My life’s work is writing stories about people, their passions and their magnificent obsessions. I do this as an author-journalist-blogger. The gallery of people and pursuits I write about is quite diverse.
Though I am a generalist who writes about anything and everything, there are a few subjects I keep returning to again and again. Some of these are societal and cultural in nature, others historical. But there is one particular individual who occupies special emphasis among all my writing and reporting: Alexander Payne. The Oscar-winning filmmaker, who has given us such works as Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants and Nebraska, is actually part of a larger interest in film I have cultivated for decades. I got hooked on movies as a teen. I did film programming for a decade-and-a-half. Since the mid-1990s I have written hundreds of stories as a film journalist. Many of my film interviews and profiles focus on Nebraskans in film. I am developing the Nebraska Film Heritage Project as a print, online, lecture and curriculum vehicle for documenting and celebrating the achievements of Nebraskans in film, past and present, both in front of the camera and behind the camera.
Payne is the epitome of the passionate creatives I interview and profile. His magnificent obsession with film ranges from an encyclopedic knowledge of world cinema to support of film preservation and education efforts to pursuit of great film projects. From his very first feature, Citizen Ruth, on through his last completed film, Nebraska, he has satirically, thoughtfully explored a wide expanse of the human heart and soul. He’s paid particular attention to relationships, but he’s also touched on abortion, politics, mid-life crisis, loneliness, identity issues, addiction, depression, love, romance, infidelity, death, family, alienation, old age. The film he’s making now, Downsizing, which releases in late 2017, will offer up his most expansive take yet on the world with the satire this time revolving around themes of depleted world resources, sustainability, technology, geo-political tensions, terrorism, corruption, exploitation, discrimination and civilization. He and co-writer Jim Taylor are exploring the very nature of what it means to be human and how we create society. Where his previous films have been more intimate in scale, he is working on an epic canvas here, though the ideas are distilled into the closely observed personal story of one character, Paul (played by Matt Damon), whose life is the prism through which all these intersecting storylines and themes are played out. In terms of ideas, it may be the most ambitious American film since Apocalypse Now or The Deer Hunter or at least since Avatar.
My extensive coverage of the acclaimed writer-director has resulted in a deep body of work about him and his films that I have collected into a book first published in 2012. I have a new edition out this summer featuring expanded and enhanced content that brings you right up to date with his latest project.
Introducing the new “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”
I am very pleased to announce the new edition Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film releases September 1. You have an early bird opportunity to buy the book at KANEKO, 1111 Jones Street, in Omaha’s Old Market. It will be available for purchase during the remainder ofof the Storytelling Series run (through August 27) at this venue that is “an open space for open minds…”
The book will be available at other venues, including bookstores and gift shops, during the course of the summer and fall.
Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film charts the filmmaker’s rise to the elite ranks of world cinema. Articles and essays take you deep inside the artist’s creative process. It is the most comprehensive look at Payne and his work to be found anywhere. This new edition features significant new content related to Nebraska and Downsizing. We have also added a Discussion Guide with Index for you film buffs and students. The book is also a great resource for more casual film fans who want a handy Payne primer and trivia goldmine. The book releases September 1 from River Junction Press and sales for $25.95.
For inquiries and pre-orders, contact: email@example.com.
Strong praise for”Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”–
“This is without question the single best study of Alexander Payne’s films, as well as the filmmaker himself and his filmmaking process. In charting the first two decades of Payne’s remarkable career, Leo Adam Biga pieces together an indelible portrait of an independent American artist, and one that’s conveyed largely in the filmmaker’s own words. This is an invaluable contribution to film history and criticism – and a sheer pleasure to read as well.” –Thomas Schatz, Film scholar and author (The Genius of the System)
“Alexander is a master. Many say the art of filmmaking comes from experience and grows with age and wisdom but, in truth, he was a master on day one of his first feature. Leo Biga has beautifully captured Alexander’s incredible journey in film for us all to savor.” – Laura Dern, actress, star of Citizen Ruth
“Last night I finished your wonderful new book and I enjoyed it so much! Alexander Payne is such a terrific director and I loved reading about his films in detail. Congratulations.” – Joan Micklin Silver, filmmaker (Hester Street, Crossing Delancey)
“Alexander Payne is one of American cinema’s leading lights. How fortunate we are that Leo Biga has chronicled his rise to success so thoroughly.” – Leonard Maltin, film critic and best-selling author
“I’d be an Alexander Payne fan even if we didn’t share a Nebraska upbringing: he is a masterly, menschy, singular storyteller whose movies are both serious and unpretentious, delightfully funny and deeply moving. And he’s fortunate indeed to have such a thoughtful and insightful chronicler as Leo Biga.” – Kurt Andersen, novelist (True Believers) and Studio 360 host
“Alexander Payne richly deserves this astute book about his work by Leo Biga. I say this as a fan of both of theirs; and would be one even if I weren’t from Nebraska.” – Dick Cavett, TV legend
“Leo Biga brings us a fascinating, comprehensive, insightful portrait of the work and artistry of Alexander Payne. Mr. Biga’s collection of essays document the evolution and growth of this significant American filmmaker and he includes relevant historical context of the old Hollywood and the new. His keen reporter’s eye gives the reader an exciting journey into the art of telling stories on film.” – Ron Hull, Nebraska Educational Television legend, University of Nebraska emeritus professor of broadcasting, author ofBackstage
“Perhaps the most intriguing feature of the book is Biga’s success at getting Payne to speak candidly about every step in the filmmaking process. These detailed insights include the challenges of developing material from conception to script, finding financing, moderating the mayhem of shooting a movie, and undertaking the slow, monk-like work of editing.” – Brent Spencer, educator and author (The Lost Son)
“This book became a primer for me, and introduced me to filmmaking in a way that I had never experienced in my years at film school. The intimacy and honesty in Biga’s writing, reporting and interviewing– and Payne’s unparalleled knowledge of cinema introduced me to filmmaking and film history from someone I quickly came to respect: Mr. Payne.” – Bryan Reisberg, filmmaker (Big Significant Things)
Watch for announcements about book signings and how you can get your copy for yourself, a friend, a loved one. Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film makes a perfect gift for the film lover in your life.
Paul Johnsgard is an unassuming Great Plains genius whose writing, lecturing, illustrating and photographing of birds and the natural world have earned him and his work high distinction. He is also renowned for his wood carvings of waterfowl. His impressive skill set has resulted in him being called a Renaissance Man by some and a rare bird or a bird of a different feather by others. The best way I found into his story was to frame his deep passion for nature as an extension of the imprinting process that goes on with birds. Everything about where he grew up and how he grew up immersed him in nature and reinforced his fascination with birds and wild things until it became embedded or imprinted in him. He is one of the latest in that ever growing gallery of my profile subjects whose life and work epitomize what I highlight in my writing – “stories about people, their passions and their magnificent obsessions.” Johnsgard’s regard for birds and the lengths he goes to observe, study, describe, illustrate, photograph than and to represent them in art are all about passion and magnificent obsession.
My profile of Johnsgard is the cover story in the July 2016 New Horizons that should be hitting stands and arrving in mailboxes by the end of June.
As an aside, whenever I do one of my new Horizons profiles I am reminded that the people of a certain age I profile in its pages are consistently the most complex, interesting subjects I write about. These people live rich, full lives marked by intellectual rigor, unbound curiosity, joyful work and play and a sense of adventure. They know themselves well enough by age 60 or 70 or 80 or 90 or whenever I get around to them to be comfortable in their own skin and to not much give a damn what anyone else thinks. They are well past pretense and posturing. They are al about living. They own every inch of their humanity, gifts and warts and all. It’s a refreshing and instructive lesson to live large and love hard.
Paul Johnsgard: A Birder’s Road Less Traveled
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appearing in the July 2016 issue of New Horizons
A birder’s beginnings
World-renowned ornithologist Paul Johnsgard, 85, ascribes his passion for birds to something akin to the imprinting process that occurs with the winged creatures he’s made his life’s work.
For the University of Nebraska-Lincoln emeritus professor and author of 82 books, many illustrated with his own drawings and photos, this road-less-traveled life all began as a lad in North Dakota. His earliest memories are of birds and other natural things that captured his imagination while growing up on the edge of prairie country.
“The railroad track went through town and that was probably important because I could walk the railroad track and not get lost, and see birds and flowers,” he recalled. “I was unbelievably lucky I think.”
This Depression-era baby got exposed to the surrounding natural habitats of the Red River and of Lake Lida in Minnesota, where his family summered in a cottage. Those summer idylls gave him free range of unspoiled woods.
He loved the forests, grasslands, flowers, birds. But feather and fowl most fascinated him. Why?
“I don’t know,” he said, pausing a moment. “It’s their sense of freedom – they can fly anywhere and do anything. They have incredible grace. They’re wild. I’m not interested in domestic birds – turkeys and chickens and so on.”
Ah, the wild. From that Arcadian childhood through his adult field work, wild places and things have most captivated him. His appreciation for birds has ever deepened the more he’s observed them. Among other things, he admires their acuity.
Wonderful world of birds
Johnsgard wrote, “I’m absolutely convinced that there is a lot more to what they know and perceive than what humans observe. I honestly think that we are underestimating birds, and certainly other mammals, when we avoid anthropomorphism too rigorously.”
He told the New Horizons, “I even more believe that today. We’re learning things about bird intelligence that were not only unknown but unbelievable just a few years ago, such as their solving fairly complicated problems of putting things together to get at food and things like that that really require some kind of logic. The first person I think that really began to realize that was Irene Pepperberg (Brandeis University professor and Harvard University lecturer), who taught her parrot 300 or 400 words in English and the bird would put them together in not quite sentences but use them in that kind of a logical combination. I think that was one of the first major insights into how smart birds can be. They are remarkably aware of their environment and of any alterations in it, which is a measure of their intelligence.”
He has special admiration for one species – the crane – that has ancient roots and that mates for life. He’s so taken with the Sandhill Crane he’s devoted more words to its study than any other bird. For decades he’s made a pilgrimage to see and record the annual Sandhill Crane migration in central Nebraska’s Platte River Valley,
“More than any bird I know,” he said, “they are amazingly aware of what’s going on. You don’t want to go anywhere near a crane nest because even if the female’s gone if she sees it has been disturbed she will abandon the nest. The only way you can do it safely is to wait until the nest is hatching – then she will stay there and protect it.”
His favorite bird has varied over time. “I think I was probably first enamored by Wood Ducks, which are so beautiful. Then I became interested in swans, especially the Trumpeter Swan, and now, of course, cranes. Even though the Whooping Crane is bigger and more beautiful, I think I’m more attracted to the Sandhill Crane. I’ve spent so much time with them. I’ve probably not spent more than 10 hours looking at Whooping Cranes. They’re so rare. The chances of seeing them in Nebraska are remote at best. But there’s a plethora of Sandhills.”
The great migration
He has a special perch from which to watch the Sandhill Crane migration unfold courtesy of a cabin owned by internationally known wildlife photographer, Tom Mangelsen. The two men go way back. Mangelsen, a Grand Island native who did part of his growing up in Omaha, was a student and field assistant under Johnsgard, who mentored him in the 1970s. These friends and colleagues have collaborated on several projects, including a documentary Mangelsen shot and Johnsgard wrote about the Sandhill Cranes and for a new book A Chorus of Cranes.
Johnsgard is among the ranks who feel the spring migration is one of the greatest shows on Earth. It is a sensory experience to behold between the massive numbers on the ground and in the air and the swell of their trumpeting call.
“It’s a combination of place and sight and sound, all of which are unique,” he said. “To have 50,000 cranes overhead is quite something. Cranes are among the loudest birds in the world, so it just about blows your eardrums out when they’re all screaming. And to have a sunset or a sunrise, as the case may be, and to have this beautiful river flowing in front of you – it just all makes for a unique site in the world. It’s all those things coming together.”
Johnsgard’s prose is usually straightforward but there are times he uses a more literary style if it fits the subject, and he can’t think of anything more deserving than cranes,
“In my book Crane Music there’s a section on the cranes returning to the Platte in the spring that I wrote in the style of a kind of prayer: ‘There’s a season in the heart of Nebraska and there’s a bird in the heart of Nebraska and there’s a place in the heart of Nebraska…’ So those three paragraphs come together and then I wrote – ‘There’s a magical time when the bird and the season and the place all come together.'”
In a CBS Sunday Morning report on the migration Johnsgard described the amplified cacophony made by that many cranes “as the sounds of a chorus of angels, none of whom could sing on key, but all trying as hard as they can.” The naturalist also described what these majestic birds remind him of. “It’s almost like watching ballet in slow motion, because the wing beats are slow and they move in such an elegant way.”
Johnsgard explained to the New Horizons why the area around Kearney, Nebraska is the epicenter for this mass gathering that goes back before recorded time. An ancestral imperative has brought the birds yearly through millennia and the presence of humans has not yet disrupted this hard-wired pattern.
“Well, Kearney didn’t do anything to attract it, but the Platte River had become increasingly crowded with vegetation, both upstream and downstream, so all these wonderful sandbars were disappearing and the area around Kearney was one of the last places where the Platte was something like its original form. Lots of bars and islands and not too much disturbance. The birds from the whole upper Platte and even the North Platte were being crowded more and more together and so now you have over 500,000 in an area of no more than 50 miles.
“If it were normal conditions, then in those same 50 miles you might have 40,000 or 50,000.”
The cranes that arrive in March and April, he said, “are not getting as much food as they should be getting, so they’re having to leave the Platte due to food competition before they really have as much fat on them as they should.”
He said conservation measures help by controlling dam water releases and diversions for irrigation, recreation and other uses and therefore keeping steady water levels through the year. The shallow Platte and its surrounding vegetation is a fragile ecosystem that requires monitoring and intervention. The Platte has benefited from a river management agreement between Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska to share the water and maintain enough flow for Whooping Cranes and other endangered species. The Sandhill Cranes are not endangered.
He expects the compact to be renewed before it expires, but it will require the governors of all three states to re-up. He feels the measures are adequate to protect the cranes and other wildlife that make the migration a wonder of the world.
Even though he’s been going to catch that great display of plumage for years now, it never ceases to enthrall him.
“It just about gives me chills,” he said. “I call it nirvana. It pretty much is like a state of bliss.”
That feeling is shared by many. When Johnsgard took noted nature writer David Quammen out to the Platte for the migration he wasn’t sure what this much-traveled adventurer would make of it since “he’s been everywhere to see the natural world,” said Johnsgard. “I took him out to a blind one late afternoon at the Crane Trust and everything happened perfectly and he said, ‘You know, of all the places I’ve been and all the things I’ve seen this is probably the best time I’ve ever had watching birds.’ He did say there’s a bird sanctuary in India where storks come in in a somewhat similar way but that it’s the only thing that could possibly match what we saw.”
Acclaimed conservationist and chimp expert Jane Goodall has been joining Johnsgard and Mangelsen for crane watching expeditions since about 2000. Even though she’s seen so much of the natural world she told CBS’s Dean Reynolds, “I wasn’t quite prepared for the absolutely unbelievable, glorious spectacle of all these thousands of birds coming in. It’s just unbeatable, and it’s really peaceful.”
A confluence of interest
None of this would have happened for Johnsgard – from hanging out in blinds with celebs to his words reaching general audiences – if not for a string of things that transpired in his youth. His call to be a birder started just as he entered school.
“When I was 5 or 6 I asked Mother for the salt shaker so I could go out and put salt on a Robin’s tail. Do you know that story?” he asked a visitor at his UNL office. “Well, it goes that if you put salt on a bird’s tail it becomes tame, and I wanted to have a tame Robin. I spent a lot of time trying to do that. I wanted to touch them.”
He made his first drawings of birds then, too. But the real origin of his imprinting may be traced to an experience in first grade.
“My first-grade teacher, Hazel Bilstead, had a mounted male Red-winged Blackbird in a glass Victorian bell jar. She lifted the glass and let me touch it and that really captured my attention. I’d never seen anything that beautiful that close. I’ve never forgotten it. I remember it as well as I did that very day. I think that my need to see live birds in detail began at that time. I later dedicated one of my books to Miss Bilstead’s memory.”
His passion got further fed when a camera (Baby Brownie Special) first came into his life at 7 or 8. He’s not been without a camera since. He’s gone through the whole evolution of 35 millimeter models. He shoots digital images today. On one of his office computers alone he estimates he has more than 20,000 archived photographs.
He supports high tech image capture projects like one by the Crane Trust that has camouflaged game cameras programmed to take pictures every half hour or when motion is detected.
“These six weeks or so the birds spend in the Platte Valley are critically important for them to acquire the amount of fat — energy — they need for the rest of their spring and summer activities. So it really is important to get this kind of data,” he told a reporter.
Even though he grew up hunting – it was simply part of the culture he was raised in – he eventually gave up the gun for the camera. “It increasingly bothered me to kill things that I spent hours watching,” he wrote.
The sanctity of nature became more and more impressed upon him the more time he spent in it. Having the sanctuary of those woods near the family lake cottage nourished him.
“I’d wander around there with my dog and chase skunks and get chased by skunks, look for bears. I’d heard there were some. I developed a little wildflower garden from the flowers in the woods and tended it until we finally sold the cottage in 2005. It was still thriving then.”
Many people played a role in nurturing his Thoreau-like rapture.
“My mother’s cousin Bud Morgan was a game warden and by the time I was 12 he realized I really loved birds, so he’d take me along and we’d count ducks and just talk about birds. That really helped a lot actually in directing my studying waterfowl. He taught me how to identify waterfowl.”
Thirsty to know everything he could about birds, Johnsgard practically memorized what books on the subject his town library held. One he used to particularly “delight in” is T.S. Roberts’ two-volume The Birds of Minnesota.
“I thought it remarkable that a little town library carried it because it was an expensive book for the time. It was a wonderful book. Still is.”
As it was readily apparent that young Paul was crazy about birds, his parents and others happily indulged his curiosity by gifting him with books that any birder would be proud to own. As a result, he possess today several first editions of classics, including Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac and F.H. Kortright’s Ducks, Geese, and Swans of North America. He has a later edition of John James Audubon’s The Birds of America.
He got his first field guide in college.
Until recently brought to his attention, Johnsgard said he didn’t realize how so many early life elements reinforced his interest in nature and birds. That background set him off on his odyssey as naturalist, wildlife biologist, birder, author and more.
Tom Mangelsen (Images of Nature), who knows Johnsgard as well as anyone, said of him, “He’s a wonderful man and really inspirational. Nobody’s done that many books on birds. He’s remarkably prolific and a major intellect. It’s been a long, wonderful journey for me. We are dear friends.”
Mangelsen said Johnsgard likes to tell people that while he was not his best student he is his most famous former pupil. The two also enjoy sharing the fact that Johnsgard accepted him as a graduate student not based on his grades, which were poor, but on the family cabin Mangelsen offered him access to.
As far as Mangelsen’s concerned, Johnsgard is a real “Renaissance Man.” Indeed, in addition to being a scientist, educator, author, illustrator and photographer, Johnsgard’s a highly regarded artist. Several of his drawings and wood bird sculptures are in private collections or museums. For his line drawings he works from photo composites and specimens.
“Having photographs makes it possible to draw them accurately. A photograph though won’t give you much more than just an outline so you really need to be able to look at the thing from the front, from the sides, from the top to get a sense for its shape. So I like to have a specimen if I can. Most of the time I’ve been here I’ve had access to a reasonably good collection of stuffed birds. If that doesn’t do it, I can go over to the state museum and look at things.”
This stickler for details notices when people take artistic license or just don’t get it right.
“When I was in London at the National Gallery there was a painting by Rembrandt of a dead black grouse upside down ready to be plucked. It had the wrong number of primary feathers on the wing, so he wasn’t a birder.”
Johnsgard’s waterfowl carvings are much admired. He is self-taught. “I’ve been at it since I was a Boy Scout,” he said. One of his carvings is in the permanent collection of the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery in Lincoln. “It’s a full-sized Trumpeter Swan preening. Up until then it was by far the biggest carving I’d done. It weighed about 50 pounds.” He based it on a photo he saw in National Geographic. He didn’t know what to do with the carving when he finished it.
“It was so big that the only place I could put it at home was on top of the damn refrigerator. It was gathering dust up there. Sheldon’s then-director, George Neubert, asked if I could loan him some of my decoys for a folk art show, so I put that thing down there and after it was over he asked me if I’d consider selling it. He told me later he thought it was one of the 10 best acquisitions he got during his time as director.
“Audrey Kauders, director of MONA (Museum of Nebraska Art), has been after me for years to give them a carving. Every time I see her, she says, ‘You promised me a carving.’ I’ve gotta do it.”
He is that rare scientist to have crossed over from academia to the mainstream. Some of that attention has come from the prolific number of nature books he’s written. A book he did with his daughter Karin Johnsgard, Dragons and Unicorns: A Natural History, is an allegorical-metaphorical work that’s never been out of print from St. Martin’s Press. Some of his straight nature books have been popular with the general public. His essays and articles in Nebraskaland, Nebraska Life and Prairie Fire have enjoyed wide readership. Then there’s the public speaking he does and the media interviews he gives.
“Anyone who has made a trip west to see the Sandhill Cranes is familiar with Paul Johnsgard,” said Julie Masters of Omaha. “His books, lectures and interviews on the subject inspire. To experience the cranes through his eyes is a great gift.”
Masters recently developed a friendship with him that’s enriched her appreciation for nature.
“I happened to be on the UNL campus in January and saw him out walking. We struck up a conversation and have been meeting every few weeks to discuss cranes and all sorts of other birds. It is a great privilege to learn about bird behavior from this highly regarded ornithologist ”
Paul Johnsgard and Tom Mangelsen, ©Sue Cedarholm
Reverence for nature
While Johnsgard appreciates having his work recognized and enjoyed, he could do without the fuss or fame, such as a recent Esquire magazine piece he was part of that featured “Men of Style” from different walks of life. He would much rather commune with wild things than reporters. He’s most at home sitting patiently in a blind watching birds or marveling at the array of wildlife drawn to a water hole on the Serengeti or contemplating the flora and fauna of the High Rockies. These are mystical spots and interludes for him.
“If I had a religion, it would be nature,” he said, “I think watching birds is the most spiritually rewarding thing I do.”
He realizes the notion runs counter to science but doesn’t much care, though he’s quick to point out, “I don’t believe in any god per se, but I have a reverence for what I see in nature, I don’t think those things were created by a god, but they’re god-like aspects of the world, Without wild things and wild places in the world it’d be a pretty dreary place, so I have that maybe Eisley (Loren)-like or Neihardt (John)-like idea of the world.”
Reading Neihardt’s Black Elk Speaks “mesmerized” Johnsgard, particularly the appearance of Snow Geese in several of Black Elk’s visions. Johnsgard, who was already considering a book on Snow Geese. felt compelled to respond in a new work that counterpointed what he knew about the biology of that bird with Native American views of it.
“I couldn’t sleep, so I started scribbling the outlines of what became Song of the North Wind. I went to the library and found all I could on the beliefs of the Plains Indians and also the Inuit.
I finally decided I had enough to write a book. I went up to the nesting grounds in Western Hudson Bay before I finished it.”
Rhapsodizing about the sacredness of nature is one thing, just don’t preach to Johnsgard about thou shalt dos and do-nots.
“I don’t go to church and I get pretty upset with people who are overly religious. I have been a member of the Unitarian Church. I went mostly for the good music and the important issues they talked about, but I haven’t been back in a long time. I prefer to spend my Sunday doing other things.”
The concept of a Higher Power, he said, is “something so amorphous it’s hard to put into objective words,” adding, “I think for everybody it’s a pretty personal thing.”
Questions big and small still consume Johnsgard, who juggles three book projects at any given time. In June he submitted the page proofs for his latest, The North American Grouse, Their Biology and Behavior. Now that the retired scholar is freed from teaching, he does whatever books come to mind these days but especially on subjects that he fills a void in.
Having reached the point where he doesn’t care about royalties anymore, he puts his work in the public domain via Digital Commons, where anyone can download his books for free.
As the bird flies
Not surprising for an octogenarian of arts and letters, his two-room office on the Lincoln campus is crammed with books as well as art and artifacts from his many travels studying birds across North America, Europe, Africa, South America, Australia. His extensive collection extends to his home.
A prized birding site he’s never been to is in the Himalayas, where the Black Necked Crane resides. “It never comes below 8,000 feet. It’s the last crane in the world I haven’t seen. There’s very few in captivity. I did see a pair at the International Crane Foundation. But the ultimate in birding is to go to the Himalayas to see this incredibly rare bird. I don’t think I’ll make it because my heart isn’t up to those altitudes anymore.
“There’s still four species of waterfowl in the world I haven’t seen and I don’t think I ever will. They’re in places like Madagascar and the East Indies – hard to get to and probably not worth the time and expense and effort to try to do it. But it’s still fun to think about what might be special about them.”
Most of his birding adventures are uneventful but he’s had close calls. A harrowing incident occurred in the Andes. “A guide and I were coming down off an 11,000 foot volcano in a jeep I’d rented when it suddenly lost its brakes on a one-way narrow road looking down on a canyon probably 3,000 feet deep. The road was lined with bushes and I thought the only way I could possibly stop was if I drove into the bushes and used them to slow us down. They finally did and we got the jeep stopped. We looked at the brake connection and where there should have been a bolt there was a leather shoe lace somebody used as a temporary measure. We retied the leather and made it down.”
On other excursions, he said, “I’ve been in really life threatening situations where I should have never gone. The worst place was Oaxaca, Mexico.” Drug cartel-fueled killings and kidnappings happen there. “The biologist who was there before me was macheted to death. I was advised to carry a pistol, so I got one at a pawnshop in Lincoln and as soon as I got home I took it back.” Johnsgard never had reason to use it.
During that same trip he realized as his departure drew near he lacked permits for the birds he’d captured. They were supposed to be quarantined, but he didn’t have the time. “So I thought I’d take a chance,” he said. Wishing to avoid a customs snag, he waited till midnight to access a remote border crossing point. When an inquisitive guard asked what he was carrying in back of the van he was driving Johnsgard acknowledged the birds but left out the part about restrictions on import. The guard then asked “What else you got back there?” and Johnsgard replied, “Well, that’s about it and it’s fine if you check back there, but look out for the snake – he might have escaped,” whereupon the guard whisked him through with, “Go on, get out of here.”
Paul Johnsgard – born smuggler.
He delivered his birds back to Lincoln and got a paper out of it.
A splendid place for birding without any drama is the Waterfowl Trust in England, where Johnsgard studied two years in the 1960s. It holds special meaning because he was befriended by its founder, the late Sir Peter Scott, who became a key figure in his life. Scott was the son of legendary British explorer Robert Falcon Scott, whose second Antarctic expedition ended in tragedy when he and his men died on the return trek after reaching the South Pole.
“Peter was 2 years old at the time,” Johnsgard explains. “The last thing Robert Scott wrote to his wife read, ‘Make the boy interested in natural history” So, growing up, it was sort of incumbent on Peter to become a biologist.”
He did. He also became a renowned wildlife artist. “The art work is what made him famous,” Johnsgard said. “He was a wonderful artist.” Just like his father before him, Peter Scott became a national hero. “He was involved in the Dunkirk extraction of British troops during World War II, Then he put together this great collection of birds. At the time I went to study at the Wildlife Trust it was the best in the world, Every species has its own unique aspects and that’s part of the fun of studying this. When I had 120 species of waterfowl in England it was like opening 120 gift boxes because they’re all a little different and its fun trying to describe how they are different.”
Scott helped start the World Wildlife Fund.
“He was a great symbol to me I guess of what you could do in art and conservation.”
Johnsgard said his time at the Wildfowl Trust “was incredibly important – it gave me the experience to write books and a world view. I met some of the most famous biologists of the day there.” The Nebraska transplant thought enough of his British counterpart that he and his wife named one of their sons after him. “I dedicated one of my books to him as well. He did a painting as a favor to me for one of my big books. I have all of his big books and he inscribed each one with a watercolor on the title page. He was a very kind and wonderful person. I had the highest possible regard for him.”
Scott pursued his interests up until his death at age 79 in 1989.
A cradle to the grave creative
Though officially retired, Johnsgard shows no signs of slowing down at 85. He wakes up most days at 4 a.m. and he either reads or writes at home before going to the office. He’s as busy as ever researching and writing about birds and habitats. Before he ever gets around to writing a book he assembles references. Hundreds of them. Once he starts writing, he’s fast. He admits that his work is “a compulsion.”
He feels his rare triple threat skills to not only write but illustrate and photograph books makes his projects more palatable to publishers. He said mastering things comes with repetition. “I think talent is largely what you put into it in terms of practice.”
He’s been producing things since he was small and he fully expects to continue creating until he dies.
His new friend Julie Masters, professor and chair of the Department of Gerontology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, views him as a model for health aging.
“As the population ages, we need people who show us that creativity can and does increase with age,” she said. “Paul Johnsgard is someone who serves as an ideal role model for us all. His passion and enthusiasm for life and the beauty of nature allow those of us who are less learned a glimpse into a world that is made even more awesome through his instruction.”
Johnsgard is just grateful he found his calling and stayed true to the road-less-traveled. “I don’t know anybody I’d trade my life with. I’ve been very lucky.”
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.
Book about Alexander Payne a must for film buffs, film critics, film students, film instructors, film programmers, filmmakers
Book about Alexander Payne a must for film buffs, film critics, film students, film instructors, film programmers, filmmakers
New edition of ‘Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film’ to feature Discussion Guide and Index
From the world’s foremost expert on the Oscar-winning Payne
Releasing September 1 from River Junction Press
Father Ken Vavrina Signing ‘Crossing Bridges’ on Saturday, May 21 at The Bookworm
Father Ken Vavrina will sign copies of the book I did with him, Crossing Bridges: A Priest’s Uplifing Life Among the Downtrodden, on Saturday, May 21 from 1 to 4 pm at The Bookworm, 2501 South 90th Street. Father Ken will be among several authors signing their work at this Concierge Marketing Open House event.
“The very first bridge I crossed was choosing to study for the priesthood, a decision that took me and everyone who knew me by surprise. Then came a series of bridges that once crossed brought me into contact with diverse peoples and their incredibly different yet similar needs.”
Father Vavrina has served as a priest for many years, and has served several missions trips to help the needy. Father Ken worked with lepers in Yemen, and was ultimately arrested and thrown in jail under false suspicions of spying. After being forcibly removed from Yemen, he began his tenure with Catholic Relief Services. First in the extreme poverty and over-population of Calcutta in India. Then with warlords in Liberia to deliver food and supplies to refugees in need. Father Ken also spent several years working with Mother Teresa to heal the sick and comfort the dying.
Crossing Bridges: A Priest’s Uplifting Life Among the Downtrodden is the story of Father Ken Vavrina’s life and travels – simple acts that moved him, people that inspired him, and places that astonished him. Father Ken has spent his life selflessly serving the Lord and the neediest around him, while always striving to remain a simple, humble man of God.
“I pray this account of my life is not a personal spectacle but a recounting of a most wonderful journey serving God. May its discoveries and experiences inspire your own life story of service.”
About the Author
Father Ken Vavrina:
Father Kenneth Vavrina is a Roman Catholic priest, currently living and serving in Omaha, Nebraska. Vavrina was born in Bruno and raised in Clarkson, Nebraska. He was ordained in 1962. In the United States, he ministered to Native Americans, African-Americans, and Hispanics during the height of the civil rights movement.
Through his work with Catholic Relief Services and Mother Teresa, he has served people in five countries on four continents. He served nineteen years of missionary work overseas. He comforted lepers in the Arab nation of Yemen, oversaw relief efforts for victims of an earthquake in southern Italy, and supervised aid to and regenerated the agricultural sector for the poorest of the poor in India, Bangladesh, and Nepal. He also secured food and medicine for war refugees in the African nation of Liberia.
At 80 years of age, he officiates mass daily for the residents of his retirement center.
Book written with assistance from Leo Adam Biga:
Leo Adam Biga is an Omaha author and journalist. His previous books include Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film and Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores. His award-winning cultural journalism appears in many publications. Assignments take him across America and overseas. He has traveled to California to cover Oscar-winning filmmaker Alexander Payne. He covered the 2009 Barack Obama presidential inauguration in Washington, D.C. He made a baseball tour of the Midwest. He recently went to Uganda and Rwanda, Africa as the Andy Award winner for international journalism from his alma mater, the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
He has a new nonfiction history book in the works. His Nebraska Film Heritage Project is in development.
AMAZON CUSTOMER RATINGS
New edition of ‘Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film’ releases September 1 from River Junction Press
It is my pleasure to introduce you to my work as an Omaha-based author-journalist-blogger. If you are already familiar with my writing, then please allow me to re-introduce myself in advance of a major new release that I am thrilled to announce.
I have authored several self-published books but perhaps my best known ones to date are Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film and Crossing Bridges: A Priest’s Uplifting Life Among the Downtrodden. I am using this post to announce that a new edition of Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film releases September 1 from River Junction Press in Omaha. The book, originally published in 2012 through Concierge Marketing Publishing Services and My Inside Stories LLC, features the addition of significant new content related to Payne’s Nebraska and Downsizing films, as well as new photos, a Discussion Guide and Index and many updates. It is a must read for any fan of this filmmaker’s work, for film buffs, for film studies instructors and teachers and for filmmakers. Its author has been called the world’s leading expert on Payne. Indeed, I have covered him and his work for 20 years and the book is a compendium of many exclusive interviews and behind the scenes observations.
Soon taking advanced orders.
You can sample my work on my blog– https://leoadambiga.com/
Facebook page– https://www.facebook.com/LeoAdamBiga/#
Amazon author’s page– http://www.amazon.com/Leo-Adam-Biga/e/B00E6HE46E
GoodReads page– https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/5398063.Leo_Adam_Biga
And across a full spectrum of other social media platforms, including LinkedIn, Twitter, Google, Tumbler and About.Me.
River Junction Press LLC
Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film
Second Edition Leo Adam Biga Film/Biography Trade Paper $24.95
(320 pages 6 x 9 28 B/W photos ISBN: 978099726670228 September, 2016
IPG distributor: http://www.ipgbook.com
Journalist Leo Adam Biga chronicles twenty years of Alexander Payne’s filmmaking in a group of essays and published articles.
Praise for Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film
The Filmmaker —
“I have long admired Leo Biga’s journalism and prose portraiture for its honesty, thoughtful- ness, and accuracy. On a personal note, throughout many years of being interviewed, I find Mr. Biga’s articles about me to be the most complete and perceptive of any journalist’s anywhere. They ring true to me — even in critique — in a way that reveals the depth of his talent in obser- vation, understanding, and expression.” Alexander Payne
The Film Critic —
“Alexander Payne is one of America’s cinema’s leading lights. How fortunate we are that Leo Biga has chronicled his rise to success so thoroughly.” Leonard Maltin
The Film Student —
“You don’t know me but I am a young filmaker in NYC . . . Your articles and interviews became a critical (and previously absent) entry point to discover and dig deeper into learning more about directors, films, and film history. I came to not only respect and admire Payne as a filmmaker, but also as one of the best teachers I’ve ever had. And I can say that to date, starting with your book, what I’ve learned about the craft and history of cinema has been unparalleled and invaluable.” Brian Reisberg
Making American Movies about Americans
Downsizing (2017) starring Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig, Neil Patrick Harris, Alec Baldwin, Jason Sudeikis, Christoph Waltz
Nebraska (2013) starring Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Stacey Keach, Bob Odenkirk The Descendants (2011) starring George Clooney, Robert Forster, Beau Bridges, Shailene
Woodley (Oscar and Golden Globes winner) Sideways (2004) starring Paul Giamatti, Thomas Hayden Church, Sandra Oh, Virginia
Madsen (Oscar and Golden Globes winner) About Schmidt (2002) starring Jack Nicholson, Kathy Bates, Hope Davis, Dermot Mulroney Election (1999) starring Matthew Broderick, Reese Witherspoon, Chris Klein Citizen Ruth (1996) starring Laura Dern, Swoozie Kurtz, Mary Kay Place, Kelly Preston
Kira Gale, publisher
402-451-2878 phone 402 680-3884 cell
Alesia Lester is the epitome of dope style. It’s in the way she dresses, makes herself up, moves, speaks, and handles herself. The owner of Gossip Salon in North Omaha has a loyal clientele for her stylist chops and good counsel. She enjoys a big following on social media for her real talk affirmations and observations. She is a woman transformed and hard earned life lessons are the subject of a forthcoming book she’s authored titled Life Behind the Chair. Her blossoming into a “concrete rose” is sure to resonate wth many women and men for that matter. I trust that my Omaha Magazine profile of Alesia will make you want to know more of her story.
Alesia Lester: A Conversation in the Gossip Salon
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the March-April 2016 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)
Seeing the confidence Gossip Salon owner Alesia Lester, 35, projects, it’s hard to believe she once only felt whole behind the stylist chair.
This master of the weave, the bump, the blowout, the twist and the wrap developed her chops as a teen. The single mother possesses a gift for not only getting clients’ hair right but their head and heart right, too. Women open up, knowing what they say there, stays there.
Located in the former Leola’s Records & Tapes building at 5625 Ames Ave., Gossip is a five-chair, sleek urban hair and works haven. Lester, an Omaha Fashion Week stylist. is the presiding mistress of glam.
“Each year it’s gotten bigger and better, so I must be doing something right, honey,” the slender, suave Lester says over soul tracks.
She’s built a loyal clientele for the way she wields a comb and flat iron as well as doles out straight talk and tough love.
“She’ll tell you just how it is – good, bad or ugly,” client Bonita Stennis declares. “I’m way older than her but I appreciate the conversations we have because you can always be taught. She has wisdom, old-age wisdom.”
Another client, Makayla McMorris says, “She is definitely honest and keeps it one hundred percent real with anybody. She’s not guarded whatsoever and that’s a hard quality to find. People look up to her and want to be like her.”
“Just to be able to have those one-on-one personal conversations with people, that’s what I like,” Lester says. “I want to know they are OK, I just do, and they want know I’m OK. It makes me feel good.”
Young ladies in crisis ask her advice. They know Lester’s been there herself.
“My phone rings all the time. Sometimes in the middle of the night they want to talk to somebody. I get lots of in-boxes on Facebook. I take women that don’t feel good about themselves and make them feel great about themselves. I just try to meet them right where they are.”
Young men seek her counsel as well.
“I try to find different things and different ways to try to help them. It’s just how I’m built. I love people. It’s like a blessing and a curse. I do feel like it’s my purpose.”
She’s come to this point after much trial and transformation. She shares life lessons learned along the way.
“Her life is an open book,” Stennis says. “She has no secrets. She doesn’t portray to be nothing she isn’t. She tells you just how it is and how she would do it and how she wouldn’t do it.”
Lester’s knack for connecting finds her invited to speak before youth audiences. Extemporaneous riffs flow from her. Whether addressing students or clients, she’s alternately sassy and subdued, serious and funny as confidante, confessor, life coach, motivational cheerleader.
“I’m a therapist. I’m a sister to people who don’t have sisters, I’m a mother to those who don’t have mothers, I’m a friend to those that need a friend. I become all of these things.”
Now add author. Her new book Life Behind the Chair is part memoir and part self-help manual. It reads like a testimony about the power of making better choices, healing old wounds, practicing forgiveness, finding purpose and taking ownership. She writes from experience.
Abandoned by her drug addicted biological mother and raised by a sharp tongued-aunt, Lester acted out the hurt inside. At 15 she gave birth to her son DaJuan, whom she raised herself. She masked her chaos in promiscuity. Two unwanted pregnancies ended in abortion. Plagued by doubt, regret and feelings of inadequacy, she attempted suicide.
When told she was beautiful or sexy, she heard “tramp, nasty, dirty.”
Her saving grace was her fighting spirit and abiding faith. At every new low or challenge – such as a 2007 cervical cancer diagnosis – she rallied. Radical self-improvement only came after hitting bottom.
“It’s like I always say – you have your own level of enough and I reached my level of enough. Nothing was making sense in my life. The only way on was up. I realized I had to let go of everything. If I didn’t, I would just continue to feel bad about myself and I didn’t want that.
“Forgiveness is important. There’s so many people in the book I had to forgive, including myself. It’s the only way you’re able to live.”
The book’s epilogue and subtitle Journey of a Concrete Rose, offer an apt analogy.
“Someone I refer to in the book as My Friday Client, said, ‘You remind me of a concrete rose – this beautiful thing that’s busted through all these different layers, problems, issues. Baby, you’ve done it, and now you’ve blossomed.’ It was a perfect way to describe me. So damn dope.”
The back cover depicts a red rose blooming from the colorless street.
The book celebrates her inside finally matching her outside. Beautiful.
After many failed short-term flings, she’s in a committed, supportive relationship today.
Doing the project was a catharsis.
“I have all these people that pour into me but at the end of the day I don’t have anybody I can pour into. That’s why I started writing.”
She feels called to share her inspiring journey with others.
“I think everything I’ve ever been through was to help someone else.”
Some suggest what she does is a ministry. She says she can’t claim that because “I swear like a sailor.”
Her mentor, Omaha native Paul Bryant, liked her colorful Facebook posts and encouraged her to craft her real life stories in a book.
Bonita Stennis speaks for the Gossip gang in saying she can’t wait for Lester’s life-affirming tale in print because “she can really touch your soul and it’s coming truly from her heart.”
Follow Lester on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/alesia.lester.
One of Alesia’s Facebook posts:
I absolutely did not…
Ask to be born.
Expect my biological MOTHER to leave.
Ask to be dark.
Expect low self-esteem.
Plan a pregnancy at 15.
Plan to do it alone.
Mean to disappoint my MOMMA. (My world❤)
Want to admit I didn’t graduate.
Intentionally seek the wrong men.
Know I’d lose everything.
Know God would give it all back to me!!
Know I’d beat cervical cancer.
Expect to be a top stylist.
Expect to open my own salon.
Know I’d be in a position to give jobs in my community.
Realize I’d make people smile the way I do.
Expect my son to graduate.
Know I’d be the dopest mom.
Have any idea I’d write a book.
Take my clientele for granted.
Know I’d meet the best man 💋
Ever feel sorry for myself.
Know that life could be this peaceful…👌🏾
I absolutely did not know that all of those things would shape me into the person going down your timeline right now…
See how my life started off low, and God took me to new heights? Had I not gone through those things, I’d never have a story to tell you all…#LifeBehindTheChair#ComingSoon
Old Hollywood hand living in Omaha comes out of the shadows; Screenwriter John Kaye scripted ‘American Hot Wax’ and more
You never who you might meet in your hometown. Veteran Hollywood screenwriter and literary novelist John Kaye has lived under the radar in Omaha since late 2014 working on a new novel but he’s coming out of the shadows for a celebration of one of the movies he wrote, “American Hot Wax” (1978). It’s the story of rock ‘n’ roll’s crossover from fringe race music to mainstream popularity courtesy DJ Alan Freed. Kaye’s appearing at a Feb. 7 Film Stream screening. Here is my short profile of Kaye in the February 2016 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com).
Old Hollywood hand living in Omaha comes out of the shadows
Screenwriter John Kaye scripted ‘American Hot Wax’ and more
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appearing in the February 2016 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Omaha is the adopted home of veteran Hollywood screenwriter and literary novelist John Kaye, 74, whose memoirs are published by the Los Angeles Review of Books.
The mercurial Kaye came 17-months ago from northern California to work on a new novel (his third) and immerse himself “deep” in a fictional Omaha subplot.
“I wanted to take a risk with what I was doing. The best decision I made,” he said from his writing-reading perch at Wohlner’s in Mid-town.
It’s not the first time he’s used Omaha as workplace and muse. In the early 1990s he researched here for an Omaha character in his first novel. Decades earlier he passed through hitching cross country on a personal Beat adventure. That drop-out, tune-in odyssey led him to Jamaica until Uncle Sam called.
On Feb. 7 Film Streams will present a 1978 film he wrote, American Hot Wax, that tells the story of DJ Alan Freed, who introduced white audiences to rock ‘n’ roll. Until now Kaye’s kept a low profile here, but that changes when he does a Q&A after the 7 p.m. show.
Kaye grew up in a West Los Angeles malaise of stale Hollywood dreams. He entered the ferment of 1960s social rebellion as a UC Berkeley and University of Wisconsin (Madison) student. He served in the Marine Corps Reserves, where his Jewish, college-educated background made him a target.
This child of Old Hollywood and New Journalism, “inspired by the galvanizing youth culture thing,” indulged in the era’s excesses. He was a researcher for David Wolper Productions, where colleagues included William Friedkin and Walon Green. He was an underground journalist, a CBS censor and a producer-writer for the KNBC late night sketch comedy show Lohman and Barkley. Anticipating Saturday Night Live, the show sped the careers of Barry Levinson, Craig T. Nelson and John Amos.
“It was a fascinating moment.”
Then Kaye got fired. Hedging that “disappointment” was the mentoring he received from Mission Impossible and Mannix creator Bruce Geller. Then Geller died in a plane crash.
Kaye’s ex-wife and first love was institutionalized, leaving him to raise their son. She later committed suicide.
“It was a very chaotic time,” he recalls.
All the while he wrote scripts but sold none.
“I was really struggling.”
One day he picked up two young women thumbing rides in L.A. He ditched them after realizing they were Manson girls – post-Charlie’s conviction. The incident sparked the idea for his first industry feature, Rafferty and the Gold Dust Twins (1975). This nihilistic screwball comedy is a shambling, anarchic take on three broken people hooking up for a road and head trip. Sally Kellerman and Mackenzie Phillips teamed with Alan Arkin. Dick Richards directed.
“It was a time when you could write a road movie,” Kaye says of its meandering, seriocomic style. The approach became his niche and hit its peak with Hot Wax. His friend Floyd Mutrux directed. Tim McIntyre, Fran Drescher, Jay Leno, Laraine Newman, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis star.
Kaye’s own counterculture leanings drew him to Gonzo hipster Hunter S. Thompson, whom he made the basis for his Where the Buffalo Roam (1980) script. Bill Murray plays Thompson. Kaye’s then-producing partner Art Linson directed. The serious take Kaye envisioned was hijacked by “a make it funny” decree from studio suits. Hanging out with Thompson in New Orleans, an old Kaye stomping ground, while placating moneymen hell-bent on laughs “turned out to be fun but really insane,” said Kaye.
Unkind reviews “singled out” Kaye’s writing. “It was a blood letting. Very painful.”
The experience, he said, gave him “thick skin” and taught him “not to be too invested in something.” Still he said, “It definitely set my career back.” He takes small consolation the movie has a cult following, even admitting, “I’m not sure it holds up as well as Hot Wax.”
Kaye’s last screen credit came as writer-director of Forever Lulu, a 2000 film starring Melanie Griffith and Patrick Swayze.
“I decided I wanted to write sort of a valentine to my ex-wife.”
The lead characters have a college affair and years later she escapes a mental hospital to find her old beau, now married, to inform him he fathered a child she bore and was forced to give up for adoption. The pair set out to visit the son who doesn’t know they exist.
A negative trade review cost the film a theatrical release.
The producers, he said, “kind of left me alone,” adding, “It was a great experience for me because I really felt I had stepped out and done something.”
It’s the same feeling he had writing his first novel, Stars Screaming.
“Spending eight years writing this book and getting it done, I realized I would not quit on something and that I had it in me to write it. Even though I wrote myself into complete poverty doing it, I finished it. I stepped through enormous amounts of fear to work to my potential.”
Then came his second novel The Dead Circus. Even with his new novel nearly complete, he says he may linger on in Omaha awhile.
“I’ve fallen in love with this town.”
For tickets to the Feb. 7 screening, visit http://www.filmstreams.org.
Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Crossing Bridges: A Priest's Uplifting Life Among the Downtrodden," "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film" (a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker) "Open Wide" a biography of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, Leo Adam Biga's My Inside Stories at leoadambiga.com, is an online gallery of his work. The blog feeds into his Facebook page, My Inside Stories, as well as his Twitter, Google, LinkedIn, Tumblr, About.Me and other social media platform pages.
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