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Filmmaker Alexander Payne and his father George remember the family’s Virginia Cafe


Filmmaker Alexander Payne and his father George remember the family’s Virginia Cafe

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

It’s nearly 40 years since filmmaker Alexander Payne‘s family owned and operated the Virginia Cafe, a restaurant that for generations held a niche in the city’s downtown dining market. Recently, the filmmaker’s father, George Payne, shared some history and memories of the place and the family with The Reader.

George’s immigrant father, Nicholas (Papadopoulos) Payne, was founder and proprietor of the Virginia.  Nick, as the patriarch was called, came to America in 1910, learning the confectionery trade from an uncle, John Birbilis, who helped Nick and brother Peter open the Palace of Sweets in Council Bluffs. In 1920 Nick, with cousin Fred Schizas and two other partners, bought the Calumet, a large, busy, around-the-clock food joint at 1413 Douglas Street that dated back to 1893. They remodeled it, renamed it the Virginia and kept it one of Omaha’s few 24-7 operations, George said. The other partners eventually dropped out.

According to George the Virginia served strictly American fare — steaks, chops, sandwiches, salads, a full breakfast line, daily lunch and dinner specials and traditional holiday favorites. The cafe housed its own bakery, had its own butcher and stocked a freezer with eight kinds of ice cream.

At its peak, he said, the popular cafe kept a payroll of 85 employees on three different shifts and served up to 3,000 diners a day.

George joined his father in the family business in the early ’50s. An Omaha Central High, Dartmouth and Northwestern University grad, George is a World War II vet who worked on the war production board in Washington D.C., where he met his wife, Peggy. He and Peggy settled in Omaha, where the youngest of their three sons, Alexander, fell in love with movies.

The future filmmaker was only 9 when a fire destroyed the Virginia but he has fond memories of the cafe.

“People loved that place,” Alexander Payne said by phone. “There was no key to the front door. They didn’t need one — they never closed. I used to like to go back to the kitchen and watch the chefs work. I remember all the wait staff and cashiers were so nice to me because, of course, I was the owner’s son. Our family ritual was dinner there every Thursday night.”

The Paynes ordered right off the menu.

While no Greek food was on the menu, the restaurant embodied Nick Payne’s classic immigrant made-good success story. Like many newcomers he went out of his way to be a super patriot. He sold millions of dollars worth of government Liberty Bonds during the Second World War, said George Payne, who added his father landed “quite a coup” when he inked a contract to feed all area military enlistees. From WWII through Vietnam, the Virginia served “last meals” to wide-eyed recruits en route to basic training.

“Those are the kinds of things that are a little unique from the Virginia,” the dapper George Payne said. There’s more. The cafe played a part in a tense chapter of Omaha history when a 1935 streetcar strike erupted in violence. George was 20 then and working part-time in the restaurant. Martial law was declared and more than 1,000 National Guard troops sent in to restore order. “That was serious stuff,” George recalled. The Virginia, located right on the streetcar line, was near the conflict between strikers and strikebreakers. The soldiers’ presence quelled the rioting. The cafe was commandeered into serving three meals a day to the troops.

“They came in and took over our business,” said George, who remembers the first guardsmen tromping in with their boots and packs and hanging their rifles on coat hooks attached to the fine mahogany wainscoting, which sent his father into a fit. From that point on the soldiers stacked their weapons safely out of harm’s way.

The Virginia was justly proud of its decor. Its glorious neon signage, plate glass windows, decorative tile-fronted exterior and rich mahogany interior with white table cloth covered tables and booths were straight out of an Edward Hopper painting. Distinctive murals of the American landscape and fine renderings of all 50 state seals adorned the lounge and dining room and the massive cross-section of a redwood tree was mounted in the party room.

“There wasn’t a restaurant in town that had that kind of atmosphere at all,” George said. “It was very well done. My dad had vision.”

This eclectic design reflected the diverse customers the Virginia catered to  — professionals, office workers, politicos, housewives, clerks, stock boys, cabbies, crack-of-dawn delivery men, night owls and bar crawlers.

Up front, right at the door greeting customers, was Nick, trademark cigar in hand, dressed impeccably in a suit and tie and kibitzing with the line of people that formed at lunchtime. If anyone tired of the wait and started to leave George said Nick would coax them to stay with, “‘Don’t go. You know you’ll be back in five minutes. Where you going to go?’ He had a way with people.”

The cafe enjoyed a brisk trade before it went up in flames in 1969. Neither Nick nor George were there when the fire broke out on a Sunday night. They were awakened with the news and came down to see a burned out shell. After two full days of being hosed down, George said, the building collapsed in on itself. It was a total loss. George salvaged a few mementos and artifacts. There was talk of reopening at another spot but the family opted to walk away. The site of the Virginia was sold to the city, which built the W. Dale Clark Library near there.

“I really didn’t quite know what I was going to do…” George said. He wound up with the Sheraton Hotels group and then the U.S. Department of Commerce’s International Trade Administration — posts that took him around the world.

Nick Payne left a rich legacy that George has carried on. The elder Payne helped found the Omaha Restaurant Association, which his son presided over as president, as he did the Nebraska Restaurant Association. In 1956 American Restaurant Association Magazine inducted Nick into its Hall of Fame. The father was heavily involved with St. John Greek Orthodox Church. Nick Payne died in 1989. George Payne, now 92, has continued, with Peggy, his father’s support of the church.

The family retains close ties to Greece and has made periodic trips to their ancestral homeland. Alexander Payne one day intends to shoot a film there.

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Alexander Payne’s Homecoming

January 10, 2018 Leave a comment

Alexander Payne’s Homecoming


©By Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the Jan-Feb 2018 issue of Omaha Magazine

Alexander Payne’s new tragicomedy Downsizing imagines the fate of an overpopulated world hanging in the balance due to depleted natural resources. When scientists find a way to miniaturize humans, adventurous souls choose going small as an act of conservation or exploitation. Matt Damon plays Paul, an average Omaha man whose pioneering micro-me experiences range from surreal to sublime.

The Omaha native’s big-budget sci-fi satire premiered in December at the newly reopened Dundee Theater, where Payne practically grew up. His debut feature Citizen Ruth also played there.

Now that this prodigal local son and world- class filmmaker is 56, remarried, and a papa— daughter Despina Evangeline Payne was born in Greece last fall—he’s downsizing from hurly-burly L.A. to his laid-back hometown with wife Maria and baby in tow.

Putting down roots is important to Payne. His mother Peggy, extended family, and close friends live here.

“I love Omaha and have been looking for a chance to be there full time,” says Payne, speak- ing from Greece before his relocation. “I miss Omaha very much when not there, and having quiet time in town with the new kid feels like the right move…and I hope to find some other trouble to get into.”

The active Film Streams board member brings Hollywood to Omaha. Making this his main residence only further enriches the local cinema culture.

“He and I have always fantasized about pro- grams we can plan, people we can bring to town, and ways he can be even more involved with what we bring to Omaha when he has a chance to spend more time here,” says Rachel Jacobson, Film Streams’ founder and director.

Payne is no stranger to making movies in his “backyard.” His latest, Downsizing, shot three days here—a fraction of the time he spent on his first three locally filmed features.

“Of course, I wish I’d shot all of the scenes per- taining to Omaha in Omaha, but it just wasn’t possible,” he says. “What I really missed about shooting in Omaha was the extras.”

On Toronto soundstages, he recreated a Creighton Prep class reunion and a farewell party at Jam’s Old Market.

“It was a drag having to train Torontonians to behave like Omahans. Once, when I caught two gals pretending they hadn’t seen each other in years kissing on both cheeks, I about had a heart attack,” Payne says, adding that he was glad to have captured some key local scenes in the film. “One of the great locations I was able to shoot in Omaha—complete with the people who actually work there—was Omaha Steaks,” he says.

The well-traveled and socially conscious auteur has made his most issues-oriented film of international scope at this mature career point, though he doesn’t concede to middle age.

“I don’t feel as though I’m at the midpoint of life; I still feel as though I’m at the beginning,” he says. “I can’t help but feel I’m still barely learning how to make a film, and now that I’m a father, well, that’s a new sense of beginning. My friends all have grown children. My best friend from college is a grandfather twice over, and me, I’m just now wading into these waters for the first time.”

He can taste the irony of his words: “I remember seeing [Akira] Kurosawa speak in 1986 in L.A. to promote Ran. He said, ‘I’ve made 30 feature films, I’m almost 80 years old, and yet I feel as though I have less of an idea now of what a movie is than when I was younger.’ I thought he was just trying to play Mr. Humble. Now his words are haunting. I think my gravestone will read, ‘I was just getting started.’”

Downsizing pushed Payne to the limit with its complex storyline, epic scale, and special effects. It took a decade getting made from when he and co-writer Jim Taylor completed the script’s first draft. Once shot, fixing on a final cut proved elusive.

“I’m just glad it’s over and I can get on to something new,” he says. “It was a very long process. The script took a long time to corral, finding financing was nearly impossible, and the movie fell apart three times before finally jelling. Production was long and costly, and it was tricky to pinpoint the final movie in the editing room. It’s a film I had to get out of my system—Jim and I believed in it for all these years, believed in its wacky but very interesting idea, and we finally got it made.”

Payne and longtime casting director John Jackson of Council Bluffs assembled an impressive international acting ensemble. As Paul, superstar Damon (the Bourne franchise lynchpin who recently starred in the Coen Brothers’ 2017 film Suburbicon) takes us on a wild, downsized journey.

“He’s a wonderful actor,” Payne says of his leading man.

Of Kristen Wiig, Paul’s spacey life partner, (who previously starred alongside Damon in Ridley Scott’s 2015 film The Martian) Payne says: “Lovely woman, super-funny, able to be either subtle or overt with the same level of commitment and humor.”

On two-time Academy Award winner Christoph Waltz (the Nazi antagonist in Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 film Inglourious Basterds), Paul’s amoral guide in the new world, Payne says: “A very smart, very funny, very committed actor. We disagreed a couple of times, but something very good came out of it.”

Newcomer Hong Chau (who starred in P. T. Anderson’s 2014 film Inherent Vice) plays an activist who gets under Paul’s skin. Payne echoes what others say about her breakthrough, Oscar buzz-worthy work.

“A star is born,” he says. “I often get asked why my movies ‘always’ seem to be about adrift, middle-aged white males. But in fact, I’ve had the most fun, midwifing, terrific performances by females: Laura Dern [Citizen Ruth, 1996], Reese Witherspoon [Election, 1999], Kathy Bates [About Schmidt, 2002], June Squibb [Nebraska, 2013] and Shailene Woodley [The Descendants, 2011]. I’d say Hong Chau really takes the cake.”

“It was the right role finding the right actor at the right time,” Payne says, “and she all but steals the whole damned movie. Matt Damon calls her a ‘thoroughbred.’”

Chau confirms what others note about Payne.

“I have so many feelings for Alexander,” she says. “He’s an amazing person, an amazing director. It’s really been a joy getting to work with him and also getting to know him as a person. It’s the first time I’ve worked on something where I feel like he’s going to be my friend for life.”

His “gentle” directing style suited her.

“I don’t feel the heavy hand of directing,” Chau says. “All of the redirections are tweaks—a very small degree or two on the dial where to turn an emotion or a word in a sentence. A lot of his writing is filled with comedy, so there’s some precision needed in order for the humor to land the way it’s supposed to.”

Payne invited her to observe the editing pro- cess. She marveled at what he cut to make the film leaner.

“It really showed how disciplined he is to telling the story and keeping it sharp in terms of what the audience should be receiving,” Chau says. “It’s why Alexander has become one of the great American masters.”

Leading up to its debut in Omaha, the film gen- erated strong word-of-mouth from trailers and festival screenings. It opened to uniformly warm praise at the Venice Film Festival, where Payne, in attendance for the first time, was joined by Damon, Chau, Wiig, and new Paramount head Jim Gianopulos.

After the high of Venice, Downsizing receiving mixed reviews at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado and the Toronto International Film Festival.

“Some people really dig it. Others think it maybe bites off more than it can chew,” Payne says. “Sure, maybe the screenplay is a little greedy, but what the hell? The movie was designed as episodic—a sort of road trip through the world right now. We think that’s what makes it fun.”

Editing footage down to the theatrical release’s 135 minutes (including credits) was an arduous task.

“I kept hearing the same thing all directors always hear from studio executives: ‘Make it shorter,’” he says.

The studio is bullish on Downsizing’s potential.

“It’s Paramount’s big Christmas release,” he says, “and they see the movie plays great with audiences—lots of laughs. They’re expecting it to do well commercially, and I pray to God they’re right.”

With seven completed features under his belt, Payne is eager as ever to make movies. For the time being, this family man is content to wait for inspiration before jumping into the fray again.

“I wish I were making a movie all the time,” he says. “But I also want to speak only when I have something to say.”

Sculpture by Derek Joy

This article was printed in the January/February 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Hot Movie Takes – The Dundee and “Downsizing”

December 19, 2017 Leave a comment

 

Hot Movie Takes – The Dundee and “Downsizing”

©by Leo Adam Biga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

A Hollywood premiere, Omaha style, unfurled December 15 at the newly made-over Dundee Theater. Favorite son Alexander Payne and star-is-born Hong Chau represented their beautiful new film “Downsizing” at the neighborhood movie house’s grand reopening.

The night’s main attraction screening served up a rare occurrence – a film that largely lived up to the hype surrounding it. With this film Payne has taken themes he’s long been concerned with and married them to planetary issues to produce a work of large scale and big ideas that’s grounded in intimate relationships.

The story imagines Scandinavian scientists finding a process by which humans can be downsized to help mitigate overpopulation and depleted natural resources.

Everyman Paul Safranek of Omaha transitions into the small world, where he meets up with a cosmo Serbian importer, Dusan, and a fierce Vietnamese human rights activist, Ngoc Lan Tran. The supposed paradise of the miniature Leisure Land they live in is a lie, as normal-sized problems of greed, laziness, consumerism and classism are actually magnified there. Outside Leisure Land, abuses of the downsizing process as reprisals strip it of its utopian ideal. Then, with the end of the world drawing near due to melting ice caps, Paul enlists as a pioneer in a bold move to preserve the human species from extinction. At the crucial hour, he must choose between living fully now or giving up this life to be a symbol for a new age.

From the festival circuit through the Omaha premiere, the critical and popular consensus is that Payne’s created his most visually stunning. humanistic and moving picture yet. Certainly his most ambitious. From the moment the story moves from Paul’s drab normal existence to the brave new small world, we’re treated to memorable images: from a Euro party acid trip to a makeshift ghetto housing project to breathtaking Norwegian fjords to a tribe of tree-huggers saying farewell to the world.

Chau is well deserving of the Best Supporting Actress nominations she’s received because her original character anchors the second half of the film and her authentic, heartfelt performance carries the story home. Christoph Waltz is his usual sardonic, charismatic self. Matt Damon delivers the goods as the sweet, slightly pathetic protagonist we project ourselves onto.

The perfect dream Film Streams founder-director Rachel Jacobson had of reopening the theater Payne grew up in with the premiere of his new film is like something from a movie. And in a it-could-only-happen-in-Omaha moment, Payne shared how he walked to the theater the night of the big event because, well, he could. His childhood home, where his mother Peggy still lives, is only four blocks away. The main auditorium at the Dundee is named in her honor, The final credit is a dedication to his late father: “For George.”

 

The high aesthetics of both the theater and of the movie crowning its rebirth befitted the formal, black-tie December 15 affair whose blue-blood audience helped realize the Film Streams-Dundee marriage. Chau looked every bit the part of a movie star. Payne, the new father, appeared fit and content. Two of Nebraska’s three most famous living figures were in the same room chatting it up: Payne and fellow Diundee resident, Warren Buffett. The billionaire investor’s daughter, Susie Buffett, purchased the Dundee and donated it to Film Streams through her Sherwood Foundation. Susie Buffett was there, too.

It was a celebration all the way around:

Film Streams adding to its inventory of cinema resources and enhancing the local cinema culture

A preservation victory that saved and returned the Dundee to its former glory

A homecoming for Payne

A coming-out party for Chau.

A coronation for what promises to be Payne’s biggest box-office hit and possibly his most awarded film to date.

On a night when the theater and the film shared equal billing, it was hard not to recall all the great cinema moments the Dundee’s offered since the 1920s. Downsizing may not be the best film to ever play there, but it’s safely among the best. It’s also safe to say that the theater’s never looked better. The historic redo features simple, clean designs accented by a black-and-white motif and a new entrance, restaurant and video-bookstore so well integrated into the existing works that they look and feel as though they’ve always been there.

Alley Poyner Macchietto melded the historic and contemporary elements into a pleasing whole in much the same way Payne and his visual effects team blended the film’s CGI and live action into seamless scenes. When the big and small worlds converge onscreen, they hold up as more than arresting set pieces but as compelling dramatic and amusing comedic moments that comment on the smallness of some people’s minds and that size doesn’t really matter.

Just when Payne’s message movie gets too polemical or idealogical, he pokes fun at something to take it down to size. This hugely entertaining movie reminds us, not unlike a Frank Capra movie, that we don’t have to go far or to extremes to find the best things in life, but if we do, it’s best to keep things simple and close to home.

Kudos, too, for Payne taking us on this journey. All of his films are journeys or odysseys of one kind or another, “Downsizing” is the most provocative journey he’s given us yet in one of his films. He and co-writer Jim Taylor went global with this story and therefore we see a diverse, international cast of characters unlike anything we’ve seen in his work. Powerful images and storylines depict the range of humanity and the ways in which people of different cultures , circumstances and beliefs live. Because of the politically charged climate the film resides in both in its fictional story and in real life, these images and plot points are loaded with multiple meanings and interpretations. By the end, we’re left with a positive affirmation about the beauty and folly of human nature and with a challenge to protect and preserve Mother Earth.

Thanks for the message, and welcome back home, Alexander.

 

“Downsizing” Home Cameos

November 23, 2017 Leave a comment

The details that go into making a film go far beyond what you can ever imagine. They start in pre-production, multiply during the actual shoot and extend throughout the editing and post-production process. Nothing is too small to be unimportant. Alexander Payne is one of those filmmakers who insists, whenever possible, on finding and shooting in actual locations. Because five of his seven feature films have shot enirely or partly in his home state of Nebraska and often in his hometown of Omaha, he’s captured a variety of places here that we may recognize in his screenwork, including such landmarks as the Woodmen of the World tower, Johnny’s Cafe and the beloved Dundee neighborhood he grew up in. For his new film “Downsizing” he didn’t get to shoot as much in Omaha as he wanted but for three days he and his crew did commit to film a number of iconic spots, such as La Casa’s on Leavenworth and his alma mater Creighton Prep. He also shot the exteriors and interiors of some homes. Stars Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig were here for some of those scenes. This is my November-December 2017 Omaha Magazine story about the Omaha homes that have cameos in “Downsizing.'” It gives you some behind the scenes insights into how these homes came to be used.

And look for my January-February 2018 Omaha Mag piece on Alexander Payne coming home to stay following the long process it took to make “Downsizing.”

Downsizing Home Cameos

Meet the Local Residential Stars of Alexander Payne’s New Film

©Story by Leo Adam Biga

©Photos by Bill Sitzmann

Originally published in November-December 2017 issue of Omaha Magazine

 

 

When Oscar-winning filmmaker Alexander Payne prepares a film, he not only auditions actors but locations, too.

The writer-director insists on actual locations whenever possible. When he films in his hometown of Omaha, he’s extra keen to get it right. Just as local homes brought authenticity to his films Citizen Ruth, Election, and About Schmidt, Omaha homes earned supporting roles for Payne’s new film Downsizing during a mid-April 2016 shoot here.

Omaha figures prominently in the sci-fi dramedy (starring Matt Damon) that played major festivals in Venice, Italy; Telluride, Colorado; and Toronto, Canada. Its first half establishes Damon’s character, Paul, as an Omaha Everyman. The script called for him to reside in an inner-city duplex and, thus, location scout Jamie Vesay and counterparts in Toronto, where much of the film was made, scoured prospective sites.

Two matching 1920s-era, two-story brick duplexes on Douglas Street (in Payne’s childhood Dundee neighborhood) stood in for Paul’s home.

The story has Paul and wife Audrey (played by Kristen Wiig) visit a suburban McMansion. Vesay scouted that, too.

Jamie Vesay

Two new large homes in Elkhorn’s Five Fountains neighborhood portrayed the for-sale property that Paul and Audrey visit.

Scenes were also shot outside La Casa Pizzaria, Creighton Prep (Payne’s alma mater), Jam’s in the Old Market and at Regency Court, and Omaha Steaks’ distribution center.

The story required a duplex with adjoining back decks to underscore the attachment Paul feels to his mother, who lives next door at one point. Payne loves physical comedy, and the director liked all the business of Paul entering-exiting various doors and navigating steps.

Events fast forward nine years to find Paul’s mother gone. He and Audrey now live in his mom’s old place, and he’s renting out his former unit. It’s a commentary on Paul’s limited horizons before his grand adventure.

Vesay says Payne also liked the Douglas properties for their small, steep front yards. A yard sale unfolds there that comically shows folks struggling with the tight quarters and severe pitch. Sealing the deal was the alley’s confluence of yards, fences, garages, light poles, wires, and its downtown view.

Carol Redwing lived at one of the two Douglas Street duplexes. The exterior of her residence was used for daytime and nighttime shots with Damon and Wiig. The unoccupied unit next door was leased by the production. The same arrangement was used at the other duplex on Douglas Street, where interiors were shot in a unit doubling for the on-screen duplex. More interiors were doubled in Toronto.

In suburban Five Points, Gretchen and Steven Twohig’s home became the McMansion exterior. The home of Ethan and Erin Evans became the interior. Vesay says the sea of cookie-cutter roofs visible from the development caught Payne’s eye.

The exterior of the Twohig home where filming occurred

Long before the production reached out to residents, their homes were scouted from the street. When first contacted, they were wary. Once assured that the Hollywood scout was not a prankster, Vesay, Payne, and department heads came for closer looks. The locals only knew their places were in the running before receiving final confirmation.

When word leaked about the Downsizing dwellings, reporters and curiosity-seekers appeared.

“It was kind of surreal,” says Redwing, who has since moved.

During the shoot, Vesay says producers broke protocol and allowed civilians on set. “People got remarkably close,” he says. Residents who lent their homes to the cause got up-close-and-personal experiences themselves. It was eye-opening.

“There’s a lot of moving pieces and people,” Redwing says. “It was really cool.”

Ethan Evans says he was struck “by how many behind-the-scenes people it takes—it’s quite the production. It was kind of a circus and crazy for a while.”

Hollywood came calling, but as Gretchen Twohig noted, “There’s nothing glamorous or fancy about any of it. It’s just people working really hard to get a project done. You realize all this hard work and all these tiny moments have to come together to make a movie.” She and her husband have school-age children but opted not to take them out of classes for the filming. The Evans’ young children watched. Redwing and her son saw everything.

Twohig echoed the other residents in saying everyone from Payne to the stars to the grips were “down-to-earth, calm, warm, professional, and gracious.”

The Evans’ garage became a staging spot. That’s where the couple hung out with Payne, Damon, and Wiig.

The high-ceilinged, spacious home’s entryway, dining room, and kitchen got the shoot’s full attention.

“Besides moving furniture around to make room for lights, screens, and cameras—and taking pictures down— they sort of kept everything the way we had the house decorated,” Evans says, “It only took a few takes.”

The Evans and Twohigs met one another as a result of Hollywood casting their homes. They’ve compared notes about their Downsizing experiences.

Twohig says after hours of setup at her place, as crew adjusted window blinds and for-sale signs, moved cars in and out of the driveway, and took the family basketball hoop down, put it back up, and took it down again, the actual shoot was over in a flash.

At Redwing’s old duplex, crew did landscaping and made building touch-ups but left her recycling bin, tools, and other homey elements intact. She’s confident her old abode made the final cut since it’s such an essential location as the hero’s home. However, the Evans and Twohigs know their places are more incidental and therefore expendable.

“We’d be disappointed, but we knew going in it could very easily be cut,” Twohig says. “But it would sure be fun if it was there.”

Redwing spoke for everyone regarding anticipation for Downsizing’s December release. “I’m very eager to see it.”

Meanwhile, one of the Douglas duplexes’ exterior has been painted. Last summer, its empty units were under renovation. A real estate listing read: “Come live where Matt Damon filmed the movieDownsizing!”

Having glimpsed behind the magic curtain, Ethan Evans says, “I sort of watch movies differently now.” Although he’s certain that he’ll forget the mechanics of cameras, mics, booms, and clappers when he finally sees Downsizing.

One of the duplexes on Douglas Street where filming occurred.

Leo Adam Biga is the author of Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film. Read more of his work atleoadambiga.com.

This article was printed in the November/December 2017 edition of Omaha Home.

Hot Movie Takes – “Downsizing” splits Toronto

September 12, 2017 1 comment

Hot Movie Takes – “Downsizing” splits Toronto
©by Leo Adam Bga, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

Alexander Payne has given the world something unexpected from him with his new film “Downsizing.” So far, after playing three of the world’s most prestigious festivals, the cinema community is decidedly split about this epic sci-fi dramedy from a writer-director heretofore known for his small human satires. After being almost uniformly hailed in Venice, the film elicited divided responses in Telluride and now in Toronto, and it seems most reviewers who’ve seen it fall into either love it or hate it camps. Some reviewers are practically ecstatic about the film and praising Payne for his brave ambition in departing from what we’ve come to expect. Others are going out of their way to damn the film and take Payne to task for biting off more than he could chew. If you read enough of the negative reviews, and there are plenty of them, the critics are on the one hand admiring the fact that he dared to upset expectations and chastising him for the temerity to thing big and visionary.

All I know having only read the script and interviewed Payne and a good chunk of his creative team is that the screenplay I saw was brilliant. I can’t speak to the final shooting script and how it was executed until I see the film. I suspect I’ll like what I see but then again, who knows. It’s just an opinion and so much of that is influenced by attitudes, tastes and, there we go again, expectations. People will disagree, but “Downsizing” finds itself in a precarious position now having gone from Paramounts darling project with glowing praise, awards predictions and big box office written all over it to very much an unsure thing that just might flop.

What all this means, if anything, for how Paramount might market and release the picture differently now and how general audiences might perceive and therefore respond to it differently now is anybody’s guess. What this presages as far as awards season is also hard to predict. But it does appear that the studio and the filmmaker have been taken aback by this sharply divided reception to “Downsizing.” I haven’t had a chance yet to speak with Payne about it, but I hope to do so soon. Stay tuned.

Here are three reviews that reflect the good, the bad and the ugly response to the film.

THE GOOD

DOWNSIZING IS A CRAZY SCI-FI FABLE FOR OUR TIME (TIFF REVIEW)
POSTED BY NOAH GITTELL ON SEPTEMBER 11, 2017

There is a moment in a certain type of great film when you realize you have no idea what is going to happen next, and you cannot wait to find out. Most films written by Charlie Kaufman have a moment like this. So does Downsizing, the wise and wondrous new film from director Alexander Payne, a somewhat unlikely suspect for such unpredictability. His movies (Election, Nebraska) do often have surprising flights of creative fancy in their third act (think the wallet-stealing sequence in Sideways), but none is as persistently inventive and creatively liberated as Downsizing, which starts out as sci-fi comedy, ends as a heartwarming social fable, and squarely hits a handful of different genres in between.

Downsizing is set in a near-future in which miniaturization technology has become cost-effective and popular. There are myriad reasons to “get small,” we are told. Some people are doing it to improve their lives, others see it as a way to help the environment by reducing their carbon footprint, and some people are just trying to save money. It’s the latter reason that inspires Paul (Matt Damon, effective here in “everyman” mode) and Audrey Safranek (Kristen Wiig) to give up their small life in Omaha for an even tinier one. The painfully average couple are an embodiment of the shrinking middle class. Paul wanted to be a doctor, but he quit medical school when his mother fell ill. Now, he’s an occupational therapist at Omaha Steaks, where he earns a meager income, and he and his wife live in the modest home he grew up in.

Their money will go farther in Leisure Land, one of many “micro-communities” popping up all over the world. In fact, their modest $150,000 in assets will make them multi-millionaires, and the loneliness of life without their old friends and family seems like a small price to pay for living in a utopia. After a quick tour, Paul and Audrey decide to take the tiny plunge before they can talk themselves out of it.

From this set-up, there is a clear and obvious path forward – their perfect life turns dystopian, and Leisure Land reveals a dark underbelly – but Payne and his co-writer refuse the easy way out. It’s almost as if it never occurred to them. Downsizing is a film of many surprises, from celebrity cameos and abrupt departures for seemingly important characters to the probing, philosophical soul that informs each of the film’s radical plot developments  True, the film’s heroes find their new life to be not all that was promised, but where it goes from there will surprise even the most accomplished twist-guesser.

The film’s stream-of-consciousness plotting would be bad medicine if Downsizing weren’t also hilariously funny. There are plenty of sight gags, involving large (that is, normal-sized) items that have made their way into Paul and Audrey’s miniature world, including enormous flowers, giant jewelry, and a pack of Saltines that could feed a family for a week. Payne also packs his film full of extraordinarily funny people, from Christoph Waltz and Udo Kier as Eurotrash neighbors to Hong Chau, a former Vietnamese freedom fighter who, in one gut-busting scene, enumerates the eight different ways Americans have sex. If there is any justice, the phrase “love f**k” will enter our lexicon.

So if you want to simply laugh at Downsizing, you can. In fact, the film changes lanes so many times that just sitting back and enjoying the wild ride is a perfectly reasonable strategy. Eventually, however, it will ask more of you. The through line that runs beneath the gags and wild plot is a soul-searching character hyper-attuned to our apocalyptic times. The miniaturization process is originally discovered in the search for a solution to the world’s unsustainable population growth, and Downsizing follows this idea down its natural path, shifting into a journey of exploration of how best to live in an age when of human self-destruction and spiritual indifference. There are echoes of I Heart Huckabees and the recent Beatriz at Dinner in its ethical questions and earnest probings. At its simplest, Downsizing is simply an exploration of what it means to be good in trying times, a worthy endeavor even if the final product is not your tiny cup of tea.

THE BAD

TIFF Movie Review: Downsizing
ALLYSON JOHNSON SEPTEMBER 10, 2017

Downsizing has a tonal problem in that the film we’re watching in the first act is drastically different than the one we watch in the second, which is drastically different than that of the third. At the very least, we can never fault director Alexander Payne on the scope of his vision, as he attempts to tackle a grab bag of topics and themes that all boil down to the idea of the cyclical destructive nature of humankind and the beauty and connection that is to be found amid it all. Even when the world is ending due to man-made disasters, there’s still room to be kind and decent and maybe even fall in love while finding out who you are.

In the not so distant future of Payne’s latest film Downsizing, the world is beginning to visualize the threats to the environment that up till now had benn blissfully ignored. In order to counteract this, a scientist creates a magical solution where people can chose to be shrunken to help cut down on consumption and natural resources. What began as a novel concept soon turns into a phenomenon as more and more people are lining up be to become small, transporting themselves to different portions of the world where small communities have been set up. Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristin Wiig) think that they too are ready to leave the normal world behind and embark on this great new adventure together. Granted the opportunity to live in luxury opposed to barely being able to keep up with the house they have now, it sounds alluring to the couple. However, cold feet kicks in for Audrey and Paul is left to embark on this journey more alone than he’s even been before.

It’s a mouthful of a movie to explain but one that, if you’re able to get over the hiccups along the way, are well worth it for the ultimate payoff. Beginning (in easily the most dragged out portion of the film) as mid-life crisis film, transitioning into something more stylish and science-fiction geared and then melting away into something romantic, globe trotting and meditative on the meaning of life and our need to contextualize everything and prove that there’s a reason for why our lives take the dips and turns that they do, the film never lands on just what it’s trying to accomplish. Astoundingly, it’s through that indecisiveness that we’re given some of the films most cherished aspects.

The single greatest joy of the movie is the introduction and inclusion of Hong Chau’s Ngoc Lan Tran, a humanitarian who was shrunk against her will and who stowed away in a TV box to the U.S. to escape persecution. She also lost her leg and it’s through her faulty prosthetic that she and Paul strike up a temperamental bond. Up until her joining the narrative the film had been funny, if a touch icy, happy to tell a story that shouts from the rafters that our environment is doomed while also making us laugh with visual sight gags such as a miniaturized Laura Dern in a bubble bath. With Chau’s utterly winsome and earnest portrayal the film gains the heart it had previously been devoid of, proving to be the missing link in a film that so desperately needed some warmth to be greater than a film that’s applauded on concept alone.

As mentioned, the film does drag in moments with the first act taking the longest due to all of the set up and the third taking what feels like a prolonged detour but for the most part Payne and co., have created a film that feels both uniquely timely while simultaneously feeling out the past with an atmosphere that hints to both Pleasantville and Being John Malkovich. Surreal, initially a little off putting, but determined in telling a story that’s both intriguing and significant, Downsizing divisively marches to it’s own beat.

Matt Damon proves he’s at his best when he’s playing decent, albeit, ordinary men while Christoph Waltz is an utter joy as Paul’s worldly neighbor Dusan. Of the performances though, again it’s Chau as Ngoc’s that really wins the day and the chemistry between the entire cast is delightful entertaining as their difference temperaments bounce off of one another with ease. Wiig is the only one who the script truly disservices, which is a sham, considering how well she and Damon’s comedic timing played against each other.

There are, admittedly, moments when the CGI is a little out of it’s depth, but the set design makes up for it by making sure to keep a sense of artificiality even when they’re only surrounded by people who’ve also gone through the procedure. Similarly, the cinematography by Phedon Papamichael is gorgeously rendered, particularly at the end as the film drives home just how wonderfully beautiful and vast our planet is.

Written by Payne and Jim Taylor, the two make sure to shine a light on the discrepancy of being offered to live in a world worry free where money isn’t an issue and you can have anything your heart desires. Like most things in life, this is focused on the privileged, with anyone else who doesn’t fit into the demo (minority groups and the disenfranchised) are still pushed to the outskirts of their community. The only thing that’s changed about their lives is they’ve gotten smaller. The films tackling of climate change is perhaps a touch on the nose but it makes sense within the context of the film where humans rush to find away to preserve life on a planet they’ve helped destroy.

A film that thinks big while keying in on the smaller but grander moments in life, Downsizing is messy, inconsistent and noisy in its many messages, but there’s something so refreshingly heartfelt about it all. A reminder that humans are always evolving, even when they don’t reflect, and that that evolution can happen both on the micro and macro scale.

AND THE UGLY

TIFF 2017: “DOWNSIZING,” “BEAST,” “WHO WE ARE NOW”
by Brian Tallerico
September 10, 2017

Alexander Payne’s latest finishes its fall festival trifecta after premiering at Venice and Telluride while a pair of “smaller” films actually feel like more complete, well-considered efforts, despite their own flaws. “Downsizing” has already become one of the most divisive films at the Toronto International Film Festival this year, producing responses all across the board. I know a few critics who consider it one of Payne’s best, but more seem to fall into the “ambitious disappointment” camp, and I may be even a step below that group. It’s easily Payne’s worst film, a work that’s woefully misguided, casually racist, thematically incomplete, and tries to ride on a high concept until a ham-fisted message arrives in the final act to really drive the hypocrisy home.

The concept of “Downsizing” is the kind of thing with which someone like Charlie Kaufman could have worked wonders. As human consumption has essentially destroyed our planet, a group of scientists determines that the only way to reverse the trajectory of time is to minimize not only the waste of our species but our actual size. Think about how much less damage we would do to the planet if we were only a fraction of the size we are now. Imagine how far your dollar could go when 1,000 square foot house looks much, much bigger. Everyone could have a mansion, and produce a negligible amount of planet-damaging waste.

For Paul (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig), the allure of what has been just outside of their reach becoming available to them through downsizing is too much to ignore. What could possibly go wrong? Of course, the journey to the small life doesn’t go exactly as planned, while Christoph Waltz, Jason Sudeikis, Hong Chau, and cameos from Neil Patrick Harris and Laura Dern fill out an undeniably talented cast. Once again, Payne wants to examine the current state of America through a satirical, exaggerated lens.
The problem this time is that I don’t think he knows what he’s looking at. There are plenty of questions in “Downsizing.” How do we literally simplify our lives? What should we value? How can one person make a minor difference against major problems? However, none of these are interestingly examined beyond the superficial. Instead, Payne meanders through a surprisingly unfunny narrative about a wanderer, amplified by Damon’s least interesting performance in a very long time. The problem is that Paul needs to be either a Chauncey Billups-esque observer or something more exaggerated than the blank slate Damon presents. There’s no character here, and not even in an interesting, non-character way. The idea that this guy just bounces from decision to decision, never making long-term ones, feels underdeveloped thematically, and just leaves us with a film that’s as unfocused as its protagonist.

Part of the tonal dilemma presented by “Downsizing” is the bad taste left in the mouth by Payne’s willingness not only to present a remarkable degree of White Savior Complex but then dive headfirst into casual racism in the portrayal of a Vietnamese dissident whose broken English is clearly being played for laughs. Payne has been accused of condescension to his “less refined,” Midwestern characters before but I never felt it as strongly as I did here. It feels like there was a version of “Downsizing” that was broader, in which everyone felt satirical, but then certain characters were softened, leaving only a few stereotypes to stand out and offend, along with an overriding sense of superiority from the filmmaker. Throughout “Downsizing,” I kept asking myself what the point of all of this was, never engaged by its hodgepodge of themes. I wish the filmmakers had asked that question too.

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

September 8, 2017 Leave a comment


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

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

Joan Micklin Silver
Alexander Payne
Nik Fackler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hot Movie Takes: The reviews are in and ‘Downsizing’ is the talk of the movie world

August 31, 2017 Leave a comment













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