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Prodigal filmmaker comes home again to screen new picture at Omaha Film Fest

March 27, 2018 Leave a comment

Prodigal filmmaker comes home again to screen new picture at Omaha Film Fest

 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the March 2018 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

The 13th Omaha Film Festival projects March 6-11 at Village Pointe Cinema with its eclectic mix of indie fare from around the world. But a film by Omaha native Dan Mirvish brings things home for area cineastes.

The fest’s opening and closing night films are prestige feature-length studio releases with big name stars: Borg McEnroe at 6 p.m. on March 6 and Beirut at 5:30 p.m. on March 11. The March 10 OFF Conference includes guest panels on Documentary Filmmaking, Writing for Pixar and Filmmaking in Nebraska. The March 11 Writers Theatre showcases live readings of scripts.

Mirvish, an L.A.-based director, will be at a 3:30 p.m. March 10 screening of his new narrative feature Bernard and Huey, whose script is by Pulitzer Prize-winner Jules Feiffer. The presence of indie veteran Mirvish, who co-founded Slamdance, is an important gesture for the local filmmaking community. He’s not only “one of our own” bringing back a well-reviewed new work with serious pedigree, but he’s emblematic of the inventive, resilient spirit that animates the indie industry.

The resourceful Mirvish is the author of The Cheerful Subversive’s Guide to Independent Filmmaking, an irreverent yet practical compendium of lessons learned over his 25-year filmmaking career.

Every Mirvish film – Omaha – The Movie (1995), Open House (2004), Between Us (2012) and now Bernard and Huey (2017) – has been an object lesson in opportunity meets accident meets persistence meets imagination. He cobbles together micro budget projects financed by friends and family, doubling locations and stealing shots in guerilla-style fashion.

How he came to make his latest took things to new extremes. The original script went unproduced when Feiffer wrote it decades ago. Then it vanished. Mirvish long admired his work as a cartoonist and scenarist. Feiffer’s adult cartoons in The Village Voice, The New Yorker and Playboy were hipster reads, Also a respected playwright (Little Murders), he adapted an unproduced play for what became the acclaimed Mike Nichols’ film Carnal Knowledge. He adapted Murders for Alan Arkin. He penned Popeye for Robert Altman.

Mirvish went to some lengths to track down the elusive script inspired by an old Feiffer cartoon series. The protagonists are similar to the lifelong male buddies in Carnal Knowledge, only these misogynists navigate a post sexual revolution-feminist age.

Just finding a copy of the script proved daunting as most players involved in trying to get it made decades earlier were dead. Upon rediscovering and reading it, Mirvish fell in love with the material.

“I thought it was a great satire on masculinity and men behaving badly. Kind of timeless characters and even more so now a timely theme,” Mirvish said. “I thought it was very funny and similar to my sense of humor.”

Even after securing the property and Feiffer’s blessing to develop it, lawyers had to clear rights. All this took time. Meanwhile, Feiffer was anxious to see a film finally realized from the script and was in no mood for delays or misfires this go-round.

“Once we got the rights cleared away jules was like I’m 87, let’s make this thing already.”

Mirvish detailed the whole backstory on the project’s Kickstarter campaign Web page.

He knows things could have gone wrong to sabotage the project but he never lost faith it would work out and, more importantly, he never let the process defeat him.

“I have fun with the process and that’s kind of what I say in the book. Look, if you’re not having fun doing all the stages of the game then you shouldn’t play because, you know, making films is not an intrinsically fun process all the time. It’s studded by long bouts of boredom, anxiety, stress and failure, so if you’re not finding the joy in that somewhere along the way, you probably shouldn’t be doing it.

“When it comes to casting, for example, other filmmakers may complain, ‘Oh, it’s a Hollywood game these agents are playing.’ Yeah, it’s a game and you should have fun playing it, too, and you just have to play it better than they do, and that’s kind of how you have to look at the whole process. Yeah, there’s going to be challenges and downsides to everything but as long as you’re having fun during the other moments. it’s worth doing. That’s my attitude.”

Mirvish also takes satisfaction in having “hung in there” to do what it took to get it made.

“When we were able to finally sign all the paperwork, then it really was off to the races. We had our Kickstarter campaign up within two months and were casting and financing and getting the film together. From that point it was actually a fairly quick process.”

His old producing partner and fellow Omaha native, Dana Altman, executive produced.

“Dana remembered Feiffer on the set of Popeye because Dana worked on that movie (for his grandfather Robert Altman), so there was that connection.”

Only minimal script changes were made.

Mirvish has a knack for attracting name talent to his little films and he did it again by getting two hot comedic actors: Jim Rash (Community) as Bernard and David Koechner (Anchorman) as Huey. Mirvish enjoyed having two leads with strong improv backgrounds: Koechner with Second City and SNL and Rash with The Groundlings. Rash is also a writer.

“It was just great having them around in rehearsal and then on set. We did four days dedicated to rehearsal, which is pretty rare even on a studio film.”

Flashbacks glimpse Bernard and Huey as young men and Mirvish found two actors, Jake O’Connor and Jay Renshaw, who make uncanny matches.

“Once we cast David and Jim, we had to look for younger versions of them, so we had an open casting call and we found these two terrific actors. The young guys really shadowed the older guys. That was a great experience for all four of them. They really developed this kind of big sibling-little sibling relationship and kind of picked up each other’s little quirks and things.

“Jules and I talked about how it wasn’t about the physical look of these characters. They didn’t have to look like the cartoon. We met with many actors who didn’t. Ironically, Rash and Koechner look almost exactly like the cartoon characters – next to each other especially. In the end credits you see some original Feiffer cartoons. It’s nice to see what these guys are supposed to look like and they really kind of do. I mean, to the point when Feiffer first saw Rash he was like, ‘He’s great, but couldn’t you find someone more handsome?’ because Bernard was always an autobiographical dopple-ganger for Feiffer himself.”

Mirvish grew fond of the eternally clever and young Feiffer. He’s pleased that “Jules really liked the movie and was very happy with the casting.” Feiffer remains prolific at 89. He just finished a new graphic novel and had a new musical open. “For a man of any age, he’s hard to keep up with. It’s a lot of fun whenever I see him because he’s always got these amazing stories.”

Character actor Richard Kind (Gotham), who personally knows Feiffer, has scene-stealing moments as Huey’s older brother Marty.

The women playing the female foils are receiving high praise for their performances: Mae Whitman (Parenthood) as Zelda; Sasha Alexander (Rizzoli & Isles) as Roz; Nancy Travis (Last Man Standing) as Mona; and Bellamy Young (Scandal) as Aggie.

Mirvish shot interiors in L.A. and exteriors in New York.

The film has a domestic distribution deal and awaits a foreign sales deal.

Mirvish hopes to return with the movie in the spring at the Dundee Theater – his neighborhood cinema growing up.

For complete OFF details, visit omahafilmfestival.org.

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Omaha cinema culture provides diverse screen landscape


For as long as the movies have been around, Omaha has had a cinema culture of one kind or another. Back in the day, when neighborhood theaters dotted the landscape and grand movie palaces still operated, you could reasonably say that the city’s cinema culture – at least in terms of the exhibition and viewing of movies  – was at its peak. This would have been true from the 1920s through the early 1950s. There were theaters all over the city then. Television then began rearing its ugly head and neighborhood theaters started closing. However, a new dimension in moviegoing emerged with the arrival of drive-in theaters and the opening of one of the nation’s few Cinerama theaters, the Indian Hills. Additionally, uiversity and museum sponsored film series became in vogue. I helped run two of these series – one at UNO and one at the Joslyn Art Musuem. There were even art cinema oprations here before Film Streams. I was associated with the longest-lived of these, the New Cinema Cooperative. Thus, for a period of a couple decades or so, Omaha boasted a rich mix of moviegoing options that simply doesn’t exist today in the same way. Of course, so much has changed. The neighborhood theaters, drive-ins and grand palaces are nearly all gone or being used for other purposes. The Indian Hills is gone. The university and museum film series are no more. But there are some currents happening that may bring back the past. The metro’s last remaining neighborhood theater still being used to exhibit movies, the Dundee Theater, closed for remodeling and was on the verge of never reopening again until it landed in the hands of Film Streams. Thanks to its new owners and managers, the Dundee will indeed see new life again. Concurrently, the 40th Street Theater has recently been renovated and reopened after being inactive and unseen for 65 years, although this former vaudeville house turned movie theater is being used for live peformances rather than screenings. That could always change. The old Benson Theatre may have new life again if the funds needed for its renovation are secured. Some new movie viewing options have sprung up in such event-destination style venues as Alamo Drafthouse Cinema. The Omaha Film Festival has made a nice contribution to the cinema scene. More than any single entity, Film Streams raised the film culture here.

Outside of the exhibition-viewing realm, the biggest differecet in film culture enrichment these days is all the local filmmaking going on. It’s only in the last 20 years but really more in the last decade and ever more that the technology and means to film production have become highly accessible and affordable. These are, with a few notable exceptions, very small indie projects that fly under the radar but they do give filmmakers experience in practicing their craft and the work does get seen and does find audiences, some of it more than others. Of course, the phenomenon of Alexander Payne, followed by Nik Fackler, has brought Hollywood A-list talent to town and given locals opportunities to work with that talent. Now, some new filmmakers on the investing, producing and artistic sides of the industry are developing projects unlike anything seen here before. Parallel with that movement is the increasing number of locals who are making it in the industry, forging careers in television and film, and some of these folks are coming back here to do things, which is another new wrinkle to the story. If more follow, then a depth of skill sets, connections, finances and faciltiies may build up here to finally give Omaha and greater Nebraska a true film infrastructure. The biggest missing piece, however, remains tax incentives for filmmaking. People are working on making that happen, too.

All of this is background and context for my new Omaha Cinema Culture story in the August 2016 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com).

 

 

Film Streams

 

 

Omaha cinema culture provides diverse screen landscape

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the August 2016 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

If there is an Omaha Cinema Culture, it cuts across consumer, exhibitor, artist, aspirational experiences. Being far from traditional film centers poses certain barriers, but rich offerings and showplaces exist. Natives pursue and some achieve screen careers. It’s been this way since the industry’s start.

In addition to many name actors, Nebraska’s produced studio heads (Darryl Zanuck), network execs (Lew Hunter), filmmakers (Joan Micklin Silver) and producers (Monty Ross). Alexander Payne is the only native A-list talent who brings work here. He cut his teeth in local art houses, then studied film at UCLA before embarking on his acclaimed writer-director journey that’s seen five of his seven features shot in part or entirely here.

Omaha filmmaker and educator Mark Hoeger said Payne’s insistence on setting and shooting movies here is what distinguishes him from his Nebraska counterparts.

Fellow filmmaker Nik Fackler (Lovely, Still) said, “I wouldn’t have been inspired to make my own films if it wasn’t for filmmakers like Alexander Payne, Mike Hill and Dana Altman. It fuels the fire of excitement for young filmmakers. I was an extra on Election and after being on set for a day, I realized I wanted to be a director.

Hoeger said, “In an industry more akin to the lottery, seeing those winners is essential to keeping the dream alive.”

Nebraska Film Officer Laurie Richards said Payne’s in-state shoots have an impact.

“Locals get hired, locations used, hotel rooms booked, cars and trucks rented, food-entertainment providers procured.”

Then there are branding opportunities for the state, the city and the various other towns and locations utilized.

Other natives with industry clout , such as creator-executive producer of The Blacklist , Jon Bokenkamp, as well as Gabrielle Union (Being Mary Jane), Marg Helgenberger or Andrew Rannells could conceivably bring projects here.

Former Nerbaska state senator Colby Coash, who acts in local movies, said, “Hollywood is full of Nebraskans looking for opportunities to return to their home state to share their art.”

Matt Sobel did return to make Take Me to the River. Erich Hover did the same with It Snows All the Time.

Nebraska Cinema Project principals Kevin McMahon and

Randy Goodwin are Hollywood veterans hoping features they’re developing build a sustainable in-state film industry.

Chad Bishoff’s bi-coastal and Omaha-based Syncretic Entertainment is producing a TV pilot to be set and shot in Omaha.

Film-TV actor John Beasley of Omaha found financing to greenlight a $20 million feature with A-list pedigree he’s producing on local sports legend Marlin Briscoe.

Coash said, “Payne, Beasley and others are great role models for Nebraska artists.”

Payne also enriches the cinema culture by curating series at Film Streams and bringing major figures (Laura Dern, Debra Winger, Steven Soderbergh, Jane Fonda, David O. Russell, Bruce Dern) for its Feature Event.

Film Streams is an established cultural center in its North Downtown Ruth Sokolof Theater digs. As the metro’s first and only fully dedicated art cinema, it’s the hub and “home base for the hard core community of cinephiles,” Hoeger said.

 

The Dundee Theater is Omaha’s last single screen theater

 

With the metro’s last remaining neighborhood cinema, the Dundee Theater, now under its management, Film Streams educational-community programming will extend to midtown. Reader film critic Ryan Syrek said Film Streams’ impact “can’t really be overstated,” adding, “It’s night and day. Before, smaller films simply never came to Omaha. We can now enjoy the movies shown on the coasts. Their repertory series do an excellent job filling in cinematic gaps.”

Syrek said the Dundee satellite location opening late 2017-early 2018 is “a big deal because right now you have to go downtown to see art-house movies.” Having that venue again after it closed is a boon to “cinema lovers,” he said.

Any must-see movies Film Streams misses usually make it to the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center in Lincoln.

Other viewing options include the Henry Doorly Zoo’s Lozier IMAX Theatre and a plethora of outdoor screenings metro-wide. Bruce Crawford revives classic films twice a year with the old ballyhoo. Marcus Midtown, Ak-Sar-Ben and Alamo Drafthouse cinema feature enhanced amenities. Historic theaters in Kearney and Scottsbluff have been preserved.

Rachel Jacobson left Omaha only to fall so hard in love with sharing cinema art and history she returned to found and run Film Streams. Filiing the seats is a constant challenge, “You need to create a special experience for people to choose to leave their home,” she said. She doesn’t do it with frills, but with relevant, inventive, niche programs that engage ideas.

“I really love people who are frequent attendees but did not consider themselves movie lovers before we came along. I’m also impressed by people who have been inspired by the content they’ve seen on screen. Urban farmers who learned about global food issues watching Food, Inc. or folks working with refugees inspired by a documentary we showed. It’s amazing how much impact creating a community around film can have beyond the arts and culture scene.”

As a nod to and outlet for a burgeoning Nebraska New Wave, the Omaha Film Festival’s added a local feature showcase similar to what Film Streams offers. Mark Hoeger said, “What I love about the Omaha Film Festival is what it does to highlight local films. which means you see some stuff that’s not very good. But it’s also just really fun to see what local people are coming up with, and some of it’s really quite nice.”

Local filmmakers also have exhibit opportunities at the White Light City and Prairie Lights festivals in Fremont and Grand Island, respectively. Eastern Nebraska Film Office director Stacy Heatherly said “festivals not only offer local filmmakers a platform to screen their films, they offer collective support.”

A one-off theater showing is easier than before, Hoeger said, because in today’s digitized environment a filmmaker can have a high quality image projected from a disc or flash drive. Fackler appreciates the access cineplex managers provide in “helping fan the flames of ‘film as art’ exposure.” He added, “I like that they support filmmakers and create relationships with them.”

Don’t expect seeing Mike Hill, longtime co-editor of Ron Howard’s films, at the theater.

“I very rarely go to movies anymore,” Hill said. “I get my entertainment from Netflix and TV. “I guess that is my cinema culture now. Breaking Bad, Fargo, House of Cards, Peaky Blinders, True Detective, Game of Thrones, Ray Donovan are cinematic entertainments vastly superior to most theatrical releases. So there is obviously a lot of talent out there. It’s just a different delivery system.”

Hoeger said the followings some new media content acquires, paired with the means of production being affordable and accessible, reflects a decentralized, democratized production-distribution shift. He predicts the music model that finds even major artists posting work online “is going to happen in film.” The Holy Grail big budget movie is “a product increasingly on the way out” as the norm,” he said. He expects more micro projects to come out of local-regional markets like Omaha.

“I can see down the road where community film production is just as normal a thing as community theater production. What was cost prohibitive even 10 years ago is not anymore and we have enough people with the right skill-set to do that.”

World class mentors are as near as Oscar-winning Omaha residents Payne, Hill and (cinematographer) Mauro Fiore. Others with serious credits reside or maintain close ties here.

The old model still works. One with new legs is L.A. and Omaha-based Night Fox Entertainment. CEO Timothy Christian and local partners find investors for Indiewood features the company helps finance and co-produce. New projects like East Texas Hot Links (Samuel L. Jackson is executive producing) may take Night Fox more on the lead production end. Filming here is possible, but lack of incentives makes it tough.

Mark Hoeger’s worked with the Nebraska Film Association and others to muster support for state tax incentives as Hollywood bait. Those efforts stalled but a new tact has gained traction.

“We’re working with the Department of Economic Development to come up with a plan that stays away from any parochial view of attracting ‘real’ moves to Nebraska. Instead, we want to find ways that encourage and support true local productions – everything from commercials to Web series to documentaries to narrative films. The emphasis is on encouraging young creative minds to stay and work here.”

He said Gov. Pete Ricketts recognizes film-TV-Web production as an economic engine. There is consensus now, Hoeger said, that content producers are entrepreneurs whose value-add this brain-drained, resource-strapped state cannot afford losing.

Fremont’s implemented its own incentives package for film production. Laurie Richards said statewide incentives remain elusive minus “a concerted effort by all islands of filmmaking across the state.” Colby Coash said, “Gaining tax incentives has been a challenge – not because they don’t work or aren’t valuable, but because they aren’t prioritized like incentives for agriculture and manufacturing. Lawmakers are starting to see film as a more viable industry that has real impact on economic development and jobs. The trend seems to be more of a focus on regional support where a film may have a tourism value.”

While aspiring filmmakers enjoy a robust Omaha Cinema Culture for seeing films and crewing on them, formal education lags. Jacobson said Film Streams fills some gaps and looks to do more at the Dundee site.

“We are growing our film education programs all around film history and criticism and media literacy. Now open almost a decade, the thing I’m most proud of is meeting young adults who grew up attending our free student night and education programs who are pursuing filmmaking. I love hearing someone was inspired to work in film when they saw their first Kubrick film on the big screen at the Ruth Sokolof Theater.”

She added, “I’d like to see other organizations develop filmmaking programs. There is a film studies minor at Creighton and film production classes at Metro. UNO is working on a film studies minor. It would be great for one of the major universities to establish a BA in film or even an MFA program for visual arts. We have far to go in film production ed.”

There’s no ideal cinema culture outside New York or L.A. Natives take what they can from home. Some leave, some stay and others return to realize cinema dreams right here.

 

Omaha Film Festival adds spotlight on Nebraska films

March 6, 2016 1 comment

If there ever has been the equivalent of a Nebraska New Wave in cinema, then the time may be now. That is the assertion or suggestion I make in this Reader (www.thereader.com) story about the 2016 Omaha Film Festival and its Nebraska Spotlight focus on homegrown films and filmmakers.

 

LEW POSTER

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Omaha Film Festival adds spotlight on Nebraska films

Nebraska New Wave in cinema featured at fest

Author of Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film

 

It used to be conversations about local filmmakers doing relevant work here began and ended with Alexander Payne and Nik Fackler. That’s changing now and the March 8-13 Omaha Film Festival (OFF) is evidence of it.

The 11-year-old fest, back for the third year at Marcus Village Pointe Cinema, is programming more selections with local ties courtesy its new Nebraska Spotlight lineup of feature-length narrative and documentary films. This acknowledgement that a Nebraska New Wave in cinema is upon us follows breakout work by homegrown filmmakers Dan Susman, James Duff, Patty Dillon, Charles Hood, Jim Fields, Dan Mirvish, Dana Altman, Yolonda Ross, Patrick Coyle, Charles Fairbanks, Jason Fischer and others. Spotlight now provides a dedicated platform for feature filmmakers and their films who have some link to this place.

The fest is not as parochial as this sounds, Most OFF entries have no Neb. connection whatsoever. But Spotlight is that showcase for emerging and established local filmmakers to shine.

Omaha indie rocker Tim Kasher is showing his feature writing-directorial debut No Resolution. Award-winning resident video photojournalist Mele Mason has a new documentary I Dream of an Omaha Where with a powerful local theme. OFF co-founder Jason Levering, who adapted Stephen King’s The Shining to the stage, is premiering a first feature he co-wrote and directed, Blind Luck.

Itinerant area actor Lonnie Senstock’s doc Once in a Lew Moon profiles Hollywood luminary Lew Hunter. Omaha thespian Erich Hover has produced a highly personal story drawn from his own life in It Snows All the Time. Writer-director Matt Sobel mined memories of Loup City family reunions for his first feature, Take Me to the River. It played Sundance last year.

 

It Snows All the Time 

March 9 @ 5:45 p.m.

Erich Hover’s passion project dramatizes his father’s real life struggle with frontotemporal dementia and how its debilitating effects have impacted the family. Hover shared the story with actor-writer-director Jay Giannone, who brought it to his writing partner, Eric Watson, a Darren Aronofsky collaborator. The resulting script by Giannone and Watson landed Brett Cullen as the father and Lesley Ann Warren as the wife. Hover plays a film version of himself in the film that Giannone directed. The name cast includes Omaha’s own John Beasley.

The pic shot in and around Omaha.

 

Black Luck

March 10 @ 8:30 p.m.

Jason Levering and David Weiss directed a script Levering wrote with Garrett Sheeks. The log line reads: “A hit man in hiding struggles to keep his monsters at bay when his dark past comes calling.” Levering says, “Although the subject matter seems like familiar ground, our take is more story-driven than action-oriented, offering the audience a thriller with a mystery at its core and several twists and turns. We did some non-traditional things with our storytelling. We went theChinatown route with our main character, whose face is covered in bandages for most of the film due to the beatings his suffers.”

The film shot in Omaha with a local cast.

 

No Resolution

March 11 @ 6 p.m.

“I’ve been wanting to shoot a movie for most of my life. This is the culmination of that, I guess,” Tim Kasher says. “I’ve written a handful of scripts over the years. This just happens to be the latest one I’ve written. The story is a fairly intense evening between an engaged couple who are at an impasse in their relationship. I’m obsessed with this long, drawn-out sort of fight on screen. But a lot occurs in between the arguments as well.”

He shot the flick in Chicago. it features his own music and that of friends. Kasher previously only directed video shorts. He got advice from two filmmaker friends, Nik Fackler and Dana Altman. “They have helped unravel some of the mystery for me,” he says. “I really enjoyed all of it. It’s all so exciting. I even love how long the days are. I could hardly sleep each night, and then I would sleep so hard for a few condensed hours out of absolute fatigue.”

 

Once in a Lew Moon

March 12 @ 3:45 p.m.

The subject of this documentary, Lew Hunter, is the classic small town boy made good in Hollywood story. This former executive at all three major networks and Disney is also a writer-producer with notable made-for-TV movie credits to his name. But he’s best known as the author of the never out of print bible for scriptwriting, Screenwriting 434, based on the UCLA graduate class he’s taught since 1979. Filmmaker Lonnie Senstock captures the warm, communal spirit Hunter creates with students at UCLA and at the screenwriting colony he leads at his home in Superior, Nebraska.

 

Take Me to the River

March 12 @ 6:15 p.m.

Matt Sobel grew up in Calif. but came to Neb. for family reunions. A dream he had about being falsely accused of something terrible at a reunion so upset him he set out to capture “that visceral sensation” in a script that otherwise tells a fictional story. He filmed at the very farm he visited for those reunions. Rising star Logan Miller plays the boy, Ryder, who finds himself under suspicion on the very weekend he’s coming out. The cast is rounded out by veteran supporting players.

All indie filmmakers have a rite-of-passage getting their work from page to screen, Sobel’s circuitous path took him on Cannes, Rotterdam and Manitoba detours before ending up back in Nebraska.

 

I Dream of an Omaha Where…

March 13 @ 2:30 p.m.

Mele Mason documented a local collaborative project moderated by national performance artist Daniel Beaty that involved former gang members and people affected by gangs.

“The project took participants through intense and moving workshops to a performance of a play utilizing workshop transcripts. I was able to document each step of this incredible process,” Mason says. “The I Dream project was a transformative experience for those sharing their stories and is also changing the dialogue in Omaha and similarly affected cities about the nature and impact of gang violence. To me and hopefully to the audience, it puts a human face on those who have or still are participating in gangs and the people who have been tragically affected by gang violence.”

 

When Voices Meet: One Divided Country; One United Choir; One Courageous Journey 

March 13 @ 11:45 a.m.

In addition to the out-of-competition Spotlight features, there’s a feature documentary in competition whose producer-director-editor, Nancy Sutton Smith, teaches at Northeast Community College in Norfolk. When Voices Meet charts the experiences of a multiracial youth choir formed by musician activists in South Africa following Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. Ignoring threats, the choir traveled across the country via The Peace Train and became the face for the democracy Mandela moved the nation towards. The group performed for seven years, Members remained close friends. They reunited to share their stories.

A TV segment Smith produced about The Peace Train led to a decade-long collaboration that resulted in the documentary, which has become an award-winning darling at festivals.

 

The fest also has its usual block of locally produced shorts. The OFF Conference will include industry panelists from Nebraska. Conference Q&A’s and Fest parties offer opportunities to meet film artists,

Add to these local film currents Alexander Payne’s Downsizing lensing this spring (a week in Omaha) with Matt Damon and Reese Witherspoon, the features East Texas Hot Links and The Magician gearing up for area shoots, plus Dan Mirvish with a new project and Nik Fackler writing scripts again, and the local cinema culture is popping. Once the Dundee Theater reopens, it’s a full-on moviepalooza in this dawning Nebraska New Wave movement.

For the complete OFF schedule, visit http://omahafilmfestival.org/.

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

For Omaha Film Festival guru Marc Longbrake, cinema is no passing fancy

April 23, 2015 2 comments

Those of us who make our living in full or in part as film artists, exhibitors, historians, or journalists all come to our love of cinema differently.  It’s a very personal thing.  Marc Longbrake, one of the founders and directors of the Omaha Film Festival and a veteran crew member on Nebraska-made indie films, followed his own path in losing it at the movies.  Read my Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/) piece about him and his film love affair.
Marc Longbrake Web

Marc Longbrake

No Passing Film Fancy

April 22, 2015
©Photography by BIll Sitzmann
Originally published in Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)

Techie Marc Longbrake was in college when he lost it at the movies. Intrigued with doing something in cinema, he managed computer-aided drafting designers for his 9-to-5 but crewed on local independent film projects for his moonlighting fix.

Fast forward to today, when he’s a veteran lighting technician on area shoots, including a feature recently accepted into Sundance, Take Me to the River. Longbrake is also a co-founder of the Omaha Film Festival (OFF).

The March 10-15 festival at Marcus Village Pointe Cinema celebrates it 10th season this year. Longbrake and fellow movie enthusiasts Jeremy Decker and Jason Levering distinguish their event from other fests here with an ambitious, multi-day slate of features, documentaries and shorts, a conference of film industry panelists, and meet-and-greet parties.

The event receives 600-plus entries from multiple states and nations. A screenplay reading series complements the script competition. A team of judges spends months viewing films and reading scripts to determine which submissions make the final cut.

“It’s a pretty intense process,” Longbrake says. Getting all the moving parts in sync is a feat. He and his partners divvy up duties. Longbrake oversees the technical side.

“I deal a lot with the projection. We take great pride and care in the way we project the films we show. That’s a huge part of it.”

He also makes sure the fest connects to the local film community via social media.

This labor of love is fueled by shared passion. “It’s not been easy, it’s not been without sacrifice,” says Longbrake, a still-video photographer and lighting grip. “The fact we’ve stayed together all this time and managed to get along and to remain on the same page—I mean we’re all very different people with very different opinions—has made for a good marriage that helps us put a good product in front of our attendees.”

Longbrake and Co. displayed vision and courage launching OFF when they did as it preceded Omaha’s much-embraced art cinema, Film Streams. They saw an indie void and filled it with the help of sponsors.

He says despite the fact “we’re all broke from this, at the end of the day we know it’s a good cultural thing for the city to have,” adding, “We’ve got enough of a fan base that if we were not to do it there’d be some disappointment. I don’t know who would pick up the ball and run with it, so we feel sort of an obligation to keep it going.”

Besides, he says “it’s pretty cool to be a part of Omaha’s cultural renaissance the last 10 years.”

Occasionally, OFF features break big, giving Omaha audiences sneak peaks of awards contenders. Then there’s moments like the one a few years ago when Longbrake introduced filmmakers Logan and Noah Miller to their idol, screenwriting guru Lew Hunter, at an OFF screening of the brothers’ debut feature, Touching Home. The twins had read Hunter’s Screenwriting 434 to learn how to write a script.

“It was a great moment for the brothers and Lew to meet and it was a great moment for me to be able to put them together.”

He enjoys it, too, when Nebraska film artists such as Yolonda Ross, Mauro Fiore (see related story on page 117), Mike Hill, Dana Altman, and Nik Fackler make OFF appearances to share their passion with audiences.

Now they’re pushing for Alexander Payne to be a future guest.

Marc Longbrake Web

10th Annual Omaha Film Festival a showcase for indie writer-directors; Patty Dillon documentary about executioners among films to check out

March 11, 2015 1 comment

Don’t take my word for it, but the Omaha Film Festival is one of the last best kept secrets of Omaha’s evolving cinema scene.  You would think that after nine years running and with its 10th annual festival happening March 10-15 that the OFF would be ingrained in the local film culture by now, but my guess is that most residents of Omaha don’t even know it exists.  If true, then that speaks to how hard it is to get your event message heard and received amid all the competing messages out there.  For those who know about it but don’t patronize it, it’s an indication of how much there is to do in Omaha when it comes to cultural activities and entertainment options.  The festival hasn’t helped itself by changing locations a few times in its short history.  But the festival is a well-mounted event that’s worth your time if you make the effort to seek it out.  My Reader (www.thereader.com) story about the 2015 festival highlights a few films that you might want to check out.  One of these is the fine documentary There Will Be No Stay  by Omahan Patty Dillon that finds a provocative way into the death penalty debate by focusing on the trauma of two executioners.

 

 

Showcase for indie writer-directors

 

 

10th Annual Omaha Film Festival a showcase for indie writer-directors

Patty Dillon documentary about executioners among films to check out

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in the March 2015 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

The metro’s work-in-progress cinema culture has lately come of age due to a montage of things. Alexander Payne making movies and bringing world-class film artists here. A surge of indigenous indie filmmakers. The advent of Film Streams. The slate at Omaha’s “original art cinema” – the Dundee Theatre.

Often overlooked as contributing to this invigorating mix is the Omaha Film Festival, celebrating 10 years with the March 10-15 edition at Marcus Village Pointe Cinema. OFF showcases work by indie writer-directors from near and far. Three short film blocs are dedicated to Neb-made films. To commemorate the fest’s history there’s a separate bloc screening audience favorite shorts from the first nine years,

Among the feature-length documentaries is a moving and provocative work about the death penalty, There Will Be No Stay, by Omaha transplant and former stuntwoman Patty Dillon. The pic recently had its world premiere at the Big Sky (Mont.) Documentary Film Festival and will be making the national festival circuit rounds. CNN’s Death Row Stories will feature Dillon and her project in an upcoming segment. Series narrator Susan Sarandon champions Dillon’s film, calling it “a powerful and unique perspective on the death penalty.”

The film flips the typical death penalty debate by profiling two men, Terry Bracey and Craig Baxley, who worked as executioners in the same state prison and by charting the trauma that carrying out those awful duties caused them. They’re still paying the price today.

This is Dillon’s debut film as a director and getting to its premiere was a five-year endeavor. About the experience of Big Sky, she says, “It was truly a warm and gentle place to birth a first film. It was a bit surreal. You work on a project for so many years, revolve your life completely around it, then let it go for the world – hopefully – to see. You have taken your subject’s trust and just hope tyou have served their stories. It is such a controversial issue and I think the assumption is agenda or activism and that is certainly understandable. The foundation of the film is really more about dissolving human opposition, period. I was pleasantly surprised how receptive the audiences were. It’s intense watching people watch your film. They laughed, gasped, shook their heads and greeted me with many unexpected hugs and hand shakes.”

 

 

On getting the blessing of Sarandon, whose role in the death row dramatic film Dead Man Walking earned her a Best Actress Oscar, Dillon says, “Susan and her camp have been incredible. She was initially going to narrate the film and after the final re-writes she insisted I do it. She felt it served the story better. I had just received two festival rejection letters when I got the email from her assistant she had posted the trailer on Facebook and Twitter. Irony. It’s been a crazy ride indeed and I intend to keep riding it with loads of gratitude.”

OFFs roots are squarely in the state’s small but robust and ever expanding indie film scene. Founders Marc Longbrake, Jeremy Decker and Jason Levering have a history making or working on indie projects. A decade ago they saw a gap in the Omaha film scene, which never really had a full-fledged annual festival before, and they filled it.

Now that Omaha has its own version of bigger, better known festivals, area residents can see work unlikely to play cineplexes otherwise.

Festivals are the take-what-you-get buffet of cinema-going. There are choices representing different cultures, styles, genres and influences. But the menu wholly depends on what films are entered and curated for this screen feast. Some entrees (features) and sides (shorts) are safer bets than others. Some come with a track record and others are unknowns. With upwards of 100 films in play there are hits and misses, and so the operative advice is watch-at-your-own-risk.

However, if you’re a film buff with an appetite for something different, then you owe it to yourself to try this cinema smorgasbord. You can always design a sampler menu of your own choice.

Longbrake says there is a place for a mid-size festival like OFF that lacks world premieres of marquee industry and indie titles.

“There’s a ton of people out there making movies that aren’t part of the Hollywood system,” he says. “The only way to really see independent films in a theater, except for the off-chance they’re picked-up by a Hollywood distributor, is by going to film festivals. So you’re seeing a different kind of movie. Sometimes low budget, sometimes without a recognizable star, although familiar faces do turn up.

“People sometime think indie-low budget are code words for lesser quality. I would argue independent filmmakers tend to worry a bit more about the art and the story than the makers of big budget Hollywood pictures. Indie filmmakers are putting their passion, their guts, their heart, their soul and their grandpa’s money into making a film that’s personal to them as opposed to Hollywood studios that tend to be motivated to make something that needs to make them money back.”

The fest’s not all about the voyeuristic ritual of viewing movies either. The art and craft is explored at the OFF Filmmakers Conference and Writer’s Theatre program. A slate of OFF parties bring film geeks, fans and artists together for celebrating and networking.

In addition to Dillon’s film, others to check out include:

Documentaries
Shoulder the Lion
This self-conscious art film portrays three disparate people whose physical disabilities don’t stop them from being fully engaged artists. Alice Wingwall is a much-exhibited Berkeley, Calif-based photographer and filmmaker who happens to be blind. Graham Sharpe is a musician with a severe auditory condition. In his native Ireland he writes and performs music and runs a major music festival. Katie Dallam is a Spring Hills, Kan. visual artist who suffered traumatic brain injury in a boxing match that inspired Million Dollar Baby. Her art before and after her injury is markedly different.

In the spirit of Errol Morris, filmmakers Patryk Rebisz and Erinnisse Heuer-Rebisz use assertive techniques to create a visually stunning if sometimes overdone palette that gets inside the head of its subjects.

On Her Own
Morgan Schmidt-Feng’s portrait of the dissolution of a Calif. farm family, the Prebliches, plays like a dramatic film as tragedy and ill-fate befall the clan. The troubles of these salt-of-the-earth folks symbolize what happens to many small farm families. The story’s emotional heart belongs to Nancy Prebilich, who carries on despite losing it all.

Narrative Features
The Jazz Funeral
When an unhappy man fears his adult son may be turning into him, he concocts a scheme to spend a week with him in New Orleans to set him straight. As the pair’s insecurities and resentments come tumbling out, their relationships with the women in their lives come undone. James Morrison and Bobby Campo find the right notes as this awkward, strained yet loving father and son, respectively.

Slow West
This opening night film debuted at Sundance. It follows the adventures of 16-year-old Jay, who travels from Scotland to the 19th century American frontier in search of the woman he’s infatuated with. Newcomer Kodi Smit-McPhee stars as Jay. Co-starring are Michael Fassbender as Silas, the mysterious man Jay hires to protect him, and Ben Mendelsohn as one of the hard characters Jay confronts.

Cut Bank
The closing night film is another young man in peril story, this time set in contemporary Montana. In his rural town Dwayne (Liam Helmsworth) captures something on video he shouldn’t have and bad men with mean intentions come for after him and his girl. Co-starring Teresa Palmer, Billy Bob Thornton, John Malkovich, Bruce Dern and Oliver Platt.

For tickets and festival schedule details, visit omahafilmfestival.org.

Omaha Film Festival turns nine

March 6, 2014 1 comment

Omaha’s film culture is radically improved over even a decade ago.  One of the reasons for that is the Omaha Film Festival, an annual film orgy now in its ninth year.  It’s the city’s single largest and most intense concentration of film and even though the actual festival only happens once a year the organization sponsors special screenings and events throughout the year to keep the cinema embers burning.  Taken together with the metro’s lone full-fledged art cinema, Film Streams, which operates year-round, locals and visitors alike have a huge selection of films and film events to choose from.  Less than an hour away another great art cinema, the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center, operates in Lincoln, Neb.   The state also boasts a robust film community made up industry professionals who reside here, including three Oscar winners (writer-director Alexander Payne, editor Mike  Hill, and cinematographer Mauro Fiore) and several others who’ve distinguished themselves in film (Sandy Venziano, John Beasley, Nik Fackler, Lew Hunter, Mark Hoeger, Dana Altman, Richard Dooling).  A recent addition to that community is Timothy Christian, whose Night Fox Entertainment is a film financing and producing company.  Payne brings a steady diet of Hollywood with him courtesy of the features he makes here, most recently Nebraska, and the film figures he invites here (Laura Dern, Debra Winger, Steven Soderberg, Jane Fonda, Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb).

The 2014 Omaha Film Festival is underway as I write this.  It runs March 5-9 at the Marcus Village Pointe Cinema.  On this same blog see my companion feature story on Omaha native James Marshall Crotty, who has two documentaries in the fest, Master Debaters and Crotty’s Kids.

 

 

 

 

Omaha Film Festival turns nine

by Leo Adam Biga

The March 5-9 Omaha Film Festival has gone all digital with its move from Regal Omaha Stadium 16 to Marcus Village Pointe Cinema at 304 No. 174th Street.

Besides the sharper projection offered, OFF Program director Marc Longbrake says the new site is near a higher density population area and the cineplex gets more traffic than the Regal. This marks the fourth venue change in the nine-year history of the little little festival that could, whose growth has been steady if not spectacular.

Ninety-two films from around the nation and the world (20 countries), including several from Neb. and surrounding states, will be screened.

Among the narrative features with a trail of buzz behind them are the opening night selection Obvious Child with its cast of bright newcomers and veteran character actors, the Friday night special Enemy starring Jake Gyllenhaal and the closing night entry Fading Gigolo with Sofia Vergara, Woody Allen, Sharon Stone, Live Schreiber and John Turturro, who wrote-directed it.

Documentary filmmakers from here who have work represented in the fest include James Marshall Crotty (Master Debaters and Crotty’s Kids), Dan Susman and Andrew Monbouquette (Growing Cities) and Elizabeth Bohart (Watchers of the Sky). Theo Love, whose family is from Neb., directed Little Hope was Arson.

 

 

 

 

The live-action shorts include one, Afronauts, co-starring Omaha native Yolonda Ross, who’s drawing raves for her work in the new John Sayles film Go for Sisters (March 25 at Film Streams).

Longbrake says the five-day event is not only an opportunity for filmgoers to see loads of new work but for filmmakers to get their blood, sweat and tears seen by a live audience.

“As a filmmaker you work so hard to get your film made, then you sit in an editing room for a year to finish it, and it’s one thing to send it out to have people review it but it’s another thing to sit in a room with 200 people and have them react to the film and then do a Q&A afterwards.”

For the second year Writer’s Theatre, under the direction of Aaron Zavitz, will showcase live readings of the 16 finalist scripts in the OFF screenplay competition. Several of the scripts are by locals.

The fest’s annual conference will as usual feature guests with serious industry chops. This year’s lineup includes screenwriters Leslie Dixon (Mrs. Doubtfire) and Steve Faber (Wedding Crashers).

For schedule and ticket info, visit http://www.omahafilmfestival.org.

Ex-Gonzo journalist-turned-filmmaker James Marshall Crotty resolved to celebrate debate in new films “Crotty’s Kids” and “Master Debaters”

March 6, 2014 1 comment

The longer I do this the more I happen upon folks from Neb. doing really interesting things.  The subject of the following story, James Marshall Crotty, is a good example. He created a career and brand for himself out of whole cloth when he co-conceived and executed a magazine and lifestyle, Monk, and authored city guides predicated on the freedom of the open road and the exploration of all things alternative, fringe, off-the-beaten path, iconoclastic, and, idiosyncratic.  After this gonzo period in his life he’s “gone straight” to report on education for Forbes and to weigh in on the cultural stream for the Huffington Post.  More recently he’s turned filmmaker by producing-directing two documentaries, Master Debaters and Crotty’s Kids, that marry his subculture leanings with his love for speech and debate, which he excelled in at Omaha Creighton Prep and coached at New York City high schools.  His experiences observing and coaching debate in inner city environments are captured in his films, both of which are playing the Omaha Film Festival.    See my companion story about the festival on this blog.

 

Ex-Gonzo journalist-turned-filmmaker James Marshall Crotty resolved to celebrate debate in new films “Crotty’s Kids” and “Master Debaters”

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Omaha ex-pat James Marshall Crotty, co-creator of the underground Monk magazine and author of alternative city guides, gained a cult following for his irreverent dashboard reporting about America’s fringes. His arch leanings are on display in two documentaries he’s produced-directed showing at the March 5-9 Omaha Film Festival.

Both films focus on a subculture subject close to his heart, competitive debate. This once itinerant gonzo journalist now based in Los Angeles was a champion debater at Omaha Creighton Prep in the mid 1970s. This self-described “evangelist for debate” passionately portrays the hyper intense activity’s transformational power in his own life and in the lives of South Bronx kids of color.

Master Debaters shows March 6 in the 8:30-10:15 p.m. block of Neb. short docs. Crotty’s Kids shows March 8 at 12:30 p.m. in the feature-length doc block. He’ll do a Q&A after each.

He’s hoping his films inspire funding for an urban debate league he wants to start here as a way to motivate kids to excel in school.

Those familiar with Crotty may find his new gigs as Forbes.com education reporter and crusading debate advocate a departure. It’s actually a catharsis after tiring of the vagabond Kerouac thing, dealing with a protracted lawsuit and losing his intellectual guru and most influential debate mentor – his mother.

He says, Monk, “the National Geographic for freaks,” was as much a rebellion against his Catholic Republican upbringing as anything.

“I was Mr. Alternative hipster subculture guy with Monk and I had this nagging sense the whole time I was interviewing people like the founder of the school for boys who want to be girls to Kurt Cobain to just any kind of an eccentric person or place across the fruited plain that I did not grasp the dominant culture conversation.

“I just felt deep inside I was an uneducated man even though I’d gone to Northwestern. I felt like i was a fraud even though I was really good at spinning this alternative universe.”

He could no longer square his “out there” image with the Jesuit call to be a man for others instilled in him at Prep. He resolved to improve himself and to use debate – “the most profound education experience of my life” – as a means to serve kids from disadvantaged straits.

He felt the discipline of debate helped him and his Prep teammates, among them Alexander Payne (who appears in Crotty’s Kids), find success and he saw no reason it couldn’t do the same for others.

“We were this tribe of academic athletes that learned through debate the ability to speak on our feet, to persuade others about the rightness of our cause. It gives you incredible confidence to tackle any subject. When you’re at the top of your game you’re spending four to five hours a day on it in addition to your schoolwork. And you’re not just reading secondary sources you’re looking up primary sources, you’re going to law libraries, you’re reading studies, you’re really digging deep and you’re able to sort fact from fiction.

“When you have a finely-tuned debate brain the most innocuous statement can be broken apart and you’re able to see through poppycock almost instantly and it’s something really missing in the culture. People are easily bamboozled by false prophets who just because they have such a strong opinion people think they’re telling the truth. That is dangerous for Democracy.”

He says the research skills he learned have served him well.

“I’m able to look beneath the surface to find the truth. Doing Monk I was able to find these people and places that even locals didn’t know existed. That’s because debate trains you to be a geek researcher.”

 

 

 

Crotty'sKids-DVD

 

The sudden death of his mother in 2002 set him on a “sea change” that led him to become a high school debate coach.

“I really felt the calling to help inner city kids.”

But first he needed to immerse himself in education.

“For years I really wanted to study the classics, the great books of civilization. I finally got the chance after we sued Tony Shalhoub and the producers of the Monk TV show in the late ’90s for stealing our brand. It took two years. In 2000 I decided to give up the Monk (mag) hat and go back to school and study the great books at a great little school called St. Johns College Santa Fe (N.M.).

“You sit around a table seminar-style and the tutors ask really good questions to help you dig deeper into the text. I really became a disciple of their method.”

He emerged from his mid-life crisis with a teaching certificate that allowed him to teach the classics and to coach debate. He began at two elite New York City schools to freshen his chops.

“I had been so long out of the game and I knew it had changed a lot. It’s like coming back to play any sport 25-30 years later. It had gotten so much faster.”

He says coaching proved emotional for him because “it gave me a way to give back during a difficult time in my life – I was mourning my mother through coaching these kids.”

After joining the newly formed Eagle Academy in the mid-2000s he made his experience there the basis for Crotty’s Kids.

 

 

 

 

He says the difference between a product of white privilege like himself and “a kid who grows up in the South Bronx is not as great as people might think,” adding, “The one thing that was really obvious to me is that a young man in the South Bronx does not just walk into a whole bunch of cultural capital just by osmosis.”

He says his growing up in a home filled with books and dinner-time conversations about current events is a far cry from what the kids he worked with experienced.

“These kids don’t have that by and large. As a result their vocabulary and basic reasoning powers are not being developed. So my job as a coach was to fill in that gap – the cultural capital piece – and the way I did that was to have adult, intellectual, fact-based conversations with them about whatever interested them. I also had my kids read the classics.”

He says the process of competitive speech and debate develops critical thinking skills in youths that have “an incredible trickle down effect that enables them to excel in school at a much higher level than their peers.” He adds, “It sort of feeds on itself. Young men and women at-risk are looking to compete and win. You get them to see it as a sport and they do whatever it takes. It becomes infectious.”

Sure enough, his kids became champions. One earned a full-ride.

Yet the central focus of Crotty’s Kids is Crotty, not the kids. He comes off as charismatic, quirky, caring, driven. He didn’t intend being the “star” but the footage or lack thereof dictated it.

“It’s not the Hoop Dreams of debate I wanted to make, it’s some other film,” he says.

He’s still in touch with some of his old students, several of whom are doing well in college.

“I’m a kind of surrogate father figure but I don’t push it. I had my chance to really impart as much as I could while I was with them but they need to figure things out on their own. They always know I’m there for them if they ever get in a jam.”

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