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

Political Caricature: 'Go Away, Little Man, an...

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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.”

A filming we will go: Gail Levin follows her passion

September 20, 2010 Leave a comment

Another of my articles about documentary filmmaker Gail Levin, this time taking more of an overview of her career.  If you’re a PBS television viewer then chances are you’ve seen at least one of her films on Great Performances or American Masters.  My profile of her originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader,com). I did a more recent piece on Levin for the same publication, this time having to do with an edgy collaboration she has with editorial cartoonist Steve Brodner.  Look for that story posted on this site as well. Gail and I recently lost a dear friend in Omaha, Ben Nachman, who devoted much of his life to collecting and preserving Jewish oral histories, including the recollections of Holocaust survivors. Look for some stories on this blog site about Ben and his work.  He led me to many survivors and rescuers, and a selection of those stories can be found on the site as well.  Rest in peace, Ben.

Gail’s most recent film to find wide viewing is her documentary profile of actor Jeff Bridges for American Masters. You can find my story “Long Live the Dude” about the project, The Dude Abides, on this blog.  She also has a recent film about Cab Calloway that hasn’t yet found a mass audience. Also on this blog you’ll find my stories about Gail and her Making the Misfits film, her James Dean: Sense Memories film, and her work with political cartoonist Steve Brodner.



Gail Levin



A filming we will go: Gail Levin follows her passion 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (


Reared in Nebraska, New York-based, Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Gail Levin captures an encyclopedic gallery of subjects that resonate with her eclectic life. She grew up the only daughter of “an erudite” Nebraska Jewish family with a string of retail clothing stores and a taste for the arts and humanities. Levin, a die-hard cineaste since seeing Fellini’s 8 1/2 at the Dundee Theater as a teen, followed the example of her aunts, including a pair of English teachers/published poets, and a noted psychologist who was a pioneer in aging research, to choose a field diverse enough to encompass her many passions and interests.

Her most recent work, James Dean: Sense Memories, premieres May 11 (8 p.m. CST) on the PBS American Masters series and takes an impressionistic look at the life imitating art aspects of the late actor’s short but event-filled life. The film comes in the 50th anniversary year of Dean’s death in 1955. It follows another Hollywood-related piece she did, Making the Misfits (2002), for that acclaimed series.

Until its recent demise, Levin was producing and directing small documentaries on artists for a new high-definition satellite television network called Voom.

The Omaha Central High School graduate earned an education degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and did grad work at Wheelock College in Boston. She enlisted kids in a Boston Head Start program in homemade photo-film projects borne of her curiosity about the era’s heady free cinema movement. She returned to school, this time at Boston University, for a mixed educational media and filmmaking doctorate.

An internship on a Boston WBZTV kids show led to an associate producer’s job that turned into a senior producer slot. In only a few years, she evolved into the kind of independent filmmaker she is today, where she goes from essaying a rite-of-passage on the open sea to sweating out a shoot in the scorching desert to recording candid conversations with famous figures from the worlds of sport, art, entertainment and academia.

Impassioned Projects
Twenty-five years into her career as a television producer-director and documentary filmmaker, Levin considers her work a calling despite the endless pitches she makes, the constant leads she pursues, the interminable lulls between projects and the inevitable production glitches that crop up.

“I’ve been so blessed. I have had a career that I love and that I hope is not going to end any time soon,” she said on an Omaha visit. “As hard as it is sometimes, I don’t even care. When you know the roller coaster, you know how to ride it, I guess. Besides, I don’t know how to do or like anything else. You know, you are lucky in this life if you get to do a couple of the things you really want to do, and I already have, so, I think I’m already ahead of the game. I’ve had hugely impassioned projects…and I’ve been able to see them go from the moment that little light went on in my head to the final edit.”

One of those dream projects came quite early in her career when, in 1980, she and   a small crew filmed a transatlantic voyage made by several young mariners aboard the Lindo, a 125-foot, three-masted, top-sail schooner built in Sweden in 1925. The ship left Boston harbor June 4, docking in Kristiansand, Norway 23 days later, where Levin filmed. Then the ship made out to the open sea for additional shooting before completing the return crossing in mid-July. She landed the Lindoassignment through her children’s programming work at Boston’s WBZ-TV. Her film charts the bonds that develop among a group of Boston-area youths initiated in the maritime traditions of old wooden sailing ships by a crew of seasoned sailors.





As soon as she heard about the prospect of this “across the ocean documentary,” she said, “I knew I wanted to do it. I couldn’t go fast enough.” It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity made possible by some unusual circumstances. The U.S. boycott of that summer’s Olympic Games in Moscow freed-up hours of programming that needed filling by then-NBC network affiliates such as WBZ. “I can’t imagine it would happen today,” she said. “That a television station or even a network would send a filmmaker and crew off for what was a fabulous several-week adventure. This is what you now go out in the world and try to pitch people to finance for you.”

Despite “hitting some particularly bad weather” and nursing a cameraman who “became very seasick right away,” the journey and resulting film, The Tall Ship Lindo, lived up to her high expectations. “I loved every minute of it.” The experience of being ensconced in tight quarters on an old sailing vessel, totally exposed to and buffeted by high seas was, she said, “quite extraordinary.” She added, “To this day I’m still friends with the people from that voyage.” Her most lasting impression is of being overwhelmed by the enormity of the ocean. “A 125-foot boat is not a very big boat and you don’t know that until you go across the ocean on it. It’s tiny. You are very aware from the very first second…that you are just a speck. You’re out there and you are so tiny and it is so big, and but for the grace of God…You have to be in awe of it.”

The Tall Ship Lindo won Emmys for outstanding cinematography and sound.

The Boston Years
By the early-’80s Levin moved to New York to work as a TV producer-director and by the middle of the decade formed her own production company, Levson, which she’s since renamed Inscape. During those first years as an independent filmmaker, her deep ties to Boston often led her back there for projects, including a few she counts among her finest achievements. One of these prized Boston projects is The Story of Red Auerbach, a 1985 film she made as a WHDH-TV special profiling the shrewd, crusty architect of the Boston Celtics NBA championship dynasty.

A lifelong sports fan, Levin knew the Celtics legacy and Auerbach’s anointed status in its mythology. When she sensed old-school Red was resistant to an upstart woman treading on his traditionally male turf, she sagely deferred to one of his trusted friends, Will McDonough, the late sportswriter, to handle interviewing the curmudgeonly coach and his players. “Red was very funny about me. I think he thought, Who’s this girl? She can’t do this. And my reaction to that was, Yes, I can, but I’m not going to try to shove this down your throat. So, Will did the bulk of the interviews because I thought Red wouldn’t talk to me the same way he would with Will. It didn’t have anything to do with how much I knew. I knew a lot. I make it my business to know what I’m supposed to know about these things. Well, it worked out great and Red ended up really trusting me. One of the great things of my life is to have met Red and to have done that documentary.”

Another Boston project she regards warmly is Harvard, A Video Portrait, a 1986 film made in conjunction with the 350th anniversary of the prestigious Ivy League school. “It’s just an amazing place. We started shooting in the reading (pre-exam) period, which meant I didn’t have one working classroom to shoot,” she said. “So, we made it the great academy. The great hall of learning. Everything quiet and beautiful and iconic, which it is.” Her on camera interview subjects included famed lawyer and legal educator Archibald Cox, Irish poet and Nobel Prize winner for literature Seamus Heaney and leading architect Moshe Safde.

Making the Misfits
Then came a dream project — Making the Misfits. This documentary about the celebrated and ill-fated 1961 feature The Misfits starring Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe takes the measure of one of cinema’s most exhaustively analyzed motion pictures, yet one about which a documentary had not been made until Levin’s. Shot on location in and around the Nevada desert, the film, written by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Arthur Miller and directed by that late great lion of American filmmaking, John Huston, became a cause celeb due to the legendary figures involved in its making, the personal dramas unfolding during and after the shoot and the constant presence of Magnum Photo Agency photographers documenting the entire production. Levin’s impressionistic film touches on it all.





Penned by Miller as a vehicle for his then wife Monroe, the story of troubled Western drifters refusing to be reined-in by encroaching civilization had nothing over the on-the-set intrigues playing out amongst the rarefied company of creative titans making The Misfits. Hounded by the press since their headline-making union a few years before, the unlikely match of the intellectual Miller and the bombshell Monroe was falling apart by the time the movie began. Monroe was at a personal and professional crossroads. Desperate to shed her sexpot image, she was finding studios and audiences less than eager to see her in a “serious” light. Already suffering from the emotional turmoil that defined her last years, she caused much disruption and many delays with her chronic tardiness, absences and blown lines.

The Misfits has long been overshadowed by the looming, larger-than-life legacies of the three Hollywood idols who starred in the project and died untimely deaths after its completion. Gable, the one-time King of Hollywood, suffered a massive heart attack only 11 days after shooting wrapped. Gable, who was 59, lost weight in preparation for his part as a lean, laconic horseman. Plus, he did his own rigorous stunts, including wrangling wild mustangs on location in the unforgiving Nevada desert. About a year later, Monroe, the then and forever reigning sex goddess, died at age 36 of an apparent drug overdose. Co-star Montgomery Clift, the romantic screen idol who made male sensitivity sexy, passed away at age 45 in 1966.

Long an admirer of the film, Levin got the idea for her documentary when she ran across a book detailing the making of the movie with images by Magnum photogs given complete access to the set. Aware of the rich, behind-the-scenes goings-on of the United Artists release, she immediately saw the potential for a signature the-making-of project. Besides funding, which soon fell into place, she needed to access Magnum’s superb photos, along with excerpts from the film itself, and to record new interviews with surviving principal cast and crew members.

When she began making inquiries about doing a documentary, she assumed she was too late — that surely someone already had something in the works — but much to her surprise and delight she found she was the first in on it. “That was auspicious somehow, because it felt like it was mine to do,” she said in an online PBS interview with writer Gia Kourlas. “I love the notion of being able to approach the creative process on several levels, including the points of view of these photographers. The Misfits is a great film that wasn’t received in that way, but I think it’s so extraordinarily modern and courageous.” She also secured rather quickly the releases needed from Magnum, United Artists, cast and crew. Even the indomitable Arthur Miller agreed to participate without much prodding.



American Masters creator Susan Lacy, actor Jeff Bridges, and Gail Levin



Framing the Image
A film and photography buff, Levin also liked the idea of looking at cinema through the lens of still imagemakers, whose approach she is influenced by.

“I just loved The Misfits,” she said. “And I just love still photography. It’s very influential in my thinking. I do like what a frame does. I would never say I’m involved in formally composing shots, but some part of me is. I am looking at things always in terms of how I can use a frame, how the frame fits with the next image…I’m very informed by it. I think you can see it all the way through my film.”

Levin prefers “portrait-type” shots. “I am not afraid of a talking head. I like a tight shot. I like faces. I want to see them. I believe you hear people better the closer in the camera is.” Tony Huston described to her how his father, The Misfits’ director John Huston, considered the human face “a landscape unto itself” and therefore something to be explored in detail. “And I shoot like that,” she said.

That’s why Levin was furious with herself when she got back to her editing suite and discovered a sequence in which she’d inexplicably filmed interviews with crew members from The Misfits in wide body shots instead of closeups. The seated subjects were paired off in the open desert and the interviews shot using two cameras. Levin was there the entire time, even eying a video feed, and so she can only assume she got so wrapped up in the content of the scenes she lost sight of how she wanted them composed. “I was absolutely stunned by how much I hated it and by how much I couldn’t bear the notion that this was my frame. This was not the way I wanted this to look. I don’t like commonness in anything and I felt like these were common, bad, sloppy documentary shots.”

That’s when inspiration became the mother of invention. “So, I was looking at these pictures when suddenly I lined them up on the editing screen and I saw how I could use the shots like images on a contact sheet.” And that’s just what she did with the footage, breaking up the frame to run streaming, parallel interviews side-by-side. “It was a very still photographic-inspired solution for me to then take those wide shots and make them work as two shots, one next to the other. It was the opposite of the intimate, beautiful portrait shots I prefer, but what it gave you was all the activity of the interaction of these people.”

Airing to good reviews on PBS’ Great Performances in 2003, Making the Misfits satisfied Levin’s intent “to not have it be another one of the zillions of movies about movies. I wanted to make it have some resonance and to mean something to somebody, and have it not be another, ugh, Marilyn Monroe saga.” Her film played on a continuous loop during the Joslyn Art Museum’s 2003 showing of the traveling exhibition, Magnum Cinema: Photograph from Fifty Years of Movie Making.

Artists and Other Projects
Although she loves the documentary form, she doesn’t consider herself strictly a documentarian. Some of her favorite work includes segments she made for A&E’sRevue series that variously featured conversations between artists or profiles on individual artists. She’s particularly enamored with the programs that paired artists for free-wheeling, unscripted discussions. “I did one after another with incredible people. Martin Scorsese and Stephen Frears. Tom Stoppard and Richard Dreyfuss. Francis Ford Coppola and John Singleton. Yo-Yo Ma and Bobby McFerrin. I just think this notion of giants talking to each other is a very interesting concept. And I actually think they speak to each other far differently than they speak to anyone who interviews them, no matter who you are. It’s just fascinating.” Other notables she’s profiled include Elizabeth Taylor, Cher, Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones’ Charlie Watts and filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci.

She’s revisited the creative landscape with her current film on James Dean. The hour-long Sense Memories examines the art imitating life aspects of the late actor

She’s now trying to secure backing for a couple documentary projects she’s eager to develop. One would explore the price and promise of life on the Great Plains and the other would reveal the real life affairs that inspired a famous author’s literary romances. As always, her excitement about these new subjects consumes her.

“When I discover something, it does fuel me. I love finding the connections and chasing them down. It’s not just about having a good idea. It’s having somehow or other the planets line up in exactly the right way…and when that happens, oh, that’s just…You have to be passionate about this stuff for that to happen.”

Forever Marilyn: Gail Levin’s new film frames the “Monroe doctrine”

September 20, 2010 2 comments

Cropped screenshot of Marilyn Monroe from the ...

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Marilyn Monroe has been the subject of countless articles, books, and films, and filmmaker Gail Levin, like so many other artists, has long been fascinated by the pop culture icon’s hold on us all these years. Levin made a documentary a few years ago about the Monroe mystique, examining still images of the actress as a way of taking stock of  how the starlet and a handful of photographers she posed for over and over again were complicit in creating the intoxicating sex symbol she epitomized then and continues to represent today.  I must say that even as a young boy I was completely taken by the Monroe package — her looks, her voice, her manner, her everything. For better or worse, I am still enthralled today. In fact, as I write these words a Marilyn poster hanging on my office wall fetchingly looms over me, her abundant bosom straining against the decolletage of a slinky evening dress, one strap having fallen down, and she lost in the reverie of anointing her porcelain skin with perfume.  Marilyn, sweet Marilyn, the embodiment of innocence and carnality that has universal appeal.  My story for The Reader ( about Levin’s film is unavoidably also about Marilyn, a subject I don’t mind revisiting again, although I do tire of all the prurient conspiracy theories swirling about her untimely death.  I think the truth is she died just as she lived – messily.

Forever Marilyn: Gail Levin’s new film frames the “Monroe doctrine”

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (


Filmmaker Gail Levin is at it again. Only a year after the Emmy Award-winning Omaha native’s documentary on James Dean premiered on PBS as part of the American Masters series, she has a new Masters film set to debut on July 19 that tackles another, larger screen legend — Marilyn Monroe.

Another Monroe treatise? That cynical reaction is precisely what the New York-based Levin, a Central High School graduate, hopes to overturn with her new documentary Marilyn Monroe: Still Life, premiering next Wednesday at 8 p.m on Nebraska Educational Television.

Instead of yet another biopic approach to this much revisited subject, Levin’s “gentle film” examines the persistence of Marilyn’s image in pop culture as filtered through the canon of still photographs taken of her, photos that largely account for the potency of her sex goddess status 44 years after her death.

Long intrigued by how MM and the photogs who shot her crafted an image with such currency as to cast a spell decades later, Levin committed to the film after hearing Marilyn would have turned 80 this year; reason enough to delve into the ageless Marilyn forever fixed in our collective consciousness. The filmmaker dealt once before with MM — for her 2003 doc Making the Misfits, which looks at the intrigue behind the 1961 Monroe feature vehicle The Misfits, penned by her then-husband playwright Arthur Miller.

On a recent Omaha visit to see family and friends, Levin spoke to the Jewish Press about her new project and the Monroe mystique that still beguiles us. She said MM is a much-referenced figure all these years later “not because of the movies” but “because of all the photographs” — photos the image makers and the icon used to their own ends.

“She made herself quite available to photographers and the list is just endless. We sort of picked a path through this huge archive of photographs,” said Levin. In addition to being “perhaps the most photographed woman of the 20th century,” there are MM-inspired books, articles, songs, videos, “and I was interested in what motivates all of that,” Levin said. “The masters part of this American Masters is as much these great photographers as it is her. It’s kind of book-ended by the great Eve Arnold and the great Arnold Newman. These are two giants of 20th century photography.”

Not just noted photographers contributed to her image. The film includes pics by Ben Ross, “whom none of us had ever heard of before,” Levin said. “He was one of these itinerant photographers from the 1950s and his photographs of her are stunning.” At least one of the artists whose images of MM are featured, Andre De Dienes, was also her lover. “He really knew her from the time she was probably about 20 to the time she died, and shot her all that time, and had a big romance with her,” Levin said. “There’s some very beautiful young stuff with her.”

There’s the ubiquitous Andy Warhol take on Marilyn in the film. Some images are quite familiar but others are new, at least to a general viewing audience and, Levin predicts, some images will even be new to Marilyn and photography aficionados.

Besides interviews with top photographers who helped shape MM’s image, Levin’s film features comments from Norman Mailer, Gloria Steinem and Hugh Hefner. There are even audio excerpts from the last interview Marilyn gave.

Levin said former Redbook editor Robert Stein provided a key insight into MM when he told her “she was an odd combination of innocence and guile.” As Levin has come to find, “I think a transcendent aspect with her is this real genuineness. I think she was completely approachable and accessible…You could be no one and talk to her and you could get into her bed. I think there’s something about her that is completely open, completely accepting. Burt Stern’s assistant was 22-years-old when Stern took photos of her and he said, ‘I was at the bottom of the totem pole and yet she was so kind to me and so sweet to me.’ And people say that across the board about her. Marilyn Monroe was not an imperious bitch. She was not a diva. That’s not who she was. She was a very real person. She was an Everywoman. She really was.”





The invention of her image did not happen by chance. Nor did she play a passive role in its creation. She owned her image and, if not the negatives, then what they conveyed. “This was very deliberate. This wasn’t an accident,” Levin said. “She got it and she had it and she made it and she knew it. She was not guileless because she was not stupid. She manufactured this image brilliantly. It was a calculated image, but with good heart, with good intent, with good will.”

Levin feels it’s wrong to apply a feminist prism in viewing Marilyn as a victim of misogyny or unenlightened ambition. “This was a guy’s woman. She liked guys. It was not against her will,” Levin said. “I don’t think she felt victimized at all. I think she exploited it in every way.”

The story of the famous calendar nudes she posed for as an unknown, later published in Playboy at the height of her stardom, reveal an MM in charge of her own image. “Hefner makes the remark that nude photos in those days could take you down. But when they came out she stood right up to it,” Levin said. “Her whole attitude toward it was, This is life. She wasn’t ashamed of any aspect of her body or her being.”

Ironically, Levin was forced to pixilate the nipples and other body parts in the wake of the Janet Jackson breast flash, even though, as Levin argues, the MM nudes are “not pornographic, they’re not slutty, they’re absolutely beautiful. They’ve been made ugly by other people.”

What transpired with the nudes, which made others rich while MM never got a residual dime over the $50 modeling fee, mirrored her life in the spotlight, Levin said. “I think people were rather cruel to her and I think she was hurt. But I also think she was defiant in the face of it. She was courageous. I think the soul of her was terribly resilient.”

Much of the film refers to the sessions that produced the images that still transfix us today, including The Seven Year Itch shoot. In these settings MM willingly gave herself over to the camera. She projected a playful woman-child persona, both real and acted, as she also asserted influence over what final images would see the light of day. Perhaps nothing else gave her such a sense of self-determination.





“You see that she loved it. It was her best relationship, really. It was really the place where she was most comfortable and had the most control,” Levin said. “She very much had control of her contact sheets. She would edit them. She was notorious for Xing out photos in red lipstick or marker. Eve Arnold says in the very beginning of the film, ‘This was her way of working and even though I was free to do what I wanted, she really controlled the image.’”

As Marilyn evolved from aspiring actress to star “she understood what it was she wanted” and she pursued specific photographers she knew “could do her justice,” Levin said, “and got herself in front of those people and, of course, those people wanted to photograph her. They considered her a great subject. It was the perfect metier” for a photographer-subject to play in.

A model must make love to the camera for the images to last. MM invested her photos with rarely seen rapture. “Eve Arnold comments there were a lot of four-letter words used to describe the way she seduced a camera. She loved to do it and she did it great,” Levin said. “Marilyn’s take, which I think is the critical take, is she just thought it was great to be thought of as sexual and beautiful. And why not? I think any woman would want to look like that for five minutes of her life.”

For Levin, one particular image encapsulates Monroe in all her complexity.

“We open the film with a dark room sequence in which we print a photograph of her,” Levin said. “It was taken by Roy Schatt during the time she was in the Actors Studio in New York. Her face is completely open. No makeup. You see that sort of Norma Jeane plainness, really. There’s some pictures of her, like this one, that when you look at them you think, Whatever gave her the idea she could pull this off? She’s OK. She has a cute, sweet face, but hers was not a remarkable face. At the same time you see right through that to the whole iconography of Marilyn Monroe. I chose this picture because I thought it emblematic of the whole of her being.”

Like any fine actress, and Levin ranks MM “a great comedienne,” she could summon her public persona on demand. As Levin tells it, “There’s a known story of her walking down a New York street incognito and saying to her friend, ‘Do you want to see her?’” Meaning Marilyn Monroe, superstar sex symbol. The shape shift only took a subtle change — to a more free, less uptight bearing. The power of it bemused and bothered her. “I think she lived in that schism.”

Taking on as familiar a figure as Monroe and all that “we bring to her” scared Levin. “It’s the hardest film I’ve ever made. This material has been so manipulated in so many ways. The challenge and the task is how do I take this and make this something you feel is completely fresh?” In the end, she feels she’s captured the essential Monroe. “We started out liking her and we ended up loving her. We tried not to take anything from her. She looks so beautiful in this film.”

Levin’s Marilyn will have multiple showings, along with her James Dean, the last two weeks of July. Check local NET1 and NET2 listings for dates/times.

With two movie icon subjects behind her, one might expect Levin to tackle another, but her next film may key off a documentary she worked on last fall. From Shtetl to Swing deals with the great migration of Jews from Russia and Eastern Europe to America and their development, with African-Americans, of the music style known as swing. Slated for Great Performances, the film was delivered in less than airable condition, causing series officials to call in Levin to do some “doctoring.” Her work helped the film get “the highest ratings in New York in years for a Great Performances. One of the things I’m planning on next is something similar to that, but on Latin music and how it’s transmorgified into the culture.”

American Masters is produced for PBS by Thirteen/WNET New York. Susan Lacy is executive producer of the acclaimed series.

Gail Levin takes on American master James Dean

September 20, 2010 1 comment

Cropped screenshot of James Dean in the traile...

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My friend Gail Levin is a talented documentarian whose award-winning work covers many subjects, although she has a particular knack for portraying artists and creatives.  Many of her recent feature length documentaries have appeared on PBS and this story for The Reader (  is about one of those films, a look at the enigmatic James Dean, the brilliant Method actor whose bright flame was extinguished far too early. In part because of the resonant parts he played with such ferocity and in part because he did die so tragically young, he remains a symbol of youth angst and rebellion more than 50 years after his passing.  My story for The Reader ( explores both what Levin tried to capture and what Dean represented on screen.  I am posting other pieces about Levin and her work, including one on her documentary Marilyn (Monroe).  She profiled a latter day American rebel actor, Jeff Bridges, in a documentary for American Masters earlier this year. Bridges is one of my favorite actors, and I believe he’s every inch the artist Dean was but I must say that Dean had a spell-binding quality that only a few other actors possessed.  Marlon Brando was one.  Montgomery Clift was another.  Both born in my hometown of Omaha, by the way.

Gail Levin takes on American master James Dean

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (


James Dean.

Chameleon. Seducer. Seeker. Rebel. Artist. Icon. The embodiment of youthful angst and the preternaturally old soul in touch with the ages. The epitome of cool. A timeless presence. An original. Seething with curiosity. Sampling life’s diverse offerings. Always running, yearning, racing. Forever young and free.

He’s one of those select figures whose legacy transcends time and culture. In this 50th anniversary year of Dean’s death, it’s hard imagining anyone who doesn’t know of the actor and his story. His coming from a shattered family in rural Indiana to make his way out west, where he pursued the Hollywood dream. Studying acting. Landing bit parts in some good and some forgettable films. Then rashly taking off for New York, where things broke big for him on stage and in live television. Doing the Actor’s Studio thing. The buzz from his Broadway and TV work got the same L.A. suits who barely noticed him before to come courting.





There was the remarkable string of three starring films he made for Warners, each directed by a master, all within a span of 18 months. Then, on the verge of superstardom, he died September 30, 1955 in an auto crash on a remote stretch of California Route 466. Apropos of his free spirit image, he died in a sports car en route to compete in a race. He was 24. His legendary status ensured not so much by an early death as by the enduringly fine work he left behind and the sublime expression he gave to emblematic characters. Three coveted roles came his way. His animus perfectly suited each and he made them entirely his own. Was it coincidence or serendipity or something else?

The art imitating life aspects of Dean and his very real dedication to his craft are the subjects of a new American Masters documentary, James Dean: Sense Memories, premiering May 11 at 8 p.m. (CST) on PBS. Its creator, New York-based, Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Gail Levin (Making the Misfits), is an Omaha native and a longtime Dean admirer. In a recent conversation, the producer-director-writer said, “I loved making this film. It felt very true to me make this one.”

Dean is among many noted artists she’s profiled in her 30-plus-year career. With Sense Memories, the Central High graduate’s made an impressionistic film evocative of what made Dean the Beat poet among his acting generation and a style setter over the years. If only an interesting personality with killer good looks, his influence would have faded by now. If not an accomplished actor, his performances would be passe, his films dismissed. No, he’s still a vital presence and symbol because of a kind of genius — certainly, innovation —  for exuding truth.

Director Mark Rydell (On Golden Pond), once a struggling young actor with Dean in New York, says in the film, “It was so clear that he was a special person. Every moment that you spent with him you knew you were with an original. Strange and peculiar and arresting — you couldn’t take your eyes off him.”

Sense Memories is fixed in that time and place when Dean emerged on the scene, like Elvis, as a new breed of hep cat straining against convention. Actor Martin Landau, a crony of Dean’s in the ‘50s, describes how Dean personified post-war America’s existential modern man — “a different kind of animal…that represented unrest and dissatisfaction with the status quo.” In sketching Dean’s life to a John Faddis jazz score and a black and white (actually, desaturated color) visual motif, Levin’s made a mood piece eloquent of an age of anxiety and possibility and devoid of the cliche and gossip that can distort an icon as potent as Dean.

“There’s been a ton of stuff that’s been done, and a lot of it is very tawdry,” she said, “which is really never where I wanted to go with this film. I really wanted the point for this film to be that his art and life were so close. Because he was so raw, it allowed him to inhabit these characters and to live those feelings and yet to have that one degree of separation that maybe made it less painful somehow. Although I think he lived that pain in his life, too. And then there was his exceptional collaboration with three directors of enormous stature and his truly good work for them. I think that is…often overlooked in telling the Dean story.”

To flesh out the man behind the myth, Levin filmed reminiscences with intimates of his from those halcyon days of new ideas and spectacular talents. The title,Sense Memories, refers both to the enigmatic portrait painted of Dean by his friends’ burnished recollections and to the Method Acting technique Dean presumably employed to elicit his extraordinary range of emotions on screen.

“It’s Rashomon. It’s just people’s memories, and some of them jive with each other and some of them don’t,” she said. “It’s meant to be interpretive. It’s not meant to be in any way a chronology. It’s not meant to be a biography. It’s just meant to evoke him from the experiences and memories of people who really knew him.”

She said it’s no accident Dean surrounded himself with special people. “There’s this range of exceptional men and women he found as friends and soulmates, and they’re all quite exotic little flowers. They all achieved a level of greatness themselves. They were there when it was all happening. Great music. Great art. Great theater. They were all touched by it and were all in it with him.”

Levin cast, lit and shot her on-camera observers as though characters in a drama of Dean’s life, which in a sense they were. Shot against a stark white backdrop and at an extreme angle, the texture of their faces and the vividness of their personalities come out and create a stream-of-consciousness effect when juxtaposed with the Dean images. “I am not afraid of a talking head. I like a tight shot. I like faces. I want to see them. I believe you hear people better the closer in the camera is,” she said. Tony Huston described to her how his father, The Misfits director John Huston, considered the human face “a landscape unto itself” and therefore something to be explored in detail. “And I shoot like that,” she said.

As Levin’s film reveals, Dean embraced life the way a method actor tackles a role, living in the moment and shaping the rhythm of his external self to the driving riffs inside him. His circle of friends was eclectic, cutting across age, race, gender, sexual persuasion, occupation, et cetera. He became whatever the circumstance called for and sought whatever he thought was missing.

Entertainer Eartha Kitt recalls she and Dean hanging out with: “We’d sit on the street benches on Hollywood and Vine and watch the night people. ‘That’s where we get our characters,’ he said.” That close observation and deep curiosity is what great artists have in common. It’s what allowed Dean to submerge himself in character and imbue himself so fully in it that his work rung authentic and fresh, as if happening for the first time. A student of human behavior, he applied research and technique to his creative process and then let his instincts take over.

“He was becoming one of America’s greatest actors,” Kitt says. “He instinctively knew what to do with a character because his spirit was free. It was quite interesting the way he went about it — methodically and then unmethodically.”





Dean was a mass of contradictions who gave and took from others as he saw fit and this ability to be different things to different people is part of the appeal he holds for us as viewers. With Kazan and Ray, for example, he felt protected and appreciated. Given free rein and much nurturing, the acolyte went out on a limb for them. With Giant director George Stevens, however, he was a petulant pain-in-the-ass unhappily constrained and stymied by G.S.’s penchant for many takes.

Perhaps the dichotomy of Dean is best articulated by actress Lois Smith, who played opposite him in Eden and recalls “a sweet rustic person, but on the other hand there was this suspicious, taut, guarded young man — and both of them seemed always present and, of course, that’s a thrilling tension.”

Just as Dean projected the tension of his complex inner life, he was a mimic and sponge who drew on persons, events and places as studies for his art.

“He was very willing to put himself in the hands of people he trusted,” Levin said, “but that trust was hard won. As his friend, writer William Bast, says, ‘he was very needy’ and he knew what he needed. I think he was a very canny guy about all those things. I think he definitely was living on the edge because he was so hungry for experience. He was definitely trying to take of everything.”

Separated from his mother at age 9, when she died of cancer, and spurned by his father, he attached himself to older men like Kazan and Ray and he acted out the demons of his real loss and neglect in the characters he played.

In Eden, Dean was — as we hear the late Kazan say — the incarnation of Cal Trask’s “twisted boy. Twisted by the denial of love.” Following a hunch, Kazan knew Dean/Trask were in “search for love everywhere and in every way.” Landau said Dean “understood pain.” Cal’s search for his lost mother mirrors Dean’s own sense of maternal abandonment. Cal is also desperate to earn his cold, stern father’s love. Dean’s life resonated with similar longing. After his mother died, his father dropped out, not seeing him again until years later. In Rebel, Jim Stark craves a strong father figure in the same way Dean craved one, too. In Giant, Dean plays Jett Rink, the quintessential wildcatter that goes his own way. Similarly, Bast says Dean brandished “a completely independent attitude” toward work and life.

Ultimately, what makes Dean still fascinating is his ageless quality. “He is so timeless,” said Levin. “His androgyny is way ahead of its time because it’s so completely in its time right now. You look at him in those films and in every shot he looks totally modern. He’s the one in Rebel who looks completely timeless, while the rest of them look like children of the ‘50s. The same thing is true in Eden. Every single frame of him could have been taken yesterday. With his shabby yet seductive good looks, you might as well be looking at Brad Pitt or Colin Farrell. That great Times Square picture where he walks in the rain, cigarette in his mouth, and coat collar pulled up — my God, it just doesn’t get any better than that.”

That image has “influenced” Levin. “It’s a perfect picture to me. It’s everything black and white photography should do. It’s full of atmosphere and contrast, lights and darks and varying shades of gray, and then there’s THIS guy. It’s informed the look of my films. I tried capturing that era’s beautiful black and white photography in this film.” The man who made that image, famed Magnum shooter and Levin friend Dennis Stock, planted the seed for the Dean film when he told her: “‘It’s going to be the 50th anniversary, and we should do something.’ So, in a sense,” Levin said, “this project has completed a circle.”



Dean’s only the latest in a gallery of notables she’s documented: Martin Scorsese, Stephen Frears, Francis Ford Coppola, John Singleton, Bernardo Bertolucci, Tom Stoppard, Arthur Miller, Richard Dreyfuss, Elizabeth Taylor, Cher, Whoopi Goldberg, Joni Mitchell, Bobby McFerrin, Paul McCartney, Yo-Yo Ma, Franco Zeferelli, Red Auerbach. Besides American Masters, her work has appeared on PBS’s Great Performances, the A & E network and the satellite channel VOOM.

Her work reflects an eclectic background. She grew up the only daughter of “an erudite” Nebraska Jewish family with a string of retail clothing stores and a taste for the arts and humanities. Her extended family included a pair of English teachers/published poets and a psychologist pioneer in the field of aging. Levin earned an education degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and did grad work at Wheelock College in Boston. A die-hard cineast since seeing Fellini’s 8 1/2 at the Dundee Theater as a teen, she was inspired by the heady free cinema movement in the ‘60s to try her hand at filmmaking. She returned to school, this time at Boston University, for a mixed educational media and filmmaking doctorate.

A Boston WBZ-TV kids show internship led to an associate producer’s job that became a senior producer slot. She evolved into the independent filmmaker she is today, going from essaying a rite-of-passage on the open sea to sweating out a shoot in the scorching desert to recording candid conversations in hallowed halls with luminaries from the worlds of sport, art, entertainment and academia.

She considers her work a calling.

“I’ve been so blessed. I have had a career that I love and that I hope is not going to end any time soon,” she said. “As hard as it is sometimes, I don’t even care. When you know the roller coaster, you know how to ride it. Besides, I don’t know how to do anything else. You know, you are lucky in this life if you get to do a couple of the things you really want to do, and I already have, so, I think I’m already ahead of the game. I’ve had hugely impassioned projects…and I’ve been able to see them go from the moment that little light went on in my head to the final edit.”

Much like her artist subjects, she’s an intensely curious person.

“When I discover something, it does fuel me. I love finding the connections and chasing them down. It’s not just about having a good idea. It’s having somehow or other the planets line up in exactly the right way…and when that happens, oh, that’s just…You have to be passionate about this stuff for that to happen.”

One of her dream projects came quite early in her career when, in 1980, she and   a small crew filmed a transatlantic voyage made by several young mariners aboard the Lindo, a 125-foot, three-masted, top-sail schooner built in Sweden in 1925. The ship left Boston harbor June 4, docking in Kristiansand, Norway 23 days later, where Levin filmed. Then the ship made out to the open sea for additional shooting before completing the return crossing in mid-July.

Her film charts the bonds formed among a group of Boston-area youths initiated in the maritime traditions of old wooden sailing ships by a crew of seasoned sailors. As soon as she heard about the prospect of this “across the ocean documentary,” she said, “I knew I wanted to do it. I couldn’t go fast enough. I can’t imagine it would happen today. That a television station or even a network would send a filmmaker and crew off for what was a fabulous several-week adventure. This is what you now go out in the world and try to pitch people to finance for you.”

Despite “hitting some particularly bad weather” and nursing a cameraman who “became very seasick right away,” the journey and resulting film, The Tall Ship Lindo, proved satisfying. “I loved every minute of it.” Being ensconced in tight quarters on an old sailing vessel, totally exposed to and buffeted by high seas was, she said, “quite extraordinary. To this day I’m still friends with the people from that voyage.” Her most lasting impression is of being overwhelmed by the ocean’s enormity. “A 125-foot boat is not a very big boat and you don’t know that until you go across the ocean on it. It’s tiny. You are very aware from the very first second…that you are just a speck. You’re out there and you are so tiny and it is so big, and but for the grace of God…You have to be in awe of it.”

The Tall Ship Lindo won Emmys for outstanding cinematography and sound.

For Making the Misfits, her take on the remarkable confluence of talents (actors Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, Montgomery Clift, playwright Arthur Miller, director John Huston) that came together to shoot the 1961 classic film, The Misfits, Levin and her DP, Dewald Aukema, filmed in its Nevada locales. Her doc won a Cine Goden Eagle for and was included in the International Festival of Film in Montreal.

For Sense Memories, Levin and Aukema went to Marfa, Texas, where Giant was shot, and to that barren California spot where James Dean’s flaming life ended and his golden-hued legend began. Her film opens quietly there, with a gentle pan across the desert highway, lingering at the two-pump filling station that was his last stop. Desert and traffic noises rise. An engine revs. And then some jazz licks come in. It’s a haunting, muted elegy for a bright spirit dimmed too quickly, but still holding us entranced in its warm after-glow.

Sense Memories is a co-production of Thirteen/WNET’s (New York) American Masters and Warner Home Video. The acclaimed series is executive produced by Susan Lacy.

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