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Alexander Payne’s Homecoming

January 10, 2018 Leave a comment

Alexander Payne’s Homecoming


©By Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the Jan-Feb 2018 issue of Omaha Magazine

Alexander Payne’s new tragicomedy Downsizing imagines the fate of an overpopulated world hanging in the balance due to depleted natural resources. When scientists find a way to miniaturize humans, adventurous souls choose going small as an act of conservation or exploitation. Matt Damon plays Paul, an average Omaha man whose pioneering micro-me experiences range from surreal to sublime.

The Omaha native’s big-budget sci-fi satire premiered in December at the newly reopened Dundee Theater, where Payne practically grew up. His debut feature Citizen Ruth also played there.

Now that this prodigal local son and world- class filmmaker is 56, remarried, and a papa— daughter Despina Evangeline Payne was born in Greece last fall—he’s downsizing from hurly-burly L.A. to his laid-back hometown with wife Maria and baby in tow.

Putting down roots is important to Payne. His mother Peggy, extended family, and close friends live here.

“I love Omaha and have been looking for a chance to be there full time,” says Payne, speak- ing from Greece before his relocation. “I miss Omaha very much when not there, and having quiet time in town with the new kid feels like the right move…and I hope to find some other trouble to get into.”

The active Film Streams board member brings Hollywood to Omaha. Making this his main residence only further enriches the local cinema culture.

“He and I have always fantasized about pro- grams we can plan, people we can bring to town, and ways he can be even more involved with what we bring to Omaha when he has a chance to spend more time here,” says Rachel Jacobson, Film Streams’ founder and director.

Payne is no stranger to making movies in his “backyard.” His latest, Downsizing, shot three days here—a fraction of the time he spent on his first three locally filmed features.

“Of course, I wish I’d shot all of the scenes per- taining to Omaha in Omaha, but it just wasn’t possible,” he says. “What I really missed about shooting in Omaha was the extras.”

On Toronto soundstages, he recreated a Creighton Prep class reunion and a farewell party at Jam’s Old Market.

“It was a drag having to train Torontonians to behave like Omahans. Once, when I caught two gals pretending they hadn’t seen each other in years kissing on both cheeks, I about had a heart attack,” Payne says, adding that he was glad to have captured some key local scenes in the film. “One of the great locations I was able to shoot in Omaha—complete with the people who actually work there—was Omaha Steaks,” he says.

The well-traveled and socially conscious auteur has made his most issues-oriented film of international scope at this mature career point, though he doesn’t concede to middle age.

“I don’t feel as though I’m at the midpoint of life; I still feel as though I’m at the beginning,” he says. “I can’t help but feel I’m still barely learning how to make a film, and now that I’m a father, well, that’s a new sense of beginning. My friends all have grown children. My best friend from college is a grandfather twice over, and me, I’m just now wading into these waters for the first time.”

He can taste the irony of his words: “I remember seeing [Akira] Kurosawa speak in 1986 in L.A. to promote Ran. He said, ‘I’ve made 30 feature films, I’m almost 80 years old, and yet I feel as though I have less of an idea now of what a movie is than when I was younger.’ I thought he was just trying to play Mr. Humble. Now his words are haunting. I think my gravestone will read, ‘I was just getting started.’”

Downsizing pushed Payne to the limit with its complex storyline, epic scale, and special effects. It took a decade getting made from when he and co-writer Jim Taylor completed the script’s first draft. Once shot, fixing on a final cut proved elusive.

“I’m just glad it’s over and I can get on to something new,” he says. “It was a very long process. The script took a long time to corral, finding financing was nearly impossible, and the movie fell apart three times before finally jelling. Production was long and costly, and it was tricky to pinpoint the final movie in the editing room. It’s a film I had to get out of my system—Jim and I believed in it for all these years, believed in its wacky but very interesting idea, and we finally got it made.”

Payne and longtime casting director John Jackson of Council Bluffs assembled an impressive international acting ensemble. As Paul, superstar Damon (the Bourne franchise lynchpin who recently starred in the Coen Brothers’ 2017 film Suburbicon) takes us on a wild, downsized journey.

“He’s a wonderful actor,” Payne says of his leading man.

Of Kristen Wiig, Paul’s spacey life partner, (who previously starred alongside Damon in Ridley Scott’s 2015 film The Martian) Payne says: “Lovely woman, super-funny, able to be either subtle or overt with the same level of commitment and humor.”

On two-time Academy Award winner Christoph Waltz (the Nazi antagonist in Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 film Inglourious Basterds), Paul’s amoral guide in the new world, Payne says: “A very smart, very funny, very committed actor. We disagreed a couple of times, but something very good came out of it.”

Newcomer Hong Chau (who starred in P. T. Anderson’s 2014 film Inherent Vice) plays an activist who gets under Paul’s skin. Payne echoes what others say about her breakthrough, Oscar buzz-worthy work.

“A star is born,” he says. “I often get asked why my movies ‘always’ seem to be about adrift, middle-aged white males. But in fact, I’ve had the most fun, midwifing, terrific performances by females: Laura Dern [Citizen Ruth, 1996], Reese Witherspoon [Election, 1999], Kathy Bates [About Schmidt, 2002], June Squibb [Nebraska, 2013] and Shailene Woodley [The Descendants, 2011]. I’d say Hong Chau really takes the cake.”

“It was the right role finding the right actor at the right time,” Payne says, “and she all but steals the whole damned movie. Matt Damon calls her a ‘thoroughbred.’”

Chau confirms what others note about Payne.

“I have so many feelings for Alexander,” she says. “He’s an amazing person, an amazing director. It’s really been a joy getting to work with him and also getting to know him as a person. It’s the first time I’ve worked on something where I feel like he’s going to be my friend for life.”

His “gentle” directing style suited her.

“I don’t feel the heavy hand of directing,” Chau says. “All of the redirections are tweaks—a very small degree or two on the dial where to turn an emotion or a word in a sentence. A lot of his writing is filled with comedy, so there’s some precision needed in order for the humor to land the way it’s supposed to.”

Payne invited her to observe the editing pro- cess. She marveled at what he cut to make the film leaner.

“It really showed how disciplined he is to telling the story and keeping it sharp in terms of what the audience should be receiving,” Chau says. “It’s why Alexander has become one of the great American masters.”

Leading up to its debut in Omaha, the film gen- erated strong word-of-mouth from trailers and festival screenings. It opened to uniformly warm praise at the Venice Film Festival, where Payne, in attendance for the first time, was joined by Damon, Chau, Wiig, and new Paramount head Jim Gianopulos.

After the high of Venice, Downsizing receiving mixed reviews at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado and the Toronto International Film Festival.

“Some people really dig it. Others think it maybe bites off more than it can chew,” Payne says. “Sure, maybe the screenplay is a little greedy, but what the hell? The movie was designed as episodic—a sort of road trip through the world right now. We think that’s what makes it fun.”

Editing footage down to the theatrical release’s 135 minutes (including credits) was an arduous task.

“I kept hearing the same thing all directors always hear from studio executives: ‘Make it shorter,’” he says.

The studio is bullish on Downsizing’s potential.

“It’s Paramount’s big Christmas release,” he says, “and they see the movie plays great with audiences—lots of laughs. They’re expecting it to do well commercially, and I pray to God they’re right.”

With seven completed features under his belt, Payne is eager as ever to make movies. For the time being, this family man is content to wait for inspiration before jumping into the fray again.

“I wish I were making a movie all the time,” he says. “But I also want to speak only when I have something to say.”

Sculpture by Derek Joy

This article was printed in the January/February 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Re-entry prepares current and former incarcerated individuals for work and life success on the outside

January 10, 2018 2 comments

Re-entry prepares current and former incarcerated individuals for work and life success on the outside

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the December 2017 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Image result for defy ventures jasmine harris

A growing community of re-entry pathways serve current and former incarcerated individuals needing work upon release.

Many re-entry programs are run by people who’ve been in the criminal justice system themselves.

“Those closest to the problem are closest to the solution,” said ReConnect Inc. founding director LaVon Stennis-Williams, a former civil rights attorney who served time in federal prison. “You have people like myself coming out of prison no longer waiting for others to remove barriers. There is a network of movements being led by formerly incarcerated individuals taking control of this whole effort to make reentry something more than just talk. We’re developing programs that try to ensure people coming out are successful and don’t go back to prison.”

Some area re-entry programs are formalized, others less so. Several are grantees through the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services’ administered Vocational and Life Skills grant stemming from 2014 state prison legislation (LB 907). Programs work with individuals inside and outside state prisons.

ReConnect provide services Stennis-Williams didn’t find upon her own release in 2010.

“When I came out of prison, many second chance programs started under the 2008 Second Chance initiative either did not get refunded or the funding dried up,” she said. “So when I came out there weren’t many out there – just kind of the residuals.”

What there were, she said, were disjointed and uncoordinated.

Image result for defy ventures jasmine harris

“I wanted to create a program I wish would have been in existence when I was navigating re-entry. What I realized from my own personal experience – it did not matter how well educated you were, how much money you had, what connections you had, when you’re going through re-entry, you’re going to face barriers. I developed a program to fill service gaps and to be not so much a hand-out as an empowering thing to help overcome those barriers.”

Employment assistance is a major piece of ReConnect.

“We look beyond just helping them with creating a resume and building interview skills. We spoke with employers to find out what soft skills they’re looking for in people. In our employment readiness program Ready for Work we put a lot of emphasis on those core competencies employers want: dependable, reliable, strong work ethic, problem solvers.”

ReConnect’s Construction Toolbox Credentials Training workshops prepare participants for real jobs.

“We worked with construction companies to find out what they’re looking for in people and we developed a training program using industry professionals to come teach it. They issue industry recognized certificates.”

Metropolitan Community College has convened around re-entry for more than a decade. Today, it’s a sanctioned service provider with 180 Re-entry Assistance Program.

“The thing we constantly hear from employers is that the pool of potential employees they’re fishing in do not have employability skills,” said director Diane Good-Collins, who did a stretch in state prison. “They don’t know how to show up on time, how to communicate with their supervisor, how to be a team player. Those are the things we’re teaching clients while they’re still incarcerated, so when they come out of prison they’re on a level playing field with those without criminal histories they’re competing against for jobs.”

Programs like 180 and ReConnect build background friendly employer pipelines.

“We work now with over 80 employers,” Stennis-Williams said. “These employers are very receptive to hiring men and women who participate in our job readiness workshops. I think employers’ attitudes are changing, partly because of economics. Employers are realizing they cannot ignore this labor force anymore.

“That’s why I think they’re making an effort now to reach out to programs like ours.”

Metro’s 180 program sees a similar shift.

“We have worked hard talking to employers about the population and helping destigmatize them. Employers understand this is the hidden workforce. Individuals are coming out trained, ready to enter the workforce and have the support of MCC and others in the community as they transition. They are ready to do something different and really what they need is an opportunity,” said Good-Collins. “Statistics show those who get educated while incarcerated are many times less likely to go back to prison.”

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Good-Collins said MCC closely vets participants.

“We’re not just going to send employers 10 people we don’t know anything about. We prescreen them to make sure they’re ready to be a part of their organization.”

Despite rigorous standards and numerous success stories, she said, not all employers want in.

“Some of the barriers are nonnegotiable. Some employers say they absolutely will never hire somebody with a criminal history. Some companies are limited to who they can hire due to liability concerns. Some have no idea they aren’t willing to until we talk to them about it. People with particular criminal histories can’t get hired in certain jobs.”

Image result for defy ventures jasmine harris

Good-Collins found a receptive audience at a Human Resources Association of the Midlands diversity forum she presented at in October.

“Several HR directors said they’d be willing to work with us and we’ve established relationships with their companies. I feel like the proverbial door was kicked open and destigmatizing took place.”

Metro’s credit offerings inside prison include business, entrepreneurship, trades and information technology.

“We chose to teach those four career pathways inside the correctional facilities because those are areas the population can find a job in when released.

“Employability Skills and Introduction to Micro-computer Technology are our foundation courses because they give you a foot in the door with an employer.”

Process and Power Operations is a manufacturing and distribution certification course. Upon completion, she said, “its national certification equals gainful employment upon release,” adding, “We’ve worked with guys who got this and are making very good money.”

“Manufacturing and construction are popular career fields and well-paying options,” she said. “With our forklift training, you can get a job almost immediately at one of our employer partners. Other graduates work in food service  – entry level to management level.”

More re-entry efforts that focus around employment readiness include Intro To The Trades and Urban Pre-Vocational Training programs offered by Black Men United.

Big Mama’s Restaurant and Catering owner Patricia Barron has a long history hiring wait and kitchen staff with criminal histories.

Comprehensive programs like Metro’s 180 and ReConnect offer wrap-around services to clients, including transition support, referral to community agencies, coaching-tutoring-mentoring and employment assistance.

“We serve as a liaison in case there’s an issue that comes up at work and if the employee has a barrier with transportation or child care,” Good-Collins said. “We basically stand as a support and advocate.

“If they’re not at a point in their education and training to be eligible to go into a career position, then we guide them to survival employment, so at least they get working. Meanwhile, they can pursue their educational-employment goal to get to where they want to.”

Teela Mickles has worked with returning citizens for three decades. Her Compassion in Action seeks to “embrace the person, rebuild the family and break the cycle of negativity and recidivism.” CIA’s Pre-Release-Education-Reentry Preparation focuses on the individual and the unresolved core issues that led to criminal acts.

Personal validation, self-exploration and personal development activities help clients change their thinking and behaviors, said Mickles. “This allows each individual to succeed in other services offered to this population: drug rehabilitation, advance education, employment readiness and gainful employment.”

CIA, ReConnect, 180 and other programs refer clients to mental or behavioral health counseling as needed.

There’s also a prevention aspect to e-entry work. Adult clients with kids learn parenting skills and strategies that can help keep their children from entering the system. ReConnect and CIA both have youth and family components.

Jasmine Harris is Post-Release Program manager for the area’s latest re-entry player: Defy Ventures, a national organization with regional chapters. its intensive six-month CEO of Your New Life program

explores character development, transformational education and employment readiness. Participants learn to transition their street hustle experiences, talents and skills into career applications. Clients develop a life plan.

Image result for defy ventures jasmine harris

“Getting them to see that skill set and how to use it on  the positive side of things really turns on a light for them and they love it,” Harris said. “We bring in volunteers for business coaching days. The entrepreneurship part is the hallmark of our program. We call our participants EITs or Entrepreneurs in Training. They get one-on-one basic entrepreneurship.”

Volunteers assist clients in developing a business plan.

“Our curriculum is vetted by Baylor University,” Harris said. “and if participants pass they get a certificate of career readiness. We do a full cap and gown graduation. That’s when we have our business pitch competition. We bring in volunteers, business execs, entrepreneurs and do a shark tank style competition. Everyone graduating pitches their business idea.”

Cash prizes are awarded.

In terms of post-release, Harris deploys the same six month program on the outside that’s offered in prison.

“Anyone in the community with a criminal history, whether they were formally incarcerated or had a misdemeanor or a felony probation, can participate if they’re looking for another option.”

Harris also runs the program’s business incubator.

“Our Entrepreneur Incubator is an additional 12 to 15 months of training. We match clients up with executive mentors who’ve gone through the process of starting their own business. Mentors help walk them through the business start-up process.

“We have business coaching nights and workshops where we bring in subject matter experts who give more in-depth information.”

Harris connects clients with workforce development resources. help with resumes and two big barriers – affordable housing and access to transportation.

“We connect them to services in the community where it makes sense. Everybody doesn’t want to be an entrepreneur or go to school. We let them know there’s a program over here doing a trades piece or there’s another program doing the education piece.”

Re-entry experts agree there are more and better services today but Harris and others see a need for more collaboration among providers.

Good-Collins said no matter how one feels about reentering citizens, they’re here to stay.

“Maybe you can look at it from a dollars and cents perspective and realize it doesn’t make fiscal sense to do what we’ve been doing, which is paying to re-incarcerate people.”

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