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Film Connections Interview with Francis Ford Coppola about the making of “The Rain People” 

October 17, 2018 Leave a comment

Film Connections

Interview with Francis Ford Coppola about the making of “The Rain People” 

In 1968 the future Oscar-winning filmmaker and his cast and crew ended up in Nebraska for the last few weeks shooting on an intimate road picture he wrote and directed titled “The Rain People.” A very young George Lucas was along for the ride as a production associate whose main task was to film the making of the movie. 

Coppola’s indie art film starring Shirley Knight, James Caan and Robert Duvall was released in 1969. The experience forged strong personal and professional bonds. It not only resulted in the Lucas documentary “The Making of The Rain People,” but it’s how Lucas came to cast Duvall to star in his debut feature “THX-1138,” which Coppola produced. Coppola also produced his protege’s second film, “American Grafitti.” The two also co-founded American Zoetrope. Meanwhile. Coppola cast Duvall and Caan in his crowing achievement, “The Godfather.” From obscurity in 1969. Coppola and Lucas became start filmmakers who helped usher in the New Hollywood. 

The experience of “The Rain People” also introduced Duvall to a Nebraska ranch-rodeo family, the Petersons. he came to make the subjects of his own first directorial effort, “We’re Not the Jet Set.”

I am documenting this little-known chapter Nebraska Screen Gem as part of my Nebraska Screen Heritage Project, in a college class I’m teaching this fall and in articles I’m writing and in posts I’m making. On this blog you can also find my interviews with Knight, Caan and Duvall. I have also interviewed several others who were part of this confluence of talent and vision and I will be posting those over time.

My next step is to bring back as many of the principals involved in these three films for screenings and discussions.

Here is my interview with Francis Ford Coppola:

LAB: The Rain People is very much a road picture, and you and your small cast and crew traveled in cars and, I think I read somewhere, a mini-bus from Long Island to the South and then to the Midwest to capture the journey Shirley Knight’s character makes. Did you happen to shoot the film largely in sequential order?

FFC: “Generally I tried to shoot in sequential order, though if there was an opportunity to save money to shoot slightly out of it, I would.”

LAB: Is it true you hadn’t finished the screenplay when shooting began?

FFC: “I had a complete screenplay, but was prepared to make any changes if we encountered something interesting along the way.”

LAB: And so I take it that you hadn’t scouted all the locations beforehand but instead left yourself open to discovering places and events you then integrated into the story and captured on film?

FFC: “Exactly. We had a route, and wasn’t sure of exact location, But my associate Ron Colby was scouting a little ahead of us and we were in communication.”

LAB: What about Ogallala, Neb. – was it by design or chance that you ended up there?

FFC: “By chance. but once there, I think we felt at home and there were many good place that suited our story. And the people were nice and there was a nice little picnic grounds. And I remember a big steak cost about $6, so we’d have barbecues and we were all happy there.”

LAB: It was your first time working with the three principal cast members. At that point in your careers, Shirley was probably the best known of anyone on the project. I read somewhere that you met her at the Cannes Film Festival, when she was there with Dutchman, and that you saw her crying after a confrontation with a journalist and you consoled her with, ‘Don’t cry, I’m going to write a film for you.’ Is that right?

FFC: “Yes, that story is true. I think I was influenced by the notion of Europeans working with leading ladies, Monica Vitti or Goddard’s Anna Karinia, and so yes, I said that to her.”

LAB: You obviously admired her work.

FFC: “I liked Dutchman very much, where I also admired (her co-star) Al Freeman Jr.”

LAB: What about Jimmy and Bobby – did you know them before the project, and did any of their previous work make an impression on you?

FFC: “I had chosen Jimmy, and in fact before I even had the money or arrangement to make The Rain People, George Lucas and I went east and shot some ‘second unit’ footage at a football game and different images.”

LAB: Bobby mentioned that he might have replaced another actor who had originally been cast in his role, is that right?

FFC: “Original. For the rehearsals we had Rip Torn, but had as part of his deal that we give him the Harley motorcycle so he could learn to drive it well. We did, and he parked it in front of his house in New York City, and it was stolen. He came back to us and said it was his deal to have a Harley, so we had to buy him another. But all we could afford was a good quality secondhand one -– which then he said wasn’t his deal. It was supposed to be a good one. So later in the production, when Ron Colby called him to say we needed him to get his shoe and calf measured for the boots, he said, ‘That’s it’! and quit. I had seen Bobby in a movie (Countdown’ he made with Jimmy Caan for TV that Robert Altman had directed. I thought both of them were fantastic. So true and real in that kind of movie, so I offered the part to Duvall.”

LAB: I understand that in preproduction you like to rehearse or to at least do table reads with cast, or at least that’s how you preferred to do things then. Did you do anything like that for Rain People?

FFC: “Yes, I had been a theater major in college, and so I was very used to a few weeks of rehearsal and, yes, I did a rehearsal period for The Rain People and I’ve done it for every film after that.”

 

Montage of moments from “The Rain People”. ©motionpictureart.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

LAB: As you know, Jimmy and Bobby became fast friends with a local ranch-rodeo family there, the Petersons. They were this loud, rambunctious bunch.  Did you meet any of the clan, particularly the patriarch, B.A., who is the central figure in the documentary Duvall made about the family, We’re Not the Jet Set? 

FFC: “I remember the family, and Bobby’s interest in them. He was always interested in things that were ‘real’ authentic, as opposed to the fake reality of people in movies and TV shows, and thus he made We’re Not the Jet Set. I remember the song he wrote (?).”

LAB: What about another area ranch-rodeo family Jimmy and Bobby came to know, the Haythorns, did you meet any of them, particularly patriarch Waldo Haythorn?

FFC: “No, I don’t remember them. but perhaps I met them.”

LAB: I know that Duvall has often sought your opinion on the projects he’s directed – did he do so for We’re Not the Jet Set, and assuming you’ve seen the film what do you think of it?

FFC: “Over the years, he’d come visit me and bring me his films and ask for my reaction. I was pleased to be of any help I could be, especially after he did me the great favor of appearing in a tiny role in The Conversation.”

LAB: When you worked with Duvall on Rain People and later on the first two Godfather pictures and The Conversation, did you sense he had a directorial sensibility about him?

FFC: “I didn’t think about it. Iv’e always known that actors make the best directors among all the crafts – writing, editing, assistant directors, et cetera. There’s a long list of actors who became fine directors.”

LAB: After Rain People did you know you wanted to work with Caan and Duvall again? When you got The Godfather did you immediately think of them?

FFC: “I liked working with them very much, and yes, they were on all the early lists of names for The Godfather.'”

LAB: The Rain People production team also included two key collaborators in George Lucas and Mona Skager. The film came at an interesting juncture in your young careers. You had wanted to be an independent director but soon found yourself being a studio wonk.  After Finian’s Rainbow it appears you intentionally set out to liberate yourself from the studio apparatus with Rain People, is that right?

FFC: “Yes. George Lucas was, and still is, like a younger brother to me. I knew early on that he was a great talent, and though a different personality to my own, one that was very helpful to me, and stimulating to me. hH’s a fine, very generous person, so bright and talented.Ii am very proud of him. Mona was the first ‘key associate’ I had, starting out as a secretary and blossoming into an all-around associate in the entire process.”

LAB: I believe that you, Lucas and Skager formed American Zoetrope not long after the project. Did the idea for Zoetrope come to you during the making of the film or did the experience of that film point you in the direction of launching your own studio?

FFC: “The idea for American Zoetrope really came from the theater club that I was president (or executive producer) of in college, called ‘The Spectrum Players.’ It still exists at Hofstra University in Long Island, and I was the founder and merely took many of the ideas of a creative entity that attempted to create art works with it’s own means. George was essentially a co-founder, and Mona was what they called in those days ‘the Girl Friday’ – today a production supervisor who was involved in all we were trying to do.”

LAB: Rain People certainly fits the vision you had for Zoetrope in terms of small, personal art films. which Godfather I and II, Apocalypse Now and subsequent pictures took you away from for many years before you returned to this model the last few years. Do you still regard Rain People warmly after all these years?

FFC: “Yes, very much. I wish Warner Bros. would allow me to buy it back, as there’s not even a DVD available about it (there is now). It has value, I think, beyond being an early film of mine but as one of the first films to touch on the theme of ‘women’s liberation’.”

LAB: The documentary Lucas made about the making of the film captures you and the others before you became so well known, which makes it a very interesting time piece, don’t you think?

FFC: “George’s film is excellent, if I may say, and he caught the spirit of this exciting trip, which for us was an adventure into filmmaking.”

LAB: In addition to working again with Caan, Duvall, Lucas and Skager, you also ended up working again with Rain People cinematographer Bill Butler, and so that film really forged some key relationships didn’t it?

FFC: “Bill Butler did a terrific job, and it was a pleasure to work with him.”

LAB: And, of course. Lucas ended up casting Duvall in his first feature, THX-1138, which you produced.

FFC: “Yes, George got to meet Bobby and knew he should be in THX-1138.”

LAB: The confluence of talent and connections that arose out of Rain People has always fascinated me, as has the fact that within a few years of its making you and Lucas helped usher in the New Hollywood and became kingpins in the industry. But you tried to escape the constraints and weight of studio filmmaking over the next few decades, and you finally have regained the independence you found on Rain People, all thanks to your wine company. You’ve kind of come full circle, haven’t you?

FFC: “I hope so. With the conclusion of the ‘student’ films I just made, Youth Without Youth, Tetro and Twixt, I feel ready to tackle a new and much bigger project. I feel blessed in my life, and of course hI ope I’m able to enjoy the freedom and autonomy enjoyed in those last three, on the new one, which will need a much bigger budget. I hope fate allows me to do  it, as I don’t yet feel i’ve achieved what I long to do in film.”

LAB: As you know, Lucas has long talked about freeing himself from his corporate machine, CGI endeavors and Star Wars franchises to make small experimental films.  Have  you nudged him at all to say, ‘Hey, look, I did it, you can too’?

FFC: “George is so talented, anything he attempts will be a pleasure to see. Yes, I always ask him to quit fooling with the Star Wars ‘franchise’ and go back to what he and I always wanted: to make personal — experimental films. I have no doubt that he will succeed.”

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Leo Adam Biga to deliver Nebraska Film Heritage lecture at Durham for Katharine Hepburn exhibit

January 22, 2015 1 comment

Leo Adam Biga to deliver Nebraska Film Heritage lecture at Durham for Katharine Hepburn exhibit
Join me at the Durham Museum at 6:30 pm on Tues. Feb. 17 for a lecture I am giving on Nebraska’s Film Heritage in conjunction with the Katharine Hepburn exhibit there. Kate had no particular ties to Nebraska, but she was an icon in an industry that included many fellow icons from this state. She famously worked with two of them, Henry and Jane Fonda, in On Golden Pond. She worked with another, Montgomery Clift, in Suddenly Last Summer. Her longtime lover, Spencer Tracy, won a Best Actor Oscar for his performance in a movie partially shot here, Boys Town, about one of the most famous Nebraskans ever, Father Edward Flanagan, and his legendary home for boys. One of Hepburn and Tracy’s lesser films together, Sea of Grass, was set here.

My talk will touch on some of the figures from here, past and present, to have carved out successful cinema careers behind the camera and in front of the camera. These include household names and more obscure but no less important names. Far more Nebraskans than you think have made significant contributions to the industry or established themselves as solid working film artists. I will also discuss some of the significant films made here and premiered here. Additionally, I will highlight some of the legendary film artists who have passed through Nebraska. Finally, I will give props to some of the individuals and organizations that have enhanced the cinema culture here.

 
The lecture is part of my Nebraska Film Heritage Project that will ultimately result in a book.
 
Read more about the exhibit and the special programs scheduled around it, including my lecture, below.
 
I hope to see you at my presentation,
 
 
Leo Adam Biga
Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”
February 7 – April 26, 2015
The Durham Museum is pleased to present Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen, an exclusive exhibition of Hepburn’s personal costume collection organized by the Kent State University Museum. The exhibit features more than 35 costumes worn in 21 films and 6 stage productions spanning Hepburn’s illustrious career. Among the items on display will be an ensemble of her signature tailored beige trousers and linen jackets, vintage posters, playbills, photos and other Hepburn-related artifacts, as well as stage costumes from The Philadelphia Story and Coco and screen costumes from Adam’s Rib and Stage Door. From classic Hollywood dresses to Kate’s personal “rebel chic,” the exhibition highlights how Hepburn’s sense of style influenced countless women and fashion designers. It helped to create the informal, elegant approach to American style seen on today’s runways. Come see how this true icon of American culture came to epitomize the modern woman of the 20th Century.
Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen is supported locally by Mutual of Omaha, Douglas County Commissioners, On Track Guild, Rhonda and Howard Hawks and the Dixon Family Foundation. Media support provided by KETV.
Pictured Left to Right:
Dress by Walter Plunkett, from the 1934 RKO movie The Little Minister
White satin and lace wedding dress by Howard Greer, from the 1934 production of The Lake
Design by Chanel, from the 1976 production of Coco
LECTURES
*Nebraska’s Film Heritage
Presented by Leo Adam Biga
Tuesday, February 17, 6:30PM
Stanley and Dorothy Truhlsen Lecture Hall
Omaha author Leo Biga highlights the story of Nebraska’s rich legacy in cinema.*Katharine Hepburn: Master of her own Image
Presented by Amy Henderson of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery
Thursday, April 9, 6:30PMSCHEDULED TOURS
Join selected scholars for a special tour and commentary of Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen.*Backstage with Kate
February 7, 2015, 9AM and 11AM
Jean Druesedow, Director, the Kent State University MuseumMarch 7, 2015, 9AM and 11AM
Rachel Jacobsen, Executive Director, Film Streams at the Ruth Sokolof TheaterApril 4, 2015, 9AM and 11AM
Dr. Barbara Trout – Professor – Department of Textiles, Clothing and Design, College of Education and Human Sciences University of Nebraska-Lincoln

*Due to limited space, reservations are required. Please email reservations@DurhamMuseum.org or call 402-444-5071. Cost of admission applies and members are free.

SPECIAL EVENTS
An Evening with Kate
February 6, 2015
6:30PM Lecture, Reception and exclusive preview of the exhibit to follow
Join the Durham Museum’s On Track Guild and Honorary Chairs Gail and Mike Yanney for “An Evening with Kate.” Jean Druesedow, Exhibition Curator and Director of the Kent State University Museum will discuss the exhibit, collection and Kate’s life.

Tickets: $75

For more information or to make a reservation, contact the museum at 402-444-5071.

Hollywood Bootcamp
Saturday, March 28, 2015, 10AM-3PM
Bring your friends for a day of boot camp…Hollywood style! Walk the red carpet, learn expert tips in costuming and make-up design, star in your own movie and much more. Plus, get your own star on The Durham Walk of Fame!
Regular Museum Admission Rates Apply
Free to Members

Katharine Hepburn Movie Series
February 14 – March 30
The Durham Museum is proud to partner with Film Streams at the Ruth Sokolof Theater for a series of movies that coincide with the costume exhibit, Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen.
All screenings will occur at Film Streams’ Ruth Sokolof Theater (1340 Mike Fahey Street). For details and showtimes visit http://www.filmstreams.org.

Visit The Durham Museum Hitchcock Museum Shop, Old-Fashioned Soda Fountain and the Photo Archive for 10% off Katharine Hepburn related gifts, treats and photos as part of your membership!

Nebraska Coast Connection: Networking group ties Nebraskans in Hollywood

January 6, 2014 1 comment

Upon discovering there’s a networking group for Nebraskans in Hollywood called the Nebraska Coast Connection it’s not surprising for someone to ask, There are Nebraskans in Hollywood?  Yes, and a lot more than you might think.   The fact is there have always been Nebraskans in that strange and alluring land of make-believe.  A surprising number of natives of this Midwestern state have played and continue playing prominent roles there, both behind the camera and in front of the camera, all the way from the motion picture industry’s start through the advent of television and more recently the dawn of multi-media platforms.   The story that follows is my profile of the Nebraska Coast Connection for an upcoming issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com).

Much of my story is based on interviews I did with the Nebraska Coast Connection’s founder and president, Todd Nelson, a Holdrege, Neb. native who’s been doing his thing in Hollwyood for 30 years.  His group’s monthly Hollywood Salon has become its signature event.   This part social mixer and part professional seminar allows folks to tout their projects and to hear featured speakers, such as Oscar-winner Alexander Payne.  I also have insights and impressions about the organization from three of the biggest names from here in Hollywood: filmmaker Alexander Payne, whose new film Nebraska is sure to fare well at the Oscars; writer-producer-director Jon Bokenkamp, whose hit new NBC series The Blacklist has elevated him to the prime time A-list; and former network executive and script writer Lew Hunter, who’s retired from the craziness but knows where the bodies are buried.  All speak glowingly about the nurturing nature of the group and how it offers a home away from home environment in what can be otherwise a cold, harsh culture for those working in the industry or aspiring to.

I can speak to the warm hospitality offered by the group based on two recent experiences I had with it.  I was there for the Sept. 9 Hollywood Salon featuring Payne and for a Nov. 16 screening of Payne’s Nebraska at Paramount Studios.  I was also the featured speaker for its Nov. 11 salon.  Todd Nelson was my gracious host each time.

This blog is filled with stories and interviews I’ve done with film figures, famous and not so famous.  Much of that work as well as related activity I’m now purusing will feed into an eventual book about Nebraskans in Hollywood, past and present.  I am the author of the current book, Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film.

Todd Nelson generously provided a set of photos for my story taken by homself and some other NCC stalwarts.

The Reader Jan. 9, 2014

photo credits:
TIM WOODWARD, TRAVIS BECK, TODD NELSON, DAVID WILDER

Nebraska Coast Connection: Networking group ties Nebraskans in Hollywood

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

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Alexander Payne at the Sept. 9 salon

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Todd Nelson interviewing Payne at the Sept. 9 salon

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Some of the crowd at the recent Hollywood Salon featuring Payne

Dreamers from Neb., as from everywhere else, have flocked to Hollywood since the motion picture industry’s start.

Softening the harsh realities of making it in Tinsel Town’s dog-eat-dog world, where who you know is often more vital than what you know, is the mission behind the Nebraska Coast Connection. This networking alliance of natives already established in Hollywood or aspiring to be is the brainchild of Todd Nelson, a Holdrege son who’s been in Hollywood since 1984. A former Disney executive, his company Braska Films produces international promos for CBS.

Early in his foray on the coast Nelson was aided by industry veterans and once settled himself he felt an obligation to give back.

His own Hollywood dream extends back to childhood. He made an animated film with his father, created neighborhood theatricals and headlined a magic act, ala home state heroes Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett, that netted a recurring spot on a local TV show and gigs around the state.

“I guess I didn’t know any better and nobody ever told me I couldn’t do it, so I just kept at it,” Nelson says.

As a University of Nebraska-Lincoln theater and broadcast journalism major he made the then-Sheldon Film Theatre (now the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center) his film school.

“To see classic movies and to meet the filmmakers behind some of them was just a fantastic experience and a real eye opener for me.”

Frustrated by limited filmmaking ops at UNL, he talked his way into using Nebraska Educational Television production facilities to direct a one-act play for the small screen. He also worked as a KETV reporter-photojournalist in the ABC affiliate’s Lincoln bureau.

He was an extra in Terms of Endearment during the feature’s Lincoln shoot.

An internship brought Nelson out to the coast, where he worked behind-the-scenes on a soap and later served as personal assistant to TV-film director Paul Bogart (All in the Family). After five years as a senior project executive at Disney he left to produce and direct the documentary Surviving Friendly Fire.

Nelson formed NCC in 1992. A couple years later he befriended fellow Nebraskan Alexander Payne, then gearing up to make his first feature, Citizen Ruth. Payne was looking for an L.A. apartment and Nelson leased him a unit in the building he managed and lived in. The neighbors became friends and the Nebraskans in Hollywood community Nelson cultivated grew.

“He’s a terrific guy,” Payne says of Nelson “He is, as they say, good people.”

In 1995 Nelson inaugurated NCC’s signature Hollywood Salon series. He knew he was onto something when the first event drew hundreds. His strong UNL ties brought support from the school’s foundation.

The monthly Salon has met at some iconic locations, including the Hollywood Athletic Club and CBS sound stages. Its home these days is the historic Culver Hotel in Culver City, Calif., whose namesake, Nebraskan Harry Culver, attracted the fledgling movie industry to his city in the 1920s. Many Golden Era stars kept residences at the hotel, which purportedly was owned by a succession of Hollywood heavyweights. In this ultimate company town, the hotel is next to Sony Pictures Studios, giving the salon the feel of an insiders’ confab.

Culver Hotel
Payne’s guest appearances draw overflow crowds. Some 200 attended the Sept. 9 program Nelson hosted. The acclaimed writer-director shared off-the-record dope on the making of his Nebraska, candid comments about the state of movies today and advice for actors and writers hoping to collaborate with him. He took questions from the adoring audience, many of whom he’s gotten to know from past salons, posed for pictures and made small talk.
In addition to Payne, the salon’s featured other Nebraskans: actress Marg Helgenberger (CSI and the new series Intelligence), writer-producer Jon Bokenkamp (The Blacklist), filmmaker Nik Fackler (Lovely, Still) and actor Chris Klein (Election).
Marg Helgenberger (CSI and the new series Intelligence) getting in the spirit of things at a Nebraska Coast Connection Christmas party
Nelson interviewing filmmaker-musician Nik Fackler

The group boasts a mailing list of more than 1,000 and nearly as many anecdotes from those who’ve found fellowship, employment, even love, through its ranks.

Payne likes that NCC affords a kind of Neb. fraternity in Hollywood.

“It’s wonderful and hilarious. It’s hilarious in the way that being from Neb. is hilarious. Maybe people from other states do the same, but I know the Neb. version of how they seek one another out in other cities. I know there’s a Neb. club of some sort in New York City. The state’s members of Congress host a Nebraskans breakfast in D.C.

“Nebraskans feel comfortable with one another outside of Neb. and I am no exception, I enjoy the group, we have a shared sensibility, a shared sense of humor, shared childhood references. And Todd is a forceful personality. He’s the most benevolent, charismatic cult leader one could imagine,” he says with a wink.

According to Nelson, “There is something really unique about Nebraskans. We belong together in this way that no other place does. I have watched other groups come and go trying to duplicate what we do and every group without fail has just fallen apart, and some of them are from the Midwest, so it’s not just the Midwest thing.”

Payne’s far past needing the NCC’s connections but he says, “I’m very happy to continue my participation as an occasional guest speaker.”

Bokenkamp does the same. The Kearney native parked cars when he first got out there. He did have a script but no idea how to get it to anyone that mattered. At Nelson’s urging Bokenkamp entered a screenwriting contest. He won. It got him an agent and eventually jobs writing features (Taking Lives) and even directing a pic (Bad Seed).

Nelson enjoys aiding folks get their starts in the business.

“There’s definitely a thrill watching new people realize their own potential,” he says. “Jamie Ball from Grand Island wanted to be an editor. I’ve given her a chance and she’s working in the big leagues now as a video editor, making a substantial living and finding she really enjoys living her dream. I love being a part of making that happen.

“But I also get the benefit of her good work and it’s enabled me to get home to see my son more often and to take a sick day once in a while. It’s a huge help to have her on my team.”

Payne’s first Oscar passed around at a salon

Against all odds small population Neb’s produced an inordinate number of success stories in film and television, including several legends. The star actors alone run the gamut from Harold Lloyd and Fred Astaire to Robert Taylor, Henry Fonda and Dorothy McGuire to Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift to James Coburn, Sandy Dennis, Nick Nolte and Marg Helgenberger. At least one major studio mogul, Darryl Zanuck, originally hailed from here. As have leading composers. cinematographers, editors, writers and casting directors.

Payne heads the current crop, but he’s hardly alone. Most homegrown talents are not household names but they occupy vital posts in every facet of the biz. For each hopeful who makes it, such as producer-writer Timothy Schlattmann (Dexter) from Nebraska City, many others give up. Having a sanctuary of Nebraskans to turn to smooths the way.

Nelson credits former UNL theater professor Bill Morgan with sparking the concept for NCC.

“He was the one who really put the idea of a Neb. connection in my brain. I would always visit with him when back home for Christmas and he would pull out a stack of holiday cards from all his old students. I’d say to him that I don’t know so-and-so, they were before or after my time. He would write down their contact info and nudge me to get in touch with them. He just thought we all should know each other. And inevitably when I did follow up, they would always welcome me into their lives because we shared Dr. Morgan…even if it was from a different era. That was the seed of the NCC right there.”

NebrStars

Among those UNL grads Nelson looked up was the late Barney Oldfield, a Tecumseh native who was a newspaper reporter and press aide to Allied commander Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower during World War II before becoming a Warner Bros. publicist and independent press agent to such stars as Errol Flynn, Ronald Reagan and Elizabeth Taylor. In his post-Hollywood years he worked in corporate public relations and became a major philanthropist.

“Barney was an amazing guy. He became a big supporter of the Coast Connection,” Nelson says. “We hosted his 90th birthday party at CBS on the big stage. He regaled us with stories of his old PR days and knowing everybody under the sun.”

Another of the old guard Nelson called on was Guide Rock native Lew Hunter, a former network TV executive and script writer whose 434 Screenwriting class at UCLA became the basis for a popular book he authored. Hunter, who today leads a screenwriting colony in Superior, Neb., offered a model for what became the salon.

“He used to do what he called a Writer’s Block when he still lived in Burbank,” Nelson says. “It was a kind of salon. He’s seen that our salon continues that, so he’s a big supporter.”

Hunter says, “Todd and I often thought and spoke about a similar monthly gathering of Nebraskans and he pulled it off. It has been a wonderful spin and he really is the father of it all.”

But what really compelled Nelson to form NCC was the stark reality that even though hundreds of Nebraskans worked in Hollywood, few knew each other and there was no formal apparatus to link them.

“I’d been working in Hollywood already 10 years and meeting a lot of Nebraskans and nobody seemed to know each other. We needed to have access to each other.”

Thus, the all-volunteer Nebraska Coast Connection was born.

“People teasingly called it the Nebraska Mafia, but it was kind of like that – we could take care of each other.”

Variety managing editor Kirsten Wilder, yet another Neb. native in Hollywood, has a warm feeling for the group and marvels at its founder’s persistence.

“The NCC is near and dear to my heart. The reason the NCC is so successful is because of Todd Nelson’s staggering devotion to keep the group alive and thriving.”

Nelson defers credit to the natural conviviality of Nebraskans.

“You get these people that come out here from Neb. and it doesn’t matter where they’re from in the state, it doesn’t matter that they don’t have a direct contact with someone else, the fact that you are from Neb. is an instant welcome. It’s not entirely universal. I met Nick Nolte at the Golden Globes one year and I told him about our group and I said we’d love to have him come and talk to us sometime and he said, ‘Why would I want to hangout with a bunch of Nebraskans? I got away from that place.’ That’s a rarity, once in a while you run into it, but most of the time we find that everybody just connects instantly.”

A tribute screening of silent screen great Harold Lloyd’s work brought inspired NCC members to don replicas of the icon’s signature horned-rim glasses

Nelson says that in what can be a cold, rootless town NCC provides “a safe haven” that comes with the shared identity and experience of being among other Nebraskans .

“We call it Home Sweet Home in Hollywood and it has that quality to it. You need a home base I think if you’re going to do this kind of hard work of always having to put yourself out there and come up against the sharks of the world. I don’t think growing up in Neb. especially prepares you for how hard it will be to actually make it while you ply your trade and build your career. Hollywood just isn’t very nurturing. You can really use a community out here to help you get your bearings and give you a leg up. Or at least some friendly faces to be yourself with as you make your way.”

Bokenkamp admires what Nelson and the group provide.

“His love for Neb. runs deep, and he’s found a way to channel that love into a really positive networking group with the Nebraska Coast Connection. NCC is a warm, energetic and creative environment. Todd just wants to see people succeed.

“Thing is, in a land as strange as Hollywood, it’s just nice to have a place to go now and then that feels like home. NCC is that for a lot of Nebraskans.”

Payne says he can appreciate how NCC makes negotiating Hollywood less lonely and frightening for newcomers.

“L.A. is such a scary place to approach when you’re young and want a career in film or television. Everyone is telling you you can’t make it, perhaps you’re even telling yourself that, but you’ve giving it a try anyway. Add to that the fact you’re from Neb. and have no connections. Well, it turns out there is an organization that welcomes you and has people in exactly the same boat there to commiserate with. It’s a wonderful, caring organization.”

Nelson says without the NCC it’s easy for some to give up their dream.

“I’ve seen many people go back home after a few years of waiting for their break and not getting very far. Pressure from parents and friends is part of it. People in Neb. don’t really get how long and hard these careers can be to get started. There’s no distinct ladder to climb, no road map, lots of horror stories and kids here can run out of money or run out of steam. That’s when a ‘safe’ job back home near the folks looks more and more attractive.

“I’ve had many parents tell me they wouldn’t let their kid try it in Hollywood without the safety net we give them.”

Nelson says NCC offers a way to make foot-in-the-door contacts that parlay a kind of pay-it-forward, Neb.-centric nepotism.

“I know the NCC works because I see it over and over. People are constantly making job contacts, finding support, getting roommates, attending each other’s performances, hiring actors and crew for their films. It is going on all the time at every Salon. Hopefully it will happen even more with the interactivity built into the new website. Our goal is to have a kind of virtual salon to help everyone stay in touch with each other in between salons.”

“Even after some folks reach some level of success they come back often and say it gives them a friendly home base.”

Real jobs result from NCC hook-ups.

“As a producer who has hired or recommended over a dozen people to work at CBS-TV over the years, including a young Jon Bokenkamp, I know this group to be a huge resource of great talent. I don’t ever need to go elsewhere to find the best people,” Nelson says.

Nelson’s quick to point out he’s not alone in his home state loyalty.

Jeopardy executive producer Harry Friedman is from Omaha and he is famous for hiring Nebraskans on his shows. Many others out here from Neb. recommend Nebraskans first. Why wouldn’t they? It always makes sense to hire people you know, or know where they came from, and Nebraskans are almost universally loved for their work ethic, responsibility under pressure and humble ‘get it done’ spirit.”

Nelson says he’s pleased the NCC, which rated a fall L.A. Times feature article, has made it this far.

“I don’t think if you told me 21 years ago that we’d still be going this strong I would have believed it. In fact, it’s kind of moving into some new levels. For example, with the Nebraska screening at Paramount I was able to reach out to all these folks who’ve been salon guests and they were very excited about it.”

Besides Nelson and Payne, attendees at the screening included Bokenkamp, Chris Klein, actor Nicholas D’Agosto and actress turned-mystery author Harley Jane Kozak.

Celebrating success stories like these is part of the deal. But Nelson says the heart of the NCC “will always be a group focused first on the kid that’s been out here for a week, that drove out in his dad’s car full of stuff, is staying on somebody’s couch and has 500 bucks to his name. I mean, that’s really what we’re here to do and that’s going on every month at the salon – somebody showing up for the first time who’s in that circumstance. That’s the way it works.”

Cinematographer Greg Hadwick showed up like that out of Lincoln, recalls Nelson. “I think he drove all night to make it to the salon.” No sooner did Hadwick arrive then he learned Nelson and his then-very pregnant wife were due to move that weekend and he volunteered to help.

“He was just a trooper,” says Nelson. “He rented a truck and stayed late. He was such an incredibly hard worker. He didn’t ask for any money and he wouldn’t take any. The next salon I told the group what he did and somebody who was looking for an assistant hired Greg based on my recommendation, and that kid has gone on to work his butt off in Hollywood, He just showed up, open, ready to jump in. He’s now started his own production company and brought guys out here from his hometown in Neb., so he’s kind of doing his own giving back.”

Nelson says he can usually spot who has what it takes.

“I’ve seen a lot of those kids who try to make it for awhile who don’t stick. Then there’s the ones that right away I know, Oh, yeah, they’re going to do it. There is a certain confidence, I don’t think you can make it in this town without that confidence. But there’s so much more to it than that. In so many ways it’s about, Do they have something to give? There’s a lot of people that come out here and they think, Well, what can I get out of this? Almost without exception the ones who make it are the ones who want to give back.

“I’ll back these people a hundred percent and help them on their way because that’s what you do here, that’s what it’s about.”

The reciprocity continues. Nelson and Payne attended the dedication of Bokenkamp’s restored World Theatre in his hometown of Kearney. Nelson says,  “It was a great celebration of Jon’s good work.” Nelson also organized a group to attend a screening of Bokenkanp’s documentary about the waning days of drive-in theaters, After Sunset. Bokenkamp returned the favor speaking at the October salon. The home state contingent turned out in force for the Paramount Nebraska screening. And so it goes with the Coast Connection.

“There’s never been a time when it’s felt like a one-way street,” says Nelson. “It always comes back.”

Follow the Coast Connection on Facebook or at http://hollywoodsalon.org/.

Payne, Bokenkamp and Nelson at dedication of the restored World Theatre in Kearney, Neb.

Nebraska Coast Connection Salon Q&A with Alexander Payne: Filmmaker speaks candidly about “Nebraska,” casting, screenwriting and craft

September 24, 2013 6 comments

 I was fortunate enough to be invited to the Sept. 9 monthly Hollywood Salon in Culver City, Calif. sponsored by the Nebraska Coast Connection, a networking group for Nebraskans working in the film and television industry.  I was there to promote my book, Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film, which you can order via thisblog site.  The salon’s special guest that night was Oscar-winning filmmaker Alexander Payne, who spoke candidly about his new film Nebraska, casting, screenwriting and craft in a Q&A moderated by NCC founder Todd Nelson.  The event was held at the classic Culver Hotel, where many film stars stayed back in the day.  This is an edited transcript of part of Payne’s remarks.

 

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Alexander Payne at the Sept. 9 salon

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Todd Nelson interviewing Payne at the Sept. 9 salon

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Some of the crowd at the recent Hollywood Salon featuring Payne

 

Nebraska Coast Connection Salon Q&A with Alexander Payne:

Filmmaker speaks candidly about “Nebraska,” casting, screenwriting and craft

©Compiled by Leo Adam Biga

Excerpt of Alexander Payne in conversation with Nebraska Coast Connection founder Todd Nelson

 

AP: “Hello, good evening, thank you for coming…”

TN: “You have a little movie coming out. A little black and white number you threw together over a weekend or two.”

AP: “No, longer than that. But it’s a small movie. That doesn’t mean it’s not dramatically resonant, but it’s a small movie.”

(Then Payne addressed how the project came to him and the background of how its screenwriter Robert Nelson came to write it.)

AP: “Nine years ago I got a script from Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa, the team that had produced Election. They came to me nine or 10 years ago with a script called Nebraska and it was written by a guy named Bob Nelson out of Snohomish, Wash. but his parents were from Hartington (Neb.). And it was based on his memory of his father’s and mother’s families. He used to spend his summers out there in Hartington in northeast Neb. and he wrote this script based on his memories of those summers and it really rang hilariously true. It was a very austere screenplay. Those producers said they suspected it was going to be small for me, too dinky a film.”

TN: “They thought you might know someone who…”

AP: “Yeah, ‘Do you know a young Neb. filmmaker who might want to do this?’ and I said, ‘No, I think I want to do it.’ They had wanted to make it for like $2 or $3 million, and I said, ‘How about like $10 or $12?’ I showed it not long afterwards to someone in attendance here tonight, John Jackson, my casting director, because I knew that this film would really live or die on his casting. I mean, all films do but even a couple percentage points more this one would because it’s as much anthropological as it is cinematic. And he liked it and thought he wanted to cast it. He said he felt a very personal connection to it through his family, whom he describes as dirt farmers from Iowa. That’s a bit of an exaggeration in a way with respect to the script but still it’s suggestive…

“A lot of the movie was a road trip and I was just finishing Sideways. I didn’t want to followup Sideways with another road trip film. It’s a real drag to shoot in cars and I just couldn’t do another car movie again after Sideways. Now The Descendants ended up having some stuff in cars too but anyway…the timing worked out and right after The Descendants I made it. They were nice enough to wait – the producers and the writer  – and so it happened.”

TN: “It has Bruce Dern and Will Forte. Tell us about bringing them on board.”

AP: “Bruce Dern had first leapt to mind  to play this part. All parts are tricky to cast in general but this one I think for John and me has been the trickiest. You know. I get praised sometimes for getting a certain controlled performance out of Jack Nicholson or that I get stars to create characters, that after 10 or 15 minutes of seeing a big star like George Clooney you can maybe, hopefully, of course it’s my aspiration, forget it’s a big star and just see the character…I  never tailor a screenplay to fit the actor. I always demand the actor come to the script – even if it’s Nicholson or Clooney, who have certain strengths that most directors and screenwriters would wish to exploit.

“Naw, this is a text and it’s a part and yes you’re a star but you’re also an actor, so come to this and make it your own that way. This though I think has been the most specific lead part we’ve ever had to cast. Not anyone could play this guy Woody Grant. I looked back in film history and said, ‘Well, Henry Fonda could have played it like the way he did On Golden Pond, or Walter Brennan, or for you film buffs out there Charley Grapewin,  or possibly John Carradine or possibly Warren Oates had he lived. But all those people are unavailable. After thinking about Bruce Dern, the only other guy who maybe could have done it, Gene Hackman, but I couldn’t get a meeting with Gene Hackman because he genuinely has retired. He won’t even return a phone call or a query. So it just came down to Bruce Dern.

“We did our due diligence and met 50 other guys and any one of them who could have done it would still be a stretch. Like this one could maybe do it but he has trouble learning lines or this one could maybe do it but you’d have to get him to not do this schtick or this one could maybe have done it but it would have taken more work on my part and every actor requires work anyway. Bruce required work but less work than any of those other guys would have required to get it right, so Bruce Dern’s the guy.”

TN: “Will Forte?”

AP: “Never would have thought about him in a billion years but he auditioned well. So I know often in these salons we get actors or casting people and I’m always happy to say that John and I rely on auditions, the old fashioned way. Even actors who are well known I still need them to come in and read the text, with all respect. I mean, even if it’s 10 words, say a few words, help me out, I have a pea brain, I don’t want to screw it up, and I don’t want to screw up and cast you in the wrong part and then it’s not right. We all benefit if we’re able to have a meeting. Well, what else are we going to talk about? Read the fucking script.

“And to good pros, the ones who won’t audition, but they will deign to have a meeting, the good ones will either consciously or unconsciously find the time in the meeting to say, ‘Oh, I loved the moment in your screenplay where he says…’ and he’ll do a little bit of it. That’s the courteous thing to do, that’s the polite thing to do because those actors who won’t even do that don’t get the job in my experience.

“Just about auditioning stuff I remember the actress Judy Greer, a super great old fashioned  in the best way actor. She’s in The Descendants. She plays the lover’s wife. She calls herself an audition-only actress. She won’t take an offer and if there’s a meeting she insists on reading the script because she says it’s only when I read the text in front of the director do I know if I’m right for the part. So the direct line of communication between actor and director is that text. That’s just smart. What the hell else are we doing?

“June Squibb, she played the part of Jack Nicholson’s wife in About Schmidt (and she plays Bruce Dern’s wife in Nebraska)…I didn’t offer her…She didn’t occur to me, she sent in an audition. Even she had to audition. I had no idea she was going to be right for this part. It’s the Geraldine Page part or the Marjorie Main part from Ma and Pa Kettle. Basically Nebraska’s a glorified Ma and Pa Kettle film,” he said, deadpanning and elicting laughs.

(Payne discussed some more actors he’s worked with, why’s he’s particularly proud of the casting he and John Jackson did on Nebraska and how he tried to avoid certain pitfalls that come with mixing professional and nonprofessional actors on screen.)

“Tim Driscoll from Omaha, who had a small part in Citizen Ruth, came back for this one.  And his sister (Delaney Driscoll) had a significant part in Election as Matthew Broderick’s lover.

“Whatever achievements this film Nebraska may or may not have for me it’s greatest achievement is its most significant marriage of professional and nonprofessional actors because to create that world it’s dependent equally on production design and casting. That’s what suggests that world is that flesh. We spent over a year doing it. The start date is here, the visual preproduction is here, the casting has to start here. You can’t fuck up casting, you’ve got to get the right people in every part and of course the leads and the secondary, tertiary parts have to be exactly right. It’s creating a world.

“I looked at a number of small town American films for this one. One of them in particular is an excellent film and it has professional actors but also people cast from that small town. But there’s a great chasm between the acting styles of the two. It’s like the faces of the real people lend what they’re supposed to lend which is authenticity, versmisilitude and all that but they’re not acting properly, even as versions of themselves. So I knew we had to spend time to get local people who could act as vividly as possible as versions of themselves but also to have the professional actors act flatter. They both had to meet in between. I like when professional actors act more flatly like people do in real life. People don’t gesticulate, go into histrionics in real life, not Midwesterners anyway.”

(Nelson and Payne then made a few comments before screening the trailer for Nebraska.)

TN: “It premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May. A wild success I can witness – I was there. I saw a 15 minute standing ovation at the end of the film.”

AP: “Yeah, I’ve seen turkeys get a standing ovation at Cannes. It played better at Telluride.”

(Then, referring to the trailer, Payne said)-

AP: “This is a work in progress print.”

(After the screening someone in the audience commented about the Spanish sounding music, which prompted Payne to describe it as a)-

AP: “More Mexican sounding trumpet piece.”

 

 

FINAL FRONT COVER 6-28-16

YOU CAN READ THE REST IN THE NEW EDITION OF MY BOOK-

Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film

(The new edition encompasses the Oscar-winning filmmaker’s work from the mid-1990s through Nebraska in 2013 and his new film Downsizing releasing in 2017 )

Now available  at Barnes & Noble and other fine booktores nationwide as well as on Amazon and for Kindle. In Nebraska, you can find it at all Barnes & Noble stores, The Bookworm and Our Bookstore in Omaha, Indigo Bridge Books in Lincoln and in select gift shops statewide. You can also order signed copies through the author’s blog leoadambiga.com or via http://www.facebook.com/LeoAdamBiga or by emailing leo32158@cox,net. 

For more information. visit– https://www.facebook.com/pg/AlexanderPayneExpert/about/?ref=page_internal

 

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