Archive

Archive for April, 2017

Hot Movie Takes – “Queen of Katwe”

April 30, 2017 Leave a comment

Hot Movie Takes  – “Queen of Katwe”

©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film” 

 

Image result for queen of katwe

 

 

India native and longtime American resident Mira Nair deserves to be mentioned in the same breath with the great English-language filmmakers of the last quarter-century, but I’m afraid that because she’s a woman you’re unlikely to know the name. I have long been an admirer of her work (“Salaam Bombay!,” “Mississippi Masala,” “Monsoon Wedding”) and my esteem just grew after watching her “Queen of Katwe” on Netflix. This true story set in the Katwe slum of Kampala, Uganda follows the journey of a girl who rises to international grandmaster chess champion with the loving support of a coach who recognizes her talent and mentors her to excel despite the severe challenges she faces at home. Living in the kind of poverty Americans don’t know, Phiona is one of four children being raised by a single mother whose strict principles are meant to keep her family together and her kids free from exploitation. The mom doesn’t trust the coach at first but comes to see that chess may indeed be a way out for Phiona, whose prodigy abilities eventually take her far from home. Once Phiona has a glimpse and taste of life outside the slum, it causes her to rebel, for a time, before she realizes that what she wants more than anything is to win enough competitive chess prizes to open up doors that will enable her family to escape the daily threats and struggles for survival that make dreaming a luxury that can’t be afforded by most residents. Phiona must overcome self-doubt and learn some tough learn lessons in order to mature enough to achieve her dream but in the end there’s nothing that can deter her. Against all oddes, she becomes an inspiration to her community and her nation. And as the grace notes at the end reveal, Phiona and the other prinicpal charactrs depicted in the film are no longer surviving but thriving and still inspiring others.

This 2016 co-production of Disney and ESPN films is based on a book by the same title by Tom Crothers, who adapted the story to the screen with William Wheleer. Madina Nalwanga is outstanding as Phiona. David Oyelowo is perfectly cast as her coach Robert Katende, who in real life has gone on to start hundreds of chess clubs throughout Uganda. Lupita Nyong’o is great at Phiona’s mother Nakku Harriet. The cast from top to bottom is very good and Nair found many of the children in the film in the slum of Katwe where most of the picture was shot. Having visited some Kampala’s slums myself, I can tell you she shows you just as it is: an unending sea of disheveled shanties pressed up against each other; rutted dirt roads; gullies for sewers; men, women and children on foot lugging by hand jerry cans full of water or balancing atop their heads provisions for home or goods to sell at market; boda-bodas appearing out of nowhere; markets jammed with people, stalls and vehicles; and rainstorms that create rivers of debris and detritus. And everywhere, the colors of the rainbow in the clothes people wear, in the over-laden market stalls, in the red dirt and the green countryside.

Nair also shows the sharp discrepancy between the lives of the slum children, many of whom do not attend school, and those of the privileged children at private schools. Unfortunately, slum kids there are looked down on and made to feel less than there just as they are here. In my visit to Uganda I met many community organizers just like Robert Katende working to improve the lives of children and their families.

 

 

Image result for mira nair

Mira Nair

 

The filmmaker knows Uganda because she lives part of every year there. It’s where her husband Mahmood Mamdani was born and raised until he and his family were expelled during the Ida Amin revolution.

Nair, who comes from a documentary film background, has a knack for realistically portraying ghetto life in her dramatic features. You won’t see stereotypical images or characterizations in her work but rather carefully observed humanity. Her “Salaam Bombay!” won international acclaim for its dramatic story of street children. Most of the kids in the film actually lived on the streets of Bombay. Similarly, her “Queen of Katwe” is filled with people who live and work in the very environment she depicts.

There are a several Nair feature films I’ve never seen that I need to seek out – “The Perez Family,” “Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love,” “Vanity Fair,” “The Namesake” and “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” – because she never disappoints with her humanistic explorations of the human heart.

 

 
Queen of Katwe - Official Trailer

Queen of Katwe – Official Trailer2:25YouTube · 2,381,000+ views

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z4l3-_yub5A

 

So, why isn’t she and her work better known?

Hollywood remains a mail-dominated industry and that extends across production (both behind the scenes and in front of the camera), finance, marketing and even to those who write about the movies. Male filmmakers like Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, David O. Russell, Ridley Scott. Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan are lionized by an apparatus that makes superstars and household names of certain directors, almost always male directors. The handful or so of women directors who have achieved some wide notoriety, such as Kathryn Bigelow, Jane Campion, Julie Taymor and Barbra Streisand, get their moment in the sun for a year or two, surrounding a certain project, and then disappear again. Women directors don’t enjoy the same kind of popular branding, mythologizing and following that men get. In the annals of film history, I can only think of two dozen or so women directors of English-language films who have enjoyed anything like a sustainable and highly praised career despite doing very good, even brilliant work:

 

Dorothy Arzner

Ida Lupino

Shirley Clarke

Barbara Loden

Lee Grant

Joan Micklin Silver

Martha Coolidge

Penelope Spheeris

Amy Heckerling

Gillian Armstrong

Penny Marshall

Mira Nair

Barbra Streisand

Kathryn Bigelow

Jane Campion

Julie Dash

Kasi Lemmons

Nora Ephron

Tamara Jenkins

Betty Thomas

Nancy Meyers

Jodie Foster

Diane Keaton

Julie Taymor

Sofia Coppola

Mary Harron

 

One of the above is Omaha native Joan Micklin Silver, whose sublime body of work (“Hester Street” “Between the Lines,” “Chilly Scenes of Winter,” “Crossing Delancey,” “Loverboy”) is sadly neglected.

Only one woman, Kathryn Bigelow, has ever won the Oscar for Best Director. Not many more have been nominated in that category. You can bet there have been many deserving women, including women of color, who have been passed over. Mira Nair is one of them.

Mira Nair – IMDb

http://m.imdb.com/name/nm0619762/

 

Hot Movie Takes – “Southside with You”

April 29, 2017 Leave a comment

Hot Movie Takes – “Southside with You”
©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

 

 

Southside with You Poster
Trailer

Finally saw “Southside with You,” the 2016 dramatic film that lovingly, tenderly, never cloyingly portrays the first date that then-Michelle Robinson had with Barack Obama in 1989. And, oh, what a date it was in forging a bond that would not be broken. I am happy to report that it is a first-rate romantic movie worthy of the future First Lady and the first African-American U.S. president because it depicts them just as they were then – two young, idealistic lawyers still finding themselves and what they wanted to do with their lives. Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers are sensational as Michelle and Barack, respectively. They capture the fullness of their humanity, intelligence, wit and grace. They nail the dynamic the couple enjoyed as highly educated, aspirational young professionals looking to make a difference in the world.

They nail, too, a desire to find a soulmate with whom they can share their life. But neither will be easily satisfied. Each has defenses and hurts that must be overcome if they’re to let their guard down enough to let someone else in.

Writer-director Richard Tanne very smartly confines the entire story to everything surrounding that first date. The preparation. The anticipation. The awkward feeling out process. The long walks and talks. Viewing an Afroc-centric exhibition at a museum. Taking in a community meeting. Seeing Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.” The after glow of their day into night first date.

We witness an intimate meeting of minds and hearts. The simple but revealing activities of that first time out on the town encapsulate what formed these two serious people, what drove them and why they were attracted to each other. The film reminds us that when really good writing is provided to well-cast actors under the direction of someone who knows how to stage things, then the mere act of two people talking to each other can carry an entire film. It works so well because the characters are firmly established at the very start and everything that flows from there reveals ever more layers of their personality and chemistry. I wondered during the film if I would care as much about these characters if they weren’t Michelle and Barack and I decided, yes, that these two people are engaging enough that I would still be swept up in their orbit. I would still want them to connect and for their budding relationship to click,

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yhd-yvMjImU

 

When the events of the film take place, the two of them work at the same law firm. She’s an associate and he’s an intern. She acts as his advisor there as he learns the ropes. It’s Barack who initiates their seeing each other outside of work on the pretext of taking her to a meeting he feels certain she’ll find interesting. She’s adamant about their outing not being a date and he’s just as insistent that it is a date as far as he’s concerned. We learn he’s been pestering her to go out with him for some time. On their various stops that fateful day in their lives, they learn vital things about each other that confirm they share many of the same passions even if they don’t always see eye to eye on everything.

Michelle really makes Barack work to earn entry into her heart and win her over. The clincher, we think, is when he’s asked to speak at the community meeting and he charms the crowd with his genuine, charismatic message of hope. She sees the common touch he has with people. But it’s really when he buys her her favorite ice cream that she finally melts.

I was amazed to discover this was Tanne’s feature film debut. He is a talent to be watched. Sumpter co-produced the film with him and music artist John Legend executive produced the project. The creators made the film on location in a variety of spots that Michelle and Barack actually traversed that first date – from downtown to the South Side to the West Side. It all plays out very naturally and organically, not forced or contrived.

I didn’t know either of the lead actors before this film but they both have impressive credits and I will definitely be looking for them from here on out because each brings an appealing presence to the screen, Together, they have real chemistry.

I like that the story ends with them basking in their individual homes after the date – each filled with his/her high from the heady experience. Their bright futures are before them and they already know they want to be together for wherever their journeys lead. They couldn’t possibly have known what history they would be making barely more than a decade and a half later. We’re left with two young people on the move, newly in love, and eager to make their mark. They certainly would go on to do that. Hell, the Obamas are still only in their early 50s and may have decades ahead of them to make even more impact.

For some reason the film didn’t do much at the box office but I hope it is finding its audience online. It did deservedly receive many away nominations. I found the film on Netflix and I’m sure it’s available on other viewing platforms as well. Check it out, as I’m sure you’ll find it well worth your time.

 

 

 

Hot Movie Takes – My recap of Julianne Moore in conversation with Alexander Payne

April 26, 2017 Leave a comment

 Hot Movie Takes  –

 My recap of Julianne Moore in conversation with Alexander Payne

©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

Alexander Payne owns enough cachet as a preeminent writer-director that he can pretty much get any peer film artist to join him for a cinema conversation at the Film Streams Feature fundraiser in Omaha. His latest get was Oscar-winning actress Julianne Moore. Monday night (April 24) Payne, a two-time Oscar-winner himself, and Moore talked craft and life at the Holland Performing Arts Center before a packed house. This seventh feature event raised a record $350,000 in kicking off the art cinema’s project to renovate and return the Dundee Theater back into service as a historic cultural touchstone and film haven.

Before Payne and Moore came on, Film Streams founder and director Rachel Jacobson thanked the assembled crowd, including many of its top patrons. She described the affair as “a magical” night for Omaha and she referred to the “extraordinary and inspiring support” that not only made the evening event possible but that’s making the growth of Film Streams possible. She called this “a busy and exciting time for Film Streams,” which is coming up on its 10th anniversary and nearing completion on the renovation and return of the Dundee Theater. She signaled the theme of the event in saying that cinema as a medium can help shape our dreams and that cinema as a place can help shape our community. She then introduced a TCM-like short tribute film produced by Tessa Wedberg and Jonathan Tvrdick that heralded the history of Film Streams and of the Dundee Theater. Many familar faces contributed comments in the film, including Payne, who praised Film Streams as a nonprofit cinemateque and echoed remarks by Jacobson and others about the important role it plays in treating film as an art form and thus as a conveyor of ideas and a convener of diverse audiences and issues. Payne brought things full circle by saying about the Dundee Theater, “Before Film Streams it was the only reliable place to see an art film (in Omaha).” He added his delight in soon having the Dundee back because it means art cinema is “now rooted in a place in Omaha of historical significance.”

These Inside the Actors Studio-like Feature events are not exactly thrilling entertainment and the intrigue of seeing and hearing world-class film figures soon wears off, especially sitting in the nose-bleed section, where anything resembling an intimate exchange gets lost in translation. Usually there’s not much new we learn about either Payne or the special guest and their individual processes but just enough nuggets are revealed to make the evening worthwhile beyond merely a financial windfall for Film Streams.

Payne is a capable interviewer and he thoughtfully let Moore do most of the talking. In the buildup to the event it was noted that she has a significant Nebraska connection having lived four years of her childhood here while her military father was stationed in the area and completed law school studies here. Moore attended one year at Dundee Elementary School and her family lived in a Dundee duplex. Payne shared that had he started Dundee Elementary, where he ended up, he and Moore would have been in the same class. That reminded me that filmmaker Joan Micklin Silver and cinematographer Donald E. Thorin were classmates at Omaha Central and that Dick Cavett and Sandy Dennis were only a class or two apart at Lincoln High.

Moore told us how during her visit for the Feature event she toured her old Omaha haunts and remembered various aspects of her family home here, her playing in the paved alley and walking a few blocks to school.

Her family followed her father’s assignments, ending up in Germany, where she found a high school teacher who encouraged her interest in theater. It was the first time someone told her she could make a living at acting and steered her toward drama schools. Not surprisingly her parents were horrified at the prospect of her trying to forge a career as an actor. Family’s important to Moore, who spoke with genuine pride about being a mother and wife in addition to being an actress.

Payne noted to her that many actors share an itinerant growing up background, including the military brat experience, and Moore said she feels that all the moving around teaches one how “to be adaptable” and to be quick, careful studies of “human behavior.” Combined with her natural curiosity and a love of reading, and she had all the requisite attributes for an aspiring actor.

Moore found her calling for the stage at Boston University, where she learned the techniques that would help carry her into the theater. Her lessons there were both a blessing and a curse as she said she felt she was taught to do exterior rather than interior work. She acted at the Guthrie, the Humana Festival, in off-Broadway plays. She broke into television in the mid- 1980s working on a soap and by the early 1990s she’d done her fair share of episodic series work, made for TV movies and mini-series.

For the longest time, she lamented, “I couldn’t book a movie.” But then she started getting small but telling parts in buzz-worthy pictures like “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle,” “The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag,” “Body of Evidence,” “Benny & Joon” and “The Fugitive.” All decent movies, but purely popcorn fare.

She explained that her epiphany as an actor came when she learned to not just be prepared for something to happen in an audition or a performance but to freely let it happen. In fact, to invite it to happen. “It” being an emotional response.

Her career took a different turn when she found herself in larger, showier parts in independent films made by serious filmmakers: Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts,” Louis Malle’s “Vanya on 42nd Street” and Todd Haynes’s “Safe.” She got in on the very beginnings of the modern indie movement and embraced it as a home for exploring real, true human behavior.

Then, after a commercial venture or two, she cemented herself as an indie film queen in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights,” the Coen Brothers’ “The Big Lebowski,” Altman’s “Cookie’s Fortune” and Neil Jordan’s “The End of the Affair.” That just brings us up to the end of the 1990s. In the proceeding 17 years she’s added to her impressive gallery of work performances in such films as:

 

“Hannibal”

“The Shipping News”

“Far from Heaven”

“The Hours”

“Children of Men”

“I’m Not There”

“Blindness”

“The Kids are Alright”

“Game Change”

“The English Teacher”

“Still Alice”

“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I”

“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part II”

 

By the way, Film Streams is screening a repertory series of Moore’s films through May: Check out the series at–

http://bit.ly/2ngST9t

I personally haven’t seen that much of her work, but what I have seen has impressed me. More importantly, her work impresses her peers. Count Payne among her biggest admirers. In his introduction he even referred to her as “our other Meryl Streep,” and hoped that she would take that loving comparison in the right way. She did. It turns out that Streep has been a major influence and inspiration for her. Payne said her interpretive, expressive skills are so finely honed that when watching one of her performance “we are truly seeing another person and, by extension, us.” Moore always gives whatever her character demands, thus taking on those vocal, physical, emotional traits, but never fails to give us herself as well. And I think Payne was also suggesting that, like Streep, she has that transformative ability to live inside very different skins from role to role without ever losing the humanity of those characters.

Payne and Moore got into an interesting discussion about how an actor’s responsibility is to study the director to know what film he or she is making. She said it’s important that she know what a director is trying to communicate in the frame in any given shot or scene and where the director’s eye is looking. Indeed, she said she believes the director’s main job is to direct the audience’s eye. She said she likes to see dailies to help her guage things but that some directors are overprotective and defensive about letting actors, even ones of her stature, see the work before it’s been refined and edited. Payne said it’s vital that the actors and the director are on the same page so that they know what film they’re making as co-storytellers.

Moore described movies as “an elaborate game of pretend” and she and Payne talked about how actors and directors have to find common ground with each other’s processes. In the end, they agreed, the script must be served, not egos. Payne also referenced something he told me in a recent interview: that because he only makes a movie every three or four years he’s often the least experienced person on the set and so he very much appreciates the experience and expertise that cast and crew bring. Moore seconded what a collaborative process any film is.

Interspersed through the conversation were clips from a handful of Moore’s films and even those brief excerpts demonstrated her intuitive talents and keen observations. She talked about the extensive research she ever more does for her parts in a never ending pursuit for what is present, real, truthful and alive. It is that pursuit that drives her. She said, “I become more and more deeply interested in it – human behavior.” She believes, as Payne believes, that we fundamentally want movies to reflect our experiences back to us. Invariably, the more human the movie, the more indelible it is.

Payne said to her, “I have the deep impression your best work is ahead of you, not behind you.” Interestingly, I feel the same way about Payne’s work. In some ways, his “Downsizing” may mark the end of a certain strain of themes in his work having to do with protagonists in crisis, mostly males, who set off on some journey. and it may also be the bridge to a new Payne cinema of big ideas and diversity.

It’s even possible the two artists may wind up working together in Omaha. Payne intimated as much. That might have just been wishful thinking or something one says in the giddiness of the moment, but it’s the kind of thing that Payne doesn’t usually say or do, especially not in public, unless he means it. His final words were, “She’ll be back.”

The discussion wasn’t entirely confined to career. Moore spoke glowingly of her roles as wife and mother. She tries to work on as many films as she can that shoot where she and her family live – New York City – so that she can have more time with her family. Payne pointed out she’s also the author of children’s books and he had her talk about her love for hand-crafted furniture and for home design and decor. It’s a passionate hobby of hers.

What Hollywood icon will Payne bring next? It’s anybody’s guess. My personal preferences would be for him to sit down and converse with more of the leading actors he’s worked with, including Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon from “Election,” Paul Giamatti ad Thomas Haden Church from “Sideways,” Jack Nicholson from “About Schmidt,” George Clooney from “The Descendants” and Matt Damon from “Downsizing.”

Another preference would be Payne doing a similar program with fellow Nebraska natives in film, such as Joan Micklin Silver. Nick Nolte, John Beasley, Marg Helgenberger, Gabrielle Union and Yolonda Ross.

Then there’s my long-dreamed of event featuring Payne one-on-one with Robert Duvall, who in the late 1960s came to Nebraska to make the Francis Ford Coppola film “The Rain People” and later returned to make the great documentary “We’re Not the Jet Set” about an Ogallala area ranch-rodeo family. Link to some of the story behind the amazing confluence of talent that came to Nebraska for what became three films at–

 https://leoadambiga.com/film-connections…ucas-caan-duvall/ ‎

Hot Movie Takes: Feature VII – Julianne Moore in conversation with Alexander Payne

April 24, 2017 Leave a comment

Both a celebration of Film Streams’ mission and a vital source of support, our Feature fundraiser galas bring together the Omaha community and some of the greatest living artists in film.

Voyager Bud Shaw gives up scalpel for pen

April 20, 2017 2 comments

If you follow my work via my blog or Facebook page then you may have noticed I like writing about fellow writers. I mean, beyond the natural affinity I feel for anyone who takes up the pen and sticks with it, there are myriad things about the writing life that are universal and singular to each writer I profile. There’s no single path to becoming a writer and every writer’s life around the work and separate from it looks a little different, sometimes a lot different. And then there’s the very different kinds of writing people do and the unique voices they express. The subject of this New Horizons cover story, Bud Shaw, is a medical doctor and writer who’s gained a measure of fame for training his inner eye and ear on his former life as a transplant surgeon through essays, several of them collected in his well-received book, Last Night in the OR. Though it took him until about a decade ago to finally write about his own personal experiences, he’s been writing since he was a child. It can take the better part of a lifetime to find one’s voice, especially that voice residing deep within the inner recesses and nooks and crannies of our subconscious. When Shaw finally did find his, he revealed himself to be a strong, spare writer in the style of his literary heroes. My profile of Shaw will appear in the May 2017 issue of the New Horizons, a free montly newspaper from the Eastern Nebraska Office on Aging. Beginning April 28, look for the new issue at area newsstands or, if you’re a subscriber, in your mailbox,. Order your free subscription by calling 402-444-6654.

 

Voyager Bud Shaw gives up scalpel for pen

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in the May 2017 issue of the New Horizons

 

Before Dr. Bud Shaw gained fame as a liver transplant surgeon, first in Pittsburgh, then at the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC), he was a writer. An adventurer, too. He’s a veteran small-engine pilot and hang gliding enthusiast and an avid bicycle trekker.

His wonderment with words goes back to childhood. It continued during his formal education – all the way through undergraduate and medical studies. Even during his surgical career he continued writing whenever he had down time. But since putting down the scalpel for the pen, his writing’s really taken off.

For decades he composed fiction but in recent years he’s turned to nonfiction. Some of his highly personal essays have won recognition. His 2015 book Last Night in the OR was a New York Times Bestseller.

His wife Rebecca Rotert is an award-winning poet, short story writer and essayist whose first novel Last Night at the Blue Angel was well-received.

Shaw leads writing clubs at the Med Center. He advocates students and professionals take writing courses to enrich their humanities education. He cites research showing the health benefits of writing.

“When you write something down as opposed to talking about it, it gets stored in long-term memory – with far fewer details but more indelibly – and it’s in an area where your brain keeps working on it. It’s like the thing where you write something and put it away and come back to it and you start editing it immediately when you couldn’t have done that the day before. But your brain’s been working on it.”

He said studies show that in “patients who wrote for three days in a row their brain did some processing that somehow also helped them deal with their illness.”

Reading and writing

Prose fed Shaw’s imaginative escapes as a youth.

“I read a lot. As a kid I got sick frequently and I’d end up having to stay home. We had bookshelves full of books. My mother bought a series of classics for kids: Black Beauty, Treasure Island, Bambi. I would pick them out and read them, and then I got into The Hardy Boys and when I read all that I even tried Nancy Drew.”

He became a familiar figure at the local library.

Family trips to Crystal River, Florida got him hooked on diving and his natural curiosity and affinity for reading found him hunting every book he could on the subject.

“My school projects were reports about the aqua lung and the difference between one and two stage regulators and how you could get the bends and prevent that. I knew the decompression tables when i was 12.”

Writing had already become an outlet.

“I began writing seriously in second grade, My mother helped me write a romantic adventure novel involving a boy and his pony. It filled 10 pages of Golden Rod tablet paper we bound with rubber cement and a cardboard cover. She died a few years later and I guess I’ve been looking for that kind of approval ever since.”

His passion for literature was stoked at Kenyon College a small liberal arts school near where he grew up in rural Ohio. There, he said, “reading and writing were paramount and literature became a limitless world for me – a world where anything could happen. I was a chemistry major, but I filled the other spaces with literature and creative writing courses. In the first two years of medical school, those intellectual pursuits were largely replaced with the drudgery of rote memorization. I found myself obsessively writing short stories and sending them off to Redbook, Playboy and Reader’s Digest. It was a useful diversion and the rejections hardly mattered.”

His literary favorites range from John Steibeck, Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner to Kurt Vonnegut, Gunter Grass and Cormac McCarthy.

 

Image result for last night in the or bud shaw

 

Finding his niche as a transplant surgeon

Though his father was a surgeon, Bud at first resisted following in his footsteps. He said the fact he eventually did was “probably because he didn’t push it on me.” Shaw received his MD at Case Western Reserve University, did general surgery training in Utah and completed a transplant surgery fellowship in Pittsburgh,

There, he made a name for himself as a talented maverick working under the father of transplantation in America, the late Tom Strazl. The two men shared a complicated relationship.

“Most of the advances going on at that time in transplantation were happening in Pittsburgh. I was working with Starzl, who then was by far the most important pioneer in transplantation. I would have stayed there happily and worked with him but it just became more and more difficult.”

Shaw left because he disagreed with the way certain things were being done that he felt hampered surgeons’ learning and endangered patients’ lives.

“I wanted to change the way we did things and I realized I wasn’t going to be able to do that there as much as I wanted. I realized I didn’t want to be part of a program that was chaotic and dangerous for patients.”

Prestigious hospitals coveted having this hot shot young surgeon come start a transplant program in what was a sexy new medical horizon making headlines.

“It was a brand new field. I had probably done more liver transplants in the previous two years than anybody in the world .”

Coming to Omaha and building a world-class transplantation program

UNMC recruited him. It didn’t have the cachet of other courters but it proved the right fit. It helped that the man pursuing him. Layton “Bing” Rikkers, knew him when Shaw trained in general surgery at the University of Utah, where Rikkers had taught.

“Once I got trained in transplant I always intended to go back to the University of Utah but they just didn’t seem to want to do it (start a transplant program).”

When Rikkers took the UNMC job he asked Shaw to join him but Shaw wouldn’t be persuaded – at first.

“I told him I want to go someplace with a seacoast or mountains or preferably both.”

Rikkers wouldn’t take no for an answer. He strategically brought Shaw in as a consultant on the ABCs of starting a transplant program. Shaw met a Med Center contingent, including Mike Sorrell and Jim Armitage, who, he said, were “incredibly enthusiastic about doing liver transplants.” “There was a stark contrast between the attitude here, which was one of ‘We understand we don’t know anything about how to do this – we need you to be the expert,’ and what I found elsewhere.”

Shaw said. “I realized this was a rare opportunity because I’d interviewed at much more famous, high-powered places. I’d told them the same thing I told UNMC – I can’t come alone, I’m going to bring a junior surgeon with me and I need to have an anesthesia team go to Pittsburgh and learn how to do anesthesia and a pathologist go learn how to read the biopsies of the liver. And all these places said, ‘No, we have experts, we’re sure they can handle this, and we have very precious faculty positions to maintain.”

He said other centers didn’t appreciate just what a commitment they needed to make.

“They said, ‘We want you to come start this and we’ll see how it goes,’ and I said, ‘See how it goes? This is a high risk sort of thing.’ That’s when I realized they were mainly interested in doing this not because they were interested in treating liver disease but because it was a cool thing to start doing and they didn’t want to be left out. This place (UNMC) was clearly different. It was one of the only places in the country thinking about this as a long-term prospect they could succeed in, and that’s why I came here.”

One of Shaw’s biggest contentions with the way things were done in Pittsburgh that he changed in Omaha was transplant surgeons not having responsibility for post-op patient care. Some patients get profoundly sick after transplant surgery and lax care can exacerbate already dire situations.

“On a typical Sunday morning I’d find three transplant patients in the ICU and two of them would be bleeding still and I’d have to take them back and fix them in the operating room. I’d go talk to the family and they’d say, ‘Nobody’s talked to us.’ So I found myself cleaning up messes made by other surgeons who weren’t being supervised adequately and hadn’t had enough training.

“I talk about this in the book,” Shaw said. “Tom Starzl never wanted to have a routine, he wanted to change it every time, and you just can’t teach other people what works and what doesn’t work very well if you’re changing it constantly.”

After coming to Omaha in 1985 with his first wife and establishing a world-class solid organ (liver, kidney, pancreas, heart) transplant program here, the city became their home.

“I came here with the idea we’d spend five years and then move to one of those places with seacoast and mountains, but at the end of five years we had a really good program going. We were still growing, we were doing innovative things.

“I got recruited to go look at a couple of jobs right around that time. I just realized it was going to be like starting over and the politics would be worse. There’s no advantage of going to those places other than geography and I can buy a plane ticket.”

Diversions by ground and air

He’s bought plenty of tickets over the years to make bike tours with friends in scenic spots around the globe:

Cuba

Costa Rica

Panama

Argentina

Chile

Scotland

Nova Scotia

Newfoundland

Hungary

Slovakia

Poland

France

Italy

Crete

Australia

Vietnam

Cambodia

Then there’s his life as a pilot. He got his license at 19.

“I bought a 1939 J-3 Cub and flew it back to college. I had another airplane in Utah where I also took up hang gliding. I didn’t have any aircraft in 1981 when I arrived in Pittsburgh, but by 1984 I bought a used seaplane that I also took to Omaha in 1985. I eventually sold it and joined two other guys in a partnership in several airplanes.

“I plan on getting my glider rating this summer.”

Shaw’s logged enough hours behind the controls to have had some harrowing moments in the air.

“Every pilot with that many years experience has many stories to tell, as do I. I’ve been scared several times when weather closed in on me unexpectedly while flying cross-country. I flew aerobatics for half a dozen years in the ’90s. That was always exciting but I never had any close calls doing that. I had a couple of close calls hang gliding. I describe one in the book.”

More often than not, his time in the sky has afforded sublime glimpses of beauty. He recalled a Utah ridge that provided “wonderful soaring” and close encounters with Bald and Golden eagles living in the rocky cliffs.

“They often came out and flew along with us, sometimes showing off their aerobatic skills.”

Unexpected turbulence 

Then there was the 1973 coming-of-age flight he made in his little Cub with an acquaintance of his from Ohio, Scottie Wilson.

“The summer of ’73 was between my first and second year of medical school, which I hated. I’d restored an airplane I kept out at the local airport. Scottie had just gotten his wings for the Air Force. That summer we flew in my little Cub a lot together. Toward the end of the summer he had to get to Tuscon, Arizona for combat training. He was going to drive and I said maybe we should fly my Cub out there.

“There were multiple times during that trip where I was going to quit medical school and become a jet jockey.

When the whole thing was done I had to turn around and fly back by myself, and this was like two weeks before I was getting married. I had sort of abandoned ship and ran away.”

The event proved a crucible for Shaw.

“Right after I crossed the Continental Divide there was a storm up ahead I realized iI couldn’t fly around or above so I just landed on a road. As I was sitting there watching this storm go by I started crying. I had this deep sense of loss.”

Broke and out of fuel, he siphoned gas from every small plane on the line at the airport. Back home. he married. started a family and completed his studies. That summer interlude never left him but it’s only recently he

tried writing about it.

“I told Rebecca about it and she said, ‘There’s a romance there of a kind,’ and there really was. A closeness developed in a short period of time that was very different than any experience I’ve had with another guy.”

Intent on catching up with his old pal, Shaw happened to open a magazine to a story about Wilson restoring a 1938 Bugatti airplane presumed lost during World War II. The plane was rediscovered and Wilson, a retired Air Force officer, was building a replica.

“I tracked him down through Facebook and we ended up spending hours on the phone three or four different times over the space of a couple months. My plan was to go see him. He was in the process of starting to test fly this plane. I talked to him in May 2016 and in December I got an email from his brother that said, ‘I’m sure by now you’ve heard about Scottie dying…’ He’d taken the plane up again and was barely off the ground when it happened.

“He’d sent me some sample writing. He wanted me to help him write the story of this airplane.”

Wilson’s passing marked the latest of four recent deaths of important people in Shaw’s life. He feels compelled to write about what they meant to him.

“I have lots of starts in different directions in talking about the way your relationship with your mentors is more like a love affair than it is like a parenting             relationship. It’s like seeking their love and approval more-so than maybe with a parent.”

Merging his personal, medical and writing lives

When Shaw was still doing transplants he was barraged by life and death events but so cut-off from them emotionally he didn’t write about them.

“I was so busy and chronically sleep deprived I rarely had time or inclination to write. Except on vacation. Once I got away from work, I inevitably started writing. It was always fiction. By the mid-’90s I had the starts of five novels. I took a sabbatical in 1996 to write and came away with a 180,000-word novel that isn’t yet worthy of publication. Of course, family and friends all thought it was wonderful but nobody else did. I was afraid of getting it reviewed by anybody.

“None of my writing then had any direct relationship to my work. I think it was largely a way to escape the stress of that life.”

Shaw’s real growth as a writer began when he confronted his own life on the page at the 2007 Kenyon Review Workshop.

“It was very educational and inspirational to actually have to write something and then to have people critique it. It was the first time I had valuable critique of what I’d written. I began to understand what I needed to do to improve things was to keep writing, to keep having people critique and then keep changing and writing.”

His next evolution came as a participant in the Seven Doctors Project that puts doctors together with writers.

Shaw was in the project’s first group of doctors in 2008 and he participated in several other sessions the next few years. One session in particular proved fruitful.

“I did get some wonderful stuff from the review of what I wrote that year. The most telling thing was from another writer there, Rebecca Rotert” (whom he ended up marrying after he and his first wife split).

“When it was my turn to read, everybody complimented how they liked this or liked that and then all of a sudden Rebecca said, ‘Okay, here’s the deal: I don’t know what this person’s motivations are. We’re missing some of the basic things of a story and by now we should know this.’

I started to feel defensive and then I thought, ‘Oh my God, she’s absolutely right,’ and I can fix that because I know what the answers to those questions are.”

All of it spurred him to explore his own life in nonfiction writing. The more he drew from his personal experience, the more he liberated himself.

“I was finally able to think about some of the experiences I had and to step back from them far enough to actually write about them without having a strong emotional agenda that kept me from doing it before.”

With each story he takes from his own life, he’s puts himself on the line.

“I suppose writing highly personal nonfiction stories is risky for anyone. I felt I couldn’t do it unless I found a way to be more objective about the most difficult and emotional experiences. I had to resist the temptation to ‘set the record straight.’ I had to discover instead the other stories within those moments.”

His first published essay, My Night With Ellen Hutchinson, is about a devastating personal and professional episode early in his career.

“As I sat down to write about it, I discovered just how stubbornly I still held onto a version of that story that blamed others, that let me off the hook for the death of a patient during a liver transplant. I had to revisit that night over and over again for weeks to reconstruct a view that wasn’t about the cause of the failure so much as it was about the results of it. It wasn’t easy.

“That was a very straight forward operation. In my mind, I’d done everything right. I got the new liver sewn into place and blood flowing into it and everything was just great when her heart stopped. And yet, the technical details of why the woman’s heart stopped and how we should have handled it and how today, I know she would not have died because of what we later learned to prevent the problem, none of that was a story worth recounting. I needed a fresh and far more human perspective, and that required me to do a lot of processing I hadn’t done before.

“Now I don’t seem able to stop.”

For years Shaw erected shields warding off self-reflection when people’s lives were in his hands.

“The protective mechanisms were about dealing with failure, where failure could be somebody’s death. After failure I felt it absolutely necessary to approach the next case with supreme confidence that everything is going to go well. There’s a lot of ways of getting to that point. Maybe the quickest way is to simply say, ‘That last problem – that wasn’t my fault.’ But that’s not the only way. Another way, but it’s not the one I took, is to think about it more and to recognize we’re fallible and I did play a role in that, and what can I do next time to make sure that doesn’t happen again.

“It would have taken the ability of being more mindful as they call it now.”

 

 

            

 

Frailties 

In his book Shaw reveals his own and others’ frailties as counterpoint to the God-like status medical professionals are held in or hold themselves in. His essays chronicle how he didn’t let things touch him, not the lives he saved or lost, not even his own bout with cancer, What opened the flood gates of introspection was the disabling anxiety that overcame him in 2006.

“I didn’t have any problems with social anxiety at all

until one day I was sitting in my living room and suddenly had a panic attack that eventually caused me to crawl into bed and cover up. I had no idea what was causing it. It just came out of the blue.”

Some days at work he couldn’t leave his office. He finally sought help. Drugs help regulate the condition. Writing about it has been freeing.

“What the writing has done is help me understand and accept the fact that I have this problem. It’s also helped me recognize I did have these protective things and the question in my mind is – what if I had been as self-aware and self-reflective when I was in the midst of this incredibly intense surgical career with all this risk?

Would I have been able to continue? I think the answer to that question is probably yes.

“The process of writing about my own experiences really did open up my writing in a way. That, and there were about three books I read around that time that made me become much more spare, to work harder on eliminating stuff. The big problem I had was my need to make sure you understood everything, explaining

everything. Being freed up from the idea that you have to explain everything was like a miracle. You can actually let people figure out stuff on their own.”

He said a UNMC colleague objected to how much medical imperfection he revealed in his book.

“She said, ‘This is a huge mistake. Nobody should pull back the curtain and expose these sorts of things.’ I said, ‘Why, do you think people are going to come after us with torches?’ She said, ‘Well, they might,’ and I said, ‘Well, if they do, maybe we deserve it.’ I certainly got lots of positive feedback from surgeons outside of here. In fact, I’m still getting it.”

A notable exception was his old mentor Tom Starzl, who reacted strongly against the book. It strained the two men’s already tenuous relationship. As a show of respect and peace offering, Shaw attended Starzl’s 90th birthday celebration.

“I gave him a big hug and he started crying. It was very emotional.”

Starzl died a year later.

Before Shaw could get his book published, UNMC made him jump through hoops to change details so as to avoid privacy issues.

“A lot of the essays had been written with the names of the real people involved before I knew these stories were going to be part of a book,” Shaw said. “I had to start looking at how I could contact these people (for their permission). I knew I wasn’t allowed to look in the medical records for that purpose and I knew I couldn’t ask anybody else to do it for that purpose.

“I couldn’t remember some of their names. I was in the process of trying to sort out how to contact them when the privacy officer at the hospital called and said you can’t write about any of your experiences here.”

The decree made Shaw bristle. He resisted the blanket refusal, pointing out there was nothing in his contract or in UNMC’s HIPPA policy preventing him from doing it.

“Eventually I could not get them to allow me to contact the people. So I went in and changed enough of the details that there’s just no way anybody could recognize the real people.”

 

 

Doing what he has to do

Some of his writing does name names. His essay A Doctor at His Daughter’s Hospital Bed recounts the time  he intervened in the care of his daughter Natalie, who was hospitalized with pneumonia and not getting the IV fluids he knew she needed.

“I know I shouldn’t be my daughter’s doctor. They taught us the problems with that during my first week in medical school. It’s a really bad idea, especially in high-risk situations. We doctors are also very superstitious that when dealing with family members … something is always going to go wrong. The more the Special Person hovers over the care of his or her loved one, the worse the complication will be. I’ve had conversations in which doctors feel they change their routine with V.I.P. patients, and it’s that disruption in routine that allows error to creep into their care.

“But right now, I don’t care about any of that. I’m the one with experience taking care of really sick patients, and if I know she needs more fluids, she’s going to get them.

I break into the crash cart … I pull out two liters of saline solution and run both into Natalie’s IV in less than 20 minutes. Natalie’s pulse slows and her blood pressure rises. An hour later, after the nursing supervisor and on-call resident finally arrive, I’ve finished infusing a third liter. Natalie finally looks better.

“This wasn’t the first time during Natalie’s illness … I broke my promise to just be her dad.”

It also wasn’t the first or last time he crossed the medical care barrier with a loved one.

My younger son, Joe, almost died … from septic shock. He became ill while I was out of town. I flew home and by the time I arrived at the hospital, he looked deathly ill to me. I told the nurse I thought he should be transferred to the intensive care unit, but she said the doctors thought he was improving. Joe stopped breathing during the night and I have blamed myself ever since for not insisting they move him.

“Over and over again during my dad’s last few years of life, I felt as if I should have just moved in with him so that I could prevent all the well-meaning doctors and nurses from killing him. Sometimes it was just because his doctors weren’t talking to one another and their conflicting prescriptions sent Dad to the hospital. In the end, he died about 10 minutes after receiving an injection I didn’t want him to receive.”

Shaw’s daughter did recover but, he writes. “I didn’t.” He explains in his essay:

“I stopped operating and taking care of really sick people two years later. I told myself I had become too distracted by my increasing administrative duties to be a safe doctor. I was glad to leave all that behind. Now I just want to sit on the sidelines and marvel as a new generation of doctors performs the miracles. I never again want to step in to rescue someone I love. But I will, if I have to.”

On a pedestal 

He had occasion to operate on public figures or loved ones of celebrities. Such was the case in 1993 when he performed liver transplants on Hollywood icon Robert Reford’s son, Jamie Redford, in Omaha.

As is often the case, patients with good outcomes form an attachment with their surgeons that is one-part gratitude and one-part adulation. It was no different with Jamie Redford, who on Instagram recently posted a photo of himself and his life-saver with this caption: “My hero and good friend, Dr. Bud Shaw.”

Redford regained his health and produced a documentary, The Kindness of Strangers, raising awareness of the need for organ donation. Redford and Shaw saw each other just last year.

“Jamie and I did something at the Sundance Authors Series. I did a reading of my book and then Jamie came up and we sat on a couple stools and we did a kind of give-and-take with each other and people asked questions. Bob (Robert Redford) was there and Jamie’s sister was there. It was standing-room-only.”

But in his essay Real Surgeons Can’t Cry Shaw divulges how he didn’t cope well with the hero worship showed him. For him, surgery was a job to be gotten through, a task to be completed. The human dimensions of it sometimes escaped him or made him uncomfortable, and so he avoided those implications and interactions that required emotional investment.

Taxing times in the crowded OR give way to one-on-one writing-editing critiques 

A transplant operation is always complex and requires a team of professionals/ But these were far riskier procedures in the 1980s and 1990s then they are today because there weren’t the techniques and drugs available then that there are now.

“The longest one in my experience was in Pittsburgh that was 27 hours,” Shaw recalled. “In that case it was a child. When we started out trying to open the abdomen it was like concrete. We had to go ahead and get the liver in there because its time out of the donor’s body was getting too high. We didn’t want it to die – the liver would be nonfunctional. So we put it in and then we had all this sorting out of stuff to do for hours and hours, trying to get the bleeding stopped.

“What would happen is the patient’s own body would start dissolving its clots. That was a pretty common feature of a liver transplant.”

The operating room is a collaborative, dynamic environment of high risk and high reward. Writing, by contrast, is a solitary experience whose rewards are more internal then external. Shaw values having a life partner in Rotert who is a fellow writer. They share everything they write with each other.

“We are our own best editors,” he said. “I think I take her criticism of what I write a lot better than she takes my criticism about what she writes, and I don’t know if that’s because her criticism is more gently delivered because she’s not very gentle with it. But for some reason whatever she tells me often rings so true.

“LIke with these initial essays I wrote, I wasn’t sure what they were really about and she helped me figure out what they were really about.”

He admires her craftsmanship.

“She really writes incredibly well. She writes some beautiful sentences. She also develops characters incredibly well, each with different voices. She’s really a master at that sort of thing.”

The couple live in a multi-story home on the edge of Neale Woods. Books, magazines, paintings (by her) and photographs (by him) adorn the rustic-chic living spaces whose large windows look out on the Missouri River basin and bluffs to the east and pristine forested land to the west.

 

 

Reinventing himself

Idyllic surroundings and professional accolades aren’t salves for the demons inside us as Shaw discovered. Even at the height of his career, politics and egos found him fighting external battles. He eventually became chairman of surgery at the Med Center and after 12 years in that post he headed-up a large point-of-care software development project that got canceled.

He’s felt a bit adrift since retiring from surgery and then having that software project killed.

“There’s almost nothing like having a really difficult job to do with a lot riding on it and you’re afraid going in about what might happen but you do it anyway and you succeed and everything’s okay. It just so happens that liver transplants is one of the best things like that. And so I lost that reward system. The other thing I lost was every day somebody telling me what to do. Even when i was chairman of the department. It’s not like I had to say what am i going to do today? There was always stuff to do and too much to do.

“Not having that and having so called free time to write and to do other stuff was initially fun and easy but the longer it’s lasted the more difficult it’s become

finding reward.”

While a practicing surgeon he once thought of leaving that career to write full-time but he wasn’t crazy or brave enough to try it. “Doing liver transplants is easier.”

Ever the voyager, Shaw has worlds yet to explore in his travels and in his new vocation as author, Having finally given himself permission to write about his past, he’s embracing new adventures as source material for future tales. With so much to draw on, his creative well should never run dry.

Hot Movie Takes: Payne’s “Downsizing” may be next big thing on world cinema landscape

April 19, 2017 1 comment

Usually, I intuit, I lose half or more of you right at the top when I post a story about Alexander Payne. I get it. I really do. Well, not entirely. It seems that for some of you Payne’s work doesn’t register as all that funny or entertaining or satisfying. This despite the fact that over the last 20 years his films have received as much or more critical praise and box office love as many directors whose movies you may more readily embrace, such as Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, David O. Russell, John Singleton, Antoine Fuqua, Jason Reitman and the Coen Brothers. I chalk it up to a taste thing. Fair enough. But I also have the sneaking suspicion that many of you have seen only a fraction of his films and that some of you have not seen any of them. If that’s true, then it’s a crying shame because you’re rejecting work based on perception without even trying it on for size. I mean, how do you really know if you like it or not if you don’t see it for yourself and purely base your appraisal on a trailer or a review or a stray comment or two? We all do it, of course, but I’m mainly addressing this to Nebraskans who, I would like to believe, should feel some natural affinity and curiosity, if not loyalty, for the work of one of their own. I know shared home state roots only go so far and Payne’s film worlds may seem very distant or disconnected from your own reality, but I don’t think that you would feel that way if you attended to them with an open mind. His humanistic films have something for everyone because they are drawn from the same human condition we all all subject to when it comes to love, loss and loneliness. If you watch his films and they still feel apart from you then his work may just not be for you but even then I suggest that that may change with his new film “Downsizing.” It’s interesting to say that because this film will intentionally be both very far removed from life as we know it and very close to it. It will depict worlds reminiscent of and different from mine and yours as it swings from some unnamed Middle Earth to very near future Omaha to a Leisure Land resort for miniaturized humans that includes a slum to Norwegian fjords and villages to various spots around the globe. In a first for Payne, much of the movie will be populated by characters representing diverse races and ethnicities to go along with the disparate locations. Visual effects will render the downsized-world alone and in juxtaposition with the normal-sized world. All of this is set against an end-of-world backdrop of extreme climatic, geo-political tensions and cosumer mania that pretty much mirrors where we’re at right now. The combination of little people. big ideas and a star-studded cast headlined by Matt Damon facing moral decisions and life and death questions amidst mind-blowing sets just might make this Payne’s first blockbuster. In which case he will be viewed in a whole new light by the industry and by some of you. Suddenly, Payne will be mentioned in the same breath with Michael Bay, J.J. Abrams, James Cameron and Christoper Nolan. Now wouldn’t that be a kick?

This is my new feature on “Downsizing” appearing in the April 2017 issue of The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/). It’s my latest read-all-about-it exclusive about the project informed by interviews with Payne, his co-writer Jim Taylor, cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, visual effects supervisor Jamie Price,  second unit director Tracy Boyd, editor Kevin Tent and casting director John Jackson, Who knows, after reading this piece it might even whet your appetite for seeing the film when it releases in December. It would behoove you to see it since I’m suggesting the film might just be the next big thing on the world cinema landscape. But don’t take my word for it. Be sure to see it for yourself when it opens and make up your mind based on that. Trailers for it should be hitting online and theaters soon, so that will give us all a sneak peak at what to expect. For you Payne cynics out there, just keep an open mind.

 

Hot Movie Takes:

Payne’s “Downsizing” may be next big thing on world cinema landscape

©by Leo Adam Biga

Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

Story appears in the April 2017 issue of The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/)

 

 

The Reader April 2017 by PioneerMedia.Me – issuu

https://issuu.com/thereader_elperico/docs/april_tr2017

 

Just as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey marked a seminal movie event, Alexander Payne’s Downsizing has milestone written all over it.

Kubrick’s 1968 landmark inspired by writer Arthur C. Clarke’s musings pushed special effects to new heights and gave sci-fi films higher standards to aspire to in terms of visuals and ideas. Now, a half-century from the release of that opus, Payne’s putting final touches on his own bold vision of imaginative fiction.

The big budget, visual effects-laden Downsizing confronts relevant social, political, ecological issues. Only once previously, with Citizen Ruth’s hot takes on abortion, has Payne been so thematically current. With its withering look at corporate greed, hyper consumerism, minority marginalization and ego-maniacal pitch men, Downsizing hits the zeitgeist on a global scale.

“It’s a big movie,” he said. “Not just the visual effects but the scope of the story with more of an episodic structure that spans many years and different locations.”

Just as the late Kubrick made elaborate satiric observations on human frailties, so does Payne. Their films register cold for many but there’s more warmth there than you recall. Where 2001 is a speculative adventure about the role of extraterrestrial life on Earth and beyond, Downsizing’s own mediation on what it means to be human remains firmly planted here.

Months away from its December theatrical release, Hollywood’s curious to see what a filmmaker identified with intimate human comedies does with a picture of this scale. Ironically, for Payne to achieve a film about miniaturization he worked with a larger crew and budget, on more, bigger sound stages and in more practical locations than ever before. Locations spanned Los Angeles, Omaha, Toronto and Norway. Second-unit director Tracy Boyd traveled to South Korea, Malaysia, Morocco and Spain to accrue crucial montage footage.

Downsizing’s every bit as ambitious as 2001 but both films are relatively simple at their core. Amid all its visual interstellar trappings, 2001 intimately rests on astronaut David Bowman’s interior time-space journey. Instilling in audiences the necessary sense of awe and immersion required Kubrick and Douglas Trumball to advance effects by a generation.

It’s not surprising Kubrick made Bowman’s mind-blowing head trip the POV reference point since the late iconoclast’s films were quite inner-directed despite their big ideas and sometimes massive sets.

Just as Kubrick distilled epoch events into an intimate tableaux, Payne distills human kind’s hopes, fears, vagaries in the intersection of three people meeting in a strange new world. Paul (Matt Damon) is the Everyman mensch whose surreal ride from normal to small, from nobody to pioneer, we hitch onto. Goran (Christoph Waltz) is the Euro-trash hustler who befriends him. Ngoc Lang (Hong Chau) is the Vietnamese human rights activist who becomes his love interest.

To naturalistically realize the small world, Payne relied on visual effects supervisor Jamie Price. The former Industrial Light and Magic wizard oversaw artists from ILM and other companies in making micro humans more believable than ever seen before on screen. Pulling this off is critical because the film’s entire vision hangs on audiences investing in characters and incidents without the distraction of call-attention-to-themselves effects.

Downsizing, like 2001, depends upon intact illusions without seams or wires showing. Where 2001’s monumental effects depict deep space and infinity, Downsizing depicts human discourse.

Co-writer Jim Taylor said he and Payne took the same approach to their original story as with all their films. “Really what we love are the details – the tiny, every day interactions people have. It’s such a great irony and a lot of people don’t necessarily realize this –  that the more specific you get, the more universal it is.”

Sure, the story’s replete with big concepts revolving around global warming’s dire consequences, but Taylor said, “We’re not making An Inconvenient Truth because that’s not our job. The themes are an excuse to enter this realm of relationships and personal struggles.”

Price said upon first reading the script he realized this project represented a whole new animal.

“What struck me about it immediately is that it really is an atypical visual effects movie. It’s a movie where the visual effects are used purely to serve the dramatic needs of the story. That’s a very refreshing and clever use of visual effects that drew me to it.

“Unlike building a set or having actors standing in a practical environment, there’s a lot that’s just not there when you’re rolling the camera and so you need to forge a good relationship and build the trust so that the director feels he’s going to get what he needs to tell the story the way he wants to tell it. Similarly, in visual effects, it’s our job to inform the director and the rest of the crew so that everyone has a good understanding of what we need to achieve the work successfully.”

In this case successful means making the effects look so real they blend in with the mundanity of every day life that Payne so exactingly extracts – just as Kubrick did.

“What I think makes Downsizing unique is its fresh take on a genre that’s been around for a long time,” Price said. “Movies in the past with small characters interacting with normal-sized humans have broadly fallen into three categories: science fiction, comedies, family movies or some combination. They often have a very different aesthetic than what Alexander intended.

“At one point producer Jim Burke asked me which movie in the past do I think most embodies the look we’re going for in Downsizing and I said, ‘I don’t think there is one.’ There’s pieces of movies with similar elements to what we want to achieve but there isn’t a movie that really has the same aesthetic.”

Downsizing’s its own thing, Price said, because it’s a movie crafted by an auteur. “Early on, Alexander asked me, ‘How do we make this special?’ And I said, ‘Well, the way you make it special is you make it an Alexander Payne movie, because none of these other movies are that. If you bring your sensitivity and style to it then it will become something unique and new,’ and I think it has.”

Payne said Price did things to “trick me into thinking I’m making a real movie, not a visual effects movie.”

“He did it in such a way that I could focus on what’s important, which is the story, the characters, the acting, and keep that front and center,” Payne said. “That’s not to say a lot of thought was not put into the look and to how the sets should be and what we we’re going to build and what we’re going to extend digitally. That’s a constant discussion. But through all of that I knew my job was to keep the eye on the ball of the story.

“I never want the heft of this film to mar any intimacy of tone or idiosyncrasy of humor.”

Payne relied on Price’s team to make actors at ease with the effects work. Even though this was Payne and Price’s first production together, they go back eight years to when Payne first tried getting the movie made. An advantage of the long wait between conception and production was technology advances. A constant was Payne’s desire to not interfere with the actors’ process.

“Alexander was very interested in maintaining the spontaneity of the performances, which is difficult when one of the actors isn’t there and is going to be shot later,” Price said.

It helped having a star in Matt Damon whom Payne confirms is “the total professional” he’s reputed to be.

“For Matt Damon or any actor isolated in a visual effects scene, I made sure there was a person opposite them,” Payne said. “The actor still had a true acting partner in the scene (reading lines off-camera).”

Price said, “We made some choices during the production process, such as the way we built sets or how we staged certain things, so that Alexander could sort of forget the fact there was a green screen back there or there was only one half of the performers in the scene because we were going to be shooting another element green screen later.

“We used 5-inch tall dolls as stand-ins. We placed them in the scene for the actors to look at and so the camera could frame them up. That way Alexander could see the relationship between the two. We paint them out later. We tried to recreate as much as possible the scenario described in the screenplay even though we were ultimately assembling it digitally later.”

Payne found Damon to be the Everyman he plays.

“Genuinely a delight. He is who you hope he is. And the ease with which he can do anything is really something to watch. He’s only too ready to help,”

For the lead, casting director John Jackson said he and Payne concluded Damon was the only marketable star “that could be that lower middle-class Omaha dude. He is our generation’s Jack Lemmon. He can do comedy, he can do drama, he can do everything. An audience can project whatever they need to project onto him.”

 

    Getty Images

Matt Damon

Kristen-Wiig

Kristen Wiig
Christoph Waltz
Christoph Waltz

 

Even though protecting story was Payne’s overriding concern, there’s no escaping technology with 650 visual effects shots. He said the great challenge is “having always to match the digital extension of what those sets would be.” Not just sets, but actors, too. Payne wore a motion capture suit to act out scenes’ physical movements. He knew them better than anyone having inhabited the characters and actions while writing them. The data recorded from his walk-through guided CGI artists in creating 3D-animated Previs (pre-visualization) views that served as digital storyboards.

Though the demands of visual effects sometimes required extra takes, Payne said, “I still tried to be as economical and precise as possible. I might have done more takes to get certain things right because of all the moving parts, the number of extras or something technical about the shot. Even Matt Damon told me, ‘You like to do a lot of takes, but at least I know almost every shot’s going to be in the film.’ He meant

there’s a lot of films where they shoot a ton of footage with little idea of how it might cut together. I may overshoot in takes but not too much in actual coverage.”

Payne depends on various departments to get things right. Director of photography Phedon Papamichael was among many Downsizing crew who go way back with him. The DP felt having this family of creatives around was important on a project with so many new elements,

“He was surrounded by a very experienced crew and team he’s familiar with and we were able to preserve some of that family environment on the set despite the scale,” Papamichael said. “He still knew every driver’s and grip’s name and not only their name but if they have a kid in college who plays football. All of that is different than your average big movie where the director doesn’t know the dolly grip’s name even after 14 weeks.”

Jim Taylor isn’t normally on set much but, he said,

“On this movie we thought I needed to be there all the time, so I was. There were contributions I could make. It doesn’t come up that often but Alexander likes to have someone around he can turn to and say, ‘What do you think? What does that look like to you?'”

Being there for the full 75-day shoot gave Taylor insight on where his writing mate’s come as a director.

“It was really interesting for me to see how much more masterful he was working with the actors, knowing what he needed and getting what he needed and all that.”

Payne’s primary casting director since About Schmidt has been Council Bluffs native and resident, John Jackson. On Downsizing he and Payne filled a larger than usual roster of speaking parts and background extras to reflect the story’s global reach.

“I had many more extras than I’ve ever had on a film before,” Payne said, “and extras of different races and nationalities as we tried to portray certain worlds accurately. And so just on the casting side John Jackson and I had to expand our personnel to corral all the right extras and than on the set to direct them well. That has huge impact down the chain – the assistant directors, costume, even props, get hit harder.”

Jackson usually doesn’t office where the film shoots, but he did at Pinewood Studios in Toronto, where the film’s epic sets filled mega sound stages. He was mesmerized by the production unfolding around him.

“It was every fantasy I had as a kid – being on the lot and being able to walk down onto the sound stages and onto the sets. To see it as it was happening, to see the scope of it, to see all the incredible amount of hard work, planning and organization by the different teams from the grips to the construction guys, and watch it call come together was really humbling and very exciting.”

One new creative collaborator was Italian production designer Stefania Ceila.

“She’s amazing,” said cinematographer Papamichael, “Very passionate, very vocal, expressive and stubborn, but it was a wonderful relationship. Visually. I think we definitely elevated to a new level and Alexander has embraced that. The language still has simplicity and not showing off, not getting in the way, still focusing on the humanity and the emotions of actors.

“Even with all the effects and the scale, filling up the largest stage in North America, we still applied the same   Alexander Payne language. In the end hopefully the technology will all sort of go away and just blend in – fall into his style of storytelling and people will not really be aware they’re watching an $85 million effects movie.”

Payne acknowledged the experience was more     overwhelming than past projects.

“I had moments on this film when I felt like not only did I not know what I was doing but I had never seen a movie before. It’s been a hard movie. You just get through it.”

Complicating matters, he herniated a disc in Toronto. “I suffered the indignity of directing from a wheelchair for about a week,” he said.

 

74247 full

 

Papamichael said despite everything the experience was akin to other Payne movies, adding, “It was just physically and mentally more taxing because of the longer process.”

After wrapping in Canada, the production broke before reconvening in Norway the last two weeks.

“This was the dessert of the film -– shooting in Norway,” Payne said. “We were bowled over by the beauty of the fjords, where we were shooting north of the Arctic circle  in a really beautiful region called Lofoten.”

He said the Norway sojourn involved “scouting and shooting from helicopter and boats.” “In the movie there’s a 1927 English yacht we shot on. We were living on a very large ocean liner currently not in use.”

Payne and editor Kevin Tent have been cutting since September. Rough cut screenings yield notes and feedback. Scenes get reassembled “in trying to figure out what the film wants to be,” Payne said. Frequent visual effects meetings, he said, hash out “what we’re going to put in the frame when when we shot there was only green – like literally what is that going to look like, and then tracking the execution of the visual effects artists to make sure it looks good.”

With 2001 Kubrick tackled nothing less than the dawn of man and humankind’s place in the universe. Much of his focus in that film and his other films was on the contrast between the ordinariness of life and its extremes. Under pressure, people do very wrong things. It’s an essentially pessimistic view that seems to suggest man’s inhumanity to man is inevitable and inescapable.

Meanwhile. Payne celebrates foibles as unavoidable traits of our shared imperfection. Unlike Kubrick, he’s hopeful we can navigate life without total ruin. Though divisions cause angst in Downsizing, a sense of community, sacrifice and even love prevails.

Payne said, “This film unites a lot of the themes Jim (Taylor) and I have been using in our previous films and I hope bringing them to a higher level. We will see about that. I don’t think in general it’s that different from what I’ve done before, it’s just a bigger canvas.

“When I think about movies with sprawling episodic structure I think of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, 8 1/2 and Nights of Cabiria, where the story follows one protagonist through a series of adventures and by the end a moment happens that kind of in retrospect gives some thematic narrative cohesion to the story. It pulls a seemingly loose narrative thread suddenly taut. I do not wish to compare Downsizing to those greats but structurally I take inspiration from them.”

Payne and his team have given themselves over to this episodic framework.

“Phedon, Stefania and I in production and now Kevin Tent and I in editing have to accept that it’s a series of short films within one film. Each visually to some degree but now musically we just have to do what feels right in the film and hope to God it holds together.”

Editing is about finding-enhancing the film’s internal rhythms. Payne said, “Getting a handle on a picture of this scope” – he expects it to run 135-140 minutes – “takes a little doing.”

Downsizing contains elements that may remind one of other films, from 2001 to The Incredible Shrinking Man, but overall there’s really nothing to compare it to.

Papamichael said it’s the one Payne film he couldn’t get a visual handle on from the script “and now that I have done it I know why – it’s so diverse in looks and stories.” He said, “It goes through this arc, starting like a regular Alexander Payne movie in Omaha with an average guy at La Casa waiting for his pizza, to he and his wife going to Leisure Land and her leaving him to go through the downsizing process alone. That’s like the whole Kubrick episode of the film. It’s like going from something in About Schimdt to 2001: A Space Odyssey.”

He said the film’s juxtaposition of plastic Leisure Land’s “absurd embrace of American Consumerism” against sterile labs, awful slums, prosaic Omaha sites, world capitals, sublime fjords and an uncharted middle-Earth “really is like a series of short stories or short films that then all connect so beautifully through Paul’s adventure of self-discovery and subtle love story with Ngoc.”

Don’t expect anything but another low-key Paynsian ending that implies more than it shows. Like his other films, Payne said, Downsizing will “end with a feeling more than an event.” “I’m glad we’re able to have an ending to this big movie that hopefully will operate in that delicate space,” Taylor said.

Second-unit director Tracy Boyd, another of Payne’s longtime collaborators, referred to Payne’s consistent goal of surrendering any conscious, overt style to story.

“He so skillfully, masterfully hides the brushstrokes of what he’s doing and you’re fully submerged in what you’re seeing that you forget there’s a director behind all of that. He’s not trying to get you to think about who’s directing the picture as so many filmmakers do. It’s only with repeat viewings you recognize the subtle techniques and clarity behind every vision you see.”

Boyd, Taylor and others close to the project express confidence this promises to be a special, stand-the-test-of-time film. Papamichael disclosed “Paramount’s fully embracing the film – they actually think they have a commercial hit on their hands.” An awards contender, too. Everyone has high praise for the work of Damon and Hong Chau, whose breakout role this could be,

Only the box-office will tell, but Payne-Taylor say it’s their only movie that may have a sequel in the offing.

Should it resonate enough to enter the pop culture consciousness, this could be Payne’s The Godfather, Taxi Driver or Pulp Fiction. Taylor said it’s not as if Payne “wants somebody to give him a shot at some franchise movie.” He echoed Payne’s inclination to do anything but an effects movie as a follow-up. Maybe a long-talked about Western. Or shooting in Greece.

“I would like to do wildly different things,” Payne said.

“That would be fun. I don’t know what yet.”

Initial reviews should appear after major fall festival screenings. Omaha’s Ruth Sokolof or Dundee Theater will premiere Downsizing for its theatrical release.

Hot Movie Takes – “Chinatown”

April 17, 2017 Leave a comment

Hot Movie Takes  – “Chinatown”
©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

 

Chinatown

 

Languid has never felt as sexy or as menacing as it does in “Chinatown,” the great 1974 film noir classic that hasn’t been topped since. Not even close. Robert Towne wrote a script that many feel is as perfect a screenplay as has ever been written. Roman Polanski’s interpretation of that script is so fully developed that he creates as evocative a work of expressionistic screen drama as I’ve seen. The photography by John Alonzo, the editing by Sam O’Steen and the music by Jerry Goldsmith are in perfect sync with the redolent rhythms and moods of this hard-boiled period piece set in Depression-era Los Angeles. The locations and sound stage sets all complement the out-of-his-element, bigger-than-he-can-handle mystery that private eye J.J. “Jake” Gittes gets lured into. He’s an urban man used to working the streets yet he finds himself unraveling a mystery over water rights that plays out in city hall offices, courtrooms, desert wastelands, fruit-growing groves and ocean-side docks. He’s out of his comfort zone and his depth but he’s smart and dogged enough to put most of the puzzle pieces together. Faye Dunaway puts her spin on the femme fatale role with a performance as Evelyn Cross Mulwray that is intoxicating and heartbreaking. John Huston as her depraved father is the epitome of corrupt power. Several other character turns are worth noting, including: Perry Lopez as Jake’s cynical old partner on the police force; Diane Ladd as the scared shill who gets Jake involved in the case; Burt Young as the abusive client who owes Jake a favor; Bruce Glover as an associate concernd for Jake’s well-being and Polanski as the hep-cat enforcer who slices Jake’s nose.

Even though they tell very different stories in very different settings, I’ve always thought of “Chinatown” as a companion film to “Casablanca.” Start with the fact that they’re both studio projects made within the conventions of genre filmmaking that rise far above the average production because of a wonderful alchemy of talent and vision that made art of potboiler material. The two films share a number of other things in common as well. They’re both period pieces. The chief anti-hero protagonist of each, Rick in “Casablanca” and Jake in “Chinatown,” is a cynical, embittered man haunted by the past and the woman he lost. That past comes back to plague Rick and Jake. They are are also part of ill-fated love triangles. Rick and Ilsa can never be together because of Victor. Jake and Evelyn can never be together because of Noah. When Ilsa shows up at Rick’s club in Casablanca, he’s catapulted right back into the pain of her abandoning him in Paris. When Jake attempts to make things right with Evelyn and her daughter, he’s brought right back to where things went astray for him years earlier in Chinatown. The multi-layered story-lines are interlaced with themes of loyalty, betrayal, honor and deception. Mystery and danger lurk behind seemingly benign facades. Dark currents of irony, sarcasm and fatalism run through these dramas populated by characters who are desperate or duplicitous or both.

 

 

And perhaps most significantly Rick and Jake get caught up in events beyond their control. In “Casablanca” it’s the evil Nazi threat forcing people to flee their homelands and to barter for their freedom. In “Chinatown” it’s greedy monied interests stopping at nothing to steal property from people in order to gain control over land and natural resources and thus line their own pockets. Rick must confront a formidable foe in Major Heinrich Strasser. He’s aided in that risky effort by Captain Louis Renault. Jake must contend with his own considerable nemesis in the person of Noah Cross. In the end, Jake’s one ally, Escobar, isn’t there for him. In each scenario, the anti-hero has an uneasy relationship with authority and challenges the unlawful wielding of power. In the more romantic “Casablanca” Rick succeeds against Strasser and in the less sentimental “Chinatown” Jake fails against Cross. Though the film’s have very different endings, both Rick and Jake are faced with impossible ethical and moral decisions and they each do the right thing. It’s just that in “Casablanca” right prevails and in “Chinatown” it doesn’t. That’s because the earlier picture is at its heart a romance while the later picture is a film noir. It also has to do with the fact Casablanca” director Michael Curtiz was not about to deny us a bittersweet but happy ending as a contract studio hand and dreammaker in 1942 Hollywood while “Chinatown” director Roman Polanski was all about ambiguous, even despairing endings as a New Hollywood auteur and survivor of Nazi atrocities. If Polanski had made “Casablanca” it would have been a bleaker, less linear work, just as if Curtiz had made “Chinatown” it would have been a sunnier, faster-paced film. Each project was best served though by the filmmakers who made them and as audiences we are the beneficiaries.

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3aifeXlnoqY

 

Chinatown movie poster image

 

Finally, I need to comment on a few more things about “Chinatown” and its creators. I think Nicholson gives his best performance in the film. He’s only made a few crime films and he’s excellent in all of them. He’d earlier established himself in the line of great rebel screen personas with his turns in “Easy Rider” and “Five Easy Pieces”. With “Chinatown,” “The Last Detail” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” he put himself right there with Cagney, Bogart, Garfield, Clift, Brando, Dean, Newman and McQueen. And he followed an equally long tradition of actors who made their marks as hardbitten anti-hero private eyes, cops or low life lifes and he showed he belonged with Mitchum, Powell, O’Keefe and all the rest. He and Dunaway show great chemistry in “Chinatown” and it’s a shame they never worked together again. With “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Chinatown” Polanski went from being a rising international director known for his Eastern Europe art films to being a superstar Hollywood director of artfully done but mass appeal movies,

Former actor Robert Evans was the head of production at Paramount in the late 1960s-early 1970s when that studio made some of the era’s most compelling works:

“Rosemary’s Baby”

“The Godfather”

“Harold and Maude”

“Serpico”

“Save the Tiger”

“The Conversation”

He was also the producer on “Chinatown,” “Marathon Man,” “Black Sunday” and “Urban Cowboy.”

Evans and Polanski both ran afoul of the law, with the former now remaking himself a Player n the game and the latter working in exile the last few decades. Neither Nicholson nor Dunaway worked again with Polanski.

%d bloggers like this: