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Promising writer-director Nik Fackler embraces his first feature film experience


 I remember reading something about this wunderkind filmmaker in Omaha whose short films and music videos were all the rage. I finally met him and I was impressed by his passion and ambition. Then I read the screenplay for his first feature, Lovely, Still which he was then prepping, and its depth and imagination blew me away. Finally, I saw some of his short films and music videos, and they were much more accomplished than you would expect from a kid barely out of his teens and working on micro budgets.

The following story is my attempt at portraying someone I am convinced will be one of the world’s leading film directors in a short time, if he isnt already.  The story appeared in a truncated form in The Reader (www.thereader.com) as he was finishing production on Lovely, Still, his made in Omaha feature starring Oscar winners Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn.  The film had limited theatrical distribution in 2008-2009, but is finally get a general national release this year.  Everywhere it’s played it’s gotten good reviews and been well received by audiences.  I believe Fackler is well on his way to fulfilling the promise of greatness his work has shown almost from the start. And don’t be surprised if Landau and/or Burstyn pick up Oscar nominations for their superb performances.

 

Promising writer-director Nik Fackler embraces his first feature film experience

©by Leo Adam Biga

A shorter version of this story appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

There’s something subversive about a 23-year-old coming out of the music video world to direct Oscar-winners Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn in a serious indie drama about the passion an elderly couple feel. A postmodern It’s a Wonderful Life.  As sweet as it is dark, Nik Fackler calls it “a fairy-tale, but told in the real world.”

Fackler is the most promising homegrown film talent Omaha’s produced since Alexander Payne. That’s a heavy comparison, but Fackler’s work has been turning heads for a half-dozen years. Whether his first feature is a fully-realized work or an unfulfilled promise remains to be seen. Will he have staying power? Nobody knows.

On the surface Lovely’s about dull, lonely, isolated Robert (Landau) finding love, for the first time, with worldly, vivacious Mary (Burstyn). She seemingly comes into his life from left field.

The subtext of the original story contains funny, hard, ironic realities dramatized in stark relief and in dreamlike scenes that remind one, on the page at least, of Tim Burton-Terry Gilliam phantasms. These light-dark interludes play off the confused mind of Robert, whose grasp of reality is fragile. The mystical montages will be shot inside and outside North Sea Films, an Omaha film-video production house.

North Sea founder/chairman Dana Altman, a Fackler mentor, is producing Lovely with 20-somethings Lars Knudson and Jay Van Hoy of New York-based Parts and Labor.

Lovely’s key crew – from director of photography Sean Kirby to production designer Stephen Altman – are Hollywood/indie veterans with the chops to pull off effects in-camera and on North Sea’s green screen.

The part of Robert demands Landau play a full gamut of emotions – love, desire, fear, anger, loneliness, confusion, joy, innocence, distrust, paranoia. Fackler said the “showcase role” is “very challenging.” Burstyn’s character must react to Robert’s wild swings; and her performance is tinged by the potent secret her character Mary keeps, and the delicate balance she maintains to preserve it.

Seldom have “seniors” been given such complex dimensions on film. Then there’s the much hushed-hushed hook or high concept the story turns on. This has to do with the secret, the well-intended ruse to preserve it, and ensuing fallout when the deception backfires with unforeseen consequences.

Now in its fourth week of production in and around his  hometown, Lovely could be a coming out party for Fackler. He previously made waves only in indie music circles. This $1.2 million-budgeted project with high cachet actors in Oscar-friendly roles could put him on a fast track to a major filmmaking career.

“The great thing about Lovely, Still is that it is sort of under the radar,” Knudson said. “Because Nik is in Omaha, not in L.A. or New York, people don’t really know who he is yet and I think that’s going to be really good for this film. It’s going to come out and hopefully just blow people away.”

Even though Fackler’s barely in his 20s, Lovely’s a long time in the making. He first wrote it in his teens. It came close to shooting in 2005, but financing wasn’t secured until this past year through New York investors Knudson and Van Hoy have a history with. Fackler’s waited five years and there were, Altman said, “crying times.”

“A lot of independent films I’ve produced have taken four-five years and it’s frustrating, it’s difficult,” said Knudson, whose Old Joy did well on the indie circuit. “You just never give up and then one day you make it. But I think Nik’s glad he’s doing it now and not two years ago. I think he’s ready now. Going through all the bad times has actually made him that much stronger. The timing is right.”

On location in mid-November Fackler expressed satisfaction  with how the crew  – a mix from L.A. and Omaha – were  meshing. “Everyone’s on the same wavelength – that’s why  it’s turning out great,” he said. Still, it’s Fackler’s first feature.  DP Sean Kirby said, “Anytime you do something for the first time, like direct a feature film, there’s a learning curve, but I think he’s learned very quickly…” Fackler said, “I made a  bunch of mistakes the first day I won’t make again…”

Vision outweighs inexperience, Kirby said. “I think he’s a visualist,” said Kirby. “One of the great things about film is that it really is a kind of age-less art form. The vision is something that is outside of age, and he has a vision we’re all trying to support. That’s why we’re all here”

Fackler’s passion and vision sold Knudson and Van Hoy on him. It’s what sold Fackler to Saddle Creek Records artists, for whom he’s made music videos, and to the William Morris Agency, which represents him.

“Nik is one of those guys we fell in love with after seeing his  stuff,” said Knudson, whose business partner, Van Hoy, is currently producing the feature Going Underground in New York. Altman, who long ago spotted Fackler’s talent, spent four years packaging Lovely before finding the right fit in Knudson and Van Hoy, who learned the business under Scott Rudin and now produce indie work  by writer-directors with a strong personal vision. “Lars and Jay came at the perfect time. The film is set up  now in the best possible scenario… because this is what independent film is,” Altman said. Fackler retains ultimate  “creative control” on Lovely, said Knudson, adding, “that’s a rare thing.”

“The thing that’s cool about this is how much control I have over it and I think filmmaking should be that way,” Fackler said. “I think any artist should be in complete control of their project.”

Last winter Fackler expressed frustration when plans to shoot Lovely were again delayed. He even toyed with the idea of, in  the interim, making a down-and-dirty thriller with a grindhouse  gimmick, but then Lovely finally got the go-ahead. Even then, Lovely almost didn’t get made here. Nebraska’s lack of incentive earmarks for film production gave investors pause  before they relented.

The fact it took some time before the film came together turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The script’s undergone many  changes since Fackler first wrote it, reflecting his maturation from boy to man.

“I’ve been rewriting this script every year – driving people nuts with it – because I keep changing,” he said. ” I was a completely different person when I first wrote it at 18. I go back and read the first draft and I‚m like, ‘Oh, it’s sophomoric.’ You learn more, you experience more, you feel more – and you take advantage of that and then put that in your art. So it’s good it took five years to get this film made.”

Knudson said the script has been made stronger “with the help of a lot of different people.” Fackler said the final script does retain the fairy-tale quality he intended from the start: “I like to take children’s themes that anyone from any age can understand and then put them in these like really harsh realities of what life can be like.”

“It starts really dark, so it will be shot really dark,” Fackler said. “Lots of shadows and blues. And then as it gets happier I want to literally change the color of the film. Like even the same locations change brightness and color ˜ they become fairy-taley – just to set a different tone. Then it gets darker than it was before and then gets kind of happy again before it ends in the real world.”

As far back as the shorts Jack and Jill and Mynoot Loss he’s explored the dark side. “I don’t know why it is for me that it’s so much easier to be dark than it is to be happy,” he said. “I haven’t had any problems. I had a great childhood -that’s why I’m actually like stuck in it. It’s like I don’t want to be a dark person but it’s in there, so I have to get it out somehow, and it breaks out in my art. Maybe it’s because I had people kill themselves around me. That was part of growing up.”

He refers to his late friend Erin, to whom Jack and Jill is dedicated. “She took her own life and it kind of stuck with me. I was 17,” he said. He put down what he felt in words. “Whenever I’m feeling really angry I can write it out of me. I think it’s  therapeutic. But also I use it as a creative tool. Like when I was writing Lovely, Still the emotions I was feeling in the relationship I was in I put into the characters.”

After years trying to get Lovely made, frustration nearly drove him to a big-budget studio deal to do a “creature feature” flick.

“I had the contract. I was seconds away from making money. Real money. Money I could buy a house with. But I had to follow my gut,” he said. “I had to stick to my guns. Just because I’m broke I can’t jeopardize the last four years. I owe it to myself.”

Another benefit of waiting was landing Burstyn and Landau. Burstyn, Best Actress Oscar-winner for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, has six Academy nominations. She co-directs the Actors Studio in New York. Landau, who goes back to the Studio’s heyday in the ’50s, when he and fellow student James Dean were fast friends, has taught acting for decades and directs the Actors Studio West. He won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Ed Wood, one of his three Oscar nominations.

We’re talking actors old enough to be Fackler’s grandparents. Actors who’ve worked with icons — Hitchcock, Mankiewicz, Bogdanavich, Friedkin, Coppola, Scorsese, Allen – Fackler only knows via Net Flix or dusty film books. But directing these 70-somethings doesn’t seem to phase him. That’s in keeping with his free spirit, one that won’t be shackled or censored, even around film royalty.

A Monday morning shoot at the French Cafe finds Fackler in sneakers, jeans, sweatshirt and whimsical Dr. Seuss stocking cap. He variously: grooves to some internal beat between  takes on set, swaying his tall, lithe body like a snake charmed into dance; hums-sings some song lick; skips between the open spaces in the dolly track on the floor; and affects a ridiculous Italian accent with Landau, who takes it up in kind, adding a mob edge to his mock dialect.

Standing to watch a take unfold on a tiny monitor, Fackler rocks up and down, hands hung at his side, fingers twitching. As Landau-Burstyn complete the intimate dinner scene at the Cafe, a finely nuanced moment lit by candlelight and framed against a stained glass window, the filmmaker raises both arms overhead and, like a conductor, swoops his hands down with finality, declaring, “Cut!” He’s pleased.

The uninhibited, childlike quality of Fackler keeps his sets relatively loose.

“He’s very sort of ego-less,” Knudson said. “He’s just as excited talking to someone on the crew or to a random guy on the street as he is talking to Martin (Landau). He brings the same energy.”

There’s no mistaking how much is on the line with this project, however.

“Our budget is over a million dollars – that’s a lot of money to be giving a guy who just turned 23 and is directing his first feature,” Knudson said. “As a first-time director you have a lot against you already because you haven’t proven yourself at all. That’s a lot of pressure to put on him.”

Fackler doesn’t show it.

“If you’re going to be a good director you can’t ever be stressed out or ever be intimidated because you have like a whole crew and cast around you looking to you for what to do. You definitely can’t fold,” Fackler said.

That required exterior doesn’t rule out internal explosion, “which happens all the time,” he said.

He admits he was intimidated the first time he met Landau  and Burstyn, who sized him up. When the actors first expressed interest in the script, each took a meeting with the artist without a single credit to his name on his IMDB page. Who is this guy?

“It was really intimidating,” Fackler said of his meeting with Landau in a Studio City, Calif. cafe. “I was just super freaked  out. I don’t know why. I’m usually never that way. But it was like I was about to meet with this legend actor to talk about the script and for him to kind of like feel me out — to see if he can trust me as a director, because I’m a young guy. He’s got to respect me to do what I say and I’ve got to show him  the respect he deserves. We’re from such different generations.”

The two hit it off. Knudson said Fackler “aced” a similar test with Burstyn in New York: “It’s a lot of pressure for a 23-year-old to meet with someone like Ellen, who’s worked with the biggest and best directors in the world, but Nik blew her away. I think she called him a Renaissance Man.” Knudson said “it’s really impressive” that Fackler won over two artists of such caliber. “They’re very critical. They’ve done this for so many years that they will only do something if they really believe it’s going to be good.”

The fact Fackler attracted these heavyweights is proof “the kid,” as Landau refers to him, has the right stuff. That two veterans liked the story and its young creator enough to entrust him with directing the piece and them in it tells you there’s substance behind his slacker’s facade. That Fackler has been, in Landau’s words, “amenable” to notes he and Burstyn feed him in order to smooth “the bumps” in the script, shows the kid is no fool.

“What’s great about Nik, especially at this age, is he’s willing to collaborate with people. It’s still his vision, but if it makes it better he’ll change it. He’s not afraid,” said Knudson, who confirmed the script owes much to the input of the lead actors.

Fackler said Landau made comments like, “‘I think this still sounds a little young in this area.’ And I was like, ‘Alright, let’s fix it.’ Definitely a collaborative effort. He was kind of a mentor for a month straight. He taught me stuff. I just took notes listening to him.”

The same with Burstyn, who honed in on “really simple, really small things,” Fackler said. “Like the opening line of the script got changed just a little bit because she thought it” contradicted the secret revealed near the end. “She wanted to make it even more obscure.”

With his long, cherubic face, piles of brown hair and pseudo-grunge wear, Fackler looks and sounds like the Generation Y child he is. One who became a filmmaker by just doing it. Gen Y is into affordable audio-video technologies that make music-film production accessible.

“Our generation is like the-do-it-yourself generation – you can do whatever you want,” he said. “Like, if you want to make a record, you can do that now where you couldn’t really do that years ago. The same with film. That’s the whole thing with digital, man. Anyone can make a film. Independent projects are so possible.”

Every project before Lovely was an exercise in stretching himself creatively.

“I kind of just kept setting goals. Each project had to be something completely different for me – a new experiment,” he said. “I get bored easily with stuff but filmmaking hasn’t got boring yet and that’s because there are infinite possibilities with what you can do. It’s an experimental art.

“There’s a solution to every problem that’s put in front of you, and if there’s ever a roadblock you can always get around it. It’s just a matter of taking the time…and not giving up. I wanted the roadblocks. I was like, Bring ‘em on, because I had a lot of ambition and I still do. I  guess it’s just something that I always thought anything is possible. It’s like the naive child in me never left me. I love it. I try to get everyone else around me to feel the same way.”

His Lovely crew is comprised in part by friends who go back with him on his many shorts and videos. They’ve been through production wars together, meaning they’re comfortable solving problems.

Lovely came out of this desire to explore new ground.

“I did a lot of shorts about young people,” he said. “I didn’t want to get stuck being a young director doing films about young people.”

Enter Shirley’s Diner, a classic Millard eatery owned and operated by his artistically-inclined parents, Denise and Doug Fackler. It’s where Nik researched Lovely, hanging out with older patrons, getting a sense for “what it’s like to be a human at that age,” he said. “I talked with a lot of older people. That helped. I figured out a way he [Robert] words things. He’s based on a real person I talked to at the diner. He’s a bagger at a grocery store who doesn’t talk to anyone. Everyone kind of treats him like a kid. They all take care of him. That’s kind of Robert. He does’‚t have a lot of experience having feelings. He’s really awkward. He doesn’t like to talk to people. He’s scared of interaction. He’s not happy, he’s not sad – he’s kind of neutral.”

 

 

Shirley’s Diner

 

 

The diner Nik’s family owns and operates and that he often worked at and found inspiration at for his films

Creativity is a family thing with the Facklers. “Art was always just kind  of around,” he said. “It was in front of me, it was normal, so I  guess I just kind of fell into it that way.” When not immersed in video games, he wrote by himself or as part of a family activity. “That was just fun stuff we did. It would be like, ‘Let’s write a book tonight,’” he said. Acting, staging, later filming, his own scenarios became playtime.

Both his parents play music. Doug also makes photographs and Denise writes, including a book-in-progress that tells the stories of people who venture through the diner, where Nik worked as recently as last summer. “My mom’s under the firm belief, and I agree with her, that everyone has a story,” Nik said. “I mean, everyone’s interesting. That’s what’s cool about the diner – you have an unlimited amount of characters you can learn from.”

Fackler didn’t formally study cinema, or even attend college, although he landed admittance to the Los Angeles Film School at 16. He chose instead to forego commercial influences.

“That would have sucked, you know, directing Scary Movie V or something. Well, who knows what would have happened. All I know is I would have heard the same thing that a roomful of people would have learned. I don’t want to be taught an art. I want to like fall into an art and just let it happen. It’s an adventure, it’s an experience – each new thing.”

“I really want to try to be different. Every generation wants to do that and that’s why things change. So I just want to make sure I’m not rehashing the past.”

Fackler is intrigued with the idea of eliciting new emotions through his art. “Lovely, Still is very much written to evoke some kind of feeling. It takes place during Christmas time and it deals with family and love. It’s multi-layered. For some people that may be a happy feeling and for others it may be depressing. Art is trying to create a new feeling you’ve never felt before. You watch a film and you leave the film feeling a new way. You may not have a name for the feeling, but it’s new. That’s all I can hope for…”

Except for brief forays in L.A. Fackler developed his craft right here. He began making short films at Millard West, along the way finding a mentor in Altman. With Altman’s help, Fackler graduated from low-end to high-end film-video production and became a much-in-demand director for Saddle Creek artists, among them, Conor Oberst, who’s scoring Lovely.

About that comparison with Payne. They followed quite different paths to their first feature films. Payne graduated Stanford before going to film school at UCLA, where he directed a thesis project that got him a studio deal. Fackler’s thesis projects are the shorts/music videos he dreamed up and made.

Despite a development deal, nearly a decade passed before Payne put together his first feature, Citizen Ruth. In the interim he wrote and directed shorts for the Playboy Channel. By the time he made Ruth Payne was in his mid-30s. Fackler is that rare animal who’s gone right from homemade, no-budget work to a substantial indie feature with a dream cast. He’s arrived, by a self-made route, at the same point Payne reached with Ruth, only 12 years earlier.

As a filmmaker, Fackler emphasizes the influence of his background in music, as a writer and musician in Family Radio.

“Music creates images. It totally does. I’ve been at points where I made the characters argue just because a song I was playing started getting more intense,” Fackler said. “The music writes it for me. That’s the same with editing. When I’m editing I like to put a song down online and edit to it. Music is very, very important. Film has a rhythm it cuts to and falls to.”

Fackler wants to make more films in Omaha, and is avoiding the Hollywood glam machine. He wants to make his next film from a fantasy script he and Matt Brown co-wrote. “It’s going to be a bigger budget” show, so if Lovely, Still does well I think I can get a studio to trust me – if I want to go with a studio. I don’t really care either way as long as they let me do what I want.”

“I’m not very snobby about film,” he said. “Like I know how it works. It’s a business just like anything else. The thing is just doing it, and if you can manipulate the business and still keep it art, then go for it.”

He and a friend are pitching an animated television series to studios. There is high interest.

Meanwhile, the producers who have his back on Lovely, Still look forward to a long association. “Like Dana (Altman), we want to continue working with Nik and we want to create a family sort of, so he feels protected, so he can make the movies he wants to make for the rest of his career,” Knudson said.


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  1. January 10, 2013 at 3:53 am

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