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Intrepid photojournalist Don Doll reinvents himself by adding video to repertoire of making images that matter


Intrepid photojournalist Don Doll reinvents himself by adding video to repertoire of making images that matter

©by Lei Adam Biga

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

 

Giving Voice to the Voiceless
Since first picking up a camera in the 1960s while ministering to residents of Sioux reservations in South Dakota, the Rev. Don Doll of Omaha has become a well-traveled, award-winning photojournalist. The Jesuit priest is perhaps best known for chronicling the Lakota, Dakota and Nakota people’s attempts to integrate traditional ways in nontraditional times. Two acclaimed books, Crying for a Vision (1976, Morgan and Morgan) and Vision Quest (1994, Crown), depict the suffering and resurgence of these Indian cultures through his haunting pictures and his subjects’ stirring words.

For a pair of National Geographic spreads he lived with Yupik Eskimos and Athapaskan Indians to record the daily rituals of native societies far outside the mainstream. For the Jesuit Refugee Service he captured the human toll exacted by land mines in Angola and Bosnia and the wrecked lives left behind by civil strife in Sri Lanka. For yet more assignments he went to Cambodia, Belize, the Dominican Republic and other remote locales to document the disenfranchised.

“I’ve thought of myself as giving voice to people who normally don’t have a voice,” said Doll, a fine arts professor at Creighton University, where he holds the Charles and Mary Heider endowed Jesuit Chair. “My work has generally been about other cultures — about how other people live and work. It’s been about telling people’s stories and breaking some stereotypes. As a priest, I’m formed by the faith I’ve grown into and one of the foundations of that faith is to have special appreciation for other people. And I think when you point a camera at someone it should be a loving look at that person.”

A master still photographer, Doll’s images are notable for their clarity, power and depth. Portraits, like the enigmatic ones for Vision Quest, are among his favorites. “I love making insightful pictures of people that reveal something of their character, but leave a question mark. I think any good portrait has a bit of mystery and ambiguity in it. Without raising that question, it becomes boring.”

A New Path
Major publications have long sought Doll’s talent, but he has remained selective about the projects he takes. Until recently, he used a 35-millimeter Leica to tell his stories. Now, at 63, an age when most artists slip comfortably into a safe niche, he is reinventing himself as a videographer.

While far from abandoning still work, he now mainly works in digital video and, along with writer Elizabeth O’Keefe, a former student of his who is publications coordinator for the U.S. Jesuit Conference, he is beginning to make waves in this new field. A story he shot and that he and O’Keefe edited and produced appeared on ABC’s “Nightline last year. The story, “Finding Ernesto,” grew out of a report the pair prepared in El Salvador on the efforts of Jesuit priests to reunite loved ones separated during the civil war there. A second story by the team — this one chronicling a Jesuit priest who is a kind of Martin Luther King figure in India — is being considered for future “Nightline” airing.

The El Salvador and India pieces are installments in a larger, multi-media documentary project by Doll and O’Keefe called The Jesuits: Two Thousand Years After Christ, which illustrates the Jesuit order’s mandate of working toward social justice and respecting other cultures. Additional stories for that project include a biography on Society of Jesus founder St. Ignatius, which sent the filmmakers to Spain and Italy last spring, and a look at the Jesuit presence on the reservations, which brought Doll back to his old stomping grounds.

How he came to photograph old friends in video after portraying them in stills is emblematic of his need to find new means of expressing himself and his faith. The ever-inquisitive Doll attended intensive professional workshops on Web publishing and DVD production. Part of his motivation to learn new forms was to introduce his students to Wed design, a class he has taught at Creighton, and to gain more personal expertise making CD-ROMs.

“I began to learn that just having pictures and type on a page is not enough. You also need sound and video. I saw people multi-purposing their material — interviews, photographs or whatever — and publishing them in different media.” Attracted by that idea, Doll incorporated his Vision Quest work, both the images he made and the sound recordings of interviews he conducted, into a CD-ROM but found many interviews unusable due to excessive ambient noise. “I resolved the next time I did any project the sound was going to be outstanding.” Under the instruction of veteran videographers Doll not only learned state-of-the-art audio but, much to his surprise, developed an affinity for making moving pictures.

Making Moving Pictures
Transitioning from the still to video format has meant learning a whole new set of techniques, realities and assumptions.

“Video is a storytelling medium. It’s more about the words than it is about the pictures. Before, I was making good pictures that almost supplanted the words,” he said. “Now, I’ve had to learn how to shoot a sequence — with a wide shot, a medium shot and a close up — and how to cover sequences and how to do interviews and how to put it all together. The guys who have been doing this for 20 years know a lot of tricks I certainly don’t. But I think the advantage I have is the compositional, lighting, and story skills I bring. I’m aware of every visual detail in the frame. I know how to layer a picture with meaning in every corner.”

Overall, he described as “exciting” his adventure in video. Gone, however, are the days when he could quietly insinuate himself into a scene and be an inconspicuous observer with only his small hand-held camera in-tow. Now, he lugs around a big, clattering batch of audio-visual devices that require more set-up, more cooperation, more planning.

For his first video project Doll chose a familiar subject — the reservations. Today, after completing several pieces, he feels he is hitting his stride. “I think I know how to shoot good video now. I’m getting some nice stuff. And I’m finally feeling comfortable editing, which is a whole other skill dealing with time and sound and pacing. The audio cut goes down first and then the pictures are dropped in, which is just the complete opposite of how I worked before. Have I found my voice totally in this new medium?  I’m not sure. But the beauty of digital video is that you hear people talk — in their own voice — with real fervor and passion. That’s a powerful tool for people who have something to say.”

Just Doing It
The new technology also allows anyone with the ability to bypass traditional media paths and produce Hollywood-Madison Avenue quality video on their own home studio set-up. Doll shoots with a Canon XL-1 digital video camera-sound system and edits on a dual processor Macintosh G4 (“my souped-up personal computer”) with Apple Final Cut Pro software. “We produced a program for ‘Nightline’ on it, and they were blown away,” Doll said. “Now, you can conceive a project or story or idea and, with a few thousand bucks, actually go out and do it. You can produce professional videos or movies or broadcast television programs. DVD technology is going to be really big. We’ll see a whole new generation of filmmakers.”

Currently on a leave of absence from teaching, Doll plans wrapping-up the Jesuit project (to be released as a DVD) by July and returning to the classroom next fall brimming with new ideas. “That’s how I’ve always done things. I teach for three or four years, then I take off to go do something and then I reflect on that and bring it back to the teaching experience. It’s a mutually enriching process.” As for new photo shoots, he said, “With this endowed chair I have the resources to go photograph anywhere in the world I want if I find a story I want to cover. I have the luxury of going where my heart is. It’s kind of sweet.”

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Photographer Jim Scholz and his lifelong mission to honor beauty

April 27, 2018 Leave a comment

 

Photographer Jim Scholz and his lifelong mission to honor beauty

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the May 2018 issue of the New Horizons

 

They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Photographer Jim Scholz of Omaha finds beauty wherever life takes him. The 73-year-old former Roman Catholic priest began making images growing up in the St. Cecilia Cathedral neighborhood.

“I started shooting pictures in high school for the yearbook and ever since it’s been a real passion and interest for me,” he said

He recalls “the magic of that first print when I put the white piece paper in the developer and an image actually came up on it.” It happened in the Cathedral High darkroom. From that moment on, he said, “I was forever hooked by the magic that this is more than just reality. It’s a powerful thing.”

“I started off with a 35-millimeter camera because everybody had one. You could buy the film pretty inexpensively. You could develop the film in your own darkroom. I shot with that for a long time.”

He was born in Cheyenne, Wyoming during the Second World War. His father saw U.S. Army duty in the Pacific. After WWII, his father was offered a job with an Omaha company. Jim was 5 when his family moved here. His father worked management jobs at various Omaha firms. His stay-at-home mom eventually went back to work in her chosen field, dietetics, at area hospitals.

Serving a higher purpose

Scholz kept right on developing his photographic eye at seminary in Denver, Colorado, doing graduate work at Creighton University and serving metro parishes as an Archdiocesan priest.

“It was always a hobby.”

He doesn’t say it, but there’s a sacred dimension to capturing the essence of humanity and nature. As a priest ministering to his flock, he was called to mirror Christ’s unconditional love and to share the liturgy’s sublime peace. As a photographer, he reflects back what people project or see. Sometimes, he shows what they’ve never seen before. Surely, there’s something inspirational, perhaps even spiritual in that.

Omaha fashion designer Mary Anne Vaccaro admires his fidelity to beauty.

“Jim is very grounded and spiritual. As a photographer he embraces his creative gift with love, discipline and respect. He sees beauty in unexpected and unlikely places. His attention to detail and quality is amazing. His passion for his work drives him to excellence.”v

Tom Sitzman, owner of Connect Gallery in Omaha, sees in Scholz’s photography the same sensitivity and compassion that infused his ministry.

“I first knew Jim as my pastor at Sacred Heart Church in Omaha. His homilies were conversations, not lectures, filled with examples of everyday people living everyday lives. Those sitting in the pews could see themselves in those situations of the human condition – funny, sad, enlightening, tragic and giving – knowing he understood. His photography is deeply rooted and grounded in Jim the man and priest. They depict everyday events we too often take for granted. A moon rise over the city. Dark, foreboding storm clouds moving across a still sun-lit hay meadow, An old timber building. Jim knows where to stand to get the feel of size and distance as well as where the light is coming from. They are the works of a well-trained eye that knows how to compose a scene with his camera the way he did with words in a homily.”

Scholz ministered in Elgin, Nebraska and at St. Bernards, St. Cecilia and St. Leo in Omaha. The parish he served longest at was Sacred Heart in North Omaha, where he helped found Heart Ministry, which has grown to serve residents needs in the city’s most poverty-stricken neighborhood.

“I feel lucky to have been not only in that space but other parishes where I served or other jobs that I worked at. When you’re around someplace for awhile you’re hopefully going to make a contribution and I feel good about when I look back at something that helped people and continues to help people.”

Scholz received the 1995 Omaha Archdiocese Sheehan Award (then-the Presidential Citation) recognizing clergy as outstanding leaders in their communities.

Sacred Heart years

During his 1981 to 1998 Sacred Heart tenure, he took over an integrated parish in decline, its ranks thinned by white flight. Mass attendance was abysmal. Gospel already had a hold there, thanks to Father Tom Furlong introducing it in the ‘late ’60s-early ’70s.

“It was a very conservative, quiet little neighborhood parish,” Scholz recalled. “Most of the members were longtime parishioners, many of them quite elderly. Physically, the place was dilapidated. I felt we had to do something dramatic.”

He got the idea for more spirited, gospel music-based “uplifting liturgies” from an inner city parishes conference in Detroit. He was by impressed how churches in similar circumstances turned things around with the help of gospel. He saw the music as a homage to black heritage and a magnet for new members.

“What the music said was we are reaching out to your traditions and we’re trying to make you feel comfortable to come to our church,”

Scholz found a first-rate choir director in Glenn Burleigh, under whom the church’s full-blown entry into gospel began at the Saturday night Mass. The 10:30 Sunday liturgy remained ultra-traditional and sparsely attended.

“Six months later we’d gone from a Saturday service with 30 to 35 people, with hardly any music, to standing in the aisles full with a wonderful ensemble,

“Glenn wrote special music almost weekly for the service. People started to come out of the woodwork once the word got out. It was such a refreshing thing.

“We didn’t grow exponentially in black membership, although we did grow some. What we grew in was white membership.”

When Burleigh was hired away by a mega-Baptist church in Houston, Scholz tapped his assistant, William Tate, to take over. Scholz recruited a new choir director, Mary Kay Mueller, to energize the 10:30 Sunday service. For inspiration, he referred her to The Blues Brothers. So it came to pass the movie’s Triple Rock Church became a model for the expressive Sacred Heart liturgy. No, Scholz weren’t interested in “people doing somersaults down the front aisle. But he wanted “to come up with that spirit.” Unbridled. Joyous. Free. “We really need to come alive here,” he told Mueller. Thus, the Freedom Choir was born. The rest is history as that rollicking Sunday service began packing the pews and still does three decades later.

An abiding passion for photography 

All the while Sacred Heart grew its base, Scholz made photographs.

“When I had a little time off, an afternoon, or before I’d go to bed at night I’d probably spend the last half hour of my waking life that day by reading about photography or studying photographers like Ansel Adams and all these heroes of mine.

“The more you get into it then you start studying other people’s work and you try to emulate what they do and improve what you do. Ansel Adams wrote a series of books on the camera, the lens, photo development and so on. I checked them out of the library a number of times and studied these things to learn how he developed film and how he arrived at his vision.”

Other photographers Scholz has admired and studied include Wynn Bullock and Edward Weston.

Scholz followed his cleric calling for 27 years. After much deliberation and prayer, he shed the collar in 1999. He is still Catholic and regularly attends Mass. Now, he’s nearing 20 years in his second career as a full-time architecture, portrait and fine art photographer.

He describes his own aesthetic this way: “Probably at the baseline is a sense of beauty, whether color or color harmony or composition or subject. That would be the underlining thing. I love landscapes. I love abstracts, I love people, you name it.” He finds beauty in it all. “There are certain patterns hardwired into the fabric of our beings that produce pleasure, and we declare them beautiful. This is also true of music and other art forms. We are better because of what Michelangelo and Beethoven created and left to us;”

Ideas for projects are not hard to come by.

“I probably have more imagination than time. Every now and then I’ll get cranked up about a certain theme or methodology. I started a project photographing Omaha and Nebraska artists a few years ago. I just wanted to do that. I know a number of artistsand i started taking their picturesI’m about half way through that and hopefully I’ll have a show.

He envisions an exhibition in which each of his artist portraits is displayed next to a work by the artist, whether a sculpture or painting or whatever it might be.

“I’ve talked with a couple gallery owners about it. It might also be a book. We’ll see what happens.”

Catherine Ferguson is among the artists Scholz has photographed. He’s also photographed her work.

“Jim and I worked together to produce photographs of my stacked glass series,” Ferguson said. “He is a generous artist ready to help another artist see their vision realized. Jim is a patient, calm, gentle perfectionist. He gives me all the time necessary to have the prints exactly as I want them, no hurry, no pressure. I feel he is under-recognized as an artist in our community.”

Another artist friend is Shelly Bartek.

“I’ve known Jim from the time he was a priest at Sacred Heart to now where he is a successful national photographer,” Bartek said. “He is an authentic, all-around photographer serving to bring his clients the best quality images that represent their brand. His personal

passion to create art in his work has inspired us all through his concept and technical perfection.

“Best of all, he’s a great friend.”

About a decade ago, Scholz collaborated with writer Leslie Little on a museum quality book about Paris.

“I made the Paris Icons book images during two short visits to the city in 2007,” Scholz said. “It then took several months to edit, layout and in general prepare for print. The result was well received and we were awarded three international awards for the publication.

“It is always a joy to produce something of beauty that people appreciate.”

By choice, he’s not little documentary work on the gritty margins of life. “That’s a whole journalistic approach I respect greatly – it’s just not me. I like to show the best of people.” That includes showcasing the works of makers’ hands. Then there’s the joy he takes in picturing the natural splendor of God’s handiwork.

Expanding and honing his vision

Shooting Opera Omaha rehearsals and productions has deepened a long-held appreciation for music.

“What it’s done is it’s really stretched me in terms of my knowledge, understanding and appreciation of the whole operatic canon. My vision has been broadened.”

Photography has opened new vistas for him.

“If I never made another photograph, if I never went click again, I still think my life would be much richer because as I look at the world I see things that before I would never have noticed. The angle of the light or the color or whatever. There’s a whole bunch of stuff I would never have paid attention to, but the discipline of seeing as a camera sees forces you to see these things.

“I can sit an airport waiting for a plane for two hours and not be bored at all because I’m looking all around, seeing a grandma with little kids, the light coming in the windows, the big airplane rolling up on the tarmac outside. All this stuff.”

Cultivating a vision of what he wants to shoot and executing that vision, he said, is “a process.”

“It’s a lot more the work you put into it then the gizmo that goes click. The ultimate satisfaction is the process itself – getting to see things maybe in a little bit unique way and presenting them so that people say, ‘Oh, look at that, I never noticed that, I walked by this every day and never saw it.’ It’s finding what’s interesting.

“You’re expressing it from your perspective. You bring a whole life history and all kinds of things to color that.”

Photographers like him prefer to say they “make” rather than take photos.

“There’s a distinction.” Scholz said/ “You see something and you have a vision of how you want to present it.”

He saw in his mind’s eye what he wanted to achieve with his portrait of the late sculptor John Walz before ever shooting anything. “I had a vision of what I wanted to present, so I exposed the film to achieve that and I printed the print to achieve that.”

Walz turned a former Burlington Railroad Station power plant into his home-studio.

“I did the photo shoot with him part way through the remodel,” Scholz said. “I wanted to show him in his art creation, but we wanted a little mystery, so that’s why his face is a little in shadow.”

Contrasting elements can communicate mystery, energy, texture, whimsy, depth of perception, the passage of time, et cetera.

“I like to work with the idea of the human figure and the natural world,” Scholz said,

For an image he made of footprints in the sand at Canon Beach on the Oregon coast, he explained, “I wanted it to convey the essence of nature and humanity. The ocean is kind of symbolic of the timeless and I had to wait for somebody to walk along the beach to produce footprints, which get washed out with the next wave or two. That’s a story about how nature is constantly washing over us.

“As humans, we think we’re so important but in the big picture we’re real new on the scene and we probably won’t last all that long either. We’re just a little part of that from the beginning-to-the-end scenario.”

For a picture he made of a nude young woman lying on a fallen redwood tree in a Big Sur Coast grove, he wanted the contrast of “the old rugged, hard-edged woods and the softness of the young human figure.”

“That was done very deliberately to hopefully make the image strong.”

On a trip to Chatterbox Falls, British Columbia, he captured for posterity a sublime setting he awoke to,

“My friends, Ron and Judy Parks, rented a Nordic Tug for the summer to explore the coast and invited me to join them for a few days. We docked there for the night and in the morning I liked the reflections from the rain on the dock and the movement of the water. I made the picture with the falls in the background.”

During a Colorado sojourn he set out to photograph one of the state’s most prominent mountains, Longs Peak.

“Since the Forest Service does not allow camping there we had to leave the parking lot at midnight and climb all night to get there just before dawn. It was cloudy at sunrise but just for a moment the clouds partially broke and I was able to get the shot.”

 

Intuitive and intentional

Sometimes, the opportunity for a picture appears as he’s driving to or from an assignment.

“I was coming from Kansas City and I took the back roads and just about sunset I saw this partially plowed wheat field with terraced ridges in a pattern. So I stopped and took a picture. But the sky was very dull – there was nothing. Driving back, I was thinking, what can I do with this? Then I decided to put a woman’s flowing hair in the sky.”

He secured a model for the shoot at his studio. He made the image and overlaid it in the picture of the field.

“That was fun. I think that sort of thing makes the image richer.”

Manipulating images on a computer or in the darkroom, he said, “is just a creative tool.”

“People have the idea that in an earlier era of photography, working in the darkroom was somehow pure. Okay, it wasn’t, it never was. As long as I can darken this part and lighten that part (or crop or burn or do any number of things to manipulate an image), it’s a subjective, editorial process.

“Just the act of making a picture, you choose what to include in the frame and what not. My act of putting a frame around that image begins to edit right there.”

He embraces today’s digital tools.

“What I love about PhotoShop is that now I can do things that even in my wildest dreams in the darkroom I couldn’t achieve. For instance, I have an image of an abandoned ore processing plant high in the Colorado back country that’s been a favorite in galleries. I made it with an eight by ten camera and black and white film. I worked and worked in the darkroom to get all the various tonalities but it was hard because the inside of the building was kind of dark.

“Well, you can only burn an edge so much in the darkroom.”

For this oversized image, he placed his developing tray on the floor and angled the enlarger on the print.

“I’m crawling down there, lightening this part and darkening that part, but you could only go so far and you couldn’t change the focal contrast. With PhotoShop you can adjust the tonality and contrast. The nice thing is once you get done, two years or 20 years from now when you hit print it’s still going to come out the same.Or you can change it.”

“I had an early ’90s show of my work in Omaha. One of the prints was very successful in terms of sales. It also happened to be a print that involved six different negatives at various exposures in the enlarger. The original print probably took me six evenings from seven to midnight and now I suddenly had orders for 10 more. By the time I got done with that whole thing, I was spent and none of the prints were exactly the same because you couldn’t exactly get it the same.”

Whether intuitive or intentional, he’s after the same result – to distill beauty and endow permanence to an ephemeral moment.

Finding a niche

Scholz depends on what he earns photographing for his living. He started his own business, Scholz Images, in 1999. He works from a high-ceilinged downtown studio with ample natural light. It’s outfitted with lights, tents, screens, filters, cases and framed prints.

Most of his time is spent not on making photographs but scheduling. marketing, billing and other business matters. Finding and juggling projects isn’t easy.

“If you’re doing it on your own, you’re always kind of dancing between jobs. It’s a constant changing. When I first started the business I wanted to mostly go in the fine art direction. What i found is that in order to really make a living at it I had to have an additional niche and architecture became the thing I gravitated toward. I realized it was something I could do and it’s a good market. The architecture puts bread on the table and allows me to pay the mortgage and that sort of thing.”

He’s shot for Omaha firms Holland Basham Architects and HDR, for Lincoln-based Clark Enersen Partners and for Denver-based Fentress and Ruggles Mabe.

Fentress flew him to Quantico, Virginia for a week’s shoot at the National Museum of the Marine Corps and to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport for an even longer shoot of the Central Terminal Expansion.

Traveling for his work brings it’s own challenges.

“When you travel a lot you get to sleep on airport floors, have bears come into your camp in the middle of the night, have flat tires on cactus in the back country, be in the center of a bison herd, have foreign police order you to not use your tripod. Just the usual stuff.”

When not flying, he travels to assignments via his trusty Chevy Silverado.

“I find I make my best photos when I have my camera and tripod with me. It can be anywhere that the moment presents itself.”

For most clients, he’ captures objective reality, though he sometimes heightens things via filters and strobes.

“With the commercial work I do, I’m called to record what’s there. Architects like to see all the bricks and everything the way it is. I then like to think of it the way a filmmaker does – how’s this going to look when the sun goes down and there’s still some light in the sky. You’re alway working with light.”

Another major commercial client is J & J Flooring Group, which has sent him on various assignments.

“It’s very challenging to get really interesting pictures of carpet.”

Buildings are easier. For his architectural work, he used to shoot with four by five film.

“In those days if you could get eight pictures a day you were doing really good, especially with color because you had to use several different filters.”

Though there’s little call for it now, he’s fond of large format film photography because he can attain certain qualities with it he can’t in smaller formats or digitially. He first moved to the bigger format in 1980.

“My father built a wooden kit for my four-by-five inch camera. I used that for years. Then I thought, well, if four-by-five is good, then eight-by-ten must be better, so I eventually bought an eight-by-ten.”

He admits he’s “a gear-head” like most photographers when it comes to camera gadgets.

What the large format offers in quality it sacrifices in efficiency.

“The tradeoff is, if you get the image perfectly you’ve got great quality to work with, but you can only make a small number of images, whereas with a smaller camera you might be able to get a hundred images in the same amount of time. So you have to pick your tool for what you want to do

“The larger format allows for more clarity and tonality. You can make increasingly large enlargements that still look good. But it comes at a great cost. The equipment is expensive but the really big cost is hauling it around because it’s heavy and awkward. It’s really tough flying. I much prefer to drive – that way I can load up the truck with lighting gear and I don’t have to worry about it being broken or arriving late or getting lost. When I fly, it really has to get edited down to the very essentials, plus backup. You cant check it – it will end up broken or lost. I carry it on board and stow it overhead.”

Old habits die hard.

“I sometimes think about getting rid of the four-by-five and eight-by-ten but occasionally I do have a client that comes along that wants something in large format film and I’m one of the few guys left that can do it.”

In order to stay current, he’s adapted to digital cameras.

He’s remained true to certain brands.

“I settled in on Nikon for whatever reason and have stayed with it because once you invest in a bunch of lenses then you can use them forever. I can still shoot with the Nikon lenses I got back in the 1960s. I don’t use them all that often anymore, but I can still use them on the camera because they never changed the lens body.”

Standing out from the crowd

For portraits, he uses whatever best serves the subject. A favorite portrait is of a corporate CEO whom Scholz wisely took out of the stuffed shirt, sterile office setting for something more fun and authentic.

“The guy needed a picture for an annual report. I could see in talking to him he just wasn’t into it at all, so I asked, ‘What do you like to do? ‘ He said, ‘I just bought a motorcycle and I like to ride it Sunday afternoons. I said, ‘Okay, let’s do that.” I sat in the back of a pickup with my camera and his wife drove. We were over in Iowa and we drove maybe 30-40 miles down the highway with his hair blowing in the wind. I made lots of pictures in black and white. The whole thing was stronger to me in black and white.

“Later, I decided I wanted a little more drama, so I put the clouds in. The only parts of the image that are in color is the burnt orange gas tank and front fender. It was a custom color designed just for that particular motorcycle. I like black and white because color sometimes is so pretty people stop there without looking deeper, where with black and white you’re reduced to light and dark contests that make your image pop.”

After decades making pictures for public display, Scholz is a fixture on the local photographic scene.

“In general, I think the photographic community here is pretty open and receptive. Most people like each other and get along.”

He counts as peers such well known shooters as Larry Ferguson, Andrew Baran, Monte Kruse. Patrick Drickey, Kat Moser and Sandy Aquila.

He’s talked shop with Omaha native Jim Krantz, who now enjoys a national and international reputation based out of Chicago.

“One of the local people I really admire is Vera Mercer,” Scholz said, “Her work to me is outstanding. I really love what she does.”

His work has shown at Gallery 1516 and Connect in Omaha, at the Museum of Nebraska Art in Kearney and at galleries in Kansas City, Missouri, Santa Fe, New Mexico and other locales.

His work is in public and private collections around the nation and even in in other countries.

Photography equals opportunity 

He makes images to be seen. Naturally, he likes it when people respond favorably to his work. Another fringe benefit of shooting for hire is gaining entree to people and places he’d otherwise not get.

“Being a photographer often times opens doors to things. You get admitted to a lot of places and things you wouldn’t otherwise have access to. For instance, maybe 15 years ago I got a call from a company here in town sponsoring ex-president Bill Clinton to give a keynote talk at an event in Aspen, Colorado. They wanted a lot of pictures of bill involved with people, so they flew me out to Aspen to do that. I spent three days with Bill. Hilary (Clinton) was there. I made all the pictures. Well, this repeated itself in Miami, once here in Omaha, and several times in Aspen.

“That’s not a world I would normally have access to at all, but it was really fun. I remember once in Aspen Bill got there in the afternoon. He was pretty tired having been on the road a lot. He checked into the hotel and decided he wanted to go for a walk downtown. He didn’t get more than a block when he was surrounded in this park by a hundred mothers with little kids. You could see him getting energized. It was fun to see over the course of several events how he would wk with crowds. He had a magic about him

“I remember prior to a cocktail party and dinner he was keynoting there were some guys waiting for his arrival and they were talking about how when they saw Bill Clinton they’re going to give him a piece of their mind. Well, Bill shows up and if by magic those guys are the first people he walks up to. He’s got his hand around one guy telling him a joke and within 10 minutes he totally won them over. I saw that hundreds of times.”

Being a photographer also means forever chasing perfection that can’t be attained.

“My photographer friends and I all know there are certain images meant to tease us into spending a lot of time and effort but we never quite get them. They’re always just a little beyond us.”

Scholz feels it’s good to have something to chase just beyond your grasp in order to stay sharp and hungry. “If you could roll a 300 game every time you bowl, you wouldn’t bowl. It wouldn’t be any fun. It’s the same thing with golf and shooting par.”

The same when making pictures.

“Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Hits and misses come with any creative art. There are times where from start to finish you work it right through and, boy, the whole thing just comes out great.”

The magic of first seeing an image he’s just made still enthralls him. Hooked for life.

Visit http://www.scholzimages.com.

Nature photographer Joel Sartore taking cue from Noah for his National Geographic Photo Ark

April 24, 2018 Leave a comment

Nature photographer Joel Sartore taking cue from Noah for his National Geographic Photo Ark

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

If Noah had a camera, perhaps he would have done what noted nature and wildlife photographer Joel Sartore is doing. Sartore, who resides in Lincoln, Neb., is a star National Geographic shooter in the midst of an epic project, aptly named Photo Ark, that’s creating an archive of global biodiversity in order to raise awareness and spur acton around endangered habitats and species. The National Geographic Society is throwing its considerable weight behind the effort.

The endeavor transcends geo-political differences to put a face on stressed ecosystems and inhabitants.

Photo Ark grew out of Sartore’s early assignments around the world documenting wildlife.

In addition to National Geographic magazine, he’s shot for Audubon, Life and book projects. His work’s been the subject of national broadcasts. He’s a regular contributor on CBS Sunday Morning.

The more he saw and learned, the more species and habitats that became threatened, the more urgency he felt to create a comprehensive archive in his lifetime.

“I’ve been a National Geographic photographer for more than 27 years, and I photographed the first 15 years or so out in the wild doing different conservation stories, on wolves, on grizzly bears, on koalas, all in the wild,” he said. “Can I say that moved the needle enough to stop the extinction crisis? No, it did not. So I just figured maybe very simple portraits lit exquisitely so you can see the beauty and the color, looking animals directly in the eye with no distractions, would be the way to do it.

“NG sees themselves as not only responsible stewards of the environment, but they’re in it for the long haul. I always believed that, if I could build the project up a bit, they would see the value in it. And they sure have.  Sadly, I have seen species go extinct since starting the Photo Ark. A rabbit, a fish, an insect and the Rabbs’ fringe-limbed treefrog have all gone extinct since I photographed them. It saddens me greatly, but also angers and inspires me to want to give everything I’ve got to this project, and use extinction as a wake up call. As these species go away, so could we.”

Traveling to where species are, often to remote areas, accounts for much of his time on the project.Ironically, the Photo Ark practically began in his own backyard about 12 years ago.

“The Photo Ark started when my wife got breast cancer. That event ‘grounded’ me for a year in that I literally needed to stay home and take care of my wife and kids while she got chemo and radiation. She’s fine now, and on the days that she felt better, I started going to the Lincoln Children’s Zoo, a mile from my house, to take photos. The naked mole rat at the Lincoln Children’s Zoo was the first animal to come on board the Ark.

“Since then, I have visited 40 countries and worked in more than 250 zoos, aquariums and animal rescue centers around the world to create the Photo Ark. Most of the countries I’ve visited for this project are those I’d not visited before.”

He’s already logged thousands of hours and tens of thousands of miles to photograph thousands of species, and yet he’s far from finished.

“We are a little more than halfway done after 12 years with just over 7,500 species (photographed). Because we’ll now have to travel farther and wider to get the remaining species (an estimated 5,000 more), it’ll take us another 15 years to complete. So, if I had to guess, I’d say another 30 countries or so should do it.”

When working in the wild, things can get hairy.

“Now that I’m working mainly at zoos, the work has fewer unpleasant surprises. During my 16 years on assignment in the field for National Geographic magazine, however, I had a few close calls with critters. But it’s mostly the little things I’m most wary of.”

For example, there are diseases carried by insects like the Marburg virus.

“I was quarantined three weeks for that one and didn’t get it.”

Then there’s a flesh-eating parasite called mucocutaneous leishmaniasis.

“I did get that one and the treatment is no fun at all.”

Things are less creepy-crawly today,

“These days, working in controlled environments. most of these shoots go extremely smoothly because the animals have been around people all their lives,” he said. “But sometimes the critters do ‘have their way’ with my backgrounds and sets.

“Having enough time to get to everything is the biggest challenge, but definitely doable. Thankfully, the project isn’t political and so we’re welcomed pretty much everywhere we go.”

The work holds deep personal meaning for him.

“Most animals I photograph have a real impact on me. They’re all like children to me because I’m the only voice most will ever have. It’s giving a voice to the voiceless. For many of these species, especially the small ones that live in the soil or in little streams or high up in the treetops, this will be their only chance to be heard before they go extinct. That’s a great honor, and a great responsibility, and why I’m devoting my life to this. “If I had to choose one right now though, I suppose it would be Nabire, one of the last northern white rhinos at the Dvur Kralove Zoo in the Czech Republic. She was the sweetest and passed away less than two weeks after our visit of complications brought on by old age. Now the world just has three left, all in a single pen in Kenya.”

EDITOR’S NOTE:The world’s last male northern white rhino, age 45, died at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya on March 19.

Sartore, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln journalism graduate, is now working exclusively on the Photo Ark. He’s the project’s lone photographer though it’s evolved into a family and legacy adventure.

“My oldest child, Cole, goes with me to assist on most foreign shoots and has promised to carry out the work should I not be able to complete it in my lifetime,” Sartore said.

Photo Ark strives to make a difference. One way is by raising money to save species from extinction. “In the bigger picture,” Sartore said, “we raise public awareness to the extinction crisis.” The message gets out via projections on touchstone buildings (St. Peter’s Basilica, the Empire State Building), publication in NG magazine and posts on NG social media. “The images get people to care about some of the least known animals on the planet while there’s still time to save them.”

The PBS documentary series, Rare: Portraits of the Photo Ark, provided more exposure.

Nat Geo Photo Ark EDGE Fellowship is a new initiative aimed at supporting future conservation leaders working on the planet’s most unique and endangered species. In partnership with the Zoological Society of London’s EDGE of Existence program, the fellowship will support funding and highlight creatures in the Photo Ark that historically receive little or no conservation attention.

Sartore doesn’t mince words when describing what’s at stake with endangered biodiversity and the consequences of inaction.

“We’re looking at a massive extinction event if we don’t control human behavior in a way that spares some of the largest rain forests, prairies, coastal marshes, coral reefs, et cetera. But if we can raise public awareness, and get people to care, it’s my hope there will be far fewer extinctions than predicted. It is not too late to turn this around.

“At its heart, the Photo Ark is meant to be more than just a huge archive; it’s meant to inspire the public to care about the future of all life on Earth, including our own. After all, when we save other species, we’re actually saving ourselves.”

In his travels, he encounters just enough positive developments to encourage him.

“I meet people every month who have saved species simply because they cared enough to devote time to it. That inspires me greatly and gives me plenty of hope to carry on.”

To those who pooh-pooh global warming and the damage done by ever encroaching human contact with the wild, he offers some food for thought.

“People don’t think this issue affects them, but it will in a major way in the not too distant future. Climate change, overfishing of the seas, habitat loss, clean air, clean water, good food to eat – these things are all tied together. When we save these other species, we’re actually saving ourselves. It’s my hope, my prayer, that the public wakes up, and soon. There’s still time to save the Earth, but we must act now.

“There are a million things we each can do: Insulate your home and drive a smaller car to reduce your carbon footprint. Eat less meat or no meat. Put zero, and I mean zero, chemicals on your lawn. And just how do you spend your money? Every time you break out your purse or your wallet, you’re saying to a retailer, ‘I approve of this, please do it again’. Is your money helping to tear down the world or to save it? Yes, it requires a bit of education to know right from wrong in terms of your consumer choices, but it’s so important.”

In 2019, the Lincoln Children’s Zoo will incorporate a Photo Ark show into its new exhibit space.

Even three decades into his high profile career, Sartore still has to pinch himself that it’s real, especially the part about his modern-day Noah’s ark gig.

“I still can’t believe a kid from Nebraska who dreamed of working for National Geographic is doing just that. I’m a lucky guy, to say the least.”

For more about the project, visit natgeophotoark.org. Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

Please join me for – Mauro Fiore: Writing with Light and buy new edition of ‘Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film’

July 15, 2016 2 comments

 

Cover Photo

Please join me for–

Mauro Fiore: Writing with Light 

And buy new edition of ‘Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film’

Thursday, July 21 @ 7 p.m.
KANEKO, 1111 Jones St.
Tickets $10 General Admission. FREE for KANEKO Members

KANEKO hosts Academy Award winning director of photography Mauro Fiore for an audio-visual presentation exploring his career. Fiore’s filmography as a DP includes “Training Day,” “The A-Team,””Avatar” – for which he won the Oscar for Best Cinematography – and more recently “Real Steel,” “The Equalizer,””The Kingdom” and “Southpaw.” The Hollywood veteran is recognized for his skill with stylized light and realism. He’s collaborated with such major directors as Joe Carnahan, Michael Bay, James Cameron, Peter Berg and Antoine Fuqua. He and Fuqua have teamed on five features, the latest of which is the soon to release remake of “The Magnificent Seven.”

Fiore very much sees himself as a storyteller working in light and image to fulfill the vision of the writer and director.

The July 21 discussion will be moderated by yours truly. As an author-journalist-blogger I bring years of experience writing and reporting about film to the moderator’s chair. I am the author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film” – a collection of my journalism about the Oscar-winning filmmaker. I will be selling and signing a new edition of the book at the event.

The cost is $25.95.

 

FINAL FRONT COVER 6-28-16  FINAL BACK COVER 6-28-16

 

Strong praise for”Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”–
“This is without question the single best study of Alexander Payne’s films, as well as the filmmaker himself and his filmmaking process. In charting the first two decades of Payne’s remarkable career, Leo Adam Biga pieces together an indelible portrait of an independent American artist, and one that’s conveyed largely in the filmmaker’s own words. This is an invaluable contribution to film history and criticism – and a sheer pleasure to read as well.” ––Thomas Schatz, Film scholar and author (“The Genius of the System”)

“Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film” charts the Oscar-winning filmmaker’s rise to the elite ranks of world cinema. Articles and essays take you deep inside the artist’s creative process. It is the most comprehensive look at Payne and his work to be found anywhere. This new edition features significant new content related to “Nebraska” and “Downsizng.” We have also added a Discussion Guide with Index for you film buffs and students. The book is also a great resource for more casual film fans who want a handy Payne primer and trivia goldmine.  The book releases September 1 from River Junction Press.

For inquiries and pre-orders, contact: leo32158@cox.net. Follow my work at–
leaoadambiga.com and www.facebook.com/LeoAdamBiga.

Mauro Fiore: Writing with Light is a part of the Storytelling season at KANEKO June 3 – August 27. Learn more about the Storytelling exhibitions and programs at–
http://thekaneko.org/kaneko-programs/storytelling/

Hope to see you there.

 

MAURO FIORE: WRITING WITH LIGHT – Yours truly interviews Oscar-winning cinematographer live on stage at Kaneko


Mauro Fiore is Nebraska’s best-kept secret cinema success story:

The native of Calabria, Italy is one of three Oscar winners residing in Nebraska.

This A-list director of photography is married to an Omaha gal he met on set.

He works with leading Hollywood directors.

He has been the cinematographer for James Cameron on Avatar, Michael Bay on The Island, Joe Carnahan on The A-Team and Smokin’ Aces, Peter Berg on The Kingdom and Wayne Wang on The Center of the World.

His collaborations with director Antoine Fuqua extend over five films, beginning with their breakout project, Training Day, followed by Tears of the SunThe Equalizer, Southpaw and coming this fall – The Magnificent Seven. Their work together is one of the longest-lived and most successful collaborations between a director and cinematographer in contemporary American cinema.

The art and craft of cinematography is the focus of the July 21 program at Kaneko in the Old Market. I will be interviewing Mauro live on stage for this Inside the Actors Studio-style event featuring clips from his stellar body of work.

Mauro’s journey in film encompasses 30 years. It began with a long apprenticeship. He paid his dues on low budget exploitaion films as a key grip, dolly grip, electrician and gaffer. He crewed on some make-wave films in the early 1990s, such as One False Move and Schindler’s List. His move into camera operating led to doing additional photography on a pair of Michael Bay mega-hits, The Rock and Armageddon. That led to Mauro getting the DP job for Bay’s The Island. He has sometimes worked with his close friend, mentor and colleague Janusz Kaminiski.

Mauro will discuss his approach to lighting sets and photographing scenes as an integral part of the storytelling process. He will also touch on his mentors, collaborators and inspirations. My conversation with Mauro will offer a rare, personal, behind-the-scenes look at how films actually get made and at what goes into capturing the arresting images, performances and physical action bits that entertain or move us and that in some cases become imprinted in our memory and imagination.

Link to my 2009 Reader cover story about Mauro at–

https://leoadambiga.com/…/05/04/master-of-light-mauro-fiore/

Link to a more recent Omaha Magazine piece i did on Mauro and his wife Christine at–

https://leoadambiga.com/…/omaha-couple-mauro-and-christine…/

For event tickets, go to–

NOTE: Earlier on that same day, July 21, I will be presenting about my trip to Africa with world boxing champ Terence Crawford for the Omaha Press Club Noon Forum. For details, visit–
https://leoadambiga.com/2016/06/29/come-to-my-presentation-about-going-to-africa-with-terence-crawford-july-
MAURO FIORE: WRITING WITH LIGHT – Yours truly interviews Oscar-winning cinematographer live on stage at Kaneko, Omaha’s Old Market
Thursday, July 21, 2016,
KANEKO | 1111 Jones Street, 7:00 p.m..
Here is how Kaneko is touting the program:

KANEKO will host Mauro Fiore: Writing with Light on July 21 at 7 p.m.

Tickets are $10 for General Admission and FREE for KANEKO Members.

KANEKO will host Academy Award winning cinematographer Mauro Fiore for an audio-visual presentation exploring his career as a filmmaker. Fiore has worked on numerous films including Training Day, The A-Team, and Avatar, for which he was awarded the Academy Award for Best Cinematography. A veteran of the Holly film industry, Fiore is recognized for his skill with light and realism. The discussion will be moderated by professional writer and storyteller Leo Adam Biga, author of Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film.

Mauro Fiore: Writing with Light is a part of the Storytelling season at KANEKO June 3 – August 27. Learn more about the Storytelling exhibitions and programs HERE.

 

Through a lens starkly: Alexander Payne films Nebraska


Through a lens starkly: Alexander Payne films Nebraska

EXCERPTS FROM ALEXANDER PAYNE: HIS JOURNEY IN FILM

New edition now available

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

Nebraska

Even though Alexander Payne demonstrates time and again that commercial considerations mean very little to him, following the breakaway success of The Descendants (2011) there was every reasonable expectation he might lean a bit more again in the direction of mainstream with his next film. I say again because I count The Descendants as a conventional, even mainstream work even though its protagonist rails against his comatose wife and sets out to wreck the life of the man she was cheating with, all the while trying not to lose it with his two grieving daughters in tow.

Payne soon quashed any notion of playing it safe when he announced the small, insular back roads comedy-drama Nebraska (2013) as his new feature project. It did not help its bottom line chances that the film is set in rural Nebraska, which for most filmgoers may as well be the dark side of the moon for its unfamiliarity, remoteness, and perceived barrenness. Indeed, if Nebraska conjures any image at all it is of endless cornfields, cows, and monotonously flat, uninspired scenery. When the story laid over such a setting features a confused, depressed old cuss alienated from family and friends and wandering around in a bleak wasteland made even bleaker by black and white photography and desolate late fall, post-harvest locations, it does not exactly engender excitement. The prospect of a dour, feel-bad experience devoid of life and color does not get tongues a-wagging to generate the all important buzz that sells tickets.

Of course, anyone who has seen Nebraska knows the film is not the downer it may appear to be from glimpsing a thirty second trailer or hearing a thirty second sound bite, but that it is ultimately a sweet, deeply affecting film filled with familiar truths amid its very Nebraskaesque yet also quite universal archetypes.

Payne’s insistence on shooting in black and white was a completely legitimate aesthetic choice given the storyline and tone of this stark, autumnal mood piece about an old man having his last hurrah. But it also meant a definite disadvantage in appealing to average or general movie fans, many of whom automatically pass on any non-color film. Compounding the aversion that many moviegoers have with black and white is the fact that most studio executives, distributors, and theater bookers share this aversion, not on aesthetic grounds, but based on the long-held, much repeated argument that black and white films fare poorly at the box office. Of course, there is a self- fulfilling prophecy at work here that starts with studio resistance and reluctance to greenlight black and white features and even when a studio does approve the rare black and white entry executives seem to half-heartedly market and release these pics. It is almost as if the bean counters are out to perversely prove a point, even at the risk of injuring the chances of one of their own pictures at finding a sizable audience. Then when the picture lags, it gives the powerbrokers the platform to say, I told you so. No wonder then – and this is assuming the argument is true – most black and white flicks don’t perform well compared with their color counterparts. Except, how does one arrive at anything like a fair comparison of films based on color versus black and white? Even if the films under review are of the same genre and released in the same period, each is individually, intrinsically its own experience and any comparison inevitably ends up being a futile apples and oranges debate. Besides, there are exceptions to the supposed rule that all black and white films struggle. From the 1970s on The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon, Young Frankenstein, Manhattan, Raging Bull, Schindler’s List, Ed Wood, and The Artist are among the black and white films to have found wide success. It is admittedly a short list but it does prove black and white need not be a death sentence.

To no one’s surprise Paramount did what practically any studio would have done in the same situation, which was to fight Payne on the black and white decision. In no uncertain terms Payne wanted to make Nebraska in black and white and just as adamantly the studio wanted no part of it. He pushed and they pushed back. He would not compromise his vision because from the moment he first read Bob Nelson’s screenplay he clearly saw in his mind’s eye the world of this story play out in in shades of black and white. It just fit. It fit the characters and the settings and the emotions and as far as he was concerned that was that. No questions asked. No concessions made.

I do not claim to know all the details of this protracted dispute or should I say discussion but I do know from what Payne and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael have told me that the issue became a point of some contention. I do not know if it ever reached an impasse where Payne more or less indicated by word or action he was prepared to walk and take the project with him (his own Ad Hominem production company brought the property to Paramount). It certainly wouldn’t surprise me that he let it be known, subtly or not, that he was willing to make the project with another studio if it came to that. It is a moot point now since Paramount eventually acceded to his wishes, though not insignificantly the studio did cut some of the picture’s already small budget as a kind of hedge I suppose against the small business they expected the film to do. The smaller the budget, and in this case it was $12 million, the smaller the risk of not recouping its cost.

Given Payne’s even temperament and gentility, I doubt if things reached the level of shouting or angry exchanges, though he undoubtedly expressed displeasure with their interference and pettiness. I have to think he wore the execs down with his patience and persistence to win the black and white battle but at the end of the day he was willing to give up a couple million dollars in exchange for realizing his vision. I know he said that losing a million dollars is a huge loss when it comes to small-budgeted films like this one and I understand that in order to get the film made within those constraints he and others worked for scale in return for some points on the back end.

 

 

Hampered as it was by the limited release, Nebraska still pulled in nearly $18 million domestically and I am sure when all the figures are added up from North America and overseas, where I predict the film will fare well, especially in Europe, its total gross will be in excess of $25 million. By the time all the home viewing rentals and purchases are taken into account a year from now, I wager the film will have done some $30 million in business, which would more than double its production costs. That is quite a return on a small film that did not get much studio support beyond the bare basics.

Payne could have made things easier for himself and the studio by filming in color and securing a superstar. Nebraska marked quite a departure from the lush, color-filled canvas of Hawaii he captured in The Descendants and the equally verdant California wine country he committed to celluloid in Sideways. Never mind the fact the stories of those earlier films, despite the radical differences of their physical locations, actually share much in common tonally and thematically with Nebraska. The dark comic tone and theme of Payne’s films can threaten to be overshadowed when a star the magnitude of Jack Nicholson (About Schmidt) or George Clooney (The Descendants) attaches himself to one of his projects. But as anyone who is familiar with the subdued star turns of those two actors in those particular films will tell you, Nicholson departed far from his trademark insouciance and braggadocio to totally inhabit his repressed, depressive title character in Schmidt just as Clooney left behind much of his breezy, cocksure charm to essay his neurotic somewhat desperate character in Descendants. Each star was eager to shed his well-practiced, bigger- than-life persona in service of scripts and parts that called for them to play against type. Instead of their usual live-out-loud, testosterone-high roles, they play quiet, wounded, vulnerable men in trouble. For that matter, the men-children Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church play in Sideways are seemingly complete opposites but in actuality are emotionally-stunted, damaged souls using oblivion, alcohol, and sex to medicate their pain and avoid reality. The beauty of the California and Hawaii locales work as contrast and counterpoint to the chaotic lives of these lost figures careening toward catharsis. In Schmidt Omaha is the perfect washed-out backdrop for a man undergoing a full-scale identity and spiritual crisis once he retires and his domineering wife dies.

That brings us to Woody Grant, the crotchety so-and-so at the center of Nebraska. When we meet this reprobate he is near the end of a largely misspent life. Facing his inevitable and nearing mortality he doesn’t much like what he sees when he reviews his life and where he has landed. He is dealing with many deficits in his old age. His body is falling apart. He walks stiffly, haltingly. His alcoholism has been unaddressed and it contributes to his foggy mind, mood swings, propensity to fall and hurt himself, and to utter hurtful things. He seems to derive no joy or satisfaction from his wife of many years and his two adult sons. He almost regards them as inconvenient reminders of his own failings as a husband and father. On top of all this, he is poor and in no position to leave his family anything like a tangible legacy.

This miserable wretch has seized upon what he believes to be his last chance at assuaging a deep well of shame, guilt, bitterness, and resentment. His mistaken belief there is a sweepstakes prize for him to redeem becomes a search for his own personal redemption or salvation. He desperately wants something, namely a truck, to leave his boys. The true meaning of the road trip he embarks on with his son David is only revealed to us and to his boy along the way and that gradual discovery adds layers of poignancy to the story.

When Woody arrives back in his hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska word spreads he is on his way to collect a million dollars sweepstakes prize. For a few moments he becomes a person of substance in the eyes of his extended family and the town’s other residents. Some family members and one old friend turn vultures and demand they get a share of his windfall as compensation for favors they did or loans they made that were never returned. But there is another side to that story. We find out Woody has a kind heart beneath his gruff exterior, so much so that he’s been known to do favors and to give money away without ever expecting repayment. That has led him to be taken advantage of over the years. Then when the truth gets out Woody has not won anything but has misinterpreted a marketing piece for a confirmation letter of his supposed million in winnings, he is publicly humiliated and made out to be a fool.

For Nebraska Payne went one step further in distancing himself from commercial considerations by casting as his two leads Bruce Dern and Will Forte, who at first glance form an unlikely combination but in fact play wonderfully off each other. Dern’s acclaimed performance as Woody Grant earned him a Best Actor prize at Cannes and nominations from the Golden Globes and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Saturday Night Live alumnus Forte is triumphant in his first dramatic role as the sympathetic son David. The next largest part belongs to June Squibb, who until this film was a somewhat familiar face if not a household name (she played Nicholson’s wife in Schmidt). Her stellar work in a colorful role as Woody’s piss-and- vinegar wife Kate has brought her the most attention she’s received in a very long and productive career. Arguably, the biggest name in the picture belongs to Stacy Keach, a veteran of film, television, and stage who has little screen time in the picture but makes the most of it in a powerfully indelible turn as the story’s heavy, Ed Pegram. As strong as these performances are Payne did not do his film any box office favors by choosing actors so far off the radar of moviegoers. That is not a criticism, it is simply a fact. At least a dozen more speaking parts are filled by no-name actors, nonprofessional actors, and nonactors, all of whom add great authenticity to the film but whose obscurity hurts rather than helps the marketing cause.

It may take a while, but I am quite confident Nebraska will eventually find the large audience it deserves. In my opinion it will be a much viewed and discussed stand-the-test-of-time film for its many cinema art merits. As good as Payne’s earlier films have been I believe this to be his finest work to date because it is in my view the fullest expression of his filmmaking talents. Visually, it is a tone poem of the first order and on that basis alone it is a film to be reckoned with. Payne and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael have achieved an expressive black and white palette whose hues perfectly articulate the heavy heart of the story. But Payne also found unobtrusive ways to position the camera and, with editor Kevin Tent, to cut scenes so as to amplify its many moments of humor without ever detracting from its elegiac, soulful mood. Mark Orton’s original music, plus the incidental music used here and there, add more nuances of mood. Payne artfully composed images for the wide screen format he shot in to glean added depth and meaning from the action. Within the same frame he intentionally juxtaposed characters with the stark landscapes, townscapes, and homes they inhabit. Many of these scenes emphasize sadness, stillness and desolation. Irony infuses it all. The result is an ongoing dialogue between people and their environments. Each informs the other and by consequence us.

The filmmaker’s economy of style has never been more evident. He has reached the point of communicating so much with simple brush strokes. Take for instance the way Woody’s harsh childhood experience is encapsulated when the old man and his family visit the abandoned farm house he grew up in. Payne has the camera fluidly glide over the detritus of this once proud home turned wreck and to peak into rooms that carry so much psychic-emotional pain for Woody, who was beaten as a boy. Payne clearly indicates this is a private, anguished, cathartic return for Woody, who has avoided this place and its memories for years.

 

 

Or consider that gathering of taciturn men in Woody’s family at his brother’s home in town. Payne arranges the uncles, brothers, sons, nephews, cousins in an American Gothic pose around the TV set, where the men engage in the almost wordless ritualistic viewing of a football game. It is at once a funny and powerful expression of their tribal, tight-lipped bond. A bond more about association by blood than affinity.

Then there are the almost incidental shots of boarded up buildings in town that symbolize and speak to the economic hard times to have befallen so many small towns like the fictional Hawthorne. In a short scene Payne conveys an important way in which the times have changed there and in towns like it when he has Woody visit the auto service station he used to own and he finds the new owners are Spanish- speaking Hispanics. Woody thus personally encounters a demographic shift that has altered the face of his hometown and much of rural Nebraska. No more is made of it then that simple reality and the brief exchange between Woody and the “newcomers,” but it is enough to say that times have moved on and the Hawthorne he knew has evolved in some ways and remained unchanged in others.

Perhaps the best example of Payne distilling things down to their simplest, purest, most elemental form is the end sequence when David and Woody are in the truck David has purchased and registered in his father’s name. David, who is at the wheel with Woody beside him, stops the truck on the edge of town and invites Woody to take the wheel and drive down main street in his new rig. What follows is one of the most moving denouements in contemporary American cinema. Woody is granted a rare gift when he accepts the invitation to take a celebratory ride down main street. As the truck slowly passes through town he wins more than any prize money could provide when four people from his past catch sight of him and look at him with a combination of awe, admiration, and surprise. It is a perfect moment in the sun vindication for a beleaguered, bedraggled man who suddenly brims with confidence and purpose. Woody leaves town on his own terms, his dignity and pride intact.

What makes that valedictory ride so special is that his sympathetic son David is there to grant him it and to bask in it with him. These two who began the road trip not really knowing each other and often at odds with each other have traveled a journey together that has brought them a measure of acceptance, healing, and peace. David has finally come to understand why his father is the way he is. His fondest desire is realized when he gives Woody that movie-movie opportunity to prove he is not the loser or fool this day. As Woody sits high in the cab of the truck, with David lovingly looking on from the floor, and drives past the artifacts of his past and the denizens of that town, he may as well be a cowboy sitting tall in the saddle of his horse riding into the sunset. He graciously accepts the congratulations of town chatterbox Bernie Bowen. He stares down his former friend Ed Pegram, who now looks the shamed fool. Woody’s heart stirs again for old flame Peg Nagy, whose wistful expression wonders what might have been. As he heads out of town Woody said a fond goodbye to Albert, the Grant brother whose favorite pastime is siting beside the road waving at the occupants of passing cars.

Outside of town the truck stops at the bottom of a hill and Woody and David once again exchange places. Doing this out of the view of onlookers preserves Woody’s glorious farewell and signals Woody now accepts his limitations and David’s love for him. With David back behind the wheel and Woody beside him father and son drive off to meet the future together. The fact that almost all of this sequence plays out wordlessly and still conveys so much meaning is a testament to the work of Payne and his collaborators in extracting the essence of these scenes through beautifully executed shots that give full weight to glances gestures, postures, and backdrops.

I had been anticipating the ending for a long while because it was some years ago Payne first shared the Nelson screenplay with me. The script had come to him way back around the time he was making Sideways (2004). He kept it in reserve all those years that passed between Sideways’s production and release and his starting production on The Descendants. By the time he shared the Nebraska script with me Payne had already changed the ending (he always rewrites scripts he inherits) and I remember him being particularly proud of what he had achieved with the close of that story. I was completely taken by the entire script and especially that ending. In my book he really nailed it and came as close as one could to realizing what was on the page.

It is hard to find antecedents for the film. The closest I came up with are Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe, Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels, Federico Felllini’s La Strada, Jerry Schatzberg’s Scarecrow, Peter Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon, Paul Mazursky’s Harry and Tonto, and David Lynch’s The Straight Story. That is quite a range of work and it gives you an idea of the breadth of potential influences that can be found in it, though I am not suggesting Payne had any of those specific films or others in mind when he made Nebraska. There is at least a similar sense of alienation and a crazy intrepid spirit running through their restless storylines. They share a similar visual sensibility as well. Of course the most obvious thing they share in common is the road story template. While the protagonists are very different from each other, they are all running to or from something.

In terms of my coverage of Nebraska, I interviewed him twice before he began production, I visited the northeast Nebraska set for a couple days and witnessed a few scenes being shot, including one major exterior scene (outside the abandoned family farmhouse) and one major interior scene (at the home of Woody’s brother in Hawthorne). I did followup interviews with Payne during and immediately after the shoot. Then I traveled to Los Angeles to sit in on five days of the final mixing process just before the film had its world premiere at Cannes. During my L.A. stay I got to see many fixes made to the film and watched a private run through of the entire film at a screening room on the Paramount Studios lot.

I got a second opportunity to watch the film ahead of its general release at a special Paramount screening put on by the Nebraska Coast Connection, an affiliation of Nebraskans working in the film and television industry. The organization hosts a monthly Hollywood Salon that features guest speakers and I attended the fall salon featuring Payne, who was interviewed by NCC founder and president Todd Nelson before a live audience at the Culver Hotel in Culver City. Much of that event focused on the making of Nebraska. I also attended the fall Film Streams Feature Event in Omaha that saw novelist and Studio 360 host Kurt Andersen interview Payne, co-stars Dern, Forte, and Squibb live on stage at the Holland Performing Arts Center. In addition to the earlier interviews I did with Payne, I had interviewed all of those actors, with the exception of Squibb. I also interviewed Keach, screenwriter Bob Nelson, producer Albert Berger, and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael.

All in all, I accumulated as much or more material about Nebraska than I did for any of Payne’s previous films and more than enough to warrant this new edition.

Much of what is communicated in Nebraska has to do with dislocation and disconnection. The characters harbor potent, not always pleasant memories of their shared past. Woody is a man broken off from the people and places of his past and when he revisits them in pursuit of his phantom winnings he is flooded with mixed feelings he doesn’t quite know what to do with. Woody’s woundedness is bound up in the incidents of his childhood and young adulthood. Distancing himself from that past has only separated himself from himself. Thus, he is a broken man who has left pieces of himself scattered in his wake. The story is not so much about him picking up the pieces of his life and putting them back together, although some of that occurs to make him more whole again, as it is about his son David using those fragments as puzzle pieces to more fully appreciate who his father is and the path he’s walked. Because the story is about people who don’t have much to say to each other, at least emotionally speaking, the emotional life of the story is rooted as much in the subtext as it is in the context of scenes. Therefore, the film’s power resides as much in what is left unsaid or in what is referred to as it is in what is actually said and shown. This nonliteral approach is unusual for American films. Indeed, the film’s oblique style and deliberate rhythms are very much those of a European or a Latin American film.

A final note about Nebraska and its reception from Nebraskans is in order. As respected and admired a figure as Payne is among the home state set, his films made in Nebraska elicit strange reactions from a certain segment who bemoan the unflattering light they feel he presents the state and its residents in. This is a classic case of it-is- what-it-is. There is no doubt Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt, and Nebraska, his quartet of films made almost entirely on his native turf, focus on mundane and malicious aspects of life that, though found everywhere, no one wants associated with their state. It can be a particularly sensitive subject in Nebraska. because this small population state already battles an image problem. That is to say greater Nebraska and its one true metropolitan center, Omaha, do not have a strong, readily identifiable or sexy profile and presence on the national-international stages. Nebraska simply blends in with that vast homogenized Midwest and Great Plains. Outsiders dismiss it as a place of no consequence with bland surroundings, unsophisticated inhabitants, and insignificant happenings and therefore the very antithesis of the coasts. Some of those same perceptions explain why Nebraska struggles to retain its best and brightest and rarely draws a major new employer.

Nebraskans upset by Payne’s portrayals of their state refer to the dull, dingy, dysfunctional portraits he paints, forgetting that he is in service to the stories he tells. Some wonder why he doesn’t make Nebraska look better, more colorful, more pleasant, more positive, like the way he portrayed California or Hawaii, once again forgetting that aside from the countryside and oceanside idylls briefly glimpsed in those pictures he mainly showed the seamy, messy undersides of people’s personal travails.

What Payne-bashers largely don’t get is that his “negative” depictions stand out because outside of the films he makes in Nebraska, virtually no other films made there get seen by anything approaching a mass audience. If there were five or ten other filmmakers giving their take on Nebraska then it would be a very different conversation because there would be multiple storylines, interpretations, inclinations, perspectives, not just his. New Yorkers don’t complain that Woody Allen only concerns himself with the foibles of upper middle class and upper crust Manhattan. Los Angelenos don’t take Quentin Tarantino to task for his focus on violent denizens of the L.A. underworld. Each of those filmmakers is one of many putting a lens on those cities and so the vision and voice of Allen and Tarantino become part of a much greater and diverse whole that contains many different visions and voices. It only follows then that there are many varied looks at New York and L.A. for the taking, some of which may conform to residents’ own views and some of which may not. The point is, there is more than enough to go around for you to find something that speaks to you. Unless and until more features get made in Nebraska by more filmmakers, Payne’s personal, idiosyncratic representations of the state will remain the predominant ones, if not the only ones. Don’t expect him to change. He is only being true to his material and to himself. Hard to fault someone for that, especially when his films are heralded, and rightly so, for the fidelity of their vision. He doesn’t pretend his Nebraska films are true to life portraits of all Nebraskans or of all Nebraska He is only being true to the characters and settings of his stories. That is the singular world he plays God over.

It would be good too for folks to consider that in Nebraska Payne and screenwriter Bob Nelson have delivered archetypal characters and settings that are true to Nebraska, yes, but to a whole universe of other places as well. The equivalents of Woody and his orbit of quirky family and friends can be found everywhere.

Nebraskans bent out of shape by the bad light they think Payne casts them, in should remember he is an artist unbound by marketing motivations. He has no desire, nor should he, to skew his work to reflect some fanciful postcard image of this or any other place to placate critics or to make insecure folks feel better about themselves. Besides, Payne gives far more back to the state than any potential “damage” his films do because were it not for him bringing his films there Nebraska would have no Hollywood production of any sustained size, much less any kind of frequency. Outside of his About Schmidt and Nebraska and apart from some micro-budgeted indies (under a million dollars) one would be hard pressed to name another Hollywood project that shot in state for more than a couple days in the last dozen years. His commitment to growing the film industry there is well-documented.

Oh, and by the way, using the state’s name as the title for his acclaimed film is a gift that will keep on giving as long as the film endures and in my estimation the film will long outlast any silly quibbles or dissatisfaction from the nitwits who want him to make Nebraska look like everywhere else. Payne actually cares enough to show facets of Nebraska exactly as they are, without artificial adornments that become distortions of his overriding concern – the truth. He also cares enough to faithfully show his home land as it has never been seen before on the big screen. I dare say with Nebraska he has given most natives and residents a glimpse at their own state they have never beheld. That is more than most art and entertainment delivers. Indeed, by repeatedly bringing the industry to his home state through the films he makes and the cinema figures he hosts he does far more than what most of the people who purportedly have Nebraska’s best interests at heart, i.e. state business leaders and elected officials, do. Outside of Warren Buffett he is the state’s leading ambassador to the nation and to the world and the impact he and his work have in enhancing the state’s name is incalculable. Should he never make another film in Nebraska again (in fact he immediately did, by shooting part of Downsizing there.) he will have endowed the state with four significant works that bear its imprint and inspiration and in the case of his latest work, its name. Although Sideways and The Descendants were made elsewhere they cannot be considered apart from his Nebraska quartet. The way Payne observes the human condition and the way he navigates the world in his personal and professional life is inextricably linked to his native experience. He carries it with him wherever he goes. His Nebraskan sensibility informs everything he does. That is why you can only separate his two features made outside Nebraska from his features made in Nebraska on the most superficial levels. Apart from the specific physical locations he must be true to and is, all his films, no matter where they are set and filmed, are cut from the same cloth emotionally and dramatically speaking. Thus, all his work bears a stamp of Nebraska on it. Besides, Nebraskans rightfully claim all his triumphs, regardless of where they were executed, as a part of their own. As a fellow Nebraskan myself, I certainly do. Payne’s affinity for his home state is already one of the great documented love affairs an artist has had with his place of origin and with any luck at all he will only keep adding to this singular narrative.

 

 

Payne’s Nebraska a blend of old and new as he brings Indiewood back to the state and reconnects with tried and true crew on his first black and white film

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in a 2012 issue of The Reader

 

 

Coming home in black and white

Alexander Payne’s decision to make Nebraska in his home state brought into sharp relief some realities with large implications for his own work and prospects for more studio films getting made here.

The state’s favorite son had not shot a single frame here since About Schmidt in 2001. With Nebraska, whose principal photography went from October 15 through November, he continued a tradition of shooting here and surrounding himself with crew with whom he has a long history. Some key locals are part of his creative team, too, including one metro resident he calls “my secret weapon.”

Aesthetically and technically speaking, Payne also stretched himself by lensing for the first time in black and white, wide screen and digital. He said abandoning celluloid marks a concession to the new digital norm and to the fact today’s black and white film stock options are limited.

Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael said digital “allows us to work more with natural light and not have to carry a larger equipment package. We did specific black and white tests to choose the texture and quality in terms of contrast and film grain level we want for the picture. So we went into it knowing exactly where we want to be at.”

Natural light and locations

Papamichael added, “Digital means needing less light, so we can do tighter interiors, which is important on this show because we’re entirely a location picture. We don’t have anything built. A lot of these interior spaces are very small and whatever space we can save in terms of lighting and camera equipment is helpful. Rather than having traditional bigger car rigs and following cars with camera cars we’re able to just get in the car hand-held. Also, these newer cameras allow us to do good car work without lighting. It just helps the whole natural feel we’re going for.”

At the end of the day, said Payne, digital “doesn’t matter to me because my process stays exactly the same.” His process is all about arriving at the truth. Capturing the windswept plains and fall after-harvest season figured prominently in that this time. Papamichael and Payne sought ways to juxtapose characters with the prairie, the open road and small town life milieu. In a story of taciturn people rooted to the land and whose conversations consist of terse exchanges, context and subtext are everything. Therefore, the filmmakers extracted all the metaphor and atmosphere possible from actual locations, geography and weather.

Film as business

Payne doesn’t belabor the point but he received pressure from various quarters to shoot the picture elsewhere. The suits pressed going to states with serious film tax credits. Many locales could approximate Nebraska while saving producers money. He finds himself in the awkward position of having lobbied long and hard to try and convince the governor and state legislators to support film incentives only to see his entreaties largely ignored. As much as he and his projects are embraced, his moviemaking forays in the state seem taken for granted. But the fact is he only ended up shooting here because he had the motivation and clout to do so.

If not for Nebraska there would have been no feature film activity of any significance here during 2012. Minus his Citizen Ruth, Election, and Schmidt, the state has precious little feature film activity of any size to show for it. Refusing to cheat the script’s Nebraska settings, Payne brought Indiewood feature filmmaking of scale back home for the first time in a decade. Basing his production in Norfolk provided a boost to the northeast part of the state.

Norfolk director of economic development Courtney Klein-Faust said the total impact the project had on the local economy has yet to be tabulated but that just in lodging alone the production spent more than a half-million dollars accommodating its one hundred cast and crew members. She said the film bought local goods and services whenever possible. She feels the experience will serve as “a case study” for elected officials to assess the trickle down effect of mid-major features and will be used by supporters of tax credits to push for more film industry friendly measures.

AP’s stock company’s master of light Phedon Papamichael

Like many filmmakers who develop a track record of success Payne’s cultivated around him a stock company of crew he works with from project to project. During a mid-November visit to the Nebraska set it was evident he enjoys the same easy rapport with and loyalty to crew he had before his two Oscar wins. The only time this visitor saw Payne betray even mild upset came after a principal actor was not in place when ready to roll and the filmmaker emphatically tapped his watch as if to say, “Time is money.” He expressed mild frustration when cows drifted out of frame and it took awhile for production assistants to wrangle them back in position.

On Nebraska he collaborated for the third consecutive time with Papamichael, the director of photography for The Descendants and Sideways. Their relationship entered a new dimension as they devised a black and white and widescreen visual palette to accentuate Nebraska’s stark characters and settings. That meant fixing on the right tools to capture that look.

“We did a bunch of testing and dialed in a look we’d like for our black and white because there are many different ways to go about black and white,” said Papamichael. Some of the expressive light and shadow images extracted by Papamichael and Payne recall memorable black and white treatments from cinema past, including Shadow of a Doubt, Night of the Hunter, Touch of Evil and It’s a Wonderful Life.

Seeking and getting the right look

“It’s not really a film noir look, it’s definitely a high con(trast) with natural lighting” Papamichael said. “We were very diligent in selecting our lens package, which is Panavision C Series anamorphic. That’s from the ‘70s, so it has a little bit of a less defined, less sharp quality and that helps the look. We’re adding quite a bit of actual film grain to it which will feel like you’re watching a film projection. We’re even talking about possibly adding some projector flicker imposed. So we’re really going for a film look. And through a series of tests we’ve been able to achieve that.”

A week into filming, Papamichael was pleased by what he and Payne cultivated. “There’s an overall excitement the whole crew has. Everybody feels we’re doing something very special and unique and the black and white has a lot to do with it. After you work with it for awhile it becomes the way you see things. In a way we’re learning the power of black and white as we go. We’re really coming to appreciate and love the poetic power of the black and white in combination with these landscapes and, of course, the landscapes are playing a huge role in this story – just scaling the human drama and comedy. The black and white is becoming a very powerful character in this film just in terms of setting the mood for this.”

Grizzled Bruce Dern as the gone-to-seed protagonist Woody is a walking emblem of the forlorn but enduring fields and played out towns that form the story’s backdrop. His tangle of white hair resembles shocks of frosted wheat. His drab working man clothes hang on him as if he’s a scarecrow. His gait is halting and he lists to one side. His Woody is as worn and weathered as the abandoned farmhouse of the character’s youth. But just like the artifacts of Woody’s past, this physical-emotional derelict holds on from sheer cussedness.

Papamichael said part of the fun became “discovering Bruce Dern’s great visual qualities – his face, the textures and everything that are emphasized through the black and white.”

Sense of place

The film’s full of Nebraskesque places and faces. There’s that farmhouse a few minutes outside Plainview. There’s the town of Plainview itself standing in for the fictional Hawthorne. There’s an American Legion hall, some bars, farm implement dealerships and mottled fields full of lowing cows. There are earnest farmers, shopkeeps, housewives and barmaids, plain as the day is long.

“Alexander is very diligent about finding the exact right spot for everything,” said Papamichael. The original screenplay is by Bob Nelson, whose parents grew up in the very northeast environs of the state the film’s set in. He’s also impressed by how rigorous Payne is in location scouting. Nelson said “I think he’s done a great job of finding a combination of things around Norfolk. I’ve seen the location photos and it’s pretty stunning to see it in black and white. You know it has that The Last Picture Show quality to it. It is funny to see these things that were in your mind, like the abandoned farmhouse, come to life. I don’t know how they found it, it must have been a chore, but they came up with a good one. Almost everything I saw was spot-on perfect.”

The locations are pregnant with memories and incidents, thus Payne and Papamichael chose ones most reflecting the characters and situations and they cast actors and nonactors alike who most represent these places and lifestyles. “For him it’s not all about trying to capture something truthful and comedically grim about the American landscape but also something archetypal,” said producer Albert Berger.

Completing the stock company

Whenever Payne works with Papamichael it means inheriting the camera and lighting crew the celebrated DP brings with him, including chief lighting technician Rafael Sanchez and key grip Ray Garcia.

Boom operator Jonathan Fuh is a regular on Payne sets as well as costume designer Wendy Chuck.

Then there’s veteran Payne collaborator Jose Antonio Garcia, the sound mixer on the writer-director’s last three films. George Parra goes back as far as Election in capacities ranging from assistant director to co-producer to production manager. He executive produced Nebraska.

Production designer Jane Ann Stewart had been on every Payne show since Citizen Ruth but J. Dennis Washington took over that job on Nebraska. Interestingly, a Hollywood art director who lives in Nebraska, Sandy Veneziano, joined the crew to mark her first Payne production. Omaha resident Jamie Vesay, a key assistant location manager, crewed along with other locals, including set medic Kevin O’Leary.

Screenwriter Nelson is a Nebraskan by proxy. His folks hailed from Hartington and growing up in the Pacific Northwest he visited relatives back here, several of whom were models for his characters. Woody is closely patterned after his father. Payne conferred with Nelson as he tweaked the writer’s work. “Yeah, every time I’d do a pass on the script I’d send it to him and see what he thought, and he seemed to like it,” Payne said. “Sometimes there were certain moments or a certain scene I’d want a little more information about. Like one scene I really like in the script is when the family visits the house where Woody grew up and it’s now an abandoned farmhouse. And there Woody delivers a speech about having found the hail adjuster’s knife in the field, and it’s really the only time Woody speaks in the film, and I just remember asking Bob where that came from.”

Nelson said that American Gothic scene when Woody tells his son David (WIll Forte) “a story about how the hell adjustor tried to screw them out of their insurance is actually a true story based on visiting an uncle near Wausa on his farm. That’s almost verbatim.” Payne said Nelson also helped inform some creative decisions. “He sent me some old photographs of his actual family from Hartington to serve as something of a reference for casting and costuming.”

Casting director John Jackson

The colleague Payne refers to as “my secret weapon,” casting director John Jackson of Council Bluffs, is undoubtedly the most influential local in the filmmaker’s close circle of collaborators. “We just have really similar tastes and in honing our working method since 1995 we just have developed a very similar aesthetic of what we want to see in a film, the type of reality we want,” Payne said of Jackson. “And also I think the two of us have developed a pretty good eye for spotting acting talent in nonactors—talent they may not even know they have —and by talent I just mean the ability to be in front of a camera playing some version of themselves and saying dialogue believably and without getting freaked out.”

“People can be cinematic just by being themselves and being appropriately placed where they need to be, people can be brilliant by just doing what they do, listening or talking or moving,” said Jackson, who along with Payne is excited about several of their nonactor discoveries on Nebraska. “Glendora Stitt, the woman that plays Aunt Betty, what a find. Dennis McCoIg, who plays Uncle Cecil, is like Gary Cooper. Scott Goodman, the barista who served me at the Scooters drive-thru in Norfolk was hilarious without trying and I cast him in a tiny role. John “Jack” Reynolds, who plays Bernie Bowen, an old friend of Woody’s, is right out of a Preston Sturges and Frank Capra movie. He’s the face of the rolling plains and hilariously funny.”

Jackson said he thinks of filling out the people who inhabit any movie, such as Woody’s clan, ”in terms of I’ve got to build the family, and then, ‘Who are the next door neighbors? who are his friends? what do they do for a living?’ I always have a back story for them. It’s not like I sit down and make it up, the script tells me what it is by the things they say.”

Kindred Spirits

“Obviously it’s worked well,” said Payne. “Together we cast Chris Klein, Nick D’Agosto going as far back as Election. In the traditional American filmmaking model for casting you have one casting director, typically out of New York or L.A. or Chicago with whom you cast the lead parts, maybe the top five or 10 or 15 speaking parts. And then if you’re shooting on location you have a second casting person, a local casting person. That’s what John Jackson was for me on the first three films. And then you have a third person who’s in charge of extras. And I somehow thought that one person should be in charge of all of the flesh. There should be one vision guiding all of it. You can’t get anyone in L.A. or New York to do that, so the person I want to do that is John Jackson.” Jackson said his guide in casting is looking at “what does the script say,” and then conferring with Payne. “We talk a lot about the characters in relationship to the text. I frequently find myself asking him questions like, ‘At this point in the movie what do you want the audience to feel? what do you want them to think? what do you want them to say as they walk out of the theater?’ One of the things I learned from him is to look at a moment in the story and to ask questions like, ‘Who’s funnier doing this? who’s more believable doing that? who breaks my heart more?’

“I remember when we were doing Schmidt and it was between this woman in New York, June Squibb, and a woman in L.A. the studio was pushing and I said to him, ‘Well, it has to be her,’ meaning June Squibb, and he said, ‘Why?’ and I said, ‘Because in that moment when she surprises him with the motor home and she’s seated at the table and said, Isn’t it going to be great? you know he’s hating every minute of it. Somebody needs to break my heart, and June Squibb breaks my heart. At that moment I feel for her. I feel pain for him, but I really feel for her, so when she dies I’m going to hurt, whereas this other woman I don’t feel anything.’” Squibb plays Woody’s wife Kate in Nebraska.

Give and take

“Those are the kinds of conversations we have,” Jackson said of he and Payne. “We never talk about, as other producers do, ‘Well, you know, this person’s presence in the film would be great because they’re so huge in terms of DVD sales.’ I never have those conversations with him. I’ve tried in the past and he’ll just look at me like, ‘What the fuck are you talking about? I don’t want to hear it, I don’t want to know.’ So it’s cleansed me.”

Jackson said he’s learned not to try and anticipate what Payne wants. “He constantly surprises me, he constantly challenges me. I wouldn’t want it any other way. What he’s looking for, I don’t know, I don’t know that he even knows, but I know one thing – when it’s there he recognizes it. That’s alchemy.”

No two projects are alike, Jackson said. “Every single one of these films is a completely different organic living thing and the challenge is to honor that and to help that grow and evolve and become whatever it’s going to become and Alexander is the guide to all of that.”

Payne and longtime editor Kevin Tent will be cutting Nebraska through the spring and the film will likely start playing festivals in late summer-early fall in advance of a end of 2013 general release.

 

FINAL FRONT COVER 6-28-16

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

Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film

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

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

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

 

 

Alexander Payne’s Nebraska comes home to roost

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in a 2012 issue of The Reader

In 1968 Francis Ford Coppola led a small cinema caravan to Ogallala, Nebraska for the final weeks shooting on his independent road pic- ture The Rain People starring Shirley Knight. Joining them were future fellow film legends George Lucas, Bill Butler, Robert Duvall and James Caan.

Now a road pic of another kind, Nebraska, is underway here by native prodigal son Alexander Payne. For his first filming on his home turf since 2001 Payne’s lit out into northeast Nebraska to make a fourth consecutive road movie after the wandering souls of his About Schmidt, Sideways and The Descendants. Nebraska began shooting October 15 around Norfolk, where the production’s headquartered, and will complete thirty five days of principal photography by the end of November. A week of second unit work will run into early December. The project is by Payne, Jim Taylor and Jim Burke’s Ad Hominem Enterprises in collaboration with Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa’s Bona Fide Productions and Paramount Pictures.

On the road again

Despite proclamations he doesn’t care for road movies, much less shooting in cars, Payne’s once again attached himself to a story of lost and broken people careening to some revelation about themselves. Asked why he keeps returning to this theme or structure, he said, “I have no idea, I personally don’t really like road movies all that much and it’s all I seem to make. No, none of it’s intentional, I’m a victim. Yeah, it just happened.”

Characters hitting the road is a classic metaphorical device for any life-as-journey exploration and Payne’s not so much reinvented this template as made it his own. “I think self-discovery is a big theme in his movies,” said Berger. The protagonist of Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) goes in search of meaning via his mobile home after his life is knocked asunder. In Sideways buddies Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Jack (Thomas Haden Church) indulge in a debauched tour of California wine country that rekindles the love impulse in one and confirms the unreliability of the other. The by-car, boat and foot journey of The Descendants is propelled when Matt King (George Clooney) discovers his dying wife’s infidelity and sets off to find her lover. What he really finds is closure for his pain and the father within him he’d forgotten.

The bickering father-son of Nebraska, Woody (Bruce Dern) and David (Will Forte), hold different agendas for their trek along the highways and byways of Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota and Nebraska. Woody, a unrepentant, alcoholic old coot estranged from everyone in his life, is hellbent on collecting a sweepstakes prize that doesn’t exist. David, the good-hearted but exasperated son, decides

to placate his pops by promising to drive him from Billings. Montana to the prize company’s home office in Lincoln, Nebraska by way of sev- eral detours. He’s sure his father will come to his senses long before their destination.

This mismatched pair’s road-less-traveled adventure in the son’s Suzuki Forenza finds them passing through Woody’s old haunts, including his hometown, the fictional Hawthorne, Nebraska, a composite of Hartington, Wausa, Bloomfield, Norfolk and other rural burgs. At nearly every stop they encounter the detritus from Woody’s life, which like the broken down Ford pickup in his garage he can’t get to run is a shambles of regret and recrimination. Woody’s made the fool wherever he goes. A longtime nemesis, Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), is a menacing presence. By story’s end this father-son journey becomes a requiem. To salve his father’s broken spirit David performs a simple act of grace that involves a valedictory cruise down main street that gives Woody the last laugh.

Coming to Nebraska-Nebraska

Producer partners Berger and Yerxa (Little Miss Sunshine), who shepherded Payne’s Election in conjunction with Paramount and MTV Films (1999), brought Bob Nelson’s original script for Nebraska to the filmmaker’s attention a decade ago. Payne said, “Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa had gotten a hold of it, and asked me to read it, not thinking I would want to direct it myself. They wanted to know if there was some young up and coming Nebraska director I knew about who could make it for a very, very low sum, and I read it and I liked it and I said, ‘How about me and for a sum not quite so low?’ And so it was, and they’ve been kind enough to wait for me these eight or nine years since I first read it.

“I read it before making Sideways but I didn’t want to follow up Sideways with another road trip. I was tired of shooting in cars. I didn’t think it would take this long, I didn’t think Downsizing (his comedy about miniaturization) would take so long to write in between. And then The Descendants came along and now I’ve circled back around to this austere Nebraska road trip story.”

The story’s essential appeal for Payne is its deceptive simplicity. “I liked its austerity, I liked its deadpan humor, I like how the writer clearly was writing about people he knew and representing them faithfully to a certain degree but also sardonically. And I’ve never seen a deadpan, almost Jim Jarmusch sort of comedy that takes place in rural Nebraska.”

A black and white palette

The barren, existential landscape should find ample expressive possibilities in the black-and-white, wide-screen visuals Payne and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael (Sideways, The Descendants) plan capturing. Papamichael said the palette they’ve hit upon after much testing emphasizes natural lighting and texture. They’re using a high contrast stock from the ‘70s that’s less sharp or defined. Film grain is being added to it. “We’re really coming to appreciate and love the poetic power of the black and white in combination with these landscapes,” said Papamichael, “and of course the landscapes are playing a huge role in this story. It’s scaling the human drama and comedy with this vast landscape. It’s a road movie but it’s also a very intimate, small personal story.”

“Well, I certainly wanted to make one feature film in my career in black and white because black and white when well-done is just so beautiful,” said Payne. “And I knew that whatever film I made in black and white couldn’t have a huge budget, so this one seemed to lend itself to that that way. Then also in reading it I wanted the austerity of the characters and of their world represented also in a fairly austere way and I thought black and white in the fall could be very nice. By that I mean ideally after the trees have lost their leaves – to just get that look. Sometimes where you’re in rural America there is a certain timeless quality in all those small towns which have the old buildings. You know, change comes slowly to these places.” In terms of visual models, he said, “we’ve looked at a number of black and white films and pho- tographs but it’s not like I’m consciously saying, ‘Oh, Walker Evans or Dorothea Lange’ (or The Last Picture Show) or something like that. No, not really. I mean, I’ve seen them. We’re just going to follow in- stinct in how this one should look like.”

Albert Berger on Payne and process

Berger supports Payne’s aesthetic choice, though it came with a price and a fight as Paramount execs reportedly resisted the decision to forgo color. But Payne and Papamichael held firm. Berger feels the project gives Payne a new creative space to work in. “I always was excited artistically about what he was trying to accomplish,” said Berger. “Clearly we would have gotten a lot more money if we didn’t film in black and white and life would have been a lot easier for the production. Alexander’s films have always had a very authentic look. He’s obviously a great appreciator of cinema and he has a wonderful eye and I think in a way this is his first opportunity to showcase a more iconic, archetypal look.”

Payne may just do for the north Sand Hills what John Ford did for Utah’s Monument Valley in capturing a certain beautiful desolation. The play of light on wind, barns, trees and wide open spaces offers evocative chiaroscuro possibilities. “I think it’s exciting to see what he and Phedon will come up with here,” said Berger. “And it’s scope as well and so that will add yet another dimension. And digital for the first time for him and it’s going to be interesting how that helps us getting in tight spaces like cars and using low level lighting. There’s all sorts of tools at his disposal on this one that he hasn’t had before.”

Berger’s come to know Payne’s meticulous eye for finding locations and actors that ring true. “Once the script is right and once the cast and the locations are in place I feel he’s completely ready to make the movie. I wouldn’t say the rest is easy but I think that is the critical bedrock upon which his movies are made. I think he’s a filmmaker who’s completely in-tune with what he’s trying to say both emotionally and comedically. It’s been a real pleasure to be able to watch this evolution in his work.”

Casting

Payne said the more specific the character on the page the harder it is to cast, which is why his search for the right Woody and David took so long. “I just know in the time frame in which I was trying to get this film made these guys rose to the top of my research and struck me and John Jackson, my casting director, as being the right fit,” he said of Dern and Forte.

The irascible Woody proved most difficult. “In this case Woody’s a very, very specifically rendered character and I just couldn’t plug any actor in there,” Payne said. He interviewed-auditioned many, including big names. For the longest time no one matched his conceptions. “In today’s world it was kind of hard to find someone whom I believed in that part and I didn’t want it to change the character of Woody.” No compromising.

He finally found his Woody in Bruce Dern, whose daughter Laura Dern starred in Payne’s Citizen Ruth and remains a close friend. What made Papa Dern (Silent Running, Coming Home, Family Plot) the perfect Woody? “Well, he’s of the right age now and he can be both ingenuous and ornery. And he’s a cool actor. And in a contextual level I haven’t seen on the big screen a great Bruce Dern performance in a few years and I’m curious to see what he can do. He’s a helluva nice guy as well.”

Dern and Will Forte (Saturday Night Live) didn’t meet until they arrived in Norfolk in early October to participate in table readings with other principal cast. Any chemistry they produce will be worked out on set. That’s how it worked between Giamatti and Haden Church on Sideways. “I cast those two guys in Sideways separately. They never met before ten days or two weeks before we started shooting. Or George Clooney and Shailene Woodley, they had never met before. I’ve just had good luck with that. Actors know it’s their job to develop some sort of chemistry, hopefully not force it but develop it, and then of course film has a wonderful capacity to lie.”

The casting of Forte surprised many. Not surprisingly, Payne has a considered rationale for the choice. “Will Forte, physically, I believed could be the son of Bruce Dern and June Squibb (who play’s Woody’s long-suffering wife, Kate). and then I just believe him as a guy I would know around Omaha or meet in Billings. He has a very, very believable quality. And I also think for the character of David he is capable of communicating a certain wide-eyed quality toward life and also damage – like he’s been damaged somehow, somewhere.”

A singular story by Bob Nelson

Payne’s confident he has a stand-alone project. “I don’t think you would have seen anyone portray characters like these before. I mean, I’ve never seen exactly this movie with exactly this dynamic.” Payne revised Bob Nelson’s script alone, then had Phil Johnston (Cedar Rapids) take a pass, before revising it again. He admires how close the material is to Nelson’s experience. “His parents were from Hartington, Nebraska and I think Wausa (Nebraska) but he grew up in Snohomish Washington. You know how other people summer in the south of France or the Caribbean? Well, this guy used to summer in Hartington, that’s where he would spend time with his many uncles on his father’s side.” Nelson confirms the hard-tack individualists and towns of Nebraska are composites of relatives and places there and in rural Washington, though Woody is directly based on his late father. He darkened characters and incidents for dramatic effect and invented the sweepstakes storyline. Nelson’s best-known writing credit before Nebraska was for the award-winning Seattle television show, It’s Almost Live. He meant to shop his feature script around L.A. but it quickly got into the hands of Payne, who instantly committed to making it and never reneged. Getting Payne behind it, he said, “changed everything.”

To his surprise and delight, Payne didn’t overhaul his script. “I’m pretty sure I would have been happy no matter what he did with it because I believed in him as a filmmaker. The fact that so much of my dialogue and so many of the scenes remain is really almost unheard of if you have a writer-director taking over,” Nelson said. “That’s another thing that impressed me. I could tell he didn’t go in and try to turn it into his own screenplay. He wasn’t driven to put his own stamp on it just to do that. He went through it and thoughtfully changed things he thought could use changing but he left in things he thought could work well. For that I’ll always be grateful. “When he’s rewriting it I think he’s turning in a way already into

a director who’s thinking, ‘Do I really want to shoot this scene and do I want to shoot it like that? Is there anything that could make this better?’ You can almost see that going on in his mind. The one thing you hope when your work is adapted is that it will be made better and he’s one of the few guys in Hollywood you’re almost certain will make it better. I really trust him.”

Rooted in Nebraska

Payne rooted the production in Norfolk after a long search. “I spent a year driving around Nebraska when I had free time—a wonderful education on the state. I considered places like Columbus, Grand Island, Hastings, but I landed on Norfolk because Norfolk has a pretty good number of small towns of about fifteen hundred people orbiting it, and maybe it’s also no coincidence that that’s the area Robert Nelson was writing about. Hartington is within spitting distance of Norfolk.”

Earlier this year Payne and Papamichael followed the route Woody and David make in the film, traveling for three days in a Toyota owned by Payne’s mother, Peggy, “just to get a feel for the land,” said Papamichael. “He really wanted to convey the feeling of the land to me and that was very helpful. I took a lot of black and white stills.” Nelson, who’s seen footage and visited the set, said the film’s locations are spot-on.

Finalizing locations and cast members led Payne to make certain tweaks. “Yeah, as it always does,” he said. “I start incorporating locations more into the script and I might steal a line of dialogue or two from an actor in an audition who can’t remember his line or adds an improv that I think is quite good. Or as I’m going along I just think of things which could be better.” He’s continued tinkering.

After seven years between his last two features he’s moving quickly from project to project now. He expects to jump from Nebraska, whose editing he should finish in the spring, into Wilson, his adaptation of the Daniel Clowes’ graphic novel slated to shoot on the west coast next fall.

When a film becomes a film: the shaping of Nebraska A shorter version of this story appeared in a 2013 issue of The Reader

After wrapping the Nebraska shoot the end of 2012 Alexander Payne holed up with editor Kevin Tent in L.A. to edit the film starting Jan. 7 and finally put the project to bed the beginning of August. When I caught up with Payne and a small post crew in mid-May at The Lot in Old Hollywood they were mere days from completing a mix before the film’s world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in Nice, France.

The edit-mix process is one few outside the inner circle are allowed to witness. It’s where a film becomes a film. Over a four-day period at the Audio Head post facility, with its long console of digital controls and theater projection screen, I watch Payne, Tent, mixer Patrick Cyccone, sound designer Frank Gaeta, music editor Richard Ford and others engage in the rather anal exercise of extracting nuance from the minutiae of sound and image, time and space that comprise a film.

I ask Payne how much more can really be massaged this late into the edit. I mean, isn’t the soundtrack a relatively simple proposition?

The art and science of sound mixing

“Seemingly simple,” he said. “There’s always little complicated stuff to modulate and calibrate.” It may be a snippet of dialogue or the sound of a character walking across a wood floor or music from a jukebox or the rustle of wind. It may be how long or short an actor’s beat or a shot is held. Nothing’s too small or incidental to escape scrutiny. Anything even vaguely amiss is ripe for “a fix” often only arrived at after several adjustments that might involve raising a level here, dropping a level there, sweetening the pot with a bank of recorded sounds or snipping a frame.

To the untrained eye and ear, few problems appear obvious or even to be flaws at all. Many are flat out undetectable until brought to your attention. But to the hyper-attuned Payne and his crew, who’ve watched the footage hundreds, even thousands of times, the slightest element out of synch is a jarring distraction. When something really bothers Payne he’s apt to say, “That’s hideous.”

There’s a poignant scene in Robert Nelson’s original screenplay when taciturn protagonist Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) looks out on a field spread before his family’s old abandoned farmhouse and relates a childhood story to his son David (Will Forte) about his father, a hail adjustor and a knife. I was visiting the northeast Nebraska set in November when the scene was shot. The rather barren, wind-swept location with its forlorn wooden farmhouse and rough-hewn harvested fields made an evocative backdrop for the nostalgic moment. But the part where Woody reveals this incident from the past didn’t make it in the final cut because try as he might Payne decided it just didn’t work.

“You know, so much of filmmaking is if you can’t make a perfect omelette you try to make perfect scrambled eggs,” he said. “So we just cut the scene down.” As I glimpse the mix process Payne asks me more than once, “Are you finding this interesting or are you bored out of your skull?” I admit the attention to detail is surprising, to which he replies, “It’s all important though . . . because there’s always discovery. You’re discovering it frame by frame. Ways to make it delightful so it never breaks the spell it has over the audience. Kevin (Tent) and I will have knock down-drag out fights over two frames, over tenths of a second.” I ask if he ever fears he’s micromanaging the life out of a picture. “I never worry about that,” Payne answers.

Fractions of frames and seconds

Even to the filmmakers themselves the fixes can be hard to quantify. At the end of July Payne told me in a phone interview, “I was just watch- ing the film with Phedon (Papamichael), the DP. He had seen it in Cannes and then he saw it again here in L.A. and he said, ‘It feels so much better,’ I mean, it’s the same movie but after Cannes Kevin and I came back and spent two weeks doing some more picture cutting. Two frames here, six frames there, 12 frames there, you know, fractions of seconds. And we did another pass of course on the mix. We remixed it. It smoothed out some of the way the music was functioning. It made it less repetitive and more emotional. Film is in detail and squeezing that last one, two, three, four percent out of a film like in any creative work makes a big difference. And there’s nothing you can even concretely point to. It just feels better, it just feels more like a real movie.”

Tent, who’s edited all of Payne’s features, said the filmmaker is “more involved than most (directors) with the small details.” Payne said what makes he and Tent a good team is, “number one we get along really well and number two we both want to be and are the actor’s best friend. We go through the takes over and over again to make sure we’re getting the best stuff up on screen in terms of what represents the actor’s work and then, of course, what’s appropriate for the character. And then beyond that I think we both have a pretty good storytelling sense—telling a story effectively and making it rhythmic.”

Located on Santa Monica Boulevard, The Lot owns a storied history as the Fairbanks-Pickford Studio and original home of United Artists. For most of its life though it was the Warner Hollywood Studio that served as the smaller sister studio to the main Warner Brothers Studio in Burbank. Some film-television production still happens in the cavernous sound stages there but today it’s mostly a post site for finishing films. It’s one of countless L.A. industry venues where films of every imaginable type are supported and tweaked behind closed doors. It’s safe to say two-time Oscar-winner Payne was the star resident client at The Lot with his Cannes-bound project.

Payne’s sixth feature enjoyed a warm reception at the fabled film bazaar, where star Bruce Dern won the Best Actor prize. Payne, who accepted the award for Dern, said even a stellar performance like Dern’s is partly shaped in the editing room. “It’s definitely what the actor’s doing but its also the work of editing where you’re combing through and getting the best of every set up and then creating both from what they gave you and from what you’re choosing and culling as absolutely necessary to tell the story. You tease out a great consistency to performance and to the creation of the character and then once we do that the work the actor’s done really starts to pop. Bruce did a good job.”

During my visit last spring to the Audio Head suite Payne introduced me to the insular post production world where he and his crew were under the gun preparing the film for its Cannes debut. “We’ve been working twelve-hour days. It’s been very much a mad dash to the finish because we’re getting ready for Mr. Frenchy,” Payne said to me shortly upon my arrival.

Notes and tweaks

Nebraska is a six-reel picture. Each pass through a reel takes put to six hours. It’s time consuming because each team member has notes made from previous screenings of what fixes need addressing. With each successive pass, there are new notes to respond to. After a screening of the twenty-minute reel five with a running time count on the screen Payne said to his collaborators, “I have a bunch of little things, so maybe we should fast track.” After noting several areas of concern and the corresponding time they appear in the reel, everything from extraneous noises to wanting some bits louder and others quieter, he said, “Sorry, I have a lot of notes here guys.”

Then Payne invites Tent and the others to chime in with their own notes. Payne interjects, “I’m looking froward to our whole film playback so we can gauge all of these things.” He asks for input from personal assistant and aspiring filmmaker Anna Musso and first assistant editor Mindy Elliott before asking, “Anyone else?”That’s how it rolls, day after day.

During my stay I watch an uninterrupted playback of the entire film at a large screening room on the Paramount lot with Payne and the edit-mix team poised with notepads and pens in laps. Several folks are moved to tears despite having seen the film countless times. For the duration of the edit-mix the post crew becomes Payne’s family. It’s the most time intensive segment of creating a film. “I spend more time with the post production crew than with the other (the shooting crew) and each thinks it’s THE filmmaking family. Many of them never meet each other. But I meet all of them, down to the musicians who play on it or to the guy who designs the titles.”

Recently, Payne told me that post work on Nebraska took twenty eight weeks but even with that it still marked the shortest “period of time I’ve posted a film. I think The Descendants was about thirty eight weeks total. And in these twenty eight weeks I took time out to go to Cannes, I took a week off after Cannes. I went to Bologna, Italy to watch old movies. Even within there it’s been a faster process than my previous films.”

Austerity

Ever since he began talking about Nebraska he’s described his vision for it as “austere,” referring to the small budget ($12 million), tight shoot schedule (six weeks), short script (ninety five pages) and minimal camera set-ups. The script’s lack of a voiceover motif, something most of his films have featured, was the biggest time saver in the edit room. “It was shot in a more austere style so I had fewer camera angles to do deal with. I wanted to be complete in my coverage but very limited in the coverage and to have as much play out as possible in single takes, and cut as little as possible. Plus no voiceover. Ask anybody who does a voiceover picture—voiceover adds a whole level of time to the editing of the film to calibrate, to get the voice over just right. It’s a rather musical element really. Dramatic and musical.” He said he was never tempted to impose a narrator on the story. “Absolutely not, no way, that’s not how it’s conceived. Voiceover isn’t something you decide to add later. Usually people only do that when the film’s in trouble. For me, voiceover’s always been an integral part of the conception of a film.”

Although a purely aesthetic choice, the film’s middle range black and white photography that’s neither expressionistic nor impressionistic is congruent with its austerity, Payne said Paramount, the studio that bankrolled the picture and is releasing it this fall, initially resisted his making it in black and white because that’s what suits and bean counters do to appease shareholders. Payne held out and when push came to shove he got his way. “They said they were glad I stuck to my guns because they like it so much. They’ve been great. I’ve had a great experience with Paramount, honestly. Once we were able to make it at a budget level they were comfortable with given the fact it was black and white with no major stars in a non-rebate state then I couldn’t have asked for a more supportive group. I couldn’t be more happy about it.”

So was their resistance a bluff to see how committed he was to black and white? “Kind of,” he said. “I mean, they want you to, they don’t want you to, which is fine, that’s their job. Color makes more money apparently. But they trusted me and then it’s just about the budget at that point.” “I guess I traded in my last Oscar for a black and white movie,” Payne adds jokingly.

Heart and soul getting personal

It’s a black and white movie with perhaps more heart and soul than Payne realized. After living with the film for months he recognized it has more emotional depth than he initially appreciated and part of that was him informing the story with things from his own life. “The script had a kind of deadpan hilarity. I think the direction and the acting and the music are bringing out a lot of sweetness in the film thats making it a more heartfelt film than maybe the screenplay might have suggested at first glance.

“The other thing, too, I was able to make it quite personal in certain details related to David taking care of his older folks. I’m at that age and everyone I know of my generation is at that age where our parents are getting on and need a little special attention. We love them to death and they drive us crazy as we figure out how to take care of them and accommodate them and all those things, including how far do we extend ourselves to be dutiful and at what point do we cut it off. All those questions. I was able to insert some of my own experiences with that in the film. Even though I didn’t originate it it wound up being because of the time in my life when I was making it quite personal and I think that helps the film. It always helps a film if you can put some of yourself in there.” Payne’s pleased by a common refrain he hears from those who’ve seen the film. “A lot of people tell me it makes them think about their parents and I was stopped a number of times in the street in Cannes by people who’d seen the film who said, ‘I was very touched by the film.’”

Woody Grant, the geezer Bruce Dern plays so effectively, is a wreck and wretch demanding attention be paid near the end of a misspent life. Payne’s appreciation for the character and the way Dern portrays him grew during the project. He said Woody has “a lot more in common” with the title character Jack Nicholson played in Payne’s About Schmidt than he might have imagined. While Woody’s not as articulate as Schmidt is by the end, both share a similar existential angst about the value of their lives. “People sometimes come to the end of their lives and are overwhelmed with the feeling they have nothing to show for it. I think that’s certainly whats driving Woody’s crazy mission (to redeem a worthless sweepstakes prize mailer) in some part.”

While Payne finds “kind of sweet the smallness of Woody’s dreams” —he only wants a new pickup truck and a compressor—he said Woody’s admission that he wants “to leave something” for his boys is generous but also selfish. “He wants to know he’s done something.” David, the sweet son who elects to take Woody on the road trip to retrieve the prize, feels many things about his father during the course of that journey but by the end, Payne said, it’s “unconditional love.” He said David is a classic case of “how you seek the love of those who belittle you. Look at his father, who’s a nothing anyway, and how he has to take out his low esteem by belittling others, including his son. So I think the end is complicated. He’s still seeking approval but also granting a last wish.”

Along the way, said Payne, David “finds some understanding” for why his father is the way he is. “Like the graveyard scene with the irreverent things the mother is saying about all the deceased but David is taking all this in for the first time and learning. And when they go to the old farmhouse and then in the bar. Why did you have us? David asks his dad. Well, I liked to screw, Woody said. Again it’s kind of a weird, disturbing yet comic scene. David drank the elixir and is able to wander into his father’s turf and ask him questions he never asked him before.”

Payne said his appreciation for Will Forte’s work also “deepened.” As the sweet son desperate for approval Forte plays a guileless Everyman we all know from our own lives.

Little seen America

The film is filled with sweet and savory small town archetypes. After the Cannes screening Payne said many viewers commented, “We haven’t seen these Americans in a long time. It’s as though they’re forgotten. We never see them in the cinema,” referring to the average types that populate the pic. “I thought it interesting they really feel they’re seeing Americans they’ve never seen before. Of course I really appreciate that. I’ve been saying for a long time Americans make films but not American films about Americans. We make cartoons easily digestible for the rest of the world. But we’re not showing ourselves to ourselves.

“I like when art is a mirror somehow to represent or reflect or distort or refract just to see ourselves, like our film in the ‘70s was, to see common people doing every day things to some degree. It makes me think of what Martin Scorsese said in his documentary about Elia Kazan—that when he was a kid and saw the faces from the street used in On the Waterfront suddenly it was as though the people he knew mattered. People want to see themselves. In general we Americans need to see Americans we recognize in our films but we kind of don’t. Within that to see Midwesterners is an even more uncommon thing.”

The film is a singular Nebraskaesque work. There’s the title, which has never graced a feature before. Then there’s the rarely seen northeast Nebraska locale and by extension the rarely glimpsed denizens of its rural hamlets. And the film’s writer and director both have strong Nebraska ties. Of all the Nebraskans who’ve gone on to Hollywood careers few have been filmmakers. Payne’s the only one to have returned to make films here about the people and places he knows. “Yeah, it’s as though the people I knew mattered and in that way I think I’m lucky I’m from Nebraska in that I have a virgin territory to show in movies,” he said. “And maybe the fact I’ve seen so many movies informs the fact that I can know even unconsciously what would be new. I don’t want to make derivative films. I want to do something new.

“Rachel Jacobson asked me to program a series of films in the fall at Film Streams that have influenced this one and I kind of can’t think of any. Maybe I can, but in general I can’t. It’s like the Latin phrase, suis generis – of its own kind or genus.”

Nothing particularly emphatic or dramatic happens in the story. The NEBRASKA 245

way Payne puts it is: “The movie has a lot of anti-climaxes,” What does happen is authentic and delivering the truth is always his overriding goal, which is why he’s “proud” of the work of the nonactors he and casting director John Jackson found for the film.

Payne’s among the leaders of the Indiewood movement that finds filmmakers like himself making independent movies with studio backing. He’s defied all odds by not having a single critical miss in his growing body of work. His last three features (About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants) have been commercial successes.

How Nebraska fares is anyone’s guess but it’s well positioned to generate buzz between its Cannes reception and expected screenings at the Telluride and New York Film Festivals. After the film opens in late November it should be a prime contender come awards season.

The Nov. 24 Film Streams Feature Event welcomes Payne, Dern and Forte in conversation with Kurt Andersen.

 

 

 

Local color: Payne and Co. mine the prairie poetry of Nebraska

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in a 2014 issue of The Reader

Local color, of the achingly human variety, is where Alexander Payne’s new black and white film Nebraska most deeply comes to life. After fall festival premieres abroad and across the U.S., Payne’s coming home to show off the film named for his native state and primarily shot and set here. Nebraska had an exclusive limited run at Film Streams. On Nov. 24 Payne joins stars Bruce Dern and Will Forte at the Holland Per- forming Arts Center for the sold-out Film Streams fundraiser, Feature V, that will find the troika interviewed on stage by Studio 360 host and novelist Kurt Andersen. The following day Payne and Dern travel to Norfolk, Nebraska, the production’s base camp last fall while the proj- ect filmed in nearby Hartington, Plainview and environs, to premiere the picture there.

Ringing true and finding Woody

Oscar-winner Payne is a stickler for the truth and with the by-turns elegiac and silly Nebraska he went to extreme lengths finding the people and places that ring true to his and screenwriter Bob Nelson’s vision of Midwest America. “This is the most authentically Nebraska feature film I’ve released to date,” said Payne, who previously made Citizen Ruth, Election and About Schmidt in-state.

Casting director John Jackson and Payne searched long and hard for the right players to animate the oddball yet familiar characters Nelson created on the page. In a rare star turn winning him much acclaim Bruce Dern so fully inhabits his old codger of a character, Woody Grant, that despite the actor’s well known face and voice he disappears into the part to become just another of the story’s small town residents. Dern plays Woody as written: a taciturn man of stoic roots and repressed pain long alienated from everyone around him. Feeling a failure near the end of his life, he’s desperate for some validation and so gets it in his head that he’s a sweepstakes winner. His son David, played by Will Forte, takes him on an epic journey to claim the prize. Amid the missteps and detours comes discovery, empathy and closure. As their strained relationship warms the son gives his father a gift born of understanding, forgiveness and love.

One of the reasons Payne said Dern leapt to mind when he originally read the script a decade ago is that like the actor’s actress daughter Laura Dern, who starred in Payne’s feature debut Citizen Ruth, he doesn’t worry about what he looks like on screen. To convincingly play the gone-to-seed Woody the actor inhabiting the role had to look a wreck. “Those Derns don’t have vanity,” Payne said admiringly. “They’ll do anything, they want to do anything. When working they’re more inter- ested in hitting a certain level of truth, an often ugly truth or pathetic truth, and now you’re talking my language.”

Payne elaborated on what made Dern the right fit, “Bruce is a handsome guy when he’s cleaned up and obviously as you can see in the film when he’s not cleaned up he can really look like a coot and a weirdo. If you took many other actors and tried to do the same thing they’d look fake. The guy would have to portray someone cut off from others and lost in his own world. Woody’s probably been like that somewhat his whole life but as a young man they just thought he was reticent. Now he’s a coot and ornery and pissed off at himself that he hasn’t done anything with his life and now he’s about to start taking a dirt nap. I think that’s certainly what’s driving Woody’s crazy mission in some part.

“When I thought about who could communicate that I thought of Bruce.” Payne felt Dern could express the two sides of Woody as both prick and pushover who can’t refuse doing favors, even if it means be- ing taken advantage of. He also detected “a certain childlike nature” in Dern that aligned with Woody’s fragility. “I think within Woody’s ornery crust there is something of a child – of a very disillusioned and disappointed child.” Indeed, we first meet Woody as he’s running away from home. “There’s also a sweetness about Woody and Bruce is a sweet guy. He hasn’t often played that.”

Dern acknowledges it’s a departure for him. “Throughout my career I’ve been flamboyant in a lot of roles, especially flamboyantly evil, and there’s a certain style that goes with that.” Nebraska called for him to be a dull, muted, passive presence. “What the role demanded was a character who appeared to not be touched too much or too little,” he said, “and probably not touched at all. And if he touches other people it’s without planning to do it. He’s just who he is and he’s always going to be that way. I think he’s a fair man, Woody, and that’s another thing I based the character on a lot. Because he’s fair he believes what people tell him because he doesn’t know why anybody would want to lie to him about anything.”

The tangibles and intangibles of a character go into any casting decision. “When you cast someone in a lead you’re not casting just his or her ability to act,” explained Payne. “you’re casting the substance or essence of their person. There’s two things going on simultaneously seemingly contradictory but not. One is you want them to become that person in the script yet at the same time not act.”

Actor and director arriving to the truth

Dern said Payne has an uncanny way of communicating what he wants, variously tapping “your strengths and weaknesses and sometimes invading your privacy” to extract the emotion or tone he’s after. Actors Studio veteran Dern believes he achieved a progressive in-the-moment reality in Nebraska he’d never accomplished before on a film. “I’ve always wanted to be a human being and just kind of acting—otherwise leave myself alone and not perform and I don’t think there’s really a moment in the movie where I perform—in other words take it above the context of what it really is. The first day of the movie Alexander said to me, ‘I’d like you to let Mr. Papamichael (cinematographer) and I do our jobs,’ meaning don’t show me anything, let me find it with the camera, and that’s what he did and that’s what you see.

“That doesn’t mean I wasn’t acting. It was as hard a role as I’ve had to take on but I feel I owed it to the material and to my career for just once in my life to try and have as many consecutive moment- to-moment pure moments of behavior. That’s what I began when I worked with Mr. Kazan and Mr. Strasberg in the Actors Studio—how much moment to moment real behavior can you have? And I think in Nebraska I’ve done far and away the most I’ve had in an entire film.”

Forte, a relative newcomer to acting after years writing for television, said he learned a lot from his co-star. “Bruce would always say, ‘Just be truthful,’ and that always sounded like acting mumbo jumbo to me coming in but for some reason the way he would explain it and describe it it made sense. There’s such an honesty that comes from his performance and all the performances that it really taught me a lot to watch everyone work.”

Dern said Payne lived up to what his daughter Laura and his old acting chum Jack Nicholson, who starred in the director’s About Schmidt, told him about the filmmaker: “They both said in separate conversations, ‘He’ll be the best teammate you’ve ever had.’ They were right. I feel it’s the best team, overall, I’ve ever had.”

Payne, whose sets are famously relaxed, said he also casts with an eye to who will “be nice to work with” and contribute to the playfulness he believes essential to good filmmaking. “I want to be there to play. I don’t know exactly how it (any scene) should be, I’m there to sort of say, ‘Oh, well, let’s try this and let’s try that, nudging the machine toward a certain direction. It’s not all preconceived, you’re discovering it day by day, so I think you want actors who are willing to have a sense of, Let’s be playful and free. It’s all about having fun, and that will create something none of us have thought of exactly.”

Dern said he’s glad it took nearly a decade to get the film made – the project came to Payne as the filmmaker was setting up Sideways – because “I wasn’t ready to play this role a few years ago.” The passage of time put some more natural wear and tear on Dern, both physically and emotionally. The limp he walks with in the film is real, if exaggerated, and the way Woody leaves things unsaid is something Dern said he’s been guilty of himself and regrets.

Life informing art

Similarly, Payne’s personal life caught up with the experience of David in Nebraska as an adult child dealing with aging parents. Payne’s father is in a nursing home and his mother recently survived a serious health scare. “I was able to make it quite personal in certain details related to David taking care of his older folks,” Payne said. “Everyone I know of my generation at that age has parents that are getting on and need a little special attention. We love them to death and they drive us crazy. How we take care of them and accommodate them and all those things, and how far do we extend ourselves to be dutiful and at what point do we cut it off, all those questions. It wound up being because of the time in my life when I was making it quite personal. The fact that I had that much more life experience for this film with respect to my parents, I think helps the film. It always helps a film if you can put some of yourself in there.”

Payne said the bottomed-out economy also enhanced the austere shooting style and stark look of the film, adding, “Those winds blew their way into the film as well and it becomes more of a Depression Era film.” Undoubtedly some will take umbrage at the film’s portrayals of quirky. salt-of-the-earth types. But if the strong reception the picture’s received at the Cannes, Telluride and New York Film Festivals, among others, is any indication, than most audiences realize Payne and his collaborators sought archetype, not caricature in bringing to life small town inhabitants and the dysfunctional Grant family.

“I hope what people take away from this movie is his genuine love for Nebraska because he really does love Nebraska” said Forte. Dern calls the film “a love poem” to Nebraska from Payne.

Payne, Nelson, Jackson, Papamichael, editor Kevin Tent, assorted other crew and the ensemble cast all committed to realizing authentic portraits of this comic-dramatic Midwest Gothic tale. As Payne is both a writer and a director he made his own pass on the Nelson script. He’s particularly proud of the simple yet sublime and nearly wordless ending he hit upon that may just go down as one of the most memorable and moving conclusions in the annals of American cinema. A series of telling looks are exchanged that say more than any words can. He’s pleased too by his handling of the film’s black and white and wide screen that help make Nebraska an expressionistic experience for the way he and Papamichael evoke mood from light, shadow, landscape and framing. The juxtaposition of persons and places carries meaning.

Creating a world through casting

But what Payne’s most eager to talk about is how Nebraska lives and breathes on the strength of its casting and melding of actors and extras. “Whatever achievements this film Nebraska may or may not have for me its greatest achievement is its most significant marriage of profes- sional and nonprofessional actors and nonactors because to create that world it’s dependent equally on production design and casting. That’s what suggests that world is that flesh. We spent over a year doing it so that they all seem like they’re in the same movie. Finding those vivid nonactors takes time.

“Official preproduction is going to start maybe fifteen weeks out but I need casting and location scouting to start many, many weeks before that and I do a lot of the scouting way in advance of a greenlight. Whenever I’d have three free days I’d just take off in my car around the state.” He’s come to know rural Nebraska quite well. It’s why he’s confident he cast not only the right locales but the right faces and voices. He goes so far as to say, “Casting is the most important thing” and “The best thing I do as a director is cast. You can’t f___ up casting. You’ve got to get the right people in every part and of course the leads and the secondary, tertiary parts have to be exactly right. It’s creating a world.” He likes saying his movie is as much “anthropological” as anything.

Prepping the movie, he said, “I looked at a number of small town American films. One of them in particular is an excellent film and it has professional actors but also people cast from that small town. But there’s a great chasm between the acting styles of the two. It’s like the faces of the real people lend what they’re supposed to lend which is authenticity, verisimilitude and all that but they’re not acting properly, even as versions of themselves.

“So I knew we had to spend time to get local people who could act as vividly as possible as versions as themselves but also to have the professional actors act flatter. They both had to meet in between. I like when professional actors act more flatly like people do in real life. People don’t gesticulate, go into histrionics in real life, not Midwesterners anyway.”

A cinema seldom seen

Truth is always the litmus test for Payne. “When I’m in a casting session it’s no different from how I am on the set, which is the moment they start acting I pretend in my mind that we’re not making a movie, that I’m just there invisible watching something. Do I believe it? That’s the trick. Do I buy it? Do I think these are real people?”

Payne’s likely to return to Nebraska again to make films. It’s only natural. “Other directors continue to make films in the cities where they grew up. Paul Thomas Anderson and Quentin Tarantino shoot in L.A. Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese and so many others in New York. Kurosawa would never leave Tokyo. Pedro Almodovar hasn’t made a movie outside of Spain. Fellini never made a movie outside of Italy. They were courted and invited a lot. ‘No, no, this is where I feel comfortable, where I feel like I know the people and where I can get the details right.’”

It’s the same reasoning Payne uses for making movies here. Then there’s the fact that by tackling subjects so close to home he can show a segment of America too often missing from today’s cinema. “I think in general we Americans need to see Americans in our films but we kind of don’t, we see cartoons largely. As Americans we make cartoons easily digestible for the rest of the world but we’re not showing ourselves to ourselves. I like when art is a mirror somehow to represent or reflect or distort or refract, just to see ourselves like our film in the ‘70s, showing common people doing every day things. . . .”

He said a recurring comment he hears about Nebraska is that “we haven’t seen these Americans in a long time. It’s as though they’re forgotten, we never see them in the cinema. I thought that was interesting that people really feel they’re seeing Americans they’ve never seen before. Of course, I really appreciate that.”

As one of only a handful of Nebraska feature filmmakers who’s cultivated the state on screen, he said, “I think I’m lucky I’m from Nebraska and that I have a virgin territory to show in movies. Maybe the fact I’ve seen so many movies informs the fact that I can know even unconsciously what would be new. I don’t want to make derivative films, I want to do something new.”

By the same token, Payne, who reveres classic cinema, said, “People have said of Nebraska, ‘This is a film like they used to make,’ and that makes me feel good because I’m trying to make films like how they used to make. I’m trying to make the films I myself would like to see, which is film from the ‘70s and before.”

In truth, Payne’s made a timeless film that plays like a loony requiem set to its own internal rhythm and logic. It unfolds slowly but surely and from the mix of somber, sweet and surreal emerges a lyrical comic- drama unlike any other. Because of this cinematic prairie poem the state will surely never be looked at the same again.

Master of many mediums Jason Fischer


It must be a decade ago or so now that I first met a remarkable cadre of creatives through the Loves Jazz & Art Center.  Felicia Webster.  Michelle Troxclair.  Neville Murray.  Gabrielle Gaines Liwaru.  Frank O’Neal.  And Jason Fischer.  Jason was making three-dimensional art pieces then in addition to doing graphic art, photography, film, and video production work.  He’s always had a really good eye and instinct for composition, colors, lighting, and all the different elements that go into making arresting visuals.  At his old Surreal Media Lab studio on the lower floor of Leola’s Records & Tapes I sampled some street documentaries he was making back then.  We talked about collaborating one day.  Perhaps we may still. He’s come a long way.  His clients today include some of Omaha’s top for-profit and nonprofit organizations.  His poverty documentary “Out of Frame” has opened eyes and provoked conversations.  His art films are powerful, personal testimonies.  This is my B2B Omaha Magazine profile of Jason.

 

 

 Jason Fischer, ©photo by Bill Sitzman

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Master of many mediums Jason Fischer

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the March-April 2016 issue of B2B Omaha Magazine

 

The design team for Omaha’s bold “We Don’t Coast” campaign included 30-something-year-old Jason Fischer, owner of boutique marketing-branding firm, Surreal Media Lab.

“It’s great to know it’s been used so well and been so widely accepted,” Fischer says of the slogan.

This master visual stylist grew up drawing, airbrush illustrating and acrylic painting. Then he turned to graphic art. He taught himself photography, film-video production, software programming and computer coding as digital, Web-based platforms came in vogue. All the while, he fed wide-ranging interests in art, culture, media, history.

“I just wanted to do something creative for a living. It’s nice to be able to have these disciplines and ultimately connect all these dots. I think that’s what really helps me be successful in the marketing-branding area. My brain lives on the big picture scale.

“I like the challenge behind the collaboration of taking what a client wants and creating something that is me but that captures their vision.”

His diverse clients span the metro but he he’s done “a body of socially conscious work” for the Urban League of Nebraska, No More Empty Pots, Together, the Empowerment Network and others. Other clients include the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce and the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts.

“At one point I was asked by a few community leaders to get involved. I would be the fly on the wall at meetings and events. That led to opportunities. I really care about community and want to see changes. Everybody has their own part they play. I’m just doing my piece, using what my calling is, to be an advocate the best way I can.

“I am really inspired by the work these nonprofits are doing.”

His feature  documentary Out of Frame gives voice and face to Omaha’s homeless. His short docs Project Ready and Work Their Best won festival awards. His new art film, I Do Not Use, puts images to Frank O’Neal’s powerful poem decrying the “n” word. He’s in-progress on another feature doc, Grey Matter, about being biracial in America.

 

 

Fischer’s M.O. is “asking the right questions and getting people to tell their own story,” adding, “I go in with the end in mind but I’m fluid enough to be open to the unexpected. Then it’s piecing it together.”

He’s known tough times himself. Raised by a single mom who labored hard to make ends meet, he used that work ethic to build The Lab. Then a burglary nearly wiped him out. Insurance didn’t cover the loss.

“It put me at ground zero. I was fortunate to have enough resources to get a loan through the SBA (Small Business Administration).

He moved his business from North O to the Image Arts Building’s creative hub at 2626 Harney Street.

“If it hadn’t happened I feel like I would still be stuck doing the same thing, smaller jobs, just turning the wheel. The move brought greater expectations and bigger opportunities to express myself and raise the bar. Before, it was more the hustle of making the dollar. Then it switched from dollars to passion. I think the passion part has definitely shown through and propelled the work and the business.”

Recognition has come his way, including the Chamber’s Business Excellence award. He looks to “leverage” his success “to open doors and opportunities” for fellow creatives via a for-profit community collaborative space he’s developing.

Visit http://surrealmedialab.com/.

 

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Frank O’Neal in I Do Not Use

 

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