Posts Tagged ‘About Schmidt’

Jim Taylor, the other half of Hollywood’s top screenwriting team, talks about his work with Alexander Payne

June 30, 2016 2 comments

No matter how Alexander Payne’s in-progress film Downsizing is received when released next year, it will be remembered as his first foray into special effects, science fiction, big budget filmmaking and sprawling production extending across three nations. But the most important development it marks is the rejoining of Payne and his longtime screenwriting partner, Jim Taylor, whose contributions to the film’s they’ve collaborated on often get overlooked even though he’s shared an Oscar with Payne and has been nominated for others with him. In truth, Payne and Taylor never broke with each other. Payne did make both The Descendants and Nebraska without Taylor’s writing contribution, but following their last collaboration, Sideways, and during much of the period when Payne was producing other people’s films and then mounting and making the two films he directed following Sideways, these creative partners were busily at work on the Downsizing screenplay. It’s been awhile since I last interviewed Taylor. I am sharing the resulting 2005 story here, It is included in my book Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film. A new edition of the book releases Sept. 1.

As my story makes clear, Payne and Taylor go farther back then Citizen Ruth, the first feature they wrote together and the first feature that Payne directed. Their bond goes all the way back to college and to scuffling along to try to break into features. After Citizen Ruth, they really made waves with their scripts for Election and About Schmidt. And then Sideways confirmed them as perhaps Hollywood’s top screenwriting tandem. They also collaborated on for-hire rewrite jobs on scripts that others directed.

I will soon be doing a new interview with Taylor for my ongoing reporting about Payne and his work. Though Taylor is not a Nebraskan, his important collaboration with Payne makes him an exception to the rule of only focusing on natives for my in-development Nebraska Film Heritage Project. By the way, one of the films that Payne produced during his seven year hiatus from directing features was The Savages, whose writer-director, Tamara Jenkins, is Taylor’s wife. That Payne and Taylor have kept their personal friendship and creative professional relationship intact over 25-plus years, including a production company they shared together, is a remarkable feat in today’s ephemeral culture and society.

NOTE: For you film buffs out there, I will be interviewing Oscar-winning cinematographer Mauro Fiore and showing clips of his work at Kaneko in the Old Market, on Thursday, July 21. The event starts at 7 p.m. and will include a Q & A.

Link to my cover story about Mauro and more info about the event at–…/05/04/master-of-light-mauro-fiore/



<a gi-track='captionPersonalityLinkClicked' href=/galleries/search?phrase=Jim+Taylor&family=editorial&specificpeople=209181 ng-click='$event.stopPropagation()'>Jim Taylor</a> and <a gi-track='captionPersonalityLinkClicked' href=/galleries/search?phrase=Alexander+Payne&family=editorial&specificpeople=202578 ng-click='$event.stopPropagation()'>Alexander Payne</a>, winners Best Screenplay for “Sideways”

Jim Taylor and Alexander Payne, winners Best Screenplay for “Sideways”


Jim Taylor, the other half of Hollywood’s top screenwriting team, talks about his work with Alexander Payne

Published in a fall 2005 issue of The Reader

©by Leo Adam Biga


There’s an alchemy to the virtuoso writing partnership of Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, Oscar winners for Sideways (2004) and previous nominees for Election (1999), that resists pat analysis. The artists themselves are unsure what makes their union work beyond compatibility, mutual regard and an abiding reverence for cinema art.

Together 15 years now, their professional marriage has been a steady ascent amid the starts and stops endemic to filmmaking. As their careers have evolved, they’ve emerged as perhaps the industry’s most respected screenwriting tandem, often drawing comparisons to great pairings of the past. As the director of their scripts, Payne grabs the lion’s share of attention, although their greatest triumph, Sideways, proved “a rite of passage” for each, Taylor said, by virtue of their Oscars.

Taylor doesn’t mind that Payne, the auteur, has more fame. ”He pays a price for that. I’m not envious of all the interviews he has to do and the fact his face is recognized more. Everywhere he goes people want something from him. That level of celebrity I’m not really interested in,” he said by phone from the New York home he shares with filmmaker wife Tamara Jenkins (The Slums of Beverly Hills).

With the craziness of Sideways now subsided and Payne due to return soon from a month-long sojourn in Paris, where he shot a vignette for the I Love Paris omnibus film, he and Taylor will once again engage their joint muse. So far, they’re being coy about what they’ve fixed as their next project. It may be the political, Altmanesque story they’ve hinted at. Or something entirely else. What is certain is that a much-anticipated new Payne-Taylor creation will be in genesis.

Taylor’s an enigma in the public eye, but he is irreducibly, inescapably one half of a premier writing team that shows no signs of running dry or splitting up. His insights into how they approach the work offer a vital glimpse into their process, which is a kind of literary jam session, game of charades and excuse for hanging out all in one. They say by the time a script’s finished, they’re not even sure who’s done what. That makes sense when you consider how they fashion a screenplay — throwing out ideas over days and weeks at a time in hours-long give-and-take riffs that sometimes have them sharing the same computer monitor hooked up to two keyboards.

Their usual M.O. finds them talking, on and on, about actions, conflicts, motivations and situations, acting out or channeling bits of dialogue and taking turns giving these elements form and life on paper.

”After we’ve talked about something, one of us will say, ‘Let me take a crack at this,’ and then he’ll write a few pages. Looking at it, the other might say, ‘Let me try this.’ Sometimes, the person on the keyboard is not doing the creative work. They’re almost inputting what the other person is saying. It’s probably a lot like the way Alexander works with his editor (Kevin Tent), except we’re switching back and forth being the editor.”

For each writer, the litmus test of any scene is its authenticity. They abhor anything that rings false. Their constant rewrites are all about getting to the truth of what a given character would do next. Avoiding cliches and formulas and feel-good plot points, they serve up multi-shaded figures as unpredictable as real people, which means they’re not always likable.

”I think it’s true of all the characters we write that there’s this mixture of things in people. Straight-ahead heroes are just really boring to us because they don’t really exist,” said Taylor, whose major influences include the humanist Czech films of the 1960s. “I think once we fall in love with the characters, then it’s really just about the characters for us. We have the best time writing when the characters are leading us somewhere and we’re not so much trying to write about some theme.”

Sideways’ uber scene, when Miles and Maya express their longing for each other via their passion for the grape, arose organically.

“We didn’t labor any longer over that scene than others,” he said. “What happened was, in our early drafts we had expanded on a speech Miles has in the book (Rex Pickett’s novel) and in later drafts we realized Maya should have her own speech. At the time we wrote those speeches we had no idea how important they would turn out to be. It was instinctive choice to include them, not something calculated to fill a gap in a schematic design.”


Writer/director Tamara Jenkins and writer/producer <a gi-track='captionPersonalityLinkClicked' href=/galleries/search?phrase=Jim+Taylor&family=editorial&specificpeople=209181 ng-click='$event.stopPropagation()'>Jim Taylor</a> attend 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' intro at MoMA on February 15, 2008 in New York City.

Writer/director Tamara Jenkins and writer/producer Jim Taylorattend ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ intro at MoMA on February 15, 2008 in New York City.


He said their scripts are in such “good shape” by the time cameras roll that little or no rewriting is done on set. “Usually we’ll make some minor changes after the table reading that happens right before shooting.” Taylor said Payne asks his advice on casting, locations, various cuts, music, et cetera.

Their process assumes new colors when hired for a script-doctor job (Meet the Parents, Jurassic Park III), the latest being I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry.

“With those projects we’re trying to accommodate the needs of a different director and we generally don’t have much time, so we don’t allow problems to linger as long as we would, which is good practice,” said Taylor. “It’s good for us to have to work fast. We’ll power through stuff, where we might let it sit longer and just let ourselves be stuck.”

Ego suppression explains in part how they avoid any big blow ups.

”I think it’s because both of us are interested in making a good movie more than having our own ideas validated,” Taylor said. “So we are able to, hopefully, set our egos aside when we’re working and say, ‘Oh, that’s a good idea,’ or, ‘That’s a better idea.’ I think a lot of writing teams split up because they’re too concerned about protecting what they did as opposed to remembering what’s good for the script. We can work out disagreements without having any fallout from it. It’s funny. I mean, sometimes we do act like a married couple. There’s negotiations to be made. But mostly we just get along and enjoy working together.”

As conjurers in the idiom of comedy, he said, “I think our shared sensibilities are similar enough that if I can make him laugh or he can make me laugh, then we feel like we’re on the right track.”

Collaboration is nothing new for Taylor, a Pomona College and New York University Tisch School of the Arts grad, who’s directed a short as well as second unit work on Payne shoots (most of the 16 millimeter footage in Election) and is developing feature scripts for himself to direct.

”For me, I didn’t set out to be a screenwriter, I set out to be a filmmaker,” said Taylor, a former Cannon Films grunt and assistant to director Ivan Passer (Cutter’s Way). So did Alexander. And we kind of think of it all as one process, along with editing…People say everything is writing. Editing is writing and in a strange way acting is writing, and all that. Filmmaking itself is a collaborative medium. People drawn to filmmaking are drawn to working with other people. Sure, a lot of screenwriters do hole up somewhere so they’re not disturbed, but I’m not like that and Alexander’s not like that. I don’t like working on my own. I like to bounce ideas off people. Filmmaking demands it, as opposed to being a novelist or a painter, who work in forms that aren’t necessarily collaborative.”

Simpatico as they are, there’s also a pragmatic reason for pairing up.

”We just don’t like doing it alone and it’s less productive, too. And we sort of have similar ideas, so why not do it together? Even beyond that, it’s like a quantum leap in creativity. You’re just sort of inspired more to come up with something than if you’re just sitting there and hating what you’re doing. At least there’s somebody there going, ‘Oh, that’s good,’ or, ‘How do we do this?’ And you sort of stick with the problem as opposed to going off and cleaning out a drawer or something.”

Payne says scripting with someone else makes the writing process “less hideous.” For Taylor, flying solo is something to be avoided at all costs.

”I hate it. I really hate it. I mean, I do it, but it’s very slow and I don’t think it’s as good,” he said. “I’m getting Alexander’s input on something I’ve been working on for a long, long time on my own, a screenplay called The Lost Cause about a Civil War reenactor, and I expect it to became 50 percent better just because of working with him. We’ll essentially do with it what we do on a production rewrite.”

Lost Cause was part of a “blind deal” Taylor had with Paramount’s Scott Rudin, now at Disney. The fate of Taylor’s deal is unclear.

Writing with his other half, Taylor said, opens a script to new possibilities. “I’ll see it through different eyes when I’m sitting next to Alexander and maybe have ideas I wouldn’t otherwise.”

The pair’s operated like this since their first gig, co-writing short films for cable’s Playboy Inside Out series. The friends and one time roommates have been linked ever since. ”It’s pretty hard to extract the friendship from the partnership or vice versa. It’s all kind of parts of the same thing. We don’t end up seeing each other that much because we live in separate cities, unless we’re working together,” Taylor said. “So our friendship is a little bit dependent on our work life at this point, which is too bad.” However, he added there’s an upside to not being together all the time in the intense way collaborators interact, “It’s important to not get too overdosed on who you’re working with.”

He can’t imagine them going their separate ways unless there’s a serious falling out. ”That would only happen of we had personal problems with each other. Sometimes, people naturally drift apart, and we’re both working against that. We’re trying to make sure that it doesn’t just drift away, because that would be sad.”

Keeping the alliance alive is complicated by living on opposite coasts and the demands of individual lives/careers. But when Taylor talks about going off one day to make his own movies, he means temporarily. He knows Payne has his back. “He’s supportive of my wanting to direct. But I’m so happy working with him that if that were all my career was, I’d be a very lucky person.”

Alexander Payne on working with Jack Nicholson

Alexander Payne on working with Jack Nicholson

©by Leo Adam Biga

Drawn from my book Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film


As I wade through the edit on the new edition of my Alexander Payne book, I am coming across some things that I am selectively posting, including this aggregation of quotes and musings in which Payne refers to working with Jack Nicholson on About Schmidt. Getting Nicholson to star in the film, in a part that requires he be on screen for virtually its entire duration, was a huge turning point in Payne’s career trajectory but what really catapulted Payne to the upper echelon of cinema was the great performance he elicited from Nicholson in the lead part of a killer script that Payne co-wrote with Jim Taylor and that Payne brought to the screen as the film’s director. Payne grew up watching Nicholson’s work in that decade of 1970s American film that was so foundational for the filmmaker and his own work as a writer-director. It meant a lot to Payne to have Nicholson deliver the goods in what was Payne’s biggest film, in terms of budget, prestige and risk, up to that point.

NOTE: The new edition of Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film releases September 1. It is the only comprehensive treatment of the Oscar-winning Payne in print or online. It is a collection of articles and essays I have written about Payne and his work over a 20-year span. I have basically covered him from the start of his filmmaking career through today. The book takes the reader through the arc of his filmmaking journey and puts you deep inside his creative process. There is much from Payne himself in the pages of the book since most of the content is drawn from interviews I have done with him and from observations I have made on his sets. I also have a good amount of material from some of his key collaborators.

I self-pubished the book in late 2012. It has received strong reviews and endorsements. I am releasing a new edition this summer with the help of a boutique press here, River Junction Press, and its publisher Kira Gale. The new edition features major content additions, mostly related to Payne’s Nebraska and Downsizing. It will also feature, for the first time, a Discussion Guide and Index, because we believe the book has potential in the education space with film studies programs, instructors, and students. But I want to emphasize that the book is definitely written with the general film fan in mind and it has great appeal to anyone who identifies as a film buff, film lover, film critic, film blogger. It has also been well received by filmmakers,

Kira and I feel hope to put the book in front of the wider cinema community around the world, including producers, directors, screenwriters, festival organizers, art cinema programmers. We feel it will be warmly embraced because Payne is one of the world’s most respected film artists and everyone wants to work with him. People inside and outside the industry want to learn his secrets and insights about the screen trade and about what makes him tick as an artist.




Alexander Payne on working with Jack Nicholson 

NOTE: These excerpts are from 2001-2002 articles I wrote and that appear in my book


Alexander Payne derives much of his aesthetic from the gutsy, electric cinema of the 1970s and therefore having the actor whose work dominated that decade, Jack Nicholson, anchor his film About Schmidt is priceless.

“One thing I like about him appearing in this film is that part of his voice in the ‘70s kind of captured alienation in a way,” Payne said, “and this is very much using that icon of alienation, but not as someone who is by nature a rebel, but rather now someone who has played by the rules and is now questioning whether he should have. So, for me, it’s using that iconography of alienation, which is really cool.”

Beyond the cantankerous image he brings, Nicholson bears a larger-than-life mystique born of his dominant position in American cinema these past thirty-odd years. “He has done a body of film work,” Payne said. “Certainly, his work in the ‘70s is as cohesive a body of work as any film director’s. He’s been lucky enough to have been offered and been smart enough to have chosen roles that allow him to express his voice as a human being and as an artist. He’s always been attracted to risky parts where he has to expose certain vulnerabilities.”

The film’s title character, Warren Schmidt, is a man adrift in a late life crisis where the underpinnings of his safe world come unhinged, sending him reeling into an on-the-road oblivion that becomes a search for redemption. Because the story is really about a man’s inner journey or state of mind the film is not so much driven by traditional narrative as it is subtext.

“This film isn’t so much about the story because there isn’t really much of a story. It’s about a man and kind of about a way of life,” Payne said. “And it’s a way of life I kind of witnessed in Omaha. Not that it doesn’t exist elsewhere and not that many different lives don’t exist in Omaha. But, from time to time, it has a whiff of something that’s very genuine. It’s just a feeling, and I’d be hard-pressed to describe it beyond that.”

As an artist, Payne does not like limiting himself to expository narrative. He understands how seemingly whimsical, quirky or incidental elements, like the moon serenade in Citizen Ruth or the lesbian romance in Election, have value too.

“One thing Hollywood filmmaking urges you always to do is tell the story. If it’s not germane to the story, then leave it out. And I kind of disagree with that,” he said. “I mean, I like stories. I like seeing movies that tell stories. I like my movies to tell stories. But films don’t operate only on a story level. There’s a quote I like that says, ‘A story exists only as an excuse to enter into the realm of the cinema.’ Films operate on emotions, moods, sub-themes and maybe even poetry, if you’re lucky enough to have a bit of mystery and poetry in your film.”

If the screenplay is any guide, then reading it reveals Schmidt as a man who has built his life around convention and conformity but who, along the way, has lost touch with what he really is and wants. The things in his well-ordered life have become his identity. His actuarial job with Woodmen of the World Life Insurance. His office. His home. His routine. His marriage. When, in short order, he retires, his wife dies and his estranged daughter prepares to marry a man he does not like, he realizes he is alone, at odds, angry and restless to find answers to why his supposedly full life seems so empty.

What makes Schmidt’s dilemma more complex is that he is not a wholly likable man. He is a square, a miser, a malcontent. Payne is drawn to such richly shaded and often unsympathetic characters because they are more interesting, more real, more truthful. Just think of inhalant addict mother-to-be Ruth Stoops in Citizen Ruth or arrogant, spiteful teacher Jim McAllister in Election. Neither is totally a shit, though. Stoops is brave, outspoken, independent. McAllister is sincere, caring, dedicated. And, so, Schmidt is solicitous, careful, reflective. As he begins defining a new life for himself without a job or wife, he begins behaving in ways that defy family-societal expectations.




About Schmidt: at desk with stacked boxes



In this way, the film is an indictment of the prefabricated mold people are expected to fit. With Schmidt, Nicholson mutely echoes the alienated character (Bobby Dupea) he essayed in 1970’s Five Easy Pieces. Just as Dupea turns his back on his classical piano career and blue blood roots to work the oil fields, Schmidt shucks his constraints to embark on a road trip that is as much escape as quest.

Then there’s the whole star power thing Nicholson brings. The clout Nicholson wields. The Player label he wears. The attention he commands. Payne is savvy enough to know that having Nicholson on the project boosts the prestige and the pressure that goes with it. That’s why this production is a little more all-business and a little less laid back than Payne’s previous two. For example, the filmmaker is, for the time being anyway, giving no interviews (outside this one) and the set is closed to reporters.

This limited access all gets back to the Nicholson factor. It means catering to him and shielding him.

Or, as Payne put, “we have a big fish on this one. Everyone knows him. Most everyone is a fan of his. Plus, there’s the Pop stuff of his winning three Academy Awards and having been in very many popular and artistic films. So, he’s a big presence in American culture. And all of us, certainly from me down to the crew, want him to be impressed. We want him to feel protected and supported. We want to feel that we have his approval. And, as director, I’m really bending over backwards to make sure he feels comfortable enough so he will expose vulnerabilities and really dive into the part. So, just because of his stature there is a heightened will among the film company and crew to do a good job.”

Making no bones about what a fan he is of Nicholson, Payne said his star has thus far been a filmmaker’s dream.

“Sometimes, you think about a movie star as being more star than actor, kind of playing some version of themselves. That’s not the case with Mr. Nicholson. He’s all about the character. He really dives into who is that person. He’s a consummate actor. I’ve been really impressed with what I’ve seen so far. And I think watching the character unfold through him is going to be really amazing.”

Instead of full-blown rehearsal periods for the film, Payne, Nicholson and the film’s other name actors, who include June Squibb as nis wife, Hope Davis as the daughter, Dermot Mulroney as the future son-in-law and Oscar-winner Kathy Bates as the future in-law, have held script readings. According to Payne, Nicholson is not throwing his weight around, as one might expect, but rather acting as a colleague and collaborator.

“My experience so far is that he expresses his opinions as he sees them and he tries to be helpful to me and to the process. He seems to respect the filmmaker. So far, it’s been a really interesting collaboration. And I also think I have much to learn from him, so I welcome his input.”





Nicholson became attached to the project through the kind of old-boy networking Hollywood thrives on. The actor was given Begley’s book by his old friend, producer Harry Gittes (whose name Nicholson appropriated for the private eye he played in Chinatown). Then, Payne came on board, writing the script with Taylor and being assigned directorial chores as well. All Payne knew was that Nicholson would read the finished script first.

“And, oh, thank God he liked and agreed to do it,” Payne said. On a practical level, Nicholson’s participation has meant a much bigger budget than Payne has worked with before. “It’s around $30 million. Mr. Nicholson’s getting a salary which is larger than actors have gotten in my previous movies. Another factor is that this is a union movie, where my previous two were non-union, so there’s a little added cost there.

“Thirty (million) is actually quite modest – it’s hard to believe, I know – by Hollywood standards. And it’s really amazing this script is getting made with this caliber of star at that budget level, because there’s no gimmicks, no special effects, no guns. It’s just a guy in crisis.”

Nicholson’s presence netted a bigger budget than Payne ever had before, which meant New Line insisted he use sound stages and multiple cameras as safeguards against cost overruns caused by shooting delays.

“Because it’s not a terribly commercial film and because it’s somewhat costly I was urged to not go over budget. I had to make all my days, so in order to do that I shot more on sound stages and I sometimes threw up two or three cameras. I’d used sound stages on a limited basis before because, one, we didn’t have the budget to build sets and, two, I don’t really trust it, I trust what exists. But practical locations, as they’re called, are difficult. They’re tight. You wreck people’s front lawns.

“Building sets and shooting on them poses its own logistical problems, but it also solves a lot of problems. And rather than shoot from one angle and then move in closer, I tried to get both (shots) at once. I like doing it precisely for the reason of not wearing out the actors and saving time.” In the end, Payne did meet his sixty two-day schedule.

Despite the hike in budget, the presence of a superstar and the imposition of union realities, Payne insists the film, which is being made for New Line, remains closer to his first two intimate independent features than to overblown mainstream Hollywood pics.

“The scale of filmmaking is, for me, not that much different than my previous two. A lot of directors, as they get older or have more films under their belt or have more success or whatever, they consistently make bigger, more impersonal films. I am conscious of wanting to make increasingly more personal films.”

Directing Nicholson allowed Payne to work with an actor he greatly admires and solidified his own status as a sought-after filmmaker. He found Nicholson to be a consummate professional and supreme artist.

“Nicholson does a lot of work on his character before shooting. Now, a lot of actors do that, but he REALLY does it. To the point where, as he describes it, he’s so in character and so relaxed that if he’s in the middle of a take and one of the movie lights falls or a train goes through or anything, he’ll react to it in character. He won’t break.” Payne said Nicholson doesn’t like a lot of rehearsal “because he believes in cinema as the meeting of the spontaneous and the moment. His attitude is, ‘What if something good happens and the camera wasn’t on?’”

By design, Nicholson carries the film. He is in virtually every scene. That Payne got him to play the lead in the first place was a coup. That he worked with an artist he’s long admired was cool. In an interview Payne gave the Omaha Weekly only days before shooting began, he said the actor was accommodating in every way, immersing himself in the part and making himself available to the entire process during script readings. Now months removed from the shoot, Payne said Nicholson remained a pro throughout the production and his extraordinary talent provided him as a director with endless choices.

“I had a very excellent experience working with him. He was extremely professional and committed to his part. Jack Nicholson is a movie star and an icon and that’s fine, but in the moment of doing it and really who he is in his heart he’s an actor who gets nervous like other actors and wants to do a good job like other actors and hopes he got it right like other actors and needs reassurance like other actors.

“What was great about directing him was that unlike many situations where you give the direction and hope to God the actor can do it just the way you’d like him to or you hope you’ve thought of the right words that will trigger the right response, with Nicholson I had to be careful with what I told him because not only would he do it, he could do it. He just has an excellent instrument. Sometimes, when I’d impose blocking or I wanted a certain scene a certain way, I’d say, ‘Is that all right with you’ and he’d go, ‘Well, anything you come up with I can find a way to justify it to myself, so, what do you want?’ I was like, ‘Ohhhh…’ He makes every possible choice doable.”

Payne said, “There’s always a bit of nerves between actors and director the first couple weeks as you’re learning to trust one another.” That was true at the start of Schmidt, as Nicholson felt Payne out, but in short time “he made it very easy to direct him. He put a lot of appreciated effort into breaking the ice with those around him. He was very professional and very cool and very kind.”

The crowds of fans that followed the Schmidt traveling all-star band from location to location have long dispersed since production wrapped.



About Schmidt


If reaction to the film by preview audiences is any gauge, than Payne may be striking the right chords with this gray, introspective story. He said test cards consistently use words like “real,” “true-to-life,” “genuine,” “naturalistic” and “not funny” to describe it. “And that’s been kind of nice,” said Payne, whose aesthetic is informed by the European and American cinema of the last Golden Age (the 1960s and ‘70s) when the best films were about real life. Payne said the September 11 terrorist attacks “helped cement more than ever my already existing desire to make human films – films which are about people.”


Missing Jack Nicholson: A Reflection

Missing Jack Nicholson: A Reflection

©by Leo Adam Biga

A version of this story appears in my book Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film


Does anyone else miss Jack Nicholson? He has not been in a film since 2010 and I think the cinema landscape has been poorer for it. He is not officially retired. Some reports have indicated he cannot remember lines anymore but he has gone on the record to say his mind and his memory are not the issue, rather he’s simply taken time off to live life until a project comes to him that inspires him. His filmography is as rich and deep as any actor’s ever. While I am not entirely sure he is a great actor, he is certainly one you cannot ignore or dismiss because of the sheer force of his talent and personality and because he has been in so many great films. He makes bold and usually great choices in the parts he takes and in the way he interprets the characters. He is as great a star actor as there has ever been in that sense. Anyway, in proofing and editing the new edition of my Alexander Payne book I came upon an essay I wrote about Jack and his place in film at the time he was making About Schmidt in Omaha under Payne’s direction. In doing so. I was reminded of his absence and I felt compelled to post the piece here.

NOTE: The new edition of Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film releases September 1. It is the only comprehensive treatment of the Oscar-winning Payne in print or online. It is a collection of articles and essays I have written about Payne and his work over a 20-year span. I have basically covered him from the start of his filmmaking career through today. The book takes the reader through the arc of his filmmaking journey and puts you deep inside his creative process. There is much from Payne himself in the pages of the book since most of the content is drawn from interviews I have done with him and from observations I have made on his sets. I also have a good amount of material from some of his key collaborators.

I self-pubished the book in late 2012. It has received strong reviews and endorsements. I am releasing a new edition this summer with the help of a boutique press here, River Junction Press, and its publisher Kira Gale. The new edition features major content additions, mostly related to Payne’s Nebraska and Downsizing. It will also feature, for the first time, a Discussion Guide and Index, because we believe the book has potential in the education space with film studies programs, instructors, and students. But I want to emphasize that the book is definitely written with the general film fan in mind and it has great appeal to anyone who identifies as a film buff, film lover, film critic, film blogger. It has also been well received by filmmakers,

Kira and I feel hope to put the book in front of the wider cinema community around the world, including producers, directors, screenwriters, festival organizers, art cinema programmers. We feel it will be warmly embraced because Payne is one of the world’s most respected film artists and everyone wants to work with him. People inside and outside the industry want to learn his secrets and insights about the screen trade and about what makes him tick as an artist.


Being Jack Nicholson

Published in the April 5, 2001 issue #57 of the Omaha Weekly

Bigger Than Life

With filming proceeding in earnest on Alexander Payne’s latest made-in-Omaha film, About Schmidt, real and imagined sightings of its world-famous lead actor, Jack Nicholson, are no-doubt filtering-in from starstruck citizenry. Not since Sean Penn stirred things up here with his directorial debut, The Indian Runner, largely shot in and around Plattsmouth, Neb., have locals been as frenzied about catching a glimpse of some celebrity.

The fuss is well-merited this time. For as great an actor as Penn is, Nicholson is a star on the order of the old-time greats. A genuine Hollywood legend. From his trademark shades to his romantic intrigues to his public indiscretions to his classic rebellious roles to his three Oscars, he is everything we want in a star. Cool. Sexy. Enigmatic. Independent. Well-respected. Justly rewarded. With greatness in our midst, now is as good a time as any to consider just why he looms so large in our collective movie consciousness.

The mere mention of Jack’s name conjures a portrait in rascality. From the devil-may-care glint in the eye to the sardonic smile to the sarcastic voice, he is the lovable scoundrel of our imagination, saying and doing things we only wish we could. He is, like the best screen actors, a romantic projection of our liberated inner selves. The sly, shrewd man on the make. The ageless rebel. The unreformed rake. The eternal carouser. The agitator who stirs things up. The sharp-tongued wit cutting people down to size. The volatile time-bomb ready to explode.

In an amazing display of durability he has gone from being the embodiment of the rebellious 1960s and 1970s to essaying the angst of that same generation now grown old and disillusioned in the wake of chasing love and money and happiness in all the wrong places. At a pudgy sixth three, he shows the wear-and-tear of a sometimes hedonistic life. After all, he came to fame and fortune just as America entered the indulgent 1970s, emerging from the limbo of the B movie fringe to the heights and perks of major Hollywood screen stardom on the strength of remarkable performances in a string of fine films made between 1969-1975.

Nicholson was launched from obscurity into the front ranks of the industry with his scene-stealing turn in 1969’s Easy Rider as a conventional southern lawyer gone-to-seed and turned-on to the counter-culture by hippie bikers Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda. More memorable roles soon followed. Think of the best films of the 1970s and ‘80s and Nicholson appears in an inordinate number of them: Five Easy Pieces; Carnal Knowledge; The Last Detail; Chinatown; One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; The Missouri Breaks; The Shining; Reds; Terms of Endearment; Prizzi’s Honor. As disparate as these films and their stories are, the characters Nicholson creates are largely variations on a theme, namely, a man fighting alone to protect his identity or independence in the face of forces he cannot hope to defeat. In one way or another he is playing the existential modern man trying to save himself amid the complex crush of the system or society or fate or nature.

Unlike many contemporary actors, Nicholson, even in his early groundbreaking work, brings a weight to his performances only gained from years of working at his craft and from living a full life away from film sets. Like the great actors of Hollywood’s Golden Age (Tracy, March, Cagney, Bogart, Gable, Mitchum, Lancaster, Douglas) you get the sense he has been around the block a few times. That he is not merely an actor, but a complex human being with a rich personal history behind him. Besides technique, it’s what lends his performances a certain credence and gravity you don’t find very often these days outside warhorses like him, Nick Nolte, Gene Hackman, James Caan, Sean Connery, Morgan Freeman and a few others.

Nicholson captures our fancy with the combination of his snake oil charm, angry defiance and fierce intelligence. Behind that leering smile lurks something wild and dangerous and mysterious. It helps account for his appeal with both men and women. In classic rebel tradition he is the iconoclast or nonconformist at odds with the world, raging against the tide. He is the master of the slow burn and of the sudden violent outburst.




Signature Seventies Roles

Each of his signature roles from the ‘70s features scenes in which he acts out a full-blooded tantrum, from his famous table-clearing tirade at the truck stop cafe in Five Easy Pieces to his confrontation with a bartender in The Last Detail to his brutal interrogation of his lover in Chinatown to his fighting back against brutal guards in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. His star making turns in the ‘70s found him working on the very edge of his craft, daring to go for deep emotional truths and idiosyncratic behaviors that reveal vital shades and nuances of his complex characters.

In Bob Rafelson’s 1970 Five Easy Pieces Nicholson is frustrated former concert pianist Bobby Dupea, a man weighed-down by the burden of expectation from his well-heeled family. He finds relief from the pressure of conformity by running away from the classical music world to work in the oil fields, where he is just another hand looking for a paycheck and a good lay. Ironically, his constant flight from his past leads him right back to where he started – to a family he can neither ever quite measure up to nor escape.

The 1971 Mike Nichols-directed and Jules Feiffer-penned Carnal Knowledge finds Nicholson as the callow Jonathan, who tries negotiating the attitudes, mores and politics at work in the male-female dynamic during the dawn of the sexual liberation and feminist movement. No matter how the times and the terms of engagement change, he is still a predator and women are still his prey. The finer points of relationships seem to bore him. Emotions scare him. For men like him, love, commitment and communication are mere decorative foreplay for making it.

In Hal Ashby’s 1974 The Last Detail Nicholson stars as foul-mouthed, free-spirited Everyman Billy “Bad Ass” Buddusky, one of two career sailors reluctantly escorting a fellow sailor to prison. What is supposed to be an uneventful transfer over to authorities turns into a wild romp when Buddusky and his mate grow fond of the young, naive prisoner (Randy Quaid) and decide to show him a good time en route. Nicholson’s tragic-comic performance never misses a beat.

In the Roman Polanski-directed and William Goldman-scripted Chinatown (1974) Nicholson lends his interpretation to the classic private eye with a stunning evocation of Jake Gittes, a cocky and seedy PI haunted by a love gone bad. When he stumbles onto a new case with giant implications for arid Depression-era Los Angeles, he finds himself sucked-into a whirlpool of deceit by a femme fatale (Faye Dunaway) he can’t resist. By the time the chips fall where they may, Gittes is a broken man undone in the same Chinatown district that undid him once before.

Forever cementing his rebel image, Nicholson plays Randall P. McMurphy with the sensitive brio of an underdog beaten down by an uncaring system in Milos Forman’s 1975 adaptation of Ken Kesey’s counterculture novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It is the kind of martyr role that all of the great screen rebels – from Cagney to Garfield to Brando to Clift to Dean to Newman to McQueen – have portrayed.

Later Work

Nicholson achieves a tour de force in Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 version of Stephen King’s The Shining by brilliantly detailing the mental breakdown of writer Jack Torrance, a tortured man caught in the grip of some awful supernatural force compelling him to kill his family in the eerie isolation of the Overlook Hotel. In a performance that is by-turns finely controlled and manic (“Here’s…Johnny”) Jack displays astonishing range and courage by essaying a madman you loathe but pity too.

Terms of Endearment casts Nicholson as retired astronaut Garrett Breedlove, a man used to having his way with the ladies. Playing his age for a change, he strikes just the right note as an aging Lothario who meets his match in the figure of neighbor Aurora Greenway (Shirley MacLaine), whom he eventually beds but not without making a commitment to her. Both Nicholson and MacLaine won well-deserved Oscars for their strong supporting performances.

Besides these stand-the-test-of-time roles, Jack’s given compelling performances in otherwise flawed films like The Fortune, The Last Tycoon, The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Border and Heartburn. By the time he reached icon status as the guy with the wink in his eye, he parlayed his legendary facade into some made-to-order parts where he hammed things up, including a horny Lucifer in The Witches of Eastwick, a pompous Joker in Batman. an egomaniacal colonel in A Few Good Men, and a bigoted curmudgeon in As Good As It Gets. His recent collaborations with actor-director Sean Penn have seen a new, more mature and darker Nicholson emerge. In both The Crossing Guard and the current The Pledge he plays damaged older men seeking catharsis in extreme circumstances but instead finding only more pain. Gone is the impish and ironic persona of the younger Jack and in its place is a restless, brooding character that could very well be Bobby Dupea or Jake Gittes twenty five years later.


Portrait of Jack Nicholson by David Bailey, 1984  Jack Nicholson and Anjelica Huston, 1970s  Portrait of Jack Nicholson by Lorenzo Agius, 2007  Portrait of Jack Nicholson in Easy Rider directed by Dennis Hopper, 1969  Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces directed by Bob Rafelson, 1970
Portrait of Jack Nicholson in Chinatown directed by Roman Polanski, 1974  Portrait of Jack Nicholson in Hell's Angels On Wheels directed by Richard Rush, 1967  Jack Nicholson at home by Arthur Schatz in Los Angeles, Life, 1969  Christopher Knight, Robert Casper, Jack Nicholson, Helen Westcott and Frank Gorshin in Studs lonigan directed by Irving Lerner, 1960
Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces directed by Bob Rafelson, 1970  Sandra Knight and Jack Nicholson in The terror directed by Roger Corman and Francis Ford Coppola, 1963  Jack Nicholson in Professione: reporter directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, 1975. Photo by Floriano Steiner  Jack Nicholson in Professione: reporter directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, 1975. Photo by Floriano Steiner
Jack Nicholson and Carolyn Craig in Studs lonigan directed by Irving Lerner, 1960  Portrait of Jack Nicholson by Harry Benson, 1975  Portrait of Jack Nicholson in A safe place directed by Henry Jaglom, 1971  Portrait of Jack Nicholson in A safe place directed by Henry Jaglom, 1971  Portrait of Jack Nicholson by Helmut Newton, 1997
Jack Nicholson and Robert Evans by Helmut Newton, Los Angeles, 1985  Jack Nicholson and Maria Schneider in Professione: reporter directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, 1975. Photo by Floriano Steiner   Jack Nicholson in his Volkswagen, Los Angeles by Liz Ronk, 1969  Anjelica Huston and Jack Nicholson by Klaus Lucka von Zelberschwecht, 1985
Jack Nicholson in The Missouri Breaks directed by Arthur Penn, 1975  Portrait of Jack Nicholson in Batman directed by Tim Burton, 1989  Jack Nicholson and Karen Black in Five Easy Pieces directed by Bob Rafelson, 1970  Stephen Dorff and Jack Nicholson in Blood and Wine directed by Bob Rafelson, 1996  Bob Rafelson, Jessica Lange & Jack Nicholson at 34th Cannes for The Postman Always Rings Twice, 1981
Jack Nicholson in The Fortune directed by Mike Nichols, 1975  Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson on the set of The Missouri Breaks directed by Arthur Penn, 1975. Photo by Mary Ellen Mark  Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando on the set of The Missouri Breaks directed by Arthur Penn, 1975
Jack Nicholson in Carnal knowledge directed by Mike Nichols, 1971  Jack Nicholson in Chinatown directed by Roman Polanski, 1974  Portrait of Jack Nicholson by Otto Stupakoff, 1960s
Portrait of Jack Nicholson, 1960s  Jack Nicholson in Chinatown directed by Roman Polanski, 1974  Jack Nicholson on the set of The shinning directed by Stanley Kubrick, 1980  Jack Nicholson by Xavier Martin, 1976
Andy Warhol and Jack Nicholson, 1970s  Jack Nicholson and Anjelica Huston, 1976  Portrait of Jack Nicholson, 1960s  Jack Nicholson in Professione: reporter directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, 1975
Jack Nicholson, 1975  Jack Nicholson and Anjelica Huston, 1984   Jack Nicholson, 1980s  Jack Nicholson in Easy Rider directed by Dennis Hopper, 1969


Jack as Everyman Warren Schmidt

Now, About Schmidt offers Nicholson yet another chance to play out the secret anxieties, regrets and desires of a man his own age. The character of Schmidt is a bitter Woodmen of the World actuary retiree undergoing a crisis of conscience in the aftermath of his longtime wife’s death. As the facade of his well-ordered world crumbles around him, the repressed Schmidt must confront some uneasy truths about himself. His struggle to make meaning of his life propels him on a road trip across Nebraska during which he comes into contact with an odd assortment of characters. With his feelings reawakened, life becomes an adventure again rather than a burden.

The passive title role of the Alexander Payne-Jim Taylor penned script they adapted from the Louis Begley novel and from an early, unproduced Payne screenplay appears in some ways a departure for Nicholson. But the implosion of his character is actually in line with the roles he’s played for Penn.

As usual, Payne will try to extract the humor from what promises to be a sharply-observed story of loss, loneliness, introspection and discovery. The vulnerable figure of Schmidt offers a ripe and fitting part for Nicholson at this stage in his career. However the film turns out, Nicholson is sure to deliver the goods under the direction of Payne, who is known for eliciting strong performances from his leads.

Drive-by delight: House forever tied to Alexander Payne’s “About Schmidt” just home to residents

Alexander Payne’s cinematic imprint on his hometown and homestate is by now well documented.  With four of his six features made here he’s covered a wide swath of the city and the state.  When a few months ago I got the assignment to do a piece about the family that resides in a house that posed as the home to Jack Nicholson’s character of Warren Schmidt in the Payne film About Schmidt I have to admit I didn’t entirely understand the point, especially in a year dominated by the buzz around the writer-director’s latest film, Nebraska.  But then I got to thinking how Payne’s films have created these artifacts of where he’s filmed, many of which are actual locations that people do business in and live in and interact with every day.  Thus, the following story for Omaha Magazine about the family that lives in the Schmidt house.





The About Schmidt house


Drive-by delight
House forever tied to Alexander Payne’s “About Schmidt” just home to residents

©by Leo Adam Biga
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Originally appeared in Omaha Magazine (


Alexander Payne’s new Oscar-nominated film Nebraska is stirring the pot in his home state the way his last film made here, About Schmidt, did in 2002.

That earlier project’s superstar lead, Jack Nicholson, naturally dominated media coverage. Nicholson’s character, the dour Warren Schmidt, lived in the Dundee home at 5402 Izard St. Bess Ogborn owned the house during filming, but the Jill and Mike Bydalek family moved into the home in mid-2003.

“Even years after the movie people would drive by really slow,” says Jill. “Tour buses would pull up. There were people getting out and taking pictures.”

“Every time Payne has a successful movie there’ll be people that show an interest in the house,” says Mike, who practices technology law for Kutak Rock. “The guy has a following. Random people visiting Omaha will, on their way to the airport, detour and drive by.”

The couple, whose children Grace and Jack grew up there, fully expects the same to happen should Nebraska fare well come Oscar time.

“And it’s not just here, it’s a half dozen other places around town,” Mike says, referring to the favorite Midtown spots the filmmaker made part of his Omaha trilogy (Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt).

In a city with few degrees of separation, the Bydaleks claim a connection to another Omaha Payne house. Grace attended a nearby home daycare that served as the residence of the family friend Matthew Broderick’s character hits on in Election.

But because it’s so closely associated with Nicholson’s potent cinema legacy, few other Omaha movie locations have the iconic pull as does the Izard Street house. To capitalize on this intrigue the Omaha YWCA (now the Women’s Center for Advancement) held a Home for the Holidays fundraiser at the three-story, red brick Colonial constructed in 1923.

A largely untouched interior made it the right fit when the filmmaker, location manager John Latenser V, and production designer Jane Stewart scouted it.”We’d searched for the ‘Schmidt House’ for quite some time,” says Latenser, who comes from a long line of architects that designed enduring Omaha public structures. “We knew we wanted Warren Schmidt to live in the Dundee neighborhood. We had scouted nearly 50 houses there, but nearly every one had updated-upgraded interiors. We were looking for a house that had not been updated.”

He says as soon as the team entered the home and saw its vintage wallpaper and original kitchen they knew they’d found the one.

“It was that perfect.”





Jill and Mike Bydalek



Bess Ogborn’s daughter, Susan Ogborn, president and CEO of the Food Bank of the Heartland, was there for much of the shoot. She says her family “thoroughly enjoyed the experience” of their house becoming a movie artifact. Her folks moved there in 1964. After the death of her father in 1967, her widowed mother hung onto the place.

“Mother redecorated it in 1971, and other than basic maintenance, that was the way the filmmakers found it. But she would want you to know they moved her furniture out and used set furniture, and that her house was never that dirty or gloomy as it was in the movie. I don’t think she regretted letting them use her home at all. Seeing the house in the film didn’t seem strange, but walking through that set was very odd.”

The Bydaleks removed the wallpaper, redid the kitchen, and made many more renovations while retaining the five-bedroom home’s original integrity.

“It’s a great house,” says Mike. “It’s just as simple as can be, and that’s kind of nice.”

“They don’t make these houses anymore,” says Julie.

The Bydaleks know it will always link them to a slice of pop culture.

“It’s kind of fun to say we live in the About Schmidt house,” says Mike.

As things worked out, the Bydaleks’ daughter, Grace, 18, became the family’s own resident movie star. Acting on stage since childhood, she’s done voice-over work for animated television series, and she portrayed the title role in the Omaha-made film For Love of Amy (2009). During a Carnegie Mellon (Pittsburgh) theater camp, she says she used the Schmidt tie “as my fun fact during my dorm floor ice-breaker,” adding, “People were impressed a girl from Omaha would have a connection with the movies.”

As for Jack, 15, he says “it’s cool as a movie buff to live in a house made famous” by a popular film and its legendary star.



From the Archives: About Payne – Alexander Payne on “About Schmidt,” Jack Nicholson and the comedy of deep focus

December 20, 2011 9 comments



From the Archives:

About Payne – Alexander Payne on “About Schmidt,” Jack Nicholson and the comedy of deep focus 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (


Bolstered by rousing receptions at prestigious film festivals, critical kudos from leading reviewers, widespread predictions of Oscar nods and loads of studio marketing behind it, the momentum attending About Schmidt surpasses anything Alexander Payne saw for his previous features’ openings.

Where Citizen Ruth and Election were accorded the kind of lukewarm studio backing (from Miramax and Paramount/MTV Films, respectively) that idiosyncratic movies get when “the suits” don’t fully endorse or understand them, Schmidt is getting the type of red carpet treatment from New Line Cinema execs that signals they see a potential winner, read — moneymaker, here. And why not?

The film, making its Nebraska premiere December 10 at the new Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center (formerly the Mary Riepma Ross Film Theater) in downtown Lincoln, appears to have everything going for it heading into Hollywood’s big ticket winter season, when prestige pictures are positioned at the cineplex for box-office leverage and Academy consideration.

The timing of Schmidt’s release seems right. There’s the snob appeal that comes from boffo Cannes and New York Film Festival screenings of the film this past spring and summer. There’s the raves it received from Stephen Holden in the New York Times, Kenneth Turan in the Los Angeles Times and a slew of other name critics for major media outlets. There’s also serious Oscar talk for Jack Nicholson’s celebrated turn as dour Omaha Everyman Warren Schmidt and for Payne and writing partner Jim Taylor’s sardonic take on middle American mores.

Then there’s the priceless mojo Nicholson’s mystique brings to the Nebraska-made project.

Of course, none of this guarantees Schmidt will do any business, especially in light of the fact Payne’s films have so far fared better in home-market release, where they have time to be discovered and appreciated, than in theaters. That his films appeal to a discriminating audience is logical given his wry, sagacious work, which is really in the realm of social commentary.

Film critic David Denby called Payne and Taylor “perhaps the only true social satirists now working in American movies.” But satire can be a hard pill for filmgoers to swallow. They may feel the sting hits too close to home or they may prefer something lighter to go with their concessions.

According to Dan Ladely, director of the Ross Media Arts Center, Schmidt is “a little bit of a departure from Alexander’s two previous films, which were known for their kind of biting satire. This film is a little bit more nostalgic.” While perhaps gentler, it is, like the others, a painfully honest and ironic examination of how good people lose their way and court despair even amidst the so-called Good Life.

In today’s spoon-fed movie culture, bleak is a hard sell unless accompanied by big action set pieces, and the only thing passing for action in Schmidt is Nicholson’s comic struggle atop a water bed. That scene closes a sequence in which the tight-assed, buttoned-down Schmidt is disgusted by the outrageous new family he  inherits via his daughter’s impending wedding.

The son-in-law’s mother, Roberta, is, as deliciously played by Kathy Bates, a brazen woman whom, Payne said, “is the type of person that will say anything to anyone.” At one point she tries seducing Schmidt in a hot tub by “telling him about how sexual she is and how she had her first orgasm in ballet class at age six,” said Payne, delighted with offending every propriety Schmidt holds dear. “Oh, it’s so fun to torture your characters.”

In this scene, as in much of the film, Nicholson’s performance rests more on his facial-physical reactions than words. Indeed, instead of explosions, verbal or otherwise, moviegoers get the implosion that Nicholson’s Warren Schmidt, a retired and widowed Woodmen of the World Life Insurance actuarial, undergoes.

Severed from the twin tethers of job and wife that defined him and held his orderly life together, he begins questioning everything about his existence, including the choices he made. He lets himself go.

The state of his disillusion is captured in the film’s ad campaign in which Schmidt appears as a shell-shocked, disheveled man shadowed by a dark cloud overhead in an otherwise clear blue sky.

In the throes of this mid-life crisis, he sets off, in a huge, unwieldy motor home that is an apt expression of his desperate inadequacy, on an existential road trip across Nebraska. His destination is Denver, where he heads ostensibly to heal his wounded relationship with his daughter and to save her, as he sees it, from the mistake she is about to make in marrying a frivolous man. Along the way, he conveys his troubles to an odd assortment of people he turns to or rails against in a kind of unfolding nervous breakdown. Unable to express his real feelings to those closest to him, he instead pours out his soul, in writing (and in voice-over), to an African orphan he sponsors, Ndugu, who can’t possibly understand his dilemma.

Regarding Nicholson’s portrayal of a man in crisis, Dan Ladely calls it “probably one of the most subdued performances he’s ever given and maybe one of his best. I’d be really surprised if he doesn’t get nominated for an Oscar. It’s a role where he really stretched himself, and I think probably a lot of the credit for that could be given to Alexander, because Alexander is a director who works well with actors.  He gets a lot out of them.”

Directing Nicholson allowed Payne to work with an actor he greatly admires and solidified his own status as a sought-after filmmaker. He found Nicholson to be a consummate professional and supreme artist.

“Nicholson does a lot of work on his character before shooting. Now, a lot of actors do that, but he REALLY does it. To the point where, as he describes it, he’s so in character and so relaxed that if he’s in the middle of a take and one of the movie lights falls or a train goes through or anything, he’ll react to it in character. He won’t break.” Payne said Nicholson doesn’t like a lot of rehearsal “because he believes in cinema as the meeting of the spontaneous and the moment. His attitude is, ‘What if something good happens and the camera wasn’t on?’”


Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film, A Reporter’s Perspective 1998-2012

A compilation of my articles about Payne and his work.  Now available for pre-ordering.

Kathy Bates in About Schmidt

Jack Nicholson as Warren Schmidt

Alexander Payne

From the Archives: Conquering Cannes – Alexander Payne’s triumphant Cannes Film Festival debut with “About Schmidt”

December 8, 2011 13 comments

Alexander Payne and Jack Nicholson at Cannes



From the Archives: Conquering Cannes, –Alexander Payne‘s triumphant Cannes Film Festival debut with “About Schmidt”

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Omaha Weekly


Press accounts of Alexander Payne’s conquest of the Cannes Film Festival, where his new film About Schmidt created a buzz in the main competition, have largely focused on the film losing out on any awards or on the critical hosannas directed toward him and his star, Jack Nicholson.

But, as Payne noted during a recent Omaha visit, Cannes is a phantasmagorical orgy of the senses that cannot be reduced to mere prizes or plaudits. It is at once an adoring celebration of cinema, a crass commercial venue and a sophisticated cultural showcase. It is where the French bacchanal and bistro sensibilities converge in one grand gesture for that most democratic art form — the movies. Only a satirist like Payne can take the full, surreal measure of Cannes and expose it for all its profundity and profanity.

“I likened it to the body of super model Gisel (Bundchen),” he said, “which is extraordinarily beautiful and draped in the most elegant clothes on the planet, yet, also possesses…bile and all sorts of fetid humors inside of it. The festival is all of those things. I mean, one thing is the elegance — the red carpet, the beautiful tuxes and gowns, the fabulous beach parties and all that stuff. Another thing is the best filmmakers in the world showing work there.

“And still another side is the marketplace, which is like a bazaar, with people talking about how many videocassette units your film’s going to sell in Indonesia. It’s that kind of sordid marketplace that gives cinema its vitality. And you can’t have the cinema body without all of it. So, it’s really like a beautiful woman. It’s extraordinary to look at from the outside, but once you cut it and look inside, you could throw up.”

He said the confluence of glitz, glamour and garishness reminded him of Las Vegas. “It’s all kind of Vegasy. You see really elegant things and you see really tacky things, which I liked. I was in such a good mood, that I just loved everything.”

So, what do you do for an encore when your third feature film makes a splash at the mecca of world cinema? Well, if you’re riding a wave of success like Alexander Payne, your hot new film is next chosen to open the New York Film Festival (NYFF), September 27 through October 13, at Lincoln Center. “It’s an honor,” he said regarding Schmidt’s recently announced selection to open the Big Apple event. “That will keep the awareness of the film afloat. A lot of the New York press and international press and kind of the tastemaker-types will see it, I’m told.”

To be accepted as an opening night feature there, a film must be making its North American premiere, which forced New Line Cinema to decline invitations for Schmidt to play other major festivals on the continent, including those in Toronto and Telluride. No matter. The word-of-mouth momentum attached to Schmidt from its Cannes screenings is so strong that early industry patter is already positioning the film as an award-contending late fall release.

For the filmmaker, Cannes (May 15-26) marked a milestone in a still young career whose sky-is-the-limit ceiling has his work being compared to and his name being mentioned with the most celebrated cinema artists in the world today. An indication of his growing stature is the fact that during a recent Omaha visit he was shadowed by a New York Times reporter preparing a major profile on him. He fully recognizes, too, what Cannes means for his reputation, although the sardonic Payne points out the absurdity attending such puffery.

“It was a huge honor just to be there…and it’s a nice stepping-stone,” he said.. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s bigger than being nominated for an Oscar (he and writing partner Jim Taylor earned Best Adapted Screenplay nods for Election) because it’s international. It’s also really political and full of bullshit to some degree, but what isn’t? But given that reality of the world, it’s still about pure love of cinema, not Hollywood people slapping each other on the back and awarding movies like A Beautiful Mind. Ugh.”


Alexander Payne’s Journey in Film: A Reporter’s Perspective, 1998-2012

A compilation of my articles about Payne and his work.  Now available for pre-ordering.

Payne and Nicholson mugging for the Cannes paparazzi

Related articles

From the Archives: About “About Schmidt”: The shoot, editing, working with Jack and the film After the cutting room floor

December 6, 2011 14 comments



From the Archives: About “About Schmidt”: The shoot, editing, working with Jack and the film after the cutting room floor

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Omaha Weekly


Ever since Omaha native Alexander Payne wrapped shooting on About Schmidt, the hometown movie whose star, Jack Nicholson, caused a summer sensation, the filmmaker has been editing the New Line Cinema pic in obscurity back in Los Angeles.

That’s the way Hollywood works. During production, a movie is a glitzy traveling circus causing heads to turn wherever its caravan of trailers and trucks go and its parade of headliners pitch their tents to perform their magic. It’s the Greatest Show on Earth. Then, once the show disbands, the performers pack up and the circus slips silently out of town. Meanwhile, the ringmaster, a.k.a. the director, holes himself up in an editing suite out of sight to begin the long, unglamorous process of piecing the film together from all the high wire moments captured on celluloid to try and create a dramatically coherent whole.

Whether Schmidt is the breakout film that elevates Payne into the upper echelon of American directors remains to be seen, but it is clearly a project with the requisite star power, studio backing and artistic pedigree to position him into the big time.

An indication of the prestige with which New Line execs regard the movie is their anticipated submission of it to the Cannes Film Festival. Coming fast-on-the-heels of Election, Payne’s critically acclaimed 1999 film that earned he and writing partner Jim Taylor Oscar nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay, Schmidt will be closely watched by Hollywood insiders to see how the director has fared with a bona fide superstar and a mid-major budget at his disposal.

Regardless of what happens, Payne’s unrepentant iconoclasm will probably keep him on the fringe of major studio moviemaking, where he feels more secure anyway. As editing continues on Schmidt, slated for a September 2002 release, Payne is nearing his final cut. The film has already been test previewed on the coast and now it’s just a matter of trimming for time and impact.

While in town over Thanksgiving Payne discussed what kind of film is emerging, his approach to cutting, the shooting process, working with Nicholson and other matters during a conversation at a mid-town coffeehouse, Caffeine Dreams. He arrived fashionably late, out of breath and damp after running eight blocks in a steady drizzle from the brownstone apartment he keeps year-round.

He and editor Kevin Tent, who has cut all of Payne’s features, have been editing since June. They and a small staff work out of a converted house in back of a dentist’s office on Larchmont Street in Los Angeles. Payne and Tent work 10 -hour days, six days a week.

“As with any good creative relationship we have a basic shared sensibility,” Payne said of the collaboration, “but we’re not afraid to disagree, and there’s no ego involved in a disagreement. We’re like partners in the editing phase. He’ll urge me to let go of stuff and to be disciplined.”

By now, Payne has gone over individual takes, scenes and sequences hundreds of times, making successive cuts along the way. What has emerged is essentially the film he set out to make, only with different tempos and tones than he first imagined.

“Rhythmically, it’s come out a little slower than I would have wanted it,” he said. “I think it’s been something hard for me and for those I work with to accept that because of it’s subject matter and for whatever ineffable reason this is a very different film in pacing and feel than the very kinetic and funny Election, which got so much praise. It has, I think, the same sensibility and humor as Election but it’s slower and it lets the drama and emotion play more often than going for the laugh. I think it just called for that. With this one, we don’t go for the snappy edit.”

Even before Schmidt, Payne eschewed the kind of MTV-style of extreme cutting that can detract from story, mood, performance.

“Things are over-covered and over-edited these days for my tastes. There’s many exceptions, of course, but the norm seems to be to cut even though you don’t need to. And, in fact, not only don’t filmmakers need to, their cuts are disruptive to watching performance and getting the story. I like watching performance. My stuff is about getting performance. I like holding within a take as long as possible until you have to cut.”


Alexander Payne’s Journey in Film: A Reporter’s Perspective, 1998-2012

A compilation of my articles about Payne and his work.  Available this fall as an ebook and in select bookstores.




Alexander Payne, ©photo Jeff Beiermann, The World-Herald


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A Shameless Plug: Lit Coach Erin Reel Highlights this Site,, aka Leo Adam Biga’s Blog, Among Her Picks for Blogs That Work

March 31, 2011 3 comments

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A Shameless Plug: Lit Coach Erin Reel Highlights this Site,, aka Leo Adam Biga’s Blog, Among Her Picks for Blogs That Work

©by Erin Reel from her blog site, The Lit Coach’s Guide to the Writer’s Life (

The best blogs serve a purpose greater than sharing miscellaneous tid bits about the blogger’s day – they educate, inform, inspire, humor, enlighten – they share a unique perspective.

Today’s Blog That Works spotlight shines on Leo Adam Biga, Omaha‘s most prolific award-winning cultural journalist. Biga’s eclectic body of work spans from Omaha filmmaker Alexander Payne (SidewaysAbout Schmidt) tofashion and film making to Warren Buffett and just about everything in between. Rather than collect his published pieces in files, unexposed to new readers, Biga collected his published work and archived them on his blog. Why? To gain new readers and showcase his body of work to prospective clients.

Here’s what Biga had to say:

“My blog is primarily intended as a showcase of my cultural journalism. I want the visitor to the site to experience it the way they would a gallery featuring my work. This exhibition or sampling quickly reveals my brand — “I write stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions” — as well as the scope of my work within that brand, which is quite broad and eclectic. The home page features 10 of my stories, each in their entirety, and those front page stories, which change every few days or weeks, consistently reflect the wide range of interests, subjects, and themes found on the blog. The blog is set up so that whether the visitor is on the home page or clicks on to any page featuring an individual story the entire inventory or index of stories on the blog is always accessible, organized by tags, categories, et cetera. Visitors can also search the site by using key words.

The blog is not monetized. So why do I repurpose my work in this way? Well, every writer likes to have his or her work read, therefore on one level I do it in order to find a new, perhaps larger audience for the stories. The blog is an excellent way for me to have an expanded Web presence. In addition to it, I have a LinkedIn site, a Google site, and a Facebook site, among others, most of them linked to each other. I also use the blog as a portfolio I refer contacts and prospective clients to.” 

And Leo tells me showcasing his body of work blog style has allowed those interested in hiring Biga for new writing gigs has allowed them to get a good feel for his writing. He’s received more offers to write than if he hadn’t set up the blog as his massive online writing brochure.

Leo goes on to say, “The real satisfaction I suppose comes in having a public gallery of my work, even if it only is a small sampling of it, that I can refer or direct people to or that people can discover all on their own. In fact, it appears as if the vast majority of visitors to my site end up there by virtue of Web searches they do and their finding links to my blog as part of the search results that come up. Because I have so many stories out there on so many different topics my blog shows up as part of an endless variety of searches. It’s also kind of fun to have people I wrote about, in some cases years ago, find stories I did about them and contact me, reliving old times or bringing me up to date with what they’re doing today. ”

Check out Leo’s blog. There really is something for every reader.

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