I am sharing my El Perico story on the remainder of the Cinemateca series at Film Streams, Every two years Latin America motion pictures take center stage during the Cinemateca series that Film Streams hosts with OLLAS, the Office of Latino and Latin American Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. The 2016 Cinemateca series held at the Ruth Sokolof Theater at 1340 Mike Fahey Street in North Downtown has a few weeks left. Tuesday nights showcase adult-themed features, including tonight’s showing of “Viva” from Cuba. Sample free food and refreshments related to the country of origin before the show and stick around for the post-screening panel.
NOTE: Tonight’s (Tuesday, September 13) showing of “Viva: is sold out.
NOTE: The Guatemalan film “Ixcanul” that showed earlier in the series is having a special return engagement screening on Friday, September 30.
Check out the Cinemateca schedule at–
Cinemateca series trains lens on diverse films and themes
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in El Perico
This year’s sampling of Latin American motion pictures in the biennial Cinemateca series at Film Streams is heavy on fiction, though a much anticipated documentary is also featured.
Cinemateca’s been part of Film Streams since the North Downtown art cinema’s 2008 start. This fifth collaboration with the Office of Latino and Latin American Studies (OLLAS) at the University of Nebraska at Omaha includes five feature films for adult audiences and two features for families.
Each adult-themed feature has a single Tuesday night screening at 7, followed by a panel discussion.
Pre-show tapas from local Latino eateries will be served.
The family pics have multiple screening dates and times.
The 2016 curated series presents films from the United States, Cuba, Argentina, Brazil, Spain and Guatemala. The current series already screened the urban Spanish black comedy My Big Night and the indigenous Guatemalan drama Ixcanul.
The remaining schedule is:
OLLAS interim director Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado called this 2015 Cuban-Irish co-production “a very beautiful movie,” adding, “I’ve seen Viva twice already but I can’t wait to see it again.” Hector Medina stars as Havana drag club hairdresser Jesus, whose performing dream gets sidetracked when his estranged father shows up. “Viva is a film of multiple story-lines anybody can latch onto, whether the drag culture in Havana, the dynamics of a father and son or the socio-economics of Cuban society in flux. It’s among the best films to come out of Cuba.”
Medina will be Cinemateca’s special guest at the screening.
This 2015 Argentine drama is based on the true story of a seemingly typical middle class family operating a large, violent kidnapping ring. Benjamin-Alvarado said, “I like movies based on true stories and I want to see El Clan because it’s going to be wild.”
When originally released in 1984 this documentary about the vital Puerto Rican and Dominican inhabitants of Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood received little fanfare. But since the film’s rediscovery and restoration it’s become an archival treasure and talking point because it captures what the area was like before gentrification displaced minority residents. “It’s kind of this cautionary tale about what’s lost when communities are gentrified,” Benjamin-Alvarado said.
September 8,10, 11 and 15
Boy & the World
This silent, hand-drawn 2013 animated film from Brazil follows a rural boy searching for his father in the big city.
September 18 and 22
A privileged boy who gets lost in a Havana slum is befriended by his poor counterpart in this 2011 Cuban live-action film. Benjamin-Alvarado’s colleague at UNO, Steven Torres, said, “Jonathan and I really enjoyed the film. We wanted to bring it to Film Streams before but we couldn’t find a version with English subtitles and the exhibition rights were restricted. We finally worked things out with the director to screen the film with English subtitles. It’s an interesting film from many different standpoints because these two kids come to terms dealing with one another and working together to find solutions as they try to reconcile their very different backgrounds.”
There is free admission to all Habanastation screenings.
Torres said Cinemateca is intentionally diverse “We always try to include films from different countries and provide a variety of film traditions and genres to tap into different audiences. We try to think in inclusive term with films that might be aesthetically pleasing but might also have some content that could lead to interesting discussion.”
Benjamin-Alvarado said a vetting process winnows more than 100 prospective titles to the final seven. Even when there’s consensus, films are not always available due to rights- licensing issues. He said this year organizers were able to book their top choices. “We have quality films across the board. We think it’s a pretty special series. The audience is going to be in for a treat with each of the films.”
For cinephile Benjamin-Alvarado, Cinemateca represents Film Streams’s “ability to bring to the community the universality of the human experience.” He said, “It may be in a disparate location under very interesting conditions, yet it really breaks down to the essence of who we are as humans. Cinemateca offers people opportunities to explore connections to our shared humanity. These films offer glimpses into different cultures and situations that spark conversation. It’s a celebration of the filmmaking and an exploration into the lives of people we wouldn’t otherwise experience. We find they’re so much like us.” That reflective mirror, he said is “the beauty of film.”
He loves that Cinemateca is a showcase for “the Spanish language” and for “the quality of (Latin American) filmmaking that continues to grow and expand.”
Fillm Streams founder-director Rachel Jacobson said Cinemateca “has been one of our most enduring and fulfilling community partnerships.” She added, “OLLAS not only gets our mission and how to help fulfill it by programming interesting and diverse selections and complementing discussions, they have actually helped to shape the way we program.”
For showtimes and tickets, visit http://www.filmstreams.org.
For as long as the movies have been around, Omaha has had a cinema culture of one kind or another. Back in the day, when neighborhood theaters dotted the landscape and grand movie palaces still operated, you could reasonably say that the city’s cinema culture – at least in terms of the exhibition and viewing of movies – was at its peak. This would have been true from the 1920s through the early 1950s. There were theaters all over the city then. Television then began rearing its ugly head and neighborhood theaters started closing. However, a new dimension in moviegoing emerged with the arrival of drive-in theaters and the opening of one of the nation’s few Cinerama theaters, the Indian Hills. Additionally, uiversity and museum sponsored film series became in vogue. I helped run two of these series – one at UNO and one at the Joslyn Art Musuem. There were even art cinema oprations here before Film Streams. I was associated with the longest-lived of these, the New Cinema Cooperative. Thus, for a period of a couple decades or so, Omaha boasted a rich mix of moviegoing options that simply doesn’t exist today in the same way. Of course, so much has changed. The neighborhood theaters, drive-ins and grand palaces are nearly all gone or being used for other purposes. The Indian Hills is gone. The university and museum film series are no more. But there are some currents happening that may bring back the past. The metro’s last remaining neighborhood theater still being used to exhibit movies, the Dundee Theater, closed for remodeling and was on the verge of never reopening again until it landed in the hands of Film Streams. Thanks to its new owners and managers, the Dundee will indeed see new life again. Concurrently, the 40th Street Theater has recently been renovated and reopened after being inactive and unseen for 65 years, although this former vaudeville house turned movie theater is being used for live peformances rather than screenings. That could always change. The old Benson Theatre may have new life again if the funds needed for its renovation are secured. Some new movie viewing options have sprung up in such event-destination style venues as Alamo Drafthouse Cinema. The Omaha Film Festival has made a nice contribution to the cinema scene. More than any single entity, Film Streams raised the film culture here.
Outside of the exhibition-viewing realm, the biggest differecet in film culture enrichment these days is all the local filmmaking going on. It’s only in the last 20 years but really more in the last decade and ever more that the technology and means to film production have become highly accessible and affordable. These are, with a few notable exceptions, very small indie projects that fly under the radar but they do give filmmakers experience in practicing their craft and the work does get seen and does find audiences, some of it more than others. Of course, the phenomenon of Alexander Payne, followed by Nik Fackler, has brought Hollywood A-list talent to town and given locals opportunities to work with that talent. Now, some new filmmakers on the investing, producing and artistic sides of the industry are developing projects unlike anything seen here before. Parallel with that movement is the increasing number of locals who are making it in the industry, forging careers in television and film, and some of these folks are coming back here to do things, which is another new wrinkle to the story. If more follow, then a depth of skill sets, connections, finances and faciltiies may build up here to finally give Omaha and greater Nebraska a true film infrastructure. The biggest missing piece, however, remains tax incentives for filmmaking. People are working on making that happen, too.
All of this is background and context for my new Omaha Cinema Culture story in the August 2016 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com).
Omaha Cinema Culture Provides Diverse Screen Landscape
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appearing in the August 2016 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)
If there is an Omaha Cinema Culture, it cuts across consumer, exhibitor, artist, aspirational experiences. Being far from traditional film centers poses certain barriers, but rich offerings and showplaces exist. Natives pursue and some achieve screen careers. It’s been this way since the industry’s start.
In addition to many name actors, Nebraska’s produced studio heads (Darryl Zanuck), network execs (Lew Hunter), filmmakers (Joan Micklin Silver) and producers (Monty Ross). Alexander Payne is the only native A-list talent who brings work here. He cut his teeth in local art houses, then studied film at UCLA before embarking on his acclaimed writer-director journey that’s seen five of his seven features shot in part or entirely here.
Omaha filmmaker and educator Mark Hoeger said Payne’s insistence on setting and shooting movies here is what distinguishes him from his Nebraska counterparts.
Fellow filmmaker Nik Fackler (Lovely, Still) said, “I wouldn’t have been inspired to make my own films if it wasn’t for filmmakers like Alexander Payne, Mike Hill and Dana Altman. It fuels the fire of excitement for young filmmakers. I was an extra on Election and after being on set for a day, I realized I wanted to be a director.
Hoeger said, “In an industry more akin to the lottery, seeing those winners is essential to keeping the dream alive.”
Nebraska Film Officer Laurie Richards said Payne’s in-state shoots have an impact.
“Locals get hired, locations used, hotel rooms booked, cars and trucks rented, food-entertainment providers procured.”
Then there are branding opportunities for the state, the city and the various other towns and locations utilized.
Other natives with industry clout , such as creator-executive producer of The Blacklist , Jon Bokenkamp, as well as Gabrielle Union (Being Mary Jane), Marg Helgenberger or Andrew Rannells could conceivably bring projects here.
Former Nerbaska state senator Colby Coash, who acts in local movies, said, “Hollywood is full of Nebraskans looking for opportunities to return to their home state to share their art.”
Matt Sobel did return to make Take Me to the River. Erich Hover did the same with It Snows All the Time.
Nebraska Cinema Project principals Kevin McMahon and
Randy Goodwin are Hollywood veterans hoping features they’re developing build a sustainable in-state film industry.
Chad Bishoff’s bi-coastal and Omaha-based Syncretic Entertainment is producing a TV pilot to be set and shot in Omaha.
Film-TV actor John Beasley of Omaha found financing to greenlight a $20 million feature with A-list pedigree he’s producing on local sports legend Marlin Briscoe.
Coash said, “Payne, Beasley and others are great role models for Nebraska artists.”
Payne also enriches the cinema culture by curating series at Film Streams and bringing major figures (Laura Dern, Debra Winger, Steven Soderbergh, Jane Fonda, David O. Russell, Bruce Dern) for its Feature Event.
Film Streams is an established cultural center in its North Downtown Ruth Sokolof Theater digs. As the metro’s first and only fully dedicated art cinema, it’s the hub and “home base for the hard core community of cinephiles,” Hoeger said.
With the metro’s last remaining neighborhood cinema, the Dundee Theater, now under its management, Film Streams educational-community programming will extend to midtown. Reader film critic Ryan Syrek said Film Streams’ impact “can’t really be overstated,” adding, “It’s night and day. Before, smaller films simply never came to Omaha. We can now enjoy the movies shown on the coasts. Their repertory series do an excellent job filling in cinematic gaps.”
Syrek said the Dundee satellite location opening late 2017-early 2018 is “a big deal because right now you have to go downtown to see art-house movies.” Having that venue again after it closed is a boon to “cinema lovers,” he said.
Any must-see movies Film Streams misses usually make it to the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center in Lincoln.
Other viewing options include the Henry Doorly Zoo’s Lozier IMAX Theatre and a plethora of outdoor screenings metro-wide. Bruce Crawford revives classic films twice a year with the old ballyhoo. Marcus Midtown, Ak-Sar-Ben and Alamo Drafthouse cinema feature enhanced amenities. Historic theaters in Kearney and Scottsbluff have been preserved.
Rachel Jacobson left Omaha only to fall so hard in love with sharing cinema art and history she returned to found and run Film Streams. Filiing the seats is a constant challenge, “You need to create a special experience for people to choose to leave their home,” she said. She doesn’t do it with frills, but with relevant, inventive, niche programs that engage ideas.
“I really love people who are frequent attendees but did not consider themselves movie lovers before we came along. I’m also impressed by people who have been inspired by the content they’ve seen on screen. Urban farmers who learned about global food issues watching Food, Inc. or folks working with refugees inspired by a documentary we showed. It’s amazing how much impact creating a community around film can have beyond the arts and culture scene.”
As a nod to and outlet for a burgeoning Nebraska New Wave, the Omaha Film Festival’s added a local feature showcase similar to what Film Streams offers. Mark Hoeger said, “What I love about the Omaha Film Festival is what it does to highlight local films. which means you see some stuff that’s not very good. But it’s also just really fun to see what local people are coming up with, and some of it’s really quite nice.”
Local filmmakers also have exhibit opportunities at the White Light City and Prairie Lights festivals in Fremont and Grand Island, respectively. Eastern Nebraska Film Office director Stacy Heatherly said “festivals not only offer local filmmakers a platform to screen their films, they offer collective support.”
A one-off theater showing is easier than before, Hoeger said, because in today’s digitized environment a filmmaker can have a high quality image projected from a disc or flash drive. Fackler appreciates the access cineplex managers provide in “helping fan the flames of ‘film as art’ exposure.” He added, “I like that they support filmmakers and create relationships with them.”
Don’t expect seeing Mike Hill, longtime co-editor of Ron Howard’s films, at the theater.
“I very rarely go to movies anymore,” Hill said. “I get my entertainment from Netflix and TV. “I guess that is my cinema culture now. Breaking Bad, Fargo, House of Cards, Peaky Blinders, True Detective, Game of Thrones, Ray Donovan are cinematic entertainments vastly superior to most theatrical releases. So there is obviously a lot of talent out there. It’s just a different delivery system.”
Hoeger said the followings some new media content acquires, paired with the means of production being affordable and accessible, reflects a decentralized, democratized production-distribution shift. He predicts the music model that finds even major artists posting work online “is going to happen in film.” The Holy Grail big budget movie is “a product increasingly on the way out” as the norm,” he said. He expects more micro projects to come out of local-regional markets like Omaha.
“I can see down the road where community film production is just as normal a thing as community theater production. What was cost prohibitive even 10 years ago is not anymore and we have enough people with the right skill-set to do that.”
World class mentors are as near as Oscar-winning Omaha residents Payne, Hill and (cinematographer) Mauro Fiore. Others with serious credits reside or maintain close ties here.
The old model still works. One with new legs is L.A. and Omaha-based Night Fox Entertainment. CEO Timothy Christian and local partners find investors for Indiewood features the company helps finance and co-produce. New projects like East Texas Hot Links (Samuel L. Jackson is executive producing) may take Night Fox more on the lead production end. Filming here is possible, but lack of incentives makes it tough.
Mark Hoeger’s worked with the Nebraska Film Association and others to muster support for state tax incentives as Hollywood bait. Those efforts stalled but a new tact has gained traction.
“We’re working with the Department of Economic Development to come up with a plan that stays away from any parochial view of attracting ‘real’ moves to Nebraska. Instead, we want to find ways that encourage and support true local productions – everything from commercials to Web series to documentaries to narrative films. The emphasis is on encouraging young creative minds to stay and work here.”
He said Gov. Pete Ricketts recognizes film-TV-Web production as an economic engine. There is consensus now, Hoeger said, that content producers are entrepreneurs whose value-add this brain-drained, resource-strapped state cannot afford losing.
Fremont’s implemented its own incentives package for film production. Laurie Richards said statewide incentives remain elusive minus “a concerted effort by all islands of filmmaking across the state.” Colby Coash said, “Gaining tax incentives has been a challenge – not because they don’t work or aren’t valuable, but because they aren’t prioritized like incentives for agriculture and manufacturing. Lawmakers are starting to see film as a more viable industry that has real impact on economic development and jobs. The trend seems to be more of a focus on regional support where a film may have a tourism value.”
While aspiring filmmakers enjoy a robust Omaha Cinema Culture for seeing films and crewing on them, formal education lags. Jacobson said Film Streams fills some gaps and looks to do more at the Dundee site.
“We are growing our film education programs all around film history and criticism and media literacy. Now open almost a decade, the thing I’m most proud of is meeting young adults who grew up attending our free student night and education programs who are pursuing filmmaking. I love hearing someone was inspired to work in film when they saw their first Kubrick film on the big screen at the Ruth Sokolof Theater.”
She added, “I’d like to see other organizations develop filmmaking programs. There is a film studies minor at Creighton and film production classes at Metro. UNO is working on a film studies minor. It would be great for one of the major universities to establish a BA in film or even an MFA program for visual arts. We have far to go in film production ed.”
There’s no ideal cinema culture outside New York or L.A. Natives take what they can from home. Some leave, some stay and others return to realize cinema dreams right here.
Nebraska Film Currents
©by Leo Adam Biga
Monday night’s David O. Russell-Alexander Payne cinema summit got me to thinking about past film royalty visits to Nebraska. In the annals of Neb. film history, precious few notable Hollywood figures have come here to shoot or to make public appearances or for that matter to make private appearances. I don’t claim to have an exhaustive history of these cinema drop-ins, but the ones that come to mind, include:
Much of the MGM 1938 classic film Boys Town was shot in Boys Town and greater Omaha, which brought director Norman Taurog and stars Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney here, and all of them, along with studio czars, came for the world premiere here; Read about it at-
Cecil B. DeMille, Barbara Stanwyck, Joel McCrea and other principals from the 1939 film Union Pacifc came for the world premiere here.
Robert Taylor hunted at Ducklore Lodge and may have been a guest at the Storz Mansion on Farnam Street.
James Stewart was also a guest at Storz Mansion parties.
In the mid-1950s Henry Fonda and Dorothy McGuire, both at their peak fame, came to do performances of The Country Girl as a benefit to fund construction of the new Omaha Community Playhouse – each was an OCP alum – and Henry’s daughter Jane was part of the cast as well; Henry Fonda came back many times to support the Playhouse and the Stuhr Museum.
In 1965 Betty Grable starred in the national touring company production of Hello, Dolly at the Omaha Music Hall. Another national tour of Dolly starred Carol Channing at the Orpheum Theater.
In 1967 Otto Preminger was one of two guests of honor at a Creighton University film festival – the other was experimental filmmaker Stan Brackhage.
A year later Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Shirley Knight, James Caan and Robert Duvall came for the last few weeks shooting on the road movie, The Rain People, which Coppola wrote and directed; Lucas was along for the ride to document the making of the film; in the ensuing years Robert Duvall returned to Neb. several times to make the documentary We’re Not the Jet Set about the rambunctious Ogallala-area ranch-rodeo family, the Petersons; Read about all this at-
Jane Fonda, who did part of her growing up in Omaha, came for the regional premiere of On Golden Pond at the Orpheum Theater; some 30 years later she sat where David O. Russell did for an interview Alexander Payne did with her at the Holland.
Marlon Brando paid a visit to his birthplace and hometown in the 1980s and did an awkward but entertaining television interview with Peter Citron.
Joan Micklin Silver (Hester Street, Crossing Delancey) came back to her home state to accept a Sheldon Film Theater tribute in Lincoln; read one of my many pieces on Joan at-
Peter Fonda, who’s been known to pass through unannounced, picked up the same award from the Sheldon.
Jack Nicholson, Shirley MacLaine, Debra Winger and Jeff Daniels were in and around Lincoln making the James Brooks film Terms of Endearment; Winger and then Neb. Governor Bob Kerrey became romantically involved and were frequently seen together in Lincoln and Omaha.
Too Wong Foo filmed here with Wesley Snipes, Patrick Swayze, and John Leguizamo in and out of drag.
Sean Penn filmed The Indian Runner in and around Plattsmouth with principal cast members Viggo Mortensen, David Morse, Patricia Arquette, Charles Bronson, Sandy Dennis, Dennis Hopper and Co.; Penn returned as an actor for The Assassination of Richard Nixon written by Omaha native Kevin Kennedy.
Alexander Payne has directed four of his six features here and those projects have brought a gallery of notables to Omaha and thereabouts; Citizen Ruth (Laura Dern, Kurtwood Smith, Mary Kay Place, Kelly Preston, Swoosie Kurtz, Burt Reynolds, Tippie Hedren, Kenneth Mars); Election (Matthew Broderick, Reese Witherspoon); About Schmidt (Jack Nicholson, Kathy Bates); Nebraska (Bruce Dern, Will Forte, Stacy Keach); Buy my book about Payne and his work at-
Payne has brought Laura Dern, Debra Winger, Steven Soderbergh, Jane Fonda, the principal cast of Nebraska and most recently David O. Russell as the special guest for the Film Streams Feature event; Read my pieces about Payne’s latest Film Streams cinema conversations at-
Bruce Crawford has actually hosted more cinema legends in Omaha than Payne, having brought Ray Harryhausen, Janet Leigh, Patricia Neal, John Landis,Debbie Reynolds, Shirley Jones, Patty Duke and most recently Tippi Hedren; Read some of my interviews with these legends at-https://leoadambiga.wordpress.com/…/09/06/unforgettable-patricia-n…/ and https://leoadambiga.wordpress.com/…/hollywood-legend-debbi…/
Bruce Crawford with Debbie Reynolds
Gabrielle Union visits her hometown of Omaha now and again but never for any film function; Read two of my profiles of her at-
Yolonda Ross (Go for Sisters) has been getting back more frequently to her shared hometown of Omaha for film related events; Read my profiles of her at-
Nick Nolte made a surprise appearance at his Omaha Westside High School class reunion a few years ago.
Nick Fackler worked with Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn, among others, on his Lovely, Still made in his hometown of Omaha; Read two of my stories about Nick and Lovely, Still at-
EXTRAS: I have interviewed several more film notables who have passed through Nebraska, including Robert Duvall, James Caan, Shirley Knight, Laura Dern, Bruce Dern, Bill Cosby, Mickey Rooney, Danny Glover, Swoosie Kurtz, Marg Helgenberger, Dick Cavett and Jon Jost; my inteviews with them can all be found on my blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, with the exception of Rooney and Helgenberger.
And I have interviewed all three living Oscar winners who reside here: Mauro Fiore, Mike Hill and Alexander Payne, whom I’ve interviewed dozens of times. My pieces about these film figures are also on my blog.
Masters David O. Russell and Alexander Payne matched wits at Film Streams Feature VI event
©by Leo Adam Biga
NOTE: My story about the parralel careers of Payne and Russell that appeared in advance of Feature VI can be found on this blog.
The smart banter between David O. Russell and Alexander Payne at last night’s Film Streams Feature VI event in Omaha gave a glimpse into why these two cinema masters have enjoyed a long friendship. They are both brilliant in their own way. Highly educated and well-read, yet deeply in touch with gut instincts. They both come from ethnic American backgrounds. The both had lengthy experiences abroad. They’re both steeped in classic cinema. As good as they are at creating images, the written word is everything for them. They both extract great performances from their actors.
They are both urbane men with dry wits. But where Payne seems a bit more guarded or stiff, at least in public settings like these, Russell seems somewhat looser. Where Payne is a very well grounded and considered person, Russell comes off as more idiosyncratic and certainly more neurotic, almost as a virile variant of the middle-aged Woody Allen.
Their nearly parallel careers give them a certain relationship by proximity since each emerged in the mid-1990s as new filmmakers to be watched and each has experienced similar fast ascents, followed by uneasy hiatuses, giving way to recent strong runs that have cemented their places in the top ranks of writer-directors. As they discussed in their conversation last night and as is readily evident in their work, each is a humanistic storyteller. What wasn’t discussed and what is also clearly seen in their work is that time and time again each returns to themes of people in conflict with society or their family or the group. Their protagonists are all at war with someone or something and on a search for meaning or redemption or revenge or getting-what’s-mine. Even with their careers on a major roll, they seem to think they’ve just figured out who they are as filmmakers and to suggest that the best is yet to come, though they also acknowledge that nothing is guaranteed in the fickle business of making films.
Of all the Film Streams Feature events (I’ve seen five of the six), this was the most spontaneous of these annual gatherings when Payne or sometimes Kurt Andersen engages a special film guest in conversation before a live audience at the Holland Performing Arts Center. Much of the spontaneity this time had to do with the fact that Payne, as he indicated in his opening remarks, did no preparation for the event. That’s because he and Russell go back 15 years or so and they do know each other and their work well enough to just be real and go with the flow up on stage. Part of it was just two old friends ccomparing notes. Payne asked probing questions about Russell’s motivations, inspirations, methodologies, and the like. Sometimes Russell returned the favor to ask Payne questions. Before Payne could even get to any of his questions though Russell, as he did several times about various things on his mind, went off on a riff about Omaha and Payne’s “secret tunnel to Omaha,” where he said Payne is “like a super cinema hero.” Russell described how his appearance in Omaha came to be. It seems that Russell was being badgered by the organizer of the Capri Film Festival in Italy to appear there. He’d been a guest at Capri before but he neither had the time nor inclination to go again, and so he thought Payne might be a good fill-in for him. Russell said he broached the option with Payne but Payne said he was no more interested in Capri than Russell. Then Payne switched everything around by asking Russell to be the guest of honor at Feature VI. One favor had been replaced by another. Russell said upon arriving here he observed all “the levels of plaids and pastels” and “kind-faced Midwestern people,” prompting him to tell Payne, “I felt like I was in one of your movies.” In a short but intense series of stops around the city Russell got to see the home of Omaha Steaks, which it turns out was a kick for him because he said he’s been ordering steaks from there for years for his father and now that Russell has discovered the company’s products extend well beyond steaks he’s going to ply his old man with seafood and desserts. “I bet he won’t see that coming,” he deadpanned. Then he went off on a weird but hilarious description of visitng the offices of husband-and-wife architects Michael and Laura Alley, the co-chairs for the event, and how at one point the Alleys and the Simons from Omaha Steaks were sitting, posed-like, in a glass booth that reminded him of sculptures in an “art installation.”
Russell also referred to Payne’s apartment at the Paxton Manor as “your very flat, very spacious prairie home.”
Last but not least he opined about his instant romance with the Jackson St. Books store in the Old Market, where he said he knew upon entering the place “I’m going to do some damage in there.” He said he picked up several things for friends and then he turned to Payne to say, “And I got you something. I’m going to save it for the end, because that’s showmanship.”
There was an extended discussion about, as Payne put it, “How do we search for ourselves through the films we make?” Russell, who earlier said, “I have a very childlike nature,” answered that he’s come to realize, “I’m a romantic.” He said amidst the every day anguish and horror of life being lived he must find meaning in the journey and discover passion for the pleasures of life, whether true love or fine wine or good food or engaging conversation or interesting people. “Existential despair is a privilege. I’ve learned that lesson.” He asserted his interest in making movies, not films, that touch people’s hearts. “I’ll carry that Frank Capra banner all the way.”
He referred to the one misstep in his filmography, I Heart Huckabees, which has actually become a cult classic, as variously “my mid-life crisis movie” and “the train wreck movie.” He said he made it at a time when he was too analytical in his approach to his art. “You can overthink something. That’s not a good thing. I just think I overthought it.” He said now that he’s in his 50s he’s in a better place then he had been for a while. “I realized more who I was at 17 than when I was 40.” He said at age 40 he was in a kind of “captivity.” Now that he’s rediscovered himself in his 50s, he said, “I wouldn’t trade it for anything – the wisdom.”
Payne described how he was already an admirer of Russell’s work in Flirting with Disaster but then was astonished by what Russell achieved in Three Kings, when Russell moved from the intimate family comedy-dramas of his first two films to the large scale, epic masculine action of an adventure movie set amidst desert warfare. Russell said, “There’s kind of a beauty to making a movie on location.” Payne inquired if Russell was intimidated taking on such a big, sprawling project, and Russell replied, “I think all good endeavors are frightening.”
Payne said he was blown away again when Russell made the leap from I Heart Huckabees to The Fighter. Payne said that at the time of The Fighter’s release he actually ran into Russell and told him, “Since when did you become a master filmmaker?” Payne spoke with admiration for the “very aggressive and sophisticated” way Russell uses hand-held cameras in-tight to create intimacy and immediacy with his characters and for the way he captures the visceral sense of movement and action in his films. Russell said it took time for him to arrive at how he wanted to use Steadicam and to achieve great depth of focus. He acknowledged that much of his maturation as a filmmaker is because he never stops learning or striving to be better. “It’s a great thing to learn your craft,” he said.
Russell described what he’s after in making his storytelling urgent for audiences: “I want you to be propelled and grabbed by the throat.”
He referred to going through a “ponderous period” of filmmaking when his shooting schedules were longer and his decision-making process was more protracted. After gaining more clarity he said, “I became very lean. Thirty-three days on The Fighter.” The same for Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle. Payne expressed envy at how fast and effective Russell can work. Russell said he now has the mind set for his work as – “I approach it like a gun is at my head and that this is the last chance I have to get it right. We must feel grateful for the privilege of what we get to do.”
Russell also spoke candidly about the diffcult period he went through in that six-year hiatus between Huckabees and The Fighter. His personal life was full of challenges then and professionally he coulnd’t get a project off the ground. He sort of lost himself then and had to find himself again. His confidence, too. His ego took a hit as he went from the top of studios’ lists to mid-way down those same lists. “I was at my lowest time. I had been humbled. That can happen quickly in Hollywood. I don’t need to learn that lesson again.” He described how Mark Wahlberg, whom he helped make a star, returned the favor when he asked Russell to direct The Fighter after Darren Aronofsky left the project.
Payne observed how much Russell loves his characters and actors. He asked if Russell ever writes specificially for certain actors and Russell said he didn’t used to but that he increasingly does, especially as he’s come to work with a company of actors from film to film to film, acknowledging that Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale have become muses whose gifts he loves to explore and push to new levels. “I do feel a kinship and a connection to them.” He said the rich canvas of life these actors flesh out in his films is all around us in the people we encounter every day. “”Simply being in love with a character is almost enough reason to make a movie.” He said his own colorful Italian-Russian extended family of people who love each other and hate each other “is a gold mine I haven’t even begin to draw from” but that he clearly intends to mine.
Payne said, “Making a film is an extension of my life. Once we’re shooting our raw material is human behavior.” Truth in behavior and speech is what Payne and Russell go after and are very good at getting right.
Russell flipped it around and asked Payne, “What about you?” (meaning, does Payne write for certain actors) and Payne said, “Rarely, I write more literary characters,” adding though that he wrote with Jack Nicholson in mind for About Schmidt and George Clooney in mind for The Descendants.
In taking some questions audience members wrote out, Russell responded how he feels about remakes, saying, “I’m allergic to remakes.” As to whether there are any films he wished he had made, he promptly answered, “The Godfather,” adding, “The best pornography to me is to watch The Godfather and pretend that I made it.”
Nesr the end of the program Russell, clearly eager to unveil to us, the audience, and to Payne, his host and friend, the surprises he had in store, asked for stagehands to bring out a newly pressed album with music from American Hustle and a phonograph to play it on. “It’s a like the Letterman show now,” he cracked, as Payne undid the plastic sheathing around the album and placed the disc ona turntable and set the needle on the Duke Ellington and Electic Light Orchestra tracks, respectively. “Now it’s entertaining,” Russell observed. “Look how sexy it is,” he said, referring to the vinyl he and Payne help up at one point . Later, when the charactersitc scratches sounded, Russell said, “That’s psrt of the fun – that sound. That’s the fun of a record.”
Then Russell presented Payne with two books, one an early edition of the Sinclair Lewis satire, Babbit, and the other a Phelps County (Neb.) History in two volumes.
The evening wrapped by Payne asking Russell what we can expect next from him and the filmmaker mentioned the project Joy, a true story to star Jennifer Lawrence that is to get underway in late 2015 and a family story he’s developing as well. ” And for you Mr. Payne?” Russell asked. Payne confirmed what was recently reported in the media – that he is “an exploratory period for Downsizing, his big budget “science-fictiony” project with Matt Damon slated to be the lead, at least on a handshake deal, and with Alec Baldwin on board in a part as well. But as Payne cautioned, nothing is greenlit and there are dozens of more parts to cast and much more financing to secure. If it should come together, Payne would make Downsizing in late 2016, and the locations are yet to be finalized, too. You can bet that Payne will want to shoot at least part of it in Neb., but as he stated while he’s been ‘victorious so far” in getting the four films he wanted to make here made here “I may not be”in the future. Russell practically chided state legislators here for not offering tax credits to make it more attractive for Hollywood to make projects here . He said in no uncertain terms that film production “does create jobs for truck drivers and for carpenters and it does provide added business for restaurants and hotels.” It is a fight Payne has been waging for years in his home state.
Payne thanked Russell for being his guest and the gracious Russell offered, “It was a gift to me.”
New American Cinema auteurs, colleagues and friends David O. Russell and Alexander Payne to headline Feature VI
Omaha’s film culture is richer for having Alexander Payne as a native son who cares about growing the cinema landscape in his hometown. His commitment to this cultivation and nuturing is perhaps best evidenced by the active hand he takes with the annual Feature fundraiser for Film Streams, the Omaha art cinema he supports. Because he can, each year he asks another world-class film figure to join him on stage as his special guest for a cinema conversation. In the past, it’s been Laura Dern, Debra Winger, Steven Soderbergh, Jane Fonda, and the principal cast of Nebraska. This year it’s his fellow auteur David O. Russell (Three Kings, The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle). The Nov. 10 event at the Holland Performing Arts Center will add to the string of impressive film confabs he’s made happen. This is an especially appealing event because Payne and Russell, each of whom is a writer-directos, have enjoyed parallel careers as leaders of the New American Cinema and the Indiewood movement. Their respective bodies of work the last 15 years rank arguably as the best of any American filmmakers in that period. Given that they’re in their early 50s and given that both feel as though they’re only just now coming into their own as complete filmmakers, they could very well continue leading the vanguard of cinema in this country for another decade or two. My story for The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/) previewing the Film Streams event is largely drawn from an interview I did with Russell.
New American Cinema auteurs, colleagues and friends David O. Russell and Alexander Payne to headline Feature VI
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/)
Alexander Payne is in a position to ask any world class film figure to be his guest of honor at the Film Streams Feature event, the art cinema’s annual big fund raiser. Laura Dern, Debra Winger, Steven Soderbergh, Jane Fonda and the principal cast of Nebraska have all come at his invitation to appear on stage at the Holland Performing Arts Center.
For the Monday, Nov. 10 Feature VI Payne will engage writer-director David O. Russell in conversation. As fellow auteur leaders in the vanguard of New American Cinema they make a matched set. Since emerging in the mid-1990s their careers have followed similar paths. Each is on a roll with their last several pics, all critically acclaimed and awards-laden.
Both infuse an urgent humanity in their work that revolves around the various social units people aggregate in. Each delights in distilling the emotionally-charged, seriocomic conflicts that play out among groups – where the people driving you crazy are the same people you love.
Payne and Russell were right in the mix of edgy American indie filmmakers to arrive in the 1990s. Kathryn Bigelow, Steven Soderbergh, Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino led the way. Then a whole new wave followed in their wake, including Russell, Payne, Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson, Spike Jonze and Darren Aronofsky. Russell and Payne announced themselves as talents to be watched in close order. Russell broke first with the incest comedy Spanking the Monkey in 1994. In 1996 Russell caused a stir with Flirting with Disaster and Payne with his abortion comedy Citizen Ruth. In ’99, both garnered attention: Russell with Three Kings and Payne with Election.
The 2000s have seen each evolve into bankable independents whose work spans audiences and resists trends. Russell’s recent run of The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle parallels Payne’s own run of About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants and Nebraska.
A repertory series of Russell works continues at Film Streams through November.
Film Streams executive director Rachel Jacobson says the Feature event gives attendees “the amazing opportunity to listen in on a conversation between two of the world’s most celebrated contemporary directors.” She adds, “It’s interesting how David and Alexander’s careers have paralleled one another. Both started out with independent films on ridiculously taboo subjects. They both premiered their first features at the Sundance Film Festival during the renaissance of American independent film.” She says Russell’s recent films “show an artist at the peak of his form.” A major difference in approach, she notes, is that unlike Payne Russell works with a consistent ensemble of actors. “I love how that consistency creates a world unto itself.”
In the same way Payne feels he’s just now coming into his own as a filmmaker, Russell does, too. Both had long periods in between pics: six years passed from Payne’s Sideways to Descendants and from Russell’s I Heart Huckabees to The Fighter. Each went through a divorce in that period. But where Payne was busy producing and writing, Russell got out of his head and in touch with his heart.
“I’m grateful things have become clearer to me and in some ways I feel it’s springtime for me and that’s a very beautiful thing because you know that could easily not be the case,” Russell says. “I think it’s hard in any endeavor, especially in the art of storytelling, to stay fresh. You always have to find new wells of inspiration and I understand many of the greats who have not. We can look back and say, Well, they did their great works and then they kind of couldn’t find it again. So I feel like I’ve found renewed clarity and heart for certain kinds of stories.
“It’s still very hard to do them well. I still have to try every moment like it’s my last opportunity on Earth. The only way it can come out as well as I hope it will is to act like it could very easily not come out that way every step of the way, which makes for a lot work.”
Like the best of their New Wave contemporaries Russell and Payne didn’t just make a splash and then disappear. Rather, they reestablish themselves as relevant storytellers with something to say again and again. The way they’ve asserted their strong, singular visions and voices is reminiscent of what Hal Ashby, Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese did in the 1970s and 1980s.
Russell and Payne have mostly weathered the volatile film industry that eventually envelopes everyone. Russell’s one commercial flop, Huckabees, enjoys a cult following. The same for Payne’s Citizen Ruth and Election. Nebraska’s sure to find a growing audience as more people discover it via the home and digital markets.
All of which is to say these two filmmakers at the top of their game should have much to talk about. They’re each steeled in classic cinema from the 1970s and before. Given they are from the same generation of writer-directors and leaders of Indiewood, it’s no surprise they’ve found themselves in the same circles.
Russell says, “We’ve done Q-and-As and we’ve had a lot of fun with them,” including a CineFamily session available on Vimeo.
The two once chummed around. The new millennium had just dawned and they were identified as rising cinema stars and it only made sense they would fall in with each other.
“We started being on each other’s radars socially and professionally in 1999,” Payne says, “when he had Three Kings and I had Election. 1999 was like a debutante’s ball year of independent directors. Wes Anderson’s Rushmore had come out the end of ’98. I had Election, David had Three Kings. Kimberly Peirce had Boys Don’t Cry. It was a year when this younger crop of directors were having some degree of mainstream success. And I adored Three Kings. Wow. if he could make a jump from Flirting with Disaster, a madcap family comedy, to a very beautifully directed film like Three Kings that’s when I knew he had a depth of talent.
“I’m always in favor of someone who wants to do comic human films. His films are always intelligent, entertaining – a wonderful combination of humanity and comic showmanship. We became friends and I’ve always supported his work. I admire him and I’m just so proud and thrilled to be hosting him at Film Streams.”
And Russell’s returned the favor.
“Yes, and it’s been really been fun, I think we’ve both enjoyed that,” Russell says. “When Alexander had The Descendants come out I was really happy to sit by his side at a couple events, chat with him, have a glass of wine, cheer him on and tell him how much I love the picture. And he was very kind to me likewise about the last three pictures.”
But it was when the two men first came to the fore, they were particularly close.
“We sort of hung out a bit together in that time around 2000,” Russell confirms. “I remember the Museum of Modern Art began this series for filmmakers of our generation and I felt very squeamish about doing it. I said I’ll only do it if you name the series Works in Progress because I consider myself a work in progress and they said OK and they started this series where I talked about my films with my actors and stuff.”
That inaugural 2002 event was called Work in Progress: An Evening with David O. Russell.
“Alexander came, Wes Anderson came, Kimberly Peirce came, Sofia Coppola came. A lot of actors came. I’m probably forgetting some other filmmakers who were there. There we were all together and it was a great feeling of camaraderie.
“And then the next years I ended up helping tap them (other filmmakers) to do it, so the next year Alexander Payne did it (that 2003 event was called A Work in Progress; The Films of Alexander Payne). And then Sofia did it and it kind of went from there.”
Russell, who as a young man waited tables at MOMA events, grew up in Larchmont, New York in a Russian-Italian American household. His father worked for publishing giant Simon and Schuster. His mother was a homemaker and political activist.
Much like Payne he was steeped in movies and literature.
“I grew up watching movies. I would go to my local movie theater in the next town and I’d watch a movie with movie stars and so I am interested in movies and movie stars that kind of grab me and don’t let me go and leave me indelibly moved. It’s like a wonderful record I can go back and play again in part or in whole.”
Asked whose work principally influenced him then and he rattles off the names Frank Capra, Coppola and Scorsese, adding with a laugh, “There, I named every Italian-American.”
Like Payne he initially went to college not to study film but to broaden his mind, At Amherst College in Mass, he studied English under novelist Robert Stone and religion under professor Robert Thurman, father of actress Uma Thurman.
“I always wanted to be a writer – a novelist or a short fiction writer – since I was about 10 years old because my dad worked at Simon and Schuster. I actually kept doing it into my 20s, you know, and I found it very hard. Meanwhile, I would memorize sections of movies as sort of a way of learning narrative and telling stories.”
He committed to memory sections of It’s a Wonderful Life and Chinatown, for example.
Again, like Payne, he went abroad as a young man, in his case to teach English in Nicaragua. Once back in the States he moved to Boston, where he did social justice work.
“I worked in low income areas, working for tenants rights, also teaching English as a second language.”
Unlike Payne, Russell never went to film school. His film immersion came haunting video stores and revival houses and learning the rudiments of the medium as a production assistant on the PBS television series Smithsonian World in Washington, D.C. Ever more feeling the pull of film, he made a documentary short. Boston to Panama (1985), that examined the lives of immigrant workers.
“Then I started to crossover thinking maybe I wanted to become a (narrative) filmmaker, which seemed like kind of a nutty idea because I’d never thought of that before as much as I loved movies.”
His narrative debut, the comedy short Bingo Inferno (1987) showed at the Sundance Film Festival. His next, the short Hairway to the Stars (1991), played Sundance and festivals in Seattle and London.
His feature debut, Spanking the Monkey, was a micro-budget production financed with private funding and grants. The dark humored Oedipal story concerns a young man marooned at home with his convalescing mother and the awkward longings they express. So, from the start, the family dynamic, dysfunctional and all, took precedence.
“I very much find community or family to be sort of an engine, a rocket engine, that leads to all avenues of humanity. All I know is that I think it works and it gets really intense and personal and complicated and funny and heartbreaking very quickly, so I love all of that. You know, I also love romance as I’ve discovered in my last three films.”
Family though is where it’s at for him. It may be a mother and son breaking taboos (Monkey), an extended family letting it all hang out (Flirting), U.S, Army soldiers searching for a fortune (Three Kings), a boxing clan’s ups and downs (The Fighter), a mentally ill son reconnecting with his father (Silver Linings) or a motley crew pulling a sting operation (American Hustle).
“In terms of my interests I know that I’m interested in romance and I know it includes a great intensity of predicaments that carries from one moment of the film to the next, meaning that it has an intensity to it and a propulsiveness to it that feels enveloping. And you have to maybe go back and watch it again or parts of it again to regather, but there’s never a moment where we are intentionally crafting the story that way.
“I mean, it’s nice to know what kind of movies you want to make and what kind of characters you want to render and what kind of actors you want to work with. And then I have a great love of music, a great love of camera movement that’s become a particular way of doing things that I’m still trying to learn how to make better. But at least it’s very clear when you know what path your on.”
Payne admires that Russell has “kept his own voice throughout them all,” adding, “Some of the same elements you see in Flirting with Disaster you see also in The Fighter, Silver Linings and American Hustle. His sense of dialogue and how he gets the camera in very close so that you’re standing with those characters or talking with them somehow. None of that has changed.”
Payne also likes how Russell balances the “larger circumstances” his characters find themselves in yet remains focused on the “eccentric details” of those situations and the personalities involved.
Russell says his own family’s strong personalities and rich heritage form a great template for him to overlay on the stories he tells.
“There’s a whole human opera of mine that extends back to Italy and Russia, to the Bronx and Brooklyn. There’s this tapestry of people. It’s a goldmine to me of rhythm, of music, of life, of romance, of food, of terrible things happening, of wonderful things happening, of traditions being passed, traditions being broken. All the things I care very deeply about in telling stories and as a person.
“I think I learned a great deal from my family before I even realized it. It’s sort of a great gift that you don’t realize, that I didn’t realize I had until much later in my career. Although it was obvious right at the beginning because I wrote that claustrophobic kind of quasi-horror $80,000 dollar trapped-in-the-house-with-your-mother movie (Monkey), which is almost like a horror movie, but it’s also funny, and that was all based on personal experiences I embroidered in great detail. There was a summer where my mother had trouble with her health. She had a car crash, And so that gave birth to that story.”
Flirting is another film where his real life resonated with his invention.
“There were moments when I saw my family the way we see the family in it, going through those chapters.”
He says Three Kings was “a departure” from the biological family thread and instead subverts the band of brothers conceit. He says Huckabees was “an attempt to create a parallel society little family of people but I don’t think my focus was where it ought to be in there,” adding, “Yet I never cease to be surprised by the young people, including Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings, Hustle)), who name that among their favorites of mine, which is baffling to me.
“And then the last three (films) are very much family-centered.”
The most personal of these to him is Silver Linings. Adapted from a novel, Russell emotionally connected with the characters because like the protagonist his own son Matt has bipolar disorder. Matt, who’s also had learning issues, has attended the Devereux Glenholme School in Conn., which serves young adults with special needs. Russell has been “very involved” at the school,” serving on a board. “I’m very invested in helping that school, plus the next experience for those kids who need to find pathways into work or higher education.”
Another educational institution he’s involved with is Ghetto Film School, a New York City public high school whose curriculum is cinema-based.
“It’s a very strong school in the Bronx. It became a crown jewel of Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s public school system in New York, It’s exciting that people are learning how to tell narrative and to tell stories. I always like to go talk to the students and teachers about what they’re doing. I’ve been on the board for 12 years. I’ve helped bring a lot of filmmakers and actors to go talk to them: Spike Jonze, Catherine Hardwick, Amy Adams. We have to get Alexander to go see them.”
Russell says 20th Century Fox co-COO James Murdoch “was so smitten by the project” he helped open an L.A. branch this past summer. Russell was there for its launch.
The filmmaker would be happy if a future script he wants to direct comes from a graduate. The same would be true of Alexander Payne. But the fact is each director usually writes his own scripts. Payne often says writing is the most onerous part of his creative process. Russell agrees but like Payne he sees it as a necessary chore to produce raw material for his films.
“I’m just coming out of a very intense writing period where I’ve been writing 15 hours a day for the last six months. I literally become a shut in. I went to some event for my younger son’s school and I just really felt like a-fish-out-of-water. I’d almost forgotten how to be out and about because your world becomes very narrow. It’s a very strange way to live because you’re basically living 15 hours a day in this narrative. You’re living in a movie all day, and that’s the only way I can do it to get it done. I have to make myself sit there all that time.
“So like Alexander it’s also my least favorite part of the process but you have to do it. You know you can’t get the iron ore or the diamonds out of the ground unless you do the back breaking work of digging into the ground, which is really difficult.”
Both filmmakers are weighing what their next projects will be. While Payne is reportedly trying to revive Downsizing, the project he abandoned after the financial crisis hit in 2008, Russell says, “There’s two stories we may be going into preproduction on soon. Those are the two things I’ve been working feverishly on for the last eight nine months. One is a large original story I don’t want to get into too much detail about but it involves family.”
The other, titled Joy, is based on the true story of Joy Mangano. The storyline reads something like Erin Brockovich: a struggling single mother of three surprises everyone when she finds success as an inventor and entrepreneur. Jennifer Lawrence is tabbed to star.
Russell says he’s eager for his visit here. “I can’t wait to come to Omaha. I’ve been reading about all the famous cinema people who are from Nebraska.” He hopes to find sites commemorating Marlon Brando and Fred Astaire, for example, but outside a street sign named for the former and a ballroom named for the latter, he’ll be disappointed.
He’ll be searching, too, for a local fix to feed his passion for video stores, which he feels should be preserved as cultural “hubs and meccas.” He helped create a nonprofit foundation for Santa Monica’s iconic Vidiots. “I’m trying to get the studios – and I’ve reached out to Alexander as well – to turn it into a place where they can feature the libraries of each studio and people can learn about cinema.”
The Feature event with Russell and Payne is at 7 p.m. For tickets and rep series details, visit http://www.filmstreams.org.
Alexander Payne’s Local Color: Payne and Co. Mine the Prairie Poetry of His Home State in New American Gothic Film, ‘Nebraska’
I’ve been anticipating Alexander Payne’s new film Nebraska for a very long time. Some years ago he let me read the script by Bob Nelson. I was moved to laughs and tears by it and ever since then I’ve eagerly awaited Payne’s interpretation of it on the screen. As I write this I’ve now seen the film twice and will soon be seeing it a third time. Its depth of emotion coupled with its visual black and white beauty and aching honesty set the film apart from just about anything out there by an American filmmaker today. I believe it to be Payne’s best work to date. I know a little something about the filmmaker, having closely covered him and his work since 1997. I have a book out with my collected jounralism about him titled Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film. It contains some two dozen of my Payne stories from 1998 through 2012 and soon I will be coming out with a new edition featuring my extensive Nebraska coverage. My latest story about the film is shared with you here. It recently appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com). I fully expect to file a new story about Nebraska come Academy Awards time, when the film should fare very well. You can find my earlier stories about Nebraska on this blog. I’ll salso be adding another Nebraska story I just finished for the New Horizons. Additionally, I will be posting extended interviews I did with Payne, Bruce Dern, Will Forte, Stacy Keach, Bob Nelson, cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, and producer Albert Berger.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Excerpt from a story that originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Local color, of the achingly human variety, is where Alexander Payne’s new black and white film Nebraska most deeply comes to life.
After fall festival premieres abroad and across the U.S., Payne’s coming home to show off the film named for his native state and primarily shot and set here. Nebraska had an exclusive limited run at Film Streams. On Nov. 24 Payne joins stars Bruce Dern and Will Forte at the Holland Performing Arts Center for the Film Streams fundraiser, Feature V, that will find the troika interviewed on stage by Studio 360 host and novelist Kurt Andersen.
The following day Payne and Dern travel to Norfolk, Neb., the production’s base camp last fall while the project filmed in nearby Hartington, Plainview and environs, to premiere the picture there.
Oscar-winner Payne is a stickler for the truth and with the by-turns elegiac and silly Nebraska he went to extreme lengths finding the people and places that ring true to his and screenwriter Bob Nelson’s vision of Midwest America.
“This is the most authentically Neb. feature film I’ve released to date,” says Payne, who previously made Citizen Ruth, Election and About Schmidt in-state.
Casting director John Jackson and Payne searched long and hard for the right players to animate the oddball yet familiar characters Nelson created on the page. In a rare star turn winning him much acclaim Bruce Dern so fully inhabits his old codger of a character, Woody Grant, that despite the actor’s well-known face and voice he disappears into the part to become just another of the story’s small town denizens.
Dern plays Woody as written: a taciturn man of stoic roots and repressed pain long alienated from everyone around him. Feeling a failure near the end of his life, he’s desperate for some validation and so gets it in his head that he’s a sweepstakes winner. His son David, played by Will Forte, takes him on an epic journey to claim the prize. Amid the missteps and detours comes discovery, empathy and closure. As their strained relationship warms the son gives his father a gift born of understanding, forgiveness and love.
One of the reasons Payne says Dern leapt to mind when he originally read the script a decade ago is that like the actor’s actress daughter Laura Dern, who starred in Payne’s feature debut Citizen Ruth, he doesn’t worry about what he looks like on screen. To convincingly play the gone-to-seed Woody the actor inhabiting the role had to look a wreck.
“Those Derns don’t have vanity,” Payne says admiringly. “They’ll do anything, they want to do anything. When working they’re more interested in hitting a certain level of truth, an often ugly truth or pathetic truth, and now you’re talking my language.”
About what made Dern the right fit, Payne says, “Bruce is a handsome guy when he’s cleaned up and obviously as you can see in the film when he’s not cleaned up he can really look like a coot and a weirdo. If you took many other actors and tried to do the same thing they’d look fake. The guy would have to portray someone cut off from others and lost in his own world. Woody’s probably been like that somewhat his whole life but as a young man they just thought he was reticent. Now he’s a coot and ornery and pissed off at himself that he hasn’t done anything with his life and now he’s about to start taking a dirt nap. I think that’s certainly what’s driving Woody’s crazy mission in some part.
“When I thought about who could communicate that I thought of Bruce.”
Payne felt Dern could express the two sides of Woody as both prick and pushover who can’t refuse doing favors, even if it means being taken advantage of. He also detected “a certain childlike nature” in Dern that aligned with Woody’s fragility.
“I think within Woody’s ornery crust there is something of a child – of a very disillusioned and disappointed child.”
Indeed, we first meet Woody as he’s running away from home.
“There’s also a sweetness about Woody and Bruce is a sweet guy. He hasn’t often played that.”
Dern acknowledges it’s a departure for him. “Throughout my career I’ve been flamboyant in a lot of roles, especially flamboyantly evil, and there’s a certain style that goes with that.” Nebraska called for him to be a dull, muted, passive presence.
“What the role demanded was a character who appeared to not be touched too much or too little,” he says, “and probably not touched at all. And if he touches other people it’s without planning to do it. He’s just who he is and he’s always going to be that way. I think he’s a fair man, Woody, and that’s another thing I based the character on a lot. Because he’s fair he believes what people tell him because he doesn’t know why anybody would want to lie to him about anything.”
The tangibles and intangibles of a character go into any casting decision.
“When you cast someone in a lead you’re not casting just his or her ability to act,” says Payne. “you’re casting the substance or essence of their person. There’s two things going on simultaneously seemingly contradictory but not. One is you want them to become that person in the script yet at the same time not act.”
Dern says Payne has an uncanny way of communicating what he wants, variously tapping “your strengths and weaknesses and sometimes invading your privacy” to extract the emotion or tone he’s after.
Actors Studio veteran Dern believes he achieved a progressive in-the-moment reality in Nebraska he’d never accomplished before on a film.
“I’ve always wanted to be a human being and just kind of acting-wise leave myself alone and not perform and I don’t think there’s really a moment in the movie where I perform – in other words take it above the context of what it really is. The first day of the movie Alexander said to me, ‘I’d like you to let Mr. Papamichael (cinematographer) and I do our jobs,’ meaning don’t show me anything, let me find it with the camera, and that’s what he did and that’s what you see.
“That doesn’t mean I wasn’t acting. It was as hard a role as I’ve had to take on but I feel I owed it to the material and to my career for just once in my life to try and have as many consecutive moment-to-moment pure moments of behavior. That’s what I began when I worked with Mr. Kazan and Mr. Strasberg in the Actor’s Studio – how much moment-to-moment real behavior can you have? And I think in Nebraska I’ve done far and away the most I’ve had in an entire film.”
Forte, a relative newcomer to acting after years writing for television, says he learned a lot from his co-star.
“Bruce would always say, ‘Just be truthful,’ and that always sounded like acting mumbo jumbo to me coming in but for some reason the way he would explain it and describe it it made sense. There’s such an honesty that comes from his performance and all the performances that it really taught me a lot to watch everyone work.”
Dern says Payne lived up to what his daughter Laura and his old acting chum Jack Nicholson, who starred in the director’s About Schmidt, told him about the filmmaker: “They both said in separate conversations he’ll be the best teammate you’ve ever had. They were right. I feel it’s the best team, overall, I’ve ever had.”
Payne, whose sets are famously relaxed, says he also casts with an eye to who will “be nice to work with” and contribute to the playfulness he believes essential to good filmmaking. “I want to be there to play. I don’t know exactly how it (any scene) should be, I’m there to sort of say, ‘Oh, well, let’s try this and let’s try that, nudging the machine toward a certain direction. It’s not all preconceived, you’re discovering it day by day, so I think you want actors who are willing to have a sense of, Let’s be playful and free. It’s all about having fun, and that will create something none of us have thought of exactly.”
Dern says he’s glad it took nearly a decade to get the film made – the project came to Payne as the filmmaker was setting up Sideways – because “I wasn’t ready to play this role a few years ago.” The passage of time put some more natural wear and tear on Dern, both physically and emotionally. The limp he walks with in the film is real, if exaggerated, and the way Woody leaves things unsaid is something Dern says he’s been guilty of himself and regrets.
Similarly, Payne’s personal life caught up with the experience of David in Nebraska as an adult child dealing with aging parents. Payne’s father is in a nursing home and his mother recently survived a serious health scare.
“I was able to make it quite personal in certain details related to David taking care of his older folks,” Payne says. “Everyone I know of my generation at that age has parents that are getting on and need a little special attention. We love them to death and they drive us crazy. How we take care of them and accommodate them and all those things, and how far do we extend ourselves to be dutiful and at what point do we cut it off, all those questions. It wound up being because of the time in my life when I was making it quite personal. The fact that I had that much more life experience for this film with respect to my parents, I think helps the film. It always helps a film if you can put some of yourself in there.”
Payne says the bottomed-out economy also enhanced the austere shooting style and stark look of the film, adding, “Those winds blew their way into the film as well and it becomes more of a modern-day Depression film.”
Undoubtedly some will take umbrage at the film’s portrayals of quirky. salt-of-the-earth types. But if the strong reception the picture’s received at the Cannes, Telluride and New York film festivals, among others, is any indication, than most audiences realize Payne and his collaborators sought archetype, not caricature in bringing to life small town inhabitants and the dysfunctional Grant family.
“I hope what people take away from this movie is his genuine love for Neb. because he really does love Neb.,” says Forte
Dern calls the film “a love poem” to Neb. from Payne.
Payne, Nelson, Jackson, Papamichael, editor Kevin Tent assorted other crew and the ensemble cast all committed to realizing authentic portraits of this comic-dramatic Midwest Gothic tale.
YOU CAN READ THE REST OF THE STORY IN THE SOON TO BE RELEASED NEW EDITION OF MY BOOK-
Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film, A Reporter’s Perspective
(The new edition encompasses the Oscar-winning filmmaker’s work from the mid-1990s through his new film Nebraska in 2013)
This compilation of my extensive articles about Payne and his work will be available in February 2014.
- Film Review: Nebraska (pop-break.com)
- ‘Nebraska’: Alexander Payne on Bruce Dern’s ‘perfect casting’ (latimes.com)
- ‘Nebraska’: Bruce Dern, movie deliver in a big way, critics say (latimes.com)
- Will Forte Talks NEBRASKA, His Greatest Fears During the Shoot, What he Learned from Bruce Dern, MACGRUBER 2, and More (collider.com)
- Actor Bruce Dern Gets Up Close And Personal In ‘Nebraska’ (npr.org)
- A Star Turn, at 77, in Alexander Payne’s ‘Nebraska’ (nytimes.com)
- Alexander Payne’s New Film ‘Nebraska’ Features Senior Cast and Aging Themes in Story Sure to Resonate with Many Viewers (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Casting director John Jackson helps build Alexander Payne’s film worlds (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)