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Writer, wanderer, waitress: Author Colleen Reilly follows her father’s footsteps with her publishedbBooks

November 29, 2011 1 comment

The late Bob Reilly was a mentor of mine.  The former public relations-advertising executive taught journalism at the University of Nebraska at Omaha for several years.  He was a husband, father, and grandfather of a large Irish Catholic family.  He was a raconteur.  He was an encourager.  But most of all, he was a writer.  He published scores of articles and books.  One of his books, The Fighting Prince of Donegal, was optioned by Disney and made into a feature film whose script he helped write.  At least two of his children became writers, Hugh and Colleen, and here I profile the latter.  Colleen is, as the main title or headline, a writer, wanderer, and sometime waitress who, much like her father Bob did, lives a full life that somehow also leaves room for insatiable reading and writing.

Writer, wanderer, waitress: Author Colleen Reilly follows her father’s footsteps with her published books

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the City Weekly

 

Independence is something Colleen Reilly cherishes. Long marching to the beat of a distant drummer, this twice-married mother of two has chafed at conformity from the time she was a young woman, when she left behind the security of her large Irish Catholic family for a new life overseas.

A daughter of Omaha author and former UNO professor Robert Reilly, she’s followed in her father’s footsteps to become both a writer and teacher, but has also journeyed far afield from her family, faith and homeland. She first left the States in 1968 to attend college in Ireland, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in English literature and where she met her first husband. She returned to the U.S. only long enough to receive her master’s in English lit and give birth to her first child. Hungry to see more of the world and to make a fresh start for themselves, in 1973 she, then-husband Pat and son Declan moved lock-stock-and-barrel to New Zealand, which she called home for 20 years.

Down Under, she enjoyed her status as an American expatriate abroad. Hailing from a family of artists, actors, writers and attorneys, she forged a career as an American literature professor (at Victoria University of Wellington) before heeding her birthright and taking pen in hand. She wrote criticism for newspapers and eventually authored two novels and a book of short stories, all of which were published.

When home beckoned to her, she returned to America in 1994, resettling in the South with her second husband, Pearce, an over-the-road truck driver. Once here, she again chose an unconventional path by eschewing the comfortable life of an academic to work instead as a waitress and as a semi driver alongside her mate. “I don’t think Dad likes to hear this, but I am prouder of learning to drive a big truck than I am of my books or my degrees or anything else because it was so out of character and so far from my upbringing,” she said. “It was a huge challenge. I’ve heard so many women say, ‘I’ve always wanted to drive a truck.’ My mother is one of them. And I did it, and I’m so proud of that.”

 

Hunter Building, Victoria University of Wellington

Unlike teaching, which she enjoyed but felt shackled by, waiting tables and hauling freight have provided enough freedom for her to pursue her two passions — reading and writing. Then in 1998, spurred by a desire to be by her aging and ailing parents (Her father endured a quadruple bypass and her mother developed Alzheimer’s), this prodigal daughter finally came back to Omaha, where she and Pearce now live in “a cottage” of a house in Benson, mere blocks from where she grew up. While he continues driving an 18-wheeler, she writes at home during the day and waits tables at Trovato’s at night. As her agent searches for a publisher for her latest novel, Reilly’s sense of wanderlust keeps her dreaming of traveling to distant lands and of one day returning to New Zealand, where she and Pearce keep a home.

Reilly first felt the call to adventure at 17, when she went off to attend University College Dublin. The Emerald Isle is a special place for her Irish Catholic clan (She is one of 10 brothers and sisters.). Her father is a devotee of Irish literature and has written articles and books relating to various aspects of Irish heritage and lore. Colleen came to Ireland a “young naive American” and left a little older and wiser. It was 1968 and her mod apparel and liberal views were not accepted. Then there was the fallout from the Vietnam War.

“There was some holding me accountable.” Hardly an Ugly American, she was in fact an anti-war sympathizer. In between her studies, she tramped across the countryside. “Every holiday I had I’d go somewhere in Ireland. I don’t think there’s any corner of Ireland I haven’t seen. It’s a beautiful country. I miss it. I miss the talk. I don’t mean talking with people, but the eavesdropping talk of just sitting in a pub and just listening to these people’s amazing verbal facility.”

 

University College Dublin

 

 

 

She also made forays into London and Paris, but regrets not seeing more of Europe when she had the chance. She has since traveled with Pearce to Morocco, Belize and other far-flung spots.

Aside from her travels, her major exploration has been an intellectual one. From early childhood on, reading has consumed her. She did dabble in writing, even winning a national scholastic poetry contest at 16 while a student at Marian High School, but it was reading not writing that sustained her and that continues sustaining her. “Reading is my real passion,” she said. “I still think of myself more as a reader than a writer. I can’t imagine not reading. It’s my great joy. I probably read five novels a week. I’m a great haunter of the new book shelves in the library and of second-hand book stores. If I bought new all the books I read, we’d be bankrupt.” She estimates her book collection numbers in the thousands.

By her late teens she got hooked on Russian literature. Her experience in The Old Country introduced in her a love for the great Irish writers. Then, while working on her M.A. at UNO she steeped herself in American literature and discovered the book that continues to stir her most deeply — Herman Melville’s masterpiece Moby Dick. “I just fell in love with that book. I’ve probably read it now 18 times, both to teach it and just for pleasure.” For her, Melville’s epic yet intimate fiction delivers everything she seeks in a book.

“The ideas. The passion and the compassion. The way he gives us both Ishmael and Ahab, two extreme American types, and lets you choose and makes you realize there’s heroism in each. And also the poetry of his language. In this 600-page novel you can take a paragraph and see the alliteration there that you would normally ascribe to poetry, not fiction, especially not in a 600-page fiction. It’s everything. It’s the beauty of the language, the beauty of his exploration of the ideas. Everything.”

Upon completing her M.A. in landlocked Nebraska Reilly followed an Ishmael-like hankering to be by the sea again. She wanted to return to Ireland while her then husband, Pat Cox, wanted to stay in America. So, they compromised and headed with their infant son Declan for New Zealand, which owing to Cox’s English citizenship granted all three permanent residency with minimal red-tape. For their home, they chose the sea-side capitol, Wellington, and never looked back.

“It’s on the southern tip of the north island,” she said. “It’s a beautiful hilly city surrounded by the sea. People say it looks a lot like San Francisco.” The place still exerts a powerful pull on her. It’s where her second son, Eoin, was born and where both her boys, now adults, still live. It’s where her best friends reside. Where she blossomed as a writer. And where she met her second husband, Pearce Carey, a fellow reading enthusiast.

“I miss my kids so much. I only get back to see them once a year. I miss them. I miss my friends. I miss the sea. We still keep a home in New Zealand where we will one day retire to. I would like to be back there by the time I’m 55, which is three years from now. I definitely intend to live out my old age there. I love New Zealanders. I love their humor. Their humor, like Australian humor, is a great distance from tragedy. They have a great sense of irony and fun. There’s just none of the self-pity and none of the victim mentality and none of the get-even mentality we have.”

 

Words carry more than the usual import for Reilly, who early on felt the expectations of her writer-father to display a like appreciation for and prowess with language. The pressure to write, as much self-imposed as anything, weighed heavily on her.

“Being Dad’s daughter there was this desire to please him and a feeling I should write. That made it difficult for me,” she said. However, she long ago overcame any timidity about him reading her work and now routinely trusts him to give uncensored feedback. Unlike her father, who writes every day, she struggles maintaining even the semblance of a strict schedule. “I still don’t write regularly. I’m constantly beating myself up for that. I just don’t have that kind of discipline. I’ll sometimes go two years before writing anything or I’ll get two chapters into something and then not finish it. When I am writing it’s never for more than three hours at a time. I’ll find anything to keep me away from it.”

After winning that youth poetry contest at 16 Reilly did not write again, save for academic papers, until almost 31. She only resumed it in the fallout of a personal crisis. “I did have a nervous breakdown. By that I mean all the defenses that had worked no longer worked, so I had to make new ones.”

Although she said there was nothing specific to trigger the breakdown, she had been in “a passionless marriage” that ended in divorce and that left her with two young kids to raise alone. And that’s when she sought comfort in the one thing that had always given her solace — words. “I remember talking with my best friend, Margaret, in the middle of all my crying and this stuff you do and saying, ‘I have to write,’ and her saying, like a typical New Zealander, ‘Yeah, so why don’t you? What’s the big deal?’”  With such help, Reilly pulled herself together and got on with the business of living and writing. The fruits of her early work were a novella and several short stories, which were published in a collection of her short fiction.

Her short stories, along with the novels that followed, focus on loneliness and alienation, apt subjects for an introspective expatriate estranged from the religion she was raised in and separated so long from the family she grew up in.

“The theme of loneliness comes up again and again and again,” she said. “Different kinds of loneliness. Sometimes it’s a romantic loneliness. Sometimes it’s spiritual. Sometimes it’s social. But it’s all about…how not to be lonely, if one cannot be lonely, especially if you haven’t got the consolation of a religious belief, which I don’t have, and if you haven’t got the consolation of some great meaning to life, which I don’t have.”

The separation she’s felt in her own life reverberates in her work. Her first novel, Christine (Allen & Unwin, 1988), is set in Omaha and Maine and offers a protagonist isolated from family and other ties by venturing far from home in an attempt to live alone in a seaside town. The title character is obsessed with the idea of a twin brother, whose life begins to assume a greater reality than the world around her. Once ‘cured,’ there is the question of how much Christine has given up in the process. Although Reilly completed Christine before starting her second novel, The Deputy Head (Allen & Unwin, 1986), the latter novel was published first. The Deputy Head concerns an uptight New Zealand high school principal and his rigid Anglophile views of and stagnant relationships with women.

Her latest novel, For Caroline, is the first she is trying to find an American publisher for and she expects its provocative take on abused women will make it a hard sell.

“It’s about an 80-year-old man and this obsession he has with this girl-into-a-woman named Caroline, which starts when she is an infant. It’s not a sexual thing. It’s a protective thing. He wants to protect her from the abusive men she’s attracted to. It’s written from his point of view and describes 50-odd years of protecting her. He blames mothers and specifically her mother for giving their daughters such low self-esteem that they will be attracted to abusive men. The first sentence of the book is, ‘All mothers hate their daughters…’ It’s politically-incorrect in that he believes the advice given to abused women is ridiculous. That instead of working things out it just should be, Get angry and get out. I’ll be surprised if I get a publisher, because it’s virtually saying the opposite of what’s being told women.”

While awaiting word on her novel’s publication prospects, she seeks a publisher for a piece she’s written on the hazards of waitressing, something she’s had seven years of experience doing. Beyond the occasional bad customer, she, like many an artist, has found a certain bliss in waiting tables.

“I really like it. I like the freedom more than anything, especially compared with teaching. When you’re a teacher, you never check out. You never leave the job. With waitressing, you clock in and you clock out. It’s the mental freedom you have. That’s the way writers should live.”

Teaching is something she’s considered resuming but always balks at after calculating she “can make twice as much waiting tables — and without the headaches. Besides, there’s all sorts of ways I feel like I’m still a teacher here with all the young people I work with. Granted, I’m more a teacher in life than in literature, but so what? I always have Pearce or Dad to discuss literature with.”

Vincent Alston’s indie film debut, “For Love of Amy,” is black and white and love all over

November 29, 2011 14 comments

The Omaha indie filmmaking scene is not very active, especially when it comes to features.  One of the few homemade feature projects to get made here and nationally distributed is For Love of Amy, a sentimental pic written and produced by its lead actor, Vincent Alston.  While not a memorable work, the film’s storytelling is effective and the project is notable for simply defying the odds and being realized on screen and actually netting soome screenings and now a DVD release.  My story below was written a couple years ago as the film’s production wound down.  Alston attracted name talents in Ted Lange and John Beasley to direct the film and to essay a supporting role, respectively. The picture did attract enough notice to earn Alston the Mid-Atlantic Black Film Festival award for most outstanding first film and I wouldn’t be surprised if Alston is heard from again.

Sometime soon I will be posting a short story I wrote about another filmmaker with Omaha ties, Patrick Coyle, who has made a serious splash with the indie features he’s written and directed.  The biggest impact Nebraska filmmakers have made in recent years are by Alexander Payne, whose first three features were made in Omaha and whose next film, Nebraska, will be made in the mostly rural environs of the state’s central-western panhandle region, and Nik Fackler, whose Lovely, Still is finally finding large audiences via cable and DVD.  This blog is full of stories about these and other filmmakers with Nebraska ties, including Joan Micklin Silver, Gail Levin, and Charles Fairbanks.

Vincent Alston

 

 

Vincent Alston’s indie film debut, “For Love of Amy,” is black and white and love all over

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

On a recent Saturday morning at the University of Nebraska Medical Center director Ted Lange and crew worked efficiently to get their shots for the indie film For Love of Amy. Lensing in Omaha and environs since mid-June, the crew needed few takes. A satisfied Lange would say, “Print it…Movin’ on” and the troops rigged things for the next set-up. Far removed from his Love Boat days, the savvy Lange, bedecked in ball cap, blue jeans and athletic shoes, wore a T-shirt adorned with Laurence Dunbar, the subject of a one-man show he conceived and performs.

Screenwriter-producer-star Vincent Alston of Omaha was a quiet, intense presence on set, where he wore a deep blue suit as Michael. Alston seemed wide-eyed about the whole process, understandable given this is his first film and his ass is on the line three ways. He watched things closely and after takes often drew Lange aside to confer about what approach was best.

The concept behind the film will make you go either, “Ewww” or “Awww.” Michael (Alston) is black and his best friend Ryan is white. The dying Ryan extracts Michael’s promise to be there for Ryan’s 9-year-old daughter, Amy. Ryan dies and his widow suffers a breakdown. In steps Michael. Then a revelation about the child’s birth mother throws your expectations askew.

It reads like a treacly, weepie Lifetime message pic. All the racial, sentimental gravitas could be thoughtful or deadly, depending on how it’s handled.

Audiences must judge if Alston and Lange lift the material above the sweetly banal. Alston has the acting chops to make Michael, the single black man who takes Amy into his life a believable figure. Alston’s impressed on the John Beasley Theater stage and as Malcolm X in the one-act play The Meeting. Still, his debut script arguably reads like many well-intentioned social-humanist dramas you’ve seen.

Lange, who played Isaac on the network television chestnut, Love Boat, is a veteran TV and theater director and the author of 21 plays. The San Francisco resident has directed and starred in a film version of Othello. Scenes from his new play George Washington’s Boy were read at the recent Great Plains Theatre Conference (GPTC). In 2005 he came to Omaha to direct his own play, Four Queens and One Trump, at the JBT. So he has the creds, as he said, to “make this thing work.”

How Alston, a Jersey native, got to this point is a story itself. He worked in corrections back east and when he moved here in the ‘90s. His entree to acting came when, “on a whim,” he took a class. Bitten by the bug, he found his niche in naturalism. He made his living in computers while pursuing his theater passion. He now has his own company, VLA Productions, that creates video-Internet visuals and produces stage works, notably Jeff Stetson’s The Meeting, a work Alston’s now identified with. The piece depicts a hypothetical meeting between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.. He staged and starred in a production of it at the GPTC.

Alston’s been writing a few years now, drawing on experiences from his own life. He and his wife Pamela actually care for children not of origin and not of the same race by serving as foster parents. “We’ve had all kinds — Native American, white, biracial, the whole gamut,” he said. Currently they care for two Sudanese youths. Alston and his wife also have a son and daughter of their own.

His Beasley Theater contacts led him to give his script to Lange, who responded to it. “I love the different worlds that are really present side by side in it,” Lange said. “The fact that Michael is black and his best friend is white. The fact that Michael is raising his best friend’s kid. The twist that comes in there at the end about the child’s mother. It does have some nice little turns in it.”

Lange said he also liked the challenge of finding ways to avoid any cliches bound up in the story and in the characters.

“That where your art comes in,” Lange said. “There’s a couple little things we had to tweak. That’s collaboration. That’s Vince saying, ‘Now, Ted, I need this to happen,’ and me saying, ‘Oh, we can do that with just a little bit of this.’ It’s like I told Vince, ‘I’m going to make some suggestions to you. If I can’t tell you why, you go tell me to fuck myself. Don’t do it. But if I tell you something and you ask me why and I give you an answer, you gotta at least give me honest consideration, and that’s how we’ve been working. It’s good.”

Lange said the cast is good enough to avoid playing one-note characters. “We’ve got wonderful actors that can deliver the goods. I’m really excited by the fact we’ve got people who can help me tell the story and can play against the words — start out in one direction and then evolve into this other direction,” he said.

Besides Alston, there’s strong local talent in the cast, including veteran film-TV-theater actor John Beasley in the scene-stealing role of Tate, Tyrone Beasley as X and Lindsay Seim as Kat. Lange was blown away by Omaha actress, Melissa Epps, whom he cast in the role of Claire, ostensibly the heavy of the piece.

Some punch was lost with the late drop out of stage-screen actress Mikole White (She Hate Me), whose role as Jas, Michael’s girlfriend, is being filled by New York actress Joyce Sylvester (Crackin’ Green). The fact that established talent signed on indicates Alston’s script works on the page. The fact there’s a racially mixed cast and crew and the story depicts African American professionals living outside strictly “black Omaha” makes the project fairly unique in local filmmaking circles.

Despite the black-white dynamic that frames the story, Alston insists — and his script bears him out — the film is not about race. Instead, he likes to say it’s a story about “doing the right thing when you don’t know what right is.”

As Lange said, “Ultimately, you know what the right thing to do is, whether it’s profitable or satisfying or all those other things. But sometimes it takes a lot of guts to really do what’s right, and not let your ego, your pride get in the way, and to me that’s what this movie is. Does Michael have the guts to do what’s right?”

Alston got the idea for the story after a party in which a little white girl he didn’t know came up to him and spoke to him “like I was her best friend in the world,” he said. “It was intriguing this child could have this conversation with me and it got me thinking, Could we have that same conversation 10 years hence? Or would society’s prejudices have so impinged on her psyche that those inevitable walls that go up among people who are different prevent it? That was the genesis for it.”

The only racial tension in the film comes in the form of Amy’s maternal grandmother, Claire, who opposes Michael, and from X, a black friend of Michael’s who reminds him of certain realities in America; namely, that a single black man raising a white girl may not fly.

The scene shot at UNMC takes place in a hospital waiting room, where Claire, her husband Frank and their granddaughter Amy keep vigil over Ryan, who’s asked to see Michael. Michael arrives just as Claire expresses her dislike of him to Frank — “I’d sure like to know what in hell makes him so damn special. He’s not even family. I’ve got half a mind to…”. Upon seeing Michael, it’s clear Amy loves her “uncle.” Epps well underplays the antagonistic role of Claire and Grace Bydalek is thankfully unaffected as Amy. Race becomes subtext as much as pretext for the action.

Alston, who’s experienced first hand the politics of race as both a victim of profiling and as a cog in the racially skewed penal system, doesn’t so much concern himself with black-white as human considerations.

“My philosophy is I want to do entertainment that draws on the best in people, not the worst, that challenges people to be better…I think Michael in the film is challenged to be a better person,” he said. “At the end of the day he realizes this isn’t about affirming himself, it’s about a little girl and what’s best for her.”

Alston found himself challenged to heed his better self while a guard at the New Jersey State Home for Boys at Jamesburg (NJ) and working maximum security at the adult Douglas County Correctional Center (Neb.). He didn’t like what the job did to him. “It will jade you,” he said. “Dealing with the worst all day, every day…to see human beings reduced to animals, particularly seeing people who look like me reduced to that, and not even care anymore, and to be proud of it — I had to get out of there. I hit a point where really the bottom dropped out of my life.”

Luckily he had someone looking out for his best interests at Jamesburg.

“My boss and my mentor was a Muslim and he just taught me so many life lessons. He told me, ‘Vince, don’t stay here, this isn’t for you. There’s something greater out there — you just gotta go get it.’

Alston quit. On the advice of a friend who lived in Omaha, he moved here. In need of a job, Alston worked as a guard at the county correctional facility, but when he saw the same thing happening to him again he quit after only a few months. “It was a nightmare,” he said. “It was like, ‘I can’t stay here.’” That decision turned his life around. Within short order he took computer classes at Metro that steered him onto a new career path and he met his future wife.

After transferring to the University of Nebraska at Omaha he took an acting class as an elective and found a whole new passion. “I fell in love with it. It was like a light went on. You hear how people have epiphanies? That was me,” he said. “I remember I did my first monologue and there was a sort of hush in the room. I was leaving and this kid said, ‘People are talking about you.’ I just loved it from then on — that I could get a response from people. It’s interesting because I’m basically an extremely shy person, but you find that stage and I guess it gives you a place to be safe to express yourself.”

His journey to self-realization is not so different than that of Michael’s in the film. “Life is about becoming what you need to become,” Alston said. In Alston’s case, an artist. He found a mentor in UNO theater professor Doug Paterson, with whom he began staging performances of The Meeting. He found another mentor in John Beasley, but not before testing the waters at other theaters.

“Here’s what I found about theater here,” Alston said. “There’s a lot of it, but rarely do they do anything that speaks to my sensibilities. The other thing is, there’s this prevailing belief theater should be bigger than life. The Beasley Theater is the only place I’ve found where I can do the kind of in-the-moment, natural, real emotional response to theater. If you get up there and fake anything, that’s not going to wash with John (Beasley). You’re listening for real, you’re responding emotionally for real. So that’s been a breath of fresh air.”

It didn’t hurt that someone Alston admires so much encouraged him. “John was the first person of his caliber to tell me I could make it as an actor,” Alston said.

Beasley said Alston, who appeared in the JBT production of Jitney, came to him fairly seasoned but unused to laying it all on the line.

“His style is pretty laid back. He’s a protege of Doug (Paterson). Doug’s style and my style differ, though I have respect for what he does,” Beasley said. “Under Ted Lange I’ve seen Vince go inside a little bit more and dig a little deeper to mine some of that gold to bring the character out.”

Beasley’s proud to count Alston as a protege as well. “I’m happy to see he was able to start from nowhere and get this project launched. It’s quite an accomplishment to get your first film made,” Beasley said. “I don’t know what will happen with this film, but I think he’s on his way.”

Alston had been after Beasley for Tate, a wise old janitor at the school Michael teaches at, but the actor held out. It was Lange who got Beasley to give the part another read. “Ted said, ‘Look, Vince has put a lot of work into this character,’ so I took another look at it,” Beasley said. “I’m extremely happy to be a part of this project. I think it’s a good thing for Omaha. I did the movie because Vince asked me and I respect him. I felt I could do no less. I knew it meant a lot to him.”

“The fact that John is doing a role is just huge for us,” Alston confirmed.

Other JBT stalwarts on the For Love of Amy team are: Ty Beasley, who in addition to playing X serves as first assistant director; Amy Laaker as line producer; and Mark O’Leary as location manager.

“It really would have been impossible to do this project without them,” Alston said. “They’ve been with it from day one. You gotta have people committed to seeing the thing through to the end.”

Alston’s four-year odyssey to get the project made has been filled with the usual ups and downs. “In the process you’re running around like mad trying to chase down money,” he said. “You’re always trying to get in front of the next guy. Every day you’re networking with people…presenting business plans, making phone calls.” Once, the film was two weeks from cameras rolling when the financing fell through. “It just throws you for a loop when it happens,” he said. “As frustrating as it was for me, it was more frustrating to tell the cast and crew.”

At his lowest points Alston said he rallies himself with something the great educator Mary McLeod Bethune once said: “’I refused to be discouraged, for neither God nor man could use a discouraged soul.’ That is so heavy,” Alston said.

Whether the film ever sees the light of day is anyone’s guess. Alston hopes it makes the festival circuit and sells theatrically or to television. He’d like to make enough off it to tell more stories on screen. If it does well enough, he muses, maybe “I won’t have to chase the money so hard the next time.”

Screenwriting adventures of Nebraska native Jon Bokenkamp, author of the scripts “Perfect Stranger” and “Taking Lives'”

November 28, 2011 7 comments

If you’re a follower of this blog, then you know I like writing about Nebraskans working in the film industry.  If you’re a newbie here, consider yourself warned.  The subject of the story that follows, Jon Bokenkamp, is a feature screenwriter with some major cerdits behind him.  He’s also directed one feature.  Lately, Bokenkamp’s taken a step back from his Hollwyood merry-go-round to return to his hometown, Kearney, Neb., where he is active in restoring the World Theatre.  Alexander Payne is probably the biggest name from the state doing his thing in film and you’ll find no shortage of stories by me about the filmmaker on this site.  I’ve written extensively about Payne and his work and will continue doing so.  But you’ll also find many stories I’ve done about lesser known but no less interesting figures from this place doing noteworthy things in cinema and television, including: Nik Fackler, Joan Micklin Silver, Yolonda Ross, Gabrielle Union, John Beasley, Gail Levin, Charles Fairbanks, Nicholas D’Agosto, Monty Ross, Vince Alston, Swoosie Kurtz.  Then there are individuals like Lew Hunter who worked as a producer and writer in Hollywood before becoming a screenwriting guru through his UCLA course and book. Screenwriting 434, and workshops.   There’s Click Westin, who churned out scripts for many a forgotten early TV dramatic series and doctored several feature scripts and whose lone produced feature screenplay, Nashville Rebel, starred  Waylon Jennings in the itle role.  There’s Oscar-winning cinematographer Mauro Fiore, who’s a transplant here.  Let’s not forget Oscar-winning editor Mike Hill, the subject of a profile soon to be added here.   Future posts will also profile Peter Fonda and Jane Fonda.  I would love to get around one day to interviewing-profiling Nick Nolte.  The man profiled in this post, Jon Bokenkamp, is not a household name but you’ve likely seen some of his handiwork on screen (Taking Lives or Perfect Stranger).

Jon Bokenkamp, ©photo Kearney Hub

 

 

Screenwriting adventures of Nebraska native Jon Bokenkamp , author of the scripts “Perfect Stranger” and “Taking Lives”

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

As screenwriter of the Angelina Jolie-Ethan Hawke thriller Taking Lives and with a story-by credit on the new Halle Berry-Bruce Willis suspenser Perfect Stranger, Nebraskan Jon Bokenkamp has defied the odds in Tinsletown.

Besides penning scripts that stars attach themselves to, as both Berry and Diane Lane did with his screenplay Need, a project now going forward with Nicole Kidman and Naomi Watts, he’s directed one feature, Bad Seed, from his own original script Preston Tylk. He’s also directed a feature length documentary (After Sunset) on that faded American movie tradition, the drive-in.

Opening this weekend, Stranger is based on an original story by Bokenkamp. The plot centers on Roe (Berry), a crusading investigative reporter who enters the cyber world of hookups to try and ID the killer of her best friend. A man she develops ambiguous feelings for, Harrison (Willis), may be the killer.

 

 

Perfect Stranger

 

 

Bokenkamp’s story originally captured the interest of Julia Roberts before she passed, perhaps he speculates because the material was “too dark for America’s Sweetheart.” Then, producers strayed from his version to, as he put it, “shop around” for writers to take it in “a new direction.”

Two new scribes took a stab at it before Todd Komarnicki, who has screenplay credit, finished the final version, including a new ending that reveals an entirely different killer. Berry signed on as the lead and James Foley as director.

The new ending was only added once shooting began. Such changes are par for the course in Hollywood. “These things just evolve so many times,” Bokenkamp said. “It’s only two pages,” he said, “but my God they change the whole color of everything that happened before.” He settled for story-by credit. As the original author, he had a case to “arbitrate” for a screenplay-by credit from the Writer’s Guild, but opted not to make waves.

Besides, he said, “it’s really a muddy way the credits are decided. It’s a really strange process.” So he swallowed his pride. “This was real simple. There was no hollering, which is unusual,” he said.

Another reason he didn’t fight is he felt ambivalent about the film, whose shooting script he’s read. “It’s a good twist, but I don’t feel like it reflects the story I wanted to tell. It ends up becoming a different movie.” The twist, he said, “is not what it’s about.” Despite it all, he said, “I believe in the movie.”

 His documentary about drive-ins, After Sunset
He recently led effort to restore the World Theatre in Kearney

 

 

Bokenkamp’s odyssey reprised what happened with Taking Lives and an old project he worked on years ago called WW3.COM (World War III.com), which “has finally risen from the ashes,” he said, “and evolved into Live Free or Die Hard, which is basically Die Hard 4.” His work on it is uncredited.

“It’s funny, I’m finding I’m the guy that generates the idea — I’m not the closer,” he said. “I’m not the guy who can come in with the punch lines and the big-movie-trailer, see-you-in-hell moments. But I’m the guy who gets the bones of it there.”

He may or may not see to fruition his new script, Night and Day, You Are the One, what he calls “kind of a Jacob’s Ladder love story.” He’s developing it for writer-producer Ehren Kruger (The Ring) at Universal and writer-director Mark Pellington (Mothman Prophecies). It’s proof he’s still in the game.

Not so long ago Bokenkamp was just another wannabe leaving behind a stolid life in his hometown of Kearney, Neb. to try his luck in loopy L.A. He was 20 and cheeky enough to be an aspiring director despite only a few Super VHS shorts and two undistinguished years at then-Kearney State College on his resume.

Without knowing a soul, he arrived out West in 1993. This was before Alexander Payne hit it big. Bokenkamp attended USC film school, a feeder for the industry.

He paid his dues in classic starving-Hollywood-hopeful-makes-good fashion. He wrote by day while he parked cars on the Universal lot and waited tables at night. He didn’t have a car for a time. He felt the frustration of being right outside the golden gates, yet no nearer to getting inside them than when back in Kearney.

Adrift in a sun-drenched town that turns a cold shoulder to anyone not remotely a Player, he reached out to the few made-Nebraskans he could find, including Lew Hunter, the UCLA screenwriting guru from Superior, Neb.

His radar next led him to Dan Mirvish, the mercurial filmmaker who finagled an editing suite at Paramount to cut his Omaha, the movie. Bokenkamp did an assistant editor internship on it, working on vintage upright moviolas. It was his first time on a lot other than as a valet.

When Bokenkamp realized Hollywood revolves around the desperate, Byzantine hunt for bankable material, he began writing. He entered a Fade In magazine contest for thriller scripts. Long story short, he won. He got an agent and lawyer and a job doing rewrites for William Friedkin (The French Connection, The Exorcist).

“I’ll never forget showing up to his office at Paramount,” Bokenkamp said. “His assistant had candles burning and the lights were all turned down like there was some kind of seance going on. There were dried flowers hanging everywhere, old pictures on the walls. The place was like a cave. I was really young and Friedkin is a daunting guy. I mean, he won the fucking Oscar…

“We originally met because he was interested in directing my script Preston Tylk. But as the budget got smaller and smaller I started to think to myself — ‘Why am I not directing this?” So I took the script back and eventually made the movie myself, but Friedkin liked my writing and hired me to rewrite Blood Acre…a really smart horror film…I remember we had one awful notes session where he just screamed and screamed about how terrible the script was. I did the two passes…in my contract and they never asked me back. I bumped into him a few years later and I’m not sure he even remembered me, but it was a real lesson in Hollywood.

“Since then, I’ve sort of compared ‘assignment writing’ to being a plumber, meaning, I might get hired to fix the toilet, but if I don’t do my job quickly and really well, they’re going to tell me to get out of the bathroom because they’ve called another plumber. Maybe that guy screws up and they have to call me back. That’s happened. But at the end of the day it’s a job.”

 Taking Lives

 

 

His first feature directing gig, Bad Seed, is a 2000 guy-on-the-run-hires-over-the-hill-private-eye flick starring Luke Wilson and Dennis Farina. The straight-to-video pic didn’t set the world on fire, but it did gain him a rep for thrillers, and you’re nothing in Hollywood if they can’t label you.

“From Bad Seed my niche kind of became small, dark thrillers, told from a single point of view, later from a female perspective,” he said. “I love detective movies. Klute is a favorite of mine. So you kind of build a niche as one thing that can make you a commodity. But I also think before that you have to have something you want to say, which sounds really cliche, but you really have to…

“I also think there’s really something to be said for being collaborative and easy to work with and just not being a prick,” he said. “There’s all these egos in the business and I think one of the things that’s helped me is I really feel I’m pretty easy to get along with. If you want me to try an idea, I’ll try it.”

Not surprisingly, the first-time director was frustrated by the “compromises” Warner Bros. forced on him. “It was a better script than a movie simply because of my inexperience as a director,” he said, “but I learned more those 30 days directing than I did in two years at USC.”

 

 

 Preston Tylk, aka Bad Seed

 

 

Even if he could direct on his own terms, he’s not sure it’s a good fit. “I would like to direct again,” he said, “but the lifestyle of it doesn’t match the lifestyle I like. I like the lifestyle of writing. It suits my family as well.” He’s married to his high school sweetheart, Kathy. They have two children. The couple gets back often to Nebraska to visit family and friends, staying summers at a cabin they keep near Johnson Lake. “I like sitting in a room writing, going and getting my Subway sandwich and coming back and getting it right on the page as opposed to being up 24 hours a day going crazy, pulling your hair out, wondering, ‘Why isn’t it raining?”

Bad Seed was to have reeked with a rain-soaked film noir ambience but Mother Nature didn’t cooperate and Warners couldn’t wait, so he scrapped the mood to make his days. Such are the concessions first-time directors make.

Since Bad Seed his scripts have mostly focused on kick-ass women.

“The strong female-driven element is something I gravitate to,” he said. “Female-driven movies feel smarter to me and it’s just a way to be different. You get a little more latitude with a female because she’s forced to stand up against the woman-in-the-boys-club type thing. It immediately puts us on her side…in her shoes.”

He said the input of his wife Kathy, a former school teacher, influences his interest in crafting formidable women characters.

“My wife can take a lot of credit for it. I don’t have a writing partner, so at the end of the day when I’m laying in bed staring at the ceiling, still writing, my wife is the one I talk to about it.”

He said Kathy’s been “completely supportive of his career,” even when he struggled those early years and even now when he freaks out between jobs.

“I always feel like I’m going from job to job,” he said. “That’s what’s exciting about it — going from one story to another, learning about something new. That’s the insecurity of it, too. You’re never quite sure where the next paycheck is coming from. And there’s not a 401K plan. The only difference (now) is that the paychecks have become a little bigger and my car is paid for.”

He said making it as a writer requires “an under appreciated scrapper kind of mentality.” He admits he’s not immune to fits of envy or pity. “At times I go, ‘Why am I not the guy writing Jurassic Park IV?’ But that kind of keeping-up-with-the-Jones mentality is something that terrifies me. I can’t put myself there. I just want to do stories that are close to my gut…I want to do the movies that are going to be remembered. I’m not saying any of mine are, but you gotta strive for that or otherwise I think you’re done.”

“One thing that scares me is if it stops. If suddenly people don’t want to work with me for some reason. I don’t know what I would do. I have a hard time imagining anything else. And I’m sure I always will write, whether I’m getting paid for it or not. Believe me, it’s not about the money, because there are a lot easier ways to go make lots more money. It’s just something I kind of have to do….I love to do.”

Omaha’s film reckoning arrives in form of Film Streams, the city’s first full-fledged art cinema

November 27, 2011 11 comments

The much-ballyhooed rise of Omaha’s culture scene got a major boost with the addition of the city’s first full-fledged art cinema, Film Streams, in 2007.  I wrote the following cover story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) on the eve of Film Stream’s much anticipated opening. It’s an analytical piece that examines the viability of the enterprise in this market and the various things that this art cinema’s founder and director, Rachel Jacobson, put in place to give it sustainability. Because I was a film programmer myself for several years in Omaha I have a certain informed perspective on what the art cinema scene looked like before and after Film Streams.

Five years later, there’s no doubting that Film Streams is a runaway success and that Jacobson is the main reason why.  She’s cannily secured both a strong endowment and membership base from Omaha’s movers and shakers, along with steady grant support, as backing for the world-class programming she and her staff have presented right from the start.  She’s also cultivated two star advisory board members in Alexander Payne and Kurt Andersen who help give the venue cachet and credibility well beyond Omaha.  If you’re a local and you haven’t been to Film Streams yet, shame on you.  If you plan to visit, be sure to make it one of your stops.  Payne has been instrumental in the theater hosting some high profile film names at special fundraising events, including Laura Dern, Debra Winger, and Steven Soderbergh.  My stories on the Dern, Winger, and Soderbergh events can be found on this blog.

The theater’s next special guest, for a spring-summer event, is a genuine cinema legend.  More on that in a few months.  Check out everything Film Streams at http://www.filmstreams.org.

And if you’re so inclined, check out my deep store of film stories on this blog.

Rachel Jacobson outside Film Streams

Omaha‘s film reckoning arrives in form of Film Streams, the city’s first full-fledged art cinema

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeard in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Rachel Jacobson’s Film Streams dream turns reality this weekend. That’s when the non-profit art cinema she’s synonymous with opens in North Downtown. The Ruth Sokolof Theatre at 14th and Webster joins Slowdown, the Saddle Creek Records live music bar that shares the same shell, as the next-big-thing in Omaha culture.

In truth, her dream is one many area cinephiles harbored over time, but she’s the first with the means and the moxie to have gone after it. Audaciously, she’s not hitched the theater to an entrenched cultural institution, such as a university or museum. Instead, Film Streams is an “autonomous nonprofit.” While Saddle Creek doesn’t have an active business interest in it, as the building’s builder, owner, landlord and neighbor, Saddle Creek Records is an institutional partner in spirit.

In some respects, it’s a case of good karma, as Jacobson articulated her vision just as Omaha’s much-discussed synergy of ambitious new art-cultural endeavors took off. Since 2000 the city’s seen come to fruition: various public arts projects; Qwest Center Omaha; the Riverfront Jazz and Blues Festival; the Holland Performing Arts Center; the downtown Omaha Lit Fest; the Great Plains Theatre Conference; the Omaha Film Festival and the Blue Barn Music Festival. Slowdown and Film Streams only add to the growing mix of can-do, cosmo, entertainment projects.

With an urban industrial look, from the clean, simple lines of its red brick and black steel exterior to the airy, open, many-windowed loft-style lobby-offices, the building plays off the retro-gentrified face of its eclectic environs. The interior’s exposed precast concrete and steel infrastructure and metal panel-encased windows lend a vaguely 19th century factory vibe. The pastel walls, natural finished Maple woods, Omer Arbel decorative lighting and Bludot furniture, plus a neoclassic Dineresque concessions stand, add a post-modern touch. A huge lithograph on one wall is of iconic Robert Mitchum from Night of the Hunter (a Jacobson favorite), adding a splash of drama and color to the light, Pop-style lobby.

The two auditoriums, one seating 206, the other 96, are intimate spaces with such requisite creature comforts as high-back, cup-holder chairs, and with such techno features as ample sound panels and multiple projection systems.

Surrounding the building is a mix of manufacturers, warehouses, divey boarding houses, pawn shops, bars, a homeless shelter and a day care center. To the west and north is trendy residential living in Creighton University dorms and Tip Top loft apartments, respectively. Hotels along the emerging Cuming Street Corridor to the north are going up fast. Bohemian spots like the Hot Shops, a few blocks north, are few and far between. The InPlay sports bar and Rick’s Cafe Boatyard are the nearest nice eateries. A couple blocks east is the whole riverfront scene. Traffic to and from the Qwest Center and Civic Auditorium may generate some walk-ins.

The building, set off by its striking black and white marquee and a wide, tree-lined curb, is the subject of much buzz. On a recent afternoon, as workers streamed in and out installing auditorium seats and unpacking assorted boxes in the lobby, passersby on foot and in cars rubbernecked for a glimpse inside.

Film Streams is situated in the projected hub of NoDo, the North Downtown redevelopment district the city’s pinning high hopes on. It could blow up into a destination place or just stagnate. Directly west is a vacant lot overgrown by weeds, a speculative site for a baseball stadium that some consider the missing anchor piece of this puzzle. For now though NoDo has a solid toe-hold and Film Streams is well-positioned as a cool modern throwback — a downtown neighborhood theater attached to the Saddle Creek-Slowdown star.

“Yeah, it couldn’t be a better location, really,” the lithe, long-haired Jacobson said from the Film Streams conference room, with its great view of the cityscape. “I mean, it’s amazing timing…it’s right place, right time, right people involved.”

It’s been a three-year love-fest for Jacobson. With her Cameron Diaz good looks, expatriate return from New York to her hometown, Saddle Creek hook up, Alexander Payne endorsement and philanthropic connections, she’s wrapped her fingers around the Big O!. Per her Revlon-smiling presence in those First National Bank television spots, she’s viewed as a poster girl for the Cool Young Urban Entrepreneurial set that local movers-and-shakers covet.

She’s also an example of the reverse brain drain this state needs; namely, she’s among the long line of Nebraska’s best and brightest to leave, only she’s the exception by coming back to realize her dream here. It’s a Chamber-made PR story.

 

All the attention has her a little queasy.

“This has been so tied to my personality the past two years because so much of it was in my head,” she said, “but now there’s a building, there’s people invested in it, it’s an organization. So I’m hoping it won’t be so synonymous with my name and my identity because that’s a little bit awkward and it also doesn’t bode well for the future…You want it to take on a life of its own and I hope it does.

“I think it’s important it have its own specific voice and personality just like any interesting small business.”

Rare for any start-up, much less a non-profit arts group venturing into unknown territory, i.e. a full-fledged art house in a burg that’s never really seen one, she’s gotten donors to pony up big time. Shaping Omaha’s cool quotient is a seductive thing and may help explain why Film Streams has attracted such widespread support.

“I think a lot people’s motivation for giving and being engaged with this organization is to have an affiliation with everything that’s going on in the arts scene in Omaha and to feel a part of it,” she said.

Her first home run was getting the Saddle Creek Boys, Robb Nansel and Jason Kulbel, to build the theater as part of their new NoDo headquarters complex, which includes Slowdown. The Saddle Creek-Film Streams relationship is a case of young urban professionals who share like-minded visions getting together. She lived and worked in New York when she ran into Nansel in 2002 and they laid out their dreams.

“Initially we were talking to Rachel as a friend and trying to help her figure out a place that would work for a theater in Omaha,” Kulbel said. “We had already been on some real estate searches for a similar sized space so we knew what was out there — nearly nothing, unfortunately. There was a fair amount of time that passed between first talking  with her about it and approaching her about the idea of doing it downtown. I was personally very into the idea before we were involved on a business level. I have always seen it as something that would really help out the culture of Omaha, so I have really been into supporting the idea any way I could.”

Kulbel and Nansel serve on the Film Streams advisory board.

Then, with the help of her dad, Kutak Rock chair David Jacobson, she launched a capital campaign. It’s raised $1.7 million for theater operations and an endowment.

“You can’t underestimate the connection thing,” she said in reference to her father and the fact he heads a well-heeled law firm with a history of arts philanthropy. Her family’s standing in the Jewish community has also paid big dividends, including the Sokolof family gift recognized by the theater’s name. Even so, getting old farts to fork over serious dough for an art cinema took some doing in a town unused to thinking of film the way it does music or fine art. 

“It’s not a new concept obviously, but it’s a new concept for Omaha,” she said. “There were definitely people in the beginning who gave me quizzical looks and with whom I had to use examples of older art forms, like theater or opera or symphony, and how these things have had to become nonprofit and how film is the great art form of the 20th century. So it just makes sense to have an organization devoted to celebrating film in that sort of reverential way.”

She feels her New York experience, including stints at Miramax and WNYC, gave her a foundation for thinking and speaking about film as a legit art form.

“In New York film is seen in the kind of light I’m talking about,” she said. “Werner Herzog is a household name. Even more obscure directors are known, not only by people who consider themselves to be film buffs, but just by anyone engaged in the cultural environment of the city. So I knew what needed to be articulated here. I don’t know if I could have done this without having lived there…”

New York’s vital arts community also instilled in her an “attitude that anything’s possible” asdding,”My friends there have been so supportive of this project — they all got it in like two seconds.” She’s found enough cinema sophisticates here to move forward.

Snagging an Oscar-winning filmmaker in Payne and a best-selling author and national public radio personality in Kurt Andersen for her board helped seal the deal.

The Payne name adds sizzle and legitimacy. It opens doors and check books. “I never imagined he would be involved to this degree,” said Jacobson, referring to his curating the inaugural repertory series. “His involvement is so significant.”

 

 

image

Alexander Payne has lent his support to Rachel Jacobson and Film Streams

Any skeptics left soon drank the Kool Aid when she secured mucho bucks from such community stalwarts as the Peter Kiewit Foundation and Dick Holland.

Besides getting heavyweights to embrace and fund her project, she’s done her homework, asked all the right questions and put in place a fundraising-membership structure that holds hope this experiment might bear fruit and have a future.

Experiment is the operative word, as no one knows whether Omaha can support an art cinema. Why? Start with there not having been one here before. Sure, there’s the Dundee Theatre, but it often shows titles that also play the cineplexes, it has no education component and its single screen, mid-town location and loyal fan base make comparisons difficult. 

Then ask yourself, what size of an audience really exists for new indie American and first-run foreign pics that outside a few crossover titles a year do little business anywhere? Or for classics now readily accessible via NetFlix or cable?

If anyone knows it’s Danny Lee Ladely, director of the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center in Lincoln, one of the nation’s longest-lived art cinemas.

“There’s a good reason why there aren’t more art theaters in Lincoln and Omaha,” he said, “and that’s because the markets here really aren’t large enough to sustain them. The only way the Ross has been able to survive over all these years is by having lots and lots of subsidies through grants, donations, memberships.”

Ladely also serves on the Film Streams advisory board.

Just how tough it is to get butts in the seats for art films is revealed by a recent study Ladely’s business manager did. “For every two-week run of a film we show we lose $3,500,” he said. It’s only the occasional art house darling, like The Piano or  Fahrenheit 9/11 that makes a profit, much less a killing. Most lose money. He’s curious to see how the Film Streams repertory program, which features classics, does. He long ago stopped showing older titles as they drew fewer and fewer moviegoers.

If Omaha history is any gauge then there’s a limited pool to be sure. Many alternative film efforts have come and gone. As recently as six years ago the Brandeis Art Cinema tried and failed to be a Dundee Theatre at the Southroads Mall. Nontheatrical causalities in the ’90s included student-sponsored film programs at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and Creighton University, various  series at the Joslyn Art Museum and a short-lived series at the Blue Barn Theatre. The New Cinema Coop., a part-time presenting group, had a long run in the ’70s-’80s. The Old Market Puppet Theatre and Edison Exchange preceded it. 

Until now, the nearest art cinema has been the Ross, which might as well be Siberia for the few Omahans who trek down I-80 to catch a flick. Distance alone seems to negate head-on competition. Jacobson believes the two venues serve separate markets. Ladely mostly concurs, though he worries about losing the “handful” of Omaha faithful who go there. He sees a bigger conflict between Film Streams and the Dundee, but Jacobson says she’s after different titles than that mid-town theater and is willing to work cooperatively to avoid booking issues.

Danny Lee Ladely, ©photo Lincoln Journal-Star

Likewise, Dundee Manager Matt Brown is willing to consult with Jacobson. It makes sense for them to talk, as each desires exclusive runs. Double bookings at theaters four miles apart would hurt one or both. He said Film Streams is definitely new “competition,” but not one that necessarily “conflicts” with the Dundee.

He feels the two theaters will largely go after different titles, with Film Streams eying more pure art films and the Dundee art films with more mainstream appeal. Jacobson confirms this. Still, there’s bound to be times when the two vie for the same features. The Dundee’s current attraction, Once, would seem to be an Film Streams fit. Film Stream’s opening first-run attraction, the subtitled French film La Vie en Rose, is not standard Dundee material, but who’s to say future titles won’t be?

Where things could get dicey for Film Streams, Brown said, is finding enough art material outside what the Dundee and the AMC chain show that boast the kind of strong reviews and word-of-mouth needed to build audiences. Reviews can make or break things, he said, and only a few titles captivate critics and audiences. Brown said AMC may pose a problem, as it shows many art titles as loss leaders. However, Jacobson said studios/distributors tell her they prefer these titles play in an art cinema that nurtures them rather than in a cineplex that buries them.

It may take time for Film Streams to find its niche. While the Dundee books first-run features months in advance, Film Streams, at least for now, takes a more fluid approach. Jacobson’s eying several titles from the 2007 Cannes Film Festival for her fall/winter schedule. Her upcoming repertory programs after the Payne series include an Adaptations series and a Nebraska series.

Jacobson’s oft-stated belief, one shared by Brown, that the addition of Film Streams can help grow audiences for art fare and therefore benefit everyone sounds good. But the problem gets back to the relatively few folks who go see films that are obscure, subtitled or both or that can be readily viewed at home. Each tells you the city can enjoy a vital art cinema scene with multiple venues. But with two year-round operations here, it stands to reason one or both will be squeezed in the process.

DUNDEE Theatre - Omaha Ne Open! Photo #2 | by SouthEast Dallas Photographer

Dundee Theatre

To cover a projected $800,000 annual operating budget Film Streams won’t need the volume of bodies and receipts suburban cineplexes generate. Film Streams expects to offset its smaller attendance/take the same way the Ross does — with grants, donations and membership revenue. Through last week Film Streams had sold 500 memberships, which are $50 for individuals and $35 for students/seniors.

“That’s the whole business plan,” she said. “That’s exactly why we diversified our income streams. We plan to keep every single one of those income streams afloat if we can. Box office and concessions and even rentals of our space will only amount to just over 50 percent of our operating budget. Everything else will have to come from membership contributions, corporate sponsorships, foundation gifts…People in the community have to continue to support this in order for us to exist.”

A small staff will keep overhead low. Besides Jacobson, chief programmer and fundraiser, there’s operations manager Ann Ploeger and communications coordinator Casey Logan. Box-office/concessions workers and union projectionists will be contracted per show.

Whereas the Ross is insulated to a degree from poor attendance by its association with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Film Streams stands alone, on an island.

“The Ross has an advantage that has really been important in the survival and the success of the program and that is that it’s part of the university,” Ladely said.

On the other hand, Film Streams has formed an endowment, something the Ross, contrary to popular belief, doesn’t have. As Ladely noted, it’s true the center’s namesake Mary Riepma Ross donated millions, but all of it went toward building its new center. The Friends of the Ross does have a small endowment.

Just as the Ross is utilized by UNL for classes, Film Streams plans to invite organizations to rent the space for its own or collaborative programs. “We can make it into more than just a movie theater and bring people here who aren’t necessarily cinephiles. That’s going to be a huge part of what we do,” said Jacobson, who envisions partnering with existing events, such as the Omaha Lit Fest or Omaha Film Festival, and with organizations that have a natural cultural connection to Film Streams films/series.

 

 

Film Streams' Feature V - Payne, Forte & Dern - Photo by Chris Machian

Photo by Chris Machian
Public radio host Kurt Andersen interviews the director of the new film “Nebraska,” Alexander Payne, and stars Will Forte and Bruce Dern in Omaha, Neb. Later, another of the film’s actors, June Squibb, surprised the audience by joining the conversation. The event celebrated Film Streams’ Ruth Sokolof Theater, Omaha’s non-profit cinema. In excess of 1,600 people attended, and more than $300,000 were raised to support Film Streams programs.

Previous art film efforts in town lacked the cool, state-of-the-art digs and amenities Film Streams delivers. Joslyn’s flirted with cinema but despite its splendor it lacks a bona fide theater space and has never really committed to film. The closest anyone came is when the New Cinema screened alternative fare at the old Center Street Theatre and when the Park IV ran a repertory classics series, but as legit as those venues were their poverty row quarters, budgets and revenues spelled failure.

Jacobson was so intent on doing an art cinema she was at one time prepared to marry it to a Joslyn or do it on the cheap “like squatting in an old warehouse.”

The way things worked out, she’s got the real thing. The Ross in Lincoln is a model for it, as are landmark programs back East, including those at the George Eastman House, the Museum of Modern Art, the Brooklyn Academy of Music and New York’s Film Forum. “Film Forum was the one I looked at most frequently,” she said. “It’s completely autonomous and it’s devoted to film and that’s the mode I really wanted to emulate. That’s how I felt you could be most true to the mission, because if you’re within someone else’s mission then you just have to make too many compromises. So I’m very happy it turned out the way it did.”

That’s not to say she doesn’t consult people. She bends the ear of veterans like the Ross’ Ladely and her booker, Amherst, Mass.-based Connie White, who programmed the Coolidge Corner and Brattle Theatres in Boston. She also has the advantage of a network of industry contacts, Payne among them, who should help steer major film artists here for lectures, panels, symposiums, retrospectives, et all.

“I’m really excited about the potential for that,” she said.

In terms of anticipation, there hasn’t been anything like this for a new local arts facility since the Holland opened in 2005. A much larger, costlier project, it was the first major new performing venue here in a long time, thus it netted high attention and expectation. Film Streams is not only the first comprehensive art/repertory house here, it’s the first cinema of any kind downtown since the early ‘90s, when the New Cinema converted a storefront at 15th and Davenport.

Unlike Film Streams, the Holland has a built-in fan base as the home to the Omaha Symphony, whose members it markets to. The Holland is also located right in the heart of downtown, not on its northern fringes. Slowdown’s niche indie music model is much closer to Film Streams and its specialized cinema offerings.

The question now is: Will enough people buy memberships and fill seats to keep the theater a viable center that donors want to support? Only time will tell. Meanwhile, Jacobson’s focused on “executing” what till now has been a run-through. The dress rehearsals are over and now the screen lights up for real.

“One thing I’m constantly thinking about is sustainability. That’s really the ultimate goal,” she said. “My biggest fear with this is that it will fizzle out in five years. I mean, I don’t think it’s going to…I think we planned this out and we have enough people invested in it that it won’t, but who knows.

“If everyone who says they’re going to be here all the time is here some of the time, then we’ll do OK.”

Jacobson was reminded of what someone asked her recently — what’s it like to do a job that’s your passion? “It was always my dream to do something I loved, but one thing is you can never, ever escape it. You’re always working, because it is me.”

A Passion for Conservation: Tara Kennedy

November 25, 2011 2 comments

I normally wouldn’t seek out a story about paper conservation, but when I read a reference by the hosts of national public radio’s The Book Guys to paper conservator Tara Kennedy, whom they described in very engaging terms, I was intrigued enough to seek her out for an interview.  I’m glad I did because she proved every bit as engaging as advertised and the following  profile I wrote about her is the result.

A Passion for Conservation: Tara Kennedy

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Every object passing through the hands of Tara Kennedy, the fetching paper conservator at Omaha’s Gerald R. Ford Conservation Center, is filled with what she calls “life history.” That’s certainly the case with three historic Meriwether Lewis and William Clark documents she’s now conserving. She’s preparing the documents, which accompanied the explorers’ on their 1804-06 Journey of Discovery, for a July 30 through August 3 public exhibition at Fort Atkinson State Historical Park. The display is one of many area events being held in conjunction with the 200th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark expedition.

The materials belong to the Oklahoma State Historical Society. One is a Lewis and Clark signed account of an address delivered by Lewis to a band of Yankton Sioux Indians at Calumet Bluff in present-day northeastern Nebraska. Another is a peace medal certificate signed by the explorers and presented to an Otoe warrior, Big Ax, at Fish Camp — an expedition bivouac south of today’s Dakota City, Neb. The third is a letter in French, signed by Thomas Jefferson, inviting tribal leaders of the Otoe-Missouria and other Indian nations to visit him in Washington, D.C.

Kennedy’s assessment of the documents’ condition — revealing varied wear and damage — determined what conservation to do or not do. “I must have an informed cultural respect for the items I work with, such as the history of the period and the materials used then,” she said. The letter’s in bad enough shape she’s doing a wash to remove tape and acidic residue. The other pieces require less work. The well-traveled Calumet Bluff piece, complete with original binding, “tells its life history,” she said. “It wasn’t something that laid around in a drawer or hung on a wall. It was carried by horseback…stuffed into pockets. It got wet, and then for decades it was bundled up in a trunk. It’s a well-loved document.”

As conservators go, Kennedy’s anything but the shy, retiring type associated with her profession. Away from her job at the Ford Center, this self-described “extrovert” acts in local community theater productions. Her stage work ranges from quirky roles at the Shelterbelt to playing perky Nellie Forbush, the object of Some Enchanted Evening seduction in a Chanticleer Theater staging of South Pacific. She’s currently appearing in the Ralston Community Theatre production of Into the Woods at the Bellevue Little Theatre. She also enjoys singing, playing guitar and piano and listening to jazz, blues, swing, punk and indie rock.

“I can’t live without music and art,” said Kennedy, who exudes the bonhomie of a Bohemian beat poet with her chic looks, casual clothes and earthy charms.

When not living-out-loud, she’s content toiling away alone in the center’s paper conservation laboratory, an open, airy, antiseptic-looking space broken up by storage cabinets, sinks, tables, vents and examination instruments. There, in the sterile isolation of her lab, she applies her training in paper technology and art history to the conservation of rare and precious paper objects. Only the music blaring from a boom box belies her more animated side.

As this region’s only paper conservator, she tends to such objects as birth certificates, works of art, maps, books, manuscripts, newspapers, photos, documents and “pretty much anything on paper” collectors or curators need preserved. A division of the Nebraska State Historical Society, the center devotes much of its resources to the NSHS’s collections.

Describing her work, Kennedy points out the difference between conservation and restoration. “In conservation, we try to stabilize an object — to retain the information that’s there. We’re not interested necessarily in what I like to say is ‘tarting it up’ — in making it look like it did when it was first created. That’s restoration,” she said. “In some cases, that is what the client wants. We try to dissuade them from that because it’s almost like you’re falsifying the piece. I mean, the piece had a history. It may be 150 years old. It’s not going to look brand new.”

Sometimes, she added, “the only way to improve a piece’s condition and appearance is to use artists’ techniques to disguise damage.” For those occasions, she keeps a ready supply of pastels, paints and other art materials.

She said “the marriage of art and science” that is her work “is what attracted me in the first place to make it my career path. I enjoyed chemistry in high school, but I didn’t want to be a chemist. I always enjoyed objects of history and I used to wonder how things were preserved. As a girl I remember looking inside an exhibit case at Monticello (Thomas Jefferson’s historic Virginia estate) and wondering about the objects and their condition. These objects had been unearthed on the property and I remember wondering, How’d they get all the dirt off them?”

But it was acting, not conservation, she originally pursued. Growing up in Kingston, New York, West Caldwell, New Jersey and Southington, Connecticut, she acted “rabidly” in youth theater and enrolled in Northwestern University’s prestigious dramatic arts program. After “really enjoying” some art history courses, she switched majors. “I thought there was no way I could combine the arts, history and chemistry until I visited this conservation lab. It was sort of like a bolt of lightning.” Cinching the deal was her studying abroad in Europe, followed by post-grad work at the University of Texas-Austin’s Harry Ransom Center, an internship at the National Archives and a fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution.

When she heard about the opening at the Ford Center in Omaha, she said, “I had to look it up on a map. Conservators are snobs. Nobody wants to leave the east coast. I still think the east coast is the place to be. I’m terribly biased in that respect. I applied here (the Ford Center) and at the New York Public Library, and they both offered me a job. But this job was far superior to that one. So, no-brainer, I was going to Omaha. Why not? And, so, here I am.”

As much satisfaction as she derives from conserving the splendid paper objects entrusted to her, she enjoys leaving the lab to slake her thirst for art at far-flung exhibits or to heed the extrovert in her. Whether greeting visitors, leading tours or making appearances on the nationally syndicated public radio show, The Book Guys, she displays her characteristic high energy, sharp wit and engaging laugh. One of the appealing things to her about the post, which she came to from the Smithsonian in 2001, is the multifaceted work and “the public face” it allows her.

“It’s a real diverse job. I get bored with things pretty easily. I have to have a million things to do. Here, I do the behind the scenes work that makes up a lot of conservation work, but I also get to go out and give lectures and do assessments at cultural institutions. And, being a regional center, a variety of people come in with a variety of materials. I get to have more contact with the public, and I enjoy interacting with people,” she said. “It’s an element you don’t normally get with other conservation positions.”

Then there’s The Book Guys gig. When the show came to tape at the W. Dale Clark Library in the spring of 2003, then-Library Foundation Director Marcy Cotton hooked Kennedy up with hosts/producers Allan Stypeck and Mike Cuthbert, who were taken with her. “They put me on the air and sprang me with some weird questions,” Kennedy said. “They asked me about the use of kitty litter in removing odor from books and they were impressed I knew the answer. And they liked my laugh…and so they decided I would be the official preservation-conservation consul for The Book Guys. I think the conservators they’d encountered were not extroverted.” Since her debut, she’s been called on again to answer queries, and it was during one of these segments when Cuthbert referred on-air to the single, 20-something Kennedy as “a hottie from Omaha,” a designation she feigns to be upset by. “Here I am trying to be this serious professional and, yeah, now I’m the Omaha hottie. Thanks guys.”

Programs like The Book Guys and PBS’s Antiques Road Show have “really increased appreciation and awareness in the preservation of artifacts,” she said. No sooner does she say that, however, than she comes back with, “I don’t watch it (Antiques) myself. I’d rather watch forensics science shows.”

Indeed, her work is not so different from a crime scene investigator’s as she explores, with gloved hands, the composition, age and condition of fragile objects and the best ways for conserving the integrity of those pieces. Showing a visitor around the center’s labs one day, Kennedy quipped, “It’s a regular CSI in here,” as she strode about the microscopes, lights, scalpels, cotton swabs, brushes, acid solutions, water baths, fumidors and elephant venting trunks arrayed about her.

“We have a microscopy lab in which we can actually do microscopic examination of fibers, inks…that sort of thing. I’ve had to do technical exams on pieces to find out, for example, what kind of pulp was used to make a paper. Usually, it’s to determine age, as part of an authentication process, although it can also be a method of deciding what kind of treatment to do. I extract micro pieces from a document and take them in the microscopy lab and identify…if it’s wood or linen or cotton. We have different kinds of light sources — infrared, ultraviolet — to use for examination. That’s usually to find inconsistencies in the paper.”

Often times, the documents she treats require removing tape. Different methods, including heat and solvents, are used with different kinds of adhesives.

The conservation called for by a project can find her doing everything from tamping down loose pieces of a collage to removing an insect infestation from a print. In the case of the collage, she said, “the artist used a spray adhesive that over time lost its tack, resulting in pieces popping up. So, I had to go in basically and tack them back down. A lot of times, artists will use materials that aren’t necessarily the most stable.” With the print, she said, “the glazing on the framing package was plexiglass, which has a lot of static, and the insects might have got sucked in during framing. I don’t think they were actually alive.”

The objects she examines and treats may be valued at anywhere from a few bucks to millions of dollars, although, she said, there can be no favorites. “We are expected to treat all objects exactly the same. We have to take great care with everything because it means something to someone, whatever it might be.”

But applying the same dispassionate approach to the priceless Louisiana Purchase Proclamation, which she examined at the center, or to a Jean Miro print, which she conserved last year, as she does, say, to just another birth certificate, is not easy. “It’s hard to separate out your emotions sometimes. But no matter what the monetary value of a piece, I’m still like, ‘Oh, it’s only a piece of paper.’” The exception, she said, comes “if I have a particular passion for an artist. Then, I think it would be very hard for me to do treatment. I almost have to remain detached.”

 

For the Thomas Jefferson-signed Louisiana Purchase Proclamation, owned by Walter Scott, Jr. of Omaha, Kennedy did a technical exam to authenticate it. “I took very, very tiny pieces from the document and examined them to determine what kind of paper pulp was used. It was a certain kind of paper I would not have expected in a document from 1803, so I was a little suspect at first. But it turns out it was an extremely early version of what’s called wove paper. The determining factor was a water mark on the paper. We did research on water marks, and there was an English manufacturer of paper that Thomas Jefferson did use and so that became a direct link to him. That really solidified it on top of the fact the paper was made of the right material and there were no inconsistencies in the writing and other types of tests I did, including whether any fillers used might be modern.”

The bound, 16-leaf Proclamation was treated by other conservators over the years, sometimes to its detriment. “A ribbon once woven through three binding holes had been removed and the holes filled…and that’s a shame,” she said, “because that’s lost information. That’s the kind of information that as a conservator you want to retain because it’s part of the object. And considering what it is and the history of it, you want all its pieces intact.” Despite its pedigree, Kennedy said the document is “very unassuming…only because it’s the proclamation for the Louisiana Purchase, which basically means it was a fancy press release.”

More Jeffersonian documents came her way when she was commissioned to assess and conserve the Lewis and Clark papers she’s now working with. “We’re thrilled to have these documents in her hands and to have them conserved in a way that gets them in appropriate condition for exhibition,” said Jeff Briley, assistant director of the Oklahoma State Historical Museum in Oklahoma City.

Then there was the painting she treated by contemporary realist Andrew Wyeth, a superstar among artists. “That was pretty intimidating, but very exciting, too,” she said. “Fortunately, I didn’t have to do a very invasive treatment on it. It’s great to see an artist’s work up close like that. Wyeth actually roughed up the paper and made it almost three-dimensional by scraping and cutting it to bring out the grasses. It’s things like that I need to be sensitive to because that means there are some undulations in the paper and I have to see that’s an artist’s technique that needs to be maintained in the piece, even if that means I’m not able to do certain things that might help conserve the object overall.

“If it’s an artist I’m not familiar with, I will take time to find out more about that artist’s working techniques before I proceed with treatment.”

Prestige, big-ticket items like the Wyeth painting used to make her anxious, but now they are par for the course. “I don’t get nervous anymore about it. Besides, I can’t really be frozen in fear. I have to do my work no matter what. But something’s sure to come along that will make me nervous.” She already knows which artist’s work would test her composure. French post-impressionist Edouard Vuillard, a leader of the avant-garde Nabi movement, “is an artist I adore,” said Kennedy, keenly aware a private collection of his work is in Iowa. “His compositions are very warm. He worked in really horrible media, though, so I’m not sure I’d want to treat one. It would be an incredible challenge.”

Her affection for Vuillard, who used oils, inks, washes on everything from boards, panels and screens to theater programs, is such she recently traveled to a retrospective of his work at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. “I venture to go see particular works of art I haven’t seen in person. For example, I make it my life’s ambition to see every Vermeer before I die. A couple years ago I went to London to see one at the Kenwood House. I sat there and cried staring at this piece. The serenity in his figures is just unbelievable. I’m amazed at how anyone can capture that. Nothing prepares you for the beauty of something in person you’ve only seen in books.”

Epiphanies like those only reinforce why she’s dedicated to preserving, as conservators like to say, the cultural heritage. “I feel very good and proud about what I do every day,” she said. “It doesn’t necessarily define me, but it fulfills me.”

Going to Extremes: Professional Cyclist Todd Herriott

November 25, 2011 2 comments

George Herriott, a writer friend of mine who was once a client, pitched me the idea of doing a story on his pro bike racing son, Todd Herriott, and the following profile is the result. I like when stories come out of left field like this because it’s unlikely I would have ever come to telling Todd’s story otherwise.  Todd has since retired from the pro circuit to own and operate his own cyclist training and fitness gym, but he was full in it when I interviewed and profiled him.  The story of how he came to the sport, then left it, only to take it up again at a rather advanced age, whereupon he enjoyed his greatest success, is a compelling one.

 

Going to Extremes: Professional Cyclist Todd Herriott

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

“I have an all or nothing personality.”

The telling self-assessment belongs to Omaha native Todd Herriott, a pro bicycle racer who made a dramatic return to the sport three years ago after a long hiatus to sate his insatiable curiosity. An uptown New York City resident with the cocksure attitude of a Big Apple denizen, Herriott competed as a premier amateur racer from the late 1980s until 1995, when his sense of wanderlust got the better of him and he opted out, at only 26, to try other things.

Changing gears is nothing new for Herriott, a 1987 Elkhorn Mount Michael graduate. About the same time he got into bike racing as an Omaha teen, he latched onto a dream of being a professional dancer, even studying the art form at Emerson College in Boston, where he supported himself as a bike messenger, before his “hyper-competitive” drive made racing his focus again. When he left the sport, he worked, in quick succession, as a Hollywood film production assistant, a Boston bike messenger again and a Manhattan personal fitness guru. Wherever adventure called, this searcher went, once driving cross-country on a motorcycle because “it sounded like a really bad idea, so it must be good.” Reinventing himself is a habit.

Even when racing “back in the day,” his eclectic interests kept him from ever giving himself fully over to the single-minded dedication and discipline demanded by cycling. It’s why he didn’t graduate then past the elite amateur level. “I wasn’t ready to be a professional bike racer when I quit the sport,” says Herriott, who radiates the high-energy vibe and rebel cool of the extreme athlete. “There were too many other things I wanted to try and, it’s like, there weren’t enough minutes in the day. Unless you’re really committed to doing the sport, you can’t make it. It’s too much. It’s too hard. It takes too much time and too much energy.”

Infatuated with an actress-model during this transitional period of his life, he acted impulsively and married the woman, he says. “for all the wrong reasons.” After sampling the west coast’s “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” scene, his obsession with salvaging his failed marriage sent him on a downward spiral back east, where he bummed lodging from friends between infrequent paying gigs. “The problem is, you take all the problems you had on one coast to the other coast,” he says. “I’m one of those people who sort of lives for drama. If I don’t have drama in my life, it’s very hard for me to get motivated, so I’m very good at creating drama for myself. Life would have been a little easier if I had done some things a little bit differently.”

Salvation for Herriott finally came in the form of a light, sleek, carbon-fiber racing bike, something he swore off ever riding again.

“I was in a down period of my life and I needed something to distract me and I thought, Well, cycling has always been a good diversion. It’s challenging, it’s difficult, it’s fast, it’s free-flowing, it’s a little dangerous,” says the hard-bodied Herriott, who since reentering the sport in a Central Park club race a few years ago has found his love for competitive cycling intact. “I’m still very much in awe of the sport. I still get excited to get up and go ride. I get real giddy about it. It’s almost embarrassing to talk about. It’s very much the way it was when I was 17 in that respect. I’m still overwhelmed by the guys I race against..,I’m like, Wow, they’re really good. Am, I that good?”

He made his amateur racing comeback at 32, an age when most top-flight athletes are slowing up or breaking down, by promptly winning two of the sport’s biggest international events, the 2002 Univest Grand Prix in Souderton, Pa. and the 2003 Tour of Cuba. Despite competing as an amateur for only part of the season, he was named the best amateur male road racer for North America in 2003 by Velo-News Magazine, the top cycling magazine in the world. Things clicked just right. He was in top form. In the zone. In sync.

“You don’t have those days very often, but, boy, it sure is nice when you feel it. You’re like Superman. I felt like that in Cuba. I felt that way in the Univest Grand Prix. I didn’t think anybody could beat me. At the end of the race, with like two laps to go on the circuit, I just rode away. I didn’t attack, I didn’t make some big move…nothing. I just put my head down and thought, ‘I’m out of here.’ I looked over my shoulder and saw ‘em hesitate and I said, ‘I just won the race.’ You just know. That was a really extraordinary feeling. It’s like the heavens opened up and someone shot a beam of light down and said, You are on! I think those moments are few and far between and I think that’s what everybody’s trying to capture.”

In a sport traditionally dominated by Europeans, Herriott became the first American to win the Univest and the Tour of Cuba. Along the way, he dispelled any doubts about the wisdom or the ability of a thirtysomething trying to keep pace, much less outdistance, competitors nearly half his age.

“I knew people would have problems with it,” he says, referring to his “old man” status. “I got a lot of, ‘Oh, you’re pretty old to be doing that.’ My mother was definitely not excited about me riding my bike. She was like, ‘You’re going to do it again? Nothing happened last time. You’re not driving a flashy sports car and you don’t own a home. There must be something wrong with you.’ But there just comes a time when you have to decide what you’re going to do and do it, whether or not anybody agrees with you.”

Herriott never second-guessed himself. “That’s the thing. I didn’t have any doubts,” he says. “That’s probably why I was able to pull it off. It probably would have been more of an issue if I sat down and really thought about it.”

He was recovering from an illness contracted in Chile, where he’d traveled for a big event, when he accepted an offer to join the elite pro team, Health Net, with whom he rode the second half of the 2003 U.S. Pro Road Race season. As a Team Health Net member, he rode with one of his idol’s and one of the sport’s icons, Gord Fraser, whom he trained with at the living legend’s Tucson, Arizona home.

Now with Team Colavilta Bolla, Herriott sees this as his moment to shine. That he’s defied time by not only recapturing but improving upon his performances as a youth, Herriott’s validated his own passion for cycling and his decision to rededicate his life to it. All the while he was out of the sport, living that fast, freaky lifestyle, he says his long-suppressed desire to ride “ate at me.” When he finally heeded the hunger, he felt the timing was right.

“The way I thought of it was, it’s such a brutal sport, that by taking years off from riding at the intense level it’s made me years fresher than I would have been. Early 30s is when you really hit it hard. Your body’s really matured. You really know what you’re doing. So, I have no question my best rides are ahead of me. My training gets better every year. I pay more attention to detail. I continue to get stronger and lighter at the same time. Strength to weight ratio is a big thing in cycling. So, I’m smarter and stronger and more motivated than ever. I really believe I’m going to uncork something pretty big,” he says.

He wouldn’t be where he is today if he weren’t so passionate about cycling. “It’s just too hard of a sport to do to not really enjoy it at that level,” he says. Being good helps make it fun. Defining good from mediocre is a mix of endurance, discipline, strategy, gamesmanship and technique. It all starts with conditioning. Herriott, who still trains clients in fitness programs of his own design, follows a rigorous workout regimen. “I’m something of a psycho when it comes to training. Training is fun for me. I’m training all the time. I love it.” In what can be “a selfish sport,” he’s often off alone doing his thing. An understanding girlfriend helps.

He works on different things on different days, sometimes emphasizing aerobic-cardiovascular training and other times resistance-strength exercises. For example, Tuesdays, one of his resistance days, finds him tackling a wide-ranging cross-training schedule that is equal parts pleasure and pain and an expression of both his attention to business and his personal cycling mantra.

“I’ll get up at 6. I’ll train a client at 7. Make a little money. Then, I’ll do like a two-hour ride, usually indoors, where I can monitor the intensity more easily. I’ll be doing base intensity, but on the higher end of my aerobic capacity. I’ll ride a special crank set that forces me to use one leg at a time. You have to coordinate the strokes, which forces you to use your hip flexors and your hamstrings. I do that indoors so I don’t have any distractions.

“Then, I’ll take the train downtown. I’ll change my gear around. I’ll run in the gym. I’ll do 30-40 minutes on a climbing machine or some weird different exercises I’ve created on the gym floor. Medicine balls, stair climbers, jumping rope, hitting the heavy bag. Then, I’ll teach a spinning class for an hour. Then, I’ll go back out on the gym floor for 30-40 minutes. I’ll run back to the apartment and do another 90 minutes or two hours on the bike. Usually, I have another client or two late in the afternoon. I’ll come home and eat. I have five floors to walk-up to my apartment to drop off my bike every night. It’s that last, little extra push at the end of my workout. After dinner I take a hot soak before stretching.

“So, some of those days can be working out for four or five hours.”

Other days, riding takes precedence. “Wednesdays, I do a long ride, anywhere from five to six hours. Sometimes, I do a double session…riding indoors, working form on the pedal stroke.” Gearing up in the winter for the spring-summer racing season, he progressively ratchets up his outdoor mileage until he’s riding 30 to 35 hours a week. During a December swing through his hometown to visit family, he noted, “I’ve already started doing six-and-a-half hour rides in 40-degree weather. You have to do it. It’s all about preparation.”

In preparaing for the rigors of the season, when he travels from event to event, competing in races ranging over a few days to a few weeks and covering anywhere from 100 to 155 miles over widely varying terrain, altitudes and weather conditions, Herriott goes to extremes. In December, he put in a grueling 30-hour week up and down the 11-mile El Diablo Climb outside San Francisco. As he often does, he wore a power meter that gave “a real time wattage output of how much power” he generated, one of many measures he uses in gauging his finely calibrated fitness. Besides giving him a steep vertical challenge to hone his climbing skills on, the El Diablo offers a chance to work on the equally vital art of descent.

“Descending is a serious technique. Going down a mountain and taking turns at mach 10, if you don’t practice that…CRASH.”

An edge. Every competitor seeks one. It can be a steely attitude or a superior bike or a high pain tolerance. Some resort to performance enhancing drugs. Herriott, who says he doesn’t “take anything funny,” feels his advantage resides in something basic. “Yeah, I’m always looking for an edge and I think my big edge this year is stretching a lot more. I hate stretching. It’s painful. But I still sit down and do it for 45 minutes to an hour a day because I know it’s going to help my recovery.” He’s also careful to rest and eat right. Seemingly little things separate winning from losing. Aside from physical aspects, a competition turns on wills and tactics. “Yeah, there’s a lot of races within the race,” he says, referring to the jostling and sizing-up that go on. It’s all about knowing your and your opponents’ capabilities and, when opportunity arises, seizing the moment. “When it’s on, it’s on,” he adds.

“If you’re being lazy sitting on the back during a breakaway move, people are going to think you’re useless. Well, that’s great because that’s what you want ‘em to think. It doesn’t matter how strong or hard you ride in the first 105 miles of a 110-mile road race. What matters is that last kilometer or last 500 meters,” he explains. “Will you be able to respond to the attacks that will certainly come? If you’re not a sprinter and you know there’s three sprinters in this group of 10 guys…you’ve got to jump off now and play your card. If you don’t play your card, you’ll never know. If you wait for the sprint, and you’re not a sprinter, you’re going to lose.”

From aching muscles to burning lungs, a cyclist’s physical threshold gets tested. “When you’re hurting, it’s safe to assume everybody’s hurting,” he says. “Some people can suffer more than other people. Period. That can be the difference.” The real race begins once the field’s trimmed. “The race is now a different race altogether,” he explains. “Your odds have already greatly improved. Your chances of crashing have decreased. So, you have to take some inventory. ‘Who’s fresh? Who’s not.? Over here’s a guy who won two weeks ago. He’s got good form. I don’t know this other guy in from Argentina. He’s supposed to be a good sprinter, but he looks like he’s suffering. Is he gonna be worth a crap after a couple of attacks?’”

In service of his team’s star racer, he often plays the rabbit by strategically drawing out the competition to “get my guy to the finish line. If I hear in my radio ear piece a teammate is coming up, I might attack off the front like a lunatic, and get a couple guys to come with me. And maybe when I take off, I am the strongest guy, and I’m gone. For any major race there’s probably 10 guys who could possibly win. And I’ll have days where I might be one of those 10 guys.”

Whatever comes of his cycling career, Herriott feels it’s steeled him for the future. “If I can do this, there isn’t anything I can’t do,” he says. For now, he’s “full on” for this cycling season, having completed his first Redlands Classic in Redlands, Calif. and earlier this year and now gearing up for the Wachovia USPRO Championship on June 6 in Philadelphia. The Phillie event is the longest running and richest single day cycling race in the U.S. A 35-year old champion?

“Who knows? Stranger things have happened in my life.”

 

From the Archives: Alexander Payne – Portrait of a young filmmaker

November 24, 2011 9 comments

 

 

From the Archives: Alexander Payne – Portrait of a young filmmaker

© by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Darryl Zanuck. Fred Astaire. Henry Fonda. Dorothy McGuire. Montgomery Clift. Marlon Brando. Sandy Dennis. Nick Nolte. Enduring film icons and Nebraskans all. Now add the name of writer-director Alexander Payne, 36, to this list of native sons and daughters who’ve made their mark in cinema. Born and raised in Omaha, Payne made an impressive feature debut with the funky 1996 abortion comedy,Citizen Ruth, and is sure to make waves again with his second feature, Election, which wrapped shooting in Omaha December 15 and is slated for a summer release.

The made-in-Omaha Citizen Ruth netted wide critical praise for its satiric take on the pro life-pro choice debate, revealing Payne to be a keen social observer with an ironic sensibility. Payne, who is single and lives in Los Angeles, is a gifted artist. He’s smart, witty, confident, yet refreshingly grounded. He knows exactly what he’s after and how to get it. He’s also brash and passionate enough to make delightfully subversive films far outside the Hollywood mainstream. Those who know him admire his agile mind, him unmannered sincerity, his barbed humor.

He has the cachet to make films anywhere, but continues coming back here to shoot his quirky independent pictures. Indeed, he remains fiercely loyal to his hometown, whose currents reverberate deeply within him. “I feel so strongly about shooting in Omaha,” he said. “In nursing and nudging Election along, I made it clear I wanted to shoot here, and the producers said, ‘Well, you can shoot this anywhere.’ But I don’t want to fake it. It’s not the same thing. There’s an atmosphere I want to get and be faithful to — about how people are. I want it to be real, I want it be where I’m comfortable and where deep buttons in me are pressed.”

Election co-producer Albert Berger feels Payne is well attuned to Omaha’s Zeitgeist. “I had never been in Omaha before, but interestingly enough I sensed an attitude that was very much Alexander’s,” Berger said. “There’s a sort of courteous, formal presentation or exterior of normality, with a bizarre, eccentric, biting humor just beneath it, and I saw that time and time again…so I’m not surprised Alexander came from Omaha and he’s making the type of movies he is there. I feel he is very much of that place.”

Payne agrees, but can’t quite pinpoint the source of his sardonic streak other than to speculate: “Maybe historically, the fact the weather is so cruel on the Plains that for survival there’s bred a sense of humor about it all.” If nothing else, his humor is informed by Omaha’s small town-bit city schizophrenia. “There’s always this tight-assed conservative element here that’s very irritating,” he said. “That doesn’t think anything is funny except Marmaduke and Family Circus. But then there’s this whole other Omaha I grew up with of really smart, funny, caustic people.”

His cutting humor has no shortage of targets. In Citizen Ruth he lampooned the hypocrisy of pro life-pro choice extremists. In Election he exposes the hollowness of School-Suburbia USA rituals.

The role of satirist seems to fit Payne well, but he feels his career is too young to assign him a signature style just yet: “I don’t like to analyze it too closely,” he said, “because so far this type of stuff is just what comes naturally to me. And I almost fear that analyzing it too much will make me too self-conscious or make me think there’s no rules. You know? I’m still just figuring it out.”

Election, which Payne and his Citizen Ruth writing collaborator, Jim Taylor, adapted from the soon-to-be-published novel of the same name by Boston writer Tom Perrotta, promises to be Payne’s breakthrough film. Why? Because the material retains the mordant, mercurial sensibility of his debut feature, but is neither likely to be as difficult for its studio (Paramount) to market nor as hard for audiences to stomach as the earlier film was, with its raw-nerve subject matter. Plus, Election stars two young, appealing crossover actors in Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon who should attract the very demographic the film will surely target (ages 18-34).

The film, like the book, revolves around a high school teacher, Jim McAllister (Broderick), who, in the midst of a mid-life crisis, acts rashly and rigs a student election, setting in motion a series of seriocomic events that change the lives of everyone involved. Broderick should have just the right innocent deadpan persona (like his idol Buster Keaton) for the part. Much of the script’s sly humor stems from normally upstanding folks behaving badly under pressure. As Payne puts it, “All these horrible, pathetic things happen, but it’s not as though any of the characters is bad, they’re just doing it all for the first time. They just don’t know any better.”

For all its strengths, Citizen Ruth never quite fleshed-out the title character, Ruth Stoops. Payne and Taylor used her more as a siphon and symbol to comment on the absurd lengths pro life-pro choice activists go to, rather than develop her as a person with complex emotional shadings. Her escape at the end makes a strong statement, but tells us nothing we don’t already know. While it’s hard to believe anyone with a sense of humor could be offended by Citizen Ruth, the film surely put off some viewers who strongly identify with one side or the other of the abortion issue.

With Election, Payne isn’t shying away from skewering more sacred cows, but is mining a richer vein of Americana than he attempted before. Where Citizen Ruth often settled for broad sketches, Election promises to probe more deeply into the lives of characters and the milieu they inhabit. And, at least as scripted, the new film allows room for its protagonists to grow somewhat through their ordeal.

Payne feels Election, with its fuller palette of colors, should prove to be “ a much stronger film” than his first feature. “Citizen Ruth is particular in it’s having fun with stereotypes,” he said. “It’s funny and interesting, but this is a richer piece of material. It’s got a more complex, nuanced human canvas. There’s nothing schematic about it. I mean, once you figure out what’s going on in Citizen Ruth you still might enjoy the film, but you kind of know where it’s heading. This one, you don’t really know what’s going to happen next.” Ask him what Election is all about and he sighs, wearily weighing your question with one of his own: “How to articulate it? I don’t know…It’s very human and it’s very real, It’s about life. It’s like life — I can’t sum it up. I hope always to make movies that can’t be easily summed up.”

Payne doesn’t pander to audiences. His leading characters don’t neatly conform to Post-Modern Hollywood’s idea of winning protagonists. Instead, they’re whimsically, tragically, unpredictably human. And because they’re so authentic they engage us in ways “nice” characters often don’t. Ruth Stoops is a pregnant inhalant addict who’s made a mess of her life and is unrepentant about it. She’s also street-smart and disarmingly honest. Jim McAllister is a philandering hypocrite who takes his hurt out on one of his students. He’s also hard-working and surprisingly vulnerable.

YOU CAN READ THE REST OF THE STORY IN MY NEW BOOK-

Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film, A Reporter’s Perspective 1998-2012

A compilation of my articles about Payne and his work.  Now available for pre-ordering.

Matthew Broderick and Payne on the Election set

Reese Witherspoon and Alexander Payne on the set of Election

Reese Witherspoon as the indomitable Tracy Flick

Reese Witherspoon as Tracy and Matthew Broderick as Jim McAllister


Kelly Preston and Laura Dern in Citizen Ruth

From The Passion of Martin
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