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”
Image source : omaha.com
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:
“The Shipping News”
“Far from Heaven”
“Children of Men”
“I’m Not There”
“The Kids are Alright”
“The English Teacher”
“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–
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–
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.
Julianne Moore in conversation with Alexander Payne
Monday, April 24, 7pm
Holland Performing Arts Center
Academy-Award winning actress
in conversation with fellow Oscar-winner and Film Streams Board Member
Dana & Dani Bradford
Steve & Sue Seline
On Monday, April24, 2017, Academy Award-winning actress Julianne Moore will join fellow Oscar winner Alexander Payne at Film Streams’Feature VII for an on-stage conversation about her acclaimed career and perspective on the medium. Proceeds from the event, held at the Holland Performing Arts Center, support Film Streams’ day-to-day operations.
Single tickets for the event will start at $35, with additional gift levels featuring pre- and-post-party options.
In celebration of this wonderful event, the work of Julianne Moore will be the focus of a Spring repertory series.
Julianne Moore is a New York Times Bestselling author, an Academy Award- and Emmy-winning actress, and the ninth person in Academy history to receive two Oscar nominations in the same year. She also became the only American actress to be awarded the top acting prizes at all three major European film festivals: Berlin, Venice, and Cannes. Having appeared in more than 60 feature films, 2015 saw her win both the Oscar and BAFTA for Best Actress for her stunning turn in STILL ALICE. Julianne is an Artist Ambassador for Save The Children US Programs, is on the Advisory Council of The Children’s Health Fund, and is a supporter of Planned Parenthood and the Tuberous Sclerosis Alliance. She is married to writer-director Bart Freundlich (THE REBOUND, TRUST THE MAN, THE MYTH OF FINGERPRINTS). She lives with her family in New York City.
Fellow Oscar-winners Julianne Moore and Alexander Payne will get intimate about cinema tonight at Feature VII, the main fundraising event for Film Streams. Payne’s celebrated name and work means he can reach out to A-list peer film artists and get them to come to Omaha for these one-on-one movie chats. He’s previously brought Laura Dern, Debra Winger, Steven Soderbergh, Jane Fonda, David O. Russell and the principal players from his “Nebraska” – Bruce Dern, Will Forte and June Squibb. I will be there with notepad and pen in hand jotting down golden nuggets from the evening to share with you online later this week.
A repertory series of Julianne Moore’s films is showing at Film Streams through most of May. Meanwhile, Payne’s new film “Downsizing” is drawing ever nearer to its release in December. Read my latest exclusive feature about the film at–
My book “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film” is available on Amazon and at fine bookstores everywhere. Contact me for a signed copy.
More about the book at–
Order the book at–
From Film Streams website–
Past Feature Events
Feature VI: David O. Russell in conversation with Alexander Payne
Monday, Nov. 10, 2014
It is fitting that a celebration in support of Film Streams’ mission should bring together two of the greatest contemporary directors. Russell and Payne’s films have amassed dozens of Academy Award Nominations. Russell was nominated for Academy Awards for two screenplays, Payne for three (with two wins). Both have three best-director nominations. And, both have made three best-picture nominees. More than 1,300 guests attended, raising more than $330,000.
Feature V: Alexander Payne & the cast of NEBRASKA in conversation with Kurt Andersen
Sunday, November 24, 2013
For Feature V, the work of Alexander Payne took center stage when he and the stars of his wonderful film NEBRASKA – Bruce Dern, Will Forte, and June Squibb – joined Kurt Andersen for a lively conversation in which Mr. Dern (who has worked with Alfred Hitchcock, Hal Ashby, and Quentin Tarantino, among others) called Alexander “probably the greatest director I’ve ever worked with.” More than 1,600 attendees helped raise over $300,000 for Film Streams.
Feature IV: Jane Fonda in conversation with Alexander Payne
Sunday, July 22, 2012
For Feature IV, on Sunday, July 22, 2012, lauded actress Jane Fonda returned to Omaha, her legendary father’s hometown and the place where she spent summers acting on the Omaha Community Playhouse stage. Alexander Payne interviewed her at the Holland Performing Arts Center before an audience of 1,300, and surprise guest Laura Dern – our first-ever Feature guest back in 2008 – helped introduce the conversation. The event raised nearly $228,000 and welcomed an audience of 1,300.
Feature III: Steven Soderbergh in conversation with Kurt Andersen
Sunday, February 20, 2011
On Sunday, February 20, 2011, Academy Award-winning director Steven Soderbergh was interviewed onstage at the Holland Performing Arts Center by Film Streams Advisory Board Member Kurt Andersen, following an introduction by Alexander Payne. With more than 1,600 attendees, we raised over $217,000.
Feature 2009: Debra Winger in conversation with Alexander Payne
September 13, 2009
On September 13, 2009, Alexander Payne invited three-time Oscar-nominee Debra Winger to return to Nebraska, where the 1983 landmark TERMS OF ENDEARMENT was filmed. A crowd of 750 joined event chairs Annette and Paul Smith in support of Film Streams’ Ruth Sokolof Theater on Sunday, September 13, 2009, for a lively program at the Holland Performing Arts Center, raising $150,000 for Omaha’s nonprofit cinema. A crowd of 750 raised $150,000 for Omaha’s nonprofit cinema.
Feature 2008: Laura Dern in conversation with Alexander Payne
July 13, 2008
Feature, a gala fundraising event centered on conversation about film, was conceived in 2008, when Board Member Alexander Payne invited actress Laura Dern (WILD AT HEART, JURASSIC PARK) to Omaha. On July 13, 2008, event chairs Betiana and Todd Simon welcomed nearly 1,000 attendees at the Holland Performing Arts Center for a dinner followed by an onstage conversation between Dern and Payne. Payne directed the Academy Award-nominated actress in his breakthrough effort CITIZEN RUTH, which was filmed in Omaha. Nearly 1,000 attended.
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/)
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.”
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.
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”
©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”
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.
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:
“Harold and Maude”
“Save the Tiger”
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.
Food, wonderful food. If I’m not eating, then I’m thinking about eating, which is to say I’m thinking about food. Writng about food is the next best thing to actually enjoying a good meal because I get to visualize it and challenge myself to describing it, although writing about food on an empty stomach is not recommended because it can lead to overindulging when I do satisfy my appetite. Here, in my latest piece for Food & Spirits Magazine (http://fsmomaha.com/), I feature chef-owner Jared Clarke and his Timber Wood Fire Grill, which is the latest expression of his own journey in food. Follow my Pot Liquor Love food blogging at leoadambiga.com and on Facebook at My Inside Stories. And since food and movies are such a good pair, remember to follow my Hot Movie Takes on the same two social media platforms.
Pot Liquor Love:
Chef-Owner Jared Clarke Goes Wood-Fired
Chef-owner Jared Clarke found a niche with his Railcar Modern American Kitchen in northwest Omaha. With it now well-established, he hankered trying a new concept with Timber Wood Fire Bistro in Countryside Village. Since opening in 2016 at the former site of The Bookworm, this extreme open-kitchen, wood-fired menu restaurant has added a signature spot in the heart of Omaha.
Like many young chefs, the 30-something Clarke is an interesting mix of traditional and contemporary influences. He borrows a little from many cuisines for his take on American comfort food rooted in French technique, all accented by a touch of super-hot oak-fired flame to enhance not obscure ingredients’ optimal flavor.
“The hardest thing as a chef is to choose to follow trends or not. I’ve always done comfort food. I grew up on the farm eating from-scratch meals and enjoyed it. I like making things very comforting and warming to your soul. When I was a young chef I was all over the place because I wanted to learn as much as possible. Japanese, Thai, I’ve learned how to make all those cuisines.”
But he always found himself coming back to comfort food, which has become a ubiquitous descriptor of what countless eateries serve.
“I don’t know if this trend will go away or if it’s even really a trend. It’s always been there.”
Clarke is a rarity in these parts as both a certified chef and a trained food scientist. His knowledge about the chemistry of food pairs with his talent and experience in the kitchen to maximize flavor combinations and freshness.
“I do have a better understanding of things. It helps making better sauces or extracting more flavor out of bones. It’s knowing when to season and not to season. It’s knowing where to start and stop your food. There’s science to back these things up.”
Far from being stuck in a laboratory in his formative culinary years, he began cooking professionally in his late teens. He earned his chef certification at Southeast Community College near his hometown of Fairbury, Nebraska and his culinology degree at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Unlike other food science students, he had no interest in doing test kitchen work for ConAgra or Kraft.
“My goal was to get better at my job as a restaurant chef. A lot of my professors were like, ‘What are you thinking?’ ‘I’m thinking about making better food.’
In college he worked at Chili’s and Misty’s in Lincoln. After college he moved to Chicago to work at Lettuce Entertain You and Cooper’s Hawk Winery and Restaurant.
He made a splash upon returning to Nebraska as executive chef at Blue Sushi Sake Grill in Omaha. Already on the short list of top new local chefs, he announced himself a chef-owner to watch with Railcar.
His coast-to-coast travels across America for business and pleasure find him learning new techniques and trends as well as tried and true things he then melds into what he does at his two restaurants.
“I’m always trying to make myself better as a chef.”
Railcar’s success emboldened him to try Timber Wood.
“I’ve always wanted to do my own wood-fired cuisine – something fully wood-fired, not a wood-fired oven and then finish it off on the grill. I wanted something where I could incorporate a lot of different cuisines with the kiss of the wood flavor. Give that campfire flavor with more refined food. I try to do more French techniques with food off grill in the oven, rather than going straight Midwestern cuisine or doing cowboy style food.
“Some people ask, ‘Why don’t you do barbecue?’ Well, that’s not the idea. The idea is to do more refined food off the wood fire. I’m not looking to smoke the food. I’m not going to be using a hickory or an applewood because I’m not looking to really change the flavor of the food – I’m looking to enhance it. I use oak because, to me, it adds an extra layer of seasoning that kind of sets the food apart. But the roast chicken still tastes like roast chicken.”
He went against the grain of what most of us associate with wood-fire.
“I didn’t want to focus strictly on pizzas because everybody thinks wood fire and pizza. I wanted to do something different here than make pizza like everyone else is doing. We have a small selection of French-style pizzas – pissaladière – on our menu. French-style pizzas don’t have a lot of sauce. Some don’t have any sauce at all – they might just have some herb oil. We use a lot of high-end ingredients on it. It’s not your normal pizza. It’s a cross between Neapolitan style pizza and the focaccia. You have a cracker crust on the outside but it puffs out enough where you get these airy bubbles. It’s chewy on the inside and crispy on the outside.
“The traditional Provencal-style pizza we do has a lot of lavender and thyme, caramelized onions, anchovies, salt cured olives. We do a little frisee salad on top with shaved pecorino and a sherry vinaigrette.
That’s a pretty classical combination for the Provence region. As chefs we have to be food historians, too. If you don’t know where your food comes from or how it came to be that cuisine, it’s hard to understand the food you’re putting forward.”
He became sold on the open-kitchen concept after seeing it in action on food travels.
“The aroma, the food coming out of there, talking to the cooks, having a great time – I thought this might be a fun concept to try in Omaha.
We designed it to give people the ability to sit at the counter or walk by and really see the show. Other open kitchens in Omaha are still closed off to the public – you can’t walk right next to the line and peek in and talk to the guys and interact if you want to.
“Here, you can interact with us.”
The show diners are treated to is a fast-paced ballet of efficient movements by the head chef, sous chef and support crew, variously working at a 900-degree cast-iron grill and oven and on the six-burner stove.
“On a busy weekend we pump out a hundred meals in less than an hour. Customers are like, ‘Wow, you guys are fast. How do you do that?’ They’re intrigued with how we’re able to put food out because they don’t really get to see it anywhere else. To me, that’s the fun part of it – people get to see what we do. When we have 300 or 400 people on a Friday or Saturday night they can see us working hard, getting the orders out right. They see there’s a lot involved with their food.”
Clarke’s impressive chops are an amalgam of his many gigs and stops. He said the local chef community is much more generous today than when he came up.
“You were just doing whatever you thought was right and nobody ever really taught you. Back then a lot of the chefs here were not interested in teaching other people. They felt like if they taught you how to do their job they would lose their job. When I was in Chicago it was the other way around. If they taught you how to do your job, then their job just got easier. It all trickled down. If everyone has the same mentality and you’ve given them the tools to be great, then you don’t have to be there every day.”
Having two restaurants now, he said, is “a little trying.” He spends most of his time these days at the start-up, Timber Wood. He said, “Railcar is what got us here and we want to make sure that continues to be successful, so we make sure we have the right people over there. My ultimate goal is to spend time at both places so nobody feels neglected. Chefs that I have at both restaurants are going to guide things moving forward.
“It’s tough though because you have to figure out where you want to be, what you want to do, and I like being on-the-line. I will eventually be off-the-line a lot more. I want to be cooking more, but you’ve got to manage things, too.”
The satisfaction he finds in his work, which is also a lifestyle, is fundamental.
“It’s the artistic approach to it because I really enjoy being creative. I grew up in an artistic family (his mother was an art and music teacher and his father a farmer) and this is my outlet now in just being creative and free. When I’m on-the-line I’m in a happy place – I’m making food for people, and at the end of the day, that’s what I want.”
He fell in love with locating Timber Wood in the old Bookworm space, he said, because of the “great windows, openness, and natural light.” Following a much beloved business is not a bad thing. “The Bookworm was here for I don’t know how many years, so this space has really good memories and feelings for people. If there had been eight restaurants here I probably would never have come to this space.”
Ultimately, it’s the food, not the brick-and-mortar that matters, and like many of his colleagues he strives for fresh, local, sustainable.
“The biggest thing is making sure suppliers are providing you with the best product possible at the right time. As spring rolls around we’ll start really getting the produce. The goal is to try to bring forth as many fresh products as possible and get it from as close as you can. It supports the community a lot more.
“The amount of options you can buy from has increased. We’re starting to see more cheese, dairy and poultry farms. Ten years ago we didn’t have this even though producers had the ability to do it.”
Meanwhile, as if he doesn’t have enough going on with two restaurants, a wife and three kids, he’s visioning new eateries.
“I already know what they’re going to be. As a guy who used to play a lot of chess, I’m always thinking four or five moves ahead of the game to see what else is available when the time’s right.”
Clarke’s proud to be a player in this ever more dynamic food scene that’s gotten some of his friends and colleagues national attention.
“I don’t think Omaha is a flyover city anymore. People are excited to actually be here.”
Hours for Timber Wood, 8702 Pacific Street, are: 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to close on Friday. And 9 a.m. to close on Saturday and Sunday.
Visit https://timberomaha.com or call 402-964-2227.
Hot Movie Takes – “Rawhide”
©By Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”
I love a good Western. This quintessential American film form is full of possibilities from a storytelling perspective because of the vast physical and metaphorical landscapes it embodies. The American West was a wide open place in every sense. Everything there was up for grabs. Thus, the Old West frontier became a canvass for great conflicts and struggles involving land, resources, power, control, law, values, ideas, dreams and visions. With so much at stake from a personal, communal and national vantage point, dramatists have a field day using the Western template to explore all manner of psycho-social themes. Add undercurrents of personal ambition, rivalry, deceit and romantic intrigue to the mix not to mention race and ethnicty, and, well, you have the makings for a rich tableaux that, in the right hands, is every bit as full as, say, Shakespeare or Dickens.
All of which is to say that last night I viewed on YouTube a much underrated Western from the Golden Age of Hollywood called “Rawhide” (1951) that represents just how satisfying and complex the form can be, This is an extremely well-crafted work directed by Henry Hathaway, written by Dudley Nichols and photographed by Milton Krasner. Tyrone Powers and Susan Hayward head a very strong cast rounded out by Hugh Marlowe, Jack Elam. Dean Jagger, George Tobias, Edgar Buchanan and Jeff Corey.
“Rawhide” isn’t quite a Western masterpiece but it’s very good and elements of it are among the very best seen in the Western genre. Let’s start with the fact that the script is superb. It’s an intelligent, taut thriller with a wicked sense of humor leavening the near melodramatic bits. Nichols wrote some of John Ford’s best films and so in a pure story sense “Rawhide” plays a lot like a Ford yarn with its sharply observed characters and situations that teeter back and forth between high drama and sardonic relief.
Like most great Westerns, this is a tale about the tension between upstanding community, in this case a very small stagecoach outpost stop, and marauding outlaws. Across the entire genre the classic Western story is one variation or another of some community, usually a town or a wagon train, under siege by some threat or of some individual seeking revenge for wrongs done him/her or of a gunman having to live up to or play down his reputation.
In “Rawhide” escaped outlaws are on the loose and the stagecoach station manager (Buchanan) and his apprentice (Power), along with a woman passenger (Hayward) and her child, are left to fend for themselves by U.S. cavalry troops hot on the bad guys’ trail. When the four desperate men show up they make the station inhabitants their captives. The leader (Marlowe) is an educated man who exhibits restraint but he has trouble keeping in line one of the men (Elam) who escaped prison with him. Sure enough, things get out of hand as tensions among the outlaws and with the surviving hired hand and woman mount. The criminals are intent on stealing a large gold shipment coming through and the captives know their lives will be expendable once the robbery is over, and so they scheme for a way to escape. The trouble is they are locked in a room most of the time and when let outside they’re closely guarded. Their best chance for getting out of the mess seems to be when a nighttime stage arrives but it and its passengers come and go without the man or woman being able to convey the dire situation. But one more opportunity presents itself when the daytime coach with the gold shipment approaches and the pair, aided by the outlaws’ own internal conflicts. use all their courage and ingenuity to face down the final threat.
The dramatic set-up is fairly routine but what Nichols, Hathaway and Krasner do with it is pretty extraordinary in terms of juxtaposing the freedom of the wide open spaces and the confinement of the captives. A great deal of claustrophobic tension and menace is created through the writing, the direction and the black and white photography, with particularly great use of closeups and in-depth focus. Hathaway’s and Krasner’s framing of the images for heightened dramatic impact is brilliantly done.
The acting is very good. Power, who himself was underrated, brings his trademark cocksure grace and sense of irony to his part. Hayward, who is not one of my favorite actresses from that period, parlays her natural toughness and fierceness to give a very effective performance that is almost completely absent of any sentimentality. Marlowe is appropriately smart and enigmatic in his role and he displays a machismo I didn’t before identify with him. Buchanan, Jagger, Tobias and Corey are all at their very best in key supporting roles that showcase their ability to indelibly capture characters in limited screen time. But it’s Elam who nearly steals the picture with his manic portrayal that edges toward over-the-top but stays within the realm of believability.
“Rawhide” doesn’t deal in the mythic West or confront big ideas, which is fine because it knows exactly what it is, It’s a lean, realistic, fast-paced Western with just a touch of poetry to it, and that’s more than enough in my book.
Hathaway made more famous Westerns, such as “The Sons of Katie Elder” and “True Grit,” but this is a better film than those. With his later pics Hathaway seemed to be trying to follow in the footsteps of John Ford with the scope of his Westerns, but he was no John Ford. Hathaway was best served by the spare semi-documentary style he employed earlier in his career in film noirs like “Kiss of Death,” “13 Rue Madeleine” and “Call Northside 777” and Westerns like “Rawhide.” One exception was “Nevada Smith,” which does successfully combine the leanness of his early career with the sprawling approach he favored late in his career.
Rawhide 1951 Full Movie – YouTube