Archive for August 15, 2012

When Omaha independent filmmaking took a new turn or did it?

August 15, 2012 7 comments


A decade ago I fairly called out the Nebraska independent filmmaking scene with this story that bemoaned the lack of home-grown feature filmmaking here.  I used the example of locally based Oberon Entertainment completing a feature of some size, Full Ride, and with a distribution channel in place as being a great depature from what had been happening and what was happening at the time.  Sadly though, with the exception of Nik Fackler taking things one step further with his Lovely, Still, in 2008, nothing much has changed.  Oberon hasn’t made another feature.  And whatever features Nebraskans have made here have apparently not gained much traction.  No Omaha native filmmaker has yet broken out the way Alexander Payne has.  Fackler’s come closest and I would still bet he’s the best candidate of the filmmakers who’ve emerged here the last decade to do so.  Charles Fairbanks may be another.  That’s not to say there aren’t some terrifically talented folks making shorts and even features here or that one or more them couldn’t break out.  I just don’t know about them.  I hope someone does if for no other reason then I’d like to write about them and their work being discovered and embraced by the masses.  I must add though that the prospects for this happening have brightened because the film culture here has much become richer since this story was first published in 2012.  The Omaha Film Festival and Film Streams are longer overdue and welcome additions to growing the film culture.




When Omaha independent filmmaking took a new turn of did it?

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (


Filmmaking is a lot like sex. There are the wannabes who mainly talk about doing it and those who really get it on. With the exception of Alexander Payne, whose Hollywood-financed films place him in a special category, Omaha has had its share of cinema wet-dreamers. A few, like Steve Lustgarten, Dan Mirvish, Dana Altman and Shawn Prouse, managed scraping together tens of thousands of dollars from local investors and, by hook or crook, realized their grassroots indie aspirations using almost entirely local casts and crews. Until recently, though, no one succeeded in raising really serious money for a native-born production. That is until Oberon Entertainment Properties hit the scene.

An Omaha film production company formed in 2000 by Mark Hoeger, Andy Anderson and Thompson Rogers, Oberon’s partners quickly separated themselves from the local cinema pack by not only setting ambitious production and distribution goals but by doing enough homework and opening enough doors to actually reach some of those lofty goals. In researching the biz, including such centers of indie filmmaking as Austin, Texas and Charlotte, N.C., Oberon’s principal players say they found plenty of data to support their contention that homegrown movie-making could be a going concern.

Displaying a business acumen unseen before among area filmmakers, the three men went about doing exactly what they set out to do, including acquiring a marketable script and hot lead actors, lining-up investors to bankroll the $1.84 million project, securing a major distributor for the property before filming even commenced, completing their teen romance film, The Full Ride, without incident and attracting major players to represent their product around the world. Now, they are in the midst of raising a film financing pool, which they hope will total between $10 and $40 million, to help fund future Oberon projects.

While the company is still “pushing” to net a theatrical release for Full Ride, that prospect dims as time goes by, meaning the film will likely find exclusive distribution via home market venues (cable, video, network TV). With one major foreign TV sale already inked and other overseas-domestic sales in the works, Oberon has leverage on its side. The only thing left unproved is whether it returns a profit to investors and has any legs or staying power as a boutique film business. While Oberon seeks to avoid being a flash-in-the-pan, it should be noted no Omaha filmmaking venture (other than Payne’s) has followed-up a first pic with anything more than unfulfilled promise.

“When we started putting this company together it wasn’t to make a film, it was to create a film business. We don’t want to play at this — we’re too old,” said Anderson who, along with Hoeger, headed Full Ride’s 40-something creative team, with Anderson serving as cinematographer and Hoeger as director. It may be Oberon that is part of a Nebraska New Wave given that indie hit My Big Fat Greek Wedding was financed by Gold Circle Films, a division of Omaha-based Waitt Media.

The story of Oberon offers an insider’s-look at how things work in an industry predicated on gumption, guile and glad-handing, but also bottom lines. In an unprecedented move for local filmmakers, Oberon sold itself and its dream, in the form of a well-articulated business plan, to deep-pocket money-men. The journey began when Hoeger, former executive director of the Omaha Theater Company for Young People, was approached by Omaha author and ex-UNL football player George Mills with an original film story. The story concerned a troubled star high school football player, Matt, who is pressured by an ambitious coach and smitten by a small town girl, Amy, whose perfect facade hides an ugly truth.





Mark Hoeger


With Mills bringing the project’s first investor aboard along with him, Hoeger agreed to film an 18-minute “pilot” or teaser to test the investment waters. Needing someone to shoot the pilot, Hoeger collaborated with Anderson, the maker of scores of TV commercials via his Anderson Productions. Each man had flirted with the movies before, Hoeger as a sometime filmmaker and film instructor and Anderson as a second-unit cinematographer on Hollywood export pics (including Payne’s Citizen Ruth andElection) and as cinematographer for omaha: the Movie.

The pair next approached Thompson Rogers, an Omaha entrepreneur and investor. It turned out their timing was right, as Rogers had already begun looking at film as a business opportunity. Rogers joined the team, but demanded his partners gather more facts and figures. “The great thing about having Tom on board is he put us through our paces in getting us to prove that we had a good idea and that we had the capacity for doing it,” Hoeger said. Anderson said the process “helped build our credibility in the business world because we approached it from a business standpoint rather than as, ‘Oh, we’ve got a great idea for a movie.’ We looked at the independent filmmaking business…at what independent films are doing domestically and internationally through all the different distribution venues.”

Hoeger said, “One of the pieces of data we found showed that films that get released are profitable overall, especially over their lifetime, but that the number of films released compared to the number of films that get made is very small. Because what we figured out was it’s easy to make a movie — it’s harder to get it out there. Now, one strategy is you make a film and then you try to get it into the Sundance Film Festival, where you hope to get a distribution deal. But out of the literally thousands of entries to Sundance, maybe only 50 films get shown and of those 50 maybe five end up in distribution. So, that’s a very high risk operation…it’s sort of the lottery theory of a business plan. We realized it was going to be hard to pitch that. We wanted something with better odds, which meant not starting production until we had some distribution channel in place.”

He said it turned out many of the 14 investors who signed on with Oberon have invested in films before or been approached to. He feels what aided Oberon in getting their support is the sober way it wooed potential backers. “I think the main thing is we didn’t oversell what the potential was. Most of the investors have been around the block enough times to know that if it sounds impossible, it probably is. It seemed the more honest we were…the more interested people got because then they began to take us seriously. Plus, it helped that Andy and I had a track record in the community. That opened the door for us.”

It didn’t hurt, either, that Oberon knew how the game was played and brought in some bona fide players on its side. In a classic case of it’s-who-you-know-in-Hollywood, Hoeger got an old college roommate, novelist-screenwriter-producer Don Winslow to rewrite Mills’s treatment for Full Ride. Winslow then pitched the script to Porchlight Entertainment’s Bruce Johnson, who bit on it. Winslow also led Oberon to former Universal executive Peter Heller to produce Full Ride and to prestigious Creative Artists Agency (CAA) to represent Oberon. “Don’s very well connected,” is how Hoeger describes Winslow’s influence. Rounding out the creative team were production designer Sandy Veneziano (Father of the Bride) and Oscar-winning editor Mike Hill (Apollo 13).

Even with this power package in place, Hoeger found the labyrinthian Hollywood system made it difficult to know whether their film was ever green-lighted “until we started shooting.”  “You get yessed to death. The suits never want to say ‘No’ because nobody wants to be the jerk that passes up the next Blair Witch Project. So, you always get, ‘Yes, but…’ or ‘Yes, come back to me…’ It’s an odd thing to deal with.” If anything finally sold the film, Oberon’s partners say, it was the script. “What George (Mills) was really great at was an authentic rendering of the football experience. What Don did is he filled out the characters of Matt and Amy and their romance,” Hoeger said. In his hands, Anderson said, “the story became one of overcoming adversity or misfortune, which is sort of a universal theme, and the football aspect became the backdrop.” In turn, the meatier story of redemption and the solid parts attracted a top casting director and rising young stars in Riley Smith (Matt) and Meredith Monroe (Amy).

The May 2001 shoot, which unfolded largely in and around the Dana College campus in Blair, Neb., weathered the usual production burps, including rainy weather not called for in the script. “I thing the biggest challenge was staying on schedule and on budget,” Anderson said. “We were very diligent those two things happened and despite some hiccups we came in under budget and on time.” He equated filmmaking’s high stakes pressure to “being an artist with a gun to your head,” always ready to improvise when problems arise. Hoeger feels the process promotes more creativity, saying, “In some ways, the best stuff comes out of that problem solving.” Hoeger added it was not until post-production at the Gower Studios in Hollywood when he had an epiphany signifying his and Oberon’s arrival. “After working there awhile I’d drive on the lot and the guard would give me a little wave and the valet would get my car. One day, walking back from the commissary, there were wardrobe racks rolling by, film crew members sitting on cranes and stars walking around when I looked up at the big Hollywood sign on the hill and I thought, ‘Oh, wow, cool…It’s like we’re making a movie.’”

Hoeger said Oberon’s success in steering a film through financing, production and distribution has established the company in Hollywood circles. “That’s considered quite an accomplishment in L.A. because there are so many people who want to get that done but never do. To actually pull that off puts you in an amazingly elite club…” Interestingly enough, he said, in the entire three-year process Oberon has met no L.A. snobbery about its Omaha roots. “The industry is now so much decentralized — it’s moved all across the country and into Canada — that as far as they’re concerned Omaha might as well be Austin or Charlotte or Minneapolis or Vancouver. It’s all the same to them — it’s not L.A.”

The company is now weighing its second feature project. “We have boxes and boxes of new scripts that people have sent us, but we haven’t optioned any at this point. The next project will probably be a property owned by one of the production companies that have proposed doing a co-production with us,” he said, adding Oberon may one day be in a position to directly acquire scripts.” He said Oberon doesn’t so much pick scripts as pitch them. “When we go out to L.A. it’s with an armful of scripts and it’s up to the distributor to decide ‘This is the one.’”

Would-be filmmakers now come to Oberon in droves asking, How do you do it? The dreamers are told it takes preparation, knowledge, talent, guts and patience, lots and lots of patience. Hoeger said, “Anybody who dreams of becoming a filmmaker has to be prepared for the fact that it’s a pretty slow go.” Or, as Anderson likes to say, “sometimes you have to wait for the stars to align.”

Documentary considers Omaha’s changing face since World War II

August 15, 2012 4 comments

Omaha, my Omaha.  I have something of a love-hate relationship with my city, which is to say I have strong feelings about it and I always want it to be better than it thinks it can, though the attitude problem or more specifically inferiority complex it suffered from for so long has been largely replaced by a bold new, I-can-do confidence.  That metamorphosis is part of what drew me to a documentary some years back that took the measure of Omaha by charting the changing face ofrcityscape since World War II, and what a marked difference a half-century has made.  In truth, and as the doc makes clear, the most dramatic changes have only occurred in the last decade or two, when the city poured immense dollars into transforming parts of downtown, the riverfront, midtown, and South Omaha.  Left mostly untouched has been North Omaha, where the city’s major revitalization focus is now aimed.  The film also deals with one of the city’s biggest missteps – the razing of the Jobbers Canyon warehouse district to appease a corporate fat cat who wanted to put his headquarters there in place of what he called the area’s “big ugly red brick buildings.”  Those buildings were historic treasures dating back a century and today they would be home to well-established retail, residential, commercial developments that would be employing people and generating commerce, thus pouring money back into the city’s coffers.

Documentary considers Omaha’s changing face since World War II

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (


Omaha’s evolution into a homey yet cosmo metropolis that’s discarded, for better or worse, its gritty industrial-frontier heritage is the subject of a new documentary premiering statewide on the NETV network. Omaha Since World War II — The Changing Face of the City is a UNO Television production  and a companion piece to UNO-TV’s popular 1994 If These Walls Could Speak.

What the new film does particularly well is frame the growth of Omaha over the past 60 years within a social, cultural and political context. Instead of settling for a Chamber of Commerce paean to development, the film makes a balanced effort at showing not only the dynamic explosion in Omaha’s ever-expanding boundaries and emerging 21st century cityscape but also some of the real tensions and costs that have come with that change. Using soaring, sweeping aerial footage shot from a helicopter video mount, the film provides insightful glimpses of Omaha’s famous sprawl and, even more tellingly, of the riverfront renaissance that’s remaking the city’s traditional gateway into a stunning new vista. Like the fits-and-starts pace of most Omaha development, major pieces in the Return to the River movement have taken decades to coalesce, but now that the new riverfront is emerging, it’s shaping up as a dramatic statement about the sleek, modern Omaha of the future.

While most of this period has seen real progress, valid concerns are raised about  one neglected area and a pattern of disregarding history. For example, the film focuses on the decline of north Omaha in the wake of the devastating 1960s riots there and the equally hurtful severing of that community by the North Freeway several years later. News footage of burning stores and marching civil rights demonstrators, along with residents’ personal anecdotes of urban ruin, reveal a community in upheaval.

The late Preston Love Sr., ex-Omaha educator Wilda Stephenson and Omaha World-Herald photographer Rudy Smith paint vivid pictures of the jumping place that once was North 24th Street and of the despairing symbol it came to represent. As the $1.8 billion in downtown-riverfront revival continues (development dollars spent in the last six years, according to Omaha Chamber of Commerce figures), it’s apparent north Omaha’s been left behind. Unlike South Omaha, which remakes itself every few decades as an immigrant haven and finds new uses for old landmarks like the former stockyards site, North Omaha still searches for a new identity.

The film also examines how city/state leaders sacrificed the nationally historic Jobber’s Canyon district to the whims of corporate giant ConAgra in the 1980s. A man-made canyon of 22 massive, architecturally unique warehouse buildings closely tied to early Omaha’s booming river-rail economy, all but one Jobbers structure — the former McKesson-Robbins Building, now the Greenhouse Apartments — was razed when ConAgra decided the “eye-sore” must go if it was to keep its headquarters downtown. After seeing homegrown Enron uproot to Houston, Omaha caved to ConAgra’s demands rather than lose another Fortune 1000 company. The canyon was an incalculable loss but, as the film makes clear, the resulting corporate campus served as a catalyst for development.

The filmmakers rightly reference Omaha’s penchant for tearing down its history, as in the old post office, the original Woodmen of the World building, the Fontenelle Hotel and the Indian Hills Theater. Spinning the story in all its permutations are, notably, former Omaha city planning directors Alden Aust and Marty Shukert, architect and preservationist George Haecker, historians Harl Dalstrom, Thomas Kuhlman, Bill Pratt and Garneth Peterson, developers Sam and Mark Mercer and entrepreneur Frankie Pane.

Warehouse district street scene. Omaha - NARA - 283718.tif

Jobbers Canyon before

 ConAgra campus that replaced Jobbers Canyon

The Jobbers Canyon debacle came at a time when downtown was reeling and in danger of being an empty shell. If not for major investments by a few key players. it may never have come back from the mass retail exodus to the suburbs it witnessed in the 1960s and ‘70s. In a real coup, the film features Old Market pioneers Sam and Mark Mercer, who describe the organic growth of this historic district into a cultural oasis — one that’s served as an anchor of stability.

The longest ongoing story of Omaha’s growth is its westward push. The film explains how this has been achieved by a liberal annexation policy that’s added subdivisions and even entire small communities to the tax rolls. The film touches on the fact that, outside a few developments, this sprawl has created a formless, characterless prairie of concrete and glass. The film also alludes to Omaha’s old neighborhoods, but only highlights one, Dundee, as an example of design and lifestyle merging.

Where the film doesn’t fare so well is in offering any real sense for the personality of the city. To be fair, filmmakers B.J. Huchtemann and Carl Milone didn’t intend to do that. Still, it would have been useful to try and take the measure of Omaha beyond its physical landscape. The only hint we get of this is via the many on-camera commentators who weigh in with their perspectives on Omaha’s changing face. And, to producer-director Huchtemann’s and co-producer-editor Milone’s credit, they’ve chosen these interpretive figures well. They’re an eclectic, eloquent, opinionated bunch and, as such, they reflect Omahans’ fierce independence and intelligence, which is at odds with the boring, white bread image the city often engenders. They are the film’s engaging storytellers.

Still, a film about the city’s changing face begs for an analysis of Omaha’s identity crisis. Mention the name, and outsiders draw a blank or recall a creaky remnant from its past or ascribe a boring blandness to it all. That’s before it had any “Wow” features. Now, with its gleaming new facade, Omaha’s poised to spark postcard worthy images in people’s minds. What is Omaha? What do we project to the world? The answers all converge on the riverfront. That’s where Omaha began and that’s where its makeover is unfolding. The monumental, sculptural pedestrian bridge may be the coup de grace. Interestingly, the film explains how much of what’s taking place was envisioned by planners 30 years ago. It’s all come together, in piecemeal fashion, to make the water’s edge development Omaha’s new signature and face.

So, what does it say about us? It speaks to Omahans’ desire to forge ahead and be counted as a premier Midwest city. No mention’s made of Hal Daub, the former mayor whose assertive energy drove Omaha, kicking and screaming, into the big time. He gave Omaha attitude. The film suggests this bold new city is here to stay.

‘West Side Story,’ An American Classic

August 15, 2012 1 comment

I have been fortunate enough to interview several film legends and with this story I landed a biggie in the person of the late Robert Wise, the Oscar-winning producer-director who made two of the greatest screen musicals in West Side Story and The Sound of Music, though as my piece points out he was a versatile enough filmmaker that he made memorable movies of all different genres, including horror, crime, Western, and science fiction.  My story appeared on the eve of a revival screening of West Side Story at the restored Orpheum Theater in Omaha some eight or nine years ago.  The event was organized by local impresario Bruce Crawford.  For the story I interviewed Wise, co-star Russ Tamblyn, who came to the showing, and Crawford.  Though Wise was not a great filmmaker or auteur he was certainly one of the most commercially successful prodcuer-directors of his era.  His career also spanned an incredibly long period, from the Golden Age of 1930s-1940s Hollywood well into the 1980s, and intersected with scores of great talents.  It was a distinct privilege to speak with him.  Flm lovers should note that this blog is full of my stories from my work as a film journalist.


George Chakiris, middle, leads the Sharks

‘West Side Story,’ An American Classic

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the New Horizons

Before becoming the home of Omaha’s performing arts in the 1970s, the Orpheum Theater reigned as the grandest movie palace in the city. It’s only fitting then the newly renovated downtown Orpheum will, for one night only, on Monday, November 11, showcase a national cinema treasure — West Side Story — in a special screening benefiting the St. Vincent DePaul Society of Omaha

The event is the latest in local impresario Bruce Crawford’s series of annual film revivals presented in the manner of Hollywood premieres. This time, he’s arranged personal appearances by three West Side Story notables — its Oscar-winning producer-director Robert Wise, co-star Russ Tamblyn and vocalist Marni Nixon, who provided the singing voice for Natalie Wood. Also, a choreographed work by Robin Welch of the Omaha Theater Ballet will pay homage to the dance numbers in the film. Wise, Tamblyn and Nixon will speak prior to the film and sign autographs afterwards.

Crawford said he’s secured “an archival print” for the showing, which will offer audiences a rare chance to see the film in all its 70 millimeter Super Panavision glory on the big screen. In the opinion of Crawford, a devotee of film music, West Side Story “broke the mold” as far as the American musical is concerned. “I consider it a modern opera. Maria,TonightIn America — these are not just show tunes, these are almost operatic arias,” he said. “I think it transcends the musical genre and is the most unique of all film musicals, hands-down.”

Released by United Artists in 1961, West Side Story became a huge box-office hit and one of the most honored films in Academy Award history, winning 10 Oscars, including for Best Picture, Best Director (Wise and co-director Jerome Robbins), Best Supporting Actor (George Chakiris) and Best Supporting Actress (Rita Moreno). As successful as the film was, it owed everything to the original stage production upon which it was based. Boldly transposing the forbidden romance of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to the New York gang milieu and exchanging the Montague-Capulet feud for the gang warfare between the Caucasian Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks, playwright Arthur Laurents, lyricist Stephen Sondheim, composer Leonard Bernstein and director-choreographer Jerome Robbins covered new ground in American musical theater with their honest depiction of racial issues.

The modern, socially-conscious drama became a Broadway phenomenon soon after opening at New York’s Winter Garden Theater in 1957. Brimming with an urgent passion and intellect, the show ran more than 700 performances before going on tour. Sensing a hot property when they saw one, producers ponied-up to buy the film rights. In the changing landscape of American cinema then, old-line Hollywood studios were giving way to brash new independent film companies, one of which — Mirisch Pictures — acquired the rights to the play and, in association with Seven Arts Productions, launched the much-anticipated screen version.

To helm the film, veteran Robert Wise (Somebody Up There Likes Me) was signed and, in an unusual arrangement, Broadway’s Robbins was given co-directorial responsibilities. The plan was for Wise to direct the dramatic scenes and to shape the overall story for the camera and for Robbins to develop the demanding dance and music numbers. Screenwriter Ernest Lehman (SabrinaThe King and ISweet Smell of SuccessNorth By Northwest) wrote the film adaptation. Bernstein and Sondheim again provided the powerful music and lyrics around which the entire spine of West Side is built. In preparing the film, Wise-Robbins elected not to use any leads from the Broadway show and instead cast five fresh-faced young players under contract to various studios.

As the souful, starcrossed lovers whose romance defies family, ethnic and gang codes of honor, Richard Beymer was cast as Tony, the Polish-American boy, and Natalie Wood as Maria, the Chicano girl. Newcomer George Chakiris took the showy part of Bernardo, the charismatic leader of the Sharks. Plucked from the obscurity of previously decorative bit parts, Rita Moreno won the role of Anita, the fire brand mate of Bernardo. And, finally, for the cocky role of Riff, the leader of the Jets, Russ Tamblyn got the call.

In recent phone interviews from their California homes, Wise and Tamblyn spoke about making the film and the artists they collaborated with. After 56 years directing some of the most famous features in movie history, 88-year-old Robert Wise is finally retired from picture-making, although movies are always on his mind. The venerable Wise is the last of the old guard of Hollywood filmmakers. In a distinguished career that saw him transition from the editing room at RKO, where he cut such classics as Citizen Kane, to assuming the director’s chair, from which he oversaw dozens of popular films of every conceivable genre, Wise earned a reputation as a fine craftsman. His fluid, incisive, unadorned work exudes a sober integrity reflective of his own character. In preparing a film a director is like a reporter and Wise, who intended to be a journalist, anchors his work in research. “When I go into any project I research every aspect of it thoroughly, so I can tell all the truth and reality I can up on the screen,” he said.

By the time Wise joined the West Side creative team, he was a bankable, versatile director adept at making suspense films (The Curse of the Cat People), horror films (The Body Snatcher), film noirs (The Set-Up), crime thrillers (Odds Against Tomorrow), Westerns (Blood on the Moon), science fiction flicks (The Day the Earth Stood Still), high dramas (Executive Suite), biopics (I Want to Live) and war films (Run Silent, Run Deep). Despite never directing a musical, he worked as an assistant editor on Astaire-Rogers pictures, an experience, he said, that helped him know “the form” of the musical. Four years after West Side, he struck gold with another Broadway adaptation — The Sound of Music —which broke all box office records.


Wise knew the challenge in making a film from a play, any play, was in finding ways to open the story up in cinematic terms that liberated the action from the constraints of the stage. So that he could capture the grit, vitality and scope of West Side’s New York City setting, he realized he must get dynamic shots of the Big Apple and thus fix the story’s urban location in people’s minds. To do that, he came up with the novel idea for the signature opening — a sweeping helicopter pan looking straight down at the looming cityscape. The resulting images offer arresting views of the city and serve to heighten the reality and poetry of the stylized drama. The filmmaker had to fight reluctant, penny-pinching executives to do the opening his way.

“Well, they were not too happy about it because it was going to cost a lot more money to shoot that, but that was the only way to do it,” he said. “I didn’t want to fake that out here in Los Angeles. I wanted to deliver New York and I didn’t want to do it with that same old shot across the river of the bridge and the skyline. I got to wondering what it would look like just straight down — a New York most people have never seen. I didn’t actually shoot that myself. A second-unit man did it for me. I think we had about a half-hour’s worth of film, which we cut down into what’s in the movie.” The montage rythmically leads into the first pulsating shots of gang members moving in the streets and breaking into dance.


Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood as the star-crossed lovers, Tony and Maria

Aside from his own contributions, Wise felt secure knowing he had a brilliant book, sublime lyrics and memorable music to work with. In his mind, a film is only as good as its screenplay. He said, “We had a marvelous script by a writer-friend of mine, Ernest Lehman, who’s done several of my other things. The foundation of any film is the script, and if it’s not on the page, you’re not going to get it up there (on the screen). If you’ve got it on the page and if you get the right cast together and the right crew, then away you go and you let the chips fall where they may.”

Russ Tamblyn said West Side was a project where “all the ingredients clicked.” Among the big egos and talents behind it, he said, it was the cool, calm, quiet Wise who held it all together. “He was quite different from Jerome Robbins. Jerry was very passionate and out front. He would get mad at dancers if they couldn’t remember steps and he wanted actors to keep doing stuff over and over and over again. On the set, boy, he was a demon. Whereas Robert Wise was more laid-back. He was the kind of director I really like — that’s more self-assured and would point you in the right direction and leave it up to you to go there. That’s the thing I loved about him. He just is really sweet. You can call him at his office, and he answers the phone. There aren’t many people in his position that do that.”

When, more than half-way through production, the film fell behind schedule and went over-budget, the fiery Robbins was fired and assistant Tony Mordente, who also played one of the Jets, Action, assumed the choreography. Ironically, Robbins won Oscars for his energetic, sexually-charged choreography and co-direction.

Behind-the-scenes intrigue or not, Tamblyn enjoyed the shoot and felt lucky to be part of the film at all. He was “on loan” to the producers from MGM, where he was a contract player. He actually tested for the role of Tony, but ended up playing Riff over the objections of studio head Bennie Thau, who felt the part projected the wrong image for a young star being groomed as a clean-cut boy-next-door type. West Side was not the first or last musical for Tamblyn, who displayed his acrobatic style, replete with his trademark back flip, in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Tom Thumb and Hit the Deck. While lacking formal training, the former Los Angeles youth tumbling champ got the equal of a graduate-level dance education from such master choreographers as Robbins, Michael Kidd and Hermes Pan. Although “extremely intimidated” by the dances required in West Side, he gained confidence during months of rehearsal and from being in the company of fellow former child actors Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer, whom Tamblyn later co-starred with in David Lynch’s cult TV series Twin Peaks.

Tamblyn, who considers West Side Story “the peak” of his career, enjoys attending revivals of the film. “Last year we did a cast and crew reunion in New York at Radio City Music Hall,” he said. “It was completely sold out. It was right after 9/11 and we didn’t even want to go, but Mayor Giuliani asked us to, and it was one of the best trips I ever had there.” Robert Wise was there too and said the film “played like gangbusters.” For his Omaha screening, Bruce Crawford is “thrilled” to have the combination of “a legendary filmmaker, a classic film and the Orpheum Theater.”


Russ Tamblyn, leaping the highest, leads the Jets
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