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Prodigal filmmaker comes home again to screen new picture at Omaha Film Fest

March 27, 2018 Leave a comment

Prodigal filmmaker comes home again to screen new picture at Omaha Film Fest

 

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

The 13th Omaha Film Festival projects March 6-11 at Village Pointe Cinema with its eclectic mix of indie fare from around the world. But a film by Omaha native Dan Mirvish brings things home for area cineastes.

The fest’s opening and closing night films are prestige feature-length studio releases with big name stars: Borg McEnroe at 6 p.m. on March 6 and Beirut at 5:30 p.m. on March 11. The March 10 OFF Conference includes guest panels on Documentary Filmmaking, Writing for Pixar and Filmmaking in Nebraska. The March 11 Writers Theatre showcases live readings of scripts.

Mirvish, an L.A.-based director, will be at a 3:30 p.m. March 10 screening of his new narrative feature Bernard and Huey, whose script is by Pulitzer Prize-winner Jules Feiffer. The presence of indie veteran Mirvish, who co-founded Slamdance, is an important gesture for the local filmmaking community. He’s not only “one of our own” bringing back a well-reviewed new work with serious pedigree, but he’s emblematic of the inventive, resilient spirit that animates the indie industry.

The resourceful Mirvish is the author of The Cheerful Subversive’s Guide to Independent Filmmaking, an irreverent yet practical compendium of lessons learned over his 25-year filmmaking career.

Every Mirvish film – Omaha – The Movie (1995), Open House (2004), Between Us (2012) and now Bernard and Huey (2017) – has been an object lesson in opportunity meets accident meets persistence meets imagination. He cobbles together micro budget projects financed by friends and family, doubling locations and stealing shots in guerilla-style fashion.

How he came to make his latest took things to new extremes. The original script went unproduced when Feiffer wrote it decades ago. Then it vanished. Mirvish long admired his work as a cartoonist and scenarist. Feiffer’s adult cartoons in The Village Voice, The New Yorker and Playboy were hipster reads, Also a respected playwright (Little Murders), he adapted an unproduced play for what became the acclaimed Mike Nichols’ film Carnal Knowledge. He adapted Murders for Alan Arkin. He penned Popeye for Robert Altman.

Mirvish went to some lengths to track down the elusive script inspired by an old Feiffer cartoon series. The protagonists are similar to the lifelong male buddies in Carnal Knowledge, only these misogynists navigate a post sexual revolution-feminist age.

Just finding a copy of the script proved daunting as most players involved in trying to get it made decades earlier were dead. Upon rediscovering and reading it, Mirvish fell in love with the material.

“I thought it was a great satire on masculinity and men behaving badly. Kind of timeless characters and even more so now a timely theme,” Mirvish said. “I thought it was very funny and similar to my sense of humor.”

Even after securing the property and Feiffer’s blessing to develop it, lawyers had to clear rights. All this took time. Meanwhile, Feiffer was anxious to see a film finally realized from the script and was in no mood for delays or misfires this go-round.

“Once we got the rights cleared away jules was like I’m 87, let’s make this thing already.”

Mirvish detailed the whole backstory on the project’s Kickstarter campaign Web page.

He knows things could have gone wrong to sabotage the project but he never lost faith it would work out and, more importantly, he never let the process defeat him.

“I have fun with the process and that’s kind of what I say in the book. Look, if you’re not having fun doing all the stages of the game then you shouldn’t play because, you know, making films is not an intrinsically fun process all the time. It’s studded by long bouts of boredom, anxiety, stress and failure, so if you’re not finding the joy in that somewhere along the way, you probably shouldn’t be doing it.

“When it comes to casting, for example, other filmmakers may complain, ‘Oh, it’s a Hollywood game these agents are playing.’ Yeah, it’s a game and you should have fun playing it, too, and you just have to play it better than they do, and that’s kind of how you have to look at the whole process. Yeah, there’s going to be challenges and downsides to everything but as long as you’re having fun during the other moments. it’s worth doing. That’s my attitude.”

Mirvish also takes satisfaction in having “hung in there” to do what it took to get it made.

“When we were able to finally sign all the paperwork, then it really was off to the races. We had our Kickstarter campaign up within two months and were casting and financing and getting the film together. From that point it was actually a fairly quick process.”

His old producing partner and fellow Omaha native, Dana Altman, executive produced.

“Dana remembered Feiffer on the set of Popeye because Dana worked on that movie (for his grandfather Robert Altman), so there was that connection.”

Only minimal script changes were made.

Mirvish has a knack for attracting name talent to his little films and he did it again by getting two hot comedic actors: Jim Rash (Community) as Bernard and David Koechner (Anchorman) as Huey. Mirvish enjoyed having two leads with strong improv backgrounds: Koechner with Second City and SNL and Rash with The Groundlings. Rash is also a writer.

“It was just great having them around in rehearsal and then on set. We did four days dedicated to rehearsal, which is pretty rare even on a studio film.”

Flashbacks glimpse Bernard and Huey as young men and Mirvish found two actors, Jake O’Connor and Jay Renshaw, who make uncanny matches.

“Once we cast David and Jim, we had to look for younger versions of them, so we had an open casting call and we found these two terrific actors. The young guys really shadowed the older guys. That was a great experience for all four of them. They really developed this kind of big sibling-little sibling relationship and kind of picked up each other’s little quirks and things.

“Jules and I talked about how it wasn’t about the physical look of these characters. They didn’t have to look like the cartoon. We met with many actors who didn’t. Ironically, Rash and Koechner look almost exactly like the cartoon characters – next to each other especially. In the end credits you see some original Feiffer cartoons. It’s nice to see what these guys are supposed to look like and they really kind of do. I mean, to the point when Feiffer first saw Rash he was like, ‘He’s great, but couldn’t you find someone more handsome?’ because Bernard was always an autobiographical dopple-ganger for Feiffer himself.”

Mirvish grew fond of the eternally clever and young Feiffer. He’s pleased that “Jules really liked the movie and was very happy with the casting.” Feiffer remains prolific at 89. He just finished a new graphic novel and had a new musical open. “For a man of any age, he’s hard to keep up with. It’s a lot of fun whenever I see him because he’s always got these amazing stories.”

Character actor Richard Kind (Gotham), who personally knows Feiffer, has scene-stealing moments as Huey’s older brother Marty.

The women playing the female foils are receiving high praise for their performances: Mae Whitman (Parenthood) as Zelda; Sasha Alexander (Rizzoli & Isles) as Roz; Nancy Travis (Last Man Standing) as Mona; and Bellamy Young (Scandal) as Aggie.

Mirvish shot interiors in L.A. and exteriors in New York.

The film has a domestic distribution deal and awaits a foreign sales deal.

Mirvish hopes to return with the movie in the spring at the Dundee Theater – his neighborhood cinema growing up.

For complete OFF details, visit omahafilmfestival.org.

Hot Movie Takes Friday – Indie Film: UPDATED-EXPANDED

March 24, 2017 Leave a comment

Hot Movie Takes Friday

Indie Film

UPDATED-EXPANDED

©by Leo Adam Biga

Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

 

There’s a common misconception that indie films are something that only came into being in the last half-century when in fact indie filmmaking has been around in one form or another since the dawn of movies.

Several Nebraskans have demonstrated the indie spirit at the highest levels of cinema.

The very people who invented the motion picture industry were, by definition, independents. Granted, most of them were not filmmakers, but these maverick entrepreneurs took great personal risk to put their faith and money in a new medium. They were visionaries who saw the future and the artists working for them perfected a moving image film language that proved addictive. The original Hollywood czars and moguls were the greatest pop culture pushers who ever lived. Under their reign, the narrative motion picture was invented and it’s hooked every generation that’s followed. The Hollywood studio system became the model and center of film production. The genres that define the Hollywood movie, then and now, came out of that system and one of the great moguls of the Golden Age, Nebraska native Darryl F. Zanuck, was as responsible as anyone for shaping what the movies became by the projects he greenlighted and the ones he deep-sixed. The tastes and temperaments of these autocrats got reflected in the pictures their studios made but the best of these kingpins made exceptions to their rules and largely left the great filmmakers alone, which is to say they didn’t interfere with their work. If they did, the filmmakers by and large wouldn’t stand for it. After raising hell, the filmmakers usually got their way.

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Zanuck made his bones in Hollywood but as the old studio system with its longterm contracts and consolidated power began to wane and a more open system emerged, even Zanuck became an independent producer.

The fat-cat dream-making factories are from the whole Hollywood story. From the time the major studios came into existence to all the shakeups and permutations that have followed right on through today, small independent studios, production companies and indie filmmakers have variously worked alongside, for and in competition with the established studios.

Among the first titans of the fledgling American cinema were independent-minded artists such as D.W. Griffith, Charles Chaplin and Douglas Faribanks, who eventually formed their own studio, United Artists. Within the studio system itself, figures like Griffith, Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Cecil B. De Mille, Frank Capra and John Ford were virtually unassailable figures who fought for and gained as near to total creative control as filmmakers have ever enjoyed. Those and others like Howard Hawks, William Wyler and Alfred Hitchcock pretty much got to do whatever they wanted on their A pictures. Then there were the B movie masters who could often get away with even more creatively and dramatically speaking than their A picture counterparts because of the smaller budgets and loosened controls on their projects. That’s why post-World War II filmmakers like Sam Fuller, Joseph E. Lewis, Nicholas Ray, Budd Boetticher and Phil Carlson could inject their films with all sorts of provocative material amidst the conventions of genre pictures and thereby effectively circumvent the production code.

Maverick indie producers such as David O. Selznick, Sam Spiegel and Joseph E. Levine packaged together projects of distinction that the studios wouldn’t or couldn’t initiate themselves. Several actors teamed with producers and agents to form production companies that made projects outside the strictures of Hollywood. Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster were among the biggest name actors to follow this trend. Eventually, it became more and more common for actors to take on producing, even directing chores for select personal projects, to where if not the norm it certainly doesn’t take anyone by surprise anymore.

A Nebraskan by the name of Lynn Stalmaster put aside his acting career to become a casting direct when he saw an opportunity in the changing dynamics of Hollywood. Casting used to be a function within the old studio system. As the studios’ contracted employee rosters began to shrink and as television became a huge new production center, Stalmaster saw the future and an opportunity. He knew just as films needed someone to guide the casting, the explosion of dramatic television shows needed casting expertise as well and so he practically invented the independent casting director. He formed his own agency and pretty much had the new field to himself through the 1950s, when he mostly did TV, on through the ’60s, ’70s’ and even the ’80s, when more of his work was in features. He became the go-to casting director for many of top filmmakers, even for some indie artists. His pioneering role and his work casting countless TV shows, made for TV movies and feature films, including many then unknowns who became stars, earned him a well deserved honorary Oscar at the 2017 Academy Awards – the first Oscar awarded for casting.

 

Lynn Stalmaster

Lynn Stalmaster

Photo By Lance Dawes, Courtesy of AMPAS

 

In the ’50 and ’60s Stanley Kubrick pushed artistic freedom and daring thematic content to new limits as an independent commercial filmmaker tied to a studio. Roger Corman staked out ground as an indie producer-director whose low budget exploitation picks gave many film actors and filmmakers their start in the industry. In the ’70s Woody Allen got an unprecedented lifetime deal from two producers who gave him carte blanche to make his introspective comedies.

John Cassavetes helped usher in the indie filmmaker we identify today with his idiosyncratic takes on relationships that made his movies stand out from Hollywood fare.

Perhaps the purest form of indie filmmaking is the work done by underground and experimental filmmakers who have been around since cinema’s start. Of course, at the very start of motion pictures, all filmmkaers were by definition experimental because the medium was in the process of being invented and codified. Once film got established as a thing and eventually as a commerical industry, people far outside or on the fringes of that industry, many of them artists in other disciplines, boldly pushed cinema in new aesthetic and technical directions. The work of most of these filmmakers then or now doesn’t find a large audience but does make its way into art houses and festivals and is sometimes very influential across a wide spectrum of artists and filmmakers seeking new ways of seeing and doing things.  A few of these experimenters do find some relative mass exposure. Andy Warhol was an example. A more recent example is Godfrey Reggio, whose visionary documentary trilogy “Koyaanisqatsi,” “Powaqqatsi” and “Naqoyqatsi” have found receptive audiences the world over. Other filmmakers, like David Lynch and Jim McBride, have crossed over into more mainstream filmmaking without ever quite leaving behind their experimental or underground roots.

Nebraska native Harold “Doc” Edgerton made history for innovations he developed with the high speed camera, the multiflash, the stroboscope, nighttime photography, shadow photography and time lapse photography and other techniques for capturing images in new ways or acquiring images never before captured on film. He was an engineer and educator who combined science with art to create an entire new niche with his work.

Filmmakers like Philip Kaufman, Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese and many others found their distinctive voices as indie artists. Their early work represented formal and informal atttempts at discovering who they are as

Several filmmakers made breakthroughs into mainstream filmmaking on the success of indie projects, including George Romero, Jonathan Kaplan, Jonathan Demme, Omaha’s own Joan Micklin Silver, Spike Lee and Quentin Taratino.

If you don’t know the name of Joan Micklin Silver, you should. She mentored under veteran studio director Mark Robson on a picture (“Limbo”) he made of her screenplay about the wives of American airmen held in Vietnamese prisoner of war camps. Joan, a Central High graduate whose family owned Micklin Lumber, then wrote an original screenplay about the life of Jewish immigrants on New York’s Lower East Side in the early 20th century. She called it “Hester Street” and she shopped it around to all the studios in Hollywood as a property she would direct herself. They all rejected the project and her stipulation that she direct. Every studio had its reasons. The material was too ethnic, too obscure, it contained no action, it had no sex. Oh, and she insisted on making it in black and white,which is always a handy excuse to pass on a script. What the studios really objected to though was investing in a woman who would be making her feature film directing debut. Too risky.  As late as the late 1970s and through much of the 1980s there were only a handful of American women directing feature and made for TV movies. It was a position they were not entrusted with or encouraged to pursue. Women had a long track record as writers, editors, art directors,  wardrobe and makeup artists but outside of some late silent and early sound directors and then Ida Lapino in the ’50s. women were essentially shut out of directing. That’s what Joan faced but she wasn’t going to let it stop her.

 

Joan Micklin Silver

 

Long story short, Joan and her late husband Raphael financed the film’s production and post themselves and made an evocative period piece that they then tried to get a studio to pick up, but to no avail. That’s when the couple distributed the picture on their own and to their delight and the industry’s surprise the little movie found an audience theater by theater, city by city, until it became one of the big indie hits of that era. The film’s then-unknown lead, Carol Kane, was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actress. The film’s success helped Joan get her next few projects made (“Between the Lines,” “Chilly Scenes of Winter”) and she went on to make some popular movies, including “Loverboy,” and a companion piece to “Hester Street” called “Crossing Delancey” that updated the story of Jewish life on the Lower East Side to the late 20th century. Joan later went on to direct several made for cable films. But “Hester Street” will always remain her legacy because it helped women break the glass ceiling in Hollywood in directing. Its historic place in the annals of cinema is recognized by its inclusion in the U.S. Library of Congress collection. She’s now penning a book about the making of that landmark film. It’s important she document this herself, as only she knows the real story of what obstacles she had to contend with to get the film made and seen. She and Raphael persisted against all odds and their efforts not only paid off for them but in the doors it opened for women to work behind the camera.

The lines between true independent filmmakers and studio-bound filmmakers have increasingly blurred. Another Omahan, Alexander Payne, is one of the leaders of the Indiewood movement that encompasses most of the best filmmakers in America. Payne and his peers maintain strict creative control in developing, shooting and editing their films but depend on Hollywood financing to get them made and distributed. In this sense, Payne and Co. are really no different than those old Hollywood masters, only filmmakers in the past were studio contracted employees whereas contemporary filmmakers are decidedly not. But don’t assume that just because a filmmaker was under contract he or she had less freedom than today’s filmmakers. Believe me, nobody told Capra, Ford, Hitchcock, Wyler, or for that matter Huston of Kazan, what to do. They called the shots. And if you were a producer or executive who tried to impose things on them, you’d invariably lose the fight. Most of the really good filmmakers then and now stand so fiercely behind their convictions that few even dare to challenge them.

But also don’t assume that just because an indie filmmaker works outside the big studios he or she gets everything they want. The indies ultimately answer to somebody. There’s always a monied interest who can, if push comes to shove, force compromise or even take the picture out of the filmmaker’s hands. Almost by definition indie artists work on low budgets and the persons controlling those budgets can be real cheapskates who favor efficiency over aesthetics.

 

  • Director Alexander Payne grew up in Nebraska.
©Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

 

Payne is the rarest of the rare among contemporary American filmmakers in developing a body of work with a true auteurist sensibility that doesn’t pander to formulaic conventions or pat endings. His comedies play like dramas and they’re resolutely based in intimate human relationships between rather mundane people in very ordinary settings. Payne avoids all the trappings of Hollywood gloss but still makes his movies engaging, entertaining and enduring. Just think of the protagonists and plotlines of his movies and it’s a wonder he’s gotten any of them made:

Citizen Ruth–When a paint sealer inhalant addict with a penchant for having kids she can’t take care of gets pregnant again, she becomes the unlikely and unwilling pivot figure in the abortion debate.

Election–A frustrated high school teacher develops such a hate complex for a scheming student prepared to do anything to get ahead that he rigs a student election against her.

About Schmidt–Hen-pecked Warren Schmidt no sooner retires from the job that defined him than his wife dies and he discovers she cheated on him with his best friend. He hits the road to find himself. Suppressed feelings of anger, regret and loneliness surface in the most unexpected moments.

Sideways–A philandering groom to be and a loser teacher who’s a failed writer go on a wine country spree that turns disaster. Cheating Jack gets the scare of his life. Depressed Miles learns he can find love again.

The Descendants–As Matt King deals with the burden of a historic land trust whose future is in his hands, he learns from his oldest daughter that his comatose wife cheated on him. With his two girls in tow, Matt goes in search of answers and revenge and instead rediscovers his family.

Nebraska–An addled father bound and determined to collect a phantom sweepstakes prize revisits his painful past on a road trip his son David takes him on.

Downsizing–With planet Earth in peril, a means to miniaturize humans is found and Paul takes the leap into this new world only to find it’s no panacea or paradise.

Payne has the cache to make the films he wants to make and he responsibly delivers what he promises. His films are not huge box office hits but they generally recoup their costs and then some and garner prestige for their studios in the way of critical acclaim and award nominations. Payne has yet to stumble through six completed films. Even though “Downsizing” represents new territory for him as a sci-fi visual effects movie set in diverse locales and dealing with global issues, it’s still about relationships and the only question to be answered is how well Payne combines the scale with the intimacy.

Then there are filmmakers given the keys to the kingdom who, through a combination of their own egomania and studio neglect, bring near ruin to their projects and studios. I’m thinking of Orson Welles on “The Magnificent Ambersons,” Francis Ford Coppola on “One from the Heart”, Michael Cimino on “Heaven’s Gate,” Elaine May on “Ishtar” and Kevin Costner on “Thw Postman” and “Waterworld.” For all his maverick genius, Welles left behind several unfinished projects because he was persona non grata in Hollywood, where he was considered too great a risk, and thus he cobbled together financing in a haphazard on the fly manner that also caused him to interrupt the filming and sometimes move the principal location from one site to another, over a period of time, and then try to match the visual and audio components. Ironically, the last studio picture he directed, “Touch of Evil,” came in on budget and on time but Universal didn’t understand or opposed how he wanted it cut and they took it out of his hands. At that point in his career, he was a hired gun only given the job of helming the picture at the insistence of star Charlton Heston and so Welles didn’t enjoy anything like the final cut privileges he held on “Citizen Kane” at the beginning of his career.

Other mavericks had their work compromised and sometimes taken from them. Sam Peckinpah fought a lot of battles. He won some but he ended up losing more and by the end his own demons more than studio interference did him in.

The lesson here is that being an independent isn’t always a bed of roses.

Then again, every now and then a filmmaker comes out of nowhere to do something special. Keeping it local, another Omahan did that very thing when a script he originally wrote as a teenager eventually ended up in the hands of two Oscar-winning actors who both agreed to star in his directorial debut. The filmmaker is Nik Fackler, the actors are Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn and the film is “Lovely, Still.” It’s a good film. It didn’t do much business however and Fackler’s follow up film,” Sick Birds Die Easy,” though interesting, made even less traction. His film career is pretty much in limbo after he walked away from the medium to pursue his music. The word is he’s back focusing on film again.

 

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Other contemporary Nebraskans making splashes with their independent feature work include actor John Beasley, actress Yolonda Ross and writer-directors Dan Mirvish, Patrick Coyle, Charles Hood and James E. Duff.

These folks do really good work and once in a while magic happens, as with the Robert Duvall film “The Apostle” that Beasley co-starred in. It went on to be an indie hit and received great critical acclaim and major award recognition. Beasley is now producing a well-budgeted indie pic about fellow Omahan Marlin Briscoe. Omahan Timothy Christian is financing and producing indie pics with name stars through his own Night Fox Entertainment company. Most of the films these individuals make don’t achieve the kind of notoriety “The Apostle” did but that doesn’t mean the work isn’t good. For example, Ross co-starred in a film, “Go for Sisters,” by that great indie writer-director John Sayles and I’m sure very few of you reading this have heard of it and even fewer have seen it but it’s a really good film. Hood’s comedy “Night Owls” stands right up there with Payne’s early films. Same for Duff’s “Hank and Asha.”

Indie feature filmmaking on any budget isn’t for the faint of heart or easily dissuaded. It takes guts and smarts and lucky breaks. The financial rewards can be small and the recognition scant. But it’s all about a passion for the work and for telling stories that engage people.

Dope actress Yolonda Ross is nothing but versatile – from “The Get Down” to cinema cannibals to dog-eat-dog politics

October 18, 2016 2 comments

Dope actress Yolonda Ross from Omaha gave me some love for the new Reader (http://thereader.com)) article I wrote about her, her recurring role as a teacher in “The Get Down” and an inspirational teacher in her life–

“Hey Leo!! I saw The Reader. It looks great. Thanks for including the part about Mrs. Owens. She meant a lot to a lot of people. Thanks for the nice spread in The Reader.”

Just now featuring it on my blog, leoadambiga.com, where you can find several more pieces I’ve written about Yolonda as well as Gabrielle Union, John Beasley and dozens of other Omaha native screen and stage stars.

Love the photo of Yo going all glam. How about you? She’s that rare actress who can transform herself from role to role and go from high to low, serious to silly, hard to soft in a heartbeat.

 

Dope actress Yolonda Ross is nothing but versatile – from “The Get Down” to cinema cannibals to dog-eat-dog politics

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in October 2016 issue of The Reader (http://thereader.com)

Omaha Film Festival adds spotlight on Nebraska films

March 6, 2016 1 comment

If there ever has been the equivalent of a Nebraska New Wave in cinema, then the time may be now. That is the assertion or suggestion I make in this Reader (www.thereader.com) story about the 2016 Omaha Film Festival and its Nebraska Spotlight focus on homegrown films and filmmakers.

 

LEW POSTER

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Omaha Film Festival adds spotlight on Nebraska films

Nebraska New Wave in cinema featured at fest

Author of Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film

 

It used to be conversations about local filmmakers doing relevant work here began and ended with Alexander Payne and Nik Fackler. That’s changing now and the March 8-13 Omaha Film Festival (OFF) is evidence of it.

The 11-year-old fest, back for the third year at Marcus Village Pointe Cinema, is programming more selections with local ties courtesy its new Nebraska Spotlight lineup of feature-length narrative and documentary films. This acknowledgement that a Nebraska New Wave in cinema is upon us follows breakout work by homegrown filmmakers Dan Susman, James Duff, Patty Dillon, Charles Hood, Jim Fields, Dan Mirvish, Dana Altman, Yolonda Ross, Patrick Coyle, Charles Fairbanks, Jason Fischer and others. Spotlight now provides a dedicated platform for feature filmmakers and their films who have some link to this place.

The fest is not as parochial as this sounds, Most OFF entries have no Neb. connection whatsoever. But Spotlight is that showcase for emerging and established local filmmakers to shine.

Omaha indie rocker Tim Kasher is showing his feature writing-directorial debut No Resolution. Award-winning resident video photojournalist Mele Mason has a new documentary I Dream of an Omaha Where with a powerful local theme. OFF co-founder Jason Levering, who adapted Stephen King’s The Shining to the stage, is premiering a first feature he co-wrote and directed, Blind Luck.

Itinerant area actor Lonnie Senstock’s doc Once in a Lew Moon profiles Hollywood luminary Lew Hunter. Omaha thespian Erich Hover has produced a highly personal story drawn from his own life in It Snows All the Time. Writer-director Matt Sobel mined memories of Loup City family reunions for his first feature, Take Me to the River. It played Sundance last year.

 

It Snows All the Time 

March 9 @ 5:45 p.m.

Erich Hover’s passion project dramatizes his father’s real life struggle with frontotemporal dementia and how its debilitating effects have impacted the family. Hover shared the story with actor-writer-director Jay Giannone, who brought it to his writing partner, Eric Watson, a Darren Aronofsky collaborator. The resulting script by Giannone and Watson landed Brett Cullen as the father and Lesley Ann Warren as the wife. Hover plays a film version of himself in the film that Giannone directed. The name cast includes Omaha’s own John Beasley.

The pic shot in and around Omaha.

 

Black Luck

March 10 @ 8:30 p.m.

Jason Levering and David Weiss directed a script Levering wrote with Garrett Sheeks. The log line reads: “A hit man in hiding struggles to keep his monsters at bay when his dark past comes calling.” Levering says, “Although the subject matter seems like familiar ground, our take is more story-driven than action-oriented, offering the audience a thriller with a mystery at its core and several twists and turns. We did some non-traditional things with our storytelling. We went theChinatown route with our main character, whose face is covered in bandages for most of the film due to the beatings his suffers.”

The film shot in Omaha with a local cast.

 

No Resolution

March 11 @ 6 p.m.

“I’ve been wanting to shoot a movie for most of my life. This is the culmination of that, I guess,” Tim Kasher says. “I’ve written a handful of scripts over the years. This just happens to be the latest one I’ve written. The story is a fairly intense evening between an engaged couple who are at an impasse in their relationship. I’m obsessed with this long, drawn-out sort of fight on screen. But a lot occurs in between the arguments as well.”

He shot the flick in Chicago. it features his own music and that of friends. Kasher previously only directed video shorts. He got advice from two filmmaker friends, Nik Fackler and Dana Altman. “They have helped unravel some of the mystery for me,” he says. “I really enjoyed all of it. It’s all so exciting. I even love how long the days are. I could hardly sleep each night, and then I would sleep so hard for a few condensed hours out of absolute fatigue.”

 

Once in a Lew Moon

March 12 @ 3:45 p.m.

The subject of this documentary, Lew Hunter, is the classic small town boy made good in Hollywood story. This former executive at all three major networks and Disney is also a writer-producer with notable made-for-TV movie credits to his name. But he’s best known as the author of the never out of print bible for scriptwriting, Screenwriting 434, based on the UCLA graduate class he’s taught since 1979. Filmmaker Lonnie Senstock captures the warm, communal spirit Hunter creates with students at UCLA and at the screenwriting colony he leads at his home in Superior, Nebraska.

 

Take Me to the River

March 12 @ 6:15 p.m.

Matt Sobel grew up in Calif. but came to Neb. for family reunions. A dream he had about being falsely accused of something terrible at a reunion so upset him he set out to capture “that visceral sensation” in a script that otherwise tells a fictional story. He filmed at the very farm he visited for those reunions. Rising star Logan Miller plays the boy, Ryder, who finds himself under suspicion on the very weekend he’s coming out. The cast is rounded out by veteran supporting players.

All indie filmmakers have a rite-of-passage getting their work from page to screen, Sobel’s circuitous path took him on Cannes, Rotterdam and Manitoba detours before ending up back in Nebraska.

 

I Dream of an Omaha Where…

March 13 @ 2:30 p.m.

Mele Mason documented a local collaborative project moderated by national performance artist Daniel Beaty that involved former gang members and people affected by gangs.

“The project took participants through intense and moving workshops to a performance of a play utilizing workshop transcripts. I was able to document each step of this incredible process,” Mason says. “The I Dream project was a transformative experience for those sharing their stories and is also changing the dialogue in Omaha and similarly affected cities about the nature and impact of gang violence. To me and hopefully to the audience, it puts a human face on those who have or still are participating in gangs and the people who have been tragically affected by gang violence.”

 

When Voices Meet: One Divided Country; One United Choir; One Courageous Journey 

March 13 @ 11:45 a.m.

In addition to the out-of-competition Spotlight features, there’s a feature documentary in competition whose producer-director-editor, Nancy Sutton Smith, teaches at Northeast Community College in Norfolk. When Voices Meet charts the experiences of a multiracial youth choir formed by musician activists in South Africa following Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. Ignoring threats, the choir traveled across the country via The Peace Train and became the face for the democracy Mandela moved the nation towards. The group performed for seven years, Members remained close friends. They reunited to share their stories.

A TV segment Smith produced about The Peace Train led to a decade-long collaboration that resulted in the documentary, which has become an award-winning darling at festivals.

 

The fest also has its usual block of locally produced shorts. The OFF Conference will include industry panelists from Nebraska. Conference Q&A’s and Fest parties offer opportunities to meet film artists,

Add to these local film currents Alexander Payne’s Downsizing lensing this spring (a week in Omaha) with Matt Damon and Reese Witherspoon, the features East Texas Hot Links and The Magician gearing up for area shoots, plus Dan Mirvish with a new project and Nik Fackler writing scripts again, and the local cinema culture is popping. Once the Dundee Theater reopens, it’s a full-on moviepalooza in this dawning Nebraska New Wave movement.

For the complete OFF schedule, visit http://omahafilmfestival.org/.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

Dan Mirvish strikes again: Indie filmmaker back with new feature “Between Us”

July 29, 2013 1 comment

As indie filmmakers go, Dan Mirvish occupies an interesting space.  His micro-budgeted features get far more attention than the vast majority of like projects because his films are so singular and he’s such a good promoter.  Mirvish is artist, huckster, provocateur all in one.  He and his new film Between Us are the subjects of the following piece I wrote for The Reader (www.thereader.com).  The film is playing one night only, Aug. 1, at Film Streams in Omaha.  Mirvish will speak after the screening.  Omaha’s produced few filmmakers over time, most notably Joan Micklin Silver and Alexander Payne, and more recently Nik Fackler, and as my piece suggests Mirvish may be the most interesting among them for his sheer audacity in getting projects made and seen and talked about.

 

Dan Mirvish strikes again: Indie filmmaker back with new feature “Between Us”

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Once dubbed a “cheerful subversive” by The New York Times, indie filmmaker Dan Mirvish uses his skills as a provocateur and promoter to get his obscure work noticed by the very mainstream whose noses he sometimes tweaks.

He’s in rare company as a Nebraska native feature filmmaker. There’s only a handful whose feature work has gotten anything like fairly wide distribution. Joan Micklin Silver is the matriarch. Alexander Payne, the big name. Nik Fackler, the promising newcomer. But the L.A.-based Mirvish may have the most interesting story. His new feature Between Us is a faithful adaptation of the off-Broadway play of the same name by Joe Hortua, who co-wrote the script with Mirvish.

The film stars Taye Diggs, Julia Stiles, David Harbour and Melissa George.

Principally shot in L.A. and New York City, Between Us features pick up shots of Omaha and rural Nebraska to cover the story’s partial Midwest setting. An opening montage shows off the local riverfront.

After playing two dozen festivals around the world the pic is in the midst of a limited theatrical release, including an August 1 Film Streams screening at 7 p.m. followed by a Q&A featuring Mirvish. The film has an Aug. 16-18 run at the World Theater in Kearney, Neb, and will likely make its way to Lincoln at the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center. It’s soon to be available via NetFlix, Amazon, et cetera,

Mirvish first attempted the project seven years ago. He was coming off his 2004 real estate musical comedy Open House, a super-charged homage and parody of Hollywood musicals. It got press when he openly campaigned to get the film nominated in the long dormant Best Original Musical category. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences changed its rules to block his brazen maneuver.

Outside interest in adapting Open House to the stage brought Mirvish to New York to meet with theatrical agents. Always searching for material, he asked to read play scripts and discovered Between Us, a dark satire about the shifting relations within and between two couples contending with marriage, life and career conflicts. Suppressed tensions and jealousies get expressed and fireworks ensue.

“I decided to do Between Us because it spoke to me emotionally. It was about married people with young children and it dealt with issues of artistic authenticity that I could relate to,” says Mirvish, who’s married with three young children. “A lot of people can see themselves through the eyes of those characters, I also thought for practical purposes it could work as a low budget movie if it had to be done on a low budget. It’s essentially four people in two rooms.”

 

 

 

 

He and Hortua did the adaptation, retaining almost everything from the original but adding new material that opened up the piece cinematically, including visualizing things only talked about in the play and using flashbacks to move time and space.

There seemed to be momentum behind the project but then stuff happened.

“We thought we were going to make the movie in 2008 for $2 or $3 million,” says Mirvish. “I got some great producers on board, we were getting these great actors reading the script and then the economy collapsed in the fall of 2008. No one was giving money to make movies. So we put the project on hold.

“Luckily for me a little project I was doing on the side, the Martin Eisenstadt fake pundit project, a series of shorts and CDs and Internet satire, ultimately evolved into a book deal from this very fancy publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux.”

He and fellow filmmaker Eitan Gorlin concocted the elaborate Eisenstadt hoax that hoodwinked many major media outlets. The pair’s I Am Martin Eisenstadt novel did quite well critically, thus putting Mirvish in the unusual position of having duped the media and finding himself rewarded and celebrated for it .

“it got better reviews than any film I’ve ever done,” Mirvish says of the book.

Mirvish delights in giving the establishment fits. In 1993 he co-founded the Slamance Film Festival in response to Sundance ignoring smaller indie works. Then he made Omaha, the Movie, perhaps the first indigenous feature shot here by a local crew. He finagled getting VHS tapes of the hyper-kinetic farce into the hands of festival directors and reviewers.

 

 

Between-us-poster.jpg

 

 

Mirvish is nothing if not persistent and resilient. Several years ago he took a terrible fall from a ladder while remodeling his home. His leg snapped. Broken bones tore through the skin and he lost 40 percent of his blood. He was in the hospital six months, then in a wheelchair for six more and on crutches six months after that. He never stopped working and even fulfilled his Slamdance MC role while still in a wheelchair. The ever intrepid one later worked the experience of the fall and its aftermath into Between Us.

The USC film school grad was mentored by legendary director Robert Altman, whose grandson Dana Altman produced Omaha, the Movie and was an executive producer on Between Us,

After the success of his book Mirvish and native Omahan Sam Johnson, a veteran writer for episodic television, pitched Eistenstadt as a series.

Mirvish says, “We came close to a deal with Showtime. Ashton Kutcher was going to produce. Then a mid-level executive got fired and the whole thing collapsed, which sadly is fairly typical in Hollywood. It was two years of my life with that project.” That’s when Mirvish revived Between Us. He still liked the material and, he says, “it still had the advantage of lending itself to a low budget production.” He got friends, family, even crew, to invest and launched a modest Kickstarter campaign.

Before even most of the money was in hand, Mirvish set a start date.

“Having a start date is really a key thing, and this is something I learned from Robert Altman. If you actually set a start date you’re going to make the movie and you’re going to find a cast. It’s the train leaving the station theory. If the train’s leaving the station people want to be on that train.”

He says the production confirmed another theory he ascribes to that says “every element you have in a movie will at some point drop out – your cast, your camera, your financing, your distribution – but as long as they don’t all drop out the same day you’re going to be OK. And that’s exactly what happened in casting.” Only a few months before shooting he thought his cast would be Diggs, Kerry Washington, Michael C. Hall and America Ferrera. All but Diggs dropped out.

“Taye stuck with it, God bless him, and we built the cast up again.”

Mirvish and Hortua are pleased with the cast they ended up with, David Harbour actually did the play’s first reading and was in its first production.

But the biggest pressure was one that hung over the shoot the whole time.

“The bulk of our financing came from one investor whose check only cleared the third to the last day, which is not the ideal way to make a movie,” says Mirvish. “But you know there were enough people on the crew who were working for free up until that point who really had a passion for the project and the material. We were able to feed off that energy even if we couldn’t feed ourselves with much else.”

Just as he’s done many times before on features and shorts, he begged and borrowed equipment, got free crew, stole locations and did what he had to do. “You just have to have kind of blind faith in your own ingenuity and good luck that somehow it will all come together,” he says.

It’s a good bet that even should Mirvish, now working on a new script set entirely in Omaha, find commercial success he’ll always be a by-any-means necessary guerilla filmmaker at heart.

 

 

©www.nytimes.com

Vincent Alston’s indie film debut, “For Love of Amy,” is black and white and love all over

November 29, 2011 14 comments

The Omaha indie filmmaking scene is not very active, especially when it comes to features.  One of the few homemade feature projects to get made here and nationally distributed is For Love of Amy, a sentimental pic written and produced by its lead actor, Vincent Alston.  While not a memorable work, the film’s storytelling is effective and the project is notable for simply defying the odds and being realized on screen and actually netting soome screenings and now a DVD release.  My story below was written a couple years ago as the film’s production wound down.  Alston attracted name talents in Ted Lange and John Beasley to direct the film and to essay a supporting role, respectively. The picture did attract enough notice to earn Alston the Mid-Atlantic Black Film Festival award for most outstanding first film and I wouldn’t be surprised if Alston is heard from again.

Sometime soon I will be posting a short story I wrote about another filmmaker with Omaha ties, Patrick Coyle, who has made a serious splash with the indie features he’s written and directed.  The biggest impact Nebraska filmmakers have made in recent years are by Alexander Payne, whose first three features were made in Omaha and whose next film, Nebraska, will be made in the mostly rural environs of the state’s central-western panhandle region, and Nik Fackler, whose Lovely, Still is finally finding large audiences via cable and DVD.  This blog is full of stories about these and other filmmakers with Nebraska ties, including Joan Micklin Silver, Gail Levin, and Charles Fairbanks.

Vincent Alston

 

 

Vincent Alston’s indie film debut, “For Love of Amy,” is black and white and love all over

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

On a recent Saturday morning at the University of Nebraska Medical Center director Ted Lange and crew worked efficiently to get their shots for the indie film For Love of Amy. Lensing in Omaha and environs since mid-June, the crew needed few takes. A satisfied Lange would say, “Print it…Movin’ on” and the troops rigged things for the next set-up. Far removed from his Love Boat days, the savvy Lange, bedecked in ball cap, blue jeans and athletic shoes, wore a T-shirt adorned with Laurence Dunbar, the subject of a one-man show he conceived and performs.

Screenwriter-producer-star Vincent Alston of Omaha was a quiet, intense presence on set, where he wore a deep blue suit as Michael. Alston seemed wide-eyed about the whole process, understandable given this is his first film and his ass is on the line three ways. He watched things closely and after takes often drew Lange aside to confer about what approach was best.

The concept behind the film will make you go either, “Ewww” or “Awww.” Michael (Alston) is black and his best friend Ryan is white. The dying Ryan extracts Michael’s promise to be there for Ryan’s 9-year-old daughter, Amy. Ryan dies and his widow suffers a breakdown. In steps Michael. Then a revelation about the child’s birth mother throws your expectations askew.

It reads like a treacly, weepie Lifetime message pic. All the racial, sentimental gravitas could be thoughtful or deadly, depending on how it’s handled.

Audiences must judge if Alston and Lange lift the material above the sweetly banal. Alston has the acting chops to make Michael, the single black man who takes Amy into his life a believable figure. Alston’s impressed on the John Beasley Theater stage and as Malcolm X in the one-act play The Meeting. Still, his debut script arguably reads like many well-intentioned social-humanist dramas you’ve seen.

Lange, who played Isaac on the network television chestnut, Love Boat, is a veteran TV and theater director and the author of 21 plays. The San Francisco resident has directed and starred in a film version of Othello. Scenes from his new play George Washington’s Boy were read at the recent Great Plains Theatre Conference (GPTC). In 2005 he came to Omaha to direct his own play, Four Queens and One Trump, at the JBT. So he has the creds, as he said, to “make this thing work.”

How Alston, a Jersey native, got to this point is a story itself. He worked in corrections back east and when he moved here in the ‘90s. His entree to acting came when, “on a whim,” he took a class. Bitten by the bug, he found his niche in naturalism. He made his living in computers while pursuing his theater passion. He now has his own company, VLA Productions, that creates video-Internet visuals and produces stage works, notably Jeff Stetson’s The Meeting, a work Alston’s now identified with. The piece depicts a hypothetical meeting between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.. He staged and starred in a production of it at the GPTC.

Alston’s been writing a few years now, drawing on experiences from his own life. He and his wife Pamela actually care for children not of origin and not of the same race by serving as foster parents. “We’ve had all kinds — Native American, white, biracial, the whole gamut,” he said. Currently they care for two Sudanese youths. Alston and his wife also have a son and daughter of their own.

His Beasley Theater contacts led him to give his script to Lange, who responded to it. “I love the different worlds that are really present side by side in it,” Lange said. “The fact that Michael is black and his best friend is white. The fact that Michael is raising his best friend’s kid. The twist that comes in there at the end about the child’s mother. It does have some nice little turns in it.”

Lange said he also liked the challenge of finding ways to avoid any cliches bound up in the story and in the characters.

“That where your art comes in,” Lange said. “There’s a couple little things we had to tweak. That’s collaboration. That’s Vince saying, ‘Now, Ted, I need this to happen,’ and me saying, ‘Oh, we can do that with just a little bit of this.’ It’s like I told Vince, ‘I’m going to make some suggestions to you. If I can’t tell you why, you go tell me to fuck myself. Don’t do it. But if I tell you something and you ask me why and I give you an answer, you gotta at least give me honest consideration, and that’s how we’ve been working. It’s good.”

Lange said the cast is good enough to avoid playing one-note characters. “We’ve got wonderful actors that can deliver the goods. I’m really excited by the fact we’ve got people who can help me tell the story and can play against the words — start out in one direction and then evolve into this other direction,” he said.

Besides Alston, there’s strong local talent in the cast, including veteran film-TV-theater actor John Beasley in the scene-stealing role of Tate, Tyrone Beasley as X and Lindsay Seim as Kat. Lange was blown away by Omaha actress, Melissa Epps, whom he cast in the role of Claire, ostensibly the heavy of the piece.

Some punch was lost with the late drop out of stage-screen actress Mikole White (She Hate Me), whose role as Jas, Michael’s girlfriend, is being filled by New York actress Joyce Sylvester (Crackin’ Green). The fact that established talent signed on indicates Alston’s script works on the page. The fact there’s a racially mixed cast and crew and the story depicts African American professionals living outside strictly “black Omaha” makes the project fairly unique in local filmmaking circles.

Despite the black-white dynamic that frames the story, Alston insists — and his script bears him out — the film is not about race. Instead, he likes to say it’s a story about “doing the right thing when you don’t know what right is.”

As Lange said, “Ultimately, you know what the right thing to do is, whether it’s profitable or satisfying or all those other things. But sometimes it takes a lot of guts to really do what’s right, and not let your ego, your pride get in the way, and to me that’s what this movie is. Does Michael have the guts to do what’s right?”

Alston got the idea for the story after a party in which a little white girl he didn’t know came up to him and spoke to him “like I was her best friend in the world,” he said. “It was intriguing this child could have this conversation with me and it got me thinking, Could we have that same conversation 10 years hence? Or would society’s prejudices have so impinged on her psyche that those inevitable walls that go up among people who are different prevent it? That was the genesis for it.”

The only racial tension in the film comes in the form of Amy’s maternal grandmother, Claire, who opposes Michael, and from X, a black friend of Michael’s who reminds him of certain realities in America; namely, that a single black man raising a white girl may not fly.

The scene shot at UNMC takes place in a hospital waiting room, where Claire, her husband Frank and their granddaughter Amy keep vigil over Ryan, who’s asked to see Michael. Michael arrives just as Claire expresses her dislike of him to Frank — “I’d sure like to know what in hell makes him so damn special. He’s not even family. I’ve got half a mind to…”. Upon seeing Michael, it’s clear Amy loves her “uncle.” Epps well underplays the antagonistic role of Claire and Grace Bydalek is thankfully unaffected as Amy. Race becomes subtext as much as pretext for the action.

Alston, who’s experienced first hand the politics of race as both a victim of profiling and as a cog in the racially skewed penal system, doesn’t so much concern himself with black-white as human considerations.

“My philosophy is I want to do entertainment that draws on the best in people, not the worst, that challenges people to be better…I think Michael in the film is challenged to be a better person,” he said. “At the end of the day he realizes this isn’t about affirming himself, it’s about a little girl and what’s best for her.”

Alston found himself challenged to heed his better self while a guard at the New Jersey State Home for Boys at Jamesburg (NJ) and working maximum security at the adult Douglas County Correctional Center (Neb.). He didn’t like what the job did to him. “It will jade you,” he said. “Dealing with the worst all day, every day…to see human beings reduced to animals, particularly seeing people who look like me reduced to that, and not even care anymore, and to be proud of it — I had to get out of there. I hit a point where really the bottom dropped out of my life.”

Luckily he had someone looking out for his best interests at Jamesburg.

“My boss and my mentor was a Muslim and he just taught me so many life lessons. He told me, ‘Vince, don’t stay here, this isn’t for you. There’s something greater out there — you just gotta go get it.’

Alston quit. On the advice of a friend who lived in Omaha, he moved here. In need of a job, Alston worked as a guard at the county correctional facility, but when he saw the same thing happening to him again he quit after only a few months. “It was a nightmare,” he said. “It was like, ‘I can’t stay here.’” That decision turned his life around. Within short order he took computer classes at Metro that steered him onto a new career path and he met his future wife.

After transferring to the University of Nebraska at Omaha he took an acting class as an elective and found a whole new passion. “I fell in love with it. It was like a light went on. You hear how people have epiphanies? That was me,” he said. “I remember I did my first monologue and there was a sort of hush in the room. I was leaving and this kid said, ‘People are talking about you.’ I just loved it from then on — that I could get a response from people. It’s interesting because I’m basically an extremely shy person, but you find that stage and I guess it gives you a place to be safe to express yourself.”

His journey to self-realization is not so different than that of Michael’s in the film. “Life is about becoming what you need to become,” Alston said. In Alston’s case, an artist. He found a mentor in UNO theater professor Doug Paterson, with whom he began staging performances of The Meeting. He found another mentor in John Beasley, but not before testing the waters at other theaters.

“Here’s what I found about theater here,” Alston said. “There’s a lot of it, but rarely do they do anything that speaks to my sensibilities. The other thing is, there’s this prevailing belief theater should be bigger than life. The Beasley Theater is the only place I’ve found where I can do the kind of in-the-moment, natural, real emotional response to theater. If you get up there and fake anything, that’s not going to wash with John (Beasley). You’re listening for real, you’re responding emotionally for real. So that’s been a breath of fresh air.”

It didn’t hurt that someone Alston admires so much encouraged him. “John was the first person of his caliber to tell me I could make it as an actor,” Alston said.

Beasley said Alston, who appeared in the JBT production of Jitney, came to him fairly seasoned but unused to laying it all on the line.

“His style is pretty laid back. He’s a protege of Doug (Paterson). Doug’s style and my style differ, though I have respect for what he does,” Beasley said. “Under Ted Lange I’ve seen Vince go inside a little bit more and dig a little deeper to mine some of that gold to bring the character out.”

Beasley’s proud to count Alston as a protege as well. “I’m happy to see he was able to start from nowhere and get this project launched. It’s quite an accomplishment to get your first film made,” Beasley said. “I don’t know what will happen with this film, but I think he’s on his way.”

Alston had been after Beasley for Tate, a wise old janitor at the school Michael teaches at, but the actor held out. It was Lange who got Beasley to give the part another read. “Ted said, ‘Look, Vince has put a lot of work into this character,’ so I took another look at it,” Beasley said. “I’m extremely happy to be a part of this project. I think it’s a good thing for Omaha. I did the movie because Vince asked me and I respect him. I felt I could do no less. I knew it meant a lot to him.”

“The fact that John is doing a role is just huge for us,” Alston confirmed.

Other JBT stalwarts on the For Love of Amy team are: Ty Beasley, who in addition to playing X serves as first assistant director; Amy Laaker as line producer; and Mark O’Leary as location manager.

“It really would have been impossible to do this project without them,” Alston said. “They’ve been with it from day one. You gotta have people committed to seeing the thing through to the end.”

Alston’s four-year odyssey to get the project made has been filled with the usual ups and downs. “In the process you’re running around like mad trying to chase down money,” he said. “You’re always trying to get in front of the next guy. Every day you’re networking with people…presenting business plans, making phone calls.” Once, the film was two weeks from cameras rolling when the financing fell through. “It just throws you for a loop when it happens,” he said. “As frustrating as it was for me, it was more frustrating to tell the cast and crew.”

At his lowest points Alston said he rallies himself with something the great educator Mary McLeod Bethune once said: “’I refused to be discouraged, for neither God nor man could use a discouraged soul.’ That is so heavy,” Alston said.

Whether the film ever sees the light of day is anyone’s guess. Alston hopes it makes the festival circuit and sells theatrically or to television. He’d like to make enough off it to tell more stories on screen. If it does well enough, he muses, maybe “I won’t have to chase the money so hard the next time.”

Nebraskan lives his cinema dream: Darren Brandl produces “The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vicente Fernandez” starring Oscar-winner Ernest Borgnine

August 17, 2011 Leave a comment

Another Nebraskan making good in the film biz came to my attention recently, and the resulting short story that follows is what I hope will be the start of a string of stories covering his career. Darren Brandl is the young man’s name, and he’s the producer of a recently wrapped indie feature, The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vicente Fernandez, starring Ernest Borgnine. For a 26-year-old to pull this off is impressive. The writer-director friend of Brandl’s behind the film, Elia Petridis, isn’t  much older and is another name to watch.

 

Nebraskan lives his cinema dream: Darren Brandl produces “The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vicente Fernandez” Ssarring Oscar-winner Ernest Borgnine

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

A small town Nebraska son who cut his teeth on the movies is living his cinema dream producing an independent feature starring Oscar-winner Ernest Borgnine in the title role of The Man Who Shook the Hand of Vicente Fernandez.

The film, whose L.A, shoot wrapped the end of July, is produced by Madison, Neb. native Darren Brandl, 26. Elia Petridis, is the writer-director. Although their first feature, both are industry veterans.

Brandl grew up in the movie video store his parents operated. At 8 he began making short films with friends. He studied film at Cal-State Northridge.

“I kind of fell in love with the medium and the storytelling side of things,” he says.

He worked the acquisitions side of the industry, first for the Hirsch Company and then for producer Lance Hool. In between he backpacked around the world, All the while he bided his time to produce. Then Petridis showed him the script for The Man. The pseudo-Western is set in a nursing home, where Borgnine’s character, Rex Page, is a disenchanted resident alienated from the Latino staff until they discover he once shook the hand of Mexican actor-singer idol Vicente Fernandez.

 

Vicente Fernandez

 

“I read hundreds of scripts a year and less than one percent are interesting to me, and this is that one percent,” says Brandl. “It was clear this is exactly the sort of movie I was looking for. It’s a human story that has a lot of heart to it.

“It really has it’s own voice, it’s own tone, it’s own pace and it’s by a really good friend of mine who I trusted as a director and wanted to go on this journey with.”

Getting Borgnine was “the golden egg,” says Brandl. “The instinct was always to find a star. and he responded strongly to the material. After seeing a first cut I would say there was nobody else who could have done a better job than Ernie. It really is his movie and he really holds it the way a movie star should…”

Brandl admires the 94-year-old actor.

“He’s got quite a lust and zest for life. He doesn’t need to be working but he does it because he loves it. On set he refused a stand-in. He set a tone for the work ethnic on the production. He’s quite a guy.”

Brandl’s confident the project will be well-received.

“Especially as a first time producer you want to make something that really is going to speak for the rest of your career.”

 

 

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