last 15 years rank arguably as the best of any American filmmakers in that period. Given that they’re in their early 50s and given that both feel as though they’re only just now coming into their own as complete filmmakers, they could very well continue leading the vanguard of cinema in this country for another decade or two. My story for The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/) previewing the Film Streams event is largely drawn from an interview I did with Russell.
New American Cinema auteurs, colleagues and friends David O. Russell and Alexander Payne to headline Feature VI
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/)
Alexander Payne is in a position to ask any world class film figure to be his guest of honor at the Film Streams Feature event, the art cinema’s annual big fund raiser. Laura Dern, Debra Winger, Steven Soderbergh, Jane Fonda and the principal cast of Nebraska have all come at his invitation to appear on stage at the Holland Performing Arts Center.
For the Monday, Nov. 10 Feature VI Payne will engage writer-director David O. Russell in conversation. As fellow auteur leaders in the vanguard of New American Cinema they make a matched set. Since emerging in the mid-1990s their careers have followed similar paths. Each is on a roll with their last several pics, all critically acclaimed and awards-laden.
Both infuse an urgent humanity in their work that revolves around the various social units people aggregate in. Each delights in distilling the emotionally-charged, seriocomic conflicts that play out among groups – where the people driving you crazy are the same people you love.
Payne and Russell were right in the mix of edgy American indie filmmakers to arrive in the 1990s. Kathryn Bigelow, Steven Soderbergh, Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino led the way. Then a whole new wave followed in their wake, including Russell, Payne, Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson, Spike Jonze and Darren Aronofsky. Russell and Payne announced themselves as talents to be watched in close order. Russell broke first with the incest comedy Spanking the Monkey in 1994. In 1996 Russell caused a stir with Flirting with Disaster and Payne with his abortion comedy Citizen Ruth. In ’99, both garnered attention: Russell with Three Kings and Payne with Election.
The 2000s have seen each evolve into bankable independents whose work spans audiences and resists trends. Russell’s recent run of The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle parallels Payne’s own run of About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants and Nebraska.
A repertory series of Russell works continues at Film Streams through November.
Film Streams executive director Rachel Jacobson says the Feature event gives attendees “the amazing opportunity to listen in on a conversation between two of the world’s most celebrated contemporary directors.” She adds, “It’s interesting how David and Alexander’s careers have paralleled one another. Both started out with independent films on ridiculously taboo subjects. They both premiered their first features at the Sundance Film Festival during the renaissance of American independent film.” She says Russell’s recent films “show an artist at the peak of his form.” A major difference in approach, she notes, is that unlike Payne Russell works with a consistent ensemble of actors. “I love how that consistency creates a world unto itself.”
In the same way Payne feels he’s just now coming into his own as a filmmaker, Russell does, too. Both had long periods in between pics: six years passed from Payne’s Sideways to Descendants and from Russell’s I Heart Huckabees to The Fighter. Each went through a divorce in that period. But where Payne was busy producing and writing, Russell got out of his head and in touch with his heart.
“I’m grateful things have become clearer to me and in some ways I feel it’s springtime for me and that’s a very beautiful thing because you know that could easily not be the case,” Russell says. “I think it’s hard in any endeavor, especially in the art of storytelling, to stay fresh. You always have to find new wells of inspiration and I understand many of the greats who have not. We can look back and say, Well, they did their great works and then they kind of couldn’t find it again. So I feel like I’ve found renewed clarity and heart for certain kinds of stories.
“It’s still very hard to do them well. I still have to try every moment like it’s my last opportunity on Earth. The only way it can come out as well as I hope it will is to act like it could very easily not come out that way every step of the way, which makes for a lot work.”
Like the best of their New Wave contemporaries Russell and Payne didn’t just make a splash and then disappear. Rather, they reestablish themselves as relevant storytellers with something to say again and again. The way they’ve asserted their strong, singular visions and voices is reminiscent of what Hal Ashby, Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese did in the 1970s and 1980s.
Russell and Payne have mostly weathered the volatile film industry that eventually envelopes everyone. Russell’s one commercial flop, Huckabees, enjoys a cult following. The same for Payne’s Citizen Ruth and Election. Nebraska’s sure to find a growing audience as more people discover it via the home and digital markets.
All of which is to say these two filmmakers at the top of their game should have much to talk about. They’re each steeled in classic cinema from the 1970s and before. Given they are from the same generation of writer-directors and leaders of Indiewood, it’s no surprise they’ve found themselves in the same circles.
Russell says, “We’ve done Q-and-As and we’ve had a lot of fun with them,” including a CineFamily session available on Vimeo.
The two once chummed around. The new millennium had just dawned and they were identified as rising cinema stars and it only made sense they would fall in with each other.
“We started being on each other’s radars socially and professionally in 1999,” Payne says, “when he had Three Kings and I had Election. 1999 was like a debutante’s ball year of independent directors. Wes Anderson’s Rushmore had come out the end of ’98. I had Election, David had Three Kings. Kimberly Peirce had Boys Don’t Cry. It was a year when this younger crop of directors were having some degree of mainstream success. And I adored Three Kings. Wow. if he could make a jump from Flirting with Disaster, a madcap family comedy, to a very beautifully directed film like Three Kings that’s when I knew he had a depth of talent.
“I’m always in favor of someone who wants to do comic human films. His films are always intelligent, entertaining – a wonderful combination of humanity and comic showmanship. We became friends and I’ve always supported his work. I admire him and I’m just so proud and thrilled to be hosting him at Film Streams.”
And Russell’s returned the favor.
“Yes, and it’s been really been fun, I think we’ve both enjoyed that,” Russell says. “When Alexander had The Descendants come out I was really happy to sit by his side at a couple events, chat with him, have a glass of wine, cheer him on and tell him how much I love the picture. And he was very kind to me likewise about the last three pictures.”
But it was when the two men first came to the fore, they were particularly close.
“We sort of hung out a bit together in that time around 2000,” Russell confirms. “I remember the Museum of Modern Art began this series for filmmakers of our generation and I felt very squeamish about doing it. I said I’ll only do it if you name the series Works in Progress because I consider myself a work in progress and they said OK and they started this series where I talked about my films with my actors and stuff.”
That inaugural 2002 event was called Work in Progress: An Evening with David O. Russell.
“Alexander came, Wes Anderson came, Kimberly Peirce came, Sofia Coppola came. A lot of actors came. I’m probably forgetting some other filmmakers who were there. There we were all together and it was a great feeling of camaraderie.
“And then the next years I ended up helping tap them (other filmmakers) to do it, so the next year Alexander Payne did it (that 2003 event was called A Work in Progress; The Films of Alexander Payne). And then Sofia did it and it kind of went from there.”
Russell, who as a young man waited tables at MOMA events, grew up in Larchmont, New York in a Russian-Italian American household. His father worked for publishing giant Simon and Schuster. His mother was a homemaker and political activist.
Much like Payne he was steeped in movies and literature.
“I grew up watching movies. I would go to my local movie theater in the next town and I’d watch a movie with movie stars and so I am interested in movies and movie stars that kind of grab me and don’t let me go and leave me indelibly moved. It’s like a wonderful record I can go back and play again in part or in whole.”
Asked whose work principally influenced him then and he rattles off the names Frank Capra, Coppola and Scorsese, adding with a laugh, “There, I named every Italian-American.”
Like Payne he initially went to college not to study film but to broaden his mind, At Amherst College in Mass, he studied English under novelist Robert Stone and religion under professor Robert Thurman, father of actress Uma Thurman.
“I always wanted to be a writer – a novelist or a short fiction writer – since I was about 10 years old because my dad worked at Simon and Schuster. I actually kept doing it into my 20s, you know, and I found it very hard. Meanwhile, I would memorize sections of movies as sort of a way of learning narrative and telling stories.”
He committed to memory sections of It’s a Wonderful Life and Chinatown, for example.
Again, like Payne, he went abroad as a young man, in his case to teach English in Nicaragua. Once back in the States he moved to Boston, where he did social justice work.
“I worked in low income areas, working for tenants rights, also teaching English as a second language.”
Unlike Payne, Russell never went to film school. His film immersion came haunting video stores and revival houses and learning the rudiments of the medium as a production assistant on the PBS television series Smithsonian World in Washington, D.C. Ever more feeling the pull of film, he made a documentary short. Boston to Panama (1985), that examined the lives of immigrant workers.
“Then I started to crossover thinking maybe I wanted to become a (narrative) filmmaker, which seemed like kind of a nutty idea because I’d never thought of that before as much as I loved movies.”
His narrative debut, the comedy short Bingo Inferno (1987) showed at the Sundance Film Festival. His next, the short Hairway to the Stars (1991), played Sundance and festivals in Seattle and London.
His feature debut, Spanking the Monkey, was a micro-budget production financed with private funding and grants. The dark humored Oedipal story concerns a young man marooned at home with his convalescing mother and the awkward longings they express. So, from the start, the family dynamic, dysfunctional and all, took precedence.
“I very much find community or family to be sort of an engine, a rocket engine, that leads to all avenues of humanity. All I know is that I think it works and it gets really intense and personal and complicated and funny and heartbreaking very quickly, so I love all of that. You know, I also love romance as I’ve discovered in my last three films.”
Family though is where it’s at for him. It may be a mother and son breaking taboos (Monkey), an extended family letting it all hang out (Flirting), U.S, Army soldiers searching for a fortune (Three Kings), a boxing clan’s ups and downs (The Fighter), a mentally ill son reconnecting with his father (Silver Linings) or a motley crew pulling a sting operation (American Hustle).
“In terms of my interests I know that I’m interested in romance and I know it includes a great intensity of predicaments that carries from one moment of the film to the next, meaning that it has an intensity to it and a propulsiveness to it that feels enveloping. And you have to maybe go back and watch it again or parts of it again to regather, but there’s never a moment where we are intentionally crafting the story that way.
“I mean, it’s nice to know what kind of movies you want to make and what kind of characters you want to render and what kind of actors you want to work with. And then I have a great love of music, a great love of camera movement that’s become a particular way of doing things that I’m still trying to learn how to make better. But at least it’s very clear when you know what path your on.”
Payne admires that Russell has “kept his own voice throughout them all,” adding, “Some of the same elements you see in Flirting with Disaster you see also in The Fighter, Silver Linings and American Hustle. His sense of dialogue and how he gets the camera in very close so that you’re standing with those characters or talking with them somehow. None of that has changed.”
Payne also likes how Russell balances the “larger circumstances” his characters find themselves in yet remains focused on the “eccentric details” of those situations and the personalities involved.
Russell says his own family’s strong personalities and rich heritage form a great template for him to overlay on the stories he tells.
“There’s a whole human opera of mine that extends back to Italy and Russia, to the Bronx and Brooklyn. There’s this tapestry of people. It’s a goldmine to me of rhythm, of music, of life, of romance, of food, of terrible things happening, of wonderful things happening, of traditions being passed, traditions being broken. All the things I care very deeply about in telling stories and as a person.
“I think I learned a great deal from my family before I even realized it. It’s sort of a great gift that you don’t realize, that I didn’t realize I had until much later in my career. Although it was obvious right at the beginning because I wrote that claustrophobic kind of quasi-horror $80,000 dollar trapped-in-the-house-with-your-mother movie (Monkey), which is almost like a horror movie, but it’s also funny, and that was all based on personal experiences I embroidered in great detail. There was a summer where my mother had trouble with her health. She had a car crash, And so that gave birth to that story.”
Flirting is another film where his real life resonated with his invention.
“There were moments when I saw my family the way we see the family in it, going through those chapters.”
He says Three Kings was “a departure” from the biological family thread and instead subverts the band of brothers conceit. He says Huckabees was “an attempt to create a parallel society little family of people but I don’t think my focus was where it ought to be in there,” adding, “Yet I never cease to be surprised by the young people, including Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings, Hustle)), who name that among their favorites of mine, which is baffling to me.
“And then the last three (films) are very much family-centered.”
The most personal of these to him is Silver Linings. Adapted from a novel, Russell emotionally connected with the characters because like the protagonist his own son Matt has bipolar disorder. Matt, who’s also had learning issues, has attended the Devereux Glenholme School in Conn., which serves young adults with special needs. Russell has been “very involved” at the school,” serving on a board. “I’m very invested in helping that school, plus the next experience for those kids who need to find pathways into work or higher education.”
Another educational institution he’s involved with is Ghetto Film School, a New York City public high school whose curriculum is cinema-based.
“It’s a very strong school in the Bronx. It became a crown jewel of Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s public school system in New York, It’s exciting that people are learning how to tell narrative and to tell stories. I always like to go talk to the students and teachers about what they’re doing. I’ve been on the board for 12 years. I’ve helped bring a lot of filmmakers and actors to go talk to them: Spike Jonze, Catherine Hardwick, Amy Adams. We have to get Alexander to go see them.”
Russell says 20th Century Fox co-COO James Murdoch “was so smitten by the project” he helped open an L.A. branch this past summer. Russell was there for its launch.
The filmmaker would be happy if a future script he wants to direct comes from a graduate. The same would be true of Alexander Payne. But the fact is each director usually writes his own scripts. Payne often says writing is the most onerous part of his creative process. Russell agrees but like Payne he sees it as a necessary chore to produce raw material for his films.
“I’m just coming out of a very intense writing period where I’ve been writing 15 hours a day for the last six months. I literally become a shut in. I went to some event for my younger son’s school and I just really felt like a-fish-out-of-water. I’d almost forgotten how to be out and about because your world becomes very narrow. It’s a very strange way to live because you’re basically living 15 hours a day in this narrative. You’re living in a movie all day, and that’s the only way I can do it to get it done. I have to make myself sit there all that time.
“So like Alexander it’s also my least favorite part of the process but you have to do it. You know you can’t get the iron ore or the diamonds out of the ground unless you do the back breaking work of digging into the ground, which is really difficult.”
Both filmmakers are weighing what their next projects will be. While Payne is reportedly trying to revive Downsizing, the project he abandoned after the financial crisis hit in 2008, Russell says, “There’s two stories we may be going into preproduction on soon. Those are the two things I’ve been working feverishly on for the last eight nine months. One is a large original story I don’t want to get into too much detail about but it involves family.”
The other, titled Joy, is based on the true story of Joy Mangano. The storyline reads something like Erin Brockovich: a struggling single mother of three surprises everyone when she finds success as an inventor and entrepreneur. Jennifer Lawrence is tabbed to star.
Russell says he’s eager for his visit here. “I can’t wait to come to Omaha. I’ve been reading about all the famous cinema people who are from Nebraska.” He hopes to find sites commemorating Marlon Brando and Fred Astaire, for example, but outside a street sign named for the former and a ballroom named for the latter, he’ll be disappointed.
He’ll be searching, too, for a local fix to feed his passion for video stores, which he feels should be preserved as cultural “hubs and meccas.” He helped create a nonprofit foundation for Santa Monica’s iconic Vidiots. “I’m trying to get the studios – and I’ve reached out to Alexander as well – to turn it into a place where they can feature the libraries of each studio and people can learn about cinema.”
The Feature event with Russell and Payne is at 7 p.m. For tickets and rep series details, visit http://www.filmstreams.org.