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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.

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Lew Hunter’s small town Nebraska boy made good in Hollywood story is a doozy

February 25, 2016 5 comments

Of all the Hollywood greats Nebraska has produced, and there are far more than you think, Lew Hunter may boast the most impressive career behind the camera outside of Darryl Zanuck from Tinsletown’s Golden Age.  Hunter’s career stacks up well, too, among more more recent Hollywood players from here, such as  Joan Micklin Silver and Alexander Payne.  While it’s true Hunter never ran a major studio the way Zanuck did and has never directed a film the way Silver and Payne have, he did hold high executive level positions at each of the three major broadcast televison networks and at various studios.  And like Zanuck, Silver and Payne, he’s written and produced movies.  But he’s also done some singular things that stand him alone from his predecessor and peers.  For example, he’s taught a well-regarded screenwriting class at UCLA since 1979,  “Screenwriting 434,” that became the title and basis for his best-selling book about how to write screenplays.  He’s also conducted many screenwriting workshops or seminars.  He annually hosts the Superior Screenwriting Colon at his home in Superior, Neb., near his childhood home of Guide Rock.  Unlike the vast majority of Nebraskans who’ve made a name for themselves in film and television, Hunter never lost touch with his Midwest origins and some 15 years ago or so he and his wife Pamela departed the Left Coast to move back to his roots.

He’s now the subject of a new documentary, Once in a Lew Moon, showing at the Omaha Film Festival.

On this blog you can find an earlier profile I wrote about Lew that drew on my being embedded in his screenwriting colony for several days.

NOTE: Thanks to Lonnie Senstock and Bill Blauvelt for providing some of the photos here.

 

Lew Hunter teaching

Hunter (COVER)

Lew Hunter

 

Lew Hunter’s small town Nebraska boy made good in Hollywood story is a doozy

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in the March 2016 issue of the New Horizons

 

Nestled at the bottom of Eastern Nebraska, about a three-hour drive from Omaha, the sleepy hamlet of Superior is home to one-time Hollywood Player Lew Hunter. Pushing 81 and retirement now, he still exerts enough influence to bring Tinseltown types to this isolated  spot. Growing up a Neb. farm boy not far from there, Hunter dreamed of doing something in show business and he did as a television network and Hollywood studio executive. producer, screenwriter.

He’s on the short list of Nebraskans with major Hollywood credits. He isn’t as well known as some as his success came behind the camera, not in front of it. Not since Darryl Zanuck’s mogul days did a native reside so far within Hollywood’s inside circle as Hunter. Of past screen legends from Neb., he says, “These people were role models for me.”

Hunter’s a role model himself for having programmed popular network shows in the 1960s and 1970s that still draw viewers on Nick at Nite. Some mini-series and TV movies he shepherded for the networks were sensations in their time. Three movies he wrote, two of which he produced himself, earned huge shares and generated much discussion for their sensitive treatment of hard issues.

 

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Site of the Superior Screenwriting Colony

 

 

 

A full life and an amazing career

Hunter’s the first to tell you he’s led one helluva life.– one as big as his oversized personality. Given where he came from, his career seems unlikely, but a desire to prove himself drove him to succeed.

Throughout the Great Depression and Second World War, he was enamored by the movies and radio. Then, during the Cold War and Baby Boom, he fell under TV’s spell.

Weaned on MGM, RKO and Paramount musicals – the only motion pictures his mother allowed him to see – he projected himself into the fantasies he saw in the lone theater in his hometown of Guide Rock. He imagined himself up there on the silver screen.

“I wanted to be Fred Astaire so bad. I danced with a pitchfork, and the pitchfork was Ginger Rogers.”

The barnyard filled in for a ballroom or nightclub.

The fact that Hunter went on to enjoy a storybook career rubbing shoulders with the likes of Astaire and other stars does not escape him. He knows how fortunate he was to create top-rated movies of the week. He’s grateful to be emeritus chairman and screenwriting professor at UCLA and to have written a book based on his class, Screenwriting 434, that’s the bible for cracking the scriptwriting code.

Some of his students have enjoyed major film-TV careers, including Oscar-winner Alexander Payne, one of dozens of great screenwriters and directors Hunter’s had as guests for his class. Those sessions have featured everyone from the late Billy Wilder and Ernest Lehman to William Goldman and Oliver Stone.

Hunter’s the subject of a new documentary, Once in a Lew Moon. It portrays his love of the writing craft and writers and the reciprocal love writers feel for him. The feature-length film by fellow Neb. native Lonnie Senstock premiered at UCLA, where Hunter’s retiring after this quarter. The doc screens at the Omaha Film Festival on March 12.

This once big wheel and still beloved figure in Hollywood gave up that lifestyle years ago when he and his wife Pamela settled near his boyhood origins to make their home in Superior. Twice a year there he convenes the Superior Screenwriting Colony, an immersive two-week workshop for aspiring and emerging film-TV writers. He leads it in an inimitable style that is equal parts Billy Graham, Big Lebowski and Aristotle on the Great Plains.

This prodigiously educated and well-read man once considered entering the ministry. He long served as the lay leader of a Methodist congregation. He does treat screenplays with a reverence usually reserved for the scriptures. When he gets rolling about scene structure and character development, he might as well be a preacher. Far from being a choir boy though, this let-your-hair-down free spirit uses coarse language the way some people use punctuation. There was a time when he drank to excess. A naturally verbose man and born raconteur, his preferred way of teaching is telling stories. Asides and anecdotes beget full-blown stories. He has a vast store of them.

The site of the Colony is a restored Victorian mansion across from another period house he and Pamela occupy. He’s prone to lecture in shorts, T-shirt and bare feet. While professing he keeps near him a file folder bulging with lecture materials. He fishes out writerly quotes, excerpts or tidbits to share, referencing Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner, Joseph Campbell. He relates how as a Northwestern University grad student he asked guest lecturer John Steinbeck what to do to be a great writer. The legend’s response: “Write!” Hunter’s appropriated a variation as his sign-off in letters and emails: “Write on!”

Colony sessions are largely unscripted improvisations. Hunter doesn’t need notes, he says, “because the structure is exactly the structure I do in a 10-week class.” At table readings he reads, aloud, students’ ideas or outlines and offers verbal notes, inviting group feedback. He proffers precise analysis that constitutes Lew’s Rules.

“Too little story.” “Too much story.” “What’s your story really about?” “Your imagination is the only restriction you have.” “Conflict, conflict, conflict.” “Story, story, story.” “Character, character, character.” “All comedy and all drama is based on the three-act structure.” “My paradigm is situation, consequences and conclusion.” “Don’t even think about writing down to the audience.”

His rapid-fire yet relaxed, let-it-all-hang-out approach is fun. But his sunny, cruise-ship-recreation-director manner is leavened by a semi-scholarly seriousness that makes clear this is no joke. There’s work to be done and no time to waste, well, maybe a little. Students pay thousands of dollars to attend, many traveling long distances to participate. Perks include drop-in visits by Hollywood friends like Kearney native Jon Bokenkamp, creator of The Blacklist.

Colonists aim to please their guru, whose laid-back Socratic Method has its charms. It suits this one-time King of Pitchers who bent the ear of producers and executives when trying to sell a story idea or script. Hunter knew how to play the game because he was on the other side as a producer-executive, listening to writers-directors pitch him.

How it all happened for Hunter is, well, a story. One he’s only too glad to share. It aptly falls into three-acts. But leave it to Hunter to digress.

 

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Lew back in his salad days at the networks

 

Midwest roots

Raised in an “extraordinarily conservative” environment full of narrow-minded views – “I felt like I had a pretty sheltered life” – Hunter had a lot of growing up to do post-Guide Rock.

His classically trained mother exposed him to cultural things to round out the corn pone experience. For example she had him take dance and music lessons. His father was “known as the most loved and strongest man in Webster County” before a massive stroke left him paralyzed and unable to speak. “The first 12 years of my life I had him and then I lost him to a stroke and aphasia,” Hunter recalls.

As his father slipped further away, Hunter’s overbearing “hell on wheels” mother became the dominant presence in his life.

“She was the head of the Nebraska Republican Party, the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution) and WCTU (Women’s Christian Temperance Union) in her lifetime. Someone asked me once, did you love your mother?” and I said, ‘Well, I think I loved her, but I didn’t much like her. I respected her. And my father, I adored.”

A bright boy who felt betrayed by life for taking away his father and bored with his surroundings, Hunter rebelled. He got caught doing petty vandalism. With his mother unable to handle him, a judge offered a choice – reform school or military school. Hunter chose the latter. A valuable takeaway from Wentworth Military Academy in Lexington Mo. came playing football. Back home he had no experience with African-Americans. He only heard disparaging, scornful things. Then one game while playing guard he went up against a black tackle whose extreme effort and high ability made a lie of what he was told.

“I got the shit beat out of me. That was a very good learning lesson. I deserved it.”

Hunter’s racial education continued at Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln, where his roommate was a black student-athlete.

“Meeting him was clearly one of the best things. We palled around together. He took me down to the jazz cellars in Lincoln.”

Hunter became enough of a jazz devotee that at 17 he hitchhiked to Chicago to see Art Tatum at the Blue Note.

He studied theater at Wesleyan and he made his first foray into show biz working at Lincoln radio and TV stations.

“I became so caught up in the idea of being a professional that it spurred me to go to Chicago.”

 

Hunter, Coppola B & W

Lew with Francis Ford Coppola

 

 

Rebel with a cause

Intent on studying broadcasting at Northwestern, he applied but was rejected. Not taking no for an answer he garnered letters of support from Neb. dignitaries and struck a bargain with school officials to enroll on a probational basis. If he got all As, he stayed. If he got even one B, he’d leave. He stayed and excelled, earning a master’s in 1956.

“That rebellious aspect of me is still part of me.”

He worked in Chicago radio as a disc jockey and producer. But he wanted out of the Midwest in order to try his hand in Hollywood. Everyone he consulted told him to quit what they considered a cockeyed dream and stay put. Instead, he followed his heart and went.

“I’ve been pretty much a guy that ‘no’ is just a word on the way to ‘yes.’ If I really want something bad enough, I keep on it.”

He did not head out alone. Though barely 20, he was already married. He and his young bride packed their Packard and hoped for the best.

He laid the groundwork for his eventual break into the big time by getting a second master’s at UCLA, this time studying film.

“I went to UCLA on a David Sarnoff Fellowship. I took a lot of pleasure and pride in that.”

He used that opportunity to get his foot in the door.

Future cinema legend Francis Ford Coppola was a classmate. Years after their graduate student days, Hunter had Coppola appear at the UCLA class he teaches to talk screenwriting with students.

At the Westwood campus Hunter indulged in some serious hero worship of his favorite instructor, Arthur Ripley.

“I had very specific mentoring with Arthur Ripley. I just adored him. He was the most charismatic, interesting man.”

Hunter says Ripley’s sarcastic humor was reflected in a famous one-liner attributed to him. When stoic former U.S. President Calvin Coolidge died Ripley was said to have cracked, “How could they tell?”

A veteran from Hollywood’s early sound era, Ripley helped create the miserly, misanthropic W.C. Fields character the comedian parlayed to great success. Ripley worked for cinema giants Mack Sennett, Frank Capra and Irving Thalberg.

“I admired Arthur Ripley and all these wonderful stories he told when he worked at MGM for Irving Thalberg. He told stories about running around with Thomas Wolfe. I was like a sponge soaking up all that stuff. I have more show business stories because I loved the business and the people and the craziness of it all.”

 

Lew and Pam B & W

Lew and Pamela

 

 

The start of it all

Hunter got on as a page at NBC and then worked in the mailroom, where he rose up the ranks to music licensing and promotion.

“I could see there was a ladder I could climb at NBC.”

He later worked in promotion at ABC and served stints at CBS and Disney, among other entertainment conglomerates, before eventually transforming himself into a producer-writer. He later rejoined NBC.

Then-NBC and MTM president Grant Tinker gave Hunter some sage advice about the vagaries of Hollywood when Hunter was torn between staying at NBC or taking an offer at ABC.

“He said, “For your benefit you need to know that in this business you’re not rewarded for loyalty. Quite to the contrary, we’ll probably be more interested in you if you go over to ABC, and so I did.”

And just as Tinker predicted, after making the move Hunter found himself more in demand than ever.

“In this business, if they want you, over hot coals and razor blades they will come get you. But if they don’t want you, nothing. I mean you’re either eating high on the hog or on the hoof of the hog.

“For one brief shining moment,” as the song goes, Hunter officed at four different studios, including Paramount.

He got schooled by (Aaron Spelling) and had run-ins with (Irwin Allen) some big-name producers.

Seeing so many different sides of the business, he learned the ins and ours of how shows and movies get developed, packaged, marketed.

“I was in promotions doing trailers for BonanzaDick Powell TheatreDinah Shore Chevy Show and so forth. I was around it all the time. A sound engineer and I went around to stars’ homes with a reel to reel tape machine to record them reading copy promoting their shows. Once, we went to the home of my idol, Fred Astaire. As he was reading into a microphone the copy I’d written for him I glanced through another room’s open doorway and I saw a pool table inside. When he was done I said, ‘Do you play pool, Fred?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, do you play pool?’ I said, Well, a little, and he said, ‘Oh-oh, I’m toast, c’mon, let’s go.’ I played a game of pool with Fred Astaire and he won and I let him win. I could not dream of beating my idol.

“I have lots of stories about John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe, Cary Grant. It just goes on and on.”

Perhaps the star he got closest to was Judy Garland.

“She and I were very close on an emotional level. We had such a wonderful relationship. We never went to bed with each other but we sure flirted with each other a lot. I’m still in sorrow over what happened to her over the last few years of her life and how she died.”

He enjoyed getting to know the real personalities behind the personas.

 

 

The writer’s way

Doing promos was fine but he felt pulled to go where the action is – programming. He took endless meetings with writers, producers, agents. He gleaned what he could from those around him.

“I had doors open for me all the time I think because of my Neb. decency. I was just eager to absorb everything I could and I learned so much in those story conferences, going to dailies, watching rough cuts and observing artists working on the backlot.”

He was at ABC and then Disney (as a story executive) when the urge or, more accurately, the obligation to be a writer got the better of him.

“I had been for like four or five years telling writers how to write and never having made a living as a writer myself. It bothered me a lot because I really didn’t think I had the cachet. I mean, it’s very, very alarming to give notes to Paddy Chayefsky, who I idolized, or Neil Simon. I was having lunch with Ray Bradbury at the Disney commissary and I said, ‘I’ve read 2.000 scripts in the last two years and 90 percent of them are shit. I think I can be in the top 10 percent. He encouraged me to read Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and Dorthea Brande’s Becoming a Writer.

“I came home and told my then-wife I’ve gotten to the point where I want to try to be a writer myself. And she said fine.”

It was a leap of faith as the couple had young kids and a mortgage.

Hunter left his job to scratch this itch. He made a pact that if he didn’t make it in a year he’d find a job. Fifty-one weeks later none of the screenplays he wrote had sold. Tapped out and with a family to support, he took a job as a body sitter at Forest Lawn cemetery. The ghoulish work entails sitting up with corpses and laying them down if they rise up from rigor mortis. He’d done it at an uncle’s funeral home in Guide Rock and again to pay his way through college.

The day before he was to start Aaron Spelling called saying he wanted to buy Hunter’s script for what became If Tomorrow Comes. If it hadn’t sold at least Hunter knew he’d tried.

If Tomorrow Comes is the story of an ill-fated romance between a Caucasian girl and Japanese-American boy in the days before and after Pearl Harbor. The couple get separated when he and his family are ostracized after Japan’s attack on the U.S. and eventually imprisoned in an internment camp.

Even though Hunter grew up during the period when Japanese-Americans were interned he was, like the general public, oblivious to what happened. He only thought about the internment as the premise for a script when a relative recalled this infamy in less than sympathetic terms. That propelled Hunter to research the subject. He was appalled to discover that innocent Japanese-Americans were summarily stripped of property, businesses, livelihoods. Their kids taken out of schools, their lives disrupted. They were treated as criminals and traitors. All without due process. He was dismayed to find they were interned in camps surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards.

“I was shocked we incarcerated more than 120,000 citizens.”

He was shocked this injustice was not mentioned in textbooks. He was offended that many folks dimssed the incident as just part of the price of war. That it was merely a regrettable inconvenience when in fact it was a traumatic severing and breach of trust and civil rights.

In writing his script he found an emotional hook everyone could relate to by imagining a star-crossed Romeo and Juliet romance torn asunder by those harsh, unforgiving events. Patty Duke and Frank Michael Liu starred as the lovers whose lives are interrupted by history.

Anne Baxter, James Whitmore, Pat Hingle and Mako co-starred.

He considers the resulting 1971 movie made from his script among “the stuff that I’ve done that I’m most pleased with,” adding, “That was the thing that got me going. We got a 39 share. My phone was ringing off the hook. Then came another project and another one.”

Hunter resumed working for NBC and various studios in the 1970s and 1980s. As a general program executive at NBC he helped bring to the small screen two movies touching on social=political-moral issues in The Execution of Private Slovak and The Red Badge of Courage (both 1974). Later, as director of program development, he oversaw some major mini-series, including Centennial.

His next venture as a writer confronting social issues was Fallen Angel (1981), in which he tackled pedophilia long before the Catholic Church scandal broke. The idea for taking on the sensitive topic seemingly popped in his head during a meeting.

“I was pitching to Columbia executive Christine Foster when the phone rang. We heard, ‘This is Peter Frankovich here.’ He was an executive at CBS. Christine said, ‘I’ve got Lew Hunter.’ We all knew each other. I said, ‘Can I show you something, Peter?’ He asked, ‘You got anything hot?’ And I found myself saying, ‘Child pornography.’ It just came to me. And then, boom, he said, ‘You’ve got a deal.'”

Only Hunter didn’t have a story, much less a script. He was due to meet Frankovich the next week.

“I said to m self, ‘Oh, shit, I’ve gotta get a story together.” I went down to what was called the Abused Children’s Unit at LAPD. They told me everything they could tell me. I was in constant horror. They had me go down to the hall of records and look at the pedophile records.”

He learned how perpetrators groom their victims. In his script the perp is a photographer (Richard Masur) who befriends a fatherless girl (Dana Hill) and convinces her to pose nude. It bothered Hunter that kids could be manipulated or coerced to appear nude and perform sexual acts and that L.A. was the porn capital of the world.

It was only after Fallen Angel aired he remembered he had a childhood encounter with a pedophile.

“My mother thought she’d make a little bit of money by renting out a room to a Superior Knights semi-pro baseball player. He was a large man and he roomed right next to my room. One day he suggested we go out to the cornfield for a beer. We drove out there and parked. He said, ‘You’ve been really naughty to your mother.’ Of course, I had. I was a little ass-wise, That’s how I ended up at military academy. And then he put his hand on my thigh and said, ‘You know, you deserve to be spanked.’ I didn’t have the slightest idea what was going on but I knew it was bad, so I disengaged myself, leaped out of the car and ran through the cornfield back home. I didn’t say anything to my mother. That man was back in his room that night and I spent  every night for the next month with a .22 rifle next to me when I went to bed. I was going to shoot him if he came in and tried something.”

Hunter says the man attempted to molest some of his buddies, too. While Hunter was away at military school he heard the authorities finally caught the predator. Several boys filed complaints against him.

Fallen Angel scored a record 43 share.

 

 

Fallen Angel Poster

 

Too close for comfort

A personal tragedy informed Hunter’s next controversial and much viewed project, Desperate Lives (1982).

“My best friend at the time said we should so a story together about our boys. Our sons were both deep into drugs. One of the people I talked to in researching this was my son, who said, ‘I can get drugs at my high school quicker than I can get lunch at the cafeteria.'”

Hunter made a decision to give the protagonist played by Doug McKeon the same name as his son, Scott, who didn’t appreciate it.

“it was a stupid thing because it really estranged us, I’m sure for the rest of our lives. He basically doesn’t talk to me, just superficially. That was a very negative thing in my life and something I deeply regret.”

About doing projects that meant something, even at a cost, he says, “I just started poking round through life and coming up with things that really energized me. That was the key for me.”

Fast forward a couple decades, to soon after Lew and Pamela moved to Superior, when the scourge of methamphetamine hit hard.

Concerned by its devastating effects on residents’ lives, he and Pamela formed a nonprofit to raise awareness of the dangers and of helping resources available.

“This bloody meth problem is a terrible problem,” he says. “It’s a rural holocaust.”

He got retired Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne and other public figures, along with law enforcement officials, to appear at a town hall meeting. The Hunters mentored in Osborne’s Teammates program.

 

Lew with Tom Osborne

Lew and Tom Osborne, ©The Digg Site Productions, photographer Christine Young

 

Lew says. “Boy, we really had a roll going. We certainly woke the town up to the fact we have a very serious problem and the reality is the problem still exists. I don’t think it’s going to subside.”

The nonprofit he launched has since been absorbed into a state Health and Human Services program.

Superior Express publisher Bill Blauvelt says the Hunters are a presence in that tiny community.

“Lew and Pam have been active on many fronts. When they take on a project it is a joint effort. You don’t get one with out the other. They have financially supported many community activities and encouraged programs.  Last summer they brought in a painter to work on their homes and then kept finding work so that he and his crew stayed the entire summer. They provided a house for the men to stay in.

“Their homes are always open. If we have important people coming to town and they need a place to stay, you can count on the Hunters to provide lodging. The colony program has brought lots of visitors to town, many of whom spend freely while here. And the colony has brought me friends.  Often I have been invited to attend their get acquainted picnics and late night parties.”

 

 

Desperate Lives Poster

 

Finding his niche as teacher and author

After If Tomorrow Comes and before Fallen Angel. Hunter began teaching at UCLA in 1979. From the start, he’s taught grad students.

“I love that. Undergraduates, they know too much – they haven’t been knocked around as the graduate students.”

He says teaching screenwriting while penning scripts himself proved fruitful.

“It was great. I’d be working on a script and I’d realize. ‘I can’t do this,” because I just told students they’re not supposed to have two people in a room agree with each other – one of my dictums.”

His classes became popular, especially 434. Each student starts with a synopsis and they’re guided step by step to create an outline, story points, and by the end of the class they have a first draft screenplay.

“Then somebody said, Why don’t you put your class on paper?’ I said, ‘That’s a good idea.'”

He says. “Other screenwriting books are ABOUT screenwriting but they don’t tell you HOW TO write a screenplay, they don’t give you the caveats you get on a professional level. Not only do I tell you how to write a screenplay I tell you how 80 to 90 percent of professionals write a screenplay.”

As more than one person in Once in a Lew Moon states, Hunter demystified the screenwriting process and made it accessible to everyone. Like the evangelist he is for screenwriting, he even spread the gospel doing workshops around the world in his aw-shucks style.

“From me, you don’t get this academic bullshit you get from other people who have only learned from a book or they’re failed screenwriters. They give misinformation. I would not have gone into professing had I not been successful. If you go to IMDB you’ll see it’s a pretty long list of stuff I’ve done – probably over a hundred hours of actually writing stuff and producing it. I’m really quite proud of that.”

Front Cover

 

He’s also proud he and his colleagues helped “professionalize” the screenwriting program at UCLA.

“We have more professionals professing.”

Since the program produces many grads who work in the industry, there’s a deep talent pool of writers who come back to teach. Their experience gives students is a taste for how things really work.

“We try to recreate what they’re going to face when they go out into the professional world with the meetings and note sessions before they actually write the screenplay and polish the screenplay.”

Soon into his teaching career he and a group of his students formed the Writers Block, a monthly social for writers. Newly divorced at the time, he offered to host it at his three-bedroom Burbank home.

This open house started small but grew like wildfire.

“The first one had about 20-25 people, then we got 40 and then 40 became 70 and 70 became…until eventually we got hundreds. People would come in and out over the evening. Professional writers dropped by because they liked the atmosphere. We socialized and bull-shitted.

I’ve always felt we writers socialize but we don’t party – it’s too frivolous. It was a wonderful thing.”

In the documentary, former students express gratitude for Hunter creating “a community” of writers. When Pamela entered Lew’s life she became part of the scene. Once Lew and Pamela adopt you, you not only have the keys to their heart but to their house, too.

The last Writers Block in ’99 was held off-site to accommodate the 1,000-plus attendees.

“We closed it down when we moved back to Nebraska,” he says. “Going back to the roots,” he calls that full circle relocation.

He and Pamela will be buried in the Guide Rock cemetery.

“We’ll be stacked,” he says. “The one that goes first will be on the bottom and the one after that will be on top. That’ll raise some gossip.”

 

Hunter, Senstock B & W

Lew and Lonnie Senstock

 

 

Once in a Lew Moon

The documentary about Lew is a passion project for director Lonnie Senstock, who regards the Hunters as surrogate parents.

“Well, he wanted to do something about me,” Lew recalls. “He came to the colony and shot a lot of footage. That was a decade ago. He’s been working on this sucker for 10 years. Very shortly on into the relationship he said, ‘I’d like you and Pamela to be my parents.’ His parents died within a ear of each other. We said sure and so he calls us papa and mama and we’re cool with that. He’s a really nice man.”

Senstock says the film could have gone a different direction when he and Lew experienced some difficulties in their lives. But, he adds, “I found myself celebrating something beautiful instead of something dark. I didn’t realize it was going to be that way until Lew and I talked about the celebration of writing. We realized it was bigger than him. We really wanted it to celebrate that life that so seldom is given kudos.”

Hunter appreciates that focus, “Everybody in it is talking about  screenwriting. I like that.” He likes, too, how it overturns the idea that    somehow actors and directors just make up movies as they go along.

“There are men and women who write these things.”

Meanwhile, this old lion of cinema, now battling illness, is readying his next book, Lew Hunter’s Naked Screewriting: 25 Academy Award-winning Screenwriters Bare their Art, Craft, Soul and Secrets.

Whatever’s happening with him, he still makes time for past-present students. He’s frequently sought out to consult on scripts and projects. He makes himself available 24-7.

“I’ve always thought being accessible was the right thing to do.”

Besides, he says, “I identify so much with people who are dreamers.”

Once in a Lew Moon screens Sunday, March 12 at 3:45 p.m. at Marcus Village Pointe Cinema in Omaha.

Follow Lew’s adventures at http://www.lewhunter.com.

 

 

 

Nebraska Coast Connection: Networking group ties Nebraskans in Hollywood

January 6, 2014 1 comment

Upon discovering there’s a networking group for Nebraskans in Hollywood called the Nebraska Coast Connection it’s not surprising for someone to ask, There are Nebraskans in Hollywood?  Yes, and a lot more than you might think.   The fact is there have always been Nebraskans in that strange and alluring land of make-believe.  A surprising number of natives of this Midwestern state have played and continue playing prominent roles there, both behind the camera and in front of the camera, all the way from the motion picture industry’s start through the advent of television and more recently the dawn of multi-media platforms.   The story that follows is my profile of the Nebraska Coast Connection for an upcoming issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com).

Much of my story is based on interviews I did with the Nebraska Coast Connection’s founder and president, Todd Nelson, a Holdrege, Neb. native who’s been doing his thing in Hollwyood for 30 years.  His group’s monthly Hollywood Salon has become its signature event.   This part social mixer and part professional seminar allows folks to tout their projects and to hear featured speakers, such as Oscar-winner Alexander Payne.  I also have insights and impressions about the organization from three of the biggest names from here in Hollywood: filmmaker Alexander Payne, whose new film Nebraska is sure to fare well at the Oscars; writer-producer-director Jon Bokenkamp, whose hit new NBC series The Blacklist has elevated him to the prime time A-list; and former network executive and script writer Lew Hunter, who’s retired from the craziness but knows where the bodies are buried.  All speak glowingly about the nurturing nature of the group and how it offers a home away from home environment in what can be otherwise a cold, harsh culture for those working in the industry or aspiring to.

I can speak to the warm hospitality offered by the group based on two recent experiences I had with it.  I was there for the Sept. 9 Hollywood Salon featuring Payne and for a Nov. 16 screening of Payne’s Nebraska at Paramount Studios.  I was also the featured speaker for its Nov. 11 salon.  Todd Nelson was my gracious host each time.

This blog is filled with stories and interviews I’ve done with film figures, famous and not so famous.  Much of that work as well as related activity I’m now purusing will feed into an eventual book about Nebraskans in Hollywood, past and present.  I am the author of the current book, Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film.

Todd Nelson generously provided a set of photos for my story taken by homself and some other NCC stalwarts.

The Reader Jan. 9, 2014

photo credits:
TIM WOODWARD, TRAVIS BECK, TODD NELSON, DAVID WILDER

Nebraska Coast Connection: Networking group ties Nebraskans in Hollywood

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

photo

Alexander Payne at the Sept. 9 salon

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Todd Nelson interviewing Payne at the Sept. 9 salon

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Some of the crowd at the recent Hollywood Salon featuring Payne

Dreamers from Neb., as from everywhere else, have flocked to Hollywood since the motion picture industry’s start.

Softening the harsh realities of making it in Tinsel Town’s dog-eat-dog world, where who you know is often more vital than what you know, is the mission behind the Nebraska Coast Connection. This networking alliance of natives already established in Hollywood or aspiring to be is the brainchild of Todd Nelson, a Holdrege son who’s been in Hollywood since 1984. A former Disney executive, his company Braska Films produces international promos for CBS.

Early in his foray on the coast Nelson was aided by industry veterans and once settled himself he felt an obligation to give back.

His own Hollywood dream extends back to childhood. He made an animated film with his father, created neighborhood theatricals and headlined a magic act, ala home state heroes Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett, that netted a recurring spot on a local TV show and gigs around the state.

“I guess I didn’t know any better and nobody ever told me I couldn’t do it, so I just kept at it,” Nelson says.

As a University of Nebraska-Lincoln theater and broadcast journalism major he made the then-Sheldon Film Theatre (now the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center) his film school.

“To see classic movies and to meet the filmmakers behind some of them was just a fantastic experience and a real eye opener for me.”

Frustrated by limited filmmaking ops at UNL, he talked his way into using Nebraska Educational Television production facilities to direct a one-act play for the small screen. He also worked as a KETV reporter-photojournalist in the ABC affiliate’s Lincoln bureau.

He was an extra in Terms of Endearment during the feature’s Lincoln shoot.

An internship brought Nelson out to the coast, where he worked behind-the-scenes on a soap and later served as personal assistant to TV-film director Paul Bogart (All in the Family). After five years as a senior project executive at Disney he left to produce and direct the documentary Surviving Friendly Fire.

Nelson formed NCC in 1992. A couple years later he befriended fellow Nebraskan Alexander Payne, then gearing up to make his first feature, Citizen Ruth. Payne was looking for an L.A. apartment and Nelson leased him a unit in the building he managed and lived in. The neighbors became friends and the Nebraskans in Hollywood community Nelson cultivated grew.

“He’s a terrific guy,” Payne says of Nelson “He is, as they say, good people.”

In 1995 Nelson inaugurated NCC’s signature Hollywood Salon series. He knew he was onto something when the first event drew hundreds. His strong UNL ties brought support from the school’s foundation.

The monthly Salon has met at some iconic locations, including the Hollywood Athletic Club and CBS sound stages. Its home these days is the historic Culver Hotel in Culver City, Calif., whose namesake, Nebraskan Harry Culver, attracted the fledgling movie industry to his city in the 1920s. Many Golden Era stars kept residences at the hotel, which purportedly was owned by a succession of Hollywood heavyweights. In this ultimate company town, the hotel is next to Sony Pictures Studios, giving the salon the feel of an insiders’ confab.

Culver Hotel
Payne’s guest appearances draw overflow crowds. Some 200 attended the Sept. 9 program Nelson hosted. The acclaimed writer-director shared off-the-record dope on the making of his Nebraska, candid comments about the state of movies today and advice for actors and writers hoping to collaborate with him. He took questions from the adoring audience, many of whom he’s gotten to know from past salons, posed for pictures and made small talk.
In addition to Payne, the salon’s featured other Nebraskans: actress Marg Helgenberger (CSI and the new series Intelligence), writer-producer Jon Bokenkamp (The Blacklist), filmmaker Nik Fackler (Lovely, Still) and actor Chris Klein (Election).
Marg Helgenberger (CSI and the new series Intelligence) getting in the spirit of things at a Nebraska Coast Connection Christmas party
Nelson interviewing filmmaker-musician Nik Fackler

The group boasts a mailing list of more than 1,000 and nearly as many anecdotes from those who’ve found fellowship, employment, even love, through its ranks.

Payne likes that NCC affords a kind of Neb. fraternity in Hollywood.

“It’s wonderful and hilarious. It’s hilarious in the way that being from Neb. is hilarious. Maybe people from other states do the same, but I know the Neb. version of how they seek one another out in other cities. I know there’s a Neb. club of some sort in New York City. The state’s members of Congress host a Nebraskans breakfast in D.C.

“Nebraskans feel comfortable with one another outside of Neb. and I am no exception, I enjoy the group, we have a shared sensibility, a shared sense of humor, shared childhood references. And Todd is a forceful personality. He’s the most benevolent, charismatic cult leader one could imagine,” he says with a wink.

According to Nelson, “There is something really unique about Nebraskans. We belong together in this way that no other place does. I have watched other groups come and go trying to duplicate what we do and every group without fail has just fallen apart, and some of them are from the Midwest, so it’s not just the Midwest thing.”

Payne’s far past needing the NCC’s connections but he says, “I’m very happy to continue my participation as an occasional guest speaker.”

Bokenkamp does the same. The Kearney native parked cars when he first got out there. He did have a script but no idea how to get it to anyone that mattered. At Nelson’s urging Bokenkamp entered a screenwriting contest. He won. It got him an agent and eventually jobs writing features (Taking Lives) and even directing a pic (Bad Seed).

Nelson enjoys aiding folks get their starts in the business.

“There’s definitely a thrill watching new people realize their own potential,” he says. “Jamie Ball from Grand Island wanted to be an editor. I’ve given her a chance and she’s working in the big leagues now as a video editor, making a substantial living and finding she really enjoys living her dream. I love being a part of making that happen.

“But I also get the benefit of her good work and it’s enabled me to get home to see my son more often and to take a sick day once in a while. It’s a huge help to have her on my team.”

Payne’s first Oscar passed around at a salon

Against all odds small population Neb’s produced an inordinate number of success stories in film and television, including several legends. The star actors alone run the gamut from Harold Lloyd and Fred Astaire to Robert Taylor, Henry Fonda and Dorothy McGuire to Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift to James Coburn, Sandy Dennis, Nick Nolte and Marg Helgenberger. At least one major studio mogul, Darryl Zanuck, originally hailed from here. As have leading composers. cinematographers, editors, writers and casting directors.

Payne heads the current crop, but he’s hardly alone. Most homegrown talents are not household names but they occupy vital posts in every facet of the biz. For each hopeful who makes it, such as producer-writer Timothy Schlattmann (Dexter) from Nebraska City, many others give up. Having a sanctuary of Nebraskans to turn to smooths the way.

Nelson credits former UNL theater professor Bill Morgan with sparking the concept for NCC.

“He was the one who really put the idea of a Neb. connection in my brain. I would always visit with him when back home for Christmas and he would pull out a stack of holiday cards from all his old students. I’d say to him that I don’t know so-and-so, they were before or after my time. He would write down their contact info and nudge me to get in touch with them. He just thought we all should know each other. And inevitably when I did follow up, they would always welcome me into their lives because we shared Dr. Morgan…even if it was from a different era. That was the seed of the NCC right there.”

NebrStars

Among those UNL grads Nelson looked up was the late Barney Oldfield, a Tecumseh native who was a newspaper reporter and press aide to Allied commander Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower during World War II before becoming a Warner Bros. publicist and independent press agent to such stars as Errol Flynn, Ronald Reagan and Elizabeth Taylor. In his post-Hollywood years he worked in corporate public relations and became a major philanthropist.

“Barney was an amazing guy. He became a big supporter of the Coast Connection,” Nelson says. “We hosted his 90th birthday party at CBS on the big stage. He regaled us with stories of his old PR days and knowing everybody under the sun.”

Another of the old guard Nelson called on was Guide Rock native Lew Hunter, a former network TV executive and script writer whose 434 Screenwriting class at UCLA became the basis for a popular book he authored. Hunter, who today leads a screenwriting colony in Superior, Neb., offered a model for what became the salon.

“He used to do what he called a Writer’s Block when he still lived in Burbank,” Nelson says. “It was a kind of salon. He’s seen that our salon continues that, so he’s a big supporter.”

Hunter says, “Todd and I often thought and spoke about a similar monthly gathering of Nebraskans and he pulled it off. It has been a wonderful spin and he really is the father of it all.”

But what really compelled Nelson to form NCC was the stark reality that even though hundreds of Nebraskans worked in Hollywood, few knew each other and there was no formal apparatus to link them.

“I’d been working in Hollywood already 10 years and meeting a lot of Nebraskans and nobody seemed to know each other. We needed to have access to each other.”

Thus, the all-volunteer Nebraska Coast Connection was born.

“People teasingly called it the Nebraska Mafia, but it was kind of like that – we could take care of each other.”

Variety managing editor Kirsten Wilder, yet another Neb. native in Hollywood, has a warm feeling for the group and marvels at its founder’s persistence.

“The NCC is near and dear to my heart. The reason the NCC is so successful is because of Todd Nelson’s staggering devotion to keep the group alive and thriving.”

Nelson defers credit to the natural conviviality of Nebraskans.

“You get these people that come out here from Neb. and it doesn’t matter where they’re from in the state, it doesn’t matter that they don’t have a direct contact with someone else, the fact that you are from Neb. is an instant welcome. It’s not entirely universal. I met Nick Nolte at the Golden Globes one year and I told him about our group and I said we’d love to have him come and talk to us sometime and he said, ‘Why would I want to hangout with a bunch of Nebraskans? I got away from that place.’ That’s a rarity, once in a while you run into it, but most of the time we find that everybody just connects instantly.”

A tribute screening of silent screen great Harold Lloyd’s work brought inspired NCC members to don replicas of the icon’s signature horned-rim glasses

Nelson says that in what can be a cold, rootless town NCC provides “a safe haven” that comes with the shared identity and experience of being among other Nebraskans .

“We call it Home Sweet Home in Hollywood and it has that quality to it. You need a home base I think if you’re going to do this kind of hard work of always having to put yourself out there and come up against the sharks of the world. I don’t think growing up in Neb. especially prepares you for how hard it will be to actually make it while you ply your trade and build your career. Hollywood just isn’t very nurturing. You can really use a community out here to help you get your bearings and give you a leg up. Or at least some friendly faces to be yourself with as you make your way.”

Bokenkamp admires what Nelson and the group provide.

“His love for Neb. runs deep, and he’s found a way to channel that love into a really positive networking group with the Nebraska Coast Connection. NCC is a warm, energetic and creative environment. Todd just wants to see people succeed.

“Thing is, in a land as strange as Hollywood, it’s just nice to have a place to go now and then that feels like home. NCC is that for a lot of Nebraskans.”

Payne says he can appreciate how NCC makes negotiating Hollywood less lonely and frightening for newcomers.

“L.A. is such a scary place to approach when you’re young and want a career in film or television. Everyone is telling you you can’t make it, perhaps you’re even telling yourself that, but you’ve giving it a try anyway. Add to that the fact you’re from Neb. and have no connections. Well, it turns out there is an organization that welcomes you and has people in exactly the same boat there to commiserate with. It’s a wonderful, caring organization.”

Nelson says without the NCC it’s easy for some to give up their dream.

“I’ve seen many people go back home after a few years of waiting for their break and not getting very far. Pressure from parents and friends is part of it. People in Neb. don’t really get how long and hard these careers can be to get started. There’s no distinct ladder to climb, no road map, lots of horror stories and kids here can run out of money or run out of steam. That’s when a ‘safe’ job back home near the folks looks more and more attractive.

“I’ve had many parents tell me they wouldn’t let their kid try it in Hollywood without the safety net we give them.”

Nelson says NCC offers a way to make foot-in-the-door contacts that parlay a kind of pay-it-forward, Neb.-centric nepotism.

“I know the NCC works because I see it over and over. People are constantly making job contacts, finding support, getting roommates, attending each other’s performances, hiring actors and crew for their films. It is going on all the time at every Salon. Hopefully it will happen even more with the interactivity built into the new website. Our goal is to have a kind of virtual salon to help everyone stay in touch with each other in between salons.”

“Even after some folks reach some level of success they come back often and say it gives them a friendly home base.”

Real jobs result from NCC hook-ups.

“As a producer who has hired or recommended over a dozen people to work at CBS-TV over the years, including a young Jon Bokenkamp, I know this group to be a huge resource of great talent. I don’t ever need to go elsewhere to find the best people,” Nelson says.

Nelson’s quick to point out he’s not alone in his home state loyalty.

Jeopardy executive producer Harry Friedman is from Omaha and he is famous for hiring Nebraskans on his shows. Many others out here from Neb. recommend Nebraskans first. Why wouldn’t they? It always makes sense to hire people you know, or know where they came from, and Nebraskans are almost universally loved for their work ethic, responsibility under pressure and humble ‘get it done’ spirit.”

Nelson says he’s pleased the NCC, which rated a fall L.A. Times feature article, has made it this far.

“I don’t think if you told me 21 years ago that we’d still be going this strong I would have believed it. In fact, it’s kind of moving into some new levels. For example, with the Nebraska screening at Paramount I was able to reach out to all these folks who’ve been salon guests and they were very excited about it.”

Besides Nelson and Payne, attendees at the screening included Bokenkamp, Chris Klein, actor Nicholas D’Agosto and actress turned-mystery author Harley Jane Kozak.

Celebrating success stories like these is part of the deal. But Nelson says the heart of the NCC “will always be a group focused first on the kid that’s been out here for a week, that drove out in his dad’s car full of stuff, is staying on somebody’s couch and has 500 bucks to his name. I mean, that’s really what we’re here to do and that’s going on every month at the salon – somebody showing up for the first time who’s in that circumstance. That’s the way it works.”

Cinematographer Greg Hadwick showed up like that out of Lincoln, recalls Nelson. “I think he drove all night to make it to the salon.” No sooner did Hadwick arrive then he learned Nelson and his then-very pregnant wife were due to move that weekend and he volunteered to help.

“He was just a trooper,” says Nelson. “He rented a truck and stayed late. He was such an incredibly hard worker. He didn’t ask for any money and he wouldn’t take any. The next salon I told the group what he did and somebody who was looking for an assistant hired Greg based on my recommendation, and that kid has gone on to work his butt off in Hollywood, He just showed up, open, ready to jump in. He’s now started his own production company and brought guys out here from his hometown in Neb., so he’s kind of doing his own giving back.”

Nelson says he can usually spot who has what it takes.

“I’ve seen a lot of those kids who try to make it for awhile who don’t stick. Then there’s the ones that right away I know, Oh, yeah, they’re going to do it. There is a certain confidence, I don’t think you can make it in this town without that confidence. But there’s so much more to it than that. In so many ways it’s about, Do they have something to give? There’s a lot of people that come out here and they think, Well, what can I get out of this? Almost without exception the ones who make it are the ones who want to give back.

“I’ll back these people a hundred percent and help them on their way because that’s what you do here, that’s what it’s about.”

The reciprocity continues. Nelson and Payne attended the dedication of Bokenkamp’s restored World Theatre in his hometown of Kearney. Nelson says,  “It was a great celebration of Jon’s good work.” Nelson also organized a group to attend a screening of Bokenkanp’s documentary about the waning days of drive-in theaters, After Sunset. Bokenkamp returned the favor speaking at the October salon. The home state contingent turned out in force for the Paramount Nebraska screening. And so it goes with the Coast Connection.

“There’s never been a time when it’s felt like a one-way street,” says Nelson. “It always comes back.”

Follow the Coast Connection on Facebook or at http://hollywoodsalon.org/.

Payne, Bokenkamp and Nelson at dedication of the restored World Theatre in Kearney, Neb.

Omaha Film Festival celebrates seven years of growing the local film culture

February 1, 2012 11 comments

Though I’ve written about the Omaha Film Festival since its inception in 2006 this is the first time I’ve posted a story about it because I was concerned readers might mistake an article about the 2011 or 2010 or whatever festival as being current.  The following piece for Metro Magazine is an overview of how and why the fest came to be and offers a general idea of what to expect at the 2012 event, which runs March 7-11.  As a film buff and former film programmer I’ve always been impressed by how well organized the festival is and by the range of films and programs it offers. The three founders who continue to make the fetival go –Jason Levering, Jeremy Decker, and Marc Longbrake – are quoted extensively in the piece.  They’re all filmmakers themselves and it’s a big reason the event has such a focus on craft through its filmmaking conference, which annually draws big industry names.

 

 

 

 

Omaha Film Festival celebrates seven years of growing the local film culture

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in the February 2012 issue of Metro Magazine

 

The Omaha Film Festival has become a go-to staple on the local culture scene for its premiere screenings, top-notch panels and special events

In 2005 three filmmakers frustrated by the metro’s sparse independent cinema offerings took matters in their own hands to launch the Omaha Film Festival. As the March 7-11, 2012 event approached, the founders expressed satisfaction at having made it this far and growing the area’s film culture.

Filling a gap

It’s expected OFF will screen as many as 90 films from dozens of countries at the Great Escape Cinema 16. All the movies will make their Nebraska premiere. In its short history the event’s presented some 500 films from around the world and hosted award-winning filmmakers working in features, documentaries, shorts and animation. Upwards of 4,000 moviegoers attend each year.

Movie Maker Magazine named the OFF among the “top 25 film festivals worth the entry fee” – high praise for a still young event.

“I knew it was something we could do and do great,” says OFF director Jeremy Decker, an Omaha native now based in Austin, Texas.

The vital film scene Omaha enjoys today simply didn’t exist before. When OFF began, Film Streams was still two years from opening. When it came to indie art films, documentaries and shorts, cineastes had few options to feed their fix.

Executive director Jason Levering says, “The things that Film Streams and the festival offer are things that just weren’t readily available to the community before. Without those two entities I don’t think Omaha would have an outlet for it.”

Program director Marc Longbrake says the festival filled “a gap” no one else seemed willing or able to fill at the time. Decker says the prevailing thought behind the fest was, “Wouldn’t it be great if people here could get the same experience people get in many other cities across the country?” Besides, he says, everyone he and his comrades talked to agreed “it would be good for the city and for film lovers and for people who want to learn the craft.”

A festival is often the only theatrical screening filmmakers get for their work. Decker says there’s nothing like the thrill of seeing your baby on the big screen.

 

 

 

 

Craft

As the organizers are both film buffs and filmmakers, they designed a festival that not only screens pictures but presents film artists in Q&As and panel discussions. Its annual conference devoted to craft has featured many notables, including Oscar-winners Mike Hill (editor) and Mauro Fiore (cinematographer), screenwriter Shane Blake, producer-writer-director Daniel Petrie Jr. and script guru Lew Hunter.

Producer-director Dana Altman, whose midtown Image Arts Building is where the OFF offices and parties, has also been a panelist. Filmmaker Nik Fackler, too.

“The conference is a huge part of what we do and it’s got to be a special event every year,” says Levering. “So we do our best to fill those professional seats with people who really understand the business and who are exciting to hear.”

Putting established film pros in the same room with emerging or aspiring filmmakers sparks a certain creative synergy and fosters connections and collaborations. Establishing more of a film community or collective is just what Decker, Levering and Longbrake hungered for. They got a taste of it attending other festivals and decided to make it happen here, where filmmaking circles once isolated from each other have grown more inclusive.

“It’s a like-minded thing,” says Longbrake. “We all have this common thing centered around filmmaking. We all bring that passion. That was a big impetus to do this. We’ve seen people meet at our festival and then a screenwriting group springs out of that or you see five people who didn’t know each other last year working on a film together this year. It’s a point of pride for us to see that.

“The quality of locally made films has gone up significantly. If we’ve had a small hand in that with our conference then were proud of that and glad.”

 

 

 

 

Connections

In an industry all about relationships, every advantage helps. It’s about who you know and networking to get a foot inside the door for a pitch or meet.

“You get a chance to meet producers, directors, screenwriters. It’s an opportunity and a handshake that could lead to future business. We’re connecting those dots for the local film artists,” says Longbrake. “I’m always struck by a statement producer Howard Rosenman made here: He said, ‘You cannot make it in this business unless you know somebody and right now you know me. So, if something happens and you find yourself in L.A., you now have an in.'”

Longbrake says one such connection led to a Hollywood gig.

“We had a young filmmaker here in town who met Dan Petrie Jr. at the festival. They talked, shared a beer at one of our parties, and within six months he was out in L.A. working on a project with Dan Petrie Jr. We hear stories like that every year.”

This exclusive, in-the-know aspect of a festival is “a huge part” of the appeal, says Longbrake. People naturally like attending premieres and being privy to behind-the-scenes tidbits, not to mention rubbing shoulders with film veterans

“Screenwriter Ted Griffin last year talked about Tower Heist. He railed on how horrible this film he wrote was going to be. We got to interact with him, ask him questions, and then when it came out nine months later we knew some insider stuff about this movie,” says Longbrake.

“Three years ago we had Mauro Fiore talk about how this movie Avatar he worked on was going to be awesome. He went on about James Cameron creating a whole world with blue people…and then of course Avatar came out and smashed all the records,” says Decker.

Levering says, “I think one of the biggest highlights was when we had Shane Black come back last year for a second helping of the festival. Shane talked about an upcoming project, Iron Man III, that’s highly anticipated, and he actually shared some insight he hadn’t shared with anyone before. We got some notoriety because no one else had heard that yet. It was kind of a cool thing that he felt comfortable enough to tell the audience.”

Bigger than the sum of its parts

Guest appearances by select cast and crew from featured films are another festival tradition. As are opening and closing night parties. Indeed, there’s an official party every night. Pre-release and Oscar parties in February whet film buffs’ appetites for the March fest. Special preview screenings in the summer give the fest a year-round presence. It’s all part of adding cinema value and extending the OFF brand.

“We’re trying to create more memorable moviegoing experiences than just going to Twilight and going home and talking about it with your friends,” says Longbrake.

Then there are those films whose profile subjects attend: the parents of teens lost in the Iowa Boy Scout tornado tragedy; Madonna Rehabilitation patients who survived trauma; and a young woman abducted by North Korean agents and held in servitude before her release.

The months-long process of screening entries finds organizers and judges discovering their personal favorites and championing them for selection. A festival finally emerges from all the politicking and debating.

“You get excited about a particular film and you just want other people to see it,” says Longbrake, “and then months later there’s a crowd of people watching the film and having a shared experience.”

He says he and his co-directors go from theater to theater as movies play to gauge response. Nothing’s better than the thumbs-up or nods or approval appreciative audiences give as they file out.

To make all the moving parts work smoothly the OFF relies on volunteers. Sponsors help underwrite OFF and its prizes.

To inquire about volunteer-sponsor opportunities, call 402-203-8173. For details on the 2012 fest, including all-access pass info, visit http://www.omahafilmfestival.org.

“Out of Omaha” aka “California Dreaming” project adds to area’s evolving indie filmmaking scene

January 14, 2012 5 comments

Several years ago I did this story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) about an independent film that shot in the city where I live, Omaha, Neb.  At the time the project went under the title Out of Omaha, only the film ended up getting released as California Dreaming.  I’ve never seen it and I guess I don’t much care to since the reviews I find are mostly negative, though I do admit to a parochial interest in catching views of my burg on the big screen.  Movies, indie or studio, small or large, rarely get made here, and if it wasn’t for Alexander Payne this place would truly be off the radar of filmmakers.  The feature film production pace did pick up for a time in the late 1990s and early 2000s and probably peaked right around the time this movie shot and this story appeared (2006). Nik Fackler revived things with his Lovely, Still a few years ago. But it’s been pretty quiet since.  I wrote the story in the hopeful but misguided spirit that a lively feature filmmaking scene was upon us here, but  it just hasn’t been so, and it likely won’t be as long as tax incentives are not offered to film companies and as long as Omaha colleges and universities fail to offer full-fledged film programs. California Dreaming-Out of Omaha writer-director, Linda Voorhees has family connections to Nebraska and she counts as her mentor native and resident Lew Hunter, whose Superior, Neb. screenwriting colony she read and workshopped her then fledgling script at.  This blog features a profile I wrote of Hunter after spending a few days at his colony.

 

“Out of Omaha” aka “California Dreaming” project adds to area’s evolving indie filmmaking scene

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

As further proof of the robust cinema scene evolving in Omaha, where little niche features regularly shoot after years of film inactivity here, there’s Out of Omaha, a modestly-budgeted indie with a “name” cast. The NoHo Films International venture was scheduled to wrap principal photography October 12 following a 20-day shoot.

Second unit work may continue through week’s end on the pic, described as a character-based comedy played straight about a dysfunctional clan whose aborted efforts to leave Omaha for a family vacation open old wounds and spur new values.

Like most such projects, this one has Nebraska ties. Writer-director Linda Voorhees, a native Californian and a UCLA visiting film professor, has relatives here. She also teaches at screenwriting-meister Lew Hunter’s script colony in Superior, Neb. She’s best known for the television movies Crazy from the Heart (wrote) and Two Mothers for Zachary (wrote and directed).

She’s been coming here since she was a child to visit her aunt and uncle, Martha and Larry West of Bellevue, and her cousins. She even used their homes as key film locations. She said her familiarity with the place and her warm regard for it and its people, is why she views her film as “a valentine to the city of Omaha.”

“I really, truly, and this not bullshit, have very positive feelings about this place,” she said. “I see it as a very sophisticated city and I see it incorrectly interpreted by people I meet who haven’t been to Omaha. I happen to think this city has a lot to offer. I’m very impressed with theater here. I’m very impressed with the music scene. I love downtown and Old Town (the Old Market).”

Out of Omaha centers on the Gainors, an upper middle class suburban family controlled by wife-mother Ginger, played by Lea Thompson (Caroline in the City), and indulged by husband-father Stu, played by Dave Foley (Kids in the Hall). Their 15-year-old daughter, played by Bellevue native Lindsay Seim, is full of teenage angst and rebellion. Seim said her character is “the catalyst” for a lot of the things that go awry on the journey.” She said her younger brother in the story is “hiding behind his Game Boy…trying to just go with the flow.”

The 40ish Ginger has regrets about past chances lost and aches for what’s beyond her hometown borders. Her family resists being force-fed her bitter dreams.

“It’s about her yearning for something bigger, not realizing that wherever she goes she’s going to be unhappy. It has nothing to do with Omaha. It has to do with her own sense of discontentment,” Voorhees said.

When Ginger pushes her family to ditch its traditional Branson vacation for a California RV trip she hopes relives an adolescent idyll, the family’s cracked seams come apart to reveal all the emotional stuffing inside. Their journey, which never makes it outside Omaha due to a series of family meltdowns, leads them right back where they started, only with a new understanding of each other.

Aiding and abetting the turmoil are the flighty Porters (Vicky Lewis and Ethan Phillips) and snobbish Aunt Connie (Patricia Richardson of West Wing).

By the end, Ginger realizes “what’s right here and wonderful in her own life and her own world. There’s a sense of there’s-no-place-like-home with this,” ala The Wizard of Oz, “but we’re doing a comedy version and without the music,” Voorhees said. Omaha’s virtues, she added, are intrinsic to this awakening.

“I do see Omaha as an arena and a setting, but also sort of as a terrific character.”

If the film is, as she said, “a big, sloppy, wet kiss to Omaha,” than it’s also a bow to the workshop process at Lew Hunter’s writing colony.

She calls Hunter, himself a longtime UCLA film instructor and author of popular books on the screenwriting trade, “my mentor” and “the one that taught me how to write screenplays.” She trusts his opinion enough that she first read her Out of Omaha script, then entitled Omahaulin’, at Hunter’s conference last year.

“I read the first 30 pages there just to see how it went and Lew gave me the first critique on it. You can’t ask for a better assessment of your writing and where you stand with it. He said, essentially, ‘All systems are go.’”

The colony, a pastoral workshop setting that unfolds in restored Victorian homes, is what brought together Out of Omaha producer Patricia Payne, a native Australian with decades of experience in the Aussie and American film industries, with Voorhees. Payne was at that initial reading of Voorhees’ script and through subsequent meetings with her “friend and colleague” she came to the conclusion “this is going to be good and this is something I want to be involved in.”

 

 

 

A film with Omaha in the title still doesn’t have to be shot here. So, why was it?

“It actually would have been cheaper for me it we’d shot it in L.A.,” Payne said, “because I wouldn’t need to fly actors and crew in here, but Linda and I both decided we wanted the authenticity, and we’ve got it, and it’s worth it.”

Voorhees said that she, along with cinematographer James Bartle and crew, have worked hard to capture Omaha’s essence on screen. “We’ve tried to get the shots that really convey the city, the heart and pulse in a true way, not in a cliched way, and I do believe we’ve been finding that.”

Rounding out the film’s local flavor is co-producer Dana Altman, president of North Sea Films in Omaha. His feature credits include directing The Private Public. Altman was referred to Payne by native son Dan Mirvish, the founder of Slam Dance and the director of festival favorite Omaha, the Movie, which Altman produced.

Only greenlighted recently, the project started shooting its summer-set story in late September. The production hauled ass to avoid losing the season.

“Logistically, the city’s been outstanding in the level of support they’ve given,” Altman said, “and they just always seem to be.”

Then there’s 2004 University of Nebraska theater grad Lindsay Seim, cast on the coast after the filmmakers auditioned several actresses there and in Omaha. The L.A.-based Seim has appeared in a couple smaller indie films, but ranks this as “the one with, by far, the most legitimate chance of going somewhere.”

Ironically, Seim’s mother, Sharon Seim, was hired as the film’s location director a few weeks before Lindsay was cast. Since retiring from the Bellevue Public Schools a few years ago, Sharon’s worked as location director for Altman’s North Sea Films, a commercial film/video house. Sharon’s husband and Lindsay’s father, Don Seim, was recruited as a transportation wrangler on the shoot.

“It’s been kind of neat having us all work on this,” said Lindsay, who plans returning one day to make a film with her roommate, an aspiring writer-director. “It’s really the people that make Omaha a good place to do an independent film. It has to be such a group effort and you really have to lean on people. Money can’t be the driving force behind it. It has to be heart. And the people here are so welcoming.”

The filmmakers agree, saying Omaha’s well-suited to follow the Robert Rodriguez paradigm of using friends and culling favors. Voorhees said, “I really see a push of independent film here…I hope our project continues the momentum. Omaha deserves it and has a rich talent pool to make it happen.” Or, as Payne put it, “It felt good to come here and do it, and do it now. That’s what said hello to me.”

Screenwriting adventures of Nebraska native Jon Bokenkamp, author of the scripts “Perfect Stranger” and “Taking Lives'”

November 28, 2011 7 comments

If you’re a follower of this blog, then you know I like writing about Nebraskans working in the film industry.  If you’re a newbie here, consider yourself warned.  The subject of the story that follows, Jon Bokenkamp, is a feature screenwriter with some major cerdits behind him.  He’s also directed one feature.  Lately, Bokenkamp’s taken a step back from his Hollwyood merry-go-round to return to his hometown, Kearney, Neb., where he is active in restoring the World Theatre.  Alexander Payne is probably the biggest name from the state doing his thing in film and you’ll find no shortage of stories by me about the filmmaker on this site.  I’ve written extensively about Payne and his work and will continue doing so.  But you’ll also find many stories I’ve done about lesser known but no less interesting figures from this place doing noteworthy things in cinema and television, including: Nik Fackler, Joan Micklin Silver, Yolonda Ross, Gabrielle Union, John Beasley, Gail Levin, Charles Fairbanks, Nicholas D’Agosto, Monty Ross, Vince Alston, Swoosie Kurtz.  Then there are individuals like Lew Hunter who worked as a producer and writer in Hollywood before becoming a screenwriting guru through his UCLA course and book. Screenwriting 434, and workshops.   There’s Click Westin, who churned out scripts for many a forgotten early TV dramatic series and doctored several feature scripts and whose lone produced feature screenplay, Nashville Rebel, starred  Waylon Jennings in the itle role.  There’s Oscar-winning cinematographer Mauro Fiore, who’s a transplant here.  Let’s not forget Oscar-winning editor Mike Hill, the subject of a profile soon to be added here.   Future posts will also profile Peter Fonda and Jane Fonda.  I would love to get around one day to interviewing-profiling Nick Nolte.  The man profiled in this post, Jon Bokenkamp, is not a household name but you’ve likely seen some of his handiwork on screen (Taking Lives or Perfect Stranger).

Jon Bokenkamp, ©photo Kearney Hub

 

 

Screenwriting adventures of Nebraska native Jon Bokenkamp , author of the scripts “Perfect Stranger” and “Taking Lives”

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

As screenwriter of the Angelina Jolie-Ethan Hawke thriller Taking Lives and with a story-by credit on the new Halle Berry-Bruce Willis suspenser Perfect Stranger, Nebraskan Jon Bokenkamp has defied the odds in Tinsletown.

Besides penning scripts that stars attach themselves to, as both Berry and Diane Lane did with his screenplay Need, a project now going forward with Nicole Kidman and Naomi Watts, he’s directed one feature, Bad Seed, from his own original script Preston Tylk. He’s also directed a feature length documentary (After Sunset) on that faded American movie tradition, the drive-in.

Opening this weekend, Stranger is based on an original story by Bokenkamp. The plot centers on Roe (Berry), a crusading investigative reporter who enters the cyber world of hookups to try and ID the killer of her best friend. A man she develops ambiguous feelings for, Harrison (Willis), may be the killer.

 

 

Perfect Stranger

 

 

Bokenkamp’s story originally captured the interest of Julia Roberts before she passed, perhaps he speculates because the material was “too dark for America’s Sweetheart.” Then, producers strayed from his version to, as he put it, “shop around” for writers to take it in “a new direction.”

Two new scribes took a stab at it before Todd Komarnicki, who has screenplay credit, finished the final version, including a new ending that reveals an entirely different killer. Berry signed on as the lead and James Foley as director.

The new ending was only added once shooting began. Such changes are par for the course in Hollywood. “These things just evolve so many times,” Bokenkamp said. “It’s only two pages,” he said, “but my God they change the whole color of everything that happened before.” He settled for story-by credit. As the original author, he had a case to “arbitrate” for a screenplay-by credit from the Writer’s Guild, but opted not to make waves.

Besides, he said, “it’s really a muddy way the credits are decided. It’s a really strange process.” So he swallowed his pride. “This was real simple. There was no hollering, which is unusual,” he said.

Another reason he didn’t fight is he felt ambivalent about the film, whose shooting script he’s read. “It’s a good twist, but I don’t feel like it reflects the story I wanted to tell. It ends up becoming a different movie.” The twist, he said, “is not what it’s about.” Despite it all, he said, “I believe in the movie.”

 His documentary about drive-ins, After Sunset
He recently led effort to restore the World Theatre in Kearney

 

 

Bokenkamp’s odyssey reprised what happened with Taking Lives and an old project he worked on years ago called WW3.COM (World War III.com), which “has finally risen from the ashes,” he said, “and evolved into Live Free or Die Hard, which is basically Die Hard 4.” His work on it is uncredited.

“It’s funny, I’m finding I’m the guy that generates the idea — I’m not the closer,” he said. “I’m not the guy who can come in with the punch lines and the big-movie-trailer, see-you-in-hell moments. But I’m the guy who gets the bones of it there.”

He may or may not see to fruition his new script, Night and Day, You Are the One, what he calls “kind of a Jacob’s Ladder love story.” He’s developing it for writer-producer Ehren Kruger (The Ring) at Universal and writer-director Mark Pellington (Mothman Prophecies). It’s proof he’s still in the game.

Not so long ago Bokenkamp was just another wannabe leaving behind a stolid life in his hometown of Kearney, Neb. to try his luck in loopy L.A. He was 20 and cheeky enough to be an aspiring director despite only a few Super VHS shorts and two undistinguished years at then-Kearney State College on his resume.

Without knowing a soul, he arrived out West in 1993. This was before Alexander Payne hit it big. Bokenkamp attended USC film school, a feeder for the industry.

He paid his dues in classic starving-Hollywood-hopeful-makes-good fashion. He wrote by day while he parked cars on the Universal lot and waited tables at night. He didn’t have a car for a time. He felt the frustration of being right outside the golden gates, yet no nearer to getting inside them than when back in Kearney.

Adrift in a sun-drenched town that turns a cold shoulder to anyone not remotely a Player, he reached out to the few made-Nebraskans he could find, including Lew Hunter, the UCLA screenwriting guru from Superior, Neb.

His radar next led him to Dan Mirvish, the mercurial filmmaker who finagled an editing suite at Paramount to cut his Omaha, the movie. Bokenkamp did an assistant editor internship on it, working on vintage upright moviolas. It was his first time on a lot other than as a valet.

When Bokenkamp realized Hollywood revolves around the desperate, Byzantine hunt for bankable material, he began writing. He entered a Fade In magazine contest for thriller scripts. Long story short, he won. He got an agent and lawyer and a job doing rewrites for William Friedkin (The French Connection, The Exorcist).

“I’ll never forget showing up to his office at Paramount,” Bokenkamp said. “His assistant had candles burning and the lights were all turned down like there was some kind of seance going on. There were dried flowers hanging everywhere, old pictures on the walls. The place was like a cave. I was really young and Friedkin is a daunting guy. I mean, he won the fucking Oscar…

“We originally met because he was interested in directing my script Preston Tylk. But as the budget got smaller and smaller I started to think to myself — ‘Why am I not directing this?” So I took the script back and eventually made the movie myself, but Friedkin liked my writing and hired me to rewrite Blood Acre…a really smart horror film…I remember we had one awful notes session where he just screamed and screamed about how terrible the script was. I did the two passes…in my contract and they never asked me back. I bumped into him a few years later and I’m not sure he even remembered me, but it was a real lesson in Hollywood.

“Since then, I’ve sort of compared ‘assignment writing’ to being a plumber, meaning, I might get hired to fix the toilet, but if I don’t do my job quickly and really well, they’re going to tell me to get out of the bathroom because they’ve called another plumber. Maybe that guy screws up and they have to call me back. That’s happened. But at the end of the day it’s a job.”

 Taking Lives

 

 

His first feature directing gig, Bad Seed, is a 2000 guy-on-the-run-hires-over-the-hill-private-eye flick starring Luke Wilson and Dennis Farina. The straight-to-video pic didn’t set the world on fire, but it did gain him a rep for thrillers, and you’re nothing in Hollywood if they can’t label you.

“From Bad Seed my niche kind of became small, dark thrillers, told from a single point of view, later from a female perspective,” he said. “I love detective movies. Klute is a favorite of mine. So you kind of build a niche as one thing that can make you a commodity. But I also think before that you have to have something you want to say, which sounds really cliche, but you really have to…

“I also think there’s really something to be said for being collaborative and easy to work with and just not being a prick,” he said. “There’s all these egos in the business and I think one of the things that’s helped me is I really feel I’m pretty easy to get along with. If you want me to try an idea, I’ll try it.”

Not surprisingly, the first-time director was frustrated by the “compromises” Warner Bros. forced on him. “It was a better script than a movie simply because of my inexperience as a director,” he said, “but I learned more those 30 days directing than I did in two years at USC.”

 

 

 Preston Tylk, aka Bad Seed

 

 

Even if he could direct on his own terms, he’s not sure it’s a good fit. “I would like to direct again,” he said, “but the lifestyle of it doesn’t match the lifestyle I like. I like the lifestyle of writing. It suits my family as well.” He’s married to his high school sweetheart, Kathy. They have two children. The couple gets back often to Nebraska to visit family and friends, staying summers at a cabin they keep near Johnson Lake. “I like sitting in a room writing, going and getting my Subway sandwich and coming back and getting it right on the page as opposed to being up 24 hours a day going crazy, pulling your hair out, wondering, ‘Why isn’t it raining?”

Bad Seed was to have reeked with a rain-soaked film noir ambience but Mother Nature didn’t cooperate and Warners couldn’t wait, so he scrapped the mood to make his days. Such are the concessions first-time directors make.

Since Bad Seed his scripts have mostly focused on kick-ass women.

“The strong female-driven element is something I gravitate to,” he said. “Female-driven movies feel smarter to me and it’s just a way to be different. You get a little more latitude with a female because she’s forced to stand up against the woman-in-the-boys-club type thing. It immediately puts us on her side…in her shoes.”

He said the input of his wife Kathy, a former school teacher, influences his interest in crafting formidable women characters.

“My wife can take a lot of credit for it. I don’t have a writing partner, so at the end of the day when I’m laying in bed staring at the ceiling, still writing, my wife is the one I talk to about it.”

He said Kathy’s been “completely supportive of his career,” even when he struggled those early years and even now when he freaks out between jobs.

“I always feel like I’m going from job to job,” he said. “That’s what’s exciting about it — going from one story to another, learning about something new. That’s the insecurity of it, too. You’re never quite sure where the next paycheck is coming from. And there’s not a 401K plan. The only difference (now) is that the paychecks have become a little bigger and my car is paid for.”

He said making it as a writer requires “an under appreciated scrapper kind of mentality.” He admits he’s not immune to fits of envy or pity. “At times I go, ‘Why am I not the guy writing Jurassic Park IV?’ But that kind of keeping-up-with-the-Jones mentality is something that terrifies me. I can’t put myself there. I just want to do stories that are close to my gut…I want to do the movies that are going to be remembered. I’m not saying any of mine are, but you gotta strive for that or otherwise I think you’re done.”

“One thing that scares me is if it stops. If suddenly people don’t want to work with me for some reason. I don’t know what I would do. I have a hard time imagining anything else. And I’m sure I always will write, whether I’m getting paid for it or not. Believe me, it’s not about the money, because there are a lot easier ways to go make lots more money. It’s just something I kind of have to do….I love to do.”

Dream catcher Lew Hunter: Screenwriting guru of the Great Plains

May 9, 2010 1 comment

A page of a screenplay I wrote in Latin based ...

Image via Wikipedia

For years I was aware of Lew Hunter but it was only a couple years ago I first met him, and he turned out to be every bit as interesting as I had heard and read about. Lew is the kind of personality who overturns some common misperceptions about Nebraskans.  Similarly, his long career in network television, his standing as a How-to script guru professor and author, and his pricey screenwriting colony in remote Superior, Neb. that draws aspirants from near and far all defy certain expectations about the people who populate this state and what they do.

Regarding that colony, I spent some time there one summer and the following story is the result. The piece originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com).

 

Dream catcher Lew Hunter

Screenwriting guru of the Great Plains

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in a 2008 edition of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

EDITOR’S NOTE: Writer Leo Adam Biga spent four days and three nights covering Lew Hunter’s most recent Superior Screenwriting Colony, which wrapped June 27.

Twice a year a fractured fairy tale unfolds in Nebraska’s Republican River Valley. Superior, a prosaic Nuckolls County border town of 2,055 in the state’s most far southern reaches, draws dreamers from near and far. They come, some half way across America, some across the globe, to learn at the feet of a professor whose laidback Socratic method is Aristotle meets Jimmy Buffett.

The wise man these acolytes seek out in this Margaritaville-on-the-Great Plains is screenwriting guru Lew Hunter, a favorite son of Superior, born and raised in nearby Guide Rock. He moved to Superior as a boy.

His warm, folksy manner belies his incisive mind and cosmo experience. In a Will Rogersesque way he’s both an innocent and a sophisticate, his humor part homespun cornpone and part sly wink. Yes, he’s a product of these agricultural backroads but he’s operated in the garish fast lane of L.A. as a network television executive and producer and as a screenwriter.

Gregarious and without an ounce of self-consciousness, Hunter bares all in front of guests — his surgically repaired knees, bulging midriff, failed first marriage, his foibles, successes, philosophies, his name-dropping anecdotes and fondness for quoting famous writers. He openly lavishes affection on his two dogs. He casually tells total strangers he and wife Pamela both suffer from ADHD.

“Oh, by the way, we’re first cousins,” he adds.

Too much information perhaps but the revelation and the relationship make sense upon meeting his earthy, instinctual, effusive wife. They’re soulmates.

“It’s wonderful because we know each other’s shit,” he said. “We figure out ways in which to handle it.”

Since 2001 the couple’s hosted a pair of two-week screenwriting colonies — one in June, another in September — in Superior, some of whose Victorian residences bear National Register of Historic Places merit. The Hunters, whose roots run deep there, own two turreted 19th century showplaces. They live in a two-story mansion, the former Beale House, they generously open to visitors.

Nearby is the former Day House, a three-story, 5,500 square foot grand dame. Two eccentric old maid sisters occupied it for decades. Their spirits may imbue it today. Pamela assures guests an Australian psychic’s reading, via phone, found a stream of energy flowing underneath. Pamela ascribes it to the Ogalalla Aquifer. Whatever the source, she calls it “a happy house” conducive to “creative people.”

The Colony House, as it’s referred to today, serves as home base for the workshop and as main quarters for registrants, who pay upwards of $2,500 to glean script basics from Hunter. His book, Screenwriting 434, now in its 12th printing, is a staple for aspiring scenarists. The title comes from the UCLA class he’s taught 29 years. The book’s a condensed version of the class, just as the colony’s a power form of it.

UCLA, where he’s been voted most popular teacher multiple times, has played a huge role in his life. He earned a second master’s degree there in 1959. His classmates included future cinema god Francis Ford Coppola. His appreciation of film was enhanced watching the latest “creative expressions” by Fellini, Antonioni, Truffaut, Godard, Bergman, Kurosawa, Ray at the famed Laemmle theater chain’s Los Feliz art cinema.

“That was a wonderful experience,” he said.

Lew holds court in T-shirt, shorts and bare feet, a Diet Dr. Pepper at the ready, a sharpened pencil behind one ear. He either motors between the two houses balanced on a scooter, resembling a circus bear atop a unicycle, or behind the wheel of his pea soup green Galaxy 500.

 

 

 

While professing he keeps near him a file folder bulging with years of lecture materials. He fishes out writerly quotes, excerpts or tidbits to share, referencing Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner, Joseph Campbell. He relates how as a Northwestern University grad student he asked guest lecturer John Steinbeck what to do to be a great writer. The legend’s response: “Write!”

Some sessions are just Lew talking off the top of his head. Unscripted. He doesn’t need a cheat sheet, he said, “because the structure is exactly the structure I do in a 10-week class.” At table readings he reads, aloud, students’ ideas or two-page outlines and offers verbal notes, inviting group feedback. He proffers precise analysis that constitute Lew’s Rules — nearly always delivered with a smile.

“Too little story.” “Too much story.” “What’s your story really about?” “Your imagination is the only restriction you have.” “Conflict, conflict, conflict.” “Story, story, story.” “Character, character, character.” “All comedy and all drama is based on the three-act structure.” “My paradigm is situation, consequences and conclusion.” “Don’t even think about writing down to the audience.”

His racing thoughts get ahead of his spoken words. An aside leads to a digression, then to a full-fledged anecdote. If Pamela interjects, he’s gone. Just as his original train of thought threatens to derail, he gets back on track, prompting one of his favorite Lewisms, “I interrupted myself.”

Colleagues from UCLA, Ohio University and other colleges help instruct. Pamela does the rest. She’s den mother, house keeper, cook, confessor, referee, cheerleader and friend. Like a sweet-sassy diner waitress she calls everyone “Hon” or “Sweetie.” The couple’s granddaughters and friends pitch in. But Pamela holds it all together on the homefront so Lew can do his thing. She makes a killer stew. There are pizza nights, picnics, to-die-for cinnamon rolls and libations aplenty.

The we’re-just-plain-folks couple set the tone for the kick-your-feet-back and have-a-few-brews colony. It’s as far removed from a stuffy academic setting as you can get. Lew tells his guests, almost as a mantra, “Great to have you here” or “So glad you’re here.” You get the feeling he means it, too. The first night he has all assembled introduce themselves. He welcomes each again, bragging about their work, which they’ve sent him, or about awards they’ve won.

First-time colonist Bill Schreiber from Florida won the CineQuest (San Jose, Calif.) screenwriting competition. The award generated enough buzz that his high concept thriller, Switchback, is being read by major studios. That may not have happened had Hunter not been at the fest and hooked him up with his ex-agent. Contacts. Networking. It’s how Hollywood works. How a screenwriter from nowhere’s-ville gets read.

“It’s a matter of getting read. But you’ve got to learn the craft before the art can come through,” Schreiber said, “because there is a structure to it and there is a pacing to it. It’s all about reaching people’s emotions. You handle them like a yo-yo, and that all has to do with structure.”

He came to Lew and Superior he said, “to learn from him and to just elevate what I do. This is all about helping people like me who aren’t in that mainstream. It’s a way in for a lot of us who may be very talented but just can’t get over the hump or can’t make that relationship. There’s a million ways in and it all starts with a great script. Everybody’s looking for that next great script.”

Unlike most attending the colony Schreiber once broke through the system, with his very first screenplay no less, produced as Captiva Island, starring Oscar-winner Ernest Borgnine. The film found international TV distribution. That instant success soon gave way to the industry’s vagaries, however.

“It was kind of a blessing and a curse because you don’t think you’re going to have to recreate the wheel each time,” he said. “I got my first one produced and I was like, OK, here I go. But it didn’t happen that way.”

His subsequent scripts didn’t sell and he spent the next several years running his own small media company. The itch to write movies burned. Winning a contest and getting his script into the right hands has him focused on his dream again.

“That gave me the confidence I needed to say, Hey, I can write something that’s going to get noticed. I have a window of opportunity here. I better jump through it and jump as hard as I can. So here I am still plugging away at it with Lew, eager to learn from one of the masters.”

Hunter advocates students submit to contests.

“Screenwriting competitions are very fair game and one of the best ways to get paid attention to. Bill (Schreiber) will probably tell you the best part of it is he got an agent,” said Hunter. Agents allow screenwriters to hurdle “the wall” between them and getting their work read. “The validation of an agent means something.”

Jim Christensen has a similar story as Schreiber’s. His This Old Porch won an Omaha Film Festival screenwriting award. His My Triple X Wife caught the eye of North Sea Films, the Omaha company whose president, Dana Altman, co-produced Nik Fackler’s Lovely, Still starring Oscar-winners Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn. North Sea’s optioned Christensen’s script. He’s worked many jobs but now that one of his pieces has earned money he’s pursuing screenwriting full-time.

“I feel like I’m at the stage where I’m confident I’ve got a little game but I really just want to take it to the next level because I want a career. I’m not looking for a big score, although that’d be nice.”

Alan Chang came all the way from Taiwan. A business leadership consultant, he  wants to return to his creative roots as an author-editor.

“I know I’m an artist so it’s time to be an artist before my dream dies,” he said. “My dream is I will be a J.K. Rowlings-plus-Ang Lee.”

Dr. Judy Butler, a family physician in Superior, has stories she’s dying to tell. New college grads Sam McCoy, Elayna Rice and Heather Williams are 20-somethings on the cusp of separate moves to L.A. to follow their screenwriting dreams.

Hunter well knows that hunger. “I identify so much with people who are dreamers,” he said. He was a well-heeled ABC executive when the urge or, more accurately, the obligation to be a writer overtook him.

“I had been for like four or five years telling writers how to write and never having made a living as a writer myself. It bothered me a lot because I really didn’t think I had the cachet. I mean, it’s very, very alarming to give notes to Paddy Chafesky, who I idolized, or Neil Simon.”

It was Ray Bradbury, whom he was working with on a project, who told Hunter he should try it. Hunter left ABC, making a pact with his first wife that if he didn’t make it in a year he’d find a job. Fifty-one weeks later none of the six screenplays he wrote had sold. Tapped out and with a family to support, he took a job as a body sitter at Forest Lawn cemetery. The ghoulish work entails sitting up with corpses and laying them down if they rise up from rigor mortis. He’d done it at an uncle’s funeral home in Guide Rock and again to pay his way through college.

The day before he was to start Aaron Spelling called saying he wanted to buy Hunter’s script, The Glass Hammer, which became If Tomorrow Comes. If it hadn’t sold at least Hunter knew he’d tried.

Giving up the dream is never really an option for someone bitten by the bug. “I’ve been pretty much a guy that ‘no’ is just a word on the way to ‘yes.’ If I really want something bad enough, I keep on it,” he said.

Growing up an only child, hearing ‘no’ was akin to issuing him “a challenge.” As far back as he can recall he was different. Bright beyond his years. His back story reads like something from a movie.

His classically-trained musician stage mother forced him into singing-dancing-music lessons. He could only watch MGM and Paramount musicals. He resisted. A domineering woman, Lew felt he had no one to turn to, especially after his farmer father suffered a debilitating stroke. A self-described “miscreant child,” Hunter acted out enough to land in a military academy, which he’d often slip away from to gamble with “the girls” in nearby brothels. More brothels figured in his life at Nebraska Wesleyan University.

He ached to be under the lights in New York or L.A. He studied drama as an undergrad, also immersing himself in radio-television work in Lincoln. He was a DJ, a floor manager, et cetera. He wished to study broadcasting at Northwestern but was rejected. Not taking no for an answer he garnered letters of support from Nebraska dignitaries and struck a bargain with officials to enroll on a probational basis. If he got all As, he stayed, if he got even one B, he’d leave. He stayed.

“That rebellious aspect of me is still part of me,” he said.

After learning his chops as a television director in Chicago, he packed up his Packard and headed west. He worked his way up the ranks at NBC, from the mail room to music licensing to promotion, then at ABC, where he broke into programming. Producing-writing followed. Hunter’s lived the dream and now he uses what he’s learned to make others feel they can realize theirs too.

“You’re all storytellers,” he says to students. “Stories, they’re all around you, and as writers it’s up to you to see them.”

The June colony was Jim Christensen’s first but he attended two OFF workshops Hunter gave. Count Christensen a disciple.

“His mind is so sharp,” he said of Hunter, “When he reads an idea…he’s like a butcher cutting away the fat. I think the advice is always right on.”

Before the colony he steeped himself in Hunter’s book. Required reading.

“His book lays out a process that I think is just perfect. I mean, I’ve read a lot of screenwriting books…I tried to do it everybody else’s way but Lew’s way is the way that worked best. It’s structured but there’s room to breathe. It’s not like that something has to happen on page 20. He has the benchmarks but otherwise it’s a more liberating way to go. It’s structured but loose, you know what I mean?”

Yes. It’s a lot like Lew — relaxed, intimate, positive. Like his UCLA class or colony.

“My own personality comes through in the book and I think that really connects with people,” Hunter said. “Everybody that reads it who knows me says, ‘God, it’s like being in your class, it is so informal.’”

He simply “put his class on paper.”

He believes it communicates his “love of the professing…love of writers. I love the writing fraternity and I’m very proud to be a writer. Writing for me is the most useful thing in the world on a spiritual and professional level. I really get so much out of it. I look at some of the writing I’ve done and I think, Well, that wasn’t me.”

Hunter likes to think of writers in terms of “divine inspiration” who act as “conduits for God. I really think that’s true. It’s a very spiritual thing.”

 

 

 

Not surprisingly, he doesn’t believe the writing process should be torture.

“I’m not a big fan at all of sitting in front of the keyboard until beads of blood pop out on your forehead. Most writers will tell you how hard it is…For me, hard is being on the end of a shovel helping build an irrigation canal. That’s hard. I mean, how much better does it get? — you get paid to dream. I think that joy of the whole thing really comes across. I want people to accept that and have that for themselves because what a wonderfully fulfilling life it can be. And you’re never out of a job, You may not be getting paid, but you always have stuff to do.”

His enthusiasm and encouragement are contagious.

“One thing I have a lot of is energy,” he said. “In pitch meetings I show my energy an awful lot and I think people pick up on the energy. As I say in my book, ‘I’ll do anything to help you to be better writers.’ That’s all I’m after.”

When Hunter, who never intended to teach, was first asked by UCLA to instruct in 1979, he said he took as his role models not the good teachers he had but “the professors I hated.” The lazy, indifferent, remote ones.

“I’m available 7-and-24. Just give me a call. If we can’t deal with it in a phone call then I’ll be happy to meet with you. Somebody that needs assurance, guidance, to bounce something off of…is really what it is.”

He follows the same pattern at his colony, holding one-on-ones with students as requested. After a group session they rush to schedule appointments with him. Hunter knows its “unusual” how far he puts himself out there.

“If you e-mail him or call him he’ll get right back to you,” Christensen said.

Hunter said he’s unusual, too, for being “one of the very few screenwriting professors that has made a living doing it,” making him an exception to Shaw’s dictum that “those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach.”

What else makes his approach different from fellow gurus out there?

“It tells you how to write a screenplay,” he said. “You can talk about it, you can talk around it but I remain the only writer who tells you how to. I think that’s the most distinguishing factor.”

Ah, Hollywood screenwriter.

The fact that Hunter is a genuine card-carrying Writers Guild of America member who’s made real money from his own scripts is reason enough for wannabes to flock to him like lemmings. This despite the fact you’ve likely never heard of a single picture he’s written. More to the point, though, as a veteran instructor at UCLA, a top feeder school for Hollywood, his ex-students include many successful writers-directors, Nebraska’s Oscar-winning Alexander Payne among them.

“Isn’t Lew Hunter a trip?” Payne said about his old prof.

Anytime anyone like Hunter — who’s done it and who remains well-connected to the industry — makes himself available to the great unwashed he/she is in high demand. He’s got what they want. And Hunter is nothing if not accessible. He travels the world giving workshops. He answers faxes, e-mails, letters and phone calls each day from writers looking for answers. He advises, he cajoles, he steers, often ending his responses with his trademark tag line — “Write on!”

Hunter’s leaving Hollywood for Superior eight years ago invariably meant bringing Hollywood with him. It also marked his life coming full circle. Back to where his own dreams of movie-movie magic were first fired. But “retiring” to Superior took some convincing. It was Pamela’s idea. Lew had other plans, namely Laguna Beach. Finally, the desire to “go back from where I came” won out.

“I knew I was going to wind up here anyway beside my folks in the Guide Rock cemetery. I really like that. It really feels good. It feels right.”

Besides, he said from his writer’s shack out back of the Hunter house, “thanks to this (computer) keyboard and fax here I’m in touch with the world. I can continue on. You can do anything you want to do in terms of writing being about anywhere. All we need is a space and paper and pencil.”

Pamela pressed him to replicate his workshops in the middle of nowhere, though Superior’s Chamber of Commerce prefers “the middle of everywhere.” “The colony was my wife’s fault or my wife’s inspiration. Synonymous in this case,” he said.

The more she prodded, the more Lew resisted. Workshops didn’t fit his envisioned idyll. He finally gave in. “Well, there’s a Talmudic saying, ‘Man plans and God laughs.’ Pamela got together with Linda Voorhees, a professor at UCLA and one of my ex-students, and they ganged up on me. That was really an insurmountable force. We started it and we’re still doing it seven years later. We have really wound up enjoying the colonies. The people are all dreamers who’ve wanted it for a long time. The camaraderie is so wonderful.”

An amateur psychologist might say the colonies are an antidote for the insecurity that Hunter, forever an only child, still feels today. It’s his world, done his way. He rarely if ever has to hear ‘no.’

Thus, this Hollywood expatriate and prodigal son has come home to roost. He’s the cock-of-the-walk who got up and out.

There’s not much to hold people there. Like many rural towns Superior struggles. When the cement plant and the creamery closed, jobs vanished. Social ills plague the area. But it stubbornly carries on.

Far from dilettantes, Lew and Pamela are actively engaged in the community and in their extended family. They’ve worked on a coalition to combat the meth scourge. They’ve helped raise grandchildren. They served as parade Grand Marshall during Superior’s annual Victorian Festival last May. Dr. Judy Butler said Lew’s “infamous or famous depending on what side his politics are on at town meetings.”

Lew proudly gives guests tours of the town. This last colony he didn’t get around to it until 10 one night. Hard as it was to see it was easy to sense the affection he feels for this place. He cruised through the couple square-blocks downtown district, pointed out the few eateries, slowed in front of the auditorium whose stage he acted on, and stopped in Evergreen Cemetery, divided by Highway 14. Glowing crosses illuminated one side.

He indicated two graves, one with a ceramic pig and another with a cow. The animal figures are desecrations to some and delights to others. You can guess which camp Lew belongs to. They’re talismans, much like the storyteller totems he collects on his travels and displays at the Colony House. He ritualistically described some the first night. Naturally, there’s a story behind each one.

We’re all storytellers but how many can weave tales that grip an audience? Yet everyone thinks they can write movies. The joke used to be everyone in L.A. — from valets to doctors — wrote scripts on the side. Now, everyone everywhere is in on the joke and the dream. Film schools, festivals and how-to books/workshops and the indie scene all give the rising creative class the notion they can do it, too.

Hunter’s an enabler. “There’s no mystery to screenwriting,” he says. Suggest writing can’t be taught and he’ll tell you, “Bullshit!,” before adding, “What I can’t teach you is talent…perseverance…the burn — the way to get it done.” But he can stroke your ego and stoke your fires.

“We’re all here to support each other,” he tells dreamers. “You have to get your chops…your legs…your foundation, and these two weeks are very much a big part of your foundation if you’re going to believe. I want to encourage you all to reach for the stars.”

The afflicted get their fix from Lew Hunter, the dream catcher.

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