Archive for September, 2010

Martin Landau and Nik Fackler discuss working together on “Lovely, Still” and why they believe so strongly in each other and in their new film

September 23, 2010 2 comments

Image by 1031 via Flickr

As readers of this blog know by now, I am enthusiastic about a young Omaha filmmaker  Nik Fackler, whose feature debut, Lovely, Still, has instantly catapulted him, at least in my opinion, into the ranks of cinema artists to be watched.  This post contains two stories I wrote for The Reader ( related to Fackler and his film, which stars Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn.  The first article draws on an interview I did with Landau when he was in Omaha last year to promote the film.  The actor believes in the film and in Fackler, who reminds him and almost everyone who meets Fackler of Tim Burton.  The second article appeared last year and it deals more with the film itself and with the journey that Fackler and Co. underwent to get it made and seen.  For the longest time, it didn’t appear as if the picture would get any kind of national release, but thankfully it has, opening this month (September) and next  (October) in dozens of theaters around the country. It’s a well-deserved show-and-tell for a fine debut film that features exquisite performances by two old Oscar-winning stars, who in my opinion have never been better.  If you don’t catch the film in a theater near you, look for it out on DVD in November.  It’s a great pic for the Christmas holidays, similar in tone to It’s a Wonderful Life, although a very different story told in a very different way.

Look for an additional Lovely, Still article posted here in the near future.  It will contain more material from my Landau interview.


Martin Landau and Nik Fackler discuss working together on “Lovely, Still” and why they believe  so strongly in each other and in their new film

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published 09/23/10 in The Reader (


When Martin Landau spins anecdotes about icons he’s worked with in his celebrated acting career, he can rattle off a who’s-who list.

James Dean, Cary Grant, Alfred Hitchcock, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Joe Mankiewicz, Sidney Poitier, Steve McQueen, Jeff Bridges, Francis Ford Coppola, Angelica Huston, Claire Bloom, Woody Allen, Johnny Depp, Tim Burton.

The 82-year-old Best Supporting Actor Oscar-winner (Ed Wood) is now a legend himself. So there’s something sweet and surreal when he drops Omahan Nik Fackler’s name in the same breath. The 20-something filmmaker directed Landau and fellow Oscar-winner Ellen Burstyn in his feature debut Lovely, Still.

Shot in Omaha in late 2007, the film’s enjoying a national release after spot festival-preview screenings in 2008-2009. Starting Friday, it plays at Marcus Theatres’ Midtown and Village Pointe cinemas.

For Fackler, it’s an “emotional” cap to a project he first wrote nine years ago:

“It’s been nine years of persistence and positivity and not giving up. It’s always been this thing in my life, Lovely, Still, that’s never gone away, and now I’m going to let it go away, and it feels good because I’m ready to let it go…I wanted it to come out a couple years ago, and it was delayed. Now it’s finally coming out and I feel sort of a distance from it. There’s nothing a bad review can say that won’t make me proud of the accomplishment. It just feels good to know it’s out there.

“People that pick up on the emotions and the feelings in the film seem to really be attached to it and love it.”

Landau, in Omaha last year to promote the pic, said he responded strongly to the script, “figuring somebody maybe close to my age” wrote it. When he learned the author was young enough to be his grandson, he said he asked, “How does a 22-year-old write an older couple love story with this texture?”

The venerable actor took a lunch meeting with the Generation Y upstart at an L.A. cafe,  each wary if he could work with the other. Landau used the meet to gauge if Fackler would accept notes to inform rewrites. To his delight he found him “open.”

“I basically said, ‘This is a terrific script, but it’s bumpy. If you’re willing to do this with me, I’ll do the movie,’ and Nick said, ‘OK.’Well, he did a rewrite on the basis of what we talked about, For two months we talked on the phone, several times a week, five or six pages at a time.”

Their top choice to play Mary opposite Landau’s Robert was Burstyn. On Landau’s advice Fackler waited until finishing the rewrite before sending her the script. She loved it, with some reservations.

“Actors like me and Ellen are looking for scripts that have some literary value. Good dialogue today is rare. It’s harder and harder to get a character-driven movie made by a studio or independents and it’s harder to get theaters to take them.”

As charmed as they were, Landau said, “It was a leap of faith working with a kid, but Nick’s talented and adventurous and imaginative and willing to listen. He reminds me of Tim Burton. Less dark, maybe a little more buoyant.”

“It was collaborative,” said Fackler. “We were a team of artists working together. After we became friends we respected each other’s opinions.”

Landau likes that this movie is aimed for his own underserved demographic.

“I absolutely believe in this film. When I did Ed Wood I felt that way. A lot of older people are starved for movies. They’re not interested in fireballs or car chases or guys climbing up the sides of buildings.”

He attended a Las Vegas screening of Lovely before a large AARP member crowd and, he said, spectators “were enwrapped with this movie. It talked to them. I mean, they not just liked it, it’s made for them. There’s a huge audience out there for it.”





Instead of a generation gap, Landau and Fackler discovered they were kindred spirits. Before acting, Landau studied music and art, working as a newspaper cartoonist-illustrator. He still draws and paints. Besides writing and directing, Fackler is a musician and animator.

“I feel Martin and I are very similar and we get along really well,” said Fackler, who added they still talk frequently. He described their relationship as “inspired.”  Fackler also feels a kinship with Burstyn, who has a cabin he stays at to write.

Fackler also found an ally in Landau.

“One of the main things Martin repeated to me over and over again was, ‘This is your movie.’ He made sure that rang in my ears, just to make sure I stayed strong when I came up against fights and arguments with people that wanted the film to be something I didn’t want it to be, and much love to him for doing that. Those words continue to ring in my ear in his voice to this day, and I’m sure for the rest of my career.”

Now dividing his time between Omaha and L.A., Fackler’s weighing his next feature: a puppet adaptation of Tony Millionaire’s work or “a period scary movie.”

Nik Fackler, The Film Dude Establishes Himself a Major New Cinema Figure with ‘Lovely, Still’

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in a 2009 edition of The Reader (

After what must seem an eternity, Omaha’s resident Film Dude, writer-director Nik Fackler, finally has the satisfaction of his first feature being theatrically screened. An advance one-week Omaha engagement of his Lovely, Still opens the new Marcus Midtown Cinema, Nov. 6-12.

The film’s box office legs won’t be known until its 2010 national release. Screenings for New York, L.A. and foreign press will give Lovely the qualifying runs it needs for Academy Awards consideration next year. It’d be a stretch for such a small film to net any nominations but the lead performances by Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn are so full and finely honed they’re Oscar-worthy by any standard.

Both artists strip themselves emotionally bare in scenes utilizing all their Method gifts. Their work is: dynamic, never dull; natural, unforced. Their behaviors appropriate for the romantic, comedic, dramatic or just Being There moments.

Nods for writing, direction, cinematography, editing and music would be unlikely but not out-of-line for this gorgeous-looking, powerfully-rendered, well-modulated movie that hits few false notes. The film pops with energy and emotion despite a precious storyline of senior citizens rediscovering first love.

The local creative class is well represented by Tim Kasher’s “additional writing,” James Devney’s strong portrayal of Buck, a lush score by composers Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott and dreamy tunes by Conor Oberst and other Saddle Creek artists.

It’s at least as impressive a feature debut as Alexander Payne’s Citizen Ruth.


Ellen Burstyn and Martin Landau



An indication of how much Landau believes in Lovely and how proud he is of his gutsy star-turn in what Fackler calls “a showcase role that’s very challenging” is the actor’s appearances at select screenings. That includes this Friday in Omaha, when he and Fackler do Q & As following the 6:15 and 9:15 p.m. shows at Midtown.

Fackler’s at ease with the film that’s emerged. “I am very content, although it has changed a lot,” he said, “but I welcome all changes. Film is an ever changing beast. You must embrace the artistic transformation. To not allow it, is to limit it.” Much hype attended the making of the 25-year-old’s debut feature, shot in his hometown in late 2007. It was the first movie-movie with a real budget and name stars made entirely in Nebraska since Payne’s About Schmidt in 2001.

Circumstances caused the film that generated serious buzz a couple years ago and then again at the Toronto Film Festival’s Discovery Program in 2008 to fall off the radar. Lovely producers turned down a distribution offer. They continue negotiations seeking the right release strategy-deal. Self-release is an option.

It’s been a long wait for Fackler to see his vision on screen – six years since writing it, five years since almost first making it in 2005, two years since completing principal photography and one year since reshoots and reediting.

“This has been the longest I’ve like worked on a single project for forever,” he said. “It’s really been a marathon.”

Anticipation is great, not just among the Nebraska film community that worked the pic. Whenever stars the caliber of Landau and Burstyn throw their weight behind a project as they’ve done with Lovely the industry takes note. That a 20-something self-taught filmmaker with only micro-budget shorts and music videos to his name landed Oscar-winning icons certainly got people’s attention. As did hanging his script’s sentimental story about two old people falling in love at Christmas on a subversive hook that turns this idyll into something dark, real, sad and bittersweet. Throw in some magic realism and you have a Tim Burtonesque holiday fable.

The two stars would never have gotten involved with a newcomer on an obscure indie project unless they believed in the script and its author-director. At the time Fackler lacked a single credit on his IMDB page. Who was this kid? In separate meetings with the artists he realized he was being sized up.

“It was really intimidating,” Fackler said of meeting 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 it he can trust me as a director, because I’m a young guy. We’re from such different generations.”

The two hit it off. Lovely producer Lars Knudson of New York said Fackler “aced” a similar test with Burstyn in Manhattan: “It’s a lot of pressure for a (then) 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” Fackler won over two artists known for being ultra-selective. “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.”

Lovely producer Dana Altman of Omaha said the respect Fackler gave the actors earned him theirs.

Anyone reading the screenplay could see its potential. Besides A-list stars other top-notch pros signed on: director of photography Sean Kirby (Police Beat), production designer Stephen Altman (Gosford Park Oscar nominee) and editor Douglas Crise (Babel Oscar nominee).

But the history of films long on promise and short on execution is long. As Dana Altman said, any film is the collective effort of a team and Lovely’s team melded. On location Fackler expressed pleasure with how the crew  – a mix from L.A. and Omaha – meshed. “Everyone’s on the same wavelength,” he said. Still, it was his 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 admitted to making “a bunch of mistakes” he “won’t make again.”

The subject matter made the film rife with traps. Take its tone. Handled badly, it could play as treacle or maudlin. Instead, it reads poignant and tragic, and that’s to everyone’s credit who worked on the film.

Then there’s Fackler’s penchant for going on fantastical jags in his work, routine in videos but risky in features. His loose approach, such as ditching the shot list to improvise, combined with the total creative freedom producers granted, meant he could play to his heart’s content, within reason. That can lead to self-indulgent filmmaking. Indeed, he fought and won the right to shoot trippy dream sequences that ended up on the cutting room floor. But some experimental lighting techniques to express tangled memories do make an effective motif in the final cut.

Following the mostly positive Toronto showing, the team reassembled for Omaha reshoots and New York pick ups. His leads supported the fixes and coverage.

“Martin and Ellen were behind it, they weren’t annoyed by it, they thought all the reshoots were going to make the film better,” said Fackler. “It wasn’t something that felt forced or anything like that. Everyone was on the same page.”

The young artist and his venerable stars established an early rapport built on trust. “We became friends,” he said. He readily accepted ideas from them that helped ripen the script and gave its young creator deeper insights into their characters.

“What’s great about Nik, especially at his 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 said the script owes much to the input of Landau and Burstyn. “He’s very sort of ego-less.”

It’s all in line with Fackler’s predilection for creating a relaxed set where spot-on discipline coexists amid a way-cool, laidback sensibility that invites suggestions. On location for Lovely he exhibited the same playful, informal vibe he does on his videos: whether going “yeah, yeah” to indicate he likes something or pulling on a can of Moen between takes or doing a private, Joe Cocker dance watching scenes or saying to his DP setting up a shot, “Feelin’ good then? Then let’s kick ass!”

Fackler’s totally of his Generation Y culture, just don’t mistake his nonchalance for slacker mentality. He’s all about the work. He carved a career out-of-thin-air directing videos for Saddle Creek recording artists. His shorts netted the attention and backing of Altman. He cobbled together casts, crews and sets, often doing every job himself, before Lovely. He hung in there six years waiting for this moment, working at his family’s business, Shirley’s Diner, to pay the bills.

“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.”

It was in an L.A. editing room where the jumble of material he shot for Lovely finally came into focus.

“The film from script to screen went through a lot,” he said. “I tried every possible edit. That’s why we ended up editing two months more than we thought we were. But luckily, you know, everyone — producers and investors – were supportive of that process, They didn’t put that much pressure on me because they saw that the film was pretty good, they liked it, and so they allowed us to do it. I ended up throwing the dreams out all together because they weren’t working, and using the experimental lighting scenes because they ended up looking so good.

“I have no regret cutting things I shot. I love the film I have. I love cutting stuff. My philosophy while editing was to not be attached to anything. Once I lived by that rule, everything came free. What matters is making the best film possible, always.”

That mature-beyond-his-years attitude drew Altman to be his mentor. Altman, whose North Sea Films produced Lovely with Knudson and Jay Van Hoy’s Parts and Labor, credits Fackler for hanging in there and doing what’s best for the project, saying: “it’s taken a great deal of patience. Poor Nik, he really does want to see this get released.” Whatever happens, Fackler’s satisfied with what he’s wrought.

“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. 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.”

He recently collaborated with cult comic strip-graphic novel artist Tony Millionaire on a script adaptation of Millionaire’s Uncle Gabby. “I can’t wait to bring existentialism and poetry to the children’s film genre,” said Fackler. ”I’m also excited to work with puppetry. It will be like playing with toys! ALL DAY LONG!”

Altman, Knudson and Co. have informal first-look rights on Fackler projects.The same producers who’ve had his back on Lovely 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,” said Knudson. Radical, man.

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Cinema iconoclast and vagabond Jon Jost

September 21, 2010 1 comment



As filmmakers go, Jon Jost is off the grid.  The uncompromising artist makes the films he wants to make, the way he wants to make them, and since his approach to story and technique is antithetical to mainstream feature filmmaking, he is pushed to the fringe, but that’s where this contrarian prefers to be anyway.  In one sense, he’s actually far ahead of the cinema establishment in terms of working in video and exploring its expressive possibilities.  He is a digital video guru who does a lot of presenting and teaching at universities.  I caught up with him a couple years ago during a residency he did at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. My story about Jost originally appeared in The Reader (, and meeting him and writing about him and viewing some of his work confirmed me just how diverse the filmmaking community is.

Cinema iconoclast and vagabond Jon Jost

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (


Digital cinema guru Jon Jost wears his iconoclasm as a badge of honor. The itinerant artist inhabits the fringes of the indie moviemaking landscape. In truth, he prefers it there. He’s railed against the system from the time he tore up his draft card in the mid-1960s, an act of “resistance” that sent him into exile to do the expatriate thing in Europe and Mexico. Once back, he knew “full well” he’d be arrested. He was, too, earning a stretch in an Illinois federal reformatory.

He got busted again, in Chicago, in the weeks leading up to the ‘68 Democratic National Convention. He was filming at the time of his arrest and the fact he used a camera as a revolutionary tool sealed his fate as a rebel filmmaker.

Ever the outsider, the self-taught Jost disdains the established order in film. Anything smacking of studio or industry or commercial” is “artificial” to him.

“I’m an anarchist. I don’t believe in leaders. I have no interest in commercial film,” he said during a break from his artist-in-residency at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “My view is we’re in a very deep trough of corruption and the corruption runs from the White House down to your local theater and into your film festivals.”

His choice to work in DV or digital video is an expression of his dissent. He fell in love with it the first time he worked a Sony camera. From ‘97 on, celluloid’s been dead for him, something once unthinkable for a serious filmmaker as himself. He described DV as “such an endlessly more, in the positive sense, plastic medium. It’s more malleable. You can do more things with it and you can do it without having to break the bank. The movies I make now, if you made the equivalent in film, they’d cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. And for me they cost a hundred dollars.

The choice is not just about economics, but aesthetics.

“For years it was really like heresy to say, ‘No, I’m not just doing it because it’s cheaper, I’m doing it because it’s better, period.’ It doesn’t look like film, but it has other things…other qualities…that are much better than film.”

He knows his work is out of step with the suits and the masses. Even as Hollywood begins to test the digital waters, he said DV won’t really change anything.

“It depends on who uses it. If Hollywood uses it than the special effects will get zappier. They can blow things up more spectacularly. They’ll do 3D digital but what they say will be lowest common denominator romance-sex-kill. Conventional movies will remain a big business designed to take ten bucks out of your pockets,” he said.



Since January he’s conducted statewide DV workshops and a UNL seminar. He does workshops all over the world, preaching a credo of “don’t accept their media —  make your own media.” He and his Italian wife/editor Marcella arrived in October. From a mausoleumesque stone building fast off a busy Lincoln intersection, the couple toil away like digital devils; the interior strewn with computers, musical instruments, books, DVDs, paint supplies. Few people will ever see their beautifully realized movies made on the cheap. Festivals turn a cold shoulder to his recent nonlinear, nonnarrative work. Even his last narrative feature, the anti-war Homecoming (2004), got snubbed. He feels it’s too political for these times.

The rejection dismays Jost, who’s enjoyed acclaim for his art films. His All the Vermeers in New York (1989) was a festival darling and aired on PBS.

Festival directors told him Homecoming was “too slow,” ironic, he said, as his previous films “were slow also and they loved” them. So slow is no longer fashionable?” he asked with rhetorical incredulity. On Homecoming he “deliberately” pulled back from his “inclinations and desires” to shoot in an “avant garde” style and still not a single American film festival would accept it.

“On one level that’s depressing,” he said, “and on another level it’s completely liberating because I can say, ‘Fuck it.’ Why should I move even this far to make it more accommodating when there’s nothing to accommodate? I know I’m going to get shut out. For the moment anyway there is no market whatsoever for what I do. So why should you torture yourself chasing this thing that absolutely doesn’t exist? So now I just make what I want to make the way I want to make it.”

He’s made other narrative films: Last Chant for a Slow DanceSure Fire, etc.. He’s shot in Panavision and 35 millimeter. Only his films don’t obey the rules with their lurches toward abstraction.

In his view, commercial filmmaking is a pastiche of old art. “It’s like, Didn’t you ever look at any art since 1650? Oh, so you can do Renaissance single and even double point perspective. So fucking what? They did it 500 years ago, alright,” he said.

“I’m a consumer, if not always liking it, of the arts. When I look at a movie I’m like, These people are so behind what visual language is available. With a computer you can make a completely credible visual representation you can go through of five-dimensional space, and they’re so pleased with managing to make a Renaissance picture,” he said, laughing with derision.

He enjoys dissing Hollywood and scoffs at the idea an Alexander Payne is an indie filmmaker. “No independent person would want to work with them (Hollywood),” Jost said. Even if Payne enjoys final cut, Jost asserts he’s a sell-out. “He’s already controlled because he makes films that are completely commercially palatable.”

“I find the limits of normal filmmaking false. Why can’t we have films that would be the filmic equivalent of Cubist painting?” Jost asked. “I have done some of that myself.” Using modern art devices, he superimposes scrims, images, text over the frame. He points the camera straight down at roads or out windows of moving vehicles, making subjects of the passing tableaux. In Vermeers a marble floor is the object of attention in a long tracking shot.

He eschews such tenets as establishing shots or cutting from one actor’s profile to the other in dialog scenes. He trusts “you’ll figure it out if you’re paying attention.” He prefers improvising to scripting. Natural light. With his new work, including the in-progress Swimming in Nebraska, he uses a digital software program to adorn and enliven a static frame. Slowly, rhythmically, geometric patterns filled with color and shape bleed in from the screen’s edges. These riffs, alone or in collage, correlate to the background’s fixed image, informing and enriching it.

Swimming profiles individuals engaged in various creative pursuits in the state. Jost said, “I’m trying in a very oblique, poetic way to show the creative process” and “to attack the general mentality people have of Nebraska or the Midwest” as a sterile place. “It’s full of interesting, lively things as much as anywhere else.”

He also completed a video installation while in Lincoln.

With his Nebraska stay near an end, Jost looks ahead to a university teaching gig in Seoul, South Korea. “It will be my first job. It’s not in the bag. If it doesn’t work out I’ll figure out something else to do,” he said. “I’ve never had a real job in my life. I’m 63, I don’t have a pension, I don’t have insurance, I’ve got nothing. I’m not going to worry about it now. One way or another, I’ll manage to survive.”

As he told the New York Times, “I’ve spent my life being left out. I’d like to stop, but it’s what I do.” Whatever happens, he’ll be “working, working, working.”

From May 20 through May 24 the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center in Lincoln will host Jon Jost Presents, a sampler program of his work and work by regional DV artists. All screenings are free and open to the public. For details, call the MRRMAC at 402-472-9100 or visit

A funny thing happened on the way to the toga party: Filmmaker John Landis waxes nostalgic on “Animal House,” breaking in and his journey in film

September 21, 2010 Leave a comment

John Landis at the Blues Brothers 25th Anniver...

John Landis at the Blues Brothers 25th Anniversary DVD Launch in Hollywood, August 2005. Photograph taken by myself. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the things I like best about doing this blog is that I can post items at a whim.  I am in a movie-movie frame of mind this week, and so many of my posts in late September 2010 are about movies and moviemakers. This one for The Reader ( is about John Landis, the popular American filmmaker who came to Omaha a few years ago for a revival screening of his first of many mega hits, Animal House. Landis was kind enough to give me an advance phone interview and he was very generous with his time and incredibly easy to converse with, as is the case I’ve found with most successful artists and entertainers.  I’ve had the privilege of interviewing many leading figures in the arts and one of the qualities they share is professionalism.  Doing press is a part of the gig, and they get that.  The program Landis attended in Omaha was organized by Bruce Crawford, a film impresario and historian who I go back with some three decades.  Bruce has presented many first-rate revival screenings, often with legendary special guests like Landis.  Bruce is bringing Debbie Reynolds to town for a Nov. 5 th screening of Singin’ in the Rain.  I’ll be posting a story about that before too long.  You can find my stories about Bruce and his magnificent obsession with classic movies and film scores on this site.




A funny thing happened on the way to the toga party: Filmmaker John Landis waxes nostalgic on Animal House, breaking in and his journey in film

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (


Mega hit filmmaker John Landis (The Blues BrothersAn American Werewolf in LondonTrading Places, Coming to AmericaSpies Like Us) is the special guest for a May 19 Omaha salute to his first triumph, National Lampoon’s Animal House. Landis directed the 1978 movie. Its surprise success made his career and boosted the screen fortunes of several then-unknown actors he shrewdly cast, including Kevin Bacon, Tom Hulce, Peter Riegert, Karen Allen, Bruce McGill and John Belushi.

Friday’s 7 p.m. event at Joslyn Art Museum’s Witherspoon Concert Hall is a benefit for the Nonprofit Association of the Midlands. Besides Landis, actor Stephen Furst (Flounder in the movie) is expected. Each is to speak before the show and to sign autographs after it. In keeping with the story’s Greek frat theme, toga-clad models will be stationed around the museum. Food fights are discouraged.

Omaha film maven Bruce Crawford made Animal House his 18th film revival “by popular request.” He knows it’s a coup to get Landis, “regarded as the most successful director of comedy in movie history, at least in box office terms.” Crawford speculates Landis is the biggest name director to land here since Cecil B. DeMille came for the 1939 world premiere of Union Pacific. Landis, speaking by car phone between appointments in L.A. (he’s prepping a new project), said a “very persistent” Crawford got him to agree to an Omaha appearance. Landis was to be at Crawford’s 1998 King Kong revival at the Indian Hills, joined by mutual friends Ray Harryhausen, Ray Bradbury and Forrest Ackerman. “I couldn’t make it, but I heard what a marvelous time they all had. So I said I’d come and I will.”

For Landis, Animal House culminated his early journey in moviemaking, which began a decade earlier. Born in Chicago but raised in west Los Angeles, this self-described “movie freak” mainlined on industry buzz. In many cases his friends’ parents worked in the business, giving him added “exposure” to that world. A friend’s father wrote for a television series, enough entree to get Landis and his buddy a free pass on the 20th Century Fox back lot, which Landis said was akin to “a kid at Disneyland.” His pal Peter Bernstein’s father was the great composer Elmer Bernstein, who later did the score for Animal House, the first of 11 scores Bernstein did for Landis. Similarly, Landis was befriended by Donald Sutherland when the movie M*A*S*M*A*S*H shot on the Fox lot, where Landis worked in the mail room. Ten years later Sutherland bailed Landis out on Animal House.

As a kid his celluloid day dreams kept him from being more than an average student. At 16 he quit school — “I’m a bad example” — for a $60 a week mail room job at Fox. He “lived through the death” of the old studio system. Still, it was Hollywood. “I loved it because the lot was very busy.” An old hand at Fox, Hungarian-American filmmaker Andrew Marton, took Landis under his wing. “He very kindly took an interest in me,” Landis said. One day, Landis said, Marton told him, “‘John, if you can get yourself to Yugoslavia, I’m doing second-unit on a movie there called The Warriors (released as Kelly’s Heroes)…intimating a gig as “a gopher or schlepper, they’re now called production assistant,” would be waiting. “So, I told my mother I had the job, which wasn’t really true, and took all the money I had in the world, which was $800, and I bought myself a ticket. Eight-hundred bucks in those days got you to London from L.A.” What came next no one could plan.

I was so ignorant I thought, Well, Europe’s small. How far can Belgrade be from London? And I got to London and found out. It took me almost 10 days to get to Belgrade. I hitchhiked…that was a saga. Anyway, I got there just as the production arrived. It was an international production…a huge World War II picture with Clint Eastwood and Donald Sutherland. I was very lucky it was so chaotic because I ended up really getting quite a big job eventually. The director, Brian Hutton, was very kind to me and I ended up working on the first unit.

“It was an amazing time for me. I turned 19 on that show and I wrote American Werewolf in London while I was there.”

Nine months overseas duty on one film evolved into a few years in Europe working on a slew of international pics as everything from P.A. to actor to stunt man. As he often says, “I’ve done every job there is to do on a movie set except hairdressing.” For this drop-out, it was a priceless education no film school could offer.

“It was 1969-70 — the Spaghetti Western boom. I worked and lived in Almeria (Spain) for over a year and I worked on, gosh, I’m not exaggerating if I say 75 to 100 films. Mostly Italian, but a lot of German, French, Spanish and American. I did that and then came back to the United States and made my first film, Schlock. It cost $60,000. Thirty thousand of it was all the money I’d made in Europe and the other thirty I raised from relatives and friends.”

His second project as director, Kentucky Fried Movie, got him more attention. He was originally hired by Universal to supervise a rewrite of the Animal House script crafted by Doug Kenney, Chris Miller (National Lampoon Magazine) and Harold Ramis (Second City). “Animal House was a terrific screenplay” but “it had been in gestation for awhile” because, as Landis said, “it was kind of obnoxious. It was really, really funny but it was also misogynous, it was racist, it was very much like fraternities in 1962,” when the story’s set.” In the process of revision, some things were softened and humanized.

“I told the writers, ‘Look, we have to have people we root for. Everyone in the movie can’t be a pig. We have to have clear cut heroes and villains,’” Landis said. “So, the Deltas became the good guys and the Omegas and Dean Wormer the bad guys. It was just basically structural stuff. But the screenplay was very much the work of Doug, Chris and Harold, all of whom were in college in 1962, in fraternities, at three different schools. I’ve heard a lot of colleges and fraternities claim ownership (of the movie), but the truth is Chris Miller was in college at Dartmouth and his fraternity is what Animal House is based on.”

When the script was approved Landis was hired to direct it. He was only 27. “It’s quite something they hired me to do it because, you know, I’d only made Schlockand Kentucky Fried Movie. It was my first studio film,” he said. Going from page to screen proved a battle as the studio balked at the character actors and newcomers, many stage-trained, he assembled. Some parts were written with people in mind. Bluto was always meant for Belushi, whom Landis liked. Otter was to be Chevy Chase but Landis just didn’t see him in the part. D-Day was crafted for Dan Aykroyd, but he couldn’t get out of Saturday Night Live. Landis courtedDragnet’s Jack Webb for Dean Wormer before casting John Vernon, “the only one who had confidence from the very beginning we were going to be a hit.”





“I really felt strongly it would be best to have people you would accept as the character than famous actors who, no matter what they play, are still that actor. I said to the casting director, ‘I want to see every talented young actor there is.’ So we went to New York,” said Landis, who filled out his cast with Broadway, off-Broadway, and L.A. talent “I was hiring actors and they (studio execs) wanted me to hire comedians.” Finally, he said, Universal laid down an ultimatum: “‘If you don’t have a movie star, then forget it — we’re not making the movie.’ The only movie star I knew personally who I could actually say was my friend was Donald Sutherland. He was a big star at that point. I called him and said, ‘Don, can you do me this huge favor?’ ‘What’s that?’ ‘Be in my movie for a day or two.’ And so he did. Doug Kenney wrote the part of Professor Jennings and Donald did a day-and-a-half’s work and that’s how they finally green-lit the picture.”

To instill frat loyalties-rivalries, Landis brought the Deltas to the Eugene, Oregon set a week before shooting. “They bonded…to the point, I’ll never forget, when the Omegas came into the dining room where we were eating I said, ‘Oh, look, those are the Omegas,’ and the entire Delta table starting throwing food,” he said.

Making the movie, he said, “was a very positive experience. We were left totally alone up in Oregon. We were very unimportant to Universal.” So far down the food chain the Chapman crane used to shoot day one of the parade scene was gone day two. The studio sent it back to L.A. for use on the TV series The Incredible Hulk.

He said the freedom he enjoyed on the film mirrored the carte blanch other young directors found in the ‘70s, when the beleaguered studios put their trust in “the long hairs and beards” to rescue them. “If you look at the movies made then, they’re quite remarkable, especially compared to the crap they’re making today. It had a lot to do with respect for the filmmaker.”

He’s fond of the movie for its impact. It spawned imitations. It launched careers. It revived the college Greek system. It introduced phrases like “double secret probation” into the American lexicon. Belushi’s scene-stealing bits boosted Saturday Night Live’s ratings. One downside, Landis said, was getting typed as a comedy director. “I don’t think of myself as a comedy director.” He followed it with a string of hits. “It allowed me to make The Blues Brothers and An American Werewolf in London and all kinds of movies that would never have gotten financed otherwise,” he said. Besides features, he scored as a music video director (ThrillerBlack and White) and television producer (Dream OnWeird ScienceSliders).

Then there’s the fact that for this high school drop-out, “Animal House is my college experience,” he said. He feels what he and others respond to in the film is the Deltas’ sweet, silly sense of “brotherhood” and rebellion that runs counter to the Omegas’ and Dean’s pomposity. “I don’t like exclusivity,” Landis said. Party on!

Does he ever wonder how a starry-eyed geek got to be such a big shot? “I know exactly how it happened — a lot of hard work and luck.”

Tickets to the May 19 Animal House event starring Landis are $15 and may be purchased at all Omaha Hy-Vee Supermarkets or at the door the night of the show. For more information call 850-1941.

Art for Art’s Sake: Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts

September 21, 2010 Leave a comment

Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, 12th & Lea...

Image via Wikipedia

This was one of three stories I did during my incredibly short-lived stint writing for Star City Blog ( The subject of this piece is an anchor institution in the cultural hub of Omaha, the Old Market, the former wholesale produce center that’s been preserved and its century-old warehouse buildings repurposed as galleries, shops, eateries, apartments, and condos. The Bemis is housed in one of those warehouses. The Bemis always seems ahead of the curve when it comes to the art scene, and after a few wandering years it has rebounded stronger than ever.  It’s a visionary place and in a very short article here I try to give a flavor for what makes it a dynamic space for artists and for visitors alike.  I would like to write a more in-depth piece about it, perhaps next year when it celebrates its 30th anniversary.

Art for Art’s Sake: Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally posted on Star City Blog (


At the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts in Omaha’s historic Old Market district, the phrase Artists Matter is reality, not slogan. Going on 30 years now, the Bemis has been Omaha’s conduit to the modern art world by nurturing exceptional global talent.

Its renowned International Artist Residency program brings diverse artists to live and work there each year. A busy exhibition schedule of 20-plus shows presents work across a wide range of media by visiting and local artists. Admission is free.

Progressive live music performances occur at the Bemis and its adjacent installation/work site, the Okada. Community art projects serve as catalysts for collaborations between artists and the public. Art talks promote artist-audience dialogues.

The Bemis Center is housed in the 19th century McCord-Brady building at 724 South 12th Street. The five-story, 110,000 square foot structure is among the Market’s many landmark red brick mercantile warehouses repurposed as a cultural facility.

The Bemis got its start in the nearby Bemis Bag Company building. Four artists formed the center in 1981, including internationally renowned ceramicist Jun Kaneko and Ree Schonlau, now Ree Kaneko.

The center’s hub is its coveted residency, which began as a summer artist-in-industry program. It was still a new concept then. By the mid-‘80s, the Bemis operated year-round. The last two decades has seen an “explosion” in artist colonies nationally, said Bemis executive director Mark Masuoka.



From then till now, the center’s hosted nearly 700 artists from 34 countries. At any given time six to eight artist fellows are in residence, each with a spacious live-work loft. Artists, who receive a $750 a month stipend, plus supplies, stay from a month to three months. New fellows as of August include painter Myung-Jin Song from Seoul, South Korea, photographer Cybele Lyle of Oakland, Calif. and interdisciplinary artist Michael Beitz from Buffalo. They joined artists from Florida and Philadelphia.

Former fellows who’ve made Omaha home include Christina Narwicz, Littleton Alston, Terry Rosenberg, Jim Hendrickson. Steve Joy, Therman Statom and Claudia Alvarez.

Masuoka said interest in the program keeps rising, with 1,000 applications for 24 available spots each year. The Honolulu native said a planned expansion will accommodate additional artists. He goes back with the Bemis to the ‘80s, as a Jun Kaneko assistant and artist-in-residence. That history, plus art management stints in Las Vegas and Denver, gives him a perspective on what makes the Bemis special.

“The Bemis continues to amaze me as an organization, not just because of what we’ve been able to accomplish but because we’ve stayed true to our mission,” he said. “The more we grow and mature as an organization what becomes evident is that we really understand what artists need and provide support for that activity.”

He said the Bemis is rare in granting artists the freedom to create or research or just be.

“It comes from our having been founded by artists. Because of that, we really understand what artists need and we’re prepared and willing to do whatever it takes as an organization to tell artists, yes,” said Masuoka. “I think many times in our society and within even the art field there are so many reasons not to pursue a project or not to support an individual artist. What we continue to strive for is to find ways to support artists. At the core of it is why the organization exists — to help artists realize or actualize their ideas. I think it makes Bemis unique not just in the country but in the world.”

Lincoln collector Robert Duncan is part of a star-studded board that includes the artist Christo.Residency program manager Heather Johnson said the Bemis provides “a gift to artists.” That includes the sanctuary of their second-floor live-work studios, usually off-limits to the public. “It’s meant to be a place for artists and their process. We don’t make any expectations or assumptions or judgments about their process and what that should look like or shouldn’t, so it’s very self-directed, and artists love us for that.”

“That gift of time and space we talk about is critical,” said Masuoka. “It advances careers, it advances ideas, and it sort of reinstills and reconfirms to artists that they’re important to our culture.”

Masuoka said the only requirements of fellows is to make a presentation and to donate a piece. Otherwise, the Bemis culture is hands-off.



Bemis curator Hesse McGraw, who’s worked at galleries in New York City and Kansas City, Mo., said, “What distinguishes the Bemis Center from other arts institutions is that what drives it is the activity of artists and the work they’re doing right now. We really try to think of it as a laboratory for artists. The residency program is focused on supporting an open process.”

McGraw, who curates shows in the center’s three main galleries, said, “The exhibition program tries to carry that sensibility through to the presentation of the work.” He said the Bemis encourages artists to do what they couldn’t do in a different context or setting. “We really try to find ways of supporting them, whether curatorially, logistically, financially, to build-out projects significant in their career and in their practice.”

All this creativity brings a dynamic energy to the space and to the community, challenging the status quo and thereby enriching viewers.

“It’s an expression of this attitude about finding new ways and having the ability to look at things differently,” Masouka said. “Artists see things differently, they look at possibilities other people don’t see, and through that you increase the imagination about what is possible. Programs like the Bemis Center support individual artists, nurture creativity, but also really showcase the value of what artists bring to our society.”

The Bemis is intentional in fostering artist-led discussion through events like its First Thursday ArtTalk lecture series and cutting-edge exhibitions.

“The exhibition program is an opportunity to have conversations and dialogue with the public about contemporary art and its relationship to anything in public life or the city or a myriad of social and cultural issues,” said McGraw.

The current Hopey Changey Things group show (through Sept. 4) is an ironic riff on American society as expressed in photographs, videos and installations. McGraw said pieces variously posit an apocalyptic vision for wiping the slate clean, an absurdist’s view of our current cultural moment and a radical pragmatism for reinventing places.

“I think things we’re particularly excited about now are artists working across disciplines and at some level of social engagement,” he said. “I feel like it empowers audiences to think about contemporary life.” Always, he said, the Bemis looks “at how can we utilize the projects to create a perpetual sense of surprise” within the “intensive introspection and ecstatic spectacle” of contemporary art.

A venue for doing that is the Bemis Underground, a subterranean but warm space connecting local and visiting artists with each other and with the community via exhibitions, talks, art trivia quizzes and even potluck suppers. “It sort of ties everything together,” said manager Brigitte McQueen. “It’s very welcoming down here. The openings have huge traffic.”

Together with the adjacent Kaneko – Open Space for Your Mind and nearby studios, galleries and theaters, the Bemis Center continues being a mainstay in the Old Market art scene.

The Bemis is open Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. For exhibition and event details or to schedule tours, visit or call 402-341-7130.

A Passion for Fashion: Omaha Fashion Week emerges as major cultural happening

September 21, 2010 3 comments

Karachi Fashion show

Image via Wikipedia

Omaha‘s emerging fashion scene just concluded its annual coming out party, Omaha Fashion Week.  This story was a preview that appeared in Metro Magazine (  Ironically, I’ve written extensively about Omaha Fashion Week without ever having attended it. I’ve interviewed most of the key players behind it, many of the designers featured in it, and I’ve viewed video excerpts from it, but I’ve never actually been there.  Not because I haven’t wanted to, but circumstances just haven’t afforded me the opportunity. Besides, I’ve never been invited by organizers, this despite helping build a brand for it through my work.  This year, I had expected to do some reporting on scene, but an assignment never materialized.  Maybe next year.  Everything I’ve learned about the event tells me that fashion is the next big thing to come out of the Omaha cultural stew pot that’s already nourished strong literary, theater, film, and music scenes.  To see more of my writing about Omaha fashion, check out my post titled, My Omaha Fashion Magazine Work.”  It features the articles I did for the new Omaha Fashion Magazine (


A Passion for Fashion: Omaha Fashion Week emerges as major cultural happening

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in Metro Magazine (


More than an event, the September 13-18 Omaha Fashion Week is a networking asset for the local design community. In only three years, OFW has become a cultural mainstay and hot ticket on the city’s burgeoning creative scene.

British transplant Nick Hudson‘s passion for Omaha’s entrepreneurial and creative class led him to co-found OFW and the Halo Institute, both of which grew out of his Nomad Lounge in the Old Market. As chic Nomad evolved into a performance art, exhibition, fashion forum and social networking site, Hudson realized the creative-entrepreneurial set needed support. He, along with Nomad marketing and events director Rachel Richards and photographer/designer Dale Heise, launched OFW to coalesce Omaha’s energetic but then unfocused fashion design culture.



Nick Hudson



Similarly, Hudson and Creighton University College of Business officials formed Halo to connect entrepreneurs with targeted resources, strategies and counsel.

Halo and Nomad, located in adjoining early 20th century buildings, are each incubators for young, entrepreneurial talent.

Fashion Week links designers with stylists, make-up artists, models, photographers and boutiques, parties who previously lacked a formal hook-up. OFW and its week-long September event bring this fashion forward community together in a nurturing environment that serves as a springboard for collaboration and opportunity.

There has been such a need for these designers, stylists, makeup artists, models to have a forum and I think Omaha Fashion Week provides that stage, that platform, that opportunity. It’s really filled a void,” said operations director Caroline Moore.

OFW’s small, indoor runway shows culminate in the grand, outdoor finale held in the urban canyon right outside Nomad.

Things began rather humbly. Hudson admits it was a struggle to find enough designers and models in year one. “We didn’t really get the word out very well. We sort of scraped it together. We couldn’t really get many sponsors. I just sort of wrote a check for the whole thing. We begged and borrowed equipment to make it happen on a budget the best we could.” Makeshift or not, he said the final product “looked really impressive. It was one of those magical things when you tap into something and it’s better than what you ever imagined.”

Last year saw everything double, in terms of budget, designers, models, volunteers and attendees. The scale has increased again in year three, with 37 designers slated to show collections, hundreds of models signed up to sashay down catwalks and upwards of 6,000 to 7,000 viewers expected to turn out the entire week. The weeknight runway shows are expanded and the weekend runway finale is primed to be bigger and glitzier than ever.

”We have been blessed with an overwhelming amount of talent this year, said Richards, OFW event director. “From designers to models to sponsors to hairstylists to spectators, all of Omaha wants to be a part of this premiere event.”

“It’s definitely grown in scale, and the opportunities have been broadened for those who are participating,” said Moore. “There’s a lot of people excited about this momentum happening and wanting to get on board, even as volunteers, and that is just wonderful. We need all of those people on board to grow the event.” Moore said the breadth and depth of designer lines has increased: “There’s everything from extreme and unique couture-type pieces to marketable off-the-rack items.”

Richards broke fashion week down by the numbers: “Each night fashionistas and their friends can view between three to five designers Monday through Friday with a fundraiser for the Women’s Fund of Greater Omaha on Thursday. Local artists will be donating their time and talent to our Jane Doe project. Eight life size mannequins will be painted, sculpted, et cetera, and be on display throughout the entire week in Fifth Avenue-inspired windows designed by interior designer and vintage expert Melanie Gillis.”



Rachel Richards



Weeknight runway showsstart at 8pm. A cocktail reception precedes each show. Following the September 16th show, a DJ-hosted dance party is set for 10 p.m. at Nomad. Tickets are $5 at the door.

All of it is prelude to the September 18th bash.

The runway finalewill be taking place between 9th and 11th and Jones Street on Saturday night,” said Richards. “The runway will grow from 130 to 260 feet with 75 VIP tables surrounding the catwalk. Over 150 models will walk the 260-foot runway as an expected audience of 5,000-plus watch the 15 designers’ designs pass before them.”

VIP ticket holdersare invited to an exclusive pre-party inside Nomad from 6 to 7:45 p.m. The big show kicks off outdoors at 8. A VIP ticket also nets red carpet access, front row seating, valet parking and a swag bag. VIP tickets start at $100. Reserved tickets are $40 and general admission $20. “We wanted to make it even more VIP and glam for these guests,” said Richards.

Moore said a local vendor area will be new this year. Organizing it all is a year-long process. But OFW is about more than a single week. It’s an ongoing initiative to support and highlight the design scene.

What I see happening is Omaha Fashion Week becoming a voice and an expert in the Omaha community for fashion and a facilitator for fashion design and creative conversation in Omaha,” said Moore. “It’s also a way for designers to have a very low risk, high return opportunity to showcase their collections. Most fashion weeks charge designers to participate, but this is an open, no-cost opportunity.”

In line with its missionas what Moore calls “a relevant, go-to source for fashion information,” OFW has a year-round presence via: the social media it’s plugged into; a new publication on the local fashion scene; and a series of breakout events.

There’s a lot of social media buzz, certainly,” said Moore. “People follow us on Facebook and Twitter. We get e-mails. Lately, people moving to Omaha have been contacting us saying they want to get involved.”

Designer Eliana Smith is a fresh new face in Omaha, by way of Salt Lake City, Utah and Argentina, who will show her fall collection during the September 16th runway show. She’s impressed with the support OFW provides.

“What an amazing programthis is that a designer can get so much help,” Smith said. “That is so rare. It’s like having a best friend holding your hand and helping you out. It really gives opportunity to new and upcoming talent, so what a great place to start out as a designer. They’re there for you, helping every step of the way. If you need photographers or models, they’re like, ‘We’re on it.’ What a treasure it is to have that.”

Native Omahan Emma Erickson is coming back to show her line for the runway finale. The Academy of Art University in San Francisco graduate will present her work mere days after showing her school’s textile collaboration at New York Fashion Week. Until now, Erickson said, Omaha hasn’t had much of a fashion scene, but OFW “is a really big opportunity for young designers who need some nourishment or feedback. It’s a huge thing, and it’s free.”

New this year are workshops leading up to Fashion Week. Presenters include experienced designers and entrepreneurs sharing tips with emerging designers on how to develop and market their brand and grow their business. Another new segue to Fashion Week is Vogue’s September 10 Fashions Night Out, a celebration of local-national design trends at select boutiques. The night culminates at Nomad with the unveiling of Metro Magazine’s Faces Model competition winner and the new website.

The winner of OFW’s new Idol with Style competition will perform at intermission of the runway finale. Moore anticipates there will ultimately be an annual spring and fall fashion week. OFW held its first spring (preview) in March.

As a new vehicle to promote local fashion, OFW debuted Omaha Fashion Magazine over the summer. The free publication is distributed to metro salons, boutiques, specialty stores. The next issue is due out in March.

It’s all added momentum for what Hudson calls “the biggest Midwest fashion event by a sizable margin. The community should be proud of that. We’re really committed to keep growing Fashion Week, keep making it more professional, keep making it a better event.”

Kent Bellows: Soul in Motion

September 21, 2010 2 comments

The instruments of an artist

Image by sara.musico via Flickr

Opening this weekend at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha is a major exhibition of work by the late master American realist artist Kent Bellows, whose exacting drawings so deeply penetrate their subjects that they move beyond the documentation afforded by photography to capture another level of expressiveness. My rather short story for Metro Magazine ( isn’t so much about his art as it is about the pains that went into organizing the exhibition, the largest single showing of his work ever assembled.  The Bellows name may be new to you, but once you see his work you will recognize his genius and if you do any reading or research about the artist you will soon discover that he was widely respected in the art world.  His work almost literally sold right off his easel, which meant it ended up in the hands of dozens of collectors all over country, even all over the world, a prime reason why it took some doing to get together a representative selection of his work for the show.

To view his work and to learn more about this artist, visit  I will be posting other stories related to Bellows, including stories about the Kent Bellows Studio and Center for Visual Arts ( that his family and friends launched in his honor.





Kent Bellows:  Soul in Motion

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in Metro Magazine (


When American realist artist Kent Bellows died in 2005, friends and family wanted his legacy to achieve wider recognition through a major exhibition and catalogue.

Born in Blair, Neb., Bellows made Omaha his residence and artistic home. He remained here even though his work sold well through such New York galleries as Forum and his pieces were acquired by such prestigious bodies as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Art Institute of Chicago. Only 56 at the time of his death, the prolific artist created a body of work that proved daunting to index. Start with the fact he left behind shoddy records. Galleries representing him keep equally sparse files. Most Bellows work is in closely-held, rarely seen private collections scattered about the U.S.

A five-year journey to locate, document and catalog the work is resulting in the largest Bellows exhibition to date. Opening September 25 at Joslyn Art Museum, Beyond Realism, The Works of Kent Bellows 1970-2005, will feature more than 70 of his precisely rendered, emotionally penetrating paintings, drawings and prints.  The pieces are drawn from some 25 collections. The exhibit continues through January 16, 2011.

A companion catalogue reproduces the exhibit works, plus many others. The show and book offer an unprecedented look at the Bellows oeuvre. “Nobody has ever seen that many pieces of Kent’s brought together at one time,” said Debra Wesselmann, a sister. Another sister, Robin Griess, described the scope of it all as mind-boggling. “You look at his body of work,” she said, “and it’s like many lives of art. Just so many blood-sweat-and-tears pieces, so meticulously done, so passionately done. And you think, How did this guy do it? Obviously he had to dedicate great periods of time to his work.”

Archiving it all led to many discoveries, including some remarkable things we didn’t even know existed — studies and things he did for people, said Griess. “It’s a little like hunting for treasure.” The two sisters have led this painstaking, time-intensive process. In many cases a piece’s title, date or medium varied from artist to gallery to collector. Crosschecking and verifying details is the only way to ensure accuracy.

“We feel a heavy responsibility for getting it right,” said Griess, who knows the data will guide future art historians. “We tried to do it as carefully as possible.” It meant adhering to strict procedures and collaborating with curators, gallery owners, collectors and friends of Bellows. In the end, she said, “we feel good about what we’ve done.”

Exhibit guest curator and catalogue editor, Molly Hutton of Buffalo, New York, said in an e-mail she believes the projects “will serve to establish Bellows as a key figure within the history of realist practice in this country,” adding, “He was on the verge of such recognition at the time of his death, so this in-depth presentation of his work should only fuel interest in the further study of his artmaking.”

“We’re absolutely thrilled to get it (the work) out there to the public,” said Griess. “It’s work that’s awe-inspiring. You want to take it in and see it again. They’re like pieces of literature, you can get so much from it. One of the most thrilling things for us is that this community will be seeing a lot of Kent’s work for the first time and they will be amazed that an artist of his ability lived right here in their own backyard.”

The goal of bringing Bellows more into the mainstream of public consciousness is being realized with a confluence of events this fall. Coinciding with the exhibit will be the grand opening of the Kent Bellows Studio and Center for Visual Arts. This combination mentoring project, studio space and gallery is housed in the nearly century old brick “Mahler” building, 3303 Leavenworth St., where the artist lived and worked the last several years of his life.

Upon the artist’s passing, family and friends formed the Kent Bellows Foundation, which soon launched the Bellows Studio-Center, an immersion space where young people passionate to make a life in art are mentored by professional artists. Its mantra, “igniting the creative spark,” is a homage to the influence Bellows had as a mentor to emerging artists.

Omaha native and Bellows Foundation board member Peter Buffett credits Bellows with encouraging his music. Photographer Patrick Drickey, a classmate of Bellows at Burke High, said, “Kent was my friend and counselor. He inspired me to achieve success in my field by teaching me the language of the visual arts — composition and light. Elements of what I learned from him remain as the cornerstone of my work today.” Drickey photographed most of Bellows’ work from 1970 on. Since 2008 renovations to the old Bellows studio have been underway.

Meanwhile, the mentoring project has operated out of the Bemis Underground, an apt place given that Bellows did a residency at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts. Students and mentors will move into “The Bellows” in time for its official opening. Parts of his old studio are intact, including his main work space on the ground floor and elaborate sets he built into the walls on the second floor.

Executive director Anne Meysenburg said visitors to the center can glimpse artifacts of Bellows’ inner world during the exhibit’s run: “We will be open every Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., during the month of October with the intention that people can attend Beyond Realism at Joslyn and then come over to see the work-and-live space of the artist.” The center plans a formal ribbon-cutting ceremony, a community open house and a celebration for friends and stakeholders.

“The goal is to get as many people in the building as possible to witness the entire legacy of creative process that has been facilitated on Leavenworth,” said Meysenburg. “Kent left an amazing legacy we get to live and breath every day. His talent and desire to help other artists develop brought us to where we are. We are truly excited to share his talent and desire to mentor with the community. ”

Griess feels the center and exhibit will complement each other: “How many times do you get the opportunity to see an artist’s work and then to go right over to see where he completed that work, where he lived his dreams out, and where he was inspired?” The Joslyn plans classes and workshops on Bellows, his artwork and techniques.

Anything that fleshes out the Bellows story is welcomed by Hutton, whose interest in the artist began in 2004. “It has been incredibly gratifying and illuminating to have the opportunity to meet so many of Bellows’ close friends and family members and collectors of his works,” she said. “I’ve gained new insight into his rigorous working methods and routines, his feelings about being an artist in a competitive contemporary art market, his utter devotion to his family…and place, which kept him in Omaha instead of migrating to New York, as his gallery would have liked.”

All of it informs her catalogue essay and any future writing she does about Bellows. “I’ve come to appreciate how beloved he was in his community and what an infectious personality he possessed, a situation that necessitated he become more reclusive as his career surged, so that he could have the time to work.”

Joslyn Deputy Director of Collections and Programs Anne El-Omami said, “The museum has been astounded by the response from collectors of Kent’s work. Not only did they collect Bellows, but they were great friends of his, and are all committed to ensuring the legacy of this extraordinary artist. Everybody is so passionate, it’s just incredible.”

Hutton says the exhibit and catalogue “should definitely help disseminate the works to a broader audience.” The Bellows bandwagon may just be starting. Plans call for a comprehensive catalogue raisonne featuring the entirety of his life work and a traveling exhibition.

Exposed: Gail Levin and Steve Brodner prick the body politic

September 20, 2010 Leave a comment

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This is one of several stories I’ve written about documentary filmmaker Gail Levin, and I’m quite sure it will not be the last. As the piece infers she has a facile quality that allows her to do many different kinds of film work, including the hybrid form she hit upon for her collaboration with political cartoonist Steve Brodner.  My piece for The Reader ( appeared during the 2008 presidential campaign, which was the fodder for Levin and Brodner’s project called The Naked Campaign.  Their work attracted a fair amount of attention, though I don’t think it quite got the play Levin had hoped it would net.  The two were still collaborating until recently, this time for occasional bits they doidfor the PBS series Need to Know, which has the dubious distinction of replacing the irreplaceable Bill Moyers Journal.  I didn’t see all of the installments in Naked Campaign, but I saw most of them and I must say they were highly entertaining micro-documentaries/political cartoons/reports.  I did not see their work for Need to Know. I meant to catch it some night, but Levin and Brodner have since dissolved their creative partnership and their segment is no longer part of the show. The last time I spoke with Levin, she was crashing to complete a new American Masters doc – a profile of actor Jeff Bridges. The film premiered on PBS earlier this year and it was quite good.  The story I wrote about the project – “Long Live the Dude” –  can be found on this blog.  I had hoped to interview Bridges for the piece but that was never really in the cards. Gail gave me a good interview though.  I look forward to whatever her next project is.

Exposed: Gail Levin and Steve Brodner prick the body politic

©by Leo Adam Biga

Author of Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film

Originally appeared in The Reader (


A pair of New York artists, filmmaker Gail Levin and political illustrator and art journalist Steve Brodner, are making the 2008 presidential race both the subject and the laboratory of their The Naked Campaign.

Appearing on The New Yorker Web site since last December, Naked combines the work of Levin, an Omaha native and seven-time Emmy-award winning filmmaker, with the art of Brodner — an acclaimed satirist in pencil, pen, brush and word. Melding film with caricature is not new but consider that Naked then adds the animation of Asterisk studio, along with media images, sound bites and eclectic music tracks. It’s all fodder and counterpoint for Brodner’s brand of irony. The eclectic content is a moving canvas for both his visual art and his verbal commentary, whose pithy, breezy observations are at least as sharp as his barbed illustrations.

Levin believes she and Brodner are innovators with Naked, a cross-platformed, animated, op-ed, multi-media series whose “films” are now on, YouTube, xml and will soon appear as run-of-schedule interstitials on cable TV’s the Sundance Channel. Naked has international distribution via The New York Times Syndicate. Galleries and museums are showing the work. She’s also piecing together a feature documentary based on the series.

“I think we have created a new genre here with extraordinary breadth and range and something very unique in its take and its scope,” Levin said. “This is not only political content, it is equally about ways of seeing — how art informs opinion. In fact, I am calling this Op-Art.”

New enough at least that the project’s been a tough sell to traditional media, although some outlets that passed before, like PBS’s POV series, are interested again, she said, after “the phenomenal reception” to Naked on the Web.

The fluid nature of an unwieldy national campaign with in-flux headlines, stories and sidebars poses unlimited opportunities and problems for those covering it. A new Naked piece — there are 24 and counting now — is posted every couple weeks in an attempt to stay current and respond to developing narratives.

“Its fluidity is both its great strength and its great challenge,” Levin said. “It is very daunting to find our way through some of this and keep these little pieces both reflective and a bit prescient at the same time. One wants to be able not to feel dated, and yet this stuff is dated within milliseconds. Still, though, it is my goal to keep this stuff feeling crisp and right on, even if the events have already begun to shift. There really is a sort of thru line and it is important to see it, and that is not in the day to day — the Obama victory here, the McCain race there. Rather it is finding the guts — keeping the soul of it all in focus that I like.”



Levin and Brodner intended going on the road to follow the slog through the primaries and caucuses, all the way through to the conventions. If Naked had taken that route, then Brodner and Levin would have practiced the kind of art journalism he’s done — from climbing Mt. Fuji to shadowing the Million Man March to covering eight presidential campaigns — that entails going out and coming back with stories.

Budgetary restrictions nixed that plan. So, other than attending a stray primary here and caucus (Iowa) there, and crashing a few photo ops (Obama at the Apollo Theatre), Naked’s creative team has largely monitored the campaign from afar.

No Boys on the Bus tour for this gang.

“We are definitely not on the bus, but that is great,” Levin said. “As fun as that can be it is also very insular. I think you get no distance and you can put no lens on the events. So I rather like this vantage point of ours.”

She said the individual films are stand-alone pieces informed by the entire “streaming” project. “Their present tenseness makes it a documentary which is a witness, not a pundit. We are kind of in a play-by-play mode. No conclusions, just moving decimal points.”

Naked’s not as subversive, say, as Robert Altman’s Tanner: ‘88, the quirky docudrama that inserted a fictional candidate into that election year’s actual ‘88 presidential scene. Clearly, Naked’s not drama. Neither is it straight documentary, nor even pseudo-doc in the way Michael Moore’s partisan films are.

As Levin herself said, “No, we are not exactly journalists and maybe not exactly documentarians either — though the documentary aspect of this will come.”

So, what roles do Levin-Brodner play? “Right now.” she said, “we are in a rather glorious position of our own — neither journalists, nor documentarians, but rather storytellers, animated documentary makers. Artists, I hope. Collagists. Improvisational yet deliberate. Something which is evolving as a whole new form outside the media apparatus but also commenting back on it.”

Brodner feels Naked qualifies as a kind of journalism.

“Anything you do that discusses current affairs can be called journalism,” he said. “George Will doesn’t have to leave his easy chair and he’s still considered a journalist just by sitting and puffing on his pipe and pontificating about things. So, this (Naked) all goes into the vast general description of journalism.”

Still, he said, Naked defies genre. “If you watch these films Gail makes for American Masters they’re about these people (James Dean, Marilyn Monroe) but not really about them, they’re about the art that they make. She really has this vision about the mechanics of art being a key into the lives of the artists or, in this case, the political life of the nation as we experience it. Or as it gets perceived under the surface of things. So this (Naked) is just kicking into her unique way of making film.”

For Brodner Naked’s just an extension of what he does in print, on blogs. “This is what I do, it’s what I always do, it’s no different,” he said.

His freelance work has graced the pages of The New Yorker, Esquire, Playboy, Sports Illustrated, The Village Voice, The Washington Post and many other publications. The Brooklyn native’s collected political work was published in the book Freedom Fries. Brodner’s no stranger to celluloid. He created an animated film, Davy Crockett. He also made a documentary short, September 2001, on the emotional aftermath of 9/11. He drew on camera for a Frontline documentary about the ‘96 presidential campaign. He and Levin met when she interviewed him for a piece she did on political cartooning, a lifelong interest of hers.

A winner of the Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism, his work is the subject of a new exhibition, Raw Nerve! The Political Art of Steve Brodner, at the Normal Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass. Some of his Naked work is on display in a video installation there

For Naked he transforms candidates into metaphorical representations based on the various ways they project themselves. That’s why he plays with the notion of tall, lanky orator-from-Illinois Barack Obama as Abraham Lincoln. But is he really Lincoln-like, he ponders. Or, as he suggests, is Obama an Adlai (Stevenson) with highfalutin ideas that don’t register? Or a neurotic intellectual, ala Woody Allen?





Brodner’s visual renderings and verbal takes, whether on Obama and McCain or the race writ large, are witty, inventive, dead-on interpretations that examine the subtext and context of these figures, their views, the issues, the parties, et all.

“This is Steve Brodner’s voice and it’s his voice very unedited,” Levis said. “I think he’s very eloquent and very smart. You don’t have to agree with him but he has great, brilliantly-conceived ideas. It’s amazing to watch his mind and hands work.”

Each topical piece is a few minutes in length and pictures Brodner doing his thing in a simple bare white studio, with a table and an easel set before him. He’s often shot over the shoulder, with his back to the camera, to capture him, almost in real-time, executing that episode’s sketches on greaseboard, paper, canvas. He caricatures over photographs in one and on an inflatable globe in another.

“What’s been most satisfying if not surprising is the range of our own method and the evolution and continuing refinement of our use of animation and commentary,” said Levin. “And we still haven’t begun to do a lot of what I hope to do.”

For example, she wants Brodner to paint on a glass plate and envisions him working on a blank museum wall before a live audience he interacts with like a street artist. “The continuing evolution is the thing,” she said.

As Brodner draws, inks or paints in Naked, he yaps about the topic in a running Bill Maheresque commentary, only smarter, with equal historical and pop culture references. “I love that you’re getting American civics-history filtered through this — without shoving it down your throat,” Levin said.

It seems less rehearsed agit-prop than off-the-cuff political banter. You know, the kind of give-and-take you engage in at the neighborhood coffeehouse or bar over the state of the nation or the character of McCain versus Obama.

“It’s the same thing, except I’m doing it with pictures,” Brodner said. “It’s just thinking about the campaign…being honest…being expressive about it. It’s just one voice expressing an opinion. I have no plan or expectation the art will accomplish anything other than just engage in one small part of the debate. We’re having a national conversation here.”

He said the remainder of the race is a referendum on who people trust is best suited to guide the country. Naked will be examining how the McCain-Palin, Obama-Biden tickets spin perception to their own advantage.

“That’s really the kind of dialogue we’re having here, over the next eight weeks especially,” he said. “People are going to be talking a lot about these topics and it’s wonderful. It’s so much better than the way it’s been where people have just not talked about politics, don’t pay attention, aren’t interested, aren’t listening, aren’t involved. We’re now involved.”

“I want to elevate this dialogue,” Levin said. “I want to contribute something to this dialogue.”





Brodner’s conversational style accentuates Naked’s in-the-moment sensibility, further heightened by the bleed-through ambient sounds Levin lets leak-in from the street outside. Sometimes you can hear her in the background, always off-camera, prompting him with a comment or question or responding to something he’s said.

In the throes of a sketch, the footage is slightly sped up, which combined with the artist POV, puts you right on top of his work in-the-making. The minimally-produced segments and hand-held camera techniques lend a sense of as-it’s-happening cinema verite intimacy, as if we’re peering in on the private Brodner at work.

He likes this artist-at-work aspect of Naked.

“I think that really brings people along — if they feel they’re watching something in the moment that it’s being created. That’s something most people don’t ever get to see. They just see the final product but they don’t see the person making it. I think everybody finds interesting how something gets made…the crafting of something by one’s hands.”

In the act of completing a portrait caricature all the puffery is stripped away to bare the candidate down to his or her essentials. Down to the naked truth.

“I think something big is revealed in watching the process,” Brodner said. “You see the creation and the act of creation together. It doesn’t bother you, in fact it excites you. I like things that show that the human being is there making this thing happen. At least slight little traces of humanity or maybe imperfection. Or just a sense that it’s art but it’s also a human product. It’s not this cut-off thing where you don’t see the brush strokes. Let’s see the brush strokes.”

There are also set-ups that have Brodner face the camera, obviously addressing the unseen Levin, and deliver op-eds, sans any art.

For “Straight Talk Eggs-Spress” Brodner inks Bush-McCain caricatures on eggs. The artist makes the case that no matter how much McCain tries distancing himself from Bush “he can’t separate his eggs” from George Ws’ on foreign policy. Brodner peels the eggs, places them in a bowl, then crumbles and mixes them to illustrate how the two “are sort of yoked together.” Brodner goes on to make an egg salad with ingredients symbolizing different political points. By the end, he’s left with a kind of Middle Eastern but thoroughly American concoction” that “you just keep spinning and beating into the ground.” The salad becomes an Obama spread that Brodner schmeers into a caricature that’s then animated to a sound bite of the senator intoning “we are hungry for change” over a crowd chanting “U.S.A.”.

Unlike Bill Maher, Brodner doesn’t settle so much for quips or punch-lines or argumentative rants, opting instead for interpretive riffs that take the measure of the candidates’ public faces in rich metaphorical bites.

In “Clash of the Titans” Brodner deals with the looming specters of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. The segment appeared before McCain emerged as the leading GOP candidate and prior to Clinton making nice with Obama. “We’re talking about big characters here,” Brodner says. “Larger than life figures. Reagan and Clinton are both that and it’s interesting in this campaign how both have kind of overshadowed the people who are actually running for office.”

Brodner morphs Clinton into King Kong, “a big, weighty, ponderous, powerful character” holding Hillary in one hand while stomping Obama underfoot. Clinton-Kong “comes on the scene and throws his weight around. He knows how dominant he is. Instead of being careful with it he seems almost happy to do damage,” opines Brodner. “It seems like a calculation that something was necessary to stop Obama and that good old-fashioned politics was the ticket. With Hillary in his grip he overshadows and overpowers the other Democratics…”

Clinton is “matched by Reagan, the big mythic character,” observes Brodner, who imagines the Great Communicator “as a dinosaur,” but one “Republicans can’t stop mentioning. And the weaker they seem to be the more they kind of just flap their arms and howl Reagan’s name out — as if an incantation. What we end up with is this mythic figure that has tremendous power over the Republican Party.”





After Hillary dropped 10 straight primaries, Brodner-Levin did “Lost at Sea,” which pictures the Clintons as the doomed couple from the movie Titanic, standing at the prow of the ship as it goes down, sunk by an iceberg in the guise of Obama. It’s the connections Brodner makes, first positing Hillary as John Paul Jones, then Admiral Nimitz, before her fateful Titanic encounter, that elevate his work.

Where Maher wears his liberal leanings on his sleeve, infusing his rails against the Right with self-congratulatory indignation, Brodner keeps his own personal political persuasions close to his vest, although he clearly loathes the Bush administration.

Still, he retains an even-handed approach in his bashing. Everyone and everything is fair game. As Naked’s producer-director, it’s ultimately Levin’s call that the series not be identified as either Left nor Right. It is, if anything, Centrist.

Brodner regards candidates “as characters in a novel or a movie or an opera. That’s the only way to think about them in my opinion because they’re not real people,” he said. “They’re characters they consciously create for us to consume, and that’s what the cartoonist draws — that character. We never see the real McCain or the real Obama. I learned this by covering campaigns and by watching these people on and off stage. The performer is the layered-over version, sort of the adopted persona. We’re really shocked and amazed when there’s an open mike and they say something completely uncharacteristic when the real person comes through.”

Beyond the posturing and masks, he said, “what’s most interesting is what they stand for. That’s what we need to be looking at.”

What makes he and Levin a good team? “This is such an equal partnership,” she said. “We listen to each other,” he said.

“I think part of it, too,” he added, “is we’re both in a real way very experienced commercial artists. We both have been able to support ourselves by finding ways to say what we want to say with our respective art while also pleasing some clients.”

Levin said the project’s lack of funding helps keep it independent and free of interference. She said as the series’ title puts it “this is the bare ass look at the campaign, plan and simple. Stripped down. We’re going to give you what we think here. We’re in nobody’s pocket. It’s not a spin. It’s not doctored.”

As the series’ opening tag line goes, “Uncle Sam says, watch your back.”

Only time will tell if her grand hopes for Naked Campaign, which she sees as the start of a whole new way of filmmaking, are realized.

“We think we are doing something quite extraordinary in terms of the sort of nexus of appointment viewing ala television and the expediency of the Internet. I am very determined that we will change the whole paradigm in terms of collaborations, production, platforming, multi-faceted filmmaking, et cetera.”

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