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Hot Movie Takes: Three generations of Omaha film directors – Joan Micklin Silver, Alexander Payne, Nik Fackler

September 8, 2017 Leave a comment


Hot Movie Takes: Three generations of Omaha film directors – Joan Micklin Silver, Alexander Payne, Nik Fackler
©by Leo Adam Bga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

Three filmmakers from Omaha who’ve made impressive marks in cinema as writer-directors represent three distinct generations but their work shares a strong humanistic and comedic bent:

Joan Micklin Silver
Alexander Payne
Nik Fackler

You may not know her name or her films, but Joan Micklin Silver is arguably the most important filmmaker to ever come out of Nebraska. Her feature debut “Hester Street” (1975) was something of a phenomenon in its time and it still resonates today because of how it established her in the film industry and helped open doors for other women directors in Hollywood.

Dorothy Arzner was a studio director in the early talkies era and then years went by before another woman filmmaker got the chance to direct. Actress Ida Lupino directed a small but telling batch of features from 1949 through the mid-1950s and became a busy television director. Lupino helmed the original “Twilight Zone’s” classic episode, “The Masks.” The last feature she directed “The Trouble with Angels” was a hit. Her subsequent directing was back in television for a large variety of episodic shows. But it was years before other women followed Lupino as studio directors and Elaine May and Joan Micklin Silver led that fledgling movement. They ushered in an era when more women directors began working in the mainstream: Lee Grant, Penelope Spheeris, Amy Heckerling, Barbra Streisand, Kathryn Bigelow. Hundreds more have followed.

Silver first came to the industry’s attention with her original story about the stateside struggles of wives of American POWs in Vietnam. No studio would let her direct and the story ended up in the hands of old Hollywood hand Mark Robson, who’d made some very successful pictures, and he brought in future director James Bridges to work on the script with her. Silver was not happy with the changes made to the story and though the screenplay bears her and Bridges’ names, she largely disowns the resulting shooting script and the movie Robson made from it, which was released under the title “Limbo” in 1972. However, Robson knew how much she wanted to direct and did something unheard of then: he invited her to be on set to observe the entire shoot and be privy to his interactions with cast, crew, producers, et cetera. She may have also had access to pre- and post-production elements. This experience allowed her an intimate study of how a major feature film production gets made. This, along with the films she’d been keenly watching since falling in love with cinema at the Dundee Theatre in Omaha, was her film school. Only a couple years after “Limbo” Silver was shopping around another script she penned, this one an adaptation of a novella about the Jewish immigrant experience in early 20th century America that was part of her own family’s heritage. The focus was on New York City’s Lower East Side and the travails of a young woman trying to reconcile the ways of the Old Country with the new ways of America. Jake has come ahead to America and sends for his wife, Gitl, and their son. Gitl is little more than chattel to Jake and she finds herself stifled by social, cultural, economic pressures. Much to Jake’s surprise, she rebels. Silver titled the story “Hester Street” and again no studio wanted her to direct and she was not interested in giving control of her script to another filmmaker. To be fair to the studios, on the surface the project did have a lot going against it. For starters, it was a heavily ethnic period piece that Silver saw as a black and white film. Indefensibly though, while Hollywood by that time was giving all sorts of untested new directors opportunities to direct, it wasn’t affording the same opportunities to women.

Silver and her late husband Raphael Silver, who was in real estate then, raised the money themselves and made the film independently. Her beautifully evocative, detailed work looked like it cost ten times her minuscule budget. She and Raphael shopped the finished film around and, you guessed it, still no takers. That’s when the couple released it themselves by road showing the film at individual theaters with whom they directly negotiated terms. And then a funny thing happened. “Hester Street” started catching on and as word of mouth grew, bookings picked up, not just in Eastern art cinemas but coast to coast in both art and select commercial theaters. Before they knew it, the Silvers had a not so minor hit on their hands considering the less than half a million dollars it took to make it. National critics warmly reviewed the picture. The story’s feminist themes in combination with the film having been written and directed by a woman made it and Silver darlings of the Women’s Liberation Movement. The film even got the attention of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, as the film’s then unknown female lead, Carol Kane, earned a Best Actress nomination.

Years later “Hester Street” was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the United States Library of Congress as a “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” work. In designating the film for inclusion, the Library of Congress noted historians have praised the film’s “accuracy of detail and sensitivity to the challenges immigrants faced during their acculturation process in its portrait of Eastern European Jewish life in America.”

Silver is now writing a book about the making of “Hester Street,” which is also being adapted into a stage musical the adapters hope to bring to Broadway. A biography of Silver is also in the works.

The success of “Hester Street” allowed Silver to make a number of feature films over the next decade and a half, some with studios and some independently, including “Between the Lines,” “Chilly Scenes of Winter,” “Crossing Delancey” and “Loverboy” as well as some notable made for TV movies such as “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” and “Finnegan Begin Again.” These films show her deft touch with romantic comedies. I’ve always thought of her work as on par with that of the great Ernest Lubitsch in its sophisticated handling of male-female relationships and entanglements.

I recently saw “Finnegan Begin Again” for the first time and now I see what all the fuss was about for this 1985 HBO movie starring Mary Tyler Moore, Robert Preston, Sam Waterston and Silvia Sydney. It’s a thoroughly delightful, mature and surprising dramedy that features perhaps the two best screen performances by Moore and Preston, which is saying a lot. Waterston goes against type here and is outstanding. Sidney never lost her acting chops and even here, in her mid-70s, she’s very full in her performance. A very young Giancarlo Espositio has a small but showy part. Watch for my separate Hot Movie Takes post about the movie.

During the 1990s and on through 2003, Silver directed several more feature and television movies, “Big Girls Don’t Cry, They Get Even,” “A Private Matter” and “In the Presence of Mine Enemies” among them. The tlater two made for cable movies are straight dramas, which she also handled with a sure touch. I just saw “A Private Matter” for the first time and it is a searing true-life tale about a young American married couple with kids who become the center of the thalidomide scandal and tragedy. Sissy Spacek and Aidan Quinn portray Sherri and Bob Finkbine, who discover that the fetus Sherri is carrying will likely be born severely deformed due to the effects of the then widely prescribed drug thalidomide. When their intent to terminate the pregnancy goes public, it sets off a firestorm of controversy that nearly destroys them. In the midst of the medical deliberations, legal wrangling and media stalkings, the couple learn how widespread abortions are and how secret they’re kept. Silver brilliantly contrasts sunny, placid 1960s suburban family life with the dark underside of hypocrisy, greed, fear and hate that surface when issues of morality get inflamed. In this case and cases like it, what should be a private matter becomes a public controversy and the people involved are persecuted for following their own conscience. Spacek delivers a great performance as Sherri and I don’t think Quinn has ever been better as Bob. Estelle Parsons is excellent as Sherri’s mother. William H. Macy has a small but effective turn as a psychiatrist.

More recently, Silver had been working on some documentary projects that never came to fruition. And then her longtime life and professional partner, Raphael, died. Now in her early 80s, she’s seemingly more focused on archiving her work and sharing her experiences as a woman trying to shatter the American film industry’s glass ceiling.

Her maverick ways and superb films are highly regarded and yet she remains almost unknown in her own hometown, which both saddens and baffles me. The lack of recognition for her here is a real shame, too, because she’s one of the great creatives this place has ever produced and her exquisite films stand the test of time. I believe Alexander Payne, who is her junior by some 26 years, is one of the great American filmmakers to have emerged in the last half-century and I regard the best of Silver’s films on a par with his. And yet her name and work are not nearly as well known, which reminds us that even after all this time women filmmakers are still not accorded the same respect as their male counterparts. Even in their shared hometown, Payne is celebrated but not Silver. I’d like to do something to change that.

When Silver was eying a career in film starting in the late 1960s-early 1970s, the old studio contract system was dismantled and the New Hollywood hot shots from television and film schools were all the rage. Even guys who’d never directed anything were getting their shot at studio features. Women were still left out of the equation but for the rare exception like Silver, and even then it took her battering on the walls before she was reluctantly let in to that privileged Old Boys Network. Her path to breaking in was to learn her writing and directing chops in theater and television. It was her ability to write that got her a seat at the table if not at the head of the table. She had to make her own way the hard way. She’s lived long enough to see progress, if not enough yet, for women directors to now be almost commonplace.

Alexander Payne’s cinephile development came right in the middle of the New Hollywood revolution and his entrance into the industry happened right on the wave of the indie film explosion. But like Silver before him, there was no visible Hollywood presence around him when he was coming of age here as a cineaste. No one was making anything like grade A feature films locally. The industry was remote and disconnected from places like Nebraska. His entry into the industry was his student thesis film. But it wasn’t until he wrote “Citizen Ruth” and got financing for it that he arrived.

Dan Mirvish is another Omahan from the same generation as Payne whose directorial efforts bear discussion. He’s actually been the most ingenious in pulling projects together and getting them seen. None of his films have yet crossed over in the way that Silver’s, Payne’s and Fackler’s have, but he and his work are never less than interesting. He, too, is a writer-director.

A generation later, Nik Fackler came of age when the new crop of filmmakers were coming from film schools as well as the worlds of commercials and music videos. But just as Silver and Payne used their writing talents to get their feet in the door and their first films made, so did Fackler. His script for “Lovely, Still” was good enough to attract a pair of Oscar-winning legends in Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn. He directed those Actors Studio stalwarts when he was in his early 20s. He was much younger than Payne and Silver were when they directed their first films but he had the advantage of having directed several short films and music videos as his film education. He also had the advantage of having seen a fellow Omaha native in Payne enjoy breakout success. But where Payne and Silver followed up their debut feature films with more projects that further propelled their careers, Fackler did not, It’s been nearly a decade since “Lovely, Still” and many of us are eager to see if Fackler can recapture the magic he found so early.

I find it interesting that Fackler, Payne and Silver all tackled tough subjects for their first features:
Alzheimer’s in Fackler’s “Lovely, Still”
Abortion in Payne’s “Citizen Ruth”
Jewish immigrant experience in “Hester Street”

Whereas Payne and Fackler have made most of their films in Nebraska, Silver, despite a desire to do so, has never shot here. There’s still time.

These three are not the only Nebraskans who’ve done meritorious work as directors, but they are in many ways the most emblematic of their times.

Wouldn’t it be fun to get Silver, Payne and Fackler on the same panel to discuss their adventures in filmmaking? I think so.

Meanwhile. a special screening of “Lovely, Still” in memory of Martin Landau is happening at Film Streams on Thursday, Oct. 12. Payne’s “Downsizing” is playing festivals in advance of its Dec. 22 national release. And Silver’s films can be found via different platforms, though a retrospective of her work here is long overdue.

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Hot Movie Takes Friday – Indie Film: UPDATED-EXPANDED

March 24, 2017 Leave a comment

Hot Movie Takes Friday

Indie Film

UPDATED-EXPANDED

©by Leo Adam Biga

Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

 

There’s a common misconception that indie films are something that only came into being in the last half-century when in fact indie filmmaking has been around in one form or another since the dawn of movies.

Several Nebraskans have demonstrated the indie spirit at the highest levels of cinema.

The very people who invented the motion picture industry were, by definition, independents. Granted, most of them were not filmmakers, but these maverick entrepreneurs took great personal risk to put their faith and money in a new medium. They were visionaries who saw the future and the artists working for them perfected a moving image film language that proved addictive. The original Hollywood czars and moguls were the greatest pop culture pushers who ever lived. Under their reign, the narrative motion picture was invented and it’s hooked every generation that’s followed. The Hollywood studio system became the model and center of film production. The genres that define the Hollywood movie, then and now, came out of that system and one of the great moguls of the Golden Age, Nebraska native Darryl F. Zanuck, was as responsible as anyone for shaping what the movies became by the projects he greenlighted and the ones he deep-sixed. The tastes and temperaments of these autocrats got reflected in the pictures their studios made but the best of these kingpins made exceptions to their rules and largely left the great filmmakers alone, which is to say they didn’t interfere with their work. If they did, the filmmakers by and large wouldn’t stand for it. After raising hell, the filmmakers usually got their way.

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Zanuck made his bones in Hollywood but as the old studio system with its longterm contracts and consolidated power began to wane and a more open system emerged, even Zanuck became an independent producer.

The fat-cat dream-making factories are from the whole Hollywood story. From the time the major studios came into existence to all the shakeups and permutations that have followed right on through today, small independent studios, production companies and indie filmmakers have variously worked alongside, for and in competition with the established studios.

Among the first titans of the fledgling American cinema were independent-minded artists such as D.W. Griffith, Charles Chaplin and Douglas Faribanks, who eventually formed their own studio, United Artists. Within the studio system itself, figures like Griffith, Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Cecil B. De Mille, Frank Capra and John Ford were virtually unassailable figures who fought for and gained as near to total creative control as filmmakers have ever enjoyed. Those and others like Howard Hawks, William Wyler and Alfred Hitchcock pretty much got to do whatever they wanted on their A pictures. Then there were the B movie masters who could often get away with even more creatively and dramatically speaking than their A picture counterparts because of the smaller budgets and loosened controls on their projects. That’s why post-World War II filmmakers like Sam Fuller, Joseph E. Lewis, Nicholas Ray, Budd Boetticher and Phil Carlson could inject their films with all sorts of provocative material amidst the conventions of genre pictures and thereby effectively circumvent the production code.

Maverick indie producers such as David O. Selznick, Sam Spiegel and Joseph E. Levine packaged together projects of distinction that the studios wouldn’t or couldn’t initiate themselves. Several actors teamed with producers and agents to form production companies that made projects outside the strictures of Hollywood. Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster were among the biggest name actors to follow this trend. Eventually, it became more and more common for actors to take on producing, even directing chores for select personal projects, to where if not the norm it certainly doesn’t take anyone by surprise anymore.

A Nebraskan by the name of Lynn Stalmaster put aside his acting career to become a casting direct when he saw an opportunity in the changing dynamics of Hollywood. Casting used to be a function within the old studio system. As the studios’ contracted employee rosters began to shrink and as television became a huge new production center, Stalmaster saw the future and an opportunity. He knew just as films needed someone to guide the casting, the explosion of dramatic television shows needed casting expertise as well and so he practically invented the independent casting director. He formed his own agency and pretty much had the new field to himself through the 1950s, when he mostly did TV, on through the ’60s, ’70s’ and even the ’80s, when more of his work was in features. He became the go-to casting director for many of top filmmakers, even for some indie artists. His pioneering role and his work casting countless TV shows, made for TV movies and feature films, including many then unknowns who became stars, earned him a well deserved honorary Oscar at the 2017 Academy Awards – the first Oscar awarded for casting.

 

Lynn Stalmaster

Lynn Stalmaster

Photo By Lance Dawes, Courtesy of AMPAS

 

In the ’50 and ’60s Stanley Kubrick pushed artistic freedom and daring thematic content to new limits as an independent commercial filmmaker tied to a studio. Roger Corman staked out ground as an indie producer-director whose low budget exploitation picks gave many film actors and filmmakers their start in the industry. In the ’70s Woody Allen got an unprecedented lifetime deal from two producers who gave him carte blanche to make his introspective comedies.

John Cassavetes helped usher in the indie filmmaker we identify today with his idiosyncratic takes on relationships that made his movies stand out from Hollywood fare.

Perhaps the purest form of indie filmmaking is the work done by underground and experimental filmmakers who have been around since cinema’s start. Of course, at the very start of motion pictures, all filmmkaers were by definition experimental because the medium was in the process of being invented and codified. Once film got established as a thing and eventually as a commerical industry, people far outside or on the fringes of that industry, many of them artists in other disciplines, boldly pushed cinema in new aesthetic and technical directions. The work of most of these filmmakers then or now doesn’t find a large audience but does make its way into art houses and festivals and is sometimes very influential across a wide spectrum of artists and filmmakers seeking new ways of seeing and doing things.  A few of these experimenters do find some relative mass exposure. Andy Warhol was an example. A more recent example is Godfrey Reggio, whose visionary documentary trilogy “Koyaanisqatsi,” “Powaqqatsi” and “Naqoyqatsi” have found receptive audiences the world over. Other filmmakers, like David Lynch and Jim McBride, have crossed over into more mainstream filmmaking without ever quite leaving behind their experimental or underground roots.

Nebraska native Harold “Doc” Edgerton made history for innovations he developed with the high speed camera, the multiflash, the stroboscope, nighttime photography, shadow photography and time lapse photography and other techniques for capturing images in new ways or acquiring images never before captured on film. He was an engineer and educator who combined science with art to create an entire new niche with his work.

Filmmakers like Philip Kaufman, Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese and many others found their distinctive voices as indie artists. Their early work represented formal and informal atttempts at discovering who they are as

Several filmmakers made breakthroughs into mainstream filmmaking on the success of indie projects, including George Romero, Jonathan Kaplan, Jonathan Demme, Omaha’s own Joan Micklin Silver, Spike Lee and Quentin Taratino.

If you don’t know the name of Joan Micklin Silver, you should. She mentored under veteran studio director Mark Robson on a picture (“Limbo”) he made of her screenplay about the wives of American airmen held in Vietnamese prisoner of war camps. Joan, a Central High graduate whose family owned Micklin Lumber, then wrote an original screenplay about the life of Jewish immigrants on New York’s Lower East Side in the early 20th century. She called it “Hester Street” and she shopped it around to all the studios in Hollywood as a property she would direct herself. They all rejected the project and her stipulation that she direct. Every studio had its reasons. The material was too ethnic, too obscure, it contained no action, it had no sex. Oh, and she insisted on making it in black and white,which is always a handy excuse to pass on a script. What the studios really objected to though was investing in a woman who would be making her feature film directing debut. Too risky.  As late as the late 1970s and through much of the 1980s there were only a handful of American women directing feature and made for TV movies. It was a position they were not entrusted with or encouraged to pursue. Women had a long track record as writers, editors, art directors,  wardrobe and makeup artists but outside of some late silent and early sound directors and then Ida Lapino in the ’50s. women were essentially shut out of directing. That’s what Joan faced but she wasn’t going to let it stop her.

 

Joan Micklin Silver

 

Long story short, Joan and her late husband Raphael financed the film’s production and post themselves and made an evocative period piece that they then tried to get a studio to pick up, but to no avail. That’s when the couple distributed the picture on their own and to their delight and the industry’s surprise the little movie found an audience theater by theater, city by city, until it became one of the big indie hits of that era. The film’s then-unknown lead, Carol Kane, was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actress. The film’s success helped Joan get her next few projects made (“Between the Lines,” “Chilly Scenes of Winter”) and she went on to make some popular movies, including “Loverboy,” and a companion piece to “Hester Street” called “Crossing Delancey” that updated the story of Jewish life on the Lower East Side to the late 20th century. Joan later went on to direct several made for cable films. But “Hester Street” will always remain her legacy because it helped women break the glass ceiling in Hollywood in directing. Its historic place in the annals of cinema is recognized by its inclusion in the U.S. Library of Congress collection. She’s now penning a book about the making of that landmark film. It’s important she document this herself, as only she knows the real story of what obstacles she had to contend with to get the film made and seen. She and Raphael persisted against all odds and their efforts not only paid off for them but in the doors it opened for women to work behind the camera.

The lines between true independent filmmakers and studio-bound filmmakers have increasingly blurred. Another Omahan, Alexander Payne, is one of the leaders of the Indiewood movement that encompasses most of the best filmmakers in America. Payne and his peers maintain strict creative control in developing, shooting and editing their films but depend on Hollywood financing to get them made and distributed. In this sense, Payne and Co. are really no different than those old Hollywood masters, only filmmakers in the past were studio contracted employees whereas contemporary filmmakers are decidedly not. But don’t assume that just because a filmmaker was under contract he or she had less freedom than today’s filmmakers. Believe me, nobody told Capra, Ford, Hitchcock, Wyler, or for that matter Huston of Kazan, what to do. They called the shots. And if you were a producer or executive who tried to impose things on them, you’d invariably lose the fight. Most of the really good filmmakers then and now stand so fiercely behind their convictions that few even dare to challenge them.

But also don’t assume that just because an indie filmmaker works outside the big studios he or she gets everything they want. The indies ultimately answer to somebody. There’s always a monied interest who can, if push comes to shove, force compromise or even take the picture out of the filmmaker’s hands. Almost by definition indie artists work on low budgets and the persons controlling those budgets can be real cheapskates who favor efficiency over aesthetics.

 

  • Director Alexander Payne grew up in Nebraska.
©Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

 

Payne is the rarest of the rare among contemporary American filmmakers in developing a body of work with a true auteurist sensibility that doesn’t pander to formulaic conventions or pat endings. His comedies play like dramas and they’re resolutely based in intimate human relationships between rather mundane people in very ordinary settings. Payne avoids all the trappings of Hollywood gloss but still makes his movies engaging, entertaining and enduring. Just think of the protagonists and plotlines of his movies and it’s a wonder he’s gotten any of them made:

Citizen Ruth–When a paint sealer inhalant addict with a penchant for having kids she can’t take care of gets pregnant again, she becomes the unlikely and unwilling pivot figure in the abortion debate.

Election–A frustrated high school teacher develops such a hate complex for a scheming student prepared to do anything to get ahead that he rigs a student election against her.

About Schmidt–Hen-pecked Warren Schmidt no sooner retires from the job that defined him than his wife dies and he discovers she cheated on him with his best friend. He hits the road to find himself. Suppressed feelings of anger, regret and loneliness surface in the most unexpected moments.

Sideways–A philandering groom to be and a loser teacher who’s a failed writer go on a wine country spree that turns disaster. Cheating Jack gets the scare of his life. Depressed Miles learns he can find love again.

The Descendants–As Matt King deals with the burden of a historic land trust whose future is in his hands, he learns from his oldest daughter that his comatose wife cheated on him. With his two girls in tow, Matt goes in search of answers and revenge and instead rediscovers his family.

Nebraska–An addled father bound and determined to collect a phantom sweepstakes prize revisits his painful past on a road trip his son David takes him on.

Downsizing–With planet Earth in peril, a means to miniaturize humans is found and Paul takes the leap into this new world only to find it’s no panacea or paradise.

Payne has the cache to make the films he wants to make and he responsibly delivers what he promises. His films are not huge box office hits but they generally recoup their costs and then some and garner prestige for their studios in the way of critical acclaim and award nominations. Payne has yet to stumble through six completed films. Even though “Downsizing” represents new territory for him as a sci-fi visual effects movie set in diverse locales and dealing with global issues, it’s still about relationships and the only question to be answered is how well Payne combines the scale with the intimacy.

Then there are filmmakers given the keys to the kingdom who, through a combination of their own egomania and studio neglect, bring near ruin to their projects and studios. I’m thinking of Orson Welles on “The Magnificent Ambersons,” Francis Ford Coppola on “One from the Heart”, Michael Cimino on “Heaven’s Gate,” Elaine May on “Ishtar” and Kevin Costner on “Thw Postman” and “Waterworld.” For all his maverick genius, Welles left behind several unfinished projects because he was persona non grata in Hollywood, where he was considered too great a risk, and thus he cobbled together financing in a haphazard on the fly manner that also caused him to interrupt the filming and sometimes move the principal location from one site to another, over a period of time, and then try to match the visual and audio components. Ironically, the last studio picture he directed, “Touch of Evil,” came in on budget and on time but Universal didn’t understand or opposed how he wanted it cut and they took it out of his hands. At that point in his career, he was a hired gun only given the job of helming the picture at the insistence of star Charlton Heston and so Welles didn’t enjoy anything like the final cut privileges he held on “Citizen Kane” at the beginning of his career.

Other mavericks had their work compromised and sometimes taken from them. Sam Peckinpah fought a lot of battles. He won some but he ended up losing more and by the end his own demons more than studio interference did him in.

The lesson here is that being an independent isn’t always a bed of roses.

Then again, every now and then a filmmaker comes out of nowhere to do something special. Keeping it local, another Omahan did that very thing when a script he originally wrote as a teenager eventually ended up in the hands of two Oscar-winning actors who both agreed to star in his directorial debut. The filmmaker is Nik Fackler, the actors are Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn and the film is “Lovely, Still.” It’s a good film. It didn’t do much business however and Fackler’s follow up film,” Sick Birds Die Easy,” though interesting, made even less traction. His film career is pretty much in limbo after he walked away from the medium to pursue his music. The word is he’s back focusing on film again.

 

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Other contemporary Nebraskans making splashes with their independent feature work include actor John Beasley, actress Yolonda Ross and writer-directors Dan Mirvish, Patrick Coyle, Charles Hood and James E. Duff.

These folks do really good work and once in a while magic happens, as with the Robert Duvall film “The Apostle” that Beasley co-starred in. It went on to be an indie hit and received great critical acclaim and major award recognition. Beasley is now producing a well-budgeted indie pic about fellow Omahan Marlin Briscoe. Omahan Timothy Christian is financing and producing indie pics with name stars through his own Night Fox Entertainment company. Most of the films these individuals make don’t achieve the kind of notoriety “The Apostle” did but that doesn’t mean the work isn’t good. For example, Ross co-starred in a film, “Go for Sisters,” by that great indie writer-director John Sayles and I’m sure very few of you reading this have heard of it and even fewer have seen it but it’s a really good film. Hood’s comedy “Night Owls” stands right up there with Payne’s early films. Same for Duff’s “Hank and Asha.”

Indie feature filmmaking on any budget isn’t for the faint of heart or easily dissuaded. It takes guts and smarts and lucky breaks. The financial rewards can be small and the recognition scant. But it’s all about a passion for the work and for telling stories that engage people.

Nebraska’s own Lynn Stalmaster gets long overdue Oscar

February 27, 2017 Leave a comment

Nebraska’s own Lynn Stalmaster gets long overdue Oscar

©by Leo Adam Biga

Author of Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film

 

If you’re like most Nebraskans who watched the Academy Awards last night, you’re probably unaware that one of the receipients of an Honorary Oscar is one of our own – Omaha native Lynn Stalmaster. Stalmaster made history last night as the first casting director so honored by the Academy. That it should have ben Stalmaster is appropriate since, as the attached IndieWire article explains, he basically helped invent the role of the independent casting agent at the very moment the old Hollywood studio system was beginning to dismantle and the rise of independent production companies came to the fore. Casting in old Hollywood was done internally within the studio apparatus or factory system. Stalmaster, who was an actor himself, saw the need and opportunity for a casting expert to help producers and directors identity, audition and assemble casts for their projects. He became the king of casting in Hollywood, for both television and film, from the early 1950s through the 1990s. He discovered many actors who went on to become stars and he cast countless landmark shows and films by legendary directors. Many actors went on to be nominated for Emmys or Oscars, some even winning these awards, for their performances in the roles he cast them in.

 

 

From Omaha World-Herald and the Hollywood Reporter:
He was born in Omaha in 1927 to Nebraska District Judge Irvin A. and Estelle Lapidus Stalmaster, and he attended Dundee Elementary School. His father’s made his early career as an assistant state and Douglas County attorney before serving on the Nebraska Supreme Court. The family moved to California in 1938, when Lynn was 12. A self-described “shy child”, he came “out of his shell” during high school and college via acting. He enjoyed a good measure of success as a professional actor, though one day while working as an assistant to a group of producers, including fellow Omahan Phillip Krasne, he was asked to cast some shows. Soon, he was looking for cowboys for the television western, “Gunsmoke.”

 

Lynn Stalmaster

Lynn Stalmaster

 

He cast more than 400 productions during almost 50 years in the industry and is credited with identifying the talent and jumpstarting the careers of John Travolta, William Shatner, Jon Voight and Richard Dreyfuss, among many others. He even earned the nickname “Master Caster.”

“Before Lynn, no one really knew who John was,” Travolta’s manager, Bob LeMond said

The rest, as they say, is history. For many, Stalmaster’s career seems glamorous and powerful; being able to create true stars; but he has said he doesn’t see it that way. “I don’t think of what I had as power. Decisions were made jointly with the director and producer. I wanted to help make the best possible film and hire the best possible actors. I had a responsibility not just to my clients, but to the actors as well.” Once asked how it feels to now be the dean of his profession, he laughed it off, “I’ve just been around the longest!”

Link here to a great IndieWire article detailing what made Lynn Stalmaster such a seminal figure in his field–

http://www.indiewire.com/2016/11/honary-oscar-lynn-stalmaster-casting-directors-1201744901/

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Interestingly, another local, John Jackson, who’s from Council Bluffs but often works in Omaha, is an actor turned casting director having great success in the business. John is fellow local Alexander Payne’s casting director. Payne, like other directors, wiil tell you that casting is perhaps THE single most important aspect in making a successful film. You have to have a good script, of course, but if you don’t have the right cast it won’t be as good as it could be and it might very well fail.

Cheers to Lynn Stalmaster for showing the way and for John Jackson in following in his footsteps, two of hundreds of locals who have made and continue making significant contributions to the screen world.

“The Graduate”

Courtesy of AMPAS

 

The following is a selected list of Lynn’s staggering credits from his IMDB. You’ll likely be familiar with dozens of the projects he worked on, but pay particular attention to the features he cast in from the 1960s through the 1980s, as he worked on many of the finest films of those decades:

2006 A Lobster Tale
2000 Battlefield Earth
1996 No Easy Way
1996 To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday
1996 Crime of the Century (TV Movie)
1996 Carpool
1995 Fluke
1994 Squanto: A Warrior’s Tale
1994 Chicago Hope (TV Series)
1994 Blue Sky
1994 There Goes My Baby
1994 Clifford
1994 Intersection
1993 The Program
1993 Guilty as Sin
1992 Double Jeopardy (TV Movie)
1992 Stay Tuned
1992 Folks!
1991 For the Boys
1991 Frankie and Johnny
1991 The Doctor
1991 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze
1990 The Bonfire of the Vanities
1990/I Havana
1990 Taking Care of Business
1990 Voices Within: The Lives of Truddi Chase (TV Movie)
1990 Crazy People
1989 Incident at Dark River (TV Movie)
1989 Welcome Home
1989 Casualties of War
1989 A Sinful Life
1989 See No Evil, Hear No Evil
1989 Margaret Bourke-White (TV Movie)
1989 Dead Bang
1989 Get Smart, Again! (TV Movie)
1989 Weekend at Bernie’s
1989 Physical Evidence
1989 Winter People
1988 The Jeweller’s Shop
1988 Split Decisions
1988 Murphy’s Law (TV Series)
1988 Lady in White
1988 Switching Channels
1987 Buck James (TV Series)
1987 Real Men
1987 Big Shots
1987 You Can’t Take It with You (TV Series)
1987 Dragnet
1987 Amazing Grace and Chuck
1987 The Fourth Protocol
1987 American Harvest (TV Movie)
1986 Sword of Gideon (TV Movie)
1986 The Wizard (TV Series)
1986 8 Million Ways to Die
1986 9½ Weeks
1986 The Best of Times
1985 The Eagle and the Bear (TV Movie)
1985 Santa Claus: The Movie
1985 Love, Mary (TV Movie)
1985 Murder: By Reason of Insanity (TV Movie)
1985 Marie
1985 The Other Lover (TV Movie)
1985 Creator
1985 George Burns Comedy Week (TV Series)
1985 Jagged Edge
1985 Joshua Then and Now
1985 Space (TV Mini-Series) 1985 Hollywood Wives (TV Mini-Series)
1985 Robert Kennedy and His Times (TV Mini-Series)
1984 The River
1984 After MASH (TV Series)
1984 The Glitter Dome (TV Movie)
1984 Songwriter
1984 Supergirl
1984 High School U.S.A. (TV Movie)
1984 Ernie Kovacs: Between the Laughter (TV Movie)
1984 Her Life as a Man (TV Movie)
1984 Harry & Son
1984 The Parade (TV Movie)
1984 Unfaithfully Yours
1984 The Lonely Guy
1984 The Master (TV Series)
1984 Something About Amelia (TV Movie)
1983 Uncommon Valor
1983 Princess Daisy (TV Movie)
1983 Rita Hayworth: The Love Goddess (TV Movie)
1983 The Right Stuff
1983 Brainstorm
1983 Hotel (TV Series)
1983 Class
1983 The Thorn Birds (TV Mini-Series)
1983 Deadly Lessons (TV Movie)
1983 Starflight: The Plane That Couldn’t Land (TV Movie)
1983 Love Is Forever (TV Movie)
1983 Invitation to the Wedding
1982 Tootsie
1982 First Blood
1982 Lookin’ to Get Out
1982 Split Image
1982 Mother Lode (uncredited)
1982 The Executioner’s Song (TV Movie)
1982 Young Doctors in Love
1982 Hanky Panky
1979-1982 Hart to Hart (TV Series)
1982 Mae West (TV Movie)
1982 American Playhouse (TV Series)
1982 Some Kind of Hero
1982 T.J. Hooker (TV Series) 1982 Making Love
1982 Prime Suspect (TV Movie)
1982 Marian Rose White (TV Movie)
1981 Modern Problems
1981 Looker
1981 Splendor in the Grass (TV Movie)
1981 Dark Night of the Scarecrow (TV Movie)
1981 Callie & Son (TV Movie)
1981 Mommie Dearest
1981 Blow Out
1981 Second-Hand Hearts
1981 Caveman
1981 Cheaper to Keep Her
1981 On the Right Track
1981 Crisis at Central High (TV Movie)
1981 A Whale for the Killing (TV Movie)
1980 Stir Crazy
1980 Superman II
1980 A Change of Seasons
1980 Enola Gay: The Men, the Mission, the Atomic Bomb (TV Movie)
1980 The Last Song (TV Movie)
1980 Foolin’ Around
1980 The Women’s Room (TV Movie)
1980 Loving Couples
1980 The Shadow Box (TV Movie)
1977-1980 Family (TV Series)
1980 Wholly Moses!
1980 When the Whistle Blows (TV Series)
1980 The Mountain Men
1980 Amber Waves (TV Movie)
1980 The Black Marble
1980 Seizure: The Story of Kathy Morris (TV Movie)
1980 Ike: The War Years (TV Movie)
1979 Being There
1979 Letters from Frank (TV Movie)
1979 The Rose
1979 Promises in the Dark
1979 The Two Worlds of Jennie Logan (TV Movie)
1979 Flesh & Blood (TV Movie)
1979 10
1979 The Last Word
1979 The Onion Field
1979 North Dallas Forty
1979 Nightwing
1979 Goldengirl
1979 Prophecy
1979 The MacKenzies of Paradise Cove (TV Series)
1979 Ashanti
1979 Fast Break
1979 Ike: The War Years (TV Mini-Series)
1979 The French Atlantic Affair (TV Mini-Series)
1978 Ishi: The Last of His Tribe (TV Movie)
1978 Superman
1978 And I Alone Survived (TV Movie)
1978 A Question of Love (TV Movie)
1978 Like Mom, Like Me (TV Movie)
1978 The Users (TV Movie)
1978 Foul Play
1978 Matilda
1978 Go Tell the Spartans
1978 Convoy
1978 Damien: Omen II
1978 Murder at the Mardi Gras (TV Movie)
1978 Stickin’ Together (TV Movie)
1978 Cindy (TV Movie)
1978 Gray Lady Down
1978 The Fury
1978 Ski Lift to Death (TV Movie)
1978 Coming Home
1978 The Betsy
1978 Fantasy Island (TV Series)
1978 The Defection of Simas Kudirka (TV Movie)
1978 How Sweet It Is!
1977 Having Babies II (TV Movie)
1977 The Night They Took Miss Beautiful (TV Movie)
1977 Young Dan’l Boone (TV Series) (
1977 You Light Up My Life
1977 New York, New York
1977 The Other Side of Midnight
1977 Good Against Evil (TV Movie)
1977 Alexander: The Other Side of Dawn (TV Movie)
1977 Nashville 99 (TV Series)
1977 Audrey Rose
1977 Black Sunday
1977 Brothers
1977 Westside Medical (TV Series)
1977 SST: Death Flight (TV Movie)
1977 Secrets (TV Movie)
1977 Fun with Dick and Jane
1977 Roots (TV Mini-Series)
1976 The Secret Life of John Chapman (TV Movie)
1976 Nickelodeon
1976 Victory at Entebbe (TV Movie)
1976 Bound for Glory
1976 Silver Streak
1976 I Want to Keep My Baby! (TV Movie)
1976 21 Hours at Munich (TV Movie)
1976 Having Babies (TV Movie)
1976 Mr. T and Tina (TV Series)
1976 The Big Bus
1976 Harry and Walter Go to New York
1976 Second Wind
1976 Farewell to Manzanar (TV Movie)
1976 James Dean (TV Movie)
1976 The Entertainer (TV Movie)
1976 Three’s Company (TV Series)
1975 The Cop and the Kid (TV Series)
1975 The Legend of Valentino (TV Movie)
1975 Beyond the Bermuda Triangle (TV Movie)
1975 Katherine (TV Movie)
1975 The Master Gunfighter
1975 Welcome Back, Kotter (TV Series)
1975 Rollerball
1975 Cornbread, Earl and Me
1975 Mandingo
1975 The Hiding Place
1975 The Wild Party
1975 Hustling (TV Movie)
1975 A Shadow in the Streets (TV Movie)
1974 Punch and Jody (TV Movie)
1974 All the Kind Strangers (TV Movie)
1974 The Crazy World of Julius Vrooder
1974 The Great Niagara (TV Movie)
1974 Kodiak (TV Series)
1974 Hurricane (TV Movie) (as Lyn Stalmaster)
1974 The Dove
1974 The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz
1974 The Family Kovack (TV Movie)
1974 Conrack
1974 Billy Two Hats
1974 Rhinoceros
1973 Cinderella Liberty
1973 Sleeper
1973 The Last Detail
1973 A Summer Without Boys (TV Movie)
1973 The Iceman Cometh
1973 The Girl Most Likely to… (TV Movie)
1973 Jonathan Livingston Seagull
1973 The Third Girl from the Left (TV Movie)
1973 Isn’t It Shocking? (TV Movie)
1973 Scorpio
1973 Class of ’63 (TV Movie)
1973 Lolly-Madonna XXX
1973 Firehouse (TV Movie)
1972 The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean
1972 The Mechanic
1972 Footsteps (TV Movie)
1972 Hickey & Boggs
1972 The New Centurions
1972 Junior Bonner
1972 The Magnificent Seven Ride!
1972 Deliverance
1972 The Wrath of God
1972 Jeremiah Johnson
1972 Pocket Money
1972 The Sixth Sense (TV Series)
1972 The Cowboys
1971 Harold and Maude
1971 If Tomorrow Comes (TV Movie)
1971 Honky
1971 The Resurrection of Zachary Wheeler
1971 Fiddler on the Roof
1971 The Organization
1971 Sweet, Sweet Rachel (TV Movie)
1971 Le Mans
1971 The Grissom Gang
1971 Bearcats! (TV Series)
1971 Valdez Is Coming
1971 Lawman
1971 The Sporting Club
1970 Monte Walsh
1970 Cannon for Cordoba
1970 They Call Me Mister Tibbs!
1970 The Hawaiians
1970 The Landlord
1970 Too Late the Hero
1970 Halls of Anger
1968-1970 Death Valley Days (TV Series)
– The World’s Greatest Swimming Horse (1968) … (casting)
1969 The Reivers
1969 Gaily, Gaily
1969 They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
1969 Viva Max
1969 Castle Keep
1969 What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice?
1969 The Bridge at Remagen
1969 The April Fools
1969 Guns of the Magnificent Seven
1969 If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium
1968 The Stalking Moon
1968 The Killing of Sister George
1968 How Sweet It Is!
1968 The Thomas Crown Affair
1968 Yours, Mine and Ours
1968 The Scalphunters
1966-1968 The Rat Patrol (TV Series)
1967 Fitzwilly
1967 Clambake
1967 Hour of the Gun
1967 Dundee and the Culhane (TV Series)
1967 In the Heat of the Night
1966-1967 Hey, Landlord (TV Series)
1966 The Iron Men (TV Movie)
1966 Return of the Magnificent Seven
1966 The Fortune Cookie
1966 And Baby Makes Three (TV Movie)
1966 The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!
1964-1966 My Favorite Martian (TV Series)
1965-1966 Hogan’s Heroes (TV Series)
1966 Man in the Square Suit (TV Movie)
1966 Cast a Giant Shadow
1961-1966 Ben Casey (TV Series)
1965 A Rage to Live
1965 The Loved One (uncredited)
1965 The Hallelujah Trail
1965 The Satan Bug
1964-1965 My Living Doll (TV Series)
1965 The Greatest Story Ever Told
1964 Kiss Me, Stupid
1964 Slattery’s People (TV Series)
1964 Profiles in Courage
1964 Lady in a Cage
1955-1964 Gunsmoke (TV Series)
1963-1964 The Greatest Show on Earth (TV Series)
1963 The Richard Boone Show (TV Series)
1963 Irma la Douce (uncredited)
1960-1963 The Untouchables (TV Series)
1963 A Child Is Waiting
1962 Two for the Seesaw
1962 Pressure Point
1962 Don’t Call Me Charlie (TV Series)
1961-1962 The New Breed (TV Series)
1959-1962 The Detectives (TV Series)
1959-1962 Hennesey (TV Series)
1961 The Children’s Hour (uncredited)
1960-1961 Peter Loves Mary (TV Series)
1961 Harrigan and Son (TV Series)
1957-1961 Zane Grey Theater (TV Series)
1961 Gunslinger (TV Series)
1960 The Westerner (TV Series)
1960 The Law and Mr. Jones (TV Series)
1960 Guestward Ho! (TV Series)
1960 Tate (TV Series) (4 episodes)
1960 Inherit the Wind (uncredited)
1959-1960 Black Saddle (TV Series)
1959-1960 Law of the Plainsman (TV Series)
1959-1960 Johnny Ringo (TV Series)
1959 The Adventures of Hiram Holliday (TV Series)
1959 The Gale Storm Show: Oh! Susanna (TV Series)
1959 The Betty Hutton Show (TV Series)
1959 Pork Chop Hill
1959 The Third Man (TV Series)
1959 Tokyo After Dark (uncredited)
1957-1959 Whirlybirds (TV Series)
1958-1959 U.S. Marshal (TV Series)
1958 Half Human
1958 I Want to Live!
1958 When Hell Broke Loose
1958 The Texan (TV Series)
1958 The Rifleman (TV Series)
1958 Kings Go Forth (uncredited)
1957-1958 Have Gun – Will Travel (TV Series)
1957-1958 The Court of Last Resort (TV Series)
1957-1958 The Sheriff of Cochise (TV Series)
1957 The Pied Piper of Hamelin (TV Movie) (uncredited)
1957 The Walter Winchell File (TV Series)
1957 Those Whiting Girls (TV Series)
1957 Black Patch
1957 Trooper Hook
1957 Hot Rod Rumble
1957 The O. Henry Playhouse (TV Series)
1957 Official Detective (TV Series)
1956 Johnny Concho
1956 Screaming Eagles
1956 Please Murder Me!
1955-1956 Dr. Hudson’s Secret Journal (TV Series)
1955 Matinee Theatre (TV Series) (1956-1957)
1954-1955 The Lone Wolf (TV Series)
1950 Big Town (TV Series)

Gabrielle Union: A force in front of and away from the camera

December 27, 2016 Leave a comment

On a per capita basis, Nebraska has been sending oodles of talent to Hollywood from the start of the industry through today. Then and now that talent has been variously expressed in front of the camera and behind the camera. While there are many name actors from the state, past and present, actresses from here who’ve made a splash in film and television are a rarer commodity. The few really big name and familiar face actresses with strong Nebraska connectiosn include Dorothy McGuire, Sandy Dennis, Inga Swenson, Marg Helgenberger, Stephanie Kurtzuba and Yolonda Ross. In terms of pure popularity and exposure though I’m not sure any of them compare with Gabrielle Union,, whose movie and TV work extends over nearly 25 years now. In addition to a very large, active body of work as an actress, she’s lately moved into producing and she’s always made a mark as a beauty pitchwoman, as an outspoken advocate, as a talk show guest and as the subject of countless glam and profile spreads in major magazines. Of course, she gets added fame and attention for being one half of a celebrity couple – her husband is NBA champion and future Hall of Famer Dwyane Wade. Like many peer actresses sharing Nebraska roots, she’s maintained close ties to her home turf. I touch on a variety of these and other things paramont in her life and career in this new Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/) piece I wrote about Gabrielle. I’ve been covering her for 15-plus years and it’s been fun to see her development.

You can link to my other Gabrielle Union stories at–
https://leoadambiga.com/?s=gabrielle+union

 

gabrielleunion1

 

Gabrielle Union

A force in front of and away from the camera

December 22, 2016
Photography by Contributed
Appearing in the Jan/Feb 2017 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)

Actress Gabrielle Union projects her natural intelligence and feistiness in whatever role she undertakes. The Omaha native is never at a loss for words or opinions. She decries Hollywood’s male-dominated, white-centric ways and lack of opportunities afforded to women of color. She recounts her experience as a rape survivor and preaches the need for women to speak up against violence.

It took Union a while to be regarded a serious artist. Early roles included that of a wealthy suburban teenager in 10 Things I Hate About You, followed a year later by a role as a cheerleader in Bring It On. Twenty years later she’s matured into a real force both in front of and behind the camera. She expertly balances being a fashion- and fitness-conscious celebrity, the wife of NBA superstar Dwyane Wade, and a mother, actress, producer, and activist.

It is not surprising that as her life has broadened, so has her work.

Ambitious projects such as Think Like a Man and Top Five find her giving deeper, more complex performances or satirizing her own mystique. Today, as the star of the popular and critically acclaimed BET series Being Mary Jane, she represents the modern American black woman navigating her way through personal and professional relationships. In mid-October, the actress sued for breach of contract and negligent misrepresentation, claiming the network is combining seasons four and five to lower her pay and extend her contract.

Further proof of her take-no-prisoners attitude was her role in one of the most talked about films of 2016, The Birth of a Nation.

The film dramatizes the historic Nat Turner-led slave revolt, a subject of interest for Union that goes back to her Omaha childhood.

“It was a story my mom made sure I knew about. I remember going to the library and her telling me to do research on him. It wasn’t until later I realized my mom had noted I was very passive in the face of adversity and injustice, and I wasn’t willing to speak up, not only for myself, but for anyone else. She thought I might need some additional heroes to look up to and she introduced me to the story of Nat Turner,” Union says.

The interest in Turner continued for years.

“In college I learned even more about Nat Turner and I was drawn to the sense of pushback against oppression–the idea that there are stories situated in slavery where we are not waiting for someone else to save us but that we were actively trying to save ourselves. Really the story of black resistance and black liberation, I’ve always been drawn to.”

gabrielleunion2When the script first came to her attention, she says she determined that, “I had to be a part of telling this incredibly powerful chapter of American history.”

That chapter took years to produce. The film’s producer-writer-director, Nate Parker, who also portrays Turner, had a hard time getting financing for the project.

“There’s a reason the Nat Turner story has never made it to the big screen [before now],” Union says. “There’s a lot of fear of black resistance and black liberation. We see that with what’s happening with Colin Kaepernick and the rest of the professional, college, and high school athletes who are taking a knee to combat and shed light on racism, discrimination, police brutality, inequality, oppression everywhere. We see the pushback, we see people protesting [being] labeled as unpatriotic. I feel quite the opposite. I don’t think there’s anything more American or patriotic than resistance to oppression.”

With such a struggle ongoing, Union says, “I think there’s never been a better time for The Birth of a Nation to come out.”

Union plays an unnamed character who does not speak. The part was written with dialogue but she and Parker decided the woman should be mute.

“I just felt it would be much more symbolic and realistic if we stripped her of her voice, of the ability to speak, of the ability to have power over her own body and over the bodies of her family and her community,” Union says. “That was true for black women during slavery, and it’s still true for so many women, specifically black women, who are voiceless and powerless at the hands of oppressors. Sexual violence and racial inequality have always existed for black women at that very crucial intersection.

She says it was liberating to play a background character.

“Part of that was just being much more committed to the character than when I was younger. When you’re starting out, you want to stand out in every single role. I’m not as concerned about that anymore. I have enough projects where my face is recognizable and my name is out front…I’m much more interested in being fulfilled creatively.”

The film was shot on an actual Georgia plantation that stood in for the site where the historical events took place in Virginia. The dark spirit of the plantation’s past weighed heavy on Union and company.

“Every actor of color on that set felt the pain and the horror that our ancestors felt. It’s in the soil, it’s in the air. You can’t escape it, you really can’t escape it.”

She is offended that the former plantation used in the film is rented out for weddings and parties.

“It’s unfathomable,” she says.

She considers the conversations she and Wade must have with their boys about the threats facing young black males “infuriating.”

“How do you explain that to children?”

She’s banking on Birth to trigger change.

“What we keep saying is, it’s not a movie, it’s a movement. No one I know who’s seen the film is unmoved and unchallenged to re-examine everything. So I hope people walk out of the theater energized and inspired to do better, to really identify oppression and to fight back against it.”

Visit bet.com/shows/being-mary-jane for more information.

 

Stephanie Kurtzuba: From Bowling Alley, to Broadway and Back

August 27, 2016 Leave a comment

So, everything you need to know about stage and screen actress Stephanie Kurtzuba from Omaha is summed up in the Bill Sitzmann photo of her below and in her scenes in the movies “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “Annie.” She’s the rare performer who can project many dimensions and emotions at once or in rapid succession: brash, silly, poignant, smart. This multi-talented artist can act, sing, dance, play comedic or serious and have you smiling and laughing one moment and move you to tears the next moment. You may not know her name or her work, but she is one of the brighest talents in a long line of talented individuals from here to have found serious success in Hollywood and on Broadway. She got her acting and dancing start in Omaha at Central High, Show Wagon and the Rose Theatre. Growing up in Omaha she was encouraged to pursue her performing dreams by her mother, who didn’t live to see her realize her dreams. But Stephanie’s supportive father has. She and her dad and her siblings still own the family’s West Lanes Bowling Center that she spent a lot of time in as a girl. On a recent visit back home she agreed to a photo shoot at the bowling alley and you can see the fun movie-movie magic she and Bill Sitzmann made together. Stephanie’s also involved in an Omaha-based production company that’s developing a TV pilot drawn from her own life that is to be shot right here in her hometown. She is one of very few Nebraskans in film to bring the industry back to these Midwest roots. Alexander Payne, Nik Fackler and John Beasley have led that charge and others are looking to do the same. Whatever Stephanie ends up doing, it should be entertaining. This is my profile of her in the Sept/Oct 2016 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/).

 

StephanieKurtzuba

 

Stephanie Kurtzuba

From Bowling Alley, to Broadway, and Back

August 26, 2016
©Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Illustration by Kristen Hoffman
Appearing in the Sept/Oct 2016 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)

Stage and screen actress Stephanie Kurtzuba has graced Hollywood red carpets and Broadway billboards, but she is most comfortable at her family’s West Lanes Bowling Center in her hometown of Omaha.

The Central High School graduate’s maternal grandparents, Tony and Nellie Pirruccello, built the place at 151 N. 72nd St. Her late mother, Connie Pirruccello, had grown up there in the 1950s. Stephanie, a co-owner with her father, Ray Kurtzuba, spent countless hours at the bowling alley as a stage-struck kid. It’s now a favorite hangout for her two boys when they visit from New York City.

“I remember running up and down the concourse practicing cartwheels and using the dance floor in the lounge after school to rehearse my dance recital numbers,” recalls Stephanie, who displayed her cartwheel moves in the 2014 movie Annie. “It was a second home to me and now my children. My boys only get to visit about once a year, so when they do, they eat it up.”

Stephanie’s mom encouraged her to perform in Omaha Show Wagon. Her breakout came in Oliver at the Music Hall. She performed at the then-Emmy Gifford Children’s Theater (now The Rose) as well as the Firehouse and Upstairs dinner theaters. When the original Broadway Annie became a sensation, she sang its anthems around the house. Stephanie says, “It’s the ultimate irony” that three decades later she played Mrs. Kovacevic in the movie.

A local choreographer planted the seed that she had the chops to pursue a professional acting career. But talent only takes you so far. The rest is desire and discipline.

“It’s almost like what some people would call a calling. But it’s almost like there’s nothing else I can or want to do with my time and energies than pursue this, and that’s a real motivator.”

Her theater passion may not have gone far without tragedy befalling her biggest champion.

“If I had not lost my mother when I did, I don’t know that my choices would have been the same in terms of following my dream. We were so incredibly close, my mother and I. When everything went down with her health, it became very clear to me in a very short amount of time, tomorrow isn’t promised to anyone. Losing her rocked my foundation, my very being, but it taught me some really valuable lessons about carpe diem.”

Stephanie won a full-ride to Drake University but got cold feet being so far from home. She briefly attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. With her mom gone, she resolved it was now-or-never. She prepared an audition with help from The Rose’s James Larson and got accepted to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Off-Broadway and regional theater parts honed her craft.

“My goal has always been to be a working actor.”

Her credits include Broadway’s The Boy from Oz, Mary Poppins, and Billy Elliott; the feature films Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close and The Wolf of Wall Street; and TV’s The Good Wife.

She hopes one day to perform again where it all started.

“The Emmy Gifford was so seminal in my development as a young artist. I loved it deeply. I still remember the smell of the place. It was home. It would be singularly fulfilling to be able to come back and rejoin the Omaha arts community. That would be some deeply felt, full-circle kinda stuff right there.”

Meanwhile, she’s found a new love: producing. She has several projects in the works. She’s also developing a TV series set in Omaha, which is loosely based on her life, for local Syncretic Entertainment. The pilot is due to shoot here in the fall. They look to put local talent to work. Paying it forward.

“It’s my passion project. I love it so much.” 

To learn more, visit stephaniekurtzuba.com.

StephanieKurtzuba

 

SOME MORE OF MY COVER STORIES THROUGH THE YEARS AND ONCE AGAIN YOU CAN SEE JUST HOW DIVERSE MY SUBJECTS ARE

November 9, 2015 2 comments

SOME MORE OF MY COVER STORIES THROUGH THE YEARS AND ONCE AGAIN YOU CAN SEE JUST HOW DIVERSE MY SUBJECTS ARE
THIS BATCH OF COVERS IS FROM A VARIETY OF PUBLICATIONS
File:A typewriter (10995863465).jpg
The Reader Sept. 29 - Oct. 5, 2011The Reader 1-13-2011
The Reader Nov. 3, 2011
     Elperico 150205
Iraq War Veteran Jacob Hausman Battles PTSD and Finds Peace | Leo Adam Biga's Blog:
El Perico February 12, 2015
HV_04.10_covernoupc
magazine


 
 

Brent Spencer’s fine review of my Alexander Payne book in the Great Plains Quarterly


Brent Spencer’s fine review of my Alexander Payne book in the Great Plains Quarterly

I only just now became aware of this fine review of my Alexander Payne book that appeared in a 2014 issue of the Great Plains Quarterly journal. The review is by the noted novelist and short story writer Brent Spencer, who teaches at Creighton University. Thanks, Brent, for your attentive and articulate consideration of my work. Read the review below.

NOTE: I am still hopeful a new edition of my Payne book will come out in the next year or two. it would feature the additon of my extensive writing about Payne’s Nebraska. I have a major university press mulling it over now.

Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film—A Reporter’s Perspective, 1998–2012 by Leo Adam Biga
Review by Brent Spencer
From: Great Plains Quarterly
Volume 34, Number 2, Spring 2014

In Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film—A Reporter’s Perspective 1998–2012, Leo Adam Biga writes about the major American filmmaker Alexander Payne from the perspective of a fellow townsman. The Omaha reporter began covering Payne from the start of the filmmaker’s career, and in fact, even earlier than that. Long before Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants, and Cannes award-winner Nebraska, Biga was instrumental in arranging a local showing of an early (student) film of Payne’s The Passion of Martin. From that moment on, Payne’s filmmaking career took off, with the reporter in hot pursuit.

Biga’s book contains a collection of the journalist’s writings. The approach, which might have proven to be patchwork, instead allows the reader to follow the growth of the artist over time. Young filmmakers often ask how successful filmmakers made it to that point. Biga’s book may be the best answer to this question, at least as far as Payne is concerned. Biga presents the artist from his earliest days as a hometown boy to his first days in Tinseltown as a scuffling outsider to his heyday as an insider working with Hollywood’s brightest stars.

If there is a problem with Biga’s approach, it is that it occasionally leads to redundancy. The pieces were originally written separately, for different publications, and are presented as such. This means that an essay will sometimes cover the same material as a previous one. Some selections were clearly written as announcements of special showings of films. But the occasional drawback of this approach is counterbalanced by the feeling you get that the artist’s career is taking shape right before your eyes, from the showing of a student film in an Omaha storefront theater to a Hollywood premiere.

Perhaps the most intriguing feature of the book is Biga’s success at getting Payne to speak candidly about every step in the filmmaking process. These detailed insights include the challenges of developing material from conception to script, finding financing, moderating the mayhem of shooting a movie, and undertaking the slow, monk-like work of editing. Biga is clearly a fan (the book comes with an endorsement from Payne himself), but he’s a fan with his eyes wide open.

Leo Adam Biga's photo.
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