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Paul Giamatti and Alexander Payne play catch up 15 years after ‘Sideways’

August 26, 2019 Leave a comment

Paul Giamatti and Alexander Payne play catch up 15 years after ‘Sideways’

 

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

The August 25 Film Streams Feature VIII Event brought together two old collaborators and friends in actor Paul Giamatti and writer-director Alexander Payne. They worked together on Payne’s 2004 road trip romantic comedy/buddy pic “Sideways,” in which Giamatti co-starred as nebbish Miles opposite Thomas Haden Church as boorish Jack.

All of Payne’s films to date have been about the search for love. Romantic love. Platonic love. Parental love. Brotherly love. But especially self-love. In “Sideways” Giamatti plays a divorced, failed writer who believes the prospect of new love is no longer in the cards for him.  His buddy Jack is a former soap star turned voice actor. The pals are getting away from it all on the eve of Jack’s impending marriage. Miles is geeked out by the wineries and vintages, Jack is obsessed with banging every woman he meets, When Jack arranges a double date with his latest conquest, Stephanie and her friend Maya, Miles is surprised and more than a little frightened to find love stirring once again as he falls head over heels for Maya. She is a reader and a wine lover who respects that he’s a writer and wine aficionado. As their fledgling relationship heats up, Miles’s friendship with Jack is severely tested by Jack’s outrageous behavior  Then, when Miles is implicated in Jack’s duplicitous tracks, he finds himself on the outs with Maya. only to find redemption and courage to follow his instincts in the end.

 

During Feature VIII at the Holland Performing Arts Center there was much discussion by Giamatti and Payne about the wonderful scene between Miles and Maya talking about their shared love of wine and grapes when they’re really describing themselves. Giamatti refers to that scenes “as the heart of the film.” and he’s absolutely right. That scene from “Sideways” was one of a few samples of Giamatti’s work screened last night. For an actor with such a deep body of work, it’s hard to represent the breadth of the characters he’s played through a handful of clips, but his versatility shined through.

More than once last night Payne referred to Giamatti, even to his face, as “my favorite actor.” He means it, too. Their conversation was pleasant if not revealing. Payne is a great filmmaker but a rather awkward interviewer. In turn, Giamatti is not so great talking about process or method. Or at least he wasn’t last night. The highlight was his very long, involved and hilarious anecdote about prepping to play former Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke in the TV movie “Too Big to Fail.” The event might have had the disadvantage of this pair actually knowing each other too well and they’re being a little too comfortable with each other and therefore somewhat uncomfortable sharing themselves with an audience. The Film Streams conversation programs would be better served with a professional moderator who knows how to effectively lead with questions and then followup or press for answers. I nominate myself for the job.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about the affair was the amount of money raised – a cool half a million dollars – in support of Film Streams, which is coming off its best year after expanding to two sites and ramping up its educational programming.

Copied below is my Reader story that appeared in advance of the Feature Event. In my phone interview with Giamatti I found him to be the same engaging, quirky guy he was at the Holland. He and Payne both indicate a strong desire to work together again and we can only hope it happens. Payne has a script and a part waiting for him when the timing’s right. Let’s hope it comes about sooner rather than later.

 

Look for my post of the complete Q&A I did with Giamatti in advance of the Omaha event.

 

Image result for paul giamatti alexander payne

 

Kindred spirits Giamatti and Payne to revisit the triumph of ‘Sideways’ and the art of finding truth and profundity in the holy ordinary

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (thereader.com)

Go-to character actor Paul Giamatti brings élan to his screen gallery of nerdy sidekicks and beleaguered Everyman types. It’s rare for someone with his hangdog looks to be a romantic interest. But in Alexander Payne’s Sideways (2004), he melts hearts with earnest desire and neurotic angst as lovelorn Miles.

He’s the sad half of a dysfunctional buddy team with Jack (Thomas Haden Church), whose frivolity masks hurt. Their on-the-road odyssey of regret, self-pity and debauchery is tempered by redeeming love. The Indiewood project surprised its makers by becoming a serious box office success and major awards contender.

Payne’s taking time from trying to get a new feature off the ground to join Giamatti for an August 25 public conversation accented by clips. This eighth iteration of the Film Streams Feature Event fundraiser unspools in the Holland Performing Arts Center at 7 p.m.

Sideways, celebrating its 15th anniversary, remains a highlight of the two men’s respective careers.

“It was a gorgeous experience,” Giamatti said by phone. “It was so much fun. It was joyous. And I think the movie feels that way because we were just making a movie for the love of making a movie – and that’s what was great about it. None of us felt we were making anything anybody would even care about that much. We cared about it. So much of that came from Alexander and his simple joy of being with actors and crew.”

By Sideways, each was a name with an identity – Giamatti’s animated sad-sack persona and Payne’s down-but-not-out milieu of misfits and searchers – that meshed well.

These cinema kindred spirits with a gift for understated wit that segues into broad comedy or high drama found themselves at parallel points in their artistic lives.

Giamatti hit his stride as a supporting player in the late-1990s. Payne made some waves with his debut feature, Citizen Ruth (1996), before fully getting on critics’ radar with Election, a 1999 cult classic enjoying retrospective adulation 20 years later. It’s the film that first brought Payne to Giamatti’s attention.

In Sideways Giamatti believably goes to the dark side of longing. Where childlike Jack is all about immediate gratification, reflective Miles broods over losses and Giamatti digs deep to mine this despair.

Giamatii and Church first met in-person on location in Santa Barbara wine country – after breaking the ice on the phone – where they had several days to bond before production began.

“I cast each independently,” Payne said. “But to have them develop some chemistry – because if no one believes the friendship between those two unlikely men then the film would not work – I had them come to location for two weeks before shooting, so we could rehearse together. But, more important, so they could hang out to play golf, see a movie, eat together. And they did.”

In the film the characters get involved with women they betray. Vain Jack, a former soap star, cheats on his bride-to-be with free-spirit Stephanie (Sandra Oh), who  doesn’t know he’s engaged. Nebbish Miles, a teacher and writer reeling from a failed marriage and a book not finding a publisher, discovers in sensitive Maya (Virginia Madsen) a love he didn’t think possible anymore.

Church nails the self-absorbed miscreant Jack. Giamatti is dead-on as the yearning, naysaying Miles who wears his funk like a cloak. But, as Giamatti said, it is Miles who “opens up as a person through the movie in a really lovely, believable way.” Payne intuitively gives Giamatti the camera and the actor’s highly praised performance moves one to tears and laughter.

Giamatti’s work in Sideways established him as a character lead who can carry a film.

Producer Michael London brokered a package deal for the project. He optioned the film rights for the Rex Pickett novel. Payne and Jim Taylor wrote the script on spec. John Jackson cast for fit, not box-office .”Then,” Payne said, “we approached the studios and said. ‘Here is the screenplay, the director, the cast, and the budget – in or out?’ A couple studios said, ‘Why can’t you have bigger stars?’ Fox Searchlight rolled the dice and won.”

Giamatti is grateful Payne didn’t budge.

“He went back to the studio to tell them he wanted me and I think he anticipated he’d get a fight about that and he did get fights. But he stuck by it – me and Tom and Virginia and Sandra. These are the people he wanted.”

The ensemble made magic.

“Fifteen years later that movie is present in people’s minds as if it just came out last year,” Giamatti said. “It’s got amazing power.”

It marked a peak for Giamatti.

“I felt like if I couldn’t act again for some reason, my acting life would have been fulfilled having done this movie because it was such a purely pleasurable experience. Alexander’s a true filmmaker and that’s what makes him special.”

Payne’s admiration of Giamatti, whom he calls “my favorite actor,” runs deep.

“He’s just the perfect actor. He knows all of his dialogue backwards and forwards and can do it any which way – each take truthful, each take different. He could make bad dialogue work. When he read for me, I remember thinking he was the very first actor reading the lines almost exactly how I’d heard them in my head while writing them — and better.”

“He’s just a lovely guy and extremely well-read.”

Giamatti gushes over Payne’s directing methodology..

“He has the exceptional skill of being able to talk to each actor the way they need to be talked to,” he said. “Everybody has different needs or approaches and he is an incredibly sensitive human being to know what each person needs to get out of them what he wants.

“He’s a benevolent dictator as well. He’s in complete and utter control of everything going on, but you’d never know it he’s such a sweet and laid-back guy on the set.”

Then there’s the way Payne engages others.

“What I feel made a huge difference and sets him apart from any other director I’ve worked with,” Giamatti said, “is his choice to not use a video monitor during takes.”

Both men dislike the isolation of actors and crew working in one area while director, cinematographer and producers huddle around a video assist in another area.

Giamatti said Payne “doesn’t have a hierarchal way of thinking.” Thus, everyone’s “on the same playing field.”

“To him, everybody is important, everybody’s a part of the experience. It’s unique. But that’s him.”

It helps, Giamatti said, that Payne “likes actors.”

“I can tell you the experience of being directed by him is amazing because he’s there with you. There’s a lot of stuff where I’m alone in a room in that movie. He would stand there, watch me, and talk to me. The connection I developed with him I’ve never experienced again with a film director. As great as a lot of the people I’ve worked with are, nobody’s ever done anything like that.

“The connection you feel because of that is unbelievable. I love him, I really do.”

The actor’s eager to visit Payne’s home turf and muse.

“Indeed, yeah, I’m very curious to see Omaha and how it has informed Alexander and vice versa.”

Payne may just wing it with him here, saying, “We get along so well, I may not prepare that much. We could go out on stage and just start talking.”

Surprisingly, Sideways is the only time they’ve worked together. They nearly re-teamed in 2008 when Payne first tried setting up Downsizing. He cast Giamatti as the lead, Paul. But the free-fall economic recession put the high-concept comedy on hold. By the time Payne sought financing again the suits insisted on a marquee name to hedge their big-budget risk. Enter Matt Damon.

This Omaha reunion will not be the last time the actor and director collaborate if they have their way.

“I wish we could find an opportunity to work again,” Giamatti said.

“We definitely will,” said Payne, who has a script and part in mind for him.

“I know there is something. but I fear it may not work out. It’s all timing,” Giamatti said, sounding just like Miles.

Film Streams is screening a repertory series of Giamatti’s feature work at the Dundee Theater. On August 26 and 28 Sideways shows at the north downtown Ruth Sokolof Theater. There’s also a second repertory series of favorite Giamatti films not his own.

Visit filmstreams.org for schedules and tickets.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

 

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Kindred spirits Giamatti and Payne to revisit the triumph of ‘Sideways’ and the art of finding truth and profundity in the holy ordinary


Image result for paul giamatti in conversation with alexander payne  Image result for paul giamatti in conversation with alexander payne

Kindred spirits Giamatti and Payne to revisit the triumph of ‘Sideways’ and the art of finding truth and profundity in the holy ordinary

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the August 2019 edition of The Reader (thereader.com)

Go-to character actor Paul Giamatti brings élan to his screen gallery of nerdy sidekicks and beleaguered Everyman types. It’s rare for someone with his hangdog looks to be a romantic interest. But in Alexander Payne’s Sideways (2004), he melts hearts with earnest desire and neurotic angst as lovelorn Miles.

He’s the sad half of a dysfunctional buddy team with Jack (Thomas Haden Church), whose frivolity masks hurt. Their on-the-road odyssey of regret, self-pity and debauchery is tempered by redeeming love. The Indiewood project surprised its makers by becoming a serious box office success and major awards contender.

Payne’s taking time from trying to get a new feature off the ground to join Giamatti for an August 25 public conversation accented by clips. This eighth iteration of the Film Streams Feature Event fundraiser unspools in the Holland Performing Arts Center at 7 p.m.

Image result for paul giamatti in conversation with alexander payne

 

Sideways, celebrating its 15th anniversary, remains a highlight of the two men’s respective careers.

“It was a gorgeous experience,” Giamatti said by phone. “It was so much fun. It was joyous. And I think the movie feels that way because we were just making a movie for the love of making a movie – and that’s what was great about it. None of us felt we were making anything anybody would even care about that much. We cared about it. So much of that came from Alexander and his simple joy of being with actors and crew.”

By Sideways, each was a name with an identity – Giamatti’s animated sad-sack persona and Payne’s down-but-not-out milieu of misfits and searchers – that meshed well.

These cinema kindred spirits with a gift for understated wit that segues into broad comedy or high drama found themselves at parallel points in their artistic lives.

Giamatti hit his stride as a supporting player in the late-1990s. Payne made some waves with his debut feature, Citizen Ruth (1996), before fully getting on critics’ radar with Election, a 1999 cult classic enjoying retrospective adulation 20 years later. It’s the film that first brought Payne to Giamatti’s attention.

In Sideways Giamatti believably goes to the dark side of longing. Where childlike Jack is all about immediate gratification, reflective Miles broods over losses and Giamatti digs deep to mine this despair.

Giamatii and Church first met in-person on location in Santa Barbara wine country – after breaking the ice on the phone – where they had several days to bond before production began.

“I cast each independently,” Payne said. “But to have them develop some chemistry – because if no one believes the friendship between those two unlikely men then the film would not work – I had them come to location for two weeks before shooting, so we could rehearse together. But, more important, so they could hang out to play golf, see a movie, eat together. And they did.”

In the film the characters get involved with women they betray. Vain Jack, a former soap star, cheats on his bride-to-be with free-spirit Stephanie (Sandra Oh), who  doesn’t know he’s engaged. Nebbish Miles, a teacher and writer reeling from a failed marriage and a book not finding a publisher, discovers in sensitive Maya (Virginia Madsen) a love he didn’t think possible anymore.

Church nails the self-absorbed miscreant Jack. Giamatti is dead-on as the yearning, naysaying Miles who wears his funk like a cloak. But, as Giamatti said, it is Miles who “opens up as a person through the movie in a really lovely, believable way.” Payne intuitively gives Giamatti the camera and the actor’s highly praised performance moves one to tears and laughter.

Giamatti’s work in Sideways established him as a character lead who can carry a film.

Producer Michael London brokered a package deal for the project. He optioned the film rights for the Rex Pickett novel. Payne and Jim Taylor wrote the script on spec. John Jackson cast for fit, not box-office .”Then,” Payne said, “we approached the studios and said. ‘Here is the screenplay, the director, the cast, and the budget – in or out?’ A couple studios said, ‘Why can’t you have bigger stars?’ Fox Searchlight rolled the dice and won.”

Giamatti is grateful Payne didn’t budge.

“He went back to the studio to tell them he wanted me and I think he anticipated he’d get a fight about that and he did get fights. But he stuck by it – me and Tom and Virginia and Sandra. These are the people he wanted.”

The ensemble made magic.

“Fifteen years later that movie is present in people’s minds as if it just came out last year,” Giamatti said. “It’s got amazing power.”

Image result for paul giamatti in conversation with alexander payne

 

It marked a peak for Giamatti.

“I felt like if I couldn’t act again for some reason, my acting life would have been fulfilled having done this movie because it was such a purely pleasurable experience. Alexander’s a true filmmaker and that’s what makes him special.”

Payne’s admiration of Giamatti, whom he calls “my favorite actor,” runs deep.

“He’s just the perfect actor. He knows all of his dialogue backwards and forwards and can do it any which way – each take truthful, each take different. He could make bad dialogue work. When he read for me, I remember thinking he was the very first actor reading the lines almost exactly how I’d heard them in my head while writing them — and better.”

“He’s just a lovely guy and extremely well-read.”

Giamatti gushes over Payne’s directing methodology..

“He has the exceptional skill of being able to talk to each actor the way they need to be talked to,” he said. “Everybody has different needs or approaches and he is an incredibly sensitive human being to know what each person needs to get out of them what he wants.

“He’s a benevolent dictator as well. He’s in complete and utter control of everything going on, but you’d never know it he’s such a sweet and laid-back guy on the set.”

Then there’s the way Payne engages others.

“What I feel made a huge difference and sets him apart from any other director I’ve worked with,” Giamatti said, “is his choice to not use a video monitor during takes.”

Both men dislike the isolation of actors and crew working in one area while director, cinematographer and producers huddle around a video assist in another area.

Giamatti said Payne “doesn’t have a hierarchal way of thinking.” Thus, everyone’s “on the same playing field.” “To him, everybody is important, everybody’s a part of the experience. It’s unique. But that’s him.”

It helps, Giamatti said, that Payne “likes actors.”

“I can tell you the experience of being directed by him is amazing because he’s there with you. There’s a lot of stuff where I’m alone in a room in that movie. He would stand there, watch me, and talk to me. The connection I developed with him I’ve never experienced again with a film director. As great as a lot of the people I’ve worked with are, nobody’s ever done anything like that.

“The connection you feel because of that is unbelievable. I love him, I really do.”

The actor’s eager to visit Payne’s home turf and muse.

“Indeed, yeah, I’m very curious to see Omaha and how it has informed Alexander and vice versa.”

Payne may just wing it with him here, saying, “We get along so well, I may not prepare that much. We could go out on stage and just start talking.”

Surprisingly, Sideways is the only time they’ve worked together. They nearly re-teamed in 2008 when Payne first tried setting up Downsizing. He cast Giamatti as the lead, Paul. But the free-fall economic recession put the high-concept comedy on hold. By the time Payne sought financing again the suits insisted on a marquee name to hedge their big-budget risk. Enter Matt Damon.

This Omaha reunion will not be the last time the actor and director collaborate if they have their way.

“I wish we could find an opportunity to work again,” Giamatti said.

“We definitely will,” said Payne, who has a script and part in mind for him.

“I know there is something. but I fear it may not work out. It’s all timing,” Giamatti said, sounding just like Miles.

Film Streams is screening a repertory series of Giamatti’s feature work at the Dundee Theater. On August 26 and 28 Sideways shows at the north downtown Ruth Sokolof Theater. There’s also a second repertory series of favorite Giamatti films not his own.

Visit filmstreams.org for schedules and tickets.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

Alexander Payne’s Homecoming

January 10, 2018 Leave a comment

Alexander Payne’s Homecoming


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chau confirms what others note about Payne.

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

His “gentle” directing style suited her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The studio is bullish on Downsizing’s potential.

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

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

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

Sculpture by Derek Joy

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

Dundee Theater: Return engagement for the ages

October 28, 2017 4 comments

When the iconic Dundee Theater appeared in danger of being lost, perhaps to the scrap heap of history, along came a means to save it courtesy Susie Buffett. Her Sherwood Foundation purchased it and donated it to Omaha’s art cinema nonprofit Film Streams, which successfully raised millions of dollars for its renovation, led by Rachel Jacobson. Before the end of the year, the newly made-over movie and stage house that dates back to 1925 will reopen after being closed for more than four years and host the theatrical premiere of the latest major Hollywood motion picture by Omaha’s own Oscar-winning filmmaker, Alexander Payne, when his “Downsizing” plays there in December. This return engagement for the ages is a personal project for everyone involved. Buffett, Jacobson and Payne all grew up watching movies there. Payne’s first feature “Citizen Ruth” played the Dundee and now his seventh feature “Downsizing’ will play there, too. This time his movie will help usher in the theater’s new era. This is my November 2017 New Horizons cover story about the Dundee Theater – its past, present and future, The issue with my story should be hitting newstands and mailboxes this weekend and no later than October 31. The story includes comments about the Dundee from several people, including Payne, all of whom share a great love for the theater. On a personal note, I share that love, too. It’s where so many of us from here lost it at the movies. 

You can access a PDF of the New Horizons at:

https://www.facebook.com/newhorizonsnewspaper/

Here are some extra Alexander Payne reflections on the Dundee Theater:

“I spent a considerable amount of time in all of Omaha¹s movie theaters when I was growing up, from the old palaces downtown (Omaha, State, Cooper, and Orpheum) to the Admiral, Indian Hills, Fox, Six West and Cinema Center. But the one I probably spent the most time in was the Dundee, since I could walk to it, as soon as I could walk. I can¹t even say I was ‘proud’ of it – it was just always there.

“I saw ‘The Sound of Music’ there six times when I was 4 years old. It played there for many months, and you know how little kids like to see the same thing over and over again. My older brothers used to take me to the Saturday morning show for kids – usually monster movies, and they had giveaways.

“In the early ’70s, they showed revivals of W.C. Fields, Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy – those early comedies had something of a renaissance then. In more recent times, when the Morans had it, I used to love the midnight shows of ’70s movies. I caught ‘Midnight Cowboy’ there just a few years ago.”

On having “Citizen Ruth” play there:

Well, that was a big deal to me, to have my first feature play at my neighborhood movie house. I still have a framed photo of the marquee hanging in my house. It meant something to Laura Dern too – while shooting ‘Citizen Ruth,’ she, Jim Taylor and I had seen ‘The English Patient’ there and walked out halfway through.

On soon having “Downsizing” play there:

“I expect to have the same delight I had when ‘Citizen Ruth’ premiered there 20 years ago, but ever more-so because it now belongs to Film Streams. It will serve as a new anchor in the elegantly-blossoming Omaha and will exist as our neighborhood movie theater for the next 100 years.”

 

 

 

 

Dundee Theater: Return engagement for the ages

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the November 2017 issue of the New Horizons newspaper

The return this fall of the long dormant Dundee Theater under its new Film Streams brand is cause for celebration whether you’re a movie fanatic or not.

Once the theater closed in 2013 for renovations, then-owner Denny Moran assured the public the theater would reopen once renovations were completed. But the project kept getting delayed and by 2015 rumors spread he was looking to sell. The rumors were true. Moran fielded offers with no guarantee the theater would remain intact. Speculation grew. Neighbors and preservationists didn’t want an irreplaceable icon torn down for some generic new development.

With its future uncertain, many feared it might meet the same sad fate as the Cinerama palace Indian Hills that got razed for a parking lot in 2001.

Even before Moran called it quits, Rachel Jacobson and the board of her north downtown art cinema, Film Streams, eyed acquiring the theater as a second venue should the Dundee ever falter.

“We knew that as a nonprofit organization with a really strong board and donor base and with a good reputation in the community that we would be in the best position to take it on if it was threatened,” she said.

Once Jacobson learned the Dundee was indeed on the market and its fate in question, she contacted Moran and philanthropist Susie Buffett, a major Film Streams donor, and a deal was struck.

When news broke Buffett bought the Dundee and donated it to Film Streams, this two-reeler cliffhanger got a happy ending.

New life for theater gets thumbs-up 

From 2013 to now, it’s been the most closely followed local movie theater saga since the Indian Hills debacle. Why so much interest? In one fell swoop, Omaha’s regained a rare neighborhood theater that’s catered to audiences for nine decades and preserved an historic building that’s served as cultural touchstone, landmark and neighborhood fixture.

“The Dundee Theater has not only brought art and culture to central Omaha, it has also served to let people driving by know where they are for nearly a century,” said longtime Dundee resident and theater patron Thomas Gouttiere.

The 2016 announcement this historic building would be saved, undergo millions of dollars in renovations and have new life as a millennial art cinema center, was met with relief and gratitude by area movie fans and Dundee neighborhood residents.

That appreciation extended to $7.5 million raised in a public campaign to support the theater’s makeover.

“That kind of support does not grow on trees. It has to be earned the hard way – through vision, a lot of hard work and a high quality program. And Rachel Jacobson and her staff have them all.” said Film Streams booster Sam Walker.

“I don’t think we could have ever hoped for a better outcome for the theater than to have Film Streams renovate it and to be able to have the kind of programming they’re going to offer there,” said Vic Gutman. “It’s going to be a huge anchor for what’s already a very vibrant neighborhood,”

David Corbin and Josie Metal-Corbin shared similar sentiments in an email:

“It is nice to see the Dundee Theater returning to the neighborhood. We enjoyed walking to the theater together and seeing great films. Dundee may have lost our grocery store, hardware store and bookstore, but the renovation of the Dundee Theater helps the city and the neighborhood rebuild a sense of community.”

 

 

 

 

 

Dundee Theater found its niche

A sleek new marquee and main entrance pay homage to a rich film heritage while signaling a fresh new start.

“It’s honoring that whole history of moviegoing in our community that’s enriched so many lives,” said Film Streams founder-director Rachel Jacobson.

“Film is arguably the most engaging and innovative art form of the 20th century. How wonderful that art form will be shown in Dundee well into the 21st century in such a charming, hospitable and attractive venue,” Gouttierre said.

Though it grew rough around the edges by the early 2000s and faced increasingly stiff competition from cineplexes and streaming, the Dundee outlasted all the other independent locally owned and operated single-screen theaters. The fact it was the last of Omaha’s still active neighborhood theaters added to its nostalgia and luster.

When the sell was complete, an auction of its old theater seats drew many buyers.

The theater was the main attraction but it once also connected to a video store and bar owned by Moran.

The Dundee set itself apart with its niche for projecting independent, foreign and midnight movies. For a long time, it had the metro art film market nearly to itself. Other than an occasional art film showing up at a chain, it’s only competition for that fare were university (UNO), museum (Joslyn) and film society (New Cinema Coop) series. They eventually disbanded. A short-lived Bellevue operation didn’t last.

“Before Film Streams, the Dundee was the only spot in town if you wanted to see the cool films coming out. As a high schooler, the midnight movies were a big thing to look forward to,” said Nik Fackler, among an impressive group of Dundee devotees who became filmmakers.

“Growing up in the neighborhood, Dundee Theater was always a haven for independent cinema as well as an Omaha landmark,” Quinn Corbin said. “The midnight movies were a wonderful feature of the nightlife scene and the video store provided the movie posters with which I plastered my childhood walls.”

 

 

Changing times, moving on, handing it off

Later, two new players arrived on the scene: Film Streams in 2007 and Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in 2015. In between, the quirky Dundee held on. Then, after 88 years of nearly continuous operation, it closed for renovations that proved too much for Denny Moran and wife Janet. They owned other theater properties as well. The retirement age couple wanted out and sought and found a buyer for it and contiguous properties.

“I didn’t want to run anything anymore,” Moran said. “I’m tired, I don’t want anything. The kids are grown now. Jan and I just want to enjoy ourselves and travel a little bit.”

The Dundee holds many memories for the Morans.  While it was their baby, it was also a burden. Denny Moran is just glad it’s in good hands so it can generate memories for new generations of moviegoers.

“I’m glad its being saved,” he said. “It came down to two other buyers and one other buyer wanted to save it, too. We came close to selling it to them but the wife had little kids and Jan said, ‘I don’t want it to ruin her life like it did mine down there with all the time being spent on theater stuff while the kids are in day care.’ So we went with Susie’s offer. This other couple would have taken care of it, too, but it’s not many times when a Buffett calls.

She’s got the money to put in it for the new infrastructure and to secure its future.”

Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture in collaboration with Lund Ross Construction have kept the old world charm while modernizing it, too. They uncluttered the roofline. They reconfigured the main entrance off Dodge Street on the south side to a new promenade on the north. They added a patio. They folded in a Kitchen Table cafe that leads right into an expanded theater lobby with its original terrazzo floor intact. They added a conference room, a bookstore and a micro auditorium, thus giving Dundee a second screen for the first time.

“It is going to be a neighborhood theater,” Jacobson said, “but we see the audience for the cinema being the entire community. I like to think of it as Omaha’s neighborhood cinema. It still has that feel, that history.”

“It’ll be more than just a movie theater,” Vic Gutman said. “It’s going to be a place for great conversations, for learning about film, being exposed to films you wouldn’t normally see and then having Kitchen Table there. So, I see it as a true social and educational space. And I love the fact that I can walk to it from my home.”

“The purpose of it is to be a real true community space,” Jacobson confirmed. “There are multiple spots throughout that facilitate people coming together and talking either before a film or after a film. It has that design intention of this is what a neighborhood theater can be in the 21st century. We tried to be really thoughtful about that by incorporating the bookstore, by having the micro cinema, which also has the potential to do not only ticketed shows but hosting new adult education ‘Courses’ program there,.

“Kitchen Table will give people another reason to go there, to hang out, without even going to see a movie, and so that creates all these opportunities for interaction, and that’s a big part of what we’re about.

We’re trying to create learning about film by osmosis.”

Jacobson said great care was taken balancing renovation versus restoration “to make what we know will be a sustainable place versus what we maintain for people’s memories and the history of the Dundee.”

Progress on the transformed theater, which sat idle four years, has been closely watched

None of this might have happened if Moran hadn’t hung in there for 30-plus years and waited for the right offer. The theater could easily have been history by now.

“I want to give a shout-out to Denny Moran, who kept it going for so long,” Gutman said. “I don’t think it was a money-maker for him. I think it was a labor of love and a commitment to the neighborhood. It could have been torn down or repurposed for something different a long time ago and he kept that property intact.

“So I think we owe him a thank you for doing that.”

 


Memories

Sentiments about the theater run deep. It’s meant so much to so many.

It’s not hard to imagine a pair of Hollywood legends who grew up in Dundee, the late Henry Fonda and Dorothy McGuire, may have frequented the theater. Though it was still a stage venue when he left Omaha to pursue his acting dreams, he twice did extended play runs here and it’s nice to think he might have caught a picture show or two at Dundee during his down time.

Future late night TV king Johnny Carson may have indulged in some movies at the Dundee when he was starting out at WOW in Omaha.

Other celebs who’ve known it as their neighborhood theater include billionaire investment guru Warren Buffett. His daughter Susie Buffett, who’s also seen her share of pictures there, is responsible for reactivating the theater through her Sherwood Foundation.

Some fans who cut their cinema teeth there have gone on to be feature filmmakers, including Dan Mirvish (Omaha, the Movie) and Nik Fackler (Lovely, Still).

Mirvish grew up near the theater. Besides the Dundee being a neighborhood staple, he echoes others in saying how supportive Moran was of the then-nascent local cinema community in letting emerging filmmakers like himself show their work there.

“I. of course, remember going to movies at the Dundee growing up in the neighborhood and then later renting tapes at the video-store,” Mirvish said. “But my most distinct memory is when we were shooting Omaha, the Movie in fall of 1993. We screened some of our dailies there. We were shooting 35mm film and the footage had to be sent to a lab in L.A. for processing and sent back to Omaha for us to watch. The Dundee was the best place to watch the footage once a week. Okay, so instead of ‘dailies.’ they were really ‘weeklies.

“Denny was great about letting us in there. The whole cast and crew came. It was a huge relief to see our footage.”

A few years earlier Moran set a precedent working with filmmakers when he allowed Sean Penn to screen dailies of the actor’s directorial debut, The Indian Runner (1991), which shot in and around Plattsmouth.

When local filmmaker Dana Altman, who produced Omaha, the Movie, needed a space to premiere his locally-made feature directorial debut, The Private Public, Moran agreed to play it at the theater. Altman protege Nik Fackler was a teenager making short films then with friend Tony Bonacci and the aspiring filmmakers got their shorts screened the same night. Fackler, who went on direct Oscar-winners Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn, recalls the opportunity fondly.

“Like total nerds, we made tickets in photoshop and sent them out to our friends and family, we rented suits and a limo, got dates. We were like, ‘Here’s our one chance we could probably get dates.’ But, yeah, we got our short films shown at Dundee.”

An earlier “graduate” of the Dundee, the late Gail Levin, went on to make acclaimed documentaries about film (Making the Misfits, James Dean: Sense Memory). She remembered seeing Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2 as a teenager and what an impression that film and others by international artists made on her.

Jacobson appreciates the memories the Dundee holds for so many because it does for her, too. She said, “I grew up nearby, so we went to Dundee plenty. My dad tells the story that my very first movie was at Dundee. A 31-year old dad took his 18-month old daughter to The Empire Strikes Back, He said whenever Darth Vader came on, he would take me into the lobby. So, my first memory is not my own, it’s more my dad’s,” she said.

“In high school, I remember seeing Citizen Ruth there, which was huge, and Clerks – that was definitely a big one. I remember going to a full house and me and my girlfriends being the only girls opening night of Showgirls. We were just so interested because it had so much press and we really wanted to check it out.”

Memories just like these from movie lovers have been shared with Jacobson and her Film Streams staff ever since the nonprofit took over the Dundee.

 

 

Silver screen stirrings 

Two cinephiles who became famous filmmakers. Joan Micklin Silver (Hester Street, Crossing Delancey) and Alexander Payne (Election, About Schmidt, The Descendants, Nebraska), go way back with the Dundee.

Payne’s childhood home was within a couple blocks of the theater. It’s where he fell in love with 1970s cinema. Whenever back home from college in the ’80s, he’d return to whet his cinema appetite at the Dundee. Even after finding success with his filmmaking career in the ’90s and beyond, winning two Academy Awards and nominated for several others, he made the Dundee his go-to Omaha sanctuary for feeding his celluloid hunger.

Moran said, “Alexander would come in. His mom would come to movies here all the time, They’re both big Dundee fans .” Moran has a handwritten note by Payne thanking him for all he did in keeping the theater going.

In movie-movie fashion, Payne shot much of his first three feature films in Omaha, including scenes in and around various Dundee haunts, and his debut film Citizen Ruth starring Laura Dern played at the theatre.

“I’ve got a Citizen Ruth poster signed by Laura Dern

‘to my friends at the Dundee Theatre’ that I left in there for Film Streams,” said Moran, who collected other film memorabilia signed by visiting film artists.

“I had them framed in glass. It’s part of the theater and so I left it with the theater.”

Payne’s latest film Downsizing will make its national premiere at the new Dundee on December 22.

Given his personal history with the Dundee, he’s felt a sense of proprietorship in it. As a Film Streams board member, that ownership’s no longer symbolic but real.

“The reopening of the Dundee Theater is the realization of a dream – a dream we’ve had for a long time, first of all for preserving it in any form. That in the current incarnation of Omaha it belong to Film Streams is perfect. When the Morans closed the theater a few years ago, my hope was that if it was going to reopen that it become part of Film Streams, and now the dream is a reality and I couldn’t be more excited.”

His warm feelings run for its deep because as a second home the Dundee helped form his cinema sensibilities.

“I spent a huge amount of time in that theater watching movies.”

Payne also has a soft spot for vintage theaters. He’s supported the restored Midwest Theater in Scottsbluff and the World Theatre in Kearney. He speaks longingly of the time when neighborhood theaters dotted the urban landscape and he’s enthused about efforts to preserve and revive those theaters.

He said the Dundee, which once sat 470 people, stood out from some other cinemas.

“Few of these neighborhood theaters were as large as the Dundee. The Dundee had a more regal presence, so I’m extra glad it has survived.”

A generation before he cultivated his cinema passion there, Joan Micklin Silver attended movies at the Dundee. Her family, who owned Micklin Lumber, lived nearby and she saw standard post-World War II Hollywood fare growing up in the 1940s before moving East and becoming enamored with world cinema. By contrast, a decade later Gail Levin got turned onto world cinema at the Dundee. The difference in what the women saw at the Omaha theater is explained by the fact that during various eras and ownership regimes, it played very different slates of films.

Rich history

The Dundee’s shown motion pictures since the early 1930s, but it opened years before that, in 1925, as a vaudeville house. Harry Houdini once performed his escape artist act there. The locally owned Goldberg Circuit converted it from stage to film just as talking pictures became all the rage as a cheap escape from the hardships of the Great Depression.

The noted Omaha father-son architect team of John and Alan McDonald designed the historical revivalist venue that was Omaha’s then-westernmost theater. It opened to much fanfare in the Roaring Twenties. An ad touted it as a modern community asset to be proud of:

“The opening of the new Dundee Theater at 50th and Dodge is another example of the growth and development of this enterprising community. Only a personal visit can possibly give you an idea of the beauty of the lobby and interior of this beautiful showplace. All the latest developments in theater construction have been included in the building of the Dundee. All the new ideas for the comfort and entertainment of patrons will be found even in a greater extent than other houses … built just a few years ago.”

The ad went on to play up the beauty and comfort angle, referring to the “steel and concrete fireproof construction, finest ventilation and extra large upholstered seats with plenty of aisle space.”

The promotion continued: “Our policy is to bring to this theater the best pictures obtainable anywhere, and to present them as finely as possible.”

Finally, the ad played off the names of its McDonald designers. The elder John earlier designed the George A. Joslyn home, now known as Joslyn Castle, and First Unitarian Church of Omaha. The McDonalds later designed Joslyn Art Museum.

During the 1950s the Dundee was still part of the circuit owned by Ralph and Hermine Goldberg, who operated it as a first-run commercial house screening Hollywood studio releases. By 1958, Ralph Goldberg was dead and his widow sold the Dundee and State Theaters to the Cooper Foundation in Lincoln, Neb. That organization acquired the Dundee for its Cooper Theaters chain that later included the Indian Hills. Under Cooper management, the Dundee switched to showing art films from the U.S. and abroad.

“We have noted around the country a growing interest in the motion picture as an art form,” a Cooper rep told the Omaha World-Herald. “We hope to encourage this.”

Cashiers de Cinema critics in France led the film as art movement. Some became leading filmmakers (Jean Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut) themselves in the French New Wave. Great centers of international cinema and directors emerged in Italy (Federico Fellini, Luciano Visconti, Michelangelo Antonioni, Bernardo Bertolucci, Sergio Leone), Sweden (Ingmar Bergman), Great Britain (Tony Richardson, Joseph Losey), (Mexico-Spain (Luis Bunuel), Japan (Akira Kurosawa), India (Satyajit Ray) and behind the Iron Curtain – Roman Polanski in Poland and Milos Forman in Czechoslovakia.

Dundee’s artsy foray was interrupted when it exclusively booked The Sound of Music and ended up playing the mega-musical hit for more than two years on its solo-screen. The 20th Century Fox picture from Robert Wise began a reserved-seat, roadshow run in April 1965. In August 1966, Cooper Theaters reported that in its 69th week the film set records for the longest run and highest gross in Omaha. The previous records were held by South Pacific at the Cooper Theatre (64 weeks), grossing $430,000. Sound of Music passed those marks and added to them the next 49 weeks for a total of 118 weeks. It was the second longest run in the world, exceeded only in London, England, according to Art Thompson with the Cooper Foundation.

“The story around the Cooper Foundation was that a notation scribbled on the wall of the projection booth recorded the record run of The Sound of Music,” Thompson said.

The Omaha theater went on to host other long runs in its Cooper era. Funny Girl (1968) ran 55 weeks and Hello Dolly (1969) played 36 weeks.

Under Moran’s ownership, the Dundee enjoyed overwhelming receptions to very different kinds of movies. The South African comedy The Gods Must Be Crazy and the spare American drama Tender Mercies, featuring Robert Duvall in a Best Actor Oscar performance, each played several months.

After Sound of Music’s exceptional showing, the art emphasis resumed. When business waned, the theater was purchased by Omahans Edward Cohen and David Frank. They tried a family-friendly slate but eventually settled for second-run features. Nothing worked.

By the early 1980s, the Dundee struggled turning a dollar. It was already among the last single-screen commercial neighborhood theaters still in operation here. Virtually all the rest – in Benson, North Omaha, South Omaha – were closed and repurposed. All the downtown movie palaces were defunct or converted for new uses. Theaters moved west with the suburbs and independent locally owned and operated single-screen movie houses gave way to chains and multiplexes.

Cop who narrowly escaped death turned theater mogul

Then-Omaha police officer Denny Moran bought the Dundee in 1980 as a real estate investment. He was already buying and flipping houses in the area. His interest was the prime property the Dundee occupied, not the movie business. He already owned two adjacent lots and wanted to tie up all the land on that half-block. He initially planned to only keep the theater running until he found a national franchise, perhaps McDonald’s, to build on the site. But then a funny thing happened: He fell in love with it and the movie exhibition business.

Though Moran, an Omaha native, was a casual movie fan and frequented many local theaters growing up, he was a most unlikely candidate to carry on the Dundee’s legacy. For starters, he was not a film buff and he had zero prior experience in the film exhibition game.

“I didn’t know diddly squat about the movie business,” he told a reporter in 2012.

Besides, he was lucky to even be alive. A decade before buying the theater, he was a young cop in town when he intersected with a tragic incident that remains one of the darkest days in local law enforcement history.

On August 17, 1970, an anonymous 911 call of a woman being assaulted in a house at 2867 Ohio Street resulted in several police officers being dispatched. Moran and partner Larry Minard Sr. were first on the scene. They found two vacant houses. Minard and other officers entered the back of the 2867 dwelling while Moran investigated the other. Moran made his way outside when a tremendous explosion went off in the first house. Though protected by a tree, the concussive force sent him flying. Minard, a husband and father of five, died and several officers suffered injuries.

The call had been a ruse to lure the cops into a trap and when Minard opened the front door to exit the house a powerful homemade bomb detonated.

Two local Black Panthers were arrested, charged and convicted of the crime. They denied any involvement and never changed their stories. Controversy arose when documents revealed the federal government engaged in illegal measures to discredit and disrupt the Panthers. Many inconsistencies and irregularities were found in the prosecution of the suspects. Attempts to have the two men pardoned or their convictions overturned failed. One recently died in prison.

Asked about the incident, Moran confirmed the facts of that fateful night, his eyes watering at the memory of the trauma still with him. He became an undercover narcotics officer and a bodyguard-driver for the mayor.

Once he had the Dundee and celluloid got in his blood, he wanted to make it work as a going concern again.

“I said, ‘We’ve got to figure this out, this ain’t going to go.”

He finally hit upon returning to its recent past but this time going all in in making it an art cinema. The timing was right because the ’80s saw the end of the New Hollywood and the emergence of the Independent or Indie craze. Smart early bookings helped reestablish Dundee as a must-see cinema venue:

The Elephant Man

The Gods Must Be Crazy

Das Boot

Fitzcarraldo

Koyaanisqatsi

Tender Mercies

Local Hero

Then, Moran scored a real coup by getting Universal Studios’ rerelease of five classic Alfred Hitchcock films long unavailable and unseen:

Rear Window

Vertigo

The Man Who Knew Too Much

Rope

The Trouble with Harry

By the mid-’80s on, the Dundee was THE place to catch the latest Woody Allen film. By the ’90s. it was where you went to see works by breakout new talents such as Terry Gilliam (Brazil), the Coen Brothers (Miller’s Crossing), Atom Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter) and Omaha’s own Alexander Payne.

The midnight movie screenings with their party-like atmosphere of fans reciting lines aloud, yelling and throwing popcorn, became a signature thing. The sound system was another attraction point.

“I was always a big sound guy,” Moran said. “We had the best sound of any theater in the area. It was clean sound, not loud sound. I was the first one in town with Dolby digital. It was expensive.”

Once, its high fidelity sound secured a coveted picture.

“We were talking about playing U2: Rattle and Hum and I had a guy come in from Paramount Pictures

because he wanted to check out the theater before he would give it to us. We screened Colors for him – the picture where Robert Duvall and Sean Penn play cops.

The guy’s sitting there when the digital sound comes in during an outdoor night scene and he starts complaining about ‘the freaking crickets chirping in back of the screen’ and I said, ‘They’re in the soundtrack.’ He goes, ‘What?’ ‘It’s in the soundtrack.’ He says, ‘You got the movie.’ After we started playing that movie, a local radio station said, ‘You can go see the movie, but if you want to hear that movie, go to the Dundee Theatre.”

Stephanie Kurtzuba, a busy film-TV actress (The Wolf of Wall Street) from Omaha, recalled seeing the movie “with a big group of friends and being enthralled by the experience.” “I think that was more about Bono than the theater,” she added, “but I sure was grateful Omaha had a movie house that showed things like concert films.”

 

Passing the torch

Dundee continued enjoying its art niche but once Film Streams came on the scene and on-demand services like Netflix, Hulu and Red Box appeared, margins got smaller. It became more grind-house than art house.

Moran said he and Film Streams enjoyed a friendly relationship.

“We always had a good rapport. Even when I was open here, I’d help them out with stuff, like spare parts when their projector broke down.”

“We had a pretty complementary relationship,” Rachel

Jacobson said. “It felt more collaborative than competitive.”

But industry changes took the fun out of running a theater for Moran. He enjoyed it when it was a more personal business. He learned the ropes from exhibition  veterans he met at theater owner conventions. He got to know distribution reps, too. But as small companies gave way to conglomerates, it became more corporate.

Moran held on as long as he could.

“We planned on keeping it,” he said.

But aft it got to be too much, he found the best deal for himself, the theater and the community.

“There’s a lot of people we need to thank for what’s happening there. Denny Moran. The Sherwood Foundation, which does so much for this city. Rachel (Jacobson) and her vision for Film Streams. All the donors,” Vic Gutman said. “We are fortunate to have so many visionaries and philanthropists who are helping to shape those visions and make them a reality.”

The Dundee’s back to projecting our collective dreams and nightmares, whimsies and follies, on the big screen.

Film buffs Sam and Mary Ann Walker can’t wait.

“Mary Ann and I practically live at Film Streams. And we live only a block and a half away from their new Dundee venue,” Sam Walker said. “I have had the thrill of seeing all my favorites from my college years, and finally a chance to see the great international films I never saw.”

Jacobson appreciates what good stewards the Morans were in keeping the theater viable for so long. She said she and her staff realize the “huge responsibility” Film Streams is taking on, but the fit seems so right.

“It’s seen so much film history and in that respect it’s so intricately tied to our mission and what we’re about. In one sense, it’s a big leap for us, and in another sense    something about it feels natural-next-step about it, too.”

She reassures people the theater will “continue to be the Dundee” but for a new age.

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

April 26, 2017 Leave a comment

 Hot Movie Takes  –

 My recap of Julianne Moore in conversation with Alexander Payne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

“Hannibal”

“The Shipping News”

“Far from Heaven”

“The Hours”

“Children of Men”

“I’m Not There”

“Blindness”

“The Kids are Alright”

“Game Change”

“The English Teacher”

“Still Alice”

“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part I”

“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part II”

 

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

http://bit.ly/2ngST9t

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 24, 2017 Leave a comment

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

“It’s a Wonderful Life” speaks to our troubled times – calling us to be agents of change and hope

December 15, 2016 1 comment

 

“It’s a Wonderful Life” speaks to our troubled times – calling us to be agents of change and hope 

©by Leo Adam Biga, author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film” (now available online and in bookstores)

 

For many of us, the ugly, vitriolic tenor of the presidential election combined with the incendiary comments and divisive ideas expressed by president-elect Donald Trump have cast a dark pall on things. That’s why there’s no better time than now to watch that great American chestnut of cinema, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” than this particular holiday season.

Film Streams in Omaha is screening this tragic-comic masterwork directed by Frank Capra beginning Dec. 17 on select days through Christmas. The project was Capra’s response to the horrors of the recently concluded Second World War and the recent Great Depression. What Americans today forget is that while the Allied victory over Germany and Japan was greeted with relief and jubilation, the scars of that conflict and of the harsh realities experienced by those who fought it took a deep psychic toll on the nation. Just as America lost its innocence during the Civil War and World War I, it lost any pretense of an idealized world following WWII. Oh, sure, the nation bt on with the business of work, marriage, family and the creation of the consumer age we’re now hostage to, but Capra knew that Americans were an insecure, wounded people behind all that bluster and bravado. It’s no coincidence that that dark cinema of film noir found its apex of expression in the years immediately following the war.

The message of the 1946 film has never been more relevant now as people reeling from the last few months despair over what policies and executive orders will undo the fabric of a nation that for all its inequities does have programs and measures in place to protect the vulnerable among us.

Many folks upset with the election results and fearful of what might be in store the coming four years. feel hopeless, as if their votes and wishes don’t count, and perhaps even harbor a sense that they just don’t matter in the cold calculus of the new world order.

If you’re familiar with the plot, then you know that protagonist George Bailey played by James Stewart is a small town dreamer forever putting off his personal desire for adventure in service to his family’s proletariat building and loan. The business is the last hold out against ruthless Bedford Falls tycoon Mr. Potter, a banker and real estate magnet whose power grab lust will make him stop at nothing to crush his competition. Where George and his late father before him have worked with clients of all races and ethnicities to get them in or keep them in modest homes they could afford, Potter’s only interest is the bottom-line, and if that means pricing them out, then so be it. He represents the bourgeoisie at its most heartless.

It is the classic conflict between the Everyman and the Privileged Man, between the haves and the have-nots, between the forces of good and the forces of evil, between fascism and pluaralism. All sorts of parallels can be found between Potter and Trump. Both are pompous assess who are unfeeling and unbending in their pursuit of wealth and power and they make no apologies for the corners they cut, the contracts they break, the lies they tell and the damage they do.

George Bailey is a young progressive who would have supported FDR then and would have backed Hilary or Bernie today. The disenchanted majority who feel Trump usurped their presumptive president elect by using fear and hate mongering rhetoric are adrift now, no longer at all certain that the democratic process works the way it was intended. Many have thrown up their hands in frustration and worked themselves into fits of anger, desperation and anxiety in anticipation of the Trump administration. In the movie. George loses his faith in America and humanity when things go from bad to worse and it appears to him that all his work and life have been a waste. The tale, which can best be described as a light romantic comedy fantasy meets gritty film noir fable, has George grow so depressed that he contemplates suicide, uttering the wish that he’d never been born. A surreal heavenly intervention shows him how different the world would have been and how empty the lives of his family and friends would be without him having made his mark.

The populist message with spiritual overtones is a reminder, even a challenge that life is a gift that we are expected to cherish and that our imprint, no matter how small or insignificant we believe it to be, is irreplaceable and unique only to us. In this spirit, “It’s a Wonderful Life” calls each of us to do our part in finding our path and following it to do unto others as we would have them do to us. We may not like or understand the path, especially when it grows hard and we grow weary, but it is in the doing that we fulfill our destiny.

In a recent interview I did with Oscar-winning filmmaker Alexander Payne he expressed his immeasurable regard for the professional extras who once populated the Hollywood studio factory system. He marveled at how perfectly cast these variations of character actors were and how fully realized, detailed, curated and directed were the business they did and the wardrobe they wore, whether in the background or foreground of shots. He used the example of “Casablanca” as being the epitome of this. “It’s a Wonderful Life” illustrates the same. By the way, the reason why Payne discussed extras at some length with me is that he used a lot of them, as in several hundred, perhaps even a few thousand, not ever all together in any one shot or scene mind you, in his new movie “Downsizing.” He and Kevin Tent are editing the film right now and presumably getting it ready to show at Cannes in May.

Look for a new post this week about “Downsizing” and why you should start the countdown to its fall release. Here’s a hint: its themes become ever more prescient with each new American blunder and world crisis.

Just as “Downsizing” will reflect back to us where America and the world have come and where it might go, “It’s a Wonderful Life” is an ageless morality play in the Shakespearean mold are that reveals universal truths of the human heart and soul in extremis.

“It’s a Wonderful Life” has had a profound effect on me the many times I’ve seen it and I have no doubt it will move me again.

http://www.filmstreams.org/film/its-a-wonderful-life/

 

One of the most beloved holiday films of all time, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE stars James Stewart as George Bailey, a good man who’s spent his entire life putting other people before himself. When George falls victim to the antics of a greedy banker, he’s cast into a life-threatening despair — that is, until a guardian angel named Clarence shows George what the world would have been like had he never been born.

Additional Information

Also Shown: December 19, 20, 24 & 25, 2015

December 14 -17, 2012

December 17-18, 22, 24-25, 29, 2011

Directed By
Frank Capra

Starring
James Stewart
Donna Reed
Lionel Barrymore
Thomas Mitchell
Henry Travers
Beulah Bondi
Frank Faylen
Ward Bond
Gloria Grahame

Running Time
130 minutes

MPAA Rating
PG

Distributed By
Paramount Pictures

Country of Origin
USA

Language
In English

Release Year
1946

Year Shown Last
2015

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