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


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–

https://leoadambiga.com/…/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.”

Laura Dern and Alexander Payne: An actor-director marriage made in heaven


Laura Dern and Alexander Payne: An actor-director marriage made in heaven

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Doing some more proofs and edits to the new edition of my Alexander Payne book reacquainted me with this piece I did about the close friendship and great working relationship the filmmaker forged with Laura Dern when making his debut feature Citizen Ruth. The two remain chums 20-plus years later. Payne brought her to Omaha for a Film Streams Feature Event that saw him conversate with her at the Holland Center. She’s come back to Omaha at his invitation a few other times as well. In the interviews I did with Payne and with Dern for this story I probably dug deeper than I ever have before or since in fleshing out the collaborative director-actor dynamic. I share the story with you now. As the story reveals, it turns out Citizen Ruth might have never happened if Dern hadn’t fallen in love with the script and championed the project. What was origially called The Devil Inside was going nowhere until she fought for the part and once she got it she fought for the project. Indeed, Payne credits her for getting it made. In my opinion, her performance is one of the bravest pieces of acting I’ve ever seen by a major female lead and the film remains the most raw and real, if not the best, of Payne’s work.

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.

 

 

Director & Co-writer Alexander Payne with Laura Dern

 

When Laura Met Alex: Laura Dern & Alexander Payne Get Deep About Making Citizen Ruth and Their Shared Cinema Sensibilities

Published in July 10-16, 2008, Vol. 15, 20, issue of The Reader

 

Citizen Stirrings

When Alexander Payne and Laura Dern chat on the Holland Performing Arts Center main stage July 13 for Films Streams’ first annual fundraiser they’ll naturally get around to Citizen Ruth. The 1996 abortion comedy he co-wrote with Jim Taylor marked Payne’s directorial debut and Dern’s portrayal of title character Ruth Stoops earned her critical acclaim.

What the pair may or may not discuss is how pivotal their collaboration proved.

Sixteen years ago Payne was still an aspiring feature filmmaker. His UCLA graduate thesis project from a few years before, The Passion of Martin, turned heads. The newcomer showed enough promise to land a studio development deal, analogous to a college baseball star getting drafted by a major league franchise, inking a fat contract and getting assigned to the high minors.

But he hadn’t broken through yet. He and Taylor did finish their abortion comedy script, then-known as The Devil Inside, that fall. They were trying to get it set up for Payne to direct. The script made the rounds, generating heat, but nobody wanted to finance it. Too risky. Too political. Too controversial. It didn’t help that Payne was untested in features.

Cut to Dern, by then established as an edgy screen actress for bare-her-soul performances in Joyce Chopra’s Smooth Talk, Peter Bogdanovich’s Mask, David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart and Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. She was already Oscar-nominated as the free spirit title character in Martha Coolidge’s Rambling Rose, for which her mother, Diane Ladd, was also nominated. Her acting genes extend to her father and fellow Oscar nominee, Bruce Dern.

Reminiscent of a young Barbara Stanwyck in her ability to play innocence and guile, sweetness and toughness, Dern was a catch for any director. Payne was a big fan of her work but never thought of her for messed-up Ruth Stoops. He probably didn’t think he could get her. That changed when, unbeknownst to him, Dern’s then-beau, actor Jeff Goldblum, got ahold of the Devil script and gave it to Laura.

“And I just was obsessed the moment I read it,” she said by phone from the L.A. set of a short film she’s appearing in. “I just forced their hands.”

Shared Cinephile Leanings

What did she respond to so strongly?

“Well, in terms of the material,” she said, “it’s a very unique and hilarious and extremely honest voice about this country and about what happens when you get two opposing sides in America, on any subject frankly. And the idea of putting this not just flawed but impossible protagonist at the middle of it is just completely genius. I felt I had something to bring to it that was unique.

“My love for finding empathy and voice in untenable human territory made me determined to force myself on them. I could love nothing more as an actor than one specific challenge, which is finding an empathetic place for a character we would ordinarily have disdain for, and Alexander happens to love that, too. Alexander, Jim (Taylor) and I have the same sensibility and that’s a very rare thing to find.”

Studio execs often express dismay at Payne’s unsympathetic protagonists. “My response is always, ‘It hasn’t been cast yet.’ I think it’s the actor who brings the humanity and the sympathy to that part,” he said. “Yeah, of course, how the film is directed and the tone contribute also, but that’s the actor’s job – to bring us a really full human person, and I’d like to think that truth is always sympathetic.”

“And the goal probably isn’t finding the sympathy, the goal is finding a multi-dimensional authentic person,” Dern said. “Everyone is filled with their own dark and light places.”

She said the sensibility she and Payne share derives from their cinema weaning.

“Alexander and I both grew up on the humanist films from the ‘70s. In the ‘70s there was a blossoming of the auteurist view and in the very specific way directors worked with their actors to find a singular voice. I think probably because humanity was the goal. The bottom line is it’s up to your actor to find the humanity in a way that can only happen through behavior. That was the focus those directors had and it seems to be such a focus of Alexander’s work as well.”

Putting Herself On the Line

The only other time Dern’s gone after a role so aggressively, she said, is Rambling Rose. Her commitment to Ruth changed everything.

“Laura’s presence helped finance the film,” Payne said by phone from his Topanga Canyon, Calif. home. Her involvement also lured other cast members. “I know Laura’s presence helped woo Burt Reynolds. These things catch their momentum however they catch their momentum. The script opened doors and then Laura liked the script and then the snowball stated growing.”

Finally, Payne secured the financing, which, he added, “was still hard to get even with Laura attached. This film almost wasn’t made.” He said it was only by the slimmest of margins the money came through.

Few besides Payne and Dern know how close it all came to not happening and how long it took to be realized.

“We finished our first draft in the fall of ‘92 and I wasn’t shooting until fall of ‘95,” he said. “I was so frustrated I left L.A., in a kind of self-imposed exile, wondering, What does it take to get a film made?”

Without Dern the project might have died or at least been delayed and Payne’s dream to direct deferred. When she signed on he recognized his good fortune.

“Yeah, and the exciting thing was that she kind of came after me,” he said. “I had lunch with her and she evinced such enthusiasm for the part and understanding of the role that she was the one.”

To help make the small-budgeted indie pic feasible Dern agreed to work for SAG scale along with everyone else.

“Here she was a big movie star coming to Omaha, Nebraska to play a pregnant drug addict,” he said. “She was getting, I don’t know, four thousand dollars a week or something, so that proved she was there because she wanted to be there. It wasn’t for any other reason than for the pleasure, for the joy of it.”

Said Dern, “We were all there for our passion and it made for an incredibly creative and professional experience for all of us.”

On the set he soon discovered her reputation for putting herself out there, on the line, totally exposed, for her art is well deserved.

“Yeah, that’s where she’s most comfortable,” he said. “She gives one hundred percent to the role.”

 

Citizen Ruth movie scenes Citizen Ruth 1996 IMDb 6 8 Laura Dern Meet Ruth Stoops One Bad Mother A Pro Laugh comedy

Citizen Ruth movie scenes Three Neglected Gems 36 37 38 Citizen Ruth 1996 Lila Says 2004 Tristram Shandy A Cock and Bull Story 2005
Citizen Ruth movie scenes Citizen Ruth

 

 

A Safe Place

Ruth Stoops is among many roles in which she’s gone to emotional extremes and done provocative scenes. There’s no holding back. No hedging or softening. She lays it all out to see. She clearly enjoys pushing boundaries.

“I mean, for whatever reason it is my favorite thing to do,” said Dern, who won her legal emancipation from her parents at age sixteen in order to pursue her craft full-time. “And I have a feeling that being raised by Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd had something to do with it, both in my film life and in my life. I definitely seek it out.”

Before she can put herself out there she has to feel she’s in good hands. Despite Payne’s inexperience, she felt protected.

“I must say I had implicit trust in him. I never questioned him. I don’t think I ever will. I believed in him and I think like we felt we knew each other, and that’s a bond where you can’t go wrong. That’s some kind of innate knowing. If there was a feeling out process it was really just – What do you like? How do you like to work?

On that level. Just on the day to day things.”

Payne said it’s inevitable a director and a lead actor size each other up.

“Oh yeah, you know I was so happy she was going to be in my movie but still the director thinks, I hope this person doesn’t screw up my movie,” he said. “And the actor might think, Who’s this director who’s going to screw up my performance?”

In their case, he said, it helped that she’d checked his work out.

“She liked The Passion of Martin, my student film, so she did her homework in watching that.”

Still, he was a newbie. He soon found out about her astute grasp of cinema.

“Of course she was justifiably concerned as to who my other partners were going to be – who my cinematographer was, my editor…because that’s the thing, she really understands the filmmaking process and how it’s not just about the actor or the director,” he said, “it’s about everyone involved. It’s such a huge effort. And she really gets all of that.

“So, yeah, she wanted to know she was going to be placing her hard work in safe hands and I think once she felt that, then she was able to give her all. And once I felt she was going to give me what I wanted and even more, then I felt safe, and then we just skyrocketed.”

Dern had a hand in a key crew member coming on board.

“One thing that worked out really well on the film – it both made her feel safe and it began a friendship and a professional collaboration that lasted through three films – is that she introduced me to Jim Glennon, the cinematographer” he said.

Jim had shot her in Smooth Talk, her kind of star-making film, back in ‘85, and she recommended him. I went to meet him, if nothing else just as a courtesy to Laura, thinking, Well, I’ll be able to tell her I met him but I didn’t like him. And I adored him, and so that was a right move in many ways.”

The late Glennon went on to shoot Payne’s Election and About Schmidt.

In Synch

Payne and Dern meshed in that way only two artists who respect each other can.

“Look, we worked together extremely well,” he said. “It’s one of the richest collaborations I’ve ever had with an actor and I was so happy it was happening on my first feature film. We really got in tune with each other pretty early on and we really felt a partnership.

“I mean, when you make a film your production designer is your partner and your cinematographer is your partner and your editor is your partner. And it’s nice when the lead actor is your partner in the same way and it’s not somebody you have to handle or manipulate or anything.”

For her part, Dern said, “I consider one of the best moments of my life was working on Ruth with Alexander. I had been acting for sixteen-seventeen years. I’d worked with extraordinary people, for sure. I think that speaks so much to his innate abilities and instincts.”

The comfort level she felt with him and Glennon helped her tap into an aspect of Ruth and women like her she feels deeply about.

“One of the things I always loved about Ruth, why I felt like I understood her so completely, was that Ruth isn’t just a character trying to find her voice but she’s a character who doesn’t now she’s entitled to one, and I long to play women who are in that struggle,” Dern said. “I think Rose in Rambling Rose is similar that way.

“And I know they’re the two that have probably penetrated my heart the most as characters I really love and find really relatable for women in this country. I really crave playing women who are on that discovery.”

Mutual Admiration Society

Payne said Dern’s commitment to craft isn’t a self-absorbed ego trip. She’s not just concerned with her own performance but with contributing to a fully realized film.

“She gives a hundred percent to the role and she also is a good kind of team captain for the entire cast,” he said. “The rest of the cast look to the lead actor – how is he or she feeling about the film…and she always had such great enthusiasm and professionalism.”

Payne couldn’t have asked for anything more. But he got it. When he and Kevin Tent were editing the film he got another glimpse of Dern’s cinema savvy.

“She has such a knack for film acting. I mean, many months later when I was editing I would talk to her by phone or she would come by the cutting room and I’d say we’re cutting a scene a certain way or she’d see how a scene was cutting and she’d say, ‘You know, I think in that shot on take three I did something kind of interesting. You might want to take a look at that.’ She had a prodigious memory for what she did in what scenes and what other actors did.

“I’ve read recently about her performance in Recount. That she would do many scenes three ways – underplayed, over the top and then kind of neutral, so that Jay Roach, the director, would have choices to calibrate her performance in the cutting room. And that’s just like textbook Laura. She understands film to the nth degree. She knows it’s about editing and she gives you choices in editing.”

Payne went on to have the same experience with Jack Nicholson on Schmidt.

“Oh, yeah, that’s the kind of actor you want. Everyone has to understand it’s not about what happens on set, it’s about what you harvest on set to get to the cutting room.”

For Payne, Dern’s enduring gift was the example she set “that one can work the way one wants to, which is with a real sense of partnership with the lead actor,” he said. “That it really can be the way it should be. And have fun. I mean, we all had a really good time making Citizen Ruth. A really good time. She’s a blast. I’d like to think it set a tone for what the rest of my films have been.”

Both would like the opportunity to work together again.

“We’ve definitely talked about,” Dern said.

“I’d love to work with her again but I haven’t had a part for her,” said Payne, who doesn’t know yet whether his upcoming film, Downsizing, may include a role for her. An original screenplay written with Jim Taylor, Downsizing’s described by Payne as “a large-scale, possibly ‘epic’ comedy that uses a science-fiction premise as a way to paint a fairly large satiric mural of today’s world.”

Just as Payne surrounds himself with a family of film artists on project after project, Dern enjoys longstanding collaborations.

“I’m a big believer in it and I feel like I have found a tribe of people I’ve worked with over and over again, someone who gets you, and you feel like you can do your best work with someone who gets you.”

The two know each other so well, he said, he’s not preparing copious-James Lipton notes for the Holland event but rather winging it. “I mean, look, all we have to do is start talking and it’ll all come out.” Maybe he’ll wear his lucky Ruth pants, white jeans whose pants leg was torn by a dog that bit him on a location scout.

When Laura met Alex: Laura Dern & Alexander Payne get deep about collaborating on “Citizen Ruth” and their shared cinema sensibilities

November 20, 2011 14 comments

 

 

When Laura met Alex: Laura Dern & Alexander Payne get deep about collaborating on “Citizen Ruth” and their shared cinema sensibilities

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

When Alexander Payne and Laura Dern chat on the Holland Performing Arts Center main stage July 13 for Films Streams’ first annual fundraiser they’ll naturally get around to Citizen Ruth. The 1996 abortion comedy he co-wrote with Jim Taylor marked Payne’s directorial debut and Dern’s portrayal of title character Ruth Stoops earned her critical acclaim.

What the pair may or may not discuss is how pivotal their collaboration proved.

Sixteen years ago Payne was still an aspiring feature filmmaker. His UCLA graduate thesis project from a few years before, The Passion of Martin, turned heads. The newcomer showed enough promise to land a studio development deal, analogous to a college baseball star getting drafted by a major league franchise, inking a fat contract and getting assigned to the high minors.

But he hadn’t broken through yet. He and Taylor did finish their abortion comedy script, then-known as The Devil Inside, that fall. They were trying to get it set up for Payne to direct. The script made the rounds, generating heat, but nobody wanted to finance it. Too risky. Too political. Too controversial. It didn’t help that Payne was untested in features.

Cut to Dern, by then established as an edgy screen actress for bare-her-soul performances in Joyce Chopra’s Smooth Talk, Peter Bogdanovich’s Mask, David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart and Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. She was already Oscar-nominated as the free spirit title character in Martha Coolidge’s Rambling Rose, for which her mother, Diane Ladd, was also nominated. Her acting genes extend to her father and fellow Oscar nominee, Bruce Dern.

Reminiscent of a young Barbara Stanwyck in her ability to play innocence and guile, sweetness and toughness, Dern was a catch for any director. Payne was a big fan of her work but never thought of her for messed-up Ruth Stoops. He probably didn’t think he could get her. That changed when, unbeknownst to him, Dern’s then-beau, actor Jeff Goldblum, got ahold of the Devil script and gave it to Laura.

“And I just was obsessed the moment I read it,” she said by phone from the L.A. set of a short film she’s appearing in. “I just forced their hands.”

What did she respond to so strongly?

“Well, in terms of the material,” she said, “it’s a very unique and hilarious and extremely honest voice about this country and about what happens when you get two opposing sides in America, on any subject frankly. And the idea of putting this not just flawed but impossible protagonist at the middle of it is just completely genius. I felt I had something to bring to it that was unique.

“My love for finding empathy and voice in untenable human territory made me determined to force myself on them. I could love nothing more as an actor than one specific challenge — which is finding an empathetic place for a character we would ordinarily have disdain for, and Alexander happens to love that, too. Alexander, Jim and I have the same sensibility and that’s a very rare thing to find.”

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

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.

Laura Dern and Mary Kay Place

Payne conferring with Dern on the set of Citizen Ruth
Laura Dern as Citizen Ruth.
Ruth Stoops self-medicating.

Payne interviewing Dern on stage of the Holland Performing Arts Center at Film Streams event

 

 

 

Nik Fackler, The Film Dude. establishes himself a major new cinema figure with “Lovely, Still”


Christmas in the post-War United States

Image via Wikipedia

This article on emerging filmmaker Nik Fackler makes no bones about his establishing himself a major cinema figure on the strength of his first feature, Lovely, Still. The pic is finally getting a general release this fall, but it’s picked up a slew of admirers and awards, most recently from screenings at the California Independent Film Festival.  Watch for this film when it comes to a theater near you or plays on cable or wherever else you can find it, because it’s the work of an artist who will make his presence felt.  As he prepares to make his next projects, I feel the same way about Fackler that I did about Alexander Payne when I saw his debut feature Citizen Ruth – that this is an important artist we will all be hearing much more from in the future.  I look forward to charting his journey wherever it takes him.

NOTE: This article appeared in advance of a limited engagement run of Lovely, Still in Nik’s hometown of Omaha last fall.  The film is having a full national release  the fall of 2010.  Look for it at a theater near you in September or October, perhaps later.

Check out my most recent post about the film, Fackler, and the relationship between he and star Martin Landau.

 

Nik Fackler, The Film Dude, sstablishes himself a major new cinema figure with “Lovely, Still”

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

After what must seem an eternity, Omaha’s resident Film Dude, writer-director Nik Fackler, finally has the satisfaction of his first feature being theatrically screened. An advance one-week Omaha engagement of his Lovely, Still opens the new Marcus Midtown Cinema, Nov. 6-12.

The film’s box office legs won’t be known until its 2010 national release. Screenings for New York, L.A. and foreign press will give Lovely the qualifying runs it needs for Academy Awards consideration next year. It’d be a stretch for such a small film to net any nominations but the lead performances by Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn are so full and finely honed they’re Oscar-worthy by any standard.

Both artists strip themselves emotionally bare in scenes utilizing all their Method gifts. Their work is: dynamic, never dull; natural, unforced. Their behaviors appropriate for the romantic, comedic, dramatic or just Being There moments.

Nods for writing, direction, cinematography, editing and music would be unlikely but not out-of-line for this gorgeous-looking, powerfully-rendered, well-modulated movie that hits few false notes. The film pops with energy and emotion despite a precious storyline of senior citizens rediscovering first love.

The local creative class is well represented by Tim Kasher’s “additional writing,” James Devney’s strong portrayal of Buck, a lush score by composers Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott and dreamy tunes by Conor Oberst and other Saddle Creek artists.

It’s at least as impressive a feature debut as Alexander Payne’s Citizen Ruth.

An indication of how much Landau believes in Lovely and how proud he is of his gutsy star-turn in what Fackler calls “a showcase role that’s very challenging” is the actor’s appearances at select screenings. That includes this Friday in Omaha, when he and Fackler do Q & As following the 6:15 and 9:15 p.m. shows at Midtown.

Fackler’s at ease with the film that’s emerged. “I am very content, although it has changed a lot,” he said, “but I welcome all changes. Film is an ever changing beast. You must embrace the artistic transformation. To not allow it, is to limit it.” Much hype attended the making of the 25-year-old’s debut feature, shot in his hometown in late 2007. It was the first movie-movie with a real budget and name stars made entirely in Nebraska since Payne’s About Schmidt in 2001.

Circumstances caused the film that generated serious buzz a couple years ago and then again at the Toronto Film Festival’s Discovery Program in 2008 to fall off the radar. Lovely producers turned down a distribution offer. They continue negotiations seeking the right release strategy-deal. Self-release is an option.

It’s been a long wait for Fackler to see his vision on screen – six years since writing it, five years since almost first making it in 2005, two years since completing principal photography and one year since reshoots and reediting.

“This has been the longest I’ve like worked on a single project for forever,” he said. “It’s really been a marathon.”

Anticipation is great, not just among the Nebraska film community that worked the pic. Whenever stars the caliber of Landau and Burstyn throw their weight behind a project as they’ve done with Lovely the industry takes note. That a 20-something self-taught filmmaker with only micro-budget shorts and music videos to his name landed Oscar-winning icons certainly got people’s attention. As did hanging his script’s sentimental story about two old people falling in love at Christmas on a subversive hook that turns this idyll into something dark, real, sad and bittersweet. Throw in some magic realism and you have a Tim Burtonesque holiday fable.

The two stars would never have gotten involved with a newcomer on an obscure indie project unless they believed in the script and its author-director. At the time Fackler lacked a single credit on his IMDB page. Who was this kid? In separate meetings with the artists he realized he was being sized up.

“It was really intimidating,” Fackler said of meeting Landau in a Studio City, Calif. cafe. “I was just super freaked out. I don’t know why. I’m usually never that way. But it was like I was about to meet with this legend actor to talk about the script and for him to kind of like feel me out — to see it he can trust me as a director, because I’m a young guy. We’re from such different generations.”

The two hit it off. Lovely producer Lars Knudson of New York said Fackler “aced” a similar test with Burstyn in Manhattan: “It’s a lot of pressure for a (then) 23-year-old to meet with someone like Ellen, who’s worked with the biggest and best directors in the world, but Nik blew her away. I think she called him a Renaissance Man.” Knudson said “it’s really impressive” Fackler won over two artists known for being ultra-selective. “They’re very critical. They’ve done this for so many years that they will only do something if they really believe it’s going to be good.”

Lovely producer Dana Altman of Omaha said the respect Fackler gave the actors earned him theirs.

Anyone reading the screenplay could see its potential. Besides A-list stars other top-notch pros signed on: director of photography Sean Kirby (Police Beat), production designer Stephen Altman (Gosford Park Oscar nominee) and editor Douglas Crise (Babel Oscar nominee).

But the history of films long on promise and short on execution is long. As Dana Altman said, any film is the collective effort of a team and Lovely’s team melded. On location Fackler expressed pleasure with how the crew  – a mix from L.A. and Omaha – meshed. “Everyone’s on the same wavelength,” he said. Still, it was his first feature. DP Sean Kirby said, “Anytime you do something for the first time, like direct a feature film, there’s a learning curve, but I think he’s learned very quickly.” Fackler admitted to making “a bunch of mistakes” he “won’t make again.”

The subject matter made the film rife with traps. Take its tone. Handled badly, it could play as treacle or maudlin. Instead, it reads poignant and tragic, and that’s to everyone’s credit who worked on the film.

Then there’s Fackler’s penchant for going on fantastical jags in his work, routine in videos but risky in features. His loose approach, such as ditching the shot list to improvise, combined with the total creative freedom producers granted, meant he could play to his heart’s content, within reason. That can lead to self-indulgent filmmaking. Indeed, he fought and won the right to shoot trippy dream sequences that ended up on the cutting room floor. But some experimental lighting techniques to express tangled memories do make an effective motif in the final cut.

Following the mostly positive Toronto showing, the team reassembled for Omaha reshoots and New York pick ups. His leads supported the fixes and coverage.

“Martin and Ellen were behind it, they weren’t annoyed by it, they thought all the reshoots were going to make the film better,” said Fackler. “It wasn’t something that felt forced or anything like that. Everyone was on the same page.”

The young artist and his venerable stars established an early rapport built on trust. “We became friends,” he said. He readily accepted ideas from them that helped ripen the script and gave its young creator deeper insights into their characters.

“What’s great about Nik, especially at his age, is he’s willing to collaborate with people. It’s still his vision, but if it makes it better he’ll change it, he’s not afraid,” said Knudson, who said the script owes much to the input of Landau and Burstyn. “He’s very sort of ego-less.”

It’s all in line with Fackler’s predilection for creating a relaxed set where spot-on discipline coexists amid a way-cool, laidback sensibility that invites suggestions. On location for Lovely he exhibited the same playful, informal vibe he does on his videos: whether going “yeah, yeah” to indicate he likes something or pulling on a can of Moen between takes or doing a private, Joe Cocker dance watching scenes or saying to his DP setting up a shot, “Feelin’ good then? Then let’s kick ass!”

Fackler’s totally of his Generation Y culture, just don’t mistake his nonchalance for slacker mentality. He’s all about the work. He carved a career out-of-thin-air directing videos for Saddle Creek recording artists. His shorts netted the attention and backing of Altman. He cobbled together casts, crews and sets, often doing every job himself, before Lovely. He hung in there six years waiting for this moment, working at his family’s business, Shirley’s Diner, to pay the bills.

“If there’s ever a roadblock you can always get around it. It’s just a matter of taking the time…and not giving up. I wanted the roadblocks. I was like, Bring ‘em on, because I had a lot of ambition and I still do. I  guess it’s just something that I always thought anything is possible. It’s like the naive child in me never left me. I love it. I try to get everyone else around me to feel the same way.”

It was in an L.A. editing room where the jumble of material he shot for Lovely finally came into focus.

“The film from script to screen went through a lot,” he said. “I tried every possible edit. That’s why we ended up editing two months more than we thought we were. But luckily, you know, everyone — producers and investors – were supportive of that process, They didn’t put that much pressure on me because they saw that the film was pretty good, they liked it, and so they allowed us to do it. I ended up throwing the dreams out all together because they weren’t working, and using the experimental lighting scenes because they ended up looking so good.

“I have no regret cutting things I shot. I love the film I have. I love cutting stuff. My philosophy while editing was to not be attached to anything. Once I lived by that rule, everything came free. What matters is making the best film possible, always.”

That mature-beyond-his-years attitude drew Altman to be his mentor. Altman, whose North Sea Films produced Lovely with Knudson and Jay Van Hoy’s Parts and Labor, credits Fackler for hanging in there and doing what’s best for the project, saying: “it’s taken a great deal of patience. Poor Nik, he really does want to see this get released.” Whatever happens, Fackler’s satisfied with what he’s wrought.

“I like to take children’s themes that anyone from any age can understand and then put them in these like really harsh realities of what life can be like. Lovely, Still is very much written to evoke some kind of feeling. It takes place during Christmas time and it deals with family and love. It’s multi-layered. For some people that may be a happy feeling and for others it may be depressing. Art is trying to create a new feeling you’ve never felt before. You watch a film and you leave the film feeling a new way. You may not have a name for the feeling, but it’s new.

“That’s all I can hope for.”

He recently collaborated with cult comic strip-graphic novel artist Tony Millionaire on a script adaptation of Millionaire’s Uncle Gabby. “I can’t wait to bring existentialism and poetry to the children’s film genre,” said Fackler. ”I’m also excited to work with puppetry. It will be like playing with toys! ALL DAY LONG!”

Altman, Knudson and Co. have informal first-look rights on Fackler projects.The same producers who’ve had his back on Lovely look forward to a long association. “Like Dana (Altman), we want to continue working with Nik and we want to create a family sort of, so he feels protected, so he can make the movies he wants to make for the rest of his career,” said Knudson. Radical, man.

Kooky Swoosie: Actress Swoosie Kurtz conquers Broadway, film, television

June 6, 2010 4 comments

It’s always a pleasure to interview a star you have admired.  That certainly was the case when I did a phone interview with actress Swoosie Kurtz.  The occasion was a Tony nomination for her role in Frozen, a drama co-produced by friends and family in her native Omaha, which if you’ve been reading my article posts you know by now is my hometown and place of residence.  She was every bit the fun and funny bright spirit I had come to expect.  The Omaha connection extended to her having worked with Alexander Payne on his debut feature, Citizen Ruth, which was shot here. My own career has intersected with Payne, whom I have been covering since he completed that project in the mid-1990s.  As I write this, I am about to call Payne to arrange a face-to-face interview with him about his recent shoot of The Descendants in Hawaii, where he just wrapped on Friday.  One final Omaha connection involving Swoosie is my having written about the Omaha company that co-produced Frozen and my scripting a documentary that that same company shot and edited.  Small world.

My Swoosie piece appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com).

 

 

 

 

Kooky Swoosie: Actress Swoosie Kurtz conquers Broadway, film, television

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Frozen
Omaha native Swoosie Kurtz, that sometimes kooky stage, film and television actress with the dizzy name to match, is dead serious about her work. The depth of this consummate artist’s craft is on full display in the current Broadway drama Frozen, in which she plays a mother coming to grips with the void of her missing daughter, whose terrible fate she doesn’t know for 20 years.

The story revolves around the daughter’s disappearance and how this event connects the girl, the mother, the serial killer that took her and the therapist trying to discover what set this tragedy in motion. The theme of child abuse looms large in the killer’s own past and drives him to revisit his horror on others. Brian O’Byrne won a Best Actor Tony for his performance as the killer. Critics are calling Kurtz’s Tony-nominated portrayal of the shattered mother a tour de force.

 

 

Brian O’Bryne and Swoosie Kurtz in Frozen

 

 

“My character goes through this 20-year journey of having her child taken and not knowing she’s dead. She goes through all the stages — mourning, anger, depression — and, finally, into acceptance, but in a very beautiful way. The second act of the play, particularly, is uplifting and life-affirming and redemptive,” said Kurtz.

Her process is a melding of the interior Method approach that uses emotional exploration and the more classical exterior approach that focuses on body, voice, movement, makeup, et cetera. “What works best for me is a kind of working from the outside in. When I can picture a character — how they sit, how they walk, the kind of clothes they wear — it tells me a lot about the inside of the character. The process is partly intuitive and partly technique. I think a lot of actors starting out today rely too much on the intuitive and the instinctual. You have to learn your craft,” she said in a 1999 Tony Awards Online interview.

Roots
Born in Omaha as the only child to a war hero father and society matron mother, she did part of her growing up here — attending Field Club School — before her family moved west. Her career military father, the late Col. Frank Kurtz, was the most decorated U.S. airman of World War II. She was named after the B-24 bomber he flew, dubbed the Swoose after a Kay Kyser song about a half swan, half goose. Before the war, Col. Kurtz was already famous as a world class platform diver. He won a bronze medal in the 1932 Olympics and competed in the ‘36 Berlin Games.

Her mother, the former Margo Rogers, authored a book, My Rival the Sky, about being the wife of an absent war hero. Margo hailed from an old money Nebraska family headed by her father, Arthur Rogers, a cattle tycoon who headed the Omaha Livestock Commission in the stockyards’ heyday. Kurtz recalls him taking her to the yards, plopping her atop a horse and playfully telling her to “wrangle those cattle. I weighed about 45 pounds, but because he told me to do it, I thought I could. I never questioned it.” Her enterprising grandma, Gigi Rogers (formerly Conant), built three downtown hotels — the Conant, the Sanford and the Henshaw.

Kurtz had one familial tie to show biz. A maternal great uncle, Homer Conant, was a set and costume designer for legendary impresarios Ziegfeld and Shubert in 1920s New York. “So, I’m revisiting the scene of the crime here on Broadway,” she said.

Kurtz stayed with her grandparents in Omaha when her much-traveled parents were away on missions and war bond drives. Of her grandparents, she said, “They were a huge influence on me in my formative years. They were incredible. They had this big country house that my mom grew up in and I partly grew up in. When I was in town doing Citizen Ruth (Alexander Payne’s 1996 film), I went to the house, just to see it, and it brought back amazing memories to revisit it.”

Her father’s many transfers meant frequent moves for her and her family. Being an only child forced her to cultivate her imagination. “I would play different games with myself and become different people and talk to myself in different voices. The characters would talk to each other. Only children have their own way of survival.”

A Eureka Moment
The theater first enchanted her when, as a kid, she attended Broadway plays with her folks. Her earliest stage acting came at Hollywood High. “I was in this drama class at Hollywood High and I did this scene from Dark Victory or some other Bette Davis movie and it was like, Whoah. Something fell into place in that moment and clicked and it was like, I can communicate with people this way better than I can on my own. It was just a eureka moment.” She began formal dramatic studies at the University of Southern California, where her parents graduated, before crossing the pond to complete her training at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. There, she fully immersed herself in acting.

If anything, her Tony-nominated turn in Frozen is a reminder of Kurtz’s versatility and penchant for sinking her teeth into challenging roles. Much of her best-known work has seen her essay women-on-the-edge-of-a-nervous-breakdown in plays by some of the world’s greatest living dramaturgists. Her whimsical, lost souls are tinged with a deep well of sadness and display a sharp wit.

Among her stage triumphs are her turns as Gwen in Lanford Wilson’s The Fifth of July and as Amy John Guare’s The House of Blue Leaves. Her many film portrayals include: a hockey groupie in Slap Shot; the wry hooker in George Roy Hill’s The World According to Garp; the frothy wife in A Shock to the System; the ambitious mother in Stephen Frears’s Dangerous Liaisons; “the world’s laziest woman” in David Byrnes’s True Stories; and a scheming abortion war fanatic in Payne’s Citizen Ruth. For television, there was her Emmy Award-winning portrayal of high society living, cancer surviving Alex in the popular NBC-TV series Sisters and a socialite dying of AIDS in the HBO drama And the Band Played On.

Dangerous Ground
Even though its subject matter put her off, she felt compelled to do Frozen. The play’s executive producer is an Omaha cousin, Thompson Rogers, whose Oberon Properties owns the screen rights. “This play just knocked the breath out of me,” she said. “I hadn’t read anything like this ever. I think the issues of child abuse hit me the hardest. What struck me on my first reading of the play is that the serial killer character of Ralph, who takes my daughter, has been horribly abused as a child. And I firmly believe what the play is hypothesizing is that when children are abused…certain parts of their brain get stunted and the part that has empathy and compassion and remorse simply doesn’t develop in the way that it should.”

Playwright Bryony Lavery’s disarming examination of abuse, trauma, loss, regret, forgiveness and grace drew her in. “Just the sheer poetry of the way this subject is handled,” she said. “It’s a subject we see all the time on television and, so, we think we know all about it, and then this play comes along and presents this in a way that defies any expectation you have.”

She knew Frozen was a must-do project when reading it unnerved her. “When something scares me as much as this play did, I have to do it,” she said. “It’s so dangerous, this piece. It’s so risky. I thought, How are we going to rehearse this play? How the hell do you work on something like this and not just be a wreck? And, actually, we laughed a lot in rehearsal, which sounds really irreverent, but that was the whole key — to be irreverent about the material. Because the audience’s experience of it is very different from ours. We have to do it and go through it and it’s up to them to have the emotional response.”

Kurtz believes in challenging the gods rather than playing it safe. She recalls the time she essayed identical twins in Paula Vogel’s play The Mineola Twins, which not only required her to be two separate people, but to be on stage for all but a few seconds. Again, she asked herself, How am I going to do this? As usual, the motivation of the challenge allowed her to find a way to make it work. That discovery and accomplishment, she said, is what makes the journey into the abyss worthwhile. “And then it’s such a great feeling when you prove to yourself that you can,” she said. “You’re like, You know what? I did it. I took the leap.”

Making real the ultra-sensitive, bereaved, even mad characters she inhabits means muting the obvious comic notes to express the inner beauty. It’s about being nonjudgmental “and also having great compassion for the character,” she said. “I always find I turn a corner in rehearsal when somehow the character moves me.”

She said she learned not to play the fool when the legendary Jerry Zaks, with whom she worked on House of Blue Leaves, gave her “the best piece of direction I ever got. In my mind, I thought, I have to let the audience know right away that this woman, Amy, is a little out of touch with reality. I had this line, ‘Is it light yet?’ And I was doing it kind of spooky, like a strange woman would. And Jerry said, ‘Swoose, you are the happiest, most normal housewife in Queens.’ It was a brilliant thing that resonated through that whole piece and everything I do because people who are on the edge or neurotic or insane think they’re totally normal. And it’s that everydayness or normalcy what is sometimes so shocking.”

Citizen Ruth
If ever a performance has embodied the power of subtlety over histrionics it’s her rendering of Diane Siegler in Citizen Ruth. In this one character, Kurtz plays an arc of extreme types, but believably so within the framework of Diane’s fanaticsm. When we and the title character, Ruth Stoops (Laura Dern) first meet Diane, she appears to be a prim holier-than-thou pro-life advocate. Then, as we and Ruth learn, it turns out Diane’s only posing as a pro-lifer, but in reality is an openly gay pro-choice agitator who’s infiltrated the enemy camp in order to spy and reek carnage on their campaign. Diane’s hilarious “coming out,” complete with removing her dowdy wig and eye glasses to show her true identity and sympathies, is all the funnier and more surprising because Kurtz underplays it so matter-of-factly. “What was so great about that was I got to do play two people,” said Kurtz.

 

Swoosie Kurtz, Laura Dern, and Kelly Preston in 1996's "Citizen Ruth."

Swoosie Kurtz, Laura Dern, Kelly Preston from Citizen Ruth

 

 

She was impressed with fellow Omahan Alexander Payne, who co-wrote Citizen Ruth and made it his feature film directing debut. “He was so grounded and so real in his approach to everything,” she said. “Well, you know, he’s from Omaha. But he is so smart, on so many levels, that I think he sometimes had a plan in mind that we didn’t know about, and we didn’t have to know about it. He had his map in his head very clearly, but he was also very open to experimentation and open to whatever was happening in the moment.

“If we happened to ad-lib something, he was delighted with it and very often would use something. He just came up with these great sort of subversive, out-of-the-box ideas. He’d just throw some curve at us right before the take and it’d be something I would never have thought of in a million years.”

As an example, she recalls a scene in the kitchen at the country house where she and her lover (Kelly Preston), are putting up Ruth Stoops. The phone rings and Kurtz’s Diane Siegler “answers the phone as the lesbian liberal activist and then” — when it turns out the caller’s a pro-lifer — “I put on my (eye) glasses in order to talk to her. And that was Alexander’s idea. And I thought, Oh, my God. What an incredibly bizarre and amazing idea” to have her put her defense/disguise back on.

Payne is equally impressed with her. “I remember her as being so delightful and cooperative and professional. She knows her dialog. She comes prepared. She has good ideas. Highly directable. I mean, she’s a total pro. And she’s funny,” he said.

The film, still unappreciated among general movie audiences, is a favorite of hers. “I’ve never seen a movie like it. It’s just unto itself. It’s an amazing film,” she said.

Feeling the Most Alive on Stage
Kurtz has been nominated for eight Emmys (winning one for Carol and Company) and has stolen scenes in dozens of big and small screen pics, but her stage work is what makes her a living legend. She has two Best Actress Tonys to her credit (for Fifth of July and House of Blue Leaves) in addition to Drama Desk Awards, an Outer Critics Award and an Obie. She moves effortlessly from one medium to another, but the boards is her true calling. It’s where she feels most engaged as an artist.

“An actor on stage has more responsibility than in any other medium,” she said. “You are so much more responsible for what happens out there on the stage. Film is definitely the director’s medium. They shape the film. They take what of your performance they want. They choose what the audience is looking at at any particular point. Your face may not even be on camera at that moment. On stage, you control everything. You control your body, your voice…whether the audience is seeing your profile or the front or back of you. You control how loud you are. You control the timing of everything.

“I’m not sayng film and television are easier by any means, because they’re all enormously challenging, But, ultimately, you are much more accountable in the theater for what happens that night on stage.”

Acting, for Kurtz, feeds her like nothing else. “It’s when I feel most alive,” she said. “I definitely think when I’m acting I’m my true self. You know how in therapy they talk about your true self? I think that joy just comes out. I mean, I was on stage the other night thinking, I’m so happy right now. I’m so alive.” Where real life once seemed boring compared to acting’s hyper intensity, she sees it differently now.

“I’m getting a lot more enjoyment now out of real life. Thank God, because there’s a lot of that around,” she said, unleashing her happy, kooky, bright spirit’s laugh.

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