I have been fortunate enough to interview several film legends and with this story I landed a biggie in the person of the late Robert Wise, the Oscar-winning producer-director who made two of the greatest screen musicals in West Side Story and The Sound of Music, though as my piece points out he was a versatile enough filmmaker that he made memorable movies of all different genres, including horror, crime, Western, and science fiction. My story appeared on the eve of a revival screening of West Side Story at the restored Orpheum Theater in Omaha some eight or nine years ago. The event was organized by local impresario Bruce Crawford. For the story I interviewed Wise, co-star Russ Tamblyn, who came to the showing, and Crawford. Though Wise was not a great filmmaker or auteur he was certainly one of the most commercially successful prodcuer-directors of his era. His career also spanned an incredibly long period, from the Golden Age of 1930s-1940s Hollywood well into the 1980s, and intersected with scores of great talents. It was a distinct privilege to speak with him. Flm lovers should note that this blog is full of my stories from my work as a film journalist.
‘West Side Story,’ An American Classic
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the New Horizons
Before becoming the home of Omaha’s performing arts in the 1970s, the Orpheum Theater reigned as the grandest movie palace in the city. It’s only fitting then the newly renovated downtown Orpheum will, for one night only, on Monday, November 11, showcase a national cinema treasure — West Side Story — in a special screening benefiting the St. Vincent DePaul Society of Omaha
The event is the latest in local impresario Bruce Crawford’s series of annual film revivals presented in the manner of Hollywood premieres. This time, he’s arranged personal appearances by three West Side Story notables — its Oscar-winning producer-director Robert Wise, co-star Russ Tamblyn and vocalist Marni Nixon, who provided the singing voice for Natalie Wood. Also, a choreographed work by Robin Welch of the Omaha Theater Ballet will pay homage to the dance numbers in the film. Wise, Tamblyn and Nixon will speak prior to the film and sign autographs afterwards.
Crawford said he’s secured “an archival print” for the showing, which will offer audiences a rare chance to see the film in all its 70 millimeter Super Panavision glory on the big screen. In the opinion of Crawford, a devotee of film music, West Side Story “broke the mold” as far as the American musical is concerned. “I consider it a modern opera. Maria,Tonight, In America — these are not just show tunes, these are almost operatic arias,” he said. “I think it transcends the musical genre and is the most unique of all film musicals, hands-down.”
Released by United Artists in 1961, West Side Story became a huge box-office hit and one of the most honored films in Academy Award history, winning 10 Oscars, including for Best Picture, Best Director (Wise and co-director Jerome Robbins), Best Supporting Actor (George Chakiris) and Best Supporting Actress (Rita Moreno). As successful as the film was, it owed everything to the original stage production upon which it was based. Boldly transposing the forbidden romance of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to the New York gang milieu and exchanging the Montague-Capulet feud for the gang warfare between the Caucasian Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks, playwright Arthur Laurents, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, composer Leonard Bernstein and director-choreographer Jerome Robbins covered new ground in American musical theater with their honest depiction of racial issues.
The modern, socially-conscious drama became a Broadway phenomenon soon after opening at New York’s Winter Garden Theater in 1957. Brimming with an urgent passion and intellect, the show ran more than 700 performances before going on tour. Sensing a hot property when they saw one, producers ponied-up to buy the film rights. In the changing landscape of American cinema then, old-line Hollywood studios were giving way to brash new independent film companies, one of which — Mirisch Pictures — acquired the rights to the play and, in association with Seven Arts Productions, launched the much-anticipated screen version.
To helm the film, veteran Robert Wise (Somebody Up There Likes Me) was signed and, in an unusual arrangement, Broadway’s Robbins was given co-directorial responsibilities. The plan was for Wise to direct the dramatic scenes and to shape the overall story for the camera and for Robbins to develop the demanding dance and music numbers. Screenwriter Ernest Lehman (Sabrina, The King and I, Sweet Smell of Success, North By Northwest) wrote the film adaptation. Bernstein and Sondheim again provided the powerful music and lyrics around which the entire spine of West Side is built. In preparing the film, Wise-Robbins elected not to use any leads from the Broadway show and instead cast five fresh-faced young players under contract to various studios.
As the souful, starcrossed lovers whose romance defies family, ethnic and gang codes of honor, Richard Beymer was cast as Tony, the Polish-American boy, and Natalie Wood as Maria, the Chicano girl. Newcomer George Chakiris took the showy part of Bernardo, the charismatic leader of the Sharks. Plucked from the obscurity of previously decorative bit parts, Rita Moreno won the role of Anita, the fire brand mate of Bernardo. And, finally, for the cocky role of Riff, the leader of the Jets, Russ Tamblyn got the call.
In recent phone interviews from their California homes, Wise and Tamblyn spoke about making the film and the artists they collaborated with. After 56 years directing some of the most famous features in movie history, 88-year-old Robert Wise is finally retired from picture-making, although movies are always on his mind. The venerable Wise is the last of the old guard of Hollywood filmmakers. In a distinguished career that saw him transition from the editing room at RKO, where he cut such classics as Citizen Kane, to assuming the director’s chair, from which he oversaw dozens of popular films of every conceivable genre, Wise earned a reputation as a fine craftsman. His fluid, incisive, unadorned work exudes a sober integrity reflective of his own character. In preparing a film a director is like a reporter and Wise, who intended to be a journalist, anchors his work in research. “When I go into any project I research every aspect of it thoroughly, so I can tell all the truth and reality I can up on the screen,” he said.
By the time Wise joined the West Side creative team, he was a bankable, versatile director adept at making suspense films (The Curse of the Cat People), horror films (The Body Snatcher), film noirs (The Set-Up), crime thrillers (Odds Against Tomorrow), Westerns (Blood on the Moon), science fiction flicks (The Day the Earth Stood Still), high dramas (Executive Suite), biopics (I Want to Live) and war films (Run Silent, Run Deep). Despite never directing a musical, he worked as an assistant editor on Astaire-Rogers pictures, an experience, he said, that helped him know “the form” of the musical. Four years after West Side, he struck gold with another Broadway adaptation — The Sound of Music –which broke all box office records.
Wise knew the challenge in making a film from a play, any play, was in finding ways to open the story up in cinematic terms that liberated the action from the constraints of the stage. So that he could capture the grit, vitality and scope of West Side’s New York City setting, he realized he must get dynamic shots of the Big Apple and thus fix the story’s urban location in people’s minds. To do that, he came up with the novel idea for the signature opening — a sweeping helicopter pan looking straight down at the looming cityscape. The resulting images offer arresting views of the city and serve to heighten the reality and poetry of the stylized drama. The filmmaker had to fight reluctant, penny-pinching executives to do the opening his way.
“Well, they were not too happy about it because it was going to cost a lot more money to shoot that, but that was the only way to do it,” he said. “I didn’t want to fake that out here in Los Angeles. I wanted to deliver New York and I didn’t want to do it with that same old shot across the river of the bridge and the skyline. I got to wondering what it would look like just straight down — a New York most people have never seen. I didn’t actually shoot that myself. A second-unit man did it for me. I think we had about a half-hour’s worth of film, which we cut down into what’s in the movie.” The montage rythmically leads into the first pulsating shots of gang members moving in the streets and breaking into dance.
Aside from his own contributions, Wise felt secure knowing he had a brilliant book, sublime lyrics and memorable music to work with. In his mind, a film is only as good as its screenplay. He said, “We had a marvelous script by a writer-friend of mine, Ernest Lehman, who’s done several of my other things. The foundation of any film is the script, and if it’s not on the page, you’re not going to get it up there (on the screen). If you’ve got it on the page and if you get the right cast together and the right crew, then away you go and you let the chips fall where they may.”
Russ Tamblyn said West Side was a project where “all the ingredients clicked.” Among the big egos and talents behind it, he said, it was the cool, calm, quiet Wise who held it all together. “He was quite different from Jerome Robbins. Jerry was very passionate and out front. He would get mad at dancers if they couldn’t remember steps and he wanted actors to keep doing stuff over and over and over again. On the set, boy, he was a demon. Whereas Robert Wise was more laid-back. He was the kind of director I really like — that’s more self-assured and would point you in the right direction and leave it up to you to go there. That’s the thing I loved about him. He just is really sweet. You can call him at his office, and he answers the phone. There aren’t many people in his position that do that.”
When, more than half-way through production, the film fell behind schedule and went over-budget, the fiery Robbins was fired and assistant Tony Mordente, who also played one of the Jets, Action, assumed the choreography. Ironically, Robbins won Oscars for his energetic, sexually-charged choreography and co-direction.
Behind-the-scenes intrigue or not, Tamblyn enjoyed the shoot and felt lucky to be part of the film at all. He was “on loan” to the producers from MGM, where he was a contract player. He actually tested for the role of Tony, but ended up playing Riff over the objections of studio head Bennie Thau, who felt the part projected the wrong image for a young star being groomed as a clean-cut boy-next-door type. West Side was not the first or last musical for Tamblyn, who displayed his acrobatic style, replete with his trademark back flip, in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Tom Thumb and Hit the Deck. While lacking formal training, the former Los Angeles youth tumbling champ got the equal of a graduate-level dance education from such master choreographers as Robbins, Michael Kidd and Hermes Pan. Although “extremely intimidated” by the dances required in West Side, he gained confidence during months of rehearsal and from being in the company of fellow former child actors Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer, whom Tamblyn later co-starred with in David Lynch’s cult TV series Twin Peaks.
Tamblyn, who considers West Side Story “the peak” of his career, enjoys attending revivals of the film. “Last year we did a cast and crew reunion in New York at Radio City Music Hall,” he said. “It was completely sold out. It was right after 9/11 and we didn’t even want to go, but Mayor Giuliani asked us to, and it was one of the best trips I ever had there.” Robert Wise was there too and said the film “played like gangbusters.” For his Omaha screening, Bruce Crawford is “thrilled” to have the combination of “a legendary filmmaker, a classic film and the Orpheum Theater.”
- How we made … Russ Tamblyn and George Chakiris on West Side Story (guardian.co.uk)
- Five top stage-to-film musical makeovers (nydailynews.com)
- West Side Story, film soundtrack, CD review (telegraph.co.uk)
- The Search for the ‘West Side Story’ Album Cover in NYC (wqxr.org)
One of the world’s leading writer-directors and a legendary actress he admires from America’s last golden age of film may just be made for each other, artistically speaking that is, which makes the “tete-a-tete” they will engage in July 22 at the Film Streams Feature Event in Omaha all the more interesting. The filmmaker is Alexander Payne and the leading lady is Jane Fonda and they will undoubtedly spend a fair amount of time discussing American cinema from the late 1960s through the late 1970s, a period that Payne adores and that saw Fonda do her best work. There’s also the Fonda Family legacy to be considered, one with deep resonance to Nebraska because her famous father, the late stage and screen star Henry Fonda, was born and raised in Nebraska and began acting at the Omaha Community Playhouse. That’s where Jane and her brother Peter made their stage debuts. When the lone picture she made with her father, On Golden Pond, premiered she accompanied the movie to Omaha for a red carpet extravaganza at the Orpheum Theatre. Now she’s back 30 years later to talk shop with a native Nebraska filmmaker. Full circle.
I have a companion story on the blog that gives details about the Jane Fonda repertory series at Film Streams to run from late June through August 30. She also selected two favorite films that will be getting screened, her father’s personal favorite among his own films, 12 Angry Men, and the great Preston Sturges social satire, Sullivan’s Travels, which is also one of the most scathing looks ever at the corrupt Hollywood ethos. Film Streams is also screening Peace, Love & Misunderstanding, which features Jane’s most recent film acting performance.
Alexander Payne Talks Cinema with Kindred Spirit Jane Fonda at Film Streams Feature Event in Omaha
©by Leo Adam Biga
To appear in the July issue of Metro Magazine
He’ll converse with an intelligent artist he admires and whose best work came in his favorite decade of American movies, the ’70s. Then there’s all the noted directors and actors she’s worked with and the legacy of her famous father and brother to discuss.
It’s apropos that a renowned filmmaker from Omaha will review Fonda’s own legendary career before an audience of Nebraskans since her family is so tied to this place. Her adored father Henry remains an enduring native son. The loyalty the late stage and screen star showed to the state is not lost on Jane or Peter, who are adopted Nebraskans.
The threesome’s cinema paths rarely crossed. Just as Henry’s career waned, Jane’s and Peter’s took off. But there was a golden moment when they all converged. As the Old Hollywood studio system died out a brash new group of creatives crashed the gates to usher in the New Hollywood in the late 1960s. In that emerging space of permissiveness and artistic freedom depictions of sex and violence reached new extremes, more humanistic stories came in vogue, locations gained favor over sound stages and stylistic devices, like flash cuts, took hold. Amid this liberated landscape the Fondas made films that forever changed things.
Jane paradoxically struck a blow for both misogyny and feminism in Roger Vadim’s sexually bold adaptation of the adult comic strip Barbarella. Henry went rouge playing completely against type as a sadistic killer in the Sergio Leone Western Once Upon a Time in the West. Peter became a counterculture hero in the hippie, Harley, drug-fueled road picture classic Easy Rider.
Then, in a dramatic career transformation, Jane went from frothy sex symbol to first-rate dramatic actress of social conviction, winning Oscars for her risk-taking work in Klute and Coming Home. Later, she found the project that became her ailing father’s cinema swan song and their only film together, On Golden Pond. Fast forward a generation and Peter channeled his father in his Oscar-nominated lead role in Ulee’s Gold.
While the Fondas contributed to the unrestrained new cinema a young Alexander Payne cut his teeth on ’70s films as an audience member at the Dundee and Indian Hills Theatres. As Payne acknowledged in accepting his Oscar for The Descendants last February, his mother Peggy was his most devoted filmgoing companion.
He was an intellectually precocious youth with a preternatural appetite for adult art fare. He made his own short films with an 8 mm camera his restauranteur father, George, received as a bonus from Kraft Foods for customer loyalty.
Payne, a Creighton Prep graduate, considered studying journalism but fixed on history and Spanish literature at Stanford University. He didn’t formally study film until he entered UCLA, where his thesis project, The Passion of Martin, played festivals and netted him a production deal from Universal Studios.
By the time he made features in his hometown in the mid-1990s and early 2000s, repeatedly shooting in the same Dundee neighborhood where he and Henry Fonda grew up, Jane was already retired from movies.
For Citizen Ruth Payne cast a strong, socially committed woman not unlike Fonda in Laura Dern to play the title character of Ruth Stoops. Interested in making uncompromising films akin to those he fell in love with during the ’70s, Payne unflinchingly took on the abortion debate in the picture.
His next movie, Election, placed Reese Witherspoon in the kind of catty vixen part a young Jane would have been just right for.
Payne’s subsequent male-dominated films co-star women in roles that put men in their place. In About Schmidt Connie Ray is a trailer park wife sympathetic to Jack Nicholson recently losing his wife until he makes a pass at her and she throws him out. One can imagine Fonda in that part. In Sideways Sandra Oh is the cool wine pourer babe who goes ballistic when she discovers Thomas Haden Church has been lying to her and Virginia Madsen is the cool Earth Mother who sees past Paul Giamatti’s shortcomings. Fonda’s played similar characters.
As a good woman wronged in The Descendants Judy Greer finds the right balance of tenderness and rage Fonda delivered as Cat Ballou, Bree Daniels (Klute), Lillian Hellman (Julia) and Kimberly Wells (The China Syndrome).
No doubt Payne would have loved to work with Fonda in her prime. Who knows, now that she’s acting again perhaps they’ll be a part for her in one of his future projects. Just not his next one, Nebraska, a road movie that follows an embittered Nebraskan (Bruce Dern) living in Montana hell-bent on claiming a sweepstakes prize his estranged son (Will Forte) knows doesn’t exist. The son is sure his father will come to his senses long before they reach their destination of Lincoln, Neb. The journey revisits the old man’s dispiriting past and en route the sympathetic son decides to give his fool of a father the gift of saving face.
Payne’s angling to shoot the project in Nebraska this fall. He and casting director John Jackson are hard at work trying to find authentic Nebraska types as extras.
- Jane Fonda Takes Center Stage at Film Streams, Where Her Life in Film is Celebrated this Summer (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- At 74, Jane Fonda learned how to be a hippie (todayentertainment.today.msnbc.msn.com)
- Dena Krupinski Makes Her Hollywood Dreams a Reality as a Turner Classic Movies Producer (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Film Streams at Five: Art Cinema Contributes to a Transformed Omaha Through Community Focus on Film and Discussion (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Jane Fonda Comes Home (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- Photos: Jane Fonda Wows at Cannes (abcnews.go.com)
- Regina Weinreich: Jane Fonda: More Than the Sum of her Parts (huffingtonpost.com)
Alexander Payne Delivers Graceful Oscar Tributes – The Winner for Best Adapted Screenplay Recognizes Clooney, Hemmings and His Mom
Alexander Payne‘s love affair with the movies began when he was a child in his hometown of Omaha. The nascent cinephile’s frequent filmgoing companion then was his mother, Peggy Payne, who recognized her prodigy of a son expressed far more interest in grown-up films than children’s fare, and she indulged his serious passion by taking him to screenings of art movies. Decades later the world-class filmmaker told the world how much he appreciates what she did for him when he dedicated his Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Descendants to her. In doing so he said “I love you” in Greek, thus acknowledging his family’s heritage, which he’s extremely proud of. He also singled out one of his producing partner’s, Jim Burke, star George Clooney, and author Kaui Hart Hemmings, whose novel he and fellow Oscar winners Nat Faxon and Jim Rash adapted.
Alexander Payne Delivers Graceful Oscar Tributes – The Winner for Best Adapted Screenplay Recognizes Clooney, Hemmings and His Mom
©by Leo Adam Biga
Published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
The obvious and not so obvious came into focus when native son Alexander Payne accepted his second Oscar in front of a live audience of his peers and a television viewing audience estimated at 1.2 billion during Sunday’s Academy Awards.
He shared Best Adapted Screenplay for The Descendants with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, whose mimicking of presenter Angelina Jolie‘s power pose seemingly distracted and peeved Payne as he tried beating the clock with his thank-yous. Always the pro though, he quickly collected himself and offered one of the evening’s best grace notes with this tribute:
“We share this with George Clooney and the rest of the cast for interpreting our screenplay so generously and we also share it in particular with Kaui Hart Hemmings, our beautiful Hawaiian flower, for her novel.”
A radiant Hemmings sat next to the debonair Payne and his date for the evening, his well-coiffed mother Peggy, and it was to her and their shared Greek heritage he made the most moving gesture.
“And on a brief personal note if I may, my mother is here with me from Omaha, hold the applause, and after watching the show a few years ago she made me promise that if I ever won another Oscar I had to dedicate it to her just like Javier Bardem did with his mother (eliciting laughter). So, Mom, this one’s for you. Se agapao poly. (Greek for “I love you very much.”). And thanks for letting me skip nursery school so we could go to the movies. Thanks a lot.”
Payne has sometimes mentioned his mother and father both indulged his early childhood fascination with film, but it was she who took him to see the cutting-edge grown-up movies he preferred over children’s fare.
He could have quipped about her insisting that only her Countryside Village hair stylist attend to her tresses, which meant he had to fly the hairdresser out to L.A.
He could have used the stage to poke Nebraska legislators, as he did six weeks ago in Lincoln, for leverage in trying to get film industry tax credits passed here, lest he have to take his planned Nebraska project to, say, Kansas. He could have tweaked the noses of Paramount suits who gave him a hard time about his insistence in wanting to shoot Nebraska in black-and-white.
That he didn’t show anyone up speaks to his respect for the industry and his desire to not burn bridges. Besides, as he recently told a reporter, “I like the Oscars.” It’s obvious the Oscars like him. The only question is when he when he will take home Best Picture and Best Director awards.
- Alexander Payne and Kaui Hart Hemmings on the Symbiosis Behind His Film and Her Novel ‘The Descendants’ and Her Role in Helping Him Get Hawaii Right (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Payne Delivers Another Screen Gem with ‘The Descendants’ and Further Enhances His Cinema Standing (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- My Forthcoming Book, ‘Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film,’ Due for a Fall 2012 Release (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
The number of Nebraskans working in or on the fringes of the film industry is in the hundreds. I know there’s nothing remarkable about that in and of itself, other than that this is a small population state far removed from either coast. Then again, the vast majority of Hollywood film professionals originated somewhere else besides Calif., including lots of places just like Nebraska. But what is unusual is the high number of folks from here who have made significant contributions to the film industry either by the imprint or quality or volume of their work .
Try this cursory list on for size:
Darryl Zanuck, Harold Lloyd, Hoot Gibson, Fred Astaire, Robert Taylor, Ward Bond, Ann Ronell, Henry Fonda, Dorothy McGuire, Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, Lynn Stalmaster, Donald Thorin, James Coburn, David Janssen, Inga Swenson, Sandy Dennis, David Doyle, Lew Hunter, Irene Worth, Joan Micklin Silver, Nick Nolte, Swoosy Kurtz, Paul Williams, Marg Helgenberger, Lori Petty, Sandy Veneziano, Alexander Payne, John Jackson, Jon Bokenkamp, Jaime King, Dan Mirvish, Dana Altman, John Beasley, Kevin Kennedy, Patrick Coyle, Gabrielle Union, Yolonda Ross, Nicholas D’Agosto, Chris Klein, Nik Fackler, Tom Elkins.
Add in Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett for good measure.
The list includes mega-moguls, directors, producers, screenwriters, songwriters, actors, actresses, you name it, and their influence extends from the silent era through the Golden Age of Hollywood to the indie movement and right on up to today. There are Oscar winners both behind and in front of the camera, industry stalwarts and mavericks, household names and lesser known but no less significant figures.
And then there’s the subject of this story, Mike Hill, an Oscar-winning editor who’s been attached to Ron Howard for decades and shared in the director’s many successes. Hill is an Omaha native and resident known for his generosity with young, aspiring filmmakers and editors. I did the following profile on him in 2002 and what most interested me about him then and still does now is the story of how he came to work in Hollywood in the first place and the classic journey he took as an apprentice learning his craft. During that process he worked with some genuine legends and those experiences obviously added his professional development.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Success for Mike Hill, Academy Award-winning film editor from Omaha, did not come overnight. His local-boy-made-good-in-Hollywood story ranges from lean years learning the craft to being mentored by old pros to turning lucky breaks to his advantage to reaching the pinnacle of his profession.
He and fellow editor Dan Hanley, who together cut all of Ron Howard’s films, shared the 1995 Oscar for Best Film Editing on Apollo 13 and are nominated again this year for the critically-praised A Beautiful Mind, which is up for a total of eight Oscars, including Best Picture. During an interview at the Pacific Street Spirit World, Hill, who lives in Omaha with his wife and their daughter, discussed his career and collaboration in cinema.
After graduating from Omaha Burke in the late 1960s Hill attended UNO, where he studied a little of everything before earning a criminal justice degree. To pay his way through school he worked nights as an assistant film editor at Channel 6 television, splicing 16 millimeter commercials together, a seemingly forgettable job that, however, would soon be his entree into movies.
He headed out to California in the early 1970s with the idea of working in penology. But after a few months as a Chino State Prison guard he realized he was in the wrong field and promptly quit. He took odd jobs to pay the rent and almost on a whim applied for work with the film editors guild.
“I wasn’t really counting on anything,” he said. “Then luckily one day I was home when a phone call came from the guild saying Paramount was hiring. I ended up getting hired as an apprentice, which consisted of working in film shipping and driving a golf cart delivering film to editing rooms and screening rooms and doing whatever they told you to do.”
As unglamorous as his work was, Hill landed in the movies at a propitious time and a prestigious place. It was 1973 and Paramount ruled Hollywood after scoring big the previous year with The Godfather. The studio was producing a whole new slate of soon-to-be classics.
“It was an amazing time,” he said. “The movie business was very busy. Paramount was making Godfather II and Chinatown at the time I was there. I would just marvel every day at who I saw on the lot — Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro. So, it was pretty heady stuff for a kid from Omaha.”
Once Hill understood the way out of the shipping room meant learning how to be an assistant film editor, he announced his ambition to do just that.
“I was fortunate to have a couple assistant editors I met who were willing to teach me how to synch-up dailies. When film comes from the previous day’s shoot you synch it up with picture and track (soundtrack) so it can run in a screening room. I learned how to do that and I slowly learned editing room tasks.” His first screening room duties were for then hit TV shows like The Brady Bunch. Learning the ropes the same time as Hill was Dan Hanley, with whom he would later team.
Among the old-line editors Hill and Hanley apprenticed under was Bob Kern. “Both Dan and I learned quite a bit from him. He would give us scenes to edit — to work on — and that’s the best way to learn. He and other editors encouraged us to pursue it and to move up.”
The ‘70s saw Hill work on many made-for-TV movie and film projects. Two master filmmakers he assisted around 1976 spurred his development: on The Last Tycoon he worked with Elia Kazan (On the Waterfront) whose elegant if rather lifeless feature adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished last novel ended up being the director’s final film; and on Bound for Glory he worked with Hal Ashby (Coming Home), whose exquisite vision of folk singer Woody Guthrie’s life story secured critical plaudits but saw scant box office returns.
Hill said he went to the Tycoon set every day observing Kazan at work and ran dailies for him the entire shoot. Kazan may have noted his young charge’s intense interest in the process as, Hill said, “He took me under his wing and let me cut some scenes. One scene he was going to reshoot anyway, so he said. ‘Go ahead and cut this together and see what you can do with it.’ I was there all night messing around with it. It was a simple scene of two people talking. On every line I cut back and forth until it was like a ping pong match. I really didn’t know what I was doing. He looked at it with me in the screening room and told me, ‘You don’t need to cut so much. Pick your spots and sometimes let a scene play out awhile.’ I learned stuff like that from him that was invaluable. The same way with Hal Ashby.”
It was while working in a second editor’s position on TV movies that Hill “really started to learn how to edit.” He was prepared, therefore, when his big break came in 1982. He was set to join his old mentor, Kern, and his former shipping room mate, Hanley, as an assistant on Ron Howard’s first mid-major studio feature, Nightshift, when Kern suffered a stroke.
Instead of bringing in a veteran replacement Howard entrusted the lead editing to the green assistants.
“We had a lot of responsibility on our shoulders,” Hill said, “but we were too young and too stupid to be really that aware of it, and so we just did it. Bob was there to lend moral support and answer questions. The movie turned out to be a modest comedy hit, enough of a hit to get Ron Splash.”
Then came Cocoon. As Howard’s directorial career reached ever greater heights, Hill and Hanley went along for the ride every step of the way. Their nearly exclusive relationship with him is one of the closest collaborations between a director and an editor, or editors, in Hollywood. So, what makes it work?
“I think personality-wise we kind of meld,” Hill said. “We have the same interests. Our senses of humor mesh. There’s really no ego problems…and Ron is just the nicest guy in the world. We’re all really good friends. Plus, he likes our work and he likes having two film editors.”
During production Hill-Hanley cut on location and during post-production they work at a permanent editing suite Howard maintains in New York. The men work in separate rooms on separate scenes before assembling a first cut. In shaping the raw footage coming-in during the shoot, the pair enjoy great latitude.
“We have total freedom. Ron just lets us go. He’ll give us cryptic notes like, ‘I like that take’ or ‘Try to use this moment’ and that’s it. The structure and everything is up to us. He relies on us to come up with things he doesn’t expect to see. He likes to be surprised.”
Once shooting is complete Howard joins his editors and the three slowly prune the film-in-progress into a workable length.
“Ron’s kind of impatient about editing. He doesn’t like to sit around. He likes going back and forth from room to room,” Hill said, “so he’s always got something to look at. We’ll look at the movie reel by reel with him and get extensive notes from him about each scene and then we’ll go to work on them. We’ll do an entire pass and see how much time we’ve taken out and how it plays and then we’ll start again. We try to make every scene shorter without hurting it. Some of the toughest decisions are which scenes to drop. But some scenes have got to go, including some that would be very good and that I’ve grown attached to personally because I’ve worked so hard on them. It’s a slow process of whittling it down, sculpting it, refining it, honing it. We’ve got a good system worked out over 20 years now.”
The art in what Hill does comes in selecting from the myriad takes at his disposal to create a seamless film that appears to have sprung to life, organically, as “one piece,” he said, adding, “That’s what I admire about good editing.” Working for Howard means sifting through “a lot of angles and a lot of takes. He shoots a lot of film. He likes to have options. We’ve always found, especially when you need to trim a scene down, that the more coverage you have the more success you have in shortening a scene. You’re stuck if you just have one or two takes or one or two shots. Then, you have nothing to cut to. There’s no way to get out of the scene.”
Making Hill’s job easier is the fact Howard commands final cut. “Ron’s in a position where he has complete power. There’s nobody messing with him, which is great for us because there’s nothing worse than working on a film where the director loses control and the studio steps in.”
Hill lived that nightmare on one of the few Howard-less films he edited, Problem Child. He said each project has it’s own “unique problems.”
Of Howard’s films, he lists Willow and Apollo 13 as the toughest assignments because the former entailed so many special effects shots and the latter required flawlessly blending weightlessness footage shot in a plane with matching footage shot on a sound stage. The Grinch posed a new challenge when Howard broke precedent and allowed an actor, star Jim Carrey no less, free reign in the editing room to select his own takes. Hill said while the character-based A Beautiful Mind involved a lower degree of difficulty than those technically-oriented films it demanded greater finesse in shaping a cohesive performance from star Russell Crowe, whose takes ranged wildly from subdued to over-the-top, and in preserving the integrity of the narrative while shortening the piece.
Hill has been in the business long enough now that he has hands-on experience working with the full historical range of film editing equipment — from the old Movieola (“a horrible machine…a dinosaur”) through which film noisly clattered through a gate to the streamlined Kem (“much more civilized”) to today’s digital Avid system (“a huge leap forward”) that eliminates the need to ever handle film again and allows instant access to every shot.
“Now, we can finish a scene that used to take days in an hour.” The Movieola days were such drudgery, he said, “that I have to admit there were times I got so tired of editing a scene, I’d say, ‘That’s it — I don’t care anymore. Take it or leave it.’” It’s no coincidence his new confidence in his work has coincided with the labor-free new technology. “It gives us freedom to experiment” with pure editing because “you don’t have to worry about splicing, putting frames back, loading or unloading film. You can approach a scene totally without fear..do whatever you want and there’s no consequences.”
As for his and Hanley’s Oscar bid, he said, “I don’t really believe we’re going to win. Our picture isn’t showy or flashy enough. But I didn’t think so last time either.” Should he win, the statuette will likely join his Apollo 13 Oscar on a bookcase at home.
Meanwhile, he’s anxiously awaiting word on Howard’s next project and is getting antsy enough that he’s having his agent look for a temporary assignment he can fill until the call comes.
During lull periods he sometimes lends his expertise to small independent films, including the Omaha-made Shakespeare’s Coffee and The Full Ride. Even though he and Hanley have no formal agreement with Howard stipulating they will work on his films, neither has missed one in 20 years and Hill doesn’t intend missing one now that Howard is such a prominent Player in Hollywood.
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Jim Taylor, the Other Half of Hollywood’s Top Screenwriting Team, Talks About His Work with Alexander Payne
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
There’s an alchemy to the virtuoso writing partnership of Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, Oscar winners for Sideways (2004) and previous nominees for Election (1999), that resists pat analysis. The artists themselves are unsure what makes their union work beyond compatibility, mutual regard and an abiding reverence for cinema art.
Together 15 years now, their professional marriage has been a steady ascent amid the starts and stops endemic to filmmaking. As their careers have evolved, they’ve emerged as perhaps the industry’s most respected screenwriting tandem, often drawing comparisons to great pairings of the past. As the director of their scripts, Payne grabs the lion’s share of attention, although their greatest triumph, Sideways, proved “a rite of passage” for each, Taylor said, by virtue of their Oscars.
Taylor doesn’t mind that Payne, the auteur, has more fame. ”He pays a price for that. I’m not envious of all the interviews he has to do and the fact his face is recognized more. Everywhere he goes people want something from him. That level of celebrity I’m not really interested in,” he said by phone from the New York home he shares with filmmaker wife Tamara Jenkins (The Slums of Beverly Hills).
With the craziness of Sideways now subsided and Payne due to return soon from a month-long sojourn in Paris, where he shot a vignette for the Paris, I Love You omnibus film, he and Taylor will once again engage their joint muse. So far, they’re being coy about what they’ve fixed as their next project. It may be the political, Altmanesque story they’ve hinted at. Or something entirely else. What is certain is that a much-anticipated new Payne-Taylor creation will be in genesis.
Taylor’s an enigma in the public eye, but he is irreducibly, inescapably one half of a premier writing team that shows no signs of running dry or splitting up. His insights into how they approach the work offer a vital glimpse into their process, which is a kind of literary jam session, game of charades and excuse for hanging out all in one. They say by the time a script’s finished, they’re not even sure who’s done what. That makes sense when you consider how they fashion a screenplay — throwing out ideas over days and weeks at a time in hours-long give-and-take riffs that sometimes have them sharing the same computer monitor hooked up to two keyboards.
Their usual M.O. finds them talking, on and on, about actions, conflicts, motivations and situations, acting out or channeling bits of dialogue and taking turns giving these elements form and life on paper.
”After we’ve talked about something, one of us will say, ‘Let me take a crack at this,’ and then he’ll write a few pages. Looking at it, the other might say, ‘Let me try this.’ Sometimes, the person on the keyboard is not doing the creative work. They’re almost inputting what the other person is saying. It’s probably a lot like the way Alexander works with his editor (Kevin Tent), except we’re switching back and forth being the editor.”
For each writer, the litmus test of any scene is its authenticity. They abhor anything that rings false. Their constant rewrites are all about getting to the truth of what a given character would do next. Avoiding cliches and formulas and feel-good plot points, they serve up multi-shaded figures as unpredictable as real people, which means they’re not always likable.
”I think it’s true of all the characters we write that there’s this mixture of things in people. Straight-ahead heroes are just really boring to us because they don’t really exist,” said Taylor, whose major influences include the humanist Czech films of the 1960s. “I think once we fall in love with the characters, then it’s really just about the characters for us. We have the best time writing when the characters are leading us somewhere and we’re not so much trying to write about some theme.”
Sideways’ uber scene, when Miles and Maya express their longing for each other via their passion for the grape, arose organically.
“We didn’t labor any longer over that scene than others,” he said. “What happened was, in our early drafts we had expanded on a speech Miles has in the book (Rex Pickett’s novel) and in later drafts we realized Maya should have her own speech. At the time we wrote those speeches we had no idea how important they would turn out to be. It was instinctive choice to include them, not something calculated to fill a gap in a schematic design.”
He said their scripts are in such “good shape” by the time cameras roll that little or no rewriting is done on set. “Usually we’ll make some minor changes after the table reading that happens right before shooting.” Taylor said Payne asks his advice on casting, locations, various cuts, music, et cetera.
Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film, A Reporter’s Perspective 1998-2012
A compilation of my articles about Payne and his work. Available this fall as an ebook and in select bookstores.
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- Hail, Hail ‘The Descendants’ – Alexander Payne’s First Feature Since ‘Sideways’ a Hit with Critics, and the George Clooney-starring Comedy-Drama is Sure to be an Awards Contender (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
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