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Paul Williams: Alive and Well, Sober and Serene, Making Memorable Music Again at 74


Cover Photo

I didn’t expect to write a nearly 5,000-word story about Paul Williams, the songwriter who seemingly scored a good chunk of the 1970s.  But his story resonated with me.  First of all, there’s the fact he’s another in the long line of native Nebraskans I’ve targeted for my Nebraska Film Heritage Project.  It took awhile to get an interview with him, but it finally happened this past winter and it was worth the wait.  Then there’s the whole angle of him finding fame and fortune and throwing it all away during the depths of addiction and how he’s found sobriety and become an advocate for recovery.  As a fellow 12-stepper, that journey particularly hits home with me.  And then there’s the remarkable career renaissance he’s enjoying to go along with his reconstituted personal life.  My profile of Williams is the cover story in the May issue of the New Horizons.

Paul Williams: Alive and Well, Sober and Serene, Making Memorable Music Again at 74

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the May 2015 New Horizons
Shame behind the fame, recovery after misery
Songwriter Paul Williams reached Hollywood’s apex by age 39 before losing everything to booze and pills and powder. As the Omaha native tried picking up the pieces of his shattered life and career, he virtually disappeared from public view. The title of a 2011 documentary about him, Paul Williams Still Alive, refers to the understandable assumption that somewhere along the line he suffered an untimely death, when in reality nothing could be further from the truth.

At 74 Williams is not only alive and well but riding a new wave of success that has people who don’t know his story wondering whatever became of him. His rise to stardom was so strong and fast and his descent into obscurity so severe and swift that even he excuses anyone for thinking he checked out. In a way, he did. He lost himself to addiction and in the process all the material success he’d built. But in recovery he’s gained things more important than money can buy. A book he co-wrote offers affirmations for daily living he follows.

“We don’t really control our lives as much as we think we do,” says Williams, who employs spiritual disciplines to stay centered. “My book Gratitude and Trust (Recovery is Not Just for Addicts) I wrote with Tracey Jackson is exactly about that process – staying grateful, trusting in the future, choosing faith over fear and watching your life get better. Tracy and I met when I was a mess. She then saw me in a very different light when I was 11 years sober. She has always claimed to have recovery envy. The concept of our book is that recovery is not just for addicts. It’s been wonderfully received. I’m happy to say the recovery community has embraced it.”

In the 1970s and 1980s Williams was seemingly everywhere at once in the entertainment world. One of that era’s top pop lyricists and composers, his music permeated radio, movies and television. His hit love songs or as he jokingly refers to them “co-dependent anthems” included “We’ve Only Just Begun,” “You and Me Against the World” and “Evergreen.” He was nominated for Oscars and Grammys. He scored the films Bugsy Malone, A Star is Born (1976) and The Muppet Movie. He wrote the theme music to the top-rated TV show The Love Boat. He was a popular concert performer and recording artist.

Also an actor, he turned up in films and episodic TV series, ranging from dramatic to comedic roles, sometimes even playing himself. His celebrity was such that he made countless guest appearances on talk, variety, game and awards shows, where he shined with his quick wit. At only 5-foot-2 his small stature made him stand out even more. Famously, upon accepting the Oscar for Best Original Song he shared with Barbra Streisand for “Evergreen” he quipped, “I was going to thank all the little people, and then I remembered I am the little people.”

Beneath the cocksure smile and glib repartee lurked a desperate man trying and failing by sheer willpower alone to battle inner demons. Then, the facade crumbled. As suddenly as he’d burst onto the scene, he vanished, his once ubiquitous presence no where to be seen. A half-dozen years ago or so a longtime fan, filmmaker Stephen Kessler, became intrigued with whatever happened to Williams. As the resulting film Kessler made shows, at the peak of his stardom Williams was an addict consumed by fame and ego, driven to get his next fix There are old clips of Williams doing TV guest spots while high, vainly, cavalierly bragging about his excesses. On national TV he openly joked about his infidelities. We see in the doc how uncomfortable it is for Williams today to view how recklessly he behaved back then.

His problems contributed to the breakup of his first marriage and derailed his career. Calls from producers and agents dried up.

But as the film also shows, Williams long ago kicked his addiction habit and along the way he remarried and rededicated himself to his family.

Journey of healing captured in song and on film
For the film Williams wrote an original song, “Still Alive,” that distills what it’s like to look at his addicted self from the lens of his sober eyes.

I don’t know you in those clothes
I don’t know you with that hair
Two dimensional reflection
Unforgiving unaware

Part time dreamer
Would be player
You thought fame could outrun fear

“That’s probably as accurate a line as I’ve ever written about anything and certainly about myself,” Williams says about fear. “One of the greatest challenges of my life was to look at a film about myself and then write a song kind of to myself.”

He still cringes at some of his boorish behavior caught on film.

“There are parts of it that are hard for me to watch. Like the Merv Griffin Show, when I was so arrogant and just a shallow little ass with this smirk on my face. What was most difficult about it is that I had no idea that’s who I’d become.”

The lyrics to his song “Still Alive” continue by asking “where did you disappear,” but as the film makes clear he’s never stopped writing and touring, he just plays to smaller crowds, in smaller venues, away from the spotlight. Williams is happier though than before because he no longer measures joy in terms of dollars, record sales and media spots but in the 12-step recovery work he does to maintain his sobriety and to be of service to others. All of which is why in addition to legendary songwriter, you can now add grateful survivor when describing Williams, who celebrated 25 years in recovery in March.

Kessler set out to make a documentary charting the artist’s rise and fall. It covers that journey but also reveals the most important things to Williams now are his recovery and family. A father of two grown children, Williams lives with his wife Mariana right on the ocean in Long Beach, California. Williams was a reluctant subject for the film’s unvarnished portrait of his failings and he only did the project on the condition that it share a message of hope and healing and that it highlight the changed man he is today.

In a phone interview he confirmed his new spiritual basis for living.

“My life has been changed drastically. The way I perceived my life changed drastically when I got sober and I began to see a little less through the distorted image of my own ego and began to see it as the absolute gift it was. I get up in the morning and I say a three-word prayer, ‘Surprise me, God.’ It implies complete trust. And then my second prayer is, ‘Lead me where you need me.’ If I’m relevant and useful I’m not in the way. If I’m not in the way, I’m not scared. If I’m not scared, I have a tendency to listen, and when I listen I sometimes actually learn something.”

Where Williams once saw himself as the center of the universe and responsible for all his success, he now sees things differently.

“The drugs and alcohol I consumed totally clouded how I perceived life. Then add the distortion of a growingly unhealthy ego. The fact is I never wrote a hit song because of the drugs, I wrote successful songs in spite of the drugs. The longer I’m sober the less I claim the success – the more I attribute it to a real gift. I’m not talking about my gift or the talent, I’m talking about the gift of the universe. If you tap into a sort of non-competitive thought process where you’re not worried about what the other guy’s doing but you’re just expressing what you feel, you connect.”

He says in the throes of addiction thoughts of grandiosity ran amok.

“You know, when I was drunk I was just brilliant, and the more I drank and the more I got into ego and the more I tried to write from my head and be clever and all…” the worse the music got. “One of the key elements of successful communicating is what we have in common, not the differences. So when I was authentic, when I would reach down into my chest and write about whatever I was feeling, whether it was loneliness or the longing for real love or how it felt to be falling in love, no matter how Hallmarky or sentimental the lyrics may have been, other people related because we have so much in common as far as the emotional scale we travel as human beings.”

He says he has drawers full of songs written under the influence of ego that will never see the light of day because no one can relate to them.

Williams shared the message of getting out of your head and getting in touch with your heart at a Neb. recovery convention he spoke at last year. He travels widely delivering recovery talks. The film shows him in action at one such event. About sharing his recovery message, he says, “It’s a chance to share the amazing gift I’ve been given and it feels like my most important work.”

A new life and a rejuvenated career
Instead of the movie Kessler imagined making about a man in despair over a fall from grace, he portrays a man content with his life. During production Williams was elected chairman and president of ASCAP, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, which protects the rights of music artists. The post, which he continues in today, gives him a higher profile than he’s had in decades.

Since the film’s release, Williams’ profile has expanded even more, mainly due to a career resurgence he’s enjoying as a creative artist. In 2014 he shared the Grammy Award for Best Album of the Year with Daft Punk, with whom he collaborated on their platinum release, Random Access Memories. Williams was asked to write songs for the smash animated film The Book of Life (2014). And he’s been tabbed to co-write the stage adaptation of the acclaimed film Pan’s Labyrnith.

Not surprisingly, he views this professional comeback from the prism of humility and gratitude he sees the world in today.

“I haven’t chased any of the things coming to me. I’ve really just been concentrating on one thing – my recovery – and living by those principles. I have found in that everything I needed and everything I wanted. I think the misplaced years of my addiction are probably the most important years of my life in the sense that they set me up for the life I have today.”

Where before fame consumed him, now it’s all relative.

“The perspective is so different. When I won the Grammy with Daft Punk almost my first thought was: I will once again be awakened by the cat that treats me like staff to feed her, and I’ll be on the bay where I live with a wonderful view and Mariana will be next to me and in a year it’ll be somebody else’s turn to have this.

“It was a nice moment but almost what was a better moment was realizing there was no sense of that being a target or something to sail towards. Whereas in the ’70s I was nominated for the Academy Award six times and was counting the nominations and looking for that second win, and I don’t do that anymore. The valuation of the recognition is very different and I think a big part of that is because I was so addicted to the attention. I was almost as addicted to the attention I was getting – plopping myself down on any couch in front of any camera – as I was to the cocaine and the vodka. Eventually the addiction to the cocaine and the vodka outran the other addiction and took me off the map and put me in hiding for a decade.”

The start of it all
The seeds of his addiction may lie in an insecure childhood that saw his family move wherever his Peter Kiewit and Sons engineer father’s work took them. Paul was born in Omaha and later lived in Bennington, Neb. for his father’s work on a major expansion project at Boys Town. “I was a construction brat. I went to nine schools by the time I was in the ninth grade. I went from living in Rapid City, S.D. to living in Lucasville, Ohio and from Albuquerque, N.M. to Omaha and Bennington to wherever next. I was always the new kid in school. I was the littlest guy in the class.” When Paul was 13 his father died.

He sees the roots of his collaborative nature – he’s teamed with Roger Nichols, Kenneth Ascher, Barbra Streisand and more recently with Gustavo Santaolalla – in all the moving around he did.

“I think I learned to adapt to the language wherever I was. People have said to me, ‘You have an unusual accent.’ Well, God knows what my accent is today because I’m a bit of a chameleon. It’s like there’s a little bit of bullshit in my DNA where just to survive I kind of learned to adapt as a kid to what was going on around me and I tried to sound a part of it. I think that social adaptability that was part of my growing up eventually morphed into the kind of collaborator I am. The opportunity to open up and be aware of what’s going on around me is part of the process that made the things I’ve done successful.

“The other thing is that now in sobriety I’m trying to be a better listener today with everybody.”

In the documentary Williams explains why he’s so short when the rest of his family is normal height for their age and sex. His parents became alarmed he wasn’t growing normally and they made the decision to give him male hormone shots.

“Actually what they did wasn’t the right thing to do because it closes off the bones and they stop growing.”

He displayed a knack for music as a child and while his body didn’t keep pace with his peers, his voice got deeper, faster than theirs. Further setting him apart was his fascination with swing music.

“I think it’s interesting the music I cared for in high school, when everybody was listening to rock n roll, was the Great American Songbook. I was listening to Sinatra and Mel Torme and Ella Fitzgerald, but specifically Sinatra.”

It all contributed to Williams feeling awkward because of how different he was, which began a lifetime pursuit of wanting to feel special. As he often says, “To be different is difficult – to be special is addicting,”

His parents entered him in talent shows. His father, who had a drinking problem, would wake him in the middle of the night to sing “Danny Boy.” His old man, who once drove drunk with Paul in the car, died in an alcohol-related one-car wreck in Ohio. Years later, when Paul was a parent and drinking heavily, he drove drunk with his own kids in the car, “something I swore I’d never do,” he confesses in the film.

Paul went to live with an aunt in California. What was supposed to be a short stay ended up years. In the film Williams relates that his aunt laid a heavy guilt trip on him by saying, “If you go back and live with your mom every bite of food you take will be a bite out of your little brother’s mouth because she cant afford you both, so you need to stay here.'”

“In a way,” Williams adds, “it was like I lost both parents.”

Music no longer held an appeal.

“When my dad was killed I kind of turned away from music. I quit singing, I didn’t want to sing, i didn’t want to be a part of music. It’s interesting because that’s about the point I wanted to be an actor and a good therapist would say, ‘Ah, you’re dad died, you turned away from music and you wanted to be somebody else,’ because that’s what acting is – a chance to be somebody else.”

His first foray at showbiz
He made his own way as a young actor.

“It was kind of learn by doing. I started doing plays and I worked in commercials.”

He also did improvisational comedy on a Los Angeles TV show hosted by political comic Mort Sahl.

His big break came with speaking parts in two mid-1960s Hollywood movies, The Loved One starring Robert Morse, Jonathan Winters, Rod Steiger and John Gielgud, and The Chase starring Marlon Brando, Angie Dickinson, Robert Redford and Jane Fonda. In the former. a surreal social satire, he was a whiz kid obsessed with rocketry. In the latter, an overripe Southern soap opera, he was a rebel teen. In each, he played several years younger than his real age.

“There was nothing close to a logical element of the decision to be an actor,” he says. “I mean, I always joke I felt like Montgomery Clift but I looked like Haley Mills. Into my 20s I played kids. I looked like a kid until you put me next to a real kid and then I looked like a kid with a hangover.”

Though neither film fared well and his part in The Chase was radically reduced in the cutting room, he got to work with A-list talent, including directors Tony Richardson (Loved One) and Arthur Penn (The Chase).

“When you’re a kid from Omaha there’s nothing more completely romantic and exciting than to walk on the set of a large motion picture production, to see the lights, the camera. All of a sudden you turn and there to your left is Sir John Gielgud and there to your right is Jonathan Winters. It’s a spectacular, life-changing even. Culturally it’s like going to Europe the first time. It’s like, Oh my God, look at all this.”

Williams was awed by Winters, whom he considered a comic genius. “I followed him around like a puppy. When I started recording one of the first appearances on television I made was on his show. He was always so kind to me.”

On the set of The Chase Williams began fooling around with a guitar and writing songs. In one of his scenes that survived the final cut he sings a tune he penned.

Two decades later, for Elaine May’s Ishtar, he had the tricky task of writing “believably bad songs – songs which sounded like they just missed” for the comedy about hackneyed songwriters played by Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman. “I’m really proud of the songs. They’re almost good…almost.”

Other notable directors he worked with in front of or behind the camera include Melvin Van Peebles, J. Lee Thompson, Brian De Palma, Alan Parker, Garry Marshall, Oliver Stone and Luis Puenzo.

From acting to songwriting
Then, when his acting career stalled, music went from being a source of solace to his livelihood.

“Having no money to go out and wine and dine or go to the movies and being essentially broke, I turned to songwriting. It became my therapy and then the great surprise was that as soon as I started writing I knew this was what I was here to do. It was an amazing sense of comfort putting everything in the center of my chest into the songs.

“There was an element of craft in the very first song I wrote. I don’t know if you’re a believer in past lives but I am and it’s almost as if I had done it before. I had a sense of form, I had a sense of rhyme scheme, I had a sense for a story progressing. As I look back on it now I think you put your name on it but it’s almost as if you have unseen help writing these songs, and I still feel that way about the craft today. I think that inspiration is very difficult to truly identify.”

He and Biff Rose wrote a tune that took Paul to A & M records as a staff songwriter. Producer Richard Perry took a liking to his work.

“The very first songs I wrote began getting recorded. I recorded an album with Richard called The Holy Mackerel. I don’t think even my family bought the album but it was the beginning of my recording career. The song Biff and I wrote, “Fill Your Heart,” was later recorded by David Bowie on his Hunky Dory album. It was the first song he ever recorded he didn’t write and I am eternally grateful for that.”

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Williams was eventually paired with composer Roger Nichols.

“I would write during the day with Roger and he would go home to his girlfriend, and I would stay in the office and write with anybody that came by or write alone. None of my early songs were hits until I went to Europe in 1970 to work on a project called Wings with Herb Albert and Michel Colombier and when I came back I had two songs in the Top 10 at the same time – “Out in the Country” by Three Dog Night and “We’ve Only Just Begun” by The Carpenters. That garnered a lot of attention and we were off and running.”

Having his music find a large, receptive audience was even more than he imagined possible.

“I had no idea I would have an opportunity to make the kind of living I did off of that music.”

An early concert gig brought him back to Omaha for a warm greeting.

“One of my great memories when I was first performing was on the road with The Fifth Dimension as their opening act. I was having some success as a songwriter but I wasn’t the most well-known person trotting onto a stage anywhere. When we got to Omaha it was as if they brought the Pope to Mexico City because the news had got out I was from Omaha and the audience gave me an amazing response. I’ll never forget that reception.”

Collaborations past and present
He says his experiences writing with Nichols and later Kenneth Ascher “were the longest lasting and most constructive and successful of the collaborations. Kenny had been a piano player for me and we started writing songs together. We wrote most of the songs for A Star is Born together. We wrote the songs for The Muppet Movie together. We wrote “You and Me Against the World” for Helen Reddy.

“Working with both Kenny and Roger I would describe as my music school. In the area of music discipline I learned a lot from both. To this very day there is nothing more interesting or exciting than to sit down with a total stranger in their kitchen or in an office and start sharing what’s going on in our lives and out of that conversation and kind of mini-therapy session comes a song all of a sudden.”

Of his recent collaboration with Gustavo Santaolalla – they wrote songs for Book of Life and they’re adapting Pan’s Labyrinth for Guillermo del Toro – Williams says, “I don’t think I’ve had a collaborative experience more emotional for me. Gustavo is a spectacular artist and composer. He writes incredible, heart-wrenching melodies.”

He enjoyed a warm working relationship with the late puppeteer Jim Henson on The Muppet Movie. Williams says Henson was so “easy-going and completely trusting” that he deferred hearing the songs Wiillams and Ascher wrote for the film until they were recorded. “Remarkable amount of trust and freedom for a major Hollywood film.” One of the songs, “The Rainbow Connection,” became a hit.

As his celebrity increased Williams became a rarity among songwriters – a household name and face. He also joined a long line of native Nebraskans to find Hollywood success. He made nearly 50 appearances on the Tonight Show, whose host, Johnny Carson, was a fellow Nebraskan. Paul’s notoriety benefited from his lilliputian size and shoulder-length locks. He simply looked like no one else.

The success of his music career led to new acting opportunities, including his role as Virgil in Battle for the Planet of the Apes and the part of Little Enos in the Smokey and the Bandit franchise.

A film Williams scored and acted in, Brian De Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise (1974) owns a small but devoted following but he never expected it would lead to a career boost four decades later.

“We assumed Phantom of the Paradise was a failure when it came out because it had so little attention, especially in the United States, but in France (and in Winnepeg) it was a revered odd little cult film. Two young Frenchmen went to the theater where it was showing and saw it 20 times and they formed a group called Daft Punk. They sought me out to come and work for them on their album Random Access Memories. I wrote a couple of the songs and sung on the album with them and last year we won the album of the year.”

Another devotee of the film turned out to be Guillermo del Toro, the Mexican-born producer-director.

“I was approached by Guillermo del Toro because evidently I performed back in Mexico City when he was in his late teens and he apparently came to me with a vinyl of the soundtrack album of Phantom of the Paradise. He was a huge fan then and his affection for the film did not wane and years later he’s on the phone with me asking if I would do this adaptation of his Pan’s Labrynith.

“So I’m having all these amazing opportunities walk up to me because of something I could have written off as a failure, and I think there’s a great life lesson in that for me and for all of us.”

Seeing and living life differently
Not only does he see things in a new light in recovery, he approaches work from a new vantage point, too.

“My whole creative process is so different now. It’s back to a very unconscious effort. I would say the most important time of my writing is the time between when I look at the project, know what I’m supposed to do, and then sit down to do it. I always leave a little space now – a couple days where I’m not thinking about it. But I know my unconscious is because when I sit down to work on it so much of it’s done and I know it came out of me but I wasn’t there when it was worked on.”

Though he lived in the Heartland only through adolescence, he says, “I think there is an element of Midwestern values that may have been an undercurrent to my success. My simple background and upbringing made its way into songs that were not clever but were honest about what I was feeling. I think there’s a lot of Neb. in that.”

In a lifetime of achievements, he says “probably the highest, greatest honor is the great work I get to do for ASCAP,” adding, “We have 526,000 members and to be able to make sure that they’re properly compensated for their work is key. I mean, I have a daughter who’s a social worker and I was able to acquire the education for her, put food on the table and gas in the car because of ASCAP. Other people deserve to have the same.”

Success the second time around is a different experience for Williams because he’s a new man. The misery that led him to act out and to repeat his father’s sins, has given way to appreciation.

“As I get older I’m recognizing I’ve had magnificent opportunities that were absolute gifts.”

He lives life now trusting new blessings will arrive and new dreams will be fulfilled. One day at a time.

Once reality’s your roommate
And the truth stands at your door
All your records may be broken
Trophies won’t shine anymore
New beginnings are the challenge
But you’re not sure where to start
Unimagined gifts are waiting
Love will find your grateful heart

Then again
Once again
You will come to know the simple man you’ve always been.

And someone asked me once
Where do we go when we arrive
If you’re lucky, when it’s over
The dreamer’s still alive.

Visit http://www.paulwilliamsofficial.com.

Matinee Marriage: Omaha couple Mauro and Christine Fiore forge a union based on film and family

December 13, 2014 1 comment

Here is a short profile piece for Omaha Magazine about an Omaha couple whose lives revolve around film and family, Mauro and Christine Fiore. He’s an Oscar-winning cinematographer who works on A-list projects. She’s a costume designer and the producer of an in-development indie feature based on the best-selling novel The Persian Pickle Club. They met on the set of a film they both worked on. They have three children together. Whenever the film Christine is producing ends up shooting, Mauro will light it. That’s keeping it in the family. Mauro is a native of Italy who moved to the States with his family when he was young. Christine is a native Omahan. The couple have made their home in Omaha for the last several years even as Mauro’s career blew up. She and the kids often travel to his far-flung sets. They also travel as a family to his small hometown in Italy, where he has many relatives and where they regard him as a kind of hero and superstar. It may surprise some folks to know that Mauro is one of three Oscar winners living in Omaha. He won his for Avatar. Then there’s recently retired editor Mike Hill, an Omaha native who won his for Apollo 13. And then there’s Omaha native Alexander Payne, who won his writing Oscars for Sideaways and  The Descendants.

 

 

 

Matinee Marriage

Omaha Couple Mauro and Christine Fiore Forge a Union Based on Film and Family

March 16, 2015
©Illustration by William Holland

The metro’s small but robust cinema community includes Film Streams and the Omaha Film Festival (see related story on page 42) along with several working industry professionals, among them Oscar-winning cinematographer Mauro Fiore (Avatar). He’s among three Academy Award recipients residing here. The others are editor Mike Hill (Apollo 13), and filmmaker Alexander Payne (Sideways, The Descendants).

Fiore’s most recent director of photography feature work came on The Equalizer in Boston. The projected 2015 release reunited him with Antoine Fuqua and Denzel Washington from Training Day.

But Fiore, originally from Italy, isn’t the only film pro in his own household. His wife Christine Vollmer Fiore, a native Nebraskan, is a costume designer now developing a feature adaptation of The Persian Pickle Club. Mauro’s slated to light it.

The couple actually met in 1997 on an independent picture largely shot in Nebraska, Love from Ground Zero. At the time each lived in L.A., traveling wherever projects called them. Christine finds it “ironic” the film that brought their itinerant lives together happened in her home state. They settled here after marrying. He regularly goes off to do commercials and features.

They are the parents of three children—Olivia, Tessa and Luca. The Fiores view the state as a healthy grounding from the hustle, bustle and hype of L.A., where they also have a home.

“We knew we didn’t want to raise kids in L.A.,” Christine says. “It’s kind of nice to be here and have blinders on and not be affected by what’s out there.”

It’s a stable sanctuary they can count on.

“It’s nice to have a firm place and not really worry about Christine when I’m gone because her family’s here,’ Mauro says. “I feel really safe there’s somebody here to support her. I’ve come to really appreciate it because when I’m here it’s all about the family and helping Christine any way I can.”

During his absences Christine runs a tight ship. “I’m very schedule and routine-oriented,” she says. She purposely doesn’t make a big deal of his departures.

“It’s kind of no-nonsense, no-tear because it’d be too tough emotionally. It’s like, ‘Dad’s leaving but he’s going to come back and now I need help around the house from all of you.’ Then when Mauro comes back home we still have the same routine. Dinner’s at 5:30. I think it makes it easy for Mauro to kind of slide back in.”

That normal, laidback lifestyle is what appeals to the Fiores.

“Omaha is manageable,” Christine says. “It’s easy to go to the airport and to the zoo…”

“It’s easy, it’s familiar,” Mauro adds. “We’ve found several friends around the community of schools the kids attend.”

They enjoy, too, how much more house they can afford here. They lived in Hawaiian Village before moving into their present home over a year ago. The ranch-style in Elkhorn sits on a six-acre lot with a view.

“We really love the property,” Mauro says. “It has a piece of land that stretches out to the river. You don’t really find that too much anymore.”

They appreciate the open floor plan, banks of tall windows and homey features.

He says, “It’s just the uniqueness of the place and the fact we can really grow into this and make it our home.”

“It’s not like a builder’s model home,” Christine says. “It’s different, it has personality.”

They’re now updating the downstairs to accommodate a craft room for the sewing Christine and the kids do.

In her spare time she wears her producer hat trying to get Persian Pickle Club financed. Setting up a film is a new experience for them.

“It’s been a great learning process to see the inner workings because I never really knew what it took. I’m never on that side of it,” he says.

He admires how “Christine’s done it all from here—figuring out ways to push it along.”

They’re admittedly anxious to start production because making films is what they know best.

Mauro eagerly shares his expertise. He photographed an Omaha Film Festival promo. He’s served as a panelist-presenter at OFF and Film Streams. The couple supports the opera, the symphony, KANEKO and other local arts-cultural offerings they find on par with anywhere.

The family often visits his far-flung movie locations. His Hollywood colleagues are surprised he lives far afield from film industry centers.

“They find it very odd,” he says. “But with Alexander Payne, Nebraska also sort of has a mystique. They appreciate it’s a different way of living, more old fashioned or traditional.”

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Nebraska Coast Connection: Networking group ties Nebraskans in Hollywood

January 6, 2014 Leave a comment

Upon discovering there’s a networking group for Nebraskans in Hollywood called the Nebraska Coast Connection it’s not surprising for someone to ask, There are Nebraskans in Hollywood?  Yes, and a lot more than you might think.   The fact is there have always been Nebraskans in that strange and alluring land of make-believe.  A surprising number of natives of this Midwestern state have played and continue playing prominent roles there, both behind the camera and in front of the camera, all the way from the motion picture industry’s start through the advent of television and more recently the dawn of multi-media platforms.   The story that follows is my profile of the Nebraska Coast Connection for an upcoming issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com).

Much of my story is based on interviews I did with the Nebraska Coast Connection’s founder and president, Todd Nelson, a Holdrege, Neb. native who’s been doing his thing in Hollwyood for 30 years.  His group’s monthly Hollywood Salon has become its signature event.   This part social mixer and part professional seminar allows folks to tout their projects and to hear featured speakers, such as Oscar-winner Alexander Payne.  I also have insights and impressions about the organization from three of the biggest names from here in Hollywood: filmmaker Alexander Payne, whose new film Nebraska is sure to fare well at the Oscars; writer-producer-director Jon Bokenkamp, whose hit new NBC series The Blacklist has elevated him to the prime time A-list; and former network executive and script writer Lew Hunter, who’s retired from the craziness but knows where the bodies are buried.  All speak glowingly about the nurturing nature of the group and how it offers a home away from home environment in what can be otherwise a cold, harsh culture for those working in the industry or aspiring to.

I can speak to the warm hospitality offered by the group based on two recent experiences I had with it.  I was there for the Sept. 9 Hollywood Salon featuring Payne and for a Nov. 16 screening of Payne’s Nebraska at Paramount Studios.  I was also the featured speaker for its Nov. 11 salon.  Todd Nelson was my gracious host each time.

This blog is filled with stories and interviews I’ve done with film figures, famous and not so famous.  Much of that work as well as related activity I’m now purusing will feed into an eventual book about Nebraskans in Hollywood, past and present.  I am the author of the current book, Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film.

Todd Nelson generously provided a set of photos for my story taken by homself and some other NCC stalwarts.

 

photo credits:
TIM WOODWARD, TRAVIS BECK, TODD NELSON, DAVID WILDER

 

 

Nebraska Coast Connection: Networking group ties Nebraskans in Hollywood

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

 

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Alexander Payne at the Sept. 9 salon

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Todd Nelson interviewing Payne at the Sept. 9 salon

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Some of the crowd at the recent Hollywood Salon featuring Payne

 

 

Dreamers from Neb., as from everywhere else, have flocked to Hollywood since the motion picture industry’s start.

Softening the harsh realities of making it in Tinsel Town’s dog-eat-dog world, where who you know is often more vital than what you know, is the mission behind the Nebraska Coast Connection. This networking alliance of natives already established in Hollywood or aspiring to be is the brainchild of Todd Nelson, a Holdrege son who’s been in Hollywood since 1984. A former Disney executive, his company Braska Films produces international promos for CBS.

Early in his foray on the coast Nelson was aided by industry veterans and once settled himself he felt an obligation to give back.

His own Hollywood dream extends back to childhood. He made an animated film with his father, created neighborhood theatricals and headlined a magic act, ala home state heroes Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett, that netted a recurring spot on a local TV show and gigs around the state.

“I guess I didn’t know any better and nobody ever told me I couldn’t do it, so I just kept at it,” Nelson says.

As a University of Nebraska-Lincoln theater and broadcast journalism major he made the then-Sheldon Film Theatre (now the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center) his film school.

“To see classic movies and to meet the filmmakers behind some of them was just a fantastic experience and a real eye opener for me.”

Frustrated by limited filmmaking ops at UNL, he talked his way into using Nebraska Educational Television production facilities to direct a one-act play for the small screen. He also worked as a KETV reporter-photojournalist in the ABC affiliate’s Lincoln bureau.

He was an extra in Terms of Endearment during the feature’s Lincoln shoot.

An internship brought Nelson out to the coast, where he worked behind-the-scenes on a soap and later served as personal assistant to TV-film director Paul Bogart (All in the Family). After five years as a senior project executive at Disney he left to produce and direct the documentary Surviving Friendly Fire.

Nelson formed NCC in 1992. A couple years later he befriended fellow Nebraskan Alexander Payne, then gearing up to make his first feature, Citizen Ruth. Payne was looking for an L.A. apartment and Nelson leased him a unit in the building he managed and lived in. The neighbors became friends and the Nebraskans in Hollywood community Nelson cultivated grew.

“He’s a terrific guy,” Payne says of Nelson “He is, as they say, good people.”

In 1995 Nelson inaugurated NCC’s signature Hollywood Salon series. He knew he was onto something when the first event drew hundreds. His strong UNL ties brought support from the school’s foundation.

The monthly Salon has met at some iconic locations, including the Hollywood Athletic Club and CBS sound stages. Its home these days is the historic Culver Hotel in Culver City, Calif., whose namesake, Nebraskan Harry Culver, attracted the fledgling movie industry to his city in the 1920s. Many Golden Era stars kept residences at the hotel, which purportedly was owned by a succession of Hollywood heavyweights. In this ultimate company town, the hotel is next to Sony Pictures Studios, giving the salon the feel of an insiders’ confab.

 

 

Culver Hotel
Payne’s guest appearances draw overflow crowds. Some 200 attended the Sept. 9 program Nelson hosted. The acclaimed writer-director shared off-the-record dope on the making of his Nebraska, candid comments about the state of movies today and advice for actors and writers hoping to collaborate with him. He took questions from the adoring audience, many of whom he’s gotten to know from past salons, posed for pictures and made small talk.
In addition to Payne, the salon’s featured other Nebraskans: actress Marg Helgenberger (CSI and the new series Intelligence), writer-producer Jon Bokenkamp (The Blacklist), filmmaker Nik Fackler (Lovely, Still) and actor Chris Klein (Election).
Marg Helgenberger (CSI and the new series Intelligence) getting in the spirit of things at a Nebraska Coast Connection Christmas party
Nelson interviewing filmmaker-musician Nik Fackler

The group boasts a mailing list of more than 1,000 and nearly as many anecdotes from those who’ve found fellowship, employment, even love, through its ranks.

Payne likes that NCC affords a kind of Neb. fraternity in Hollywood.

“It’s wonderful and hilarious. It’s hilarious in the way that being from Neb. is hilarious. Maybe people from other states do the same, but I know the Neb. version of how they seek one another out in other cities. I know there’s a Neb. club of some sort in New York City. The state’s members of Congress host a Nebraskans breakfast in D.C.

“Nebraskans feel comfortable with one another outside of Neb. and I am no exception, I enjoy the group, we have a shared sensibility, a shared sense of humor, shared childhood references. And Todd is a forceful personality. He’s the most benevolent, charismatic cult leader one could imagine,” he says with a wink.

According to Nelson, “There is something really unique about Nebraskans. We belong together in this way that no other place does. I have watched other groups come and go trying to duplicate what we do and every group without fail has just fallen apart, and some of them are from the Midwest, so it’s not just the Midwest thing.”

Payne’s far past needing the NCC’s connections but he says, “I’m very happy to continue my participation as an occasional guest speaker.”

Bokenkamp does the same. The Kearney native parked cars when he first got out there. He did have a script but no idea how to get it to anyone that mattered. At Nelson’s urging Bokenkamp entered a screenwriting contest. He won. It got him an agent and eventually jobs writing features (Taking Lives) and even directing a pic (Bad Seed).

Nelson enjoys aiding folks get their starts in the business.

“There’s definitely a thrill watching new people realize their own potential,” he says. “Jamie Ball from Grand Island wanted to be an editor. I’ve given her a chance and she’s working in the big leagues now as a video editor, making a substantial living and finding she really enjoys living her dream. I love being a part of making that happen.

“But I also get the benefit of her good work and it’s enabled me to get home to see my son more often and to take a sick day once in a while. It’s a huge help to have her on my team.”

 

 

Payne’s first Oscar passed around at a salon

 

 

Against all odds small population Neb’s produced an inordinate number of success stories in film and television, including several legends. The star actors alone run the gamut from Harold Lloyd and Fred Astaire to Robert Taylor, Henry Fonda and Dorothy McGuire to Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift to James Coburn, Sandy Dennis, Nick Nolte and Marg Helgenberger. At least one major studio mogul, Darryl Zanuck, originally hailed from here. As have leading composers. cinematographers, editors, writers and casting directors.

Payne heads the current crop, but he’s hardly alone. Most homegrown talents are not household names but they occupy vital posts in every facet of the biz. For each hopeful who makes it, such as producer-writer Timothy Schlattmann (Dexter) from Nebraska City, many others give up. Having a sanctuary of Nebraskans to turn to smooths the way.

Nelson credits former UNL theater professor Bill Morgan with sparking the concept for NCC.

“He was the one who really put the idea of a Neb. connection in my brain. I would always visit with him when back home for Christmas and he would pull out a stack of holiday cards from all his old students. I’d say to him that I don’t know so-and-so, they were before or after my time. He would write down their contact info and nudge me to get in touch with them. He just thought we all should know each other. And inevitably when I did follow up, they would always welcome me into their lives because we shared Dr. Morgan…even if it was from a different era. That was the seed of the NCC right there.”

 

 

NebrStars

 

 

Among those UNL grads Nelson looked up was the late Barney Oldfield, a Tecumseh native who was a newspaper reporter and press aide to Allied commander Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower during World War II before becoming a Warner Bros. publicist and independent press agent to such stars as Errol Flynn, Ronald Reagan and Elizabeth Taylor. In his post-Hollywood years he worked in corporate public relations and became a major philanthropist.

“Barney was an amazing guy. He became a big supporter of the Coast Connection,” Nelson says. “We hosted his 90th birthday party at CBS on the big stage. He regaled us with stories of his old PR days and knowing everybody under the sun.”

Another of the old guard Nelson called on was Guide Rock native Lew Hunter, a former network TV executive and script writer whose 434 Screenwriting class at UCLA became the basis for a popular book he authored. Hunter, who today leads a screenwriting colony in Superior, Neb., offered a model for what became the salon.

“He used to do what he called a Writer’s Block when he still lived in Burbank,” Nelson says. “It was a kind of salon. He’s seen that our salon continues that, so he’s a big supporter.”

Hunter says, “Todd and I often thought and spoke about a similar monthly gathering of Nebraskans and he pulled it off. It has been a wonderful spin and he really is the father of it all.”

But what really compelled Nelson to form NCC was the stark reality that even though hundreds of Nebraskans worked in Hollywood, few knew each other and there was no formal apparatus to link them.

“I’d been working in Hollywood already 10 years and meeting a lot of Nebraskans and nobody seemed to know each other. We needed to have access to each other.”

Thus, the all-volunteer Nebraska Coast Connection was born.

“People teasingly called it the Nebraska Mafia, but it was kind of like that – we could take care of each other.”

Variety managing editor Kirsten Wilder, yet another Neb. native in Hollywood, has a warm feeling for the group and marvels at its founder’s persistence.

“The NCC is near and dear to my heart. The reason the NCC is so successful is because of Todd Nelson’s staggering devotion to keep the group alive and thriving.”

Nelson defers credit to the natural conviviality of Nebraskans.

“You get these people that come out here from Neb. and it doesn’t matter where they’re from in the state, it doesn’t matter that they don’t have a direct contact with someone else, the fact that you are from Neb. is an instant welcome. It’s not entirely universal. I met Nick Nolte at the Golden Globes one year and I told him about our group and I said we’d love to have him come and talk to us sometime and he said, ‘Why would I want to hangout with a bunch of Nebraskans? I got away from that place.’ That’s a rarity, once in a while you run into it, but most of the time we find that everybody just connects instantly.”

 

 

A tribute screening of silent screen great Harold Lloyd’s work brought inspired NCC members to don replicas of the icon’s signature horned-rim glasses

 

 

Nelson says that in what can be a cold, rootless town NCC provides “a safe haven” that comes with the shared identity and experience of being among other Nebraskans .

“We call it Home Sweet Home in Hollywood and it has that quality to it. You need a home base I think if you’re going to do this kind of hard work of always having to put yourself out there and come up against the sharks of the world. I don’t think growing up in Neb. especially prepares you for how hard it will be to actually make it while you ply your trade and build your career. Hollywood just isn’t very nurturing. You can really use a community out here to help you get your bearings and give you a leg up. Or at least some friendly faces to be yourself with as you make your way.”

Bokenkamp admires what Nelson and the group provide.

“His love for Neb. runs deep, and he’s found a way to channel that love into a really positive networking group with the Nebraska Coast Connection. NCC is a warm, energetic and creative environment. Todd just wants to see people succeed.

“Thing is, in a land as strange as Hollywood, it’s just nice to have a place to go now and then that feels like home. NCC is that for a lot of Nebraskans.”

Payne says he can appreciate how NCC makes negotiating Hollywood less lonely and frightening for newcomers.

“L.A. is such a scary place to approach when you’re young and want a career in film or television. Everyone is telling you you can’t make it, perhaps you’re even telling yourself that, but you’ve giving it a try anyway. Add to that the fact you’re from Neb. and have no connections. Well, it turns out there is an organization that welcomes you and has people in exactly the same boat there to commiserate with. It’s a wonderful, caring organization.”

 

 

 

 

Nelson says without the NCC it’s easy for some to give up their dream.

“I’ve seen many people go back home after a few years of waiting for their break and not getting very far. Pressure from parents and friends is part of it. People in Neb. don’t really get how long and hard these careers can be to get started. There’s no distinct ladder to climb, no road map, lots of horror stories and kids here can run out of money or run out of steam. That’s when a ‘safe’ job back home near the folks looks more and more attractive.

“I’ve had many parents tell me they wouldn’t let their kid try it in Hollywood without the safety net we give them.”

Nelson says NCC offers a way to make foot-in-the-door contacts that parlay a kind of pay-it-forward, Neb.-centric nepotism.

“I know the NCC works because I see it over and over. People are constantly making job contacts, finding support, getting roommates, attending each other’s performances, hiring actors and crew for their films. It is going on all the time at every Salon. Hopefully it will happen even more with the interactivity built into the new website. Our goal is to have a kind of virtual salon to help everyone stay in touch with each other in between salons.”

“Even after some folks reach some level of success they come back often and say it gives them a friendly home base.”

Real jobs result from NCC hook-ups.

“As a producer who has hired or recommended over a dozen people to work at CBS-TV over the years, including a young Jon Bokenkamp, I know this group to be a huge resource of great talent. I don’t ever need to go elsewhere to find the best people,” Nelson says.

Nelson’s quick to point out he’s not alone in his home state loyalty.

Jeopardy executive producer Harry Friedman is from Omaha and he is famous for hiring Nebraskans on his shows. Many others out here from Neb. recommend Nebraskans first. Why wouldn’t they? It always makes sense to hire people you know, or know where they came from, and Nebraskans are almost universally loved for their work ethic, responsibility under pressure and humble ‘get it done’ spirit.”

Nelson says he’s pleased the NCC, which rated a fall L.A. Times feature article, has made it this far.

“I don’t think if you told me 21 years ago that we’d still be going this strong I would have believed it. In fact, it’s kind of moving into some new levels. For example, with the Nebraska screening at Paramount I was able to reach out to all these folks who’ve been salon guests and they were very excited about it.”

Besides Nelson and Payne, attendees at the screening included Bokenkamp, Chris Klein, actor Nicholas D’Agosto and actress turned-mystery author Harley Jane Kozak.

Celebrating success stories like these is part of the deal. But Nelson says the heart of the NCC “will always be a group focused first on the kid that’s been out here for a week, that drove out in his dad’s car full of stuff, is staying on somebody’s couch and has 500 bucks to his name. I mean, that’s really what we’re here to do and that’s going on every month at the salon – somebody showing up for the first time who’s in that circumstance. That’s the way it works.”

Cinematographer Greg Hadwick showed up like that out of Lincoln, recalls Nelson. “I think he drove all night to make it to the salon.” No sooner did Hadwick arrive then he learned Nelson and his then-very pregnant wife were due to move that weekend and he volunteered to help.

“He was just a trooper,” says Nelson. “He rented a truck and stayed late. He was such an incredibly hard worker. He didn’t ask for any money and he wouldn’t take any. The next salon I told the group what he did and somebody who was looking for an assistant hired Greg based on my recommendation, and that kid has gone on to work his butt off in Hollywood, He just showed up, open, ready to jump in. He’s now started his own production company and brought guys out here from his hometown in Neb., so he’s kind of doing his own giving back.”

Nelson says he can usually spot who has what it takes.

“I’ve seen a lot of those kids who try to make it for awhile who don’t stick. Then there’s the ones that right away I know, Oh, yeah, they’re going to do it. There is a certain confidence, I don’t think you can make it in this town without that confidence. But there’s so much more to it than that. In so many ways it’s about, Do they have something to give? There’s a lot of people that come out here and they think, Well, what can I get out of this? Almost without exception the ones who make it are the ones who want to give back.

“I’ll back these people a hundred percent and help them on their way because that’s what you do here, that’s what it’s about.”

The reciprocity continues. Nelson and Payne attended the dedication of Bokenkamp’s restored World Theatre in his hometown of Kearney. Nelson says,  “It was a great celebration of Jon’s good work.” Nelson also organized a group to attend a screening of Bokenkanp’s documentary about the waning days of drive-in theaters, After Sunset. Bokenkamp returned the favor speaking at the October salon. The home state contingent turned out in force for the Paramount Nebraska screening. And so it goes with the Coast Connection.

“There’s never been a time when it’s felt like a one-way street,” says Nelson. “It always comes back.”

Follow the Coast Connection on Facebook or at http://hollywoodsalon.org/.

 

 

Payne, Bokenkamp and Nelson at dedication of the restored World Theatre in Kearney, Neb.

Just returned from Hollywood to visit Alexander Payne finish “Nebraska”; Watch for my coming stories about what I observed

May 18, 2013 1 comment

 

 

 

 

Just returned from three days in Hollywood with Alexander Payne to observe the final mix process on his highly anticipated new film “Nebraska.”  It was quite the experience to see him and his team putting the finishing touches on the film.  Those behind-the-scenes glimpses will inform coming stories I’ll be writing and posting here.

I was privileged to see the film in its entirety at a screening on the Paramount lot.  It’s a superb work of cinema.  With “Nebraska” Payne has gone ever deeper and richer in exploring the humanism that is his specialty.
The entirely digital film is being satellite beamed to Nice, France this weekend where it will be downloaded for its world premiere screening at the Cannes Film Festival.  I fully expect this to be one of the most talked about films of the year and to have all sorts of accolades and nominations and awards come to Payne, screenwriter Bob Nelson, cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, music composer Mark Orton, actors Bruce Dern, Will Forte, Stacy Keach and June Squibb.

It’s hard to imagine there will be a more compelling looking film than this wide-screen black-and-white elegy.  Much more to come from me about my Hollywood sojourn and the look behind the curtain that Payne afforded me of his creative process.  I will be blogging about it and having stories published about it.  All of my “Nebraska” material will end up in a new edition of my book, “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film.”  The new edition should be out around the time his film is released, which is late November.  You can order my book on my blog site, leoadambiga.wordpress.com.

Meanwhile, go to the link below to watch a clip from the film.

 

When Safe Isn’t Safe at All, Author Sean Doolittle Spins a Home Security Cautionary Tale

August 19, 2011 1 comment

I realize there are bigger name authors in the crime fiction genre, but I find it hard to believe there’s a better writer in the bunch than Omaha’s own Sean Doolittle, who has mastered the form in a string of books that catapult you along without sacrificing depth. The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) is about Doolittle’s novel Safer and this blog contains an earlier story I did about his novel The Cleanup. I heartily recommend these and anything by the author. It’s been a couple years since I’ve read anything by or written anything about Doolittle, and so I have a feeling there’s a new Doolittle story I need to catch up to as a reader and a writer, which means you should expect a new Doolittle post sometime this year.

 

 

 

 

When Safe Isn’t Safe at All, Author Sean Doolittle Spins a Home Security Cautionary Tale

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com

Sean Doolittle lives a life of crime. In his head. The Omaha crime novelist (Rain DogsThe Cleanup) commits imaginary transgressions to the page that explore the consequences of deceit, greed and other deadly sins of omission and commission.

His new work, Safer, is billed by publisher Delacorte Press as “a novel of suspense.” Like the best crime fiction it transcends genre, in this case studying social patterns gone awry and primal emotions under duress.

Paul, the smart alleck English Lit prof protagonist, is suspected of an offense he didn’t commit. While no saint — his judgment’s not always sound — he’s no killer either. The suspense hinges on his desperate attempts to clear his name. The closer he nears the truth, the more leading citizens are implicated in a conspiracy. He may not survive the telling.

After a brief set-up Doolittle starts the book with Paul being jailed. The author then alternates past-present passages with Paul describing what led to the charges being filed and his frantic, against-all-odds search for justice. The approach grabs and holds us but only came to Doolittle much struggle.

“This is a book where the narrative structure is what really ended up opening the book up for me,” he said. “I started writing it as sort of a very linear start-at-point-A and go-to-point-Z narrative and I just could not find any traction that way…I couldn’t see ahead. I’d been stuck at like the same spot for a long time.”

Then it came to him. Finding his way into the story meant plunking Paul into the soup earlier than envisioned. It works, serving as the knot whose unraveling reveals the underlying mystery.

“That’s the first time that’s happened that way,” he said. “Usually the structure is not quite so important to the way the story plays out, but the structure is the essence of that undoing sort of quality.”

 

 

Sean Doolittle

 

 

As Doolittle exposes layer after layer we see the seemingly idyllic setting Paul and wife Sarah occupy in their new Midwest home has a dark side. Despite a break-in, the couple’s suburban cul-de-sac residence appears safe due to the ever vigilant neighborhood patrols and monitoring done by an ex-cop neighbor, Roger.

Only Paul discovers Roger’s benevolent facade and keen interest in keeping the block a closely-watched, hyper-guarded, tight-knit community masks something more than the tragedies that took his son and wife there. Something sinister. As the outsider, nonjoiner Paul questions Roger’s manipulation of his neighbors. Roger sees himself as their protector. He plays on their sympathies and weaknesses to maintain control. Paul sees it as creepy, intrusive.

Doolittle said the structure “underscores” the theme of people distorting information and perceptions to their own ends. As readers we learn, along with Paul, what’s behind Roger’s avuncular front, why he’s so security-conscious and how far he’s prepared to go to prevent anyone from outing him.

Roger’s a microcosm for those who use extreme measures in the name of security. Draw what analogies you will with certain geopolitical events.

“It wasn’t my intention to write an allegory for Iraq or something like that,” said Doolittle. “Whatever parallels are there are there, but it was reducing that giant global complicated issue to a neighborhood that interested me.”

Roger’s warped POV justifies his actions. “That’s what ultimately it always comes down to — it’s within your own mind what you think is appropriate to protect yourself or your family or your neighborhood,” said Doolittle.

The introduction of a wild card like Paul upsets Roger’s carefully arranged order. As Paul notices things are awry, the utopia’s threatened. In Roger’s eyes Paul’s a problem needing removal.

A dark obsession acted out requires elaborate subterfuge to conceal the misdeed. Doolittle said he’s fascinated by how “your actions stay with you the rest of your life. What is Faulkner’s line? — ‘The past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past.’ Something I’ve sort of inadvertently come back to in more than one book,” said Doolittle, “is the idea of lying and what it takes to maintain a lie. It’s that mounting desperation of Roger trying to keep a grasp on things that eventually undoes it all.

“The thing that’s so fascinating to me is you hear about some outlandish thing somebody’s done, and you think, ‘How do you get to that point?’ That’s always the question. It’s not a new concept but it remains compelling. Each step you take, each time you do something you didn’t think you’d do, it makes it easier to take the next one, and easier to take the next one…”

Crossing boundaries.

Safer represents new territory for Doolittle. It’s his first hard-cover book. Delacorte’s pushing it hard. Odds are a novel by Doolittle, who’s earned praise from crime lit superstars, will eventually be a best seller. One’s sure to end up on the big screen, too. A major Hollywood agent who’s a huge fan shops his work around the studios. The author isn’t quitting his day job just yet but with each project, including the revenge novel he’s working on now, he’s closer to cleaning up. For the time being though he plays it safe.

Canceled FX Boxing Show, ‘Lights Out,’ May Still Springboard Omahan Holt McCallany’s Career

April 2, 2011 2 comments

As noted here before, storytellers are drawn to boxing for the rich drama and conflict inherent in the sport.  So when I learned that Holt McCallany, star of the new FX series, Lights Out, spent a formative part of his youth in my hometown of Omaha and that his mother is singer Julie Wilson, a native Omahan, I naturally went after an interview with the actor, and setting it up proved unusually easy.  In wake of the series’ cancellation, I know why. Producers and publicists were desperate to get the show all the good press they could but even though the show was almost universally praised by small and big media alike it never found enough of an audience to satisfy advertisers or the network.  Because I enjoy charting the careers of Nebraskans who make their mark in the arts, particularly in cinema, I expect I will be writing more about McCallanay, who is a great interview, in the future. In addition to his television work, which between episodic dramas and made-for-TV movies is extensive, he has a fine tack record in features as well.  I am also planning a piece on his mother, the noted cabaret artist Julie Wilson.

 

 

 

Canceled FX Boxing Show, ‘Lights Out,’ May Still Springboard Omahan Holt McCallany’s Career

©By Leo Adam Biga

As published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Storytellers drawn to boxing’s inherent drama invariably find redemption at its soul and conflict as its heart.

Ring tales are on a roll thanks to Mark Wahlberg’s Oscar-winning film The Fighter and FX’s series, “Lights Out,” (the series finale airs next Tuesday, April 5 at 9 p.m.). Although FX recently announced it has decided not to renew the show for a second season, the show received favorable reviews from critics while generating more than usual interest locally, as it stars former home boy Holt McCallany in the breakout role of the fictitious Patrick “Lights” Leary, an ex-heavyweight champ attempting a comeback.

McCallany grew up in Omaha, the eldest of two rambunctious sons of Omaha native and legendary New York musical theater actress and cabaret singer Julie Wilson, and the late Irish American actor/producer Michael McAloney.

Like his hard knocks character, McCallany was truant and quick to fight. He was expelled from Creighton Prep. He says most of the “unsavory crew” he ran with outside school “wound up in jail.” At 14, he ran away from home — flush with the winnings from a poker game — to try to make it as an actor in Los Angeles.

“I was a very rebellious and a very ambitious kid,” he says.

In the spirit of second chances linking real life to fiction, he got some tough love at a boarding school in Ireland and returned to graduate from Prep in 1981, a year behind Alexander Payne, whom he hopes to work with in the future. McCallany, who’s returning to Omaha for his class’s 30th reunion in July, appreciates the school not giving up on him.

“I got kicked out but they eventually took me back, and they didn’t have to do that. Near my graduation I said to one of the priests, ‘Why did you guys take me back?’ and he said, ‘Because we believe in your talent, Holt. We see a lot of boys come through here and we believe you can be one of the first millionaires out of your class and a good alumnus.’ When you’re a kid you take that stuff to heart and it kind of stays with you, and if you believe it, other people will believe it about you, too.”

Tragedy struck when his troubled kid brother died at 26 in search of another fix. It’s a path Holt might have taken if not for finding his passion in acting.

“I felt like I had a calling. My brother didn’t have that, and my brother’s dead now, and I can tell you a lot of the pain and suffering he went through is related to this subject. When you don’t know what it is you want to be and you’re lost and you’re floundering and you’re going from job to job and kicking around and nothing really works out, it’s a very dispiriting place to be. It can lead to substance abuse and a lot of negative things.”

In the show, Leary’s a devoted husband and father trying to rise above boxing’s dirty compromises, but he and his younger brother get sullied in the process.

McCallany, who infuses Lights with his own mix of macho and sensitivity, is the proverbial “overnight sensation.” He’s spent 25 years as a journeyman working actor in film (Three Kings) and TV (Law & Order), mostly as a supporting player, all the while honing his craft — preparing for when opportunity knocked.

Everyone from co-star Stacy Keach, as his trainer-father, to series executive producer Warren Leight to McCallany himself says this is a part he was born to play. Why? Start with his passion for The Sweet Science.

 

 

 

 

“Boxing was my first love, and way back when I was a teenage boy in Omaha. My brother won the Golden Gloves. We had an explosive sort of relationship, he and I. We would often get into fistfights and all of a sudden he was getting really good.”

As for himself, McCallany’s a gym rat. He’s logged countless hours sparring — “sometimes those turn into real wars” — and training with pros. He appeared in the boxing pics Fight Club and Tyson. He’s steeped in boxing lore. He brought in his friend, world-class trainer Teddy Atlas, as technical adviser on Lights Out.

The pains taken to get things right have won the show high praise. The only critics who matter to McCallany are pugilists. “The response from the boxing community has been really positive,” he says.

“There are a lot of similarities I find between boxing and acting,” he says. “In the theater the curtain goes up at 8 and the audience is in their seats and you’ve got to come out and give a performance, and it’s similar in boxing — there’s an appointed day and appointed time when you know people are going to be there ringside and it’s time for you to come out and perform.”

In both arenas, nerves must be harnessed.

“The anxiety is your friend,” he says. “That’s what’s going to ensure you’re going to do what you’re trained to do and, as Ernest Hemingway said, ‘remain graceful under pressure,’ which is really what it’s about.”

As much as he admires great boxing films he says “Lights Out” is not constrained by the limits of biography or a two-hour framework.

“We have all of this time to explore in rich detail a boxer’s life and his relationships and his psychology,” he says. “With this character the writers and I have the freedom to really create and really see where this journey is going to take us, and that’s very exciting. I can’t tell you exactly what’s going to happen in season two because I’m not sure, and I promise you they’re not sure either. That’s what’s different.”

While they’ll be no second season now, McCallany’s up for a part in the nextBatman installment and has a script in play with

The Soderbergh Experience: Director Steven Soderbergh to Talk Shop at Film Streams Feature Event

February 10, 2011 3 comments

Part of the cast of the 2001 film Ocean's Elev...

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UPDATE: So, I went to the An Evening with Steven Soderbergh event that the following post previewed, and it proved every bit as engaging a program as I expected.  Alexander Payne handled the introductions with low-key aplomb.  Kurt Andersen was his usual studied and witty self as the moderator or interviewer. And special guest Steven Soderbergh was cool, intelligent, frank, and surprisingly self-effacing.  He even confirmed reports that have been circulating for awhile now that he plans retiring from filmmaking in a few years.  If he does indeed go through with walking away from his film career, it would be an unprecedented move considering his A-list status and relatively young age — he’s only 48.  He just completed Contagion and he has a couple more projects in the pipeline that he’s obligated to complete, Liberace and The Man from Uncle, but after those, he said, he has nothing more scheduled  to hold him down. He said he’s been turning down every project offered to him for some time.  His reason for wanting to abandon filmmaking?  He said it’s a case of feeling like he is more and more retreading the same ground and he no longer wants to feel trapped into repeating himself. He didn’t say what he might do in place of making films, though there was an allusion by Andersen to Soderbergh wanting to paint and perhaps write.  Speaking of writing, Soderbergh described one of his best decisions as coming to terms with the fact that his best potential lay not in writing films but in directing them.  He started out writing his own scripts, including the project that first brought him fame — sex, lies and videotape.  But he increasingly turned to other writers to flesh out his ideas.  I also discovered that Soderbergh ahas for some time now acted as his own cinematographer and editor on his films, often using a pseudonym rather than taking screen credit under his own name in those categories.  All in all, it was a night of stimulating conversation and judging by the packed house at the Holland Performing Arts Center this fund raiser for Omaha’s art cinema, Film Streams, was a resounding success.

Omaha’s downtown art cinema, Film Streams, is presenting a Feb. 20 program featuring one of cinema’s top directors, Steven Soderbergh, who will be interviewed on stage at the Holland Performing Arts Center by author-Studio 360 host Kurt Andersen.  Filmmaker Alexander Payne, a friend of Soderbergh’s, is introducing the program.  The event’s a fund raiser for Film Streams.  I didn’t get the chance to interview Soderbergh, which was a bummer, but  I still had a good time writing the following piece for The Reader (www.thereader.com) about the filmmaker and his work.  I interviewed Andersen and solicited comments from Payne, from Film Streams founder/director Rachel Jacobson, and from film historian Ton Schatz.  I look forward to attending An Evening with Steven Soderbergh.  This is the third big fund raiser for Film Streams featuring a major cinema figure. Laura Dern was the special guest year one and Debra Winger last year.  Payne interviewed each on stage.  These are the kinds of cinema events that almost never used to happen in Omaha, and now thanks to Film Streams and the Omaha Film Festival they happen on a regular basis.

The Soderbergh Experience: Director Steven Soderbergh to Talk Shop at Film Streams Feature Event

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Steven Soderbergh may not generate the snobby, effete buzz of some name directors, yet he’s arguably the most prolific and accomplished American filmmaker over the past 20 years. As special guest for the Feb. 20 Film Streams Feature Event III, An Evening with Steven Soderbergh, he headlines Omaha’s must-see cinema event of 2011.

Skeptics must concede he has the juice to qualify as an elite director. There are the awards (the Palm d’Or and the Oscar), the glowing reviews, the productive collaborations with mega-stars (George Clooney) and the clout or charisma to get both commercial (Erin Brockovich) and fringe (Che) works produced.

He did one early game-changing film (sex, lies, and videotape) and he’s followed with some prestige mature projects (Traffic). Yes, naysayers point out, but he can’t claim a seminal work like The Godfather or Taxi Driver as his own.

What he does possess is a supple technique he applies to a broad canvas of genres he crosses and bends with equal amounts of restraint and respect and reinvention. He’s not even 50, and his oeuvre may ultimately contain more stand-the-test-of-time credits than any of his flashier contemporaries or senior counterparts.

Yes, but is he an auteur? That may be among the things novelist and Studio 360 host Kurt Andersen explores with Soderbergh during their on-stage interview-clip program at the Holland Performing Arts Center.

For now, Andersen ventures while it’s hard to instantly identify a Soderbergh film the way one can a Scorsese or Allen or Tarantino or Coen Brothers film, or for that matter a Tony Scott film, “he is an incredibly ambitious artist, and that’s an interesting combination.”

Count Andersen an admirer.

“He’s done television as well as feature films, he produces (Syriana, Michael Clayton) as well as directs, he does documentaries, he does these big kind of pure entertainment features as well as these very strange little features, and all of that range continues,” he says. “It’s not as though he did these little movies and then graduated to payday movies. That he continues to be as diverse at age 48 as when he was 25-30 is really singular.

“When you look at the body of work and career there’s nobody of his generation who comes close I think in having all of that, as well as the half dozen or whatever master works you can argue about and point to.”

Before the auteur theory messed with cinephiles’ conceptions of where ultimate film authorship lies, name-above-the-title directors were rare. Today, even hacks are accorded that once privileged status. Soderbergh is anything but a hack. Indeed, Andersen calls him “the anti-hack.”

Alexander Payne, who approached Soderbergh to headline the Film Streams fundraiser and will introduce the program, summed up his fellow artist with:

“I count Steven as a friend and colleague, and I have tremendous respect for his career and his purity — and certainly for his work ethic. He admires the directors of classical Hollywood who honed craft through continuous work, and he has miraculously enabled himself to equal their prodigious output. Some hit, some miss, but craft sharpens and roves. And he supports other filmmakers without question.”

A great filmmaker doesn’t have to also be a screenwriter like Payne. John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock produced great art with recurring personal themes and motifs without scripting a word. Soderbergh has writing credits on a third of his features.

Neither is a clearly defined style a prerequisite for a great director. Witness John Huston and Elia Kazan, whose subtle styles changed from film to film in service of story while their own preoccupations shone through. Soderbergh is in their chameleon tradition.

The fertile mid-1960s through 1970s era saw personal filmmaking flower in and out of Hollywood with Cassavetes, Scorsese, Coppola, Ashby, Altman, et all. In the 1980s this trend retreated in the face of mega pics, sequels and special effects.

Soderbergh is a bridge figure who helped usher in the independent film movement with his 1989 debut feature sex, lies, and videotape. A searching period followed that film’s breakout success. Since the mid-‘90s he’s evolved as a director of high gloss studio projects, including the Oceans series, that win critical and industry praise — and also make money — yet also as the maker of art pieces that exercise other creative muscles.

University of Texas at Austin film scholar Tom Schatz says Soderbergh’s arrival one the scene marked a turning point.

“1989 was perhaps the most important year for Hollywood in the past half-century,” says Schatz. “It was the year of the Time-Warner and Sony-Columbia mergers, which began the trend toward conglomerate control that now defines the movie industry. It was the year of Batman, the first modem blockbuster. And it was the year of sex, lies, and videotape, which ignited an indie-film movement and alongside Batman set a dual trajectory that continues to this day.

“Interestingly enough, Soderbergh is among the very few contemporary Hollywood filmmakers who can move effortlessly and successfully from one of these tracks to the other, segueing from modest, innovative, character-driven films to big-budget franchise blockbusters. In the process he has steadily produced a body of work that is unmatched in contemporary American cinema.”

Andersen says Soderbergh shook things up around the same time the Coens,Tarantino, Gus Van Sant and Spike Lee emerged as a brash new guard.

Kurt Andersen interviews Steven Soderbergh

Andersen wonders how sex, lies, videotape plays to 2011 eyes inured by YouTube, Web cams and reality TV. When the film came out, voyeurism was not the ubiquitous leisure activity it is now.

“It was the germinal moment of a certain era of American films that were strange and singular and idiosyncratic and that everybody was suddenly talking about in a way they hadn’t since the ’70s,” notes Andersen. “What’s so kind of heartening and praiseworthy about Soderbergh’s career is he continues really risky formal experiments.”

Take the director’s choice of revolutionary Che Guevara as the subject of a four-hour-plus, two-part film in Spanish. The sheer length and scope leaves Andersen wondering, “Why do you do that? It’s almost a different thing than a conventional feature film. At one point in the process did he decide this needs to be this epic thing?” He plans to ask Soderbergh that very question.

Andersen’s also fascinated by Soderbergh’s take on the ferment of that time.

“I’ve just written a novel, much of which is set in the ‘60s, and about politics. I’m eager to talk to him about how we’re maybe now just getting far enough away from the ‘60s, with all their power and electricity and iconic resonance, where we can make interesting art about them and talk about them in ways that are not quite so hot and bothered.”

Film Streams director Rachel Jacobson says she appreciates Soderbergh’s “transparent awareness of the commercial pressures that “compromise the art of film” by his jumping back and forth between the two extremes of feature filmmaking.

She adds, “He’s also interested in challenging traditional distribution channels. Both Bubble and The Girlfriend Experience were released On-Demand and on Blu-Ray the same day and date they were released theatrically. His visit is such a terrific match for us as an art house theater dealing with these issues from the other end.”

Film Streams Feature Events I and II guests, Laura Dern and Debra Winger, respectively, discussed acting and offered anecdotes about projects and collaborators. Alexander Payne, who directed Dern in his first feature Citizen Ruth and admired the commitment Winger made to her roles, conducted soft interviews with the stars. This time, with a director in the spotlight and a veteran journalist asking penetrating questions, a different dynamic is in the offing. Both Payne and Andersen serve on the art cinema’s Advisory Board.

“Having had two terrific actors at past Features, I feel like the acclaimed director’s visit is a terrific way to mix things up,” says Jacobson. “Everyone has seen a Soderbergh film but not everyone pays attention to the director. It’s really important to our mission of promoting film as art that people think about the artist with the vision behind the work, the decisions that go into every shot, and the talent it takes to create a good movie.

“We’re thrilled that Kurt is coming to do the interview this year.”

The balancing act of Soderbergh, who’s publicly bemoaned the unwieldy, antiquated system for getting films made and released, intrigues Andersen. He says he’s eager to ask “how he convinced-persuaded the money guys to let him do what he wanted to do” in that limbo period following sex, when the perceived failures of Kafka, King of the Hill, Underneath and the TV series Fallen Angels seemed to signal a fall to irrelevance.

Then came five films that made Soderbergh not only relevant again but gave him cachet: Out of Sight, The Limey, Erin Brockovich, Traffic, Ocean’s Eleven. From then till now Soderbergh’s moved from obscure projects like Solaris and The Good German to star-vehicles like The Informant and the forthcoming Haywire.

As Andersen says, “there’s talent and luck and then there’s the personality-temperament things that allow you to make that Hollywood ATM machine cough up the money.” Andersen’s curious to kknow how artists like Soderbergh “actually manage to have other people pay for the courage” of their “private, quirky convictions.”

Even when Soderbergh has played it “safe” with forays into genre themes and variations, whether the caper buddy pic (Oceans) or the romantic suspense flick (Out of Sight) or the revenge story (The Limey) or the underdog-against-all-odds chestnut (Brockovich), he’s made the conventions his own.

“He’s broad enough in his vision of interesting material that he can take something that’s been seen a thousand times and make it a memorable thing,” says Andersen.

The Good German finds Soderbergh taking the duplicity and intrigue and look of Casablanca or The Third Man and at once remaining true to it and tweaking it. His black and white milieu and mis en scene boast mystique with a modern edge.

“You see him setting up a particular kind of obstacle course for himself. He’s doing not just a modern version of a film noir,” says Andersen, “but he’s actually trying to do it in a virtual simulation way — to try and figure out how movies were made then in ways that we don’t now, and yet trying to make it work as a film that comes out in 2006.

“It’s interesting to me to talk to an artist about the kinds of puzzles he sets for himself.”

Andersen admits to being a sucker for spy stories anyway and he says Soderbergh’s riffs with the well-worn form made it a must-see for him.

“That’s interesting in a personal way for me,” says Andersen. “I’m fascinated by the intelligence agencies. In this new novel of mine the serious research I had to do was about how the intelligence business works, so I actually was thinking about The Good German. I rewatched that film in anticipation of talking to Soderbergh.”

Traffic is another example of an overused, often cliched subject — illegal drug trafficking — that in the hands of an imaginative filmmaker becomes a kind of elegiac opus about human greed and frailty told in overlapping storylines.

“A really interesting film,” says Andersen. “It’s the kind of movie that in description could be such a hack work thing. If in a blind taste test that film was simply described to you, you’d think, Yeah, maybe, but you’d expect it to be mediocre. But again with this kind of genre material he brings both this interesting, complicated structure — TV-like in a way because of course it’s an adaptation of a television series — and turns this pulp material into something so much better. Into a work of art.”

Andersen says The Informant portrays business management’s “moral ambiguity” and “murkiness” in a way “that fiction and film seldom do. It’s so unpigeonholable. Is it a comedy? Is it a drama? What is it?” He likes too the improvisational and enigmatic qualities of The Girlfriend Experience.

In the end, Andersen says, Soderbergh distinguishes his work above the fray.

“There’s so many like big tent pole movies that get made just because the deal was made,” he says. “He’s s one who clearly takes seriously the fact that somebody’s going to pay 10 bucks and spend two hours of their life, and so I better try to entertain them. He kind of gives more than necessary. When any artist over-delivers in what they’re strictly required to do, it makes for a great artist and for a career that really lasts.

“You never get the sense he’s phoning it in in any sense, which isn’t to say it always works. I mean, he has lesser movies and greater movies, but he’s always trying. His work never goes off the rails. There’s always a sense of rigor about it.”

Tickets for the 6:30 p.m. concert hall interview are $35 and available by calling 933-0259 or visiting www.filmstreams.org. A post-party and private reception cost extra.

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