Posts Tagged ‘Nebraska’

Of Dreamers and doers, and one nation indivisible under…

February 21, 2017 Leave a comment

This is one of two stories I did for The Reader’s ( February 2017 cover package whose headlines read “Resettlement in America Takes a Village” and” Immigration: Refugees Reunite and Resettle; Fighting for Dreamers.” The story shared in this post is about DREAMers receiving DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) benefits and what losing those privileges would mean if they were withdrawn.

Of Dreamers and doers, and one nation indivisible under…

DACA youth and supporters hope protections are retained


Originally appeared in the February 2017 issue of The Reader (





Refugees and asylees follow pathways to freedom, safety and new starts

February 21, 2017 Leave a comment

This is one of two stories I did for The Reader’s ( February 2017 cover package whose headlines read “Resettlement in America Takes a Village” and” Immigration: Refugees Reunite and Resettle; Fighting for Dreamers.” The story shared in this post is about refugees and asylees and their journey to new lives.

Refugees and asylees follow pathways to freedom, safety and new starts

Resettlement in America takes a village


Originally appeared in the February 2017 issue of The Reader (







Paul Johnsgard: A Birder’s Road Less Traveled

Paul Johnsgard is an unassuming Great Plains genius whose writing, lecturing, illustrating and photographing of birds and the natural world have earned him and his work high distinction. He is also renowned for his wood carvings of waterfowl. His impressive skill set has resulted in him being called a Renaissance Man by some and a rare bird or a bird of a different feather by others. The best way I found into his story was to frame his deep passion for nature as an extension of the imprinting process that goes on with birds. Everything about where he grew up and how he grew up immersed him in nature and reinforced his fascination with birds and wild things until it became embedded or imprinted in him. He is one of the latest in that ever growing gallery of my profile subjects whose life and work epitomize what I highlight in my writing – “stories about people, their passions and their magnificent obsessions.” Johnsgard’s regard for birds and the lengths he goes to observe, study, describe, illustrate, photograph than and to represent them in art are all about passion and magnificent obsession.

My profile of Johnsgard is the cover story in the July 2016 New Horizons that should be hitting stands and arrving in mailboxes by the end of June.

As an aside, whenever I do one of my new Horizons profiles I am reminded that the people of a certain age I profile in its pages are consistently the most complex, interesting subjects I write about. These people live rich, full lives marked by intellectual rigor, unbound curiosity, joyful work and play and a sense of adventure. They know themselves well enough by age 60 or 70 or 80 or 90 or whenever I get around to them to be comfortable in their own skin and to not much give a damn what anyone else thinks. They are well past pretense and posturing. They are al about living. They own every inch of their humanity, gifts and warts and all. It’s a refreshing and instructive lesson to live large and love hard.


2006 (Esquire image)

Paul Johnsgard in 2006 (Esquire image)


Paul Johnsgard: A Birder’s Road Less Traveled

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the July 2016 issue of New Horizons


A birder’s beginnings

World-renowned ornithologist Paul Johnsgard, 85, ascribes his passion for birds to something akin to the imprinting process that occurs with the winged creatures he’s made his life’s work.

For the University of Nebraska-Lincoln emeritus professor and author of 82 books, many illustrated with his own drawings and photos, this road-less-traveled life all began as a lad in North Dakota. His earliest memories are of birds and other natural things that captured his imagination while growing up on the edge of prairie country.

“The railroad track went through town and that was probably important because I could walk the railroad track and not get lost, and see birds and flowers,” he recalled. “I was unbelievably lucky I think.”

This Depression-era baby got exposed to the surrounding natural habitats of the Red River and of Lake Lida in Minnesota, where his family summered in a cottage. Those summer idylls gave him free range of unspoiled woods.

He loved the forests, grasslands, flowers, birds. But feather and fowl most fascinated him. Why?

“I don’t know,” he said, pausing a moment. “It’s their sense of freedom – they can fly anywhere and do anything. They have incredible grace. They’re wild. I’m not interested in domestic birds – turkeys and chickens and so on.”

Ah, the wild. From that Arcadian childhood through his adult field work, wild places and things have most captivated him. His appreciation for birds has ever deepened the more he’s observed them. Among other things, he admires their acuity.

Wonderful world of birds

Johnsgard wrote, “I’m absolutely convinced that there is a lot more to what they know and perceive than what humans observe. I honestly think that we are underestimating birds, and certainly other mammals, when we avoid anthropomorphism too rigorously.”

He told the New Horizons, “I even more believe that today. We’re learning things about bird intelligence that were not only unknown but unbelievable just a few years ago, such as their solving fairly complicated problems of putting things together to get at food and things like that that really require some kind of logic. The first person I think that really began to realize that was Irene Pepperberg (Brandeis University professor and Harvard University lecturer), who taught her parrot 300 or 400 words in English and the bird would put them together in not quite sentences but use them in that kind of a logical combination. I think that was one of the first major insights into how smart birds can be. They are remarkably aware of their environment and of any alterations in it, which is a measure of their intelligence.”

He has special admiration for one species – the crane – that has ancient roots and that mates for life. He’s so taken with the Sandhill Crane he’s devoted more words to its study than any other bird.  For decades he’s made a pilgrimage to see and record the annual Sandhill Crane migration in central Nebraska’s Platte River Valley,

“More than any bird I know,” he said, “they are amazingly aware of what’s going on. You don’t want to go anywhere near a crane nest because even if the female’s gone if she sees it has been disturbed she will abandon the nest. The only way you can do it safely is to wait until the nest is hatching – then she will stay there and protect it.”

His favorite bird has varied over time. “I think I was probably first enamored by Wood Ducks, which are so beautiful.  Then I became interested in swans, especially the Trumpeter Swan, and now, of course, cranes. Even though the Whooping Crane is bigger and more beautiful, I think I’m more attracted to the Sandhill Crane. I’ve spent so much time with them. I’ve probably not spent more than 10 hours looking at Whooping Cranes. They’re so rare. The chances of seeing them in Nebraska are remote at best.  But there’s a plethora of Sandhills.”



Thousands of greater sandhill cranes lift off from their island roosts at dawn along the North Platte River downstream from Oshkosh, Neb.

Thousands of greater sandhill cranes lift off from their island roosts at dawn along the North Platte River downstream from Oshkosh, Neb. (Courtesy/Stephen Jones


Sandhill Crane

Photo: usfws



The great migration

He has a special perch from which to watch the Sandhill Crane migration unfold courtesy of a cabin owned by internationally known wildlife photographer, Tom Mangelsen. The two men go way back. Mangelsen, a Grand Island native who did part of his growing up in Omaha, was a student and field assistant under Johnsgard, who mentored him in the 1970s. These friends and colleagues have collaborated on several projects, including a documentary Mangelsen shot and Johnsgard wrote about the Sandhill Cranes and for a new book A Chorus of Cranes.

Johnsgard is among the ranks who feel the spring migration is one of the greatest shows on Earth. It is a sensory experience to behold between the massive numbers on the ground and in the air and the swell of their trumpeting call.

“It’s a combination of place and sight and sound, all of which are unique,” he said. “To have 50,000 cranes overhead is quite something. Cranes are among the loudest birds in the world, so it just about blows your eardrums out when they’re all screaming. And to have a sunset or a sunrise, as the case may be, and to have this beautiful river flowing in front of you – it just all makes for a unique site in the world. It’s all those things coming together.”

Johnsgard’s prose is usually straightforward but there are times he uses a more literary style if it fits the subject, and he can’t think of anything more deserving than cranes,

“In my book Crane Music there’s a section on the cranes returning to the Platte in the spring that I wrote in the style of a kind of prayer: ‘There’s a season in the heart of Nebraska and there’s a bird in the heart of Nebraska and there’s a place in the heart of Nebraska…’ So those three paragraphs come together and then I wrote – ‘There’s a magical time when the bird and the season and the place all come together.'”

In a CBS Sunday Morning report on the migration Johnsgard described the amplified cacophony made by that many cranes  “as the sounds of a chorus of angels, none of whom could sing on key, but all trying as hard as they can.” The naturalist also described what these majestic birds remind him of. “It’s almost like watching ballet in slow motion, because the wing beats are slow and they move in such an elegant way.”

Johnsgard explained to the New Horizons why the area around Kearney, Nebraska is the epicenter for this mass gathering that goes back before recorded time. An ancestral imperative has  brought the birds yearly through millennia and the presence of humans has not yet disrupted this hard-wired pattern.

“Well, Kearney didn’t do anything to attract it, but the Platte River had become increasingly crowded with vegetation, both upstream and downstream, so all these wonderful sandbars were disappearing and the area around Kearney was one of the last places where the Platte was something like its original form. Lots of bars and islands and not too much disturbance. The birds from the whole upper Platte and even the North Platte were being crowded more and more together and so now you have over 500,000 in an area of no more than 50 miles.

“If it were normal conditions, then in those same 50 miles you might have 40,000 or 50,000.”

The cranes that arrive in March and April, he said, “are not getting as much food as they should be getting, so they’re having to leave the Platte due to food competition before they really have as much fat on them as they should.”

He said conservation measures help by controlling dam water releases and diversions for irrigation, recreation and other uses and therefore keeping steady water levels through the year. The shallow Platte and its surrounding vegetation is a fragile ecosystem that requires monitoring and intervention. The Platte has benefited from a river management agreement between Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska to share the water and maintain enough flow for Whooping Cranes and other  endangered species. The Sandhill Cranes are not endangered.

He expects the compact to be renewed before it expires, but it will require the governors of all three states to re-up. He feels the measures are adequate to protect the cranes and other wildlife that make the migration a wonder of the world.

Even though he’s been going to catch that great display of plumage for years now, it never ceases to enthrall him.

“It just about gives me chills,” he said. “I call it nirvana. It pretty much is like a state of bliss.”

That feeling is shared by many. When Johnsgard took noted nature writer David Quammen out to the Platte for the migration he wasn’t sure what this much-traveled adventurer would make of it since “he’s been everywhere to see the natural world,” said Johnsgard. “I took him out to a blind one late afternoon at the Crane Trust and everything happened perfectly and he said, ‘You know, of all the places I’ve been and all the things I’ve seen this is probably the best time I’ve ever had watching birds.’ He did say there’s a bird sanctuary in India where storks come in in a somewhat similar way but that it’s the only thing that could possibly match what we saw.”

Acclaimed conservationist and chimp expert Jane Goodall has been joining Johnsgard and Mangelsen for crane watching expeditions since about 2000. Even though she’s seen so much of the natural world she told CBS’s Dean Reynolds, “I wasn’t quite prepared for the absolutely unbelievable, glorious spectacle of all these thousands of birds coming in. It’s just unbeatable, and it’s really peaceful.”


2007, Spring Creek

2007, Spring Creek


A confluence of interest

None of this would have happened for Johnsgard – from hanging out in blinds with celebs to his words reaching general audiences – if not for a string of things that transpired in his youth. His call to be a birder started just as he entered school.

“When I was 5 or 6 I asked Mother for the salt shaker so I could go out and put salt on a Robin’s tail. Do you know that story?” he asked a visitor at his UNL office. “Well, it goes that if you put salt on a bird’s tail it becomes tame, and I wanted to have a tame Robin. I spent a lot of time trying to do that. I wanted to touch them.”

He made his first drawings of birds then, too. But the real origin of his imprinting may be traced to an experience in first grade.

“My first-grade teacher, Hazel Bilstead, had a mounted male Red-winged Blackbird in a glass Victorian bell jar. She lifted the glass and let me touch it and that really captured my attention. I’d never seen anything that beautiful that close. I’ve never forgotten it. I remember it as well as I did that very day. I think that my need to see live birds in detail began at that time. I later dedicated one of my books to Miss Bilstead’s memory.”

His passion got further fed when a camera (Baby Brownie Special) first came into his life at 7 or 8. He’s not been without a camera since. He’s gone through the whole evolution of 35 millimeter models. He shoots digital images today. On one of his office computers alone he estimates he has more than 20,000 archived photographs.

He supports high tech image capture projects like one by the Crane Trust that has camouflaged game cameras programmed to take pictures every half hour or when motion is detected.

“These six weeks or so the birds spend in the Platte Valley are critically important for them to acquire the amount of fat — energy — they need for the rest of their spring and summer activities. So it really is important to get this kind of data,” he told a reporter.

Even though he grew up hunting – it was simply part of the culture he was raised in – he eventually gave up the gun for the camera. “It increasingly bothered me to kill things that I spent hours watching,” he wrote.

The sanctity of nature became more and more impressed upon him the more time he spent in it. Having the sanctuary of those woods near the family lake cottage nourished him.

“I’d wander around there with my dog and chase skunks and get chased by skunks, look for bears. I’d heard there were some. I developed a little wildflower garden from the flowers in the woods and tended it until we finally sold the cottage in 2005. It was still thriving then.”

Many people played a role in nurturing his Thoreau-like rapture.

“My mother’s cousin Bud Morgan was a game warden and by the time I was 12 he realized I really loved birds, so he’d take me along and we’d count ducks and just talk about birds. That really helped a lot actually in directing my studying waterfowl. He taught me how to identify waterfowl.”

Thirsty to know everything he could about birds, Johnsgard practically memorized what books on the subject his town library held. One he used to particularly “delight in” is T.S. Roberts’ two-volume The Birds of Minnesota.

“I thought it remarkable that a little town library carried it because it was an expensive book for the time. It was a wonderful book. Still is.”

As it was readily apparent that young Paul was crazy about birds, his parents and others happily indulged his curiosity by gifting him with books that any birder would be proud to own. As a result, he possess today several first editions of classics,  including Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac and  F.H. Kortright’s Ducks, Geese, and Swans of North America. He has a later edition of John James Audubon’s The Birds of America.

He got his first field guide in college.

Until recently brought to his attention, Johnsgard said he didn’t realize how so many early life elements reinforced his interest in nature and birds. That background set him off on his odyssey as naturalist, wildlife biologist, birder, author and more.


Johnsgard smiling


Renaissance man

Tom Mangelsen (Images of Nature), who knows Johnsgard as well as anyone, said of him, “He’s a wonderful man and really inspirational. Nobody’s done that many books on birds. He’s remarkably prolific and a major intellect. It’s been a long, wonderful journey for me. We are dear friends.”

Mangelsen said Johnsgard likes to tell people that while he was not his best student he is his most famous former pupil. The two also enjoy sharing the fact that Johnsgard accepted him as a graduate student not based on his grades, which were poor, but on the family cabin Mangelsen offered him access to.

As far as Mangelsen’s concerned, Johnsgard is a real “Renaissance Man.” Indeed, in addition to being a scientist, educator, author, illustrator and photographer, Johnsgard’s a highly regarded artist. Several of his drawings and wood bird sculptures are in private collections or museums. For his line drawings he works from photo composites and specimens.

“Having photographs makes it possible to draw them accurately. A photograph though won’t give you much more than just an outline so you really need to be able to look at the thing from the front, from the sides, from the top to get a sense for its shape. So I like to have a specimen if I can. Most of the time I’ve been here I’ve had access to a reasonably good collection of stuffed birds. If that doesn’t do it, I can go over to the state museum and look at things.”

This stickler for details notices when people take artistic license or just don’t get it right.

“When I was in London at the National Gallery there was a painting by Rembrandt of a dead black grouse upside down ready to be plucked. It had the wrong number of primary feathers on the wing, so he wasn’t a birder.”

Johnsgard’s waterfowl carvings are much admired. He is self-taught. “I’ve been at it since I was a Boy Scout,” he said. One of his carvings is in the permanent collection of the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery in Lincoln. “It’s a full-sized Trumpeter Swan preening. Up until then it was by far the biggest carving I’d done. It weighed about 50 pounds.”  He based it on a photo he saw in National Geographic. He didn’t know what to do with the carving when he finished it.

“It was so big that the only place I could put it at home was on top of the damn refrigerator. It was gathering dust up there. Sheldon’s then-director, George Neubert, asked if I could loan him some of my decoys for a folk art show, so I put that thing down there and after it was over he asked me if I’d consider selling it. He told me later he thought it was one of the 10 best acquisitions he got during his time as director.

“Audrey Kauders, director of MONA (Museum of Nebraska Art), has been after me for years to give them a carving. Every time I see her, she says, ‘You promised me a carving.’ I’ve gotta do it.”

He is that rare scientist to have crossed over from academia to the mainstream. Some of that attention has come from the prolific number of nature books he’s written. A book he did with his daughter Karin Johnsgard, Dragons and Unicorns: A Natural History, is an allegorical-metaphorical work that’s never been out of print from St. Martin’s Press. Some of his straight nature books have been popular with the general public. His essays and articles in NebraskalandNebraska Life and Prairie Fire have enjoyed wide readership. Then there’s the public speaking he does and the media interviews he gives.

“Anyone who has made a trip west to see the Sandhill Cranes is familiar with Paul Johnsgard,” said Julie Masters of Omaha. “His books, lectures and interviews on the subject inspire. To experience the cranes through his eyes is a great gift.”

Masters recently developed a friendship with him that’s enriched her appreciation for nature.

“I happened to be on the UNL campus in January and saw him out walking. We struck up a conversation and have been meeting every few weeks to discuss cranes and all sorts of other birds. It is a great privilege to learn about bird behavior from this highly regarded ornithologist ”


Johnsgard and Mangelsen B & W

Paul Johnsgard and Tom Mangelsen, ©Sue Cedarholm


Reverence for nature

While Johnsgard appreciates having his work recognized and enjoyed, he could do without the fuss or fame, such as a recent Esquire magazine piece he was part of that featured “Men of Style” from different walks of life. He would much rather commune with wild things than reporters. He’s most at home sitting patiently in a blind watching birds or marveling at the array of wildlife drawn to a water hole on the Serengeti or contemplating the flora and fauna of the High Rockies. These are mystical spots and interludes for him.

“If I had a religion, it would be nature,” he said, “I think watching birds is the most spiritually rewarding thing I do.”

He realizes the notion runs counter to science but doesn’t much care, though he’s quick to point out, “I don’t believe in any god per se, but I have a reverence for what I see in nature, I don’t think those things were created by a god, but they’re god-like aspects of the world, Without wild things and wild places in the world it’d be a pretty dreary place, so I have that maybe Eisley (Loren)-like or Neihardt (John)-like idea of the world.”

Reading Neihardt’s Black Elk Speaks “mesmerized” Johnsgard, particularly the appearance of Snow Geese in several of Black Elk’s visions. Johnsgard, who was already considering a book on Snow Geese. felt compelled to respond in a new work that counterpointed what he knew about the biology of that bird with Native American views of it.

“I couldn’t sleep, so I started scribbling the outlines of what became Song of the North Wind. I went to the library and found all I could on the beliefs of the Plains Indians and also the Inuit.

I finally decided I had enough to write a book. I went up to the nesting grounds in Western Hudson Bay before I finished it.”

Rhapsodizing about the sacredness of nature is one thing, just don’t preach to Johnsgard about thou shalt dos and do-nots.

“I don’t go to church and I get pretty upset with people who are overly religious. I have been a member of the Unitarian Church. I went mostly for the good music and the important issues they talked about, but I haven’t been back in a long time. I prefer to spend my Sunday doing other things.”

The concept of a Higher Power, he said, is “something so amorphous it’s hard to put into objective words,” adding, “I think for everybody it’s a pretty personal thing.”

Questions big and small still consume Johnsgard, who juggles three book projects at any given time. In June he submitted the page proofs for his latest, The North American Grouse, Their Biology and Behavior. Now that the retired scholar is freed from teaching, he does whatever books come to mind these days but especially on subjects that he fills a void in.

Having reached the point where he doesn’t care about royalties anymore, he puts his work in the public domain via Digital Commons, where anyone can download his books for free.


Johnsgard at brick wall (for Leo)


As the bird flies 

Not surprising for an octogenarian of arts and letters, his two-room office on the Lincoln campus is crammed with books as well as art and artifacts from his many travels studying birds across North America, Europe, Africa, South America, Australia. His extensive collection extends to his home.

A prized birding site he’s never been to is in the Himalayas, where the Black Necked Crane resides. “It never comes below 8,000 feet. It’s the last crane in the world I haven’t seen. There’s very few in captivity. I did see a pair at the International Crane Foundation. But the ultimate in birding is to go to the Himalayas to see this incredibly rare bird. I don’t think I’ll make it because my heart isn’t up to those altitudes anymore.

“There’s still four species of waterfowl in the world I haven’t seen and I don’t think I ever will. They’re in places like Madagascar and the East Indies – hard to get to and probably not worth the time and expense and effort to try to do it. But it’s still fun to think about what might be special about them.”

Most of his birding adventures are uneventful but he’s had close calls. A harrowing incident occurred in the Andes. “A guide and I were coming down off an 11,000 foot volcano in a jeep I’d rented when it suddenly lost its brakes on a one-way narrow road looking down on a canyon probably 3,000 feet deep. The road was lined with bushes and I thought the only way I could possibly stop was if I drove into the bushes and used them to slow us down. They finally did and we got the jeep stopped. We looked at the brake connection and where there should have been a bolt there was a leather shoe lace somebody used as a temporary measure. We retied the leather and made it down.”

On other excursions, he said, “I’ve been in really life threatening situations where I should have never gone. The worst place was Oaxaca, Mexico.” Drug cartel-fueled killings and kidnappings happen there. “The biologist who was there before me was macheted to death. I was advised to carry a pistol, so I got one at a pawnshop in Lincoln and as soon as I got home I took it back.” Johnsgard never had reason to use it.

During that same trip he realized as his departure drew near he lacked permits for the birds he’d captured. They were supposed to be quarantined, but he didn’t have the time. “So I thought I’d take a chance,” he said. Wishing to avoid a customs snag, he waited till midnight to access a remote border crossing point. When an inquisitive guard asked what he was carrying in back of the van he was driving Johnsgard acknowledged the birds but left out the part about restrictions on import. The guard then asked “What else you got back there?” and Johnsgard replied, “Well, that’s about it and it’s fine if you check back there, but look out for the snake – he might have escaped,” whereupon the guard whisked him through with, “Go on, get out of here.”

Paul Johnsgard – born smuggler.

He delivered his birds back to Lincoln and got a paper out of it.

A splendid place for birding without any drama is the Waterfowl Trust in England, where Johnsgard studied two years in the 1960s. It holds special meaning because he was befriended by its founder, the late Sir Peter Scott, who became a key figure in his life. Scott was the son of legendary British explorer Robert Falcon Scott, whose second Antarctic expedition ended in tragedy when he and his men died on the return trek after reaching the South Pole.

“Peter was 2 years old at the time,” Johnsgard explains. “The last thing Robert Scott wrote to his wife read, ‘Make the boy interested in natural history” So, growing up, it was sort of incumbent on Peter to become a biologist.”

He did. He also became a renowned wildlife artist. “The art work is what made him famous,” Johnsgard said. “He was a wonderful artist.” Just like his father before him, Peter Scott became a national hero. “He was involved in the Dunkirk extraction of  British troops during World War II, Then he put together this great collection of birds. At the time I went to study at the Wildlife Trust it was the best in the world, Every species has its own unique aspects and that’s part of the fun of studying this. When I had 120 species of waterfowl in England it was like opening 120 gift boxes because they’re all a little different and its fun trying to describe how they are different.”

Scott helped start the World Wildlife Fund.

“He was a great symbol to me I guess of what you could do in art and conservation.”

Johnsgard said his time at the Wildfowl Trust “was incredibly important – it gave me the experience to write books and a world view. I met some of the most famous biologists of the day there.” The Nebraska transplant thought enough of his British counterpart that he and his wife named one of their sons after him. “I dedicated one of my books to him as well. He did a painting as a favor to me for one of my big books. I have all of his big books and he inscribed each one with a watercolor on the title page. He was a very kind and wonderful person. I had the highest possible regard for him.”

Scott pursued his interests up until his death at age 79 in 1989.



A cradle to the grave creative 

Though officially retired, Johnsgard shows no signs of slowing down at 85. He wakes up most days at 4 a.m. and he either reads or writes at home before going to the office. He’s as busy as ever researching and writing about birds and habitats. Before he ever gets around to writing a book he assembles references. Hundreds of them. Once he starts writing, he’s fast. He admits that his work is “a compulsion.”

He feels his rare triple threat skills to not only write but illustrate and photograph books makes his projects more palatable to publishers. He said mastering things comes with repetition. “I think talent is largely what you put into it in terms of practice.”

He’s been producing things since he was small and he fully expects to continue creating until he dies.

His new friend Julie Masters, professor and chair of the Department of Gerontology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, views him as a model for health aging.

“As the population ages, we need people who show us that creativity can and does increase with age,” she said. “Paul Johnsgard is someone who serves as an ideal role model for us all. His passion and enthusiasm for life and the beauty of nature allow those of us who are less learned a glimpse into a world that is made even more awesome through his instruction.”

Johnsgard is just grateful he found his calling and stayed true to the road-less-traveled. “I don’t know anybody I’d trade my life with. I’ve been very lucky.”

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at

Through a lens starkly: Alexander Payne films Nebraska

Through a lens starkly: Alexander Payne films Nebraska


New edition now available

©by Leo Adam Biga



Even though Alexander Payne demonstrates time and again that commercial considerations mean very little to him, following the breakaway success of The Descendants (2011) there was every reasonable expectation he might lean a bit more again in the direction of mainstream with his next film. I say again because I count The Descendants as a conventional, even mainstream work even though its protagonist rails against his comatose wife and sets out to wreck the life of the man she was cheating with, all the while trying not to lose it with his two grieving daughters in tow.

Payne soon quashed any notion of playing it safe when he announced the small, insular back roads comedy-drama Nebraska (2013) as his new feature project. It did not help its bottom line chances that the film is set in rural Nebraska, which for most filmgoers may as well be the dark side of the moon for its unfamiliarity, remoteness, and perceived barrenness. Indeed, if Nebraska conjures any image at all it is of endless cornfields, cows, and monotonously flat, uninspired scenery. When the story laid over such a setting features a confused, depressed old cuss alienated from family and friends and wandering around in a bleak wasteland made even bleaker by black and white photography and desolate late fall, post-harvest locations, it does not exactly engender excitement. The prospect of a dour, feel-bad experience devoid of life and color does not get tongues a-wagging to generate the all important buzz that sells tickets.

Of course, anyone who has seen Nebraska knows the film is not the downer it may appear to be from glimpsing a thirty second trailer or hearing a thirty second sound bite, but that it is ultimately a sweet, deeply affecting film filled with familiar truths amid its very Nebraskaesque yet also quite universal archetypes.

Payne’s insistence on shooting in black and white was a completely legitimate aesthetic choice given the storyline and tone of this stark, autumnal mood piece about an old man having his last hurrah. But it also meant a definite disadvantage in appealing to average or general movie fans, many of whom automatically pass on any non-color film. Compounding the aversion that many moviegoers have with black and white is the fact that most studio executives, distributors, and theater bookers share this aversion, not on aesthetic grounds, but based on the long-held, much repeated argument that black and white films fare poorly at the box office. Of course, there is a self- fulfilling prophecy at work here that starts with studio resistance and reluctance to greenlight black and white features and even when a studio does approve the rare black and white entry executives seem to half-heartedly market and release these pics. It is almost as if the bean counters are out to perversely prove a point, even at the risk of injuring the chances of one of their own pictures at finding a sizable audience. Then when the picture lags, it gives the powerbrokers the platform to say, I told you so. No wonder then – and this is assuming the argument is true – most black and white flicks don’t perform well compared with their color counterparts. Except, how does one arrive at anything like a fair comparison of films based on color versus black and white? Even if the films under review are of the same genre and released in the same period, each is individually, intrinsically its own experience and any comparison inevitably ends up being a futile apples and oranges debate. Besides, there are exceptions to the supposed rule that all black and white films struggle. From the 1970s on The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon, Young Frankenstein, Manhattan, Raging Bull, Schindler’s List, Ed Wood, and The Artist are among the black and white films to have found wide success. It is admittedly a short list but it does prove black and white need not be a death sentence.

To no one’s surprise Paramount did what practically any studio would have done in the same situation, which was to fight Payne on the black and white decision. In no uncertain terms Payne wanted to make Nebraska in black and white and just as adamantly the studio wanted no part of it. He pushed and they pushed back. He would not compromise his vision because from the moment he first read Bob Nelson’s screenplay he clearly saw in his mind’s eye the world of this story play out in in shades of black and white. It just fit. It fit the characters and the settings and the emotions and as far as he was concerned that was that. No questions asked. No concessions made.

I do not claim to know all the details of this protracted dispute or should I say discussion but I do know from what Payne and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael have told me that the issue became a point of some contention. I do not know if it ever reached an impasse where Payne more or less indicated by word or action he was prepared to walk and take the project with him (his own Ad Hominem production company brought the property to Paramount). It certainly wouldn’t surprise me that he let it be known, subtly or not, that he was willing to make the project with another studio if it came to that. It is a moot point now since Paramount eventually acceded to his wishes, though not insignificantly the studio did cut some of the picture’s already small budget as a kind of hedge I suppose against the small business they expected the film to do. The smaller the budget, and in this case it was $12 million, the smaller the risk of not recouping its cost.

Given Payne’s even temperament and gentility, I doubt if things reached the level of shouting or angry exchanges, though he undoubtedly expressed displeasure with their interference and pettiness. I have to think he wore the execs down with his patience and persistence to win the black and white battle but at the end of the day he was willing to give up a couple million dollars in exchange for realizing his vision. I know he said that losing a million dollars is a huge loss when it comes to small-budgeted films like this one and I understand that in order to get the film made within those constraints he and others worked for scale in return for some points on the back end.



Hampered as it was by the limited release, Nebraska still pulled in nearly $18 million domestically and I am sure when all the figures are added up from North America and overseas, where I predict the film will fare well, especially in Europe, its total gross will be in excess of $25 million. By the time all the home viewing rentals and purchases are taken into account a year from now, I wager the film will have done some $30 million in business, which would more than double its production costs. That is quite a return on a small film that did not get much studio support beyond the bare basics.

Payne could have made things easier for himself and the studio by filming in color and securing a superstar. Nebraska marked quite a departure from the lush, color-filled canvas of Hawaii he captured in The Descendants and the equally verdant California wine country he committed to celluloid in Sideways. Never mind the fact the stories of those earlier films, despite the radical differences of their physical locations, actually share much in common tonally and thematically with Nebraska. The dark comic tone and theme of Payne’s films can threaten to be overshadowed when a star the magnitude of Jack Nicholson (About Schmidt) or George Clooney (The Descendants) attaches himself to one of his projects. But as anyone who is familiar with the subdued star turns of those two actors in those particular films will tell you, Nicholson departed far from his trademark insouciance and braggadocio to totally inhabit his repressed, depressive title character in Schmidt just as Clooney left behind much of his breezy, cocksure charm to essay his neurotic somewhat desperate character in Descendants. Each star was eager to shed his well-practiced, bigger- than-life persona in service of scripts and parts that called for them to play against type. Instead of their usual live-out-loud, testosterone-high roles, they play quiet, wounded, vulnerable men in trouble. For that matter, the men-children Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church play in Sideways are seemingly complete opposites but in actuality are emotionally-stunted, damaged souls using oblivion, alcohol, and sex to medicate their pain and avoid reality. The beauty of the California and Hawaii locales work as contrast and counterpoint to the chaotic lives of these lost figures careening toward catharsis. In Schmidt Omaha is the perfect washed-out backdrop for a man undergoing a full-scale identity and spiritual crisis once he retires and his domineering wife dies.

That brings us to Woody Grant, the crotchety so-and-so at the center of Nebraska. When we meet this reprobate he is near the end of a largely misspent life. Facing his inevitable and nearing mortality he doesn’t much like what he sees when he reviews his life and where he has landed. He is dealing with many deficits in his old age. His body is falling apart. He walks stiffly, haltingly. His alcoholism has been unaddressed and it contributes to his foggy mind, mood swings, propensity to fall and hurt himself, and to utter hurtful things. He seems to derive no joy or satisfaction from his wife of many years and his two adult sons. He almost regards them as inconvenient reminders of his own failings as a husband and father. On top of all this, he is poor and in no position to leave his family anything like a tangible legacy.

This miserable wretch has seized upon what he believes to be his last chance at assuaging a deep well of shame, guilt, bitterness, and resentment. His mistaken belief there is a sweepstakes prize for him to redeem becomes a search for his own personal redemption or salvation. He desperately wants something, namely a truck, to leave his boys. The true meaning of the road trip he embarks on with his son David is only revealed to us and to his boy along the way and that gradual discovery adds layers of poignancy to the story.

When Woody arrives back in his hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska word spreads he is on his way to collect a million dollars sweepstakes prize. For a few moments he becomes a person of substance in the eyes of his extended family and the town’s other residents. Some family members and one old friend turn vultures and demand they get a share of his windfall as compensation for favors they did or loans they made that were never returned. But there is another side to that story. We find out Woody has a kind heart beneath his gruff exterior, so much so that he’s been known to do favors and to give money away without ever expecting repayment. That has led him to be taken advantage of over the years. Then when the truth gets out Woody has not won anything but has misinterpreted a marketing piece for a confirmation letter of his supposed million in winnings, he is publicly humiliated and made out to be a fool.

For Nebraska Payne went one step further in distancing himself from commercial considerations by casting as his two leads Bruce Dern and Will Forte, who at first glance form an unlikely combination but in fact play wonderfully off each other. Dern’s acclaimed performance as Woody Grant earned him a Best Actor prize at Cannes and nominations from the Golden Globes and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Saturday Night Live alumnus Forte is triumphant in his first dramatic role as the sympathetic son David. The next largest part belongs to June Squibb, who until this film was a somewhat familiar face if not a household name (she played Nicholson’s wife in Schmidt). Her stellar work in a colorful role as Woody’s piss-and- vinegar wife Kate has brought her the most attention she’s received in a very long and productive career. Arguably, the biggest name in the picture belongs to Stacy Keach, a veteran of film, television, and stage who has little screen time in the picture but makes the most of it in a powerfully indelible turn as the story’s heavy, Ed Pegram. As strong as these performances are Payne did not do his film any box office favors by choosing actors so far off the radar of moviegoers. That is not a criticism, it is simply a fact. At least a dozen more speaking parts are filled by no-name actors, nonprofessional actors, and nonactors, all of whom add great authenticity to the film but whose obscurity hurts rather than helps the marketing cause.

It may take a while, but I am quite confident Nebraska will eventually find the large audience it deserves. In my opinion it will be a much viewed and discussed stand-the-test-of-time film for its many cinema art merits. As good as Payne’s earlier films have been I believe this to be his finest work to date because it is in my view the fullest expression of his filmmaking talents. Visually, it is a tone poem of the first order and on that basis alone it is a film to be reckoned with. Payne and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael have achieved an expressive black and white palette whose hues perfectly articulate the heavy heart of the story. But Payne also found unobtrusive ways to position the camera and, with editor Kevin Tent, to cut scenes so as to amplify its many moments of humor without ever detracting from its elegiac, soulful mood. Mark Orton’s original music, plus the incidental music used here and there, add more nuances of mood. Payne artfully composed images for the wide screen format he shot in to glean added depth and meaning from the action. Within the same frame he intentionally juxtaposed characters with the stark landscapes, townscapes, and homes they inhabit. Many of these scenes emphasize sadness, stillness and desolation. Irony infuses it all. The result is an ongoing dialogue between people and their environments. Each informs the other and by consequence us.

The filmmaker’s economy of style has never been more evident. He has reached the point of communicating so much with simple brush strokes. Take for instance the way Woody’s harsh childhood experience is encapsulated when the old man and his family visit the abandoned farm house he grew up in. Payne has the camera fluidly glide over the detritus of this once proud home turned wreck and to peak into rooms that carry so much psychic-emotional pain for Woody, who was beaten as a boy. Payne clearly indicates this is a private, anguished, cathartic return for Woody, who has avoided this place and its memories for years.



Or consider that gathering of taciturn men in Woody’s family at his brother’s home in town. Payne arranges the uncles, brothers, sons, nephews, cousins in an American Gothic pose around the TV set, where the men engage in the almost wordless ritualistic viewing of a football game. It is at once a funny and powerful expression of their tribal, tight-lipped bond. A bond more about association by blood than affinity.

Then there are the almost incidental shots of boarded up buildings in town that symbolize and speak to the economic hard times to have befallen so many small towns like the fictional Hawthorne. In a short scene Payne conveys an important way in which the times have changed there and in towns like it when he has Woody visit the auto service station he used to own and he finds the new owners are Spanish- speaking Hispanics. Woody thus personally encounters a demographic shift that has altered the face of his hometown and much of rural Nebraska. No more is made of it then that simple reality and the brief exchange between Woody and the “newcomers,” but it is enough to say that times have moved on and the Hawthorne he knew has evolved in some ways and remained unchanged in others.

Perhaps the best example of Payne distilling things down to their simplest, purest, most elemental form is the end sequence when David and Woody are in the truck David has purchased and registered in his father’s name. David, who is at the wheel with Woody beside him, stops the truck on the edge of town and invites Woody to take the wheel and drive down main street in his new rig. What follows is one of the most moving denouements in contemporary American cinema. Woody is granted a rare gift when he accepts the invitation to take a celebratory ride down main street. As the truck slowly passes through town he wins more than any prize money could provide when four people from his past catch sight of him and look at him with a combination of awe, admiration, and surprise. It is a perfect moment in the sun vindication for a beleaguered, bedraggled man who suddenly brims with confidence and purpose. Woody leaves town on his own terms, his dignity and pride intact.

What makes that valedictory ride so special is that his sympathetic son David is there to grant him it and to bask in it with him. These two who began the road trip not really knowing each other and often at odds with each other have traveled a journey together that has brought them a measure of acceptance, healing, and peace. David has finally come to understand why his father is the way he is. His fondest desire is realized when he gives Woody that movie-movie opportunity to prove he is not the loser or fool this day. As Woody sits high in the cab of the truck, with David lovingly looking on from the floor, and drives past the artifacts of his past and the denizens of that town, he may as well be a cowboy sitting tall in the saddle of his horse riding into the sunset. He graciously accepts the congratulations of town chatterbox Bernie Bowen. He stares down his former friend Ed Pegram, who now looks the shamed fool. Woody’s heart stirs again for old flame Peg Nagy, whose wistful expression wonders what might have been. As he heads out of town Woody said a fond goodbye to Albert, the Grant brother whose favorite pastime is siting beside the road waving at the occupants of passing cars.

Outside of town the truck stops at the bottom of a hill and Woody and David once again exchange places. Doing this out of the view of onlookers preserves Woody’s glorious farewell and signals Woody now accepts his limitations and David’s love for him. With David back behind the wheel and Woody beside him father and son drive off to meet the future together. The fact that almost all of this sequence plays out wordlessly and still conveys so much meaning is a testament to the work of Payne and his collaborators in extracting the essence of these scenes through beautifully executed shots that give full weight to glances gestures, postures, and backdrops.

I had been anticipating the ending for a long while because it was some years ago Payne first shared the Nelson screenplay with me. The script had come to him way back around the time he was making Sideways (2004). He kept it in reserve all those years that passed between Sideways’s production and release and his starting production on The Descendants. By the time he shared the Nebraska script with me Payne had already changed the ending (he always rewrites scripts he inherits) and I remember him being particularly proud of what he had achieved with the close of that story. I was completely taken by the entire script and especially that ending. In my book he really nailed it and came as close as one could to realizing what was on the page.

It is hard to find antecedents for the film. The closest I came up with are Frank Capra’s Meet John Doe, Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels, Federico Felllini’s La Strada, Jerry Schatzberg’s Scarecrow, Peter Bogdanovich’s Paper Moon, Paul Mazursky’s Harry and Tonto, and David Lynch’s The Straight Story. That is quite a range of work and it gives you an idea of the breadth of potential influences that can be found in it, though I am not suggesting Payne had any of those specific films or others in mind when he made Nebraska. There is at least a similar sense of alienation and a crazy intrepid spirit running through their restless storylines. They share a similar visual sensibility as well. Of course the most obvious thing they share in common is the road story template. While the protagonists are very different from each other, they are all running to or from something.

In terms of my coverage of Nebraska, I interviewed him twice before he began production, I visited the northeast Nebraska set for a couple days and witnessed a few scenes being shot, including one major exterior scene (outside the abandoned family farmhouse) and one major interior scene (at the home of Woody’s brother in Hawthorne). I did followup interviews with Payne during and immediately after the shoot. Then I traveled to Los Angeles to sit in on five days of the final mixing process just before the film had its world premiere at Cannes. During my L.A. stay I got to see many fixes made to the film and watched a private run through of the entire film at a screening room on the Paramount Studios lot.

I got a second opportunity to watch the film ahead of its general release at a special Paramount screening put on by the Nebraska Coast Connection, an affiliation of Nebraskans working in the film and television industry. The organization hosts a monthly Hollywood Salon that features guest speakers and I attended the fall salon featuring Payne, who was interviewed by NCC founder and president Todd Nelson before a live audience at the Culver Hotel in Culver City. Much of that event focused on the making of Nebraska. I also attended the fall Film Streams Feature Event in Omaha that saw novelist and Studio 360 host Kurt Andersen interview Payne, co-stars Dern, Forte, and Squibb live on stage at the Holland Performing Arts Center. In addition to the earlier interviews I did with Payne, I had interviewed all of those actors, with the exception of Squibb. I also interviewed Keach, screenwriter Bob Nelson, producer Albert Berger, and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael.

All in all, I accumulated as much or more material about Nebraska than I did for any of Payne’s previous films and more than enough to warrant this new edition.

Much of what is communicated in Nebraska has to do with dislocation and disconnection. The characters harbor potent, not always pleasant memories of their shared past. Woody is a man broken off from the people and places of his past and when he revisits them in pursuit of his phantom winnings he is flooded with mixed feelings he doesn’t quite know what to do with. Woody’s woundedness is bound up in the incidents of his childhood and young adulthood. Distancing himself from that past has only separated himself from himself. Thus, he is a broken man who has left pieces of himself scattered in his wake. The story is not so much about him picking up the pieces of his life and putting them back together, although some of that occurs to make him more whole again, as it is about his son David using those fragments as puzzle pieces to more fully appreciate who his father is and the path he’s walked. Because the story is about people who don’t have much to say to each other, at least emotionally speaking, the emotional life of the story is rooted as much in the subtext as it is in the context of scenes. Therefore, the film’s power resides as much in what is left unsaid or in what is referred to as it is in what is actually said and shown. This nonliteral approach is unusual for American films. Indeed, the film’s oblique style and deliberate rhythms are very much those of a European or a Latin American film.

A final note about Nebraska and its reception from Nebraskans is in order. As respected and admired a figure as Payne is among the home state set, his films made in Nebraska elicit strange reactions from a certain segment who bemoan the unflattering light they feel he presents the state and its residents in. This is a classic case of it-is- what-it-is. There is no doubt Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt, and Nebraska, his quartet of films made almost entirely on his native turf, focus on mundane and malicious aspects of life that, though found everywhere, no one wants associated with their state. It can be a particularly sensitive subject in Nebraska. because this small population state already battles an image problem. That is to say greater Nebraska and its one true metropolitan center, Omaha, do not have a strong, readily identifiable or sexy profile and presence on the national-international stages. Nebraska simply blends in with that vast homogenized Midwest and Great Plains. Outsiders dismiss it as a place of no consequence with bland surroundings, unsophisticated inhabitants, and insignificant happenings and therefore the very antithesis of the coasts. Some of those same perceptions explain why Nebraska struggles to retain its best and brightest and rarely draws a major new employer.

Nebraskans upset by Payne’s portrayals of their state refer to the dull, dingy, dysfunctional portraits he paints, forgetting that he is in service to the stories he tells. Some wonder why he doesn’t make Nebraska look better, more colorful, more pleasant, more positive, like the way he portrayed California or Hawaii, once again forgetting that aside from the countryside and oceanside idylls briefly glimpsed in those pictures he mainly showed the seamy, messy undersides of people’s personal travails.

What Payne-bashers largely don’t get is that his “negative” depictions stand out because outside of the films he makes in Nebraska, virtually no other films made there get seen by anything approaching a mass audience. If there were five or ten other filmmakers giving their take on Nebraska then it would be a very different conversation because there would be multiple storylines, interpretations, inclinations, perspectives, not just his. New Yorkers don’t complain that Woody Allen only concerns himself with the foibles of upper middle class and upper crust Manhattan. Los Angelenos don’t take Quentin Tarantino to task for his focus on violent denizens of the L.A. underworld. Each of those filmmakers is one of many putting a lens on those cities and so the vision and voice of Allen and Tarantino become part of a much greater and diverse whole that contains many different visions and voices. It only follows then that there are many varied looks at New York and L.A. for the taking, some of which may conform to residents’ own views and some of which may not. The point is, there is more than enough to go around for you to find something that speaks to you. Unless and until more features get made in Nebraska by more filmmakers, Payne’s personal, idiosyncratic representations of the state will remain the predominant ones, if not the only ones. Don’t expect him to change. He is only being true to his material and to himself. Hard to fault someone for that, especially when his films are heralded, and rightly so, for the fidelity of their vision. He doesn’t pretend his Nebraska films are true to life portraits of all Nebraskans or of all Nebraska He is only being true to the characters and settings of his stories. That is the singular world he plays God over.

It would be good too for folks to consider that in Nebraska Payne and screenwriter Bob Nelson have delivered archetypal characters and settings that are true to Nebraska, yes, but to a whole universe of other places as well. The equivalents of Woody and his orbit of quirky family and friends can be found everywhere.

Nebraskans bent out of shape by the bad light they think Payne casts them, in should remember he is an artist unbound by marketing motivations. He has no desire, nor should he, to skew his work to reflect some fanciful postcard image of this or any other place to placate critics or to make insecure folks feel better about themselves. Besides, Payne gives far more back to the state than any potential “damage” his films do because were it not for him bringing his films there Nebraska would have no Hollywood production of any sustained size, much less any kind of frequency. Outside of his About Schmidt and Nebraska and apart from some micro-budgeted indies (under a million dollars) one would be hard pressed to name another Hollywood project that shot in state for more than a couple days in the last dozen years. His commitment to growing the film industry there is well-documented.

Oh, and by the way, using the state’s name as the title for his acclaimed film is a gift that will keep on giving as long as the film endures and in my estimation the film will long outlast any silly quibbles or dissatisfaction from the nitwits who want him to make Nebraska look like everywhere else. Payne actually cares enough to show facets of Nebraska exactly as they are, without artificial adornments that become distortions of his overriding concern – the truth. He also cares enough to faithfully show his home land as it has never been seen before on the big screen. I dare say with Nebraska he has given most natives and residents a glimpse at their own state they have never beheld. That is more than most art and entertainment delivers. Indeed, by repeatedly bringing the industry to his home state through the films he makes and the cinema figures he hosts he does far more than what most of the people who purportedly have Nebraska’s best interests at heart, i.e. state business leaders and elected officials, do. Outside of Warren Buffett he is the state’s leading ambassador to the nation and to the world and the impact he and his work have in enhancing the state’s name is incalculable. Should he never make another film in Nebraska again (in fact he immediately did, by shooting part of Downsizing there.) he will have endowed the state with four significant works that bear its imprint and inspiration and in the case of his latest work, its name. Although Sideways and The Descendants were made elsewhere they cannot be considered apart from his Nebraska quartet. The way Payne observes the human condition and the way he navigates the world in his personal and professional life is inextricably linked to his native experience. He carries it with him wherever he goes. His Nebraskan sensibility informs everything he does. That is why you can only separate his two features made outside Nebraska from his features made in Nebraska on the most superficial levels. Apart from the specific physical locations he must be true to and is, all his films, no matter where they are set and filmed, are cut from the same cloth emotionally and dramatically speaking. Thus, all his work bears a stamp of Nebraska on it. Besides, Nebraskans rightfully claim all his triumphs, regardless of where they were executed, as a part of their own. As a fellow Nebraskan myself, I certainly do. Payne’s affinity for his home state is already one of the great documented love affairs an artist has had with his place of origin and with any luck at all he will only keep adding to this singular narrative.



Payne’s Nebraska a blend of old and new as he brings Indiewood back to the state and reconnects with tried and true crew on his first black and white film

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in a 2012 issue of The Reader



Coming home in black and white

Alexander Payne’s decision to make Nebraska in his home state brought into sharp relief some realities with large implications for his own work and prospects for more studio films getting made here.

The state’s favorite son had not shot a single frame here since About Schmidt in 2001. With Nebraska, whose principal photography went from October 15 through November, he continued a tradition of shooting here and surrounding himself with crew with whom he has a long history. Some key locals are part of his creative team, too, including one metro resident he calls “my secret weapon.”

Aesthetically and technically speaking, Payne also stretched himself by lensing for the first time in black and white, wide screen and digital. He said abandoning celluloid marks a concession to the new digital norm and to the fact today’s black and white film stock options are limited.

Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael said digital “allows us to work more with natural light and not have to carry a larger equipment package. We did specific black and white tests to choose the texture and quality in terms of contrast and film grain level we want for the picture. So we went into it knowing exactly where we want to be at.”

Natural light and locations

Papamichael added, “Digital means needing less light, so we can do tighter interiors, which is important on this show because we’re entirely a location picture. We don’t have anything built. A lot of these interior spaces are very small and whatever space we can save in terms of lighting and camera equipment is helpful. Rather than having traditional bigger car rigs and following cars with camera cars we’re able to just get in the car hand-held. Also, these newer cameras allow us to do good car work without lighting. It just helps the whole natural feel we’re going for.”

At the end of the day, said Payne, digital “doesn’t matter to me because my process stays exactly the same.” His process is all about arriving at the truth. Capturing the windswept plains and fall after-harvest season figured prominently in that this time. Papamichael and Payne sought ways to juxtapose characters with the prairie, the open road and small town life milieu. In a story of taciturn people rooted to the land and whose conversations consist of terse exchanges, context and subtext are everything. Therefore, the filmmakers extracted all the metaphor and atmosphere possible from actual locations, geography and weather.

Film as business

Payne doesn’t belabor the point but he received pressure from various quarters to shoot the picture elsewhere. The suits pressed going to states with serious film tax credits. Many locales could approximate Nebraska while saving producers money. He finds himself in the awkward position of having lobbied long and hard to try and convince the governor and state legislators to support film incentives only to see his entreaties largely ignored. As much as he and his projects are embraced, his moviemaking forays in the state seem taken for granted. But the fact is he only ended up shooting here because he had the motivation and clout to do so.

If not for Nebraska there would have been no feature film activity of any significance here during 2012. Minus his Citizen Ruth, Election, and Schmidt, the state has precious little feature film activity of any size to show for it. Refusing to cheat the script’s Nebraska settings, Payne brought Indiewood feature filmmaking of scale back home for the first time in a decade. Basing his production in Norfolk provided a boost to the northeast part of the state.

Norfolk director of economic development Courtney Klein-Faust said the total impact the project had on the local economy has yet to be tabulated but that just in lodging alone the production spent more than a half-million dollars accommodating its one hundred cast and crew members. She said the film bought local goods and services whenever possible. She feels the experience will serve as “a case study” for elected officials to assess the trickle down effect of mid-major features and will be used by supporters of tax credits to push for more film industry friendly measures.

AP’s stock company’s master of light Phedon Papamichael

Like many filmmakers who develop a track record of success Payne’s cultivated around him a stock company of crew he works with from project to project. During a mid-November visit to the Nebraska set it was evident he enjoys the same easy rapport with and loyalty to crew he had before his two Oscar wins. The only time this visitor saw Payne betray even mild upset came after a principal actor was not in place when ready to roll and the filmmaker emphatically tapped his watch as if to say, “Time is money.” He expressed mild frustration when cows drifted out of frame and it took awhile for production assistants to wrangle them back in position.

On Nebraska he collaborated for the third consecutive time with Papamichael, the director of photography for The Descendants and Sideways. Their relationship entered a new dimension as they devised a black and white and widescreen visual palette to accentuate Nebraska’s stark characters and settings. That meant fixing on the right tools to capture that look.

“We did a bunch of testing and dialed in a look we’d like for our black and white because there are many different ways to go about black and white,” said Papamichael. Some of the expressive light and shadow images extracted by Papamichael and Payne recall memorable black and white treatments from cinema past, including Shadow of a Doubt, Night of the Hunter, Touch of Evil and It’s a Wonderful Life.

Seeking and getting the right look

“It’s not really a film noir look, it’s definitely a high con(trast) with natural lighting” Papamichael said. “We were very diligent in selecting our lens package, which is Panavision C Series anamorphic. That’s from the ‘70s, so it has a little bit of a less defined, less sharp quality and that helps the look. We’re adding quite a bit of actual film grain to it which will feel like you’re watching a film projection. We’re even talking about possibly adding some projector flicker imposed. So we’re really going for a film look. And through a series of tests we’ve been able to achieve that.”

A week into filming, Papamichael was pleased by what he and Payne cultivated. “There’s an overall excitement the whole crew has. Everybody feels we’re doing something very special and unique and the black and white has a lot to do with it. After you work with it for awhile it becomes the way you see things. In a way we’re learning the power of black and white as we go. We’re really coming to appreciate and love the poetic power of the black and white in combination with these landscapes and, of course, the landscapes are playing a huge role in this story – just scaling the human drama and comedy. The black and white is becoming a very powerful character in this film just in terms of setting the mood for this.”

Grizzled Bruce Dern as the gone-to-seed protagonist Woody is a walking emblem of the forlorn but enduring fields and played out towns that form the story’s backdrop. His tangle of white hair resembles shocks of frosted wheat. His drab working man clothes hang on him as if he’s a scarecrow. His gait is halting and he lists to one side. His Woody is as worn and weathered as the abandoned farmhouse of the character’s youth. But just like the artifacts of Woody’s past, this physical-emotional derelict holds on from sheer cussedness.

Papamichael said part of the fun became “discovering Bruce Dern’s great visual qualities – his face, the textures and everything that are emphasized through the black and white.”

Sense of place

The film’s full of Nebraskesque places and faces. There’s that farmhouse a few minutes outside Plainview. There’s the town of Plainview itself standing in for the fictional Hawthorne. There’s an American Legion hall, some bars, farm implement dealerships and mottled fields full of lowing cows. There are earnest farmers, shopkeeps, housewives and barmaids, plain as the day is long.

“Alexander is very diligent about finding the exact right spot for everything,” said Papamichael. The original screenplay is by Bob Nelson, whose parents grew up in the very northeast environs of the state the film’s set in. He’s also impressed by how rigorous Payne is in location scouting. Nelson said “I think he’s done a great job of finding a combination of things around Norfolk. I’ve seen the location photos and it’s pretty stunning to see it in black and white. You know it has that The Last Picture Show quality to it. It is funny to see these things that were in your mind, like the abandoned farmhouse, come to life. I don’t know how they found it, it must have been a chore, but they came up with a good one. Almost everything I saw was spot-on perfect.”

The locations are pregnant with memories and incidents, thus Payne and Papamichael chose ones most reflecting the characters and situations and they cast actors and nonactors alike who most represent these places and lifestyles. “For him it’s not all about trying to capture something truthful and comedically grim about the American landscape but also something archetypal,” said producer Albert Berger.

Completing the stock company

Whenever Payne works with Papamichael it means inheriting the camera and lighting crew the celebrated DP brings with him, including chief lighting technician Rafael Sanchez and key grip Ray Garcia.

Boom operator Jonathan Fuh is a regular on Payne sets as well as costume designer Wendy Chuck.

Then there’s veteran Payne collaborator Jose Antonio Garcia, the sound mixer on the writer-director’s last three films. George Parra goes back as far as Election in capacities ranging from assistant director to co-producer to production manager. He executive produced Nebraska.

Production designer Jane Ann Stewart had been on every Payne show since Citizen Ruth but J. Dennis Washington took over that job on Nebraska. Interestingly, a Hollywood art director who lives in Nebraska, Sandy Veneziano, joined the crew to mark her first Payne production. Omaha resident Jamie Vesay, a key assistant location manager, crewed along with other locals, including set medic Kevin O’Leary.

Screenwriter Nelson is a Nebraskan by proxy. His folks hailed from Hartington and growing up in the Pacific Northwest he visited relatives back here, several of whom were models for his characters. Woody is closely patterned after his father. Payne conferred with Nelson as he tweaked the writer’s work. “Yeah, every time I’d do a pass on the script I’d send it to him and see what he thought, and he seemed to like it,” Payne said. “Sometimes there were certain moments or a certain scene I’d want a little more information about. Like one scene I really like in the script is when the family visits the house where Woody grew up and it’s now an abandoned farmhouse. And there Woody delivers a speech about having found the hail adjuster’s knife in the field, and it’s really the only time Woody speaks in the film, and I just remember asking Bob where that came from.”

Nelson said that American Gothic scene when Woody tells his son David (WIll Forte) “a story about how the hell adjustor tried to screw them out of their insurance is actually a true story based on visiting an uncle near Wausa on his farm. That’s almost verbatim.” Payne said Nelson also helped inform some creative decisions. “He sent me some old photographs of his actual family from Hartington to serve as something of a reference for casting and costuming.”

Casting director John Jackson

The colleague Payne refers to as “my secret weapon,” casting director John Jackson of Council Bluffs, is undoubtedly the most influential local in the filmmaker’s close circle of collaborators. “We just have really similar tastes and in honing our working method since 1995 we just have developed a very similar aesthetic of what we want to see in a film, the type of reality we want,” Payne said of Jackson. “And also I think the two of us have developed a pretty good eye for spotting acting talent in nonactors—talent they may not even know they have —and by talent I just mean the ability to be in front of a camera playing some version of themselves and saying dialogue believably and without getting freaked out.”

“People can be cinematic just by being themselves and being appropriately placed where they need to be, people can be brilliant by just doing what they do, listening or talking or moving,” said Jackson, who along with Payne is excited about several of their nonactor discoveries on Nebraska. “Glendora Stitt, the woman that plays Aunt Betty, what a find. Dennis McCoIg, who plays Uncle Cecil, is like Gary Cooper. Scott Goodman, the barista who served me at the Scooters drive-thru in Norfolk was hilarious without trying and I cast him in a tiny role. John “Jack” Reynolds, who plays Bernie Bowen, an old friend of Woody’s, is right out of a Preston Sturges and Frank Capra movie. He’s the face of the rolling plains and hilariously funny.”

Jackson said he thinks of filling out the people who inhabit any movie, such as Woody’s clan, ”in terms of I’ve got to build the family, and then, ‘Who are the next door neighbors? who are his friends? what do they do for a living?’ I always have a back story for them. It’s not like I sit down and make it up, the script tells me what it is by the things they say.”

Kindred Spirits

“Obviously it’s worked well,” said Payne. “Together we cast Chris Klein, Nick D’Agosto going as far back as Election. In the traditional American filmmaking model for casting you have one casting director, typically out of New York or L.A. or Chicago with whom you cast the lead parts, maybe the top five or 10 or 15 speaking parts. And then if you’re shooting on location you have a second casting person, a local casting person. That’s what John Jackson was for me on the first three films. And then you have a third person who’s in charge of extras. And I somehow thought that one person should be in charge of all of the flesh. There should be one vision guiding all of it. You can’t get anyone in L.A. or New York to do that, so the person I want to do that is John Jackson.” Jackson said his guide in casting is looking at “what does the script say,” and then conferring with Payne. “We talk a lot about the characters in relationship to the text. I frequently find myself asking him questions like, ‘At this point in the movie what do you want the audience to feel? what do you want them to think? what do you want them to say as they walk out of the theater?’ One of the things I learned from him is to look at a moment in the story and to ask questions like, ‘Who’s funnier doing this? who’s more believable doing that? who breaks my heart more?’

“I remember when we were doing Schmidt and it was between this woman in New York, June Squibb, and a woman in L.A. the studio was pushing and I said to him, ‘Well, it has to be her,’ meaning June Squibb, and he said, ‘Why?’ and I said, ‘Because in that moment when she surprises him with the motor home and she’s seated at the table and said, Isn’t it going to be great? you know he’s hating every minute of it. Somebody needs to break my heart, and June Squibb breaks my heart. At that moment I feel for her. I feel pain for him, but I really feel for her, so when she dies I’m going to hurt, whereas this other woman I don’t feel anything.’” Squibb plays Woody’s wife Kate in Nebraska.

Give and take

“Those are the kinds of conversations we have,” Jackson said of he and Payne. “We never talk about, as other producers do, ‘Well, you know, this person’s presence in the film would be great because they’re so huge in terms of DVD sales.’ I never have those conversations with him. I’ve tried in the past and he’ll just look at me like, ‘What the fuck are you talking about? I don’t want to hear it, I don’t want to know.’ So it’s cleansed me.”

Jackson said he’s learned not to try and anticipate what Payne wants. “He constantly surprises me, he constantly challenges me. I wouldn’t want it any other way. What he’s looking for, I don’t know, I don’t know that he even knows, but I know one thing – when it’s there he recognizes it. That’s alchemy.”

No two projects are alike, Jackson said. “Every single one of these films is a completely different organic living thing and the challenge is to honor that and to help that grow and evolve and become whatever it’s going to become and Alexander is the guide to all of that.”

Payne and longtime editor Kevin Tent will be cutting Nebraska through the spring and the film will likely start playing festivals in late summer-early fall in advance of a end of 2013 general release.




Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film

(The new edition encompasses the Oscar-winning filmmaker’s work from the mid-1990s through Nebraska in 2013 and his new film Downsizing releasing in 2017 )

Now available  at Barnes & Noble and other fine booktores nationwide as well as on Amazon and for Kindle. In Nebraska, you can find it at all Barnes & Noble stores, The Bookworm and Our Bookstore in Omaha, Indigo Bridge Books in Lincoln and in select gift shops statewide. You can also order signed copies through the author’s blog or via or by emailing leo32158@cox,net. 

For more information. visit–



Alexander Payne’s Nebraska comes home to roost

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in a 2012 issue of The Reader

In 1968 Francis Ford Coppola led a small cinema caravan to Ogallala, Nebraska for the final weeks shooting on his independent road pic- ture The Rain People starring Shirley Knight. Joining them were future fellow film legends George Lucas, Bill Butler, Robert Duvall and James Caan.

Now a road pic of another kind, Nebraska, is underway here by native prodigal son Alexander Payne. For his first filming on his home turf since 2001 Payne’s lit out into northeast Nebraska to make a fourth consecutive road movie after the wandering souls of his About Schmidt, Sideways and The Descendants. Nebraska began shooting October 15 around Norfolk, where the production’s headquartered, and will complete thirty five days of principal photography by the end of November. A week of second unit work will run into early December. The project is by Payne, Jim Taylor and Jim Burke’s Ad Hominem Enterprises in collaboration with Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa’s Bona Fide Productions and Paramount Pictures.

On the road again

Despite proclamations he doesn’t care for road movies, much less shooting in cars, Payne’s once again attached himself to a story of lost and broken people careening to some revelation about themselves. Asked why he keeps returning to this theme or structure, he said, “I have no idea, I personally don’t really like road movies all that much and it’s all I seem to make. No, none of it’s intentional, I’m a victim. Yeah, it just happened.”

Characters hitting the road is a classic metaphorical device for any life-as-journey exploration and Payne’s not so much reinvented this template as made it his own. “I think self-discovery is a big theme in his movies,” said Berger. The protagonist of Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) goes in search of meaning via his mobile home after his life is knocked asunder. In Sideways buddies Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Jack (Thomas Haden Church) indulge in a debauched tour of California wine country that rekindles the love impulse in one and confirms the unreliability of the other. The by-car, boat and foot journey of The Descendants is propelled when Matt King (George Clooney) discovers his dying wife’s infidelity and sets off to find her lover. What he really finds is closure for his pain and the father within him he’d forgotten.

The bickering father-son of Nebraska, Woody (Bruce Dern) and David (Will Forte), hold different agendas for their trek along the highways and byways of Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota and Nebraska. Woody, a unrepentant, alcoholic old coot estranged from everyone in his life, is hellbent on collecting a sweepstakes prize that doesn’t exist. David, the good-hearted but exasperated son, decides

to placate his pops by promising to drive him from Billings. Montana to the prize company’s home office in Lincoln, Nebraska by way of sev- eral detours. He’s sure his father will come to his senses long before their destination.

This mismatched pair’s road-less-traveled adventure in the son’s Suzuki Forenza finds them passing through Woody’s old haunts, including his hometown, the fictional Hawthorne, Nebraska, a composite of Hartington, Wausa, Bloomfield, Norfolk and other rural burgs. At nearly every stop they encounter the detritus from Woody’s life, which like the broken down Ford pickup in his garage he can’t get to run is a shambles of regret and recrimination. Woody’s made the fool wherever he goes. A longtime nemesis, Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), is a menacing presence. By story’s end this father-son journey becomes a requiem. To salve his father’s broken spirit David performs a simple act of grace that involves a valedictory cruise down main street that gives Woody the last laugh.

Coming to Nebraska-Nebraska

Producer partners Berger and Yerxa (Little Miss Sunshine), who shepherded Payne’s Election in conjunction with Paramount and MTV Films (1999), brought Bob Nelson’s original script for Nebraska to the filmmaker’s attention a decade ago. Payne said, “Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa had gotten a hold of it, and asked me to read it, not thinking I would want to direct it myself. They wanted to know if there was some young up and coming Nebraska director I knew about who could make it for a very, very low sum, and I read it and I liked it and I said, ‘How about me and for a sum not quite so low?’ And so it was, and they’ve been kind enough to wait for me these eight or nine years since I first read it.

“I read it before making Sideways but I didn’t want to follow up Sideways with another road trip. I was tired of shooting in cars. I didn’t think it would take this long, I didn’t think Downsizing (his comedy about miniaturization) would take so long to write in between. And then The Descendants came along and now I’ve circled back around to this austere Nebraska road trip story.”

The story’s essential appeal for Payne is its deceptive simplicity. “I liked its austerity, I liked its deadpan humor, I like how the writer clearly was writing about people he knew and representing them faithfully to a certain degree but also sardonically. And I’ve never seen a deadpan, almost Jim Jarmusch sort of comedy that takes place in rural Nebraska.”

A black and white palette

The barren, existential landscape should find ample expressive possibilities in the black-and-white, wide-screen visuals Payne and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael (Sideways, The Descendants) plan capturing. Papamichael said the palette they’ve hit upon after much testing emphasizes natural lighting and texture. They’re using a high contrast stock from the ‘70s that’s less sharp or defined. Film grain is being added to it. “We’re really coming to appreciate and love the poetic power of the black and white in combination with these landscapes,” said Papamichael, “and of course the landscapes are playing a huge role in this story. It’s scaling the human drama and comedy with this vast landscape. It’s a road movie but it’s also a very intimate, small personal story.”

“Well, I certainly wanted to make one feature film in my career in black and white because black and white when well-done is just so beautiful,” said Payne. “And I knew that whatever film I made in black and white couldn’t have a huge budget, so this one seemed to lend itself to that that way. Then also in reading it I wanted the austerity of the characters and of their world represented also in a fairly austere way and I thought black and white in the fall could be very nice. By that I mean ideally after the trees have lost their leaves – to just get that look. Sometimes where you’re in rural America there is a certain timeless quality in all those small towns which have the old buildings. You know, change comes slowly to these places.” In terms of visual models, he said, “we’ve looked at a number of black and white films and pho- tographs but it’s not like I’m consciously saying, ‘Oh, Walker Evans or Dorothea Lange’ (or The Last Picture Show) or something like that. No, not really. I mean, I’ve seen them. We’re just going to follow in- stinct in how this one should look like.”

Albert Berger on Payne and process

Berger supports Payne’s aesthetic choice, though it came with a price and a fight as Paramount execs reportedly resisted the decision to forgo color. But Payne and Papamichael held firm. Berger feels the project gives Payne a new creative space to work in. “I always was excited artistically about what he was trying to accomplish,” said Berger. “Clearly we would have gotten a lot more money if we didn’t film in black and white and life would have been a lot easier for the production. Alexander’s films have always had a very authentic look. He’s obviously a great appreciator of cinema and he has a wonderful eye and I think in a way this is his first opportunity to showcase a more iconic, archetypal look.”

Payne may just do for the north Sand Hills what John Ford did for Utah’s Monument Valley in capturing a certain beautiful desolation. The play of light on wind, barns, trees and wide open spaces offers evocative chiaroscuro possibilities. “I think it’s exciting to see what he and Phedon will come up with here,” said Berger. “And it’s scope as well and so that will add yet another dimension. And digital for the first time for him and it’s going to be interesting how that helps us getting in tight spaces like cars and using low level lighting. There’s all sorts of tools at his disposal on this one that he hasn’t had before.”

Berger’s come to know Payne’s meticulous eye for finding locations and actors that ring true. “Once the script is right and once the cast and the locations are in place I feel he’s completely ready to make the movie. I wouldn’t say the rest is easy but I think that is the critical bedrock upon which his movies are made. I think he’s a filmmaker who’s completely in-tune with what he’s trying to say both emotionally and comedically. It’s been a real pleasure to be able to watch this evolution in his work.”


Payne said the more specific the character on the page the harder it is to cast, which is why his search for the right Woody and David took so long. “I just know in the time frame in which I was trying to get this film made these guys rose to the top of my research and struck me and John Jackson, my casting director, as being the right fit,” he said of Dern and Forte.

The irascible Woody proved most difficult. “In this case Woody’s a very, very specifically rendered character and I just couldn’t plug any actor in there,” Payne said. He interviewed-auditioned many, including big names. For the longest time no one matched his conceptions. “In today’s world it was kind of hard to find someone whom I believed in that part and I didn’t want it to change the character of Woody.” No compromising.

He finally found his Woody in Bruce Dern, whose daughter Laura Dern starred in Payne’s Citizen Ruth and remains a close friend. What made Papa Dern (Silent Running, Coming Home, Family Plot) the perfect Woody? “Well, he’s of the right age now and he can be both ingenuous and ornery. And he’s a cool actor. And in a contextual level I haven’t seen on the big screen a great Bruce Dern performance in a few years and I’m curious to see what he can do. He’s a helluva nice guy as well.”

Dern and Will Forte (Saturday Night Live) didn’t meet until they arrived in Norfolk in early October to participate in table readings with other principal cast. Any chemistry they produce will be worked out on set. That’s how it worked between Giamatti and Haden Church on Sideways. “I cast those two guys in Sideways separately. They never met before ten days or two weeks before we started shooting. Or George Clooney and Shailene Woodley, they had never met before. I’ve just had good luck with that. Actors know it’s their job to develop some sort of chemistry, hopefully not force it but develop it, and then of course film has a wonderful capacity to lie.”

The casting of Forte surprised many. Not surprisingly, Payne has a considered rationale for the choice. “Will Forte, physically, I believed could be the son of Bruce Dern and June Squibb (who play’s Woody’s long-suffering wife, Kate). and then I just believe him as a guy I would know around Omaha or meet in Billings. He has a very, very believable quality. And I also think for the character of David he is capable of communicating a certain wide-eyed quality toward life and also damage – like he’s been damaged somehow, somewhere.”

A singular story by Bob Nelson

Payne’s confident he has a stand-alone project. “I don’t think you would have seen anyone portray characters like these before. I mean, I’ve never seen exactly this movie with exactly this dynamic.” Payne revised Bob Nelson’s script alone, then had Phil Johnston (Cedar Rapids) take a pass, before revising it again. He admires how close the material is to Nelson’s experience. “His parents were from Hartington, Nebraska and I think Wausa (Nebraska) but he grew up in Snohomish Washington. You know how other people summer in the south of France or the Caribbean? Well, this guy used to summer in Hartington, that’s where he would spend time with his many uncles on his father’s side.” Nelson confirms the hard-tack individualists and towns of Nebraska are composites of relatives and places there and in rural Washington, though Woody is directly based on his late father. He darkened characters and incidents for dramatic effect and invented the sweepstakes storyline. Nelson’s best-known writing credit before Nebraska was for the award-winning Seattle television show, It’s Almost Live. He meant to shop his feature script around L.A. but it quickly got into the hands of Payne, who instantly committed to making it and never reneged. Getting Payne behind it, he said, “changed everything.”

To his surprise and delight, Payne didn’t overhaul his script. “I’m pretty sure I would have been happy no matter what he did with it because I believed in him as a filmmaker. The fact that so much of my dialogue and so many of the scenes remain is really almost unheard of if you have a writer-director taking over,” Nelson said. “That’s another thing that impressed me. I could tell he didn’t go in and try to turn it into his own screenplay. He wasn’t driven to put his own stamp on it just to do that. He went through it and thoughtfully changed things he thought could use changing but he left in things he thought could work well. For that I’ll always be grateful. “When he’s rewriting it I think he’s turning in a way already into

a director who’s thinking, ‘Do I really want to shoot this scene and do I want to shoot it like that? Is there anything that could make this better?’ You can almost see that going on in his mind. The one thing you hope when your work is adapted is that it will be made better and he’s one of the few guys in Hollywood you’re almost certain will make it better. I really trust him.”

Rooted in Nebraska

Payne rooted the production in Norfolk after a long search. “I spent a year driving around Nebraska when I had free time—a wonderful education on the state. I considered places like Columbus, Grand Island, Hastings, but I landed on Norfolk because Norfolk has a pretty good number of small towns of about fifteen hundred people orbiting it, and maybe it’s also no coincidence that that’s the area Robert Nelson was writing about. Hartington is within spitting distance of Norfolk.”

Earlier this year Payne and Papamichael followed the route Woody and David make in the film, traveling for three days in a Toyota owned by Payne’s mother, Peggy, “just to get a feel for the land,” said Papamichael. “He really wanted to convey the feeling of the land to me and that was very helpful. I took a lot of black and white stills.” Nelson, who’s seen footage and visited the set, said the film’s locations are spot-on.

Finalizing locations and cast members led Payne to make certain tweaks. “Yeah, as it always does,” he said. “I start incorporating locations more into the script and I might steal a line of dialogue or two from an actor in an audition who can’t remember his line or adds an improv that I think is quite good. Or as I’m going along I just think of things which could be better.” He’s continued tinkering.

After seven years between his last two features he’s moving quickly from project to project now. He expects to jump from Nebraska, whose editing he should finish in the spring, into Wilson, his adaptation of the Daniel Clowes’ graphic novel slated to shoot on the west coast next fall.

When a film becomes a film: the shaping of Nebraska A shorter version of this story appeared in a 2013 issue of The Reader

After wrapping the Nebraska shoot the end of 2012 Alexander Payne holed up with editor Kevin Tent in L.A. to edit the film starting Jan. 7 and finally put the project to bed the beginning of August. When I caught up with Payne and a small post crew in mid-May at The Lot in Old Hollywood they were mere days from completing a mix before the film’s world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in Nice, France.

The edit-mix process is one few outside the inner circle are allowed to witness. It’s where a film becomes a film. Over a four-day period at the Audio Head post facility, with its long console of digital controls and theater projection screen, I watch Payne, Tent, mixer Patrick Cyccone, sound designer Frank Gaeta, music editor Richard Ford and others engage in the rather anal exercise of extracting nuance from the minutiae of sound and image, time and space that comprise a film.

I ask Payne how much more can really be massaged this late into the edit. I mean, isn’t the soundtrack a relatively simple proposition?

The art and science of sound mixing

“Seemingly simple,” he said. “There’s always little complicated stuff to modulate and calibrate.” It may be a snippet of dialogue or the sound of a character walking across a wood floor or music from a jukebox or the rustle of wind. It may be how long or short an actor’s beat or a shot is held. Nothing’s too small or incidental to escape scrutiny. Anything even vaguely amiss is ripe for “a fix” often only arrived at after several adjustments that might involve raising a level here, dropping a level there, sweetening the pot with a bank of recorded sounds or snipping a frame.

To the untrained eye and ear, few problems appear obvious or even to be flaws at all. Many are flat out undetectable until brought to your attention. But to the hyper-attuned Payne and his crew, who’ve watched the footage hundreds, even thousands of times, the slightest element out of synch is a jarring distraction. When something really bothers Payne he’s apt to say, “That’s hideous.”

There’s a poignant scene in Robert Nelson’s original screenplay when taciturn protagonist Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) looks out on a field spread before his family’s old abandoned farmhouse and relates a childhood story to his son David (Will Forte) about his father, a hail adjustor and a knife. I was visiting the northeast Nebraska set in November when the scene was shot. The rather barren, wind-swept location with its forlorn wooden farmhouse and rough-hewn harvested fields made an evocative backdrop for the nostalgic moment. But the part where Woody reveals this incident from the past didn’t make it in the final cut because try as he might Payne decided it just didn’t work.

“You know, so much of filmmaking is if you can’t make a perfect omelette you try to make perfect scrambled eggs,” he said. “So we just cut the scene down.” As I glimpse the mix process Payne asks me more than once, “Are you finding this interesting or are you bored out of your skull?” I admit the attention to detail is surprising, to which he replies, “It’s all important though . . . because there’s always discovery. You’re discovering it frame by frame. Ways to make it delightful so it never breaks the spell it has over the audience. Kevin (Tent) and I will have knock down-drag out fights over two frames, over tenths of a second.” I ask if he ever fears he’s micromanaging the life out of a picture. “I never worry about that,” Payne answers.

Fractions of frames and seconds

Even to the filmmakers themselves the fixes can be hard to quantify. At the end of July Payne told me in a phone interview, “I was just watch- ing the film with Phedon (Papamichael), the DP. He had seen it in Cannes and then he saw it again here in L.A. and he said, ‘It feels so much better,’ I mean, it’s the same movie but after Cannes Kevin and I came back and spent two weeks doing some more picture cutting. Two frames here, six frames there, 12 frames there, you know, fractions of seconds. And we did another pass of course on the mix. We remixed it. It smoothed out some of the way the music was functioning. It made it less repetitive and more emotional. Film is in detail and squeezing that last one, two, three, four percent out of a film like in any creative work makes a big difference. And there’s nothing you can even concretely point to. It just feels better, it just feels more like a real movie.”

Tent, who’s edited all of Payne’s features, said the filmmaker is “more involved than most (directors) with the small details.” Payne said what makes he and Tent a good team is, “number one we get along really well and number two we both want to be and are the actor’s best friend. We go through the takes over and over again to make sure we’re getting the best stuff up on screen in terms of what represents the actor’s work and then, of course, what’s appropriate for the character. And then beyond that I think we both have a pretty good storytelling sense—telling a story effectively and making it rhythmic.”

Located on Santa Monica Boulevard, The Lot owns a storied history as the Fairbanks-Pickford Studio and original home of United Artists. For most of its life though it was the Warner Hollywood Studio that served as the smaller sister studio to the main Warner Brothers Studio in Burbank. Some film-television production still happens in the cavernous sound stages there but today it’s mostly a post site for finishing films. It’s one of countless L.A. industry venues where films of every imaginable type are supported and tweaked behind closed doors. It’s safe to say two-time Oscar-winner Payne was the star resident client at The Lot with his Cannes-bound project.

Payne’s sixth feature enjoyed a warm reception at the fabled film bazaar, where star Bruce Dern won the Best Actor prize. Payne, who accepted the award for Dern, said even a stellar performance like Dern’s is partly shaped in the editing room. “It’s definitely what the actor’s doing but its also the work of editing where you’re combing through and getting the best of every set up and then creating both from what they gave you and from what you’re choosing and culling as absolutely necessary to tell the story. You tease out a great consistency to performance and to the creation of the character and then once we do that the work the actor’s done really starts to pop. Bruce did a good job.”

During my visit last spring to the Audio Head suite Payne introduced me to the insular post production world where he and his crew were under the gun preparing the film for its Cannes debut. “We’ve been working twelve-hour days. It’s been very much a mad dash to the finish because we’re getting ready for Mr. Frenchy,” Payne said to me shortly upon my arrival.

Notes and tweaks

Nebraska is a six-reel picture. Each pass through a reel takes put to six hours. It’s time consuming because each team member has notes made from previous screenings of what fixes need addressing. With each successive pass, there are new notes to respond to. After a screening of the twenty-minute reel five with a running time count on the screen Payne said to his collaborators, “I have a bunch of little things, so maybe we should fast track.” After noting several areas of concern and the corresponding time they appear in the reel, everything from extraneous noises to wanting some bits louder and others quieter, he said, “Sorry, I have a lot of notes here guys.”

Then Payne invites Tent and the others to chime in with their own notes. Payne interjects, “I’m looking froward to our whole film playback so we can gauge all of these things.” He asks for input from personal assistant and aspiring filmmaker Anna Musso and first assistant editor Mindy Elliott before asking, “Anyone else?”That’s how it rolls, day after day.

During my stay I watch an uninterrupted playback of the entire film at a large screening room on the Paramount lot with Payne and the edit-mix team poised with notepads and pens in laps. Several folks are moved to tears despite having seen the film countless times. For the duration of the edit-mix the post crew becomes Payne’s family. It’s the most time intensive segment of creating a film. “I spend more time with the post production crew than with the other (the shooting crew) and each thinks it’s THE filmmaking family. Many of them never meet each other. But I meet all of them, down to the musicians who play on it or to the guy who designs the titles.”

Recently, Payne told me that post work on Nebraska took twenty eight weeks but even with that it still marked the shortest “period of time I’ve posted a film. I think The Descendants was about thirty eight weeks total. And in these twenty eight weeks I took time out to go to Cannes, I took a week off after Cannes. I went to Bologna, Italy to watch old movies. Even within there it’s been a faster process than my previous films.”


Ever since he began talking about Nebraska he’s described his vision for it as “austere,” referring to the small budget ($12 million), tight shoot schedule (six weeks), short script (ninety five pages) and minimal camera set-ups. The script’s lack of a voiceover motif, something most of his films have featured, was the biggest time saver in the edit room. “It was shot in a more austere style so I had fewer camera angles to do deal with. I wanted to be complete in my coverage but very limited in the coverage and to have as much play out as possible in single takes, and cut as little as possible. Plus no voiceover. Ask anybody who does a voiceover picture—voiceover adds a whole level of time to the editing of the film to calibrate, to get the voice over just right. It’s a rather musical element really. Dramatic and musical.” He said he was never tempted to impose a narrator on the story. “Absolutely not, no way, that’s not how it’s conceived. Voiceover isn’t something you decide to add later. Usually people only do that when the film’s in trouble. For me, voiceover’s always been an integral part of the conception of a film.”

Although a purely aesthetic choice, the film’s middle range black and white photography that’s neither expressionistic nor impressionistic is congruent with its austerity, Payne said Paramount, the studio that bankrolled the picture and is releasing it this fall, initially resisted his making it in black and white because that’s what suits and bean counters do to appease shareholders. Payne held out and when push came to shove he got his way. “They said they were glad I stuck to my guns because they like it so much. They’ve been great. I’ve had a great experience with Paramount, honestly. Once we were able to make it at a budget level they were comfortable with given the fact it was black and white with no major stars in a non-rebate state then I couldn’t have asked for a more supportive group. I couldn’t be more happy about it.”

So was their resistance a bluff to see how committed he was to black and white? “Kind of,” he said. “I mean, they want you to, they don’t want you to, which is fine, that’s their job. Color makes more money apparently. But they trusted me and then it’s just about the budget at that point.” “I guess I traded in my last Oscar for a black and white movie,” Payne adds jokingly.

Heart and soul getting personal

It’s a black and white movie with perhaps more heart and soul than Payne realized. After living with the film for months he recognized it has more emotional depth than he initially appreciated and part of that was him informing the story with things from his own life. “The script had a kind of deadpan hilarity. I think the direction and the acting and the music are bringing out a lot of sweetness in the film thats making it a more heartfelt film than maybe the screenplay might have suggested at first glance.

“The other thing, too, I was able to make it quite personal in certain details related to David taking care of his older folks. I’m at that age and everyone I know of my generation is at that age where our parents are getting on and need a little special attention. We love them to death and they drive us crazy as we figure out how to take care of them and accommodate them and all those things, including how far do we extend ourselves to be dutiful and at what point do we cut it off. All those questions. I was able to insert some of my own experiences with that in the film. Even though I didn’t originate it it wound up being because of the time in my life when I was making it quite personal and I think that helps the film. It always helps a film if you can put some of yourself in there.” Payne’s pleased by a common refrain he hears from those who’ve seen the film. “A lot of people tell me it makes them think about their parents and I was stopped a number of times in the street in Cannes by people who’d seen the film who said, ‘I was very touched by the film.’”

Woody Grant, the geezer Bruce Dern plays so effectively, is a wreck and wretch demanding attention be paid near the end of a misspent life. Payne’s appreciation for the character and the way Dern portrays him grew during the project. He said Woody has “a lot more in common” with the title character Jack Nicholson played in Payne’s About Schmidt than he might have imagined. While Woody’s not as articulate as Schmidt is by the end, both share a similar existential angst about the value of their lives. “People sometimes come to the end of their lives and are overwhelmed with the feeling they have nothing to show for it. I think that’s certainly whats driving Woody’s crazy mission (to redeem a worthless sweepstakes prize mailer) in some part.”

While Payne finds “kind of sweet the smallness of Woody’s dreams” —he only wants a new pickup truck and a compressor—he said Woody’s admission that he wants “to leave something” for his boys is generous but also selfish. “He wants to know he’s done something.” David, the sweet son who elects to take Woody on the road trip to retrieve the prize, feels many things about his father during the course of that journey but by the end, Payne said, it’s “unconditional love.” He said David is a classic case of “how you seek the love of those who belittle you. Look at his father, who’s a nothing anyway, and how he has to take out his low esteem by belittling others, including his son. So I think the end is complicated. He’s still seeking approval but also granting a last wish.”

Along the way, said Payne, David “finds some understanding” for why his father is the way he is. “Like the graveyard scene with the irreverent things the mother is saying about all the deceased but David is taking all this in for the first time and learning. And when they go to the old farmhouse and then in the bar. Why did you have us? David asks his dad. Well, I liked to screw, Woody said. Again it’s kind of a weird, disturbing yet comic scene. David drank the elixir and is able to wander into his father’s turf and ask him questions he never asked him before.”

Payne said his appreciation for Will Forte’s work also “deepened.” As the sweet son desperate for approval Forte plays a guileless Everyman we all know from our own lives.

Little seen America

The film is filled with sweet and savory small town archetypes. After the Cannes screening Payne said many viewers commented, “We haven’t seen these Americans in a long time. It’s as though they’re forgotten. We never see them in the cinema,” referring to the average types that populate the pic. “I thought it interesting they really feel they’re seeing Americans they’ve never seen before. Of course I really appreciate that. I’ve been saying for a long time Americans make films but not American films about Americans. We make cartoons easily digestible for the rest of the world. But we’re not showing ourselves to ourselves.

“I like when art is a mirror somehow to represent or reflect or distort or refract just to see ourselves, like our film in the ‘70s was, to see common people doing every day things to some degree. It makes me think of what Martin Scorsese said in his documentary about Elia Kazan—that when he was a kid and saw the faces from the street used in On the Waterfront suddenly it was as though the people he knew mattered. People want to see themselves. In general we Americans need to see Americans we recognize in our films but we kind of don’t. Within that to see Midwesterners is an even more uncommon thing.”

The film is a singular Nebraskaesque work. There’s the title, which has never graced a feature before. Then there’s the rarely seen northeast Nebraska locale and by extension the rarely glimpsed denizens of its rural hamlets. And the film’s writer and director both have strong Nebraska ties. Of all the Nebraskans who’ve gone on to Hollywood careers few have been filmmakers. Payne’s the only one to have returned to make films here about the people and places he knows. “Yeah, it’s as though the people I knew mattered and in that way I think I’m lucky I’m from Nebraska in that I have a virgin territory to show in movies,” he said. “And maybe the fact I’ve seen so many movies informs the fact that I can know even unconsciously what would be new. I don’t want to make derivative films. I want to do something new.

“Rachel Jacobson asked me to program a series of films in the fall at Film Streams that have influenced this one and I kind of can’t think of any. Maybe I can, but in general I can’t. It’s like the Latin phrase, suis generis – of its own kind or genus.”

Nothing particularly emphatic or dramatic happens in the story. The NEBRASKA 245

way Payne puts it is: “The movie has a lot of anti-climaxes,” What does happen is authentic and delivering the truth is always his overriding goal, which is why he’s “proud” of the work of the nonactors he and casting director John Jackson found for the film.

Payne’s among the leaders of the Indiewood movement that finds filmmakers like himself making independent movies with studio backing. He’s defied all odds by not having a single critical miss in his growing body of work. His last three features (About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants) have been commercial successes.

How Nebraska fares is anyone’s guess but it’s well positioned to generate buzz between its Cannes reception and expected screenings at the Telluride and New York Film Festivals. After the film opens in late November it should be a prime contender come awards season.

The Nov. 24 Film Streams Feature Event welcomes Payne, Dern and Forte in conversation with Kurt Andersen.




Local color: Payne and Co. mine the prairie poetry of Nebraska

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in a 2014 issue of The Reader

Local color, of the achingly human variety, is where Alexander Payne’s new black and white film Nebraska most deeply comes to life. After fall festival premieres abroad and across the U.S., Payne’s coming home to show off the film named for his native state and primarily shot and set here. Nebraska had an exclusive limited run at Film Streams. On Nov. 24 Payne joins stars Bruce Dern and Will Forte at the Holland Per- forming Arts Center for the sold-out Film Streams fundraiser, Feature V, that will find the troika interviewed on stage by Studio 360 host and novelist Kurt Andersen. The following day Payne and Dern travel to Norfolk, Nebraska, the production’s base camp last fall while the proj- ect filmed in nearby Hartington, Plainview and environs, to premiere the picture there.

Ringing true and finding Woody

Oscar-winner Payne is a stickler for the truth and with the by-turns elegiac and silly Nebraska he went to extreme lengths finding the people and places that ring true to his and screenwriter Bob Nelson’s vision of Midwest America. “This is the most authentically Nebraska feature film I’ve released to date,” said Payne, who previously made Citizen Ruth, Election and About Schmidt in-state.

Casting director John Jackson and Payne searched long and hard for the right players to animate the oddball yet familiar characters Nelson created on the page. In a rare star turn winning him much acclaim Bruce Dern so fully inhabits his old codger of a character, Woody Grant, that despite the actor’s well known face and voice he disappears into the part to become just another of the story’s small town residents. Dern plays Woody as written: a taciturn man of stoic roots and repressed pain long alienated from everyone around him. Feeling a failure near the end of his life, he’s desperate for some validation and so gets it in his head that he’s a sweepstakes winner. His son David, played by Will Forte, takes him on an epic journey to claim the prize. Amid the missteps and detours comes discovery, empathy and closure. As their strained relationship warms the son gives his father a gift born of understanding, forgiveness and love.

One of the reasons Payne said Dern leapt to mind when he originally read the script a decade ago is that like the actor’s actress daughter Laura Dern, who starred in Payne’s feature debut Citizen Ruth, he doesn’t worry about what he looks like on screen. To convincingly play the gone-to-seed Woody the actor inhabiting the role had to look a wreck. “Those Derns don’t have vanity,” Payne said admiringly. “They’ll do anything, they want to do anything. When working they’re more inter- ested in hitting a certain level of truth, an often ugly truth or pathetic truth, and now you’re talking my language.”

Payne elaborated on what made Dern the right fit, “Bruce is a handsome guy when he’s cleaned up and obviously as you can see in the film when he’s not cleaned up he can really look like a coot and a weirdo. If you took many other actors and tried to do the same thing they’d look fake. The guy would have to portray someone cut off from others and lost in his own world. Woody’s probably been like that somewhat his whole life but as a young man they just thought he was reticent. Now he’s a coot and ornery and pissed off at himself that he hasn’t done anything with his life and now he’s about to start taking a dirt nap. I think that’s certainly what’s driving Woody’s crazy mission in some part.

“When I thought about who could communicate that I thought of Bruce.” Payne felt Dern could express the two sides of Woody as both prick and pushover who can’t refuse doing favors, even if it means be- ing taken advantage of. He also detected “a certain childlike nature” in Dern that aligned with Woody’s fragility. “I think within Woody’s ornery crust there is something of a child – of a very disillusioned and disappointed child.” Indeed, we first meet Woody as he’s running away from home. “There’s also a sweetness about Woody and Bruce is a sweet guy. He hasn’t often played that.”

Dern acknowledges it’s a departure for him. “Throughout my career I’ve been flamboyant in a lot of roles, especially flamboyantly evil, and there’s a certain style that goes with that.” Nebraska called for him to be a dull, muted, passive presence. “What the role demanded was a character who appeared to not be touched too much or too little,” he said, “and probably not touched at all. And if he touches other people it’s without planning to do it. He’s just who he is and he’s always going to be that way. I think he’s a fair man, Woody, and that’s another thing I based the character on a lot. Because he’s fair he believes what people tell him because he doesn’t know why anybody would want to lie to him about anything.”

The tangibles and intangibles of a character go into any casting decision. “When you cast someone in a lead you’re not casting just his or her ability to act,” explained Payne. “you’re casting the substance or essence of their person. There’s two things going on simultaneously seemingly contradictory but not. One is you want them to become that person in the script yet at the same time not act.”

Actor and director arriving to the truth

Dern said Payne has an uncanny way of communicating what he wants, variously tapping “your strengths and weaknesses and sometimes invading your privacy” to extract the emotion or tone he’s after. Actors Studio veteran Dern believes he achieved a progressive in-the-moment reality in Nebraska he’d never accomplished before on a film. “I’ve always wanted to be a human being and just kind of acting—otherwise leave myself alone and not perform and I don’t think there’s really a moment in the movie where I perform—in other words take it above the context of what it really is. The first day of the movie Alexander said to me, ‘I’d like you to let Mr. Papamichael (cinematographer) and I do our jobs,’ meaning don’t show me anything, let me find it with the camera, and that’s what he did and that’s what you see.

“That doesn’t mean I wasn’t acting. It was as hard a role as I’ve had to take on but I feel I owed it to the material and to my career for just once in my life to try and have as many consecutive moment- to-moment pure moments of behavior. That’s what I began when I worked with Mr. Kazan and Mr. Strasberg in the Actors Studio—how much moment to moment real behavior can you have? And I think in Nebraska I’ve done far and away the most I’ve had in an entire film.”

Forte, a relative newcomer to acting after years writing for television, said he learned a lot from his co-star. “Bruce would always say, ‘Just be truthful,’ and that always sounded like acting mumbo jumbo to me coming in but for some reason the way he would explain it and describe it it made sense. There’s such an honesty that comes from his performance and all the performances that it really taught me a lot to watch everyone work.”

Dern said Payne lived up to what his daughter Laura and his old acting chum Jack Nicholson, who starred in the director’s About Schmidt, told him about the filmmaker: “They both said in separate conversations, ‘He’ll be the best teammate you’ve ever had.’ They were right. I feel it’s the best team, overall, I’ve ever had.”

Payne, whose sets are famously relaxed, said he also casts with an eye to who will “be nice to work with” and contribute to the playfulness he believes essential to good filmmaking. “I want to be there to play. I don’t know exactly how it (any scene) should be, I’m there to sort of say, ‘Oh, well, let’s try this and let’s try that, nudging the machine toward a certain direction. It’s not all preconceived, you’re discovering it day by day, so I think you want actors who are willing to have a sense of, Let’s be playful and free. It’s all about having fun, and that will create something none of us have thought of exactly.”

Dern said he’s glad it took nearly a decade to get the film made – the project came to Payne as the filmmaker was setting up Sideways – because “I wasn’t ready to play this role a few years ago.” The passage of time put some more natural wear and tear on Dern, both physically and emotionally. The limp he walks with in the film is real, if exaggerated, and the way Woody leaves things unsaid is something Dern said he’s been guilty of himself and regrets.

Life informing art

Similarly, Payne’s personal life caught up with the experience of David in Nebraska as an adult child dealing with aging parents. Payne’s father is in a nursing home and his mother recently survived a serious health scare. “I was able to make it quite personal in certain details related to David taking care of his older folks,” Payne said. “Everyone I know of my generation at that age has parents that are getting on and need a little special attention. We love them to death and they drive us crazy. How we take care of them and accommodate them and all those things, and how far do we extend ourselves to be dutiful and at what point do we cut it off, all those questions. It wound up being because of the time in my life when I was making it quite personal. The fact that I had that much more life experience for this film with respect to my parents, I think helps the film. It always helps a film if you can put some of yourself in there.”

Payne said the bottomed-out economy also enhanced the austere shooting style and stark look of the film, adding, “Those winds blew their way into the film as well and it becomes more of a Depression Era film.” Undoubtedly some will take umbrage at the film’s portrayals of quirky. salt-of-the-earth types. But if the strong reception the picture’s received at the Cannes, Telluride and New York Film Festivals, among others, is any indication, than most audiences realize Payne and his collaborators sought archetype, not caricature in bringing to life small town inhabitants and the dysfunctional Grant family.

“I hope what people take away from this movie is his genuine love for Nebraska because he really does love Nebraska” said Forte. Dern calls the film “a love poem” to Nebraska from Payne.

Payne, Nelson, Jackson, Papamichael, editor Kevin Tent, assorted other crew and the ensemble cast all committed to realizing authentic portraits of this comic-dramatic Midwest Gothic tale. As Payne is both a writer and a director he made his own pass on the Nelson script. He’s particularly proud of the simple yet sublime and nearly wordless ending he hit upon that may just go down as one of the most memorable and moving conclusions in the annals of American cinema. A series of telling looks are exchanged that say more than any words can. He’s pleased too by his handling of the film’s black and white and wide screen that help make Nebraska an expressionistic experience for the way he and Papamichael evoke mood from light, shadow, landscape and framing. The juxtaposition of persons and places carries meaning.

Creating a world through casting

But what Payne’s most eager to talk about is how Nebraska lives and breathes on the strength of its casting and melding of actors and extras. “Whatever achievements this film Nebraska may or may not have for me its greatest achievement is its most significant marriage of profes- sional and nonprofessional actors and nonactors because to create that world it’s dependent equally on production design and casting. That’s what suggests that world is that flesh. We spent over a year doing it so that they all seem like they’re in the same movie. Finding those vivid nonactors takes time.

“Official preproduction is going to start maybe fifteen weeks out but I need casting and location scouting to start many, many weeks before that and I do a lot of the scouting way in advance of a greenlight. Whenever I’d have three free days I’d just take off in my car around the state.” He’s come to know rural Nebraska quite well. It’s why he’s confident he cast not only the right locales but the right faces and voices. He goes so far as to say, “Casting is the most important thing” and “The best thing I do as a director is cast. You can’t f___ up casting. You’ve got to get the right people in every part and of course the leads and the secondary, tertiary parts have to be exactly right. It’s creating a world.” He likes saying his movie is as much “anthropological” as anything.

Prepping the movie, he said, “I looked at a number of small town American films. One of them in particular is an excellent film and it has professional actors but also people cast from that small town. But there’s a great chasm between the acting styles of the two. It’s like the faces of the real people lend what they’re supposed to lend which is authenticity, verisimilitude and all that but they’re not acting properly, even as versions of themselves.

“So I knew we had to spend time to get local people who could act as vividly as possible as versions as themselves but also to have the professional actors act flatter. They both had to meet in between. I like when professional actors act more flatly like people do in real life. People don’t gesticulate, go into histrionics in real life, not Midwesterners anyway.”

A cinema seldom seen

Truth is always the litmus test for Payne. “When I’m in a casting session it’s no different from how I am on the set, which is the moment they start acting I pretend in my mind that we’re not making a movie, that I’m just there invisible watching something. Do I believe it? That’s the trick. Do I buy it? Do I think these are real people?”

Payne’s likely to return to Nebraska again to make films. It’s only natural. “Other directors continue to make films in the cities where they grew up. Paul Thomas Anderson and Quentin Tarantino shoot in L.A. Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese and so many others in New York. Kurosawa would never leave Tokyo. Pedro Almodovar hasn’t made a movie outside of Spain. Fellini never made a movie outside of Italy. They were courted and invited a lot. ‘No, no, this is where I feel comfortable, where I feel like I know the people and where I can get the details right.’”

It’s the same reasoning Payne uses for making movies here. Then there’s the fact that by tackling subjects so close to home he can show a segment of America too often missing from today’s cinema. “I think in general we Americans need to see Americans in our films but we kind of don’t, we see cartoons largely. As Americans we make cartoons easily digestible for the rest of the world but we’re not showing ourselves to ourselves. I like when art is a mirror somehow to represent or reflect or distort or refract, just to see ourselves like our film in the ‘70s, showing common people doing every day things. . . .”

He said a recurring comment he hears about Nebraska is that “we haven’t seen these Americans in a long time. It’s as though they’re forgotten, we never see them in the cinema. I thought that was interesting that people really feel they’re seeing Americans they’ve never seen before. Of course, I really appreciate that.”

As one of only a handful of Nebraska feature filmmakers who’s cultivated the state on screen, he said, “I think I’m lucky I’m from Nebraska and that I have a virgin territory to show in movies. Maybe the fact I’ve seen so many movies informs the fact that I can know even unconsciously what would be new. I don’t want to make derivative films, I want to do something new.”

By the same token, Payne, who reveres classic cinema, said, “People have said of Nebraska, ‘This is a film like they used to make,’ and that makes me feel good because I’m trying to make films like how they used to make. I’m trying to make the films I myself would like to see, which is film from the ‘70s and before.”

In truth, Payne’s made a timeless film that plays like a loony requiem set to its own internal rhythm and logic. It unfolds slowly but surely and from the mix of somber, sweet and surreal emerges a lyrical comic- drama unlike any other. Because of this cinematic prairie poem the state will surely never be looked at the same again.

Kathy “Scout” Pettersen and Beverly Reicks Equality and love win

It’s funny how things once considered taboo, unthinkable, and unlawful become accepted practices. if not by everyone (Where is there one hundred percent consensus on anything?) then by the vast majority of us. Gay marriage is certainly one of those societal shifts. As the gay rights movement took hold and most of us came to terms with the fact that we have gay individuals in our lives whom we like or love or respect, ideas about same sex unions moved the public and private needle about this basic human and civil right little by little until what was thought impossible became practical, fair, lawful, and right. This is a piece I did about the women who became the first legally sanctioned same sex married couple in Douglas County, Nebraska.


l-r: Kathy "Scout" Petersen and Beverly Reicks

Kathy “Scout” Pettersen and Beverly Reicks

Equality and love win

When marriage equality became binding law in all 50 states, one Omaha couple wasted no time making Neb. history. Within two hours of the landmark June 26 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Kathy “Scout” Pettersen and Beverly Reicks got hitched at the Douglas County Clerk’s office downtown.

The kiss sealing their I-do’s graced the Omaha World-Herald’s front page and many other media platforms.

The couple, who share a home in Benson, waited years for legislation to catch up with public opinion They kept close tabs on the same-sex marriage debate. The morning their lives changed Pettersen was at The Bookworm, where she manages the children’s department, and Reicks, National Safety Council, Nebraska president and CEO, was getting blood work done at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

After hearing initial reports of the court reaching a decision, Reicks joined Pettersen at the bookstore. Once the 5-4 ruling in favor of marriage equality was confirmed, the pair drove to the courthouse for a license. Surrounded by hungry media, supportive staff and friends, they opted for an impromptu civil ceremony.

“We were greeted just with an abundance of joy and happiness,” Reicks says. “It was just really cool.”

“The reception was really warm. Everyone smiling and congratulatory. Lots of hugs from people I’d never met. It kind of made up for the disappointment I experienced in Neb. in 2000,” Pettersen says, referring to voters passing Initiative 416 prohibiting same-sex unions.

“It was troubling people thought certain people should be without civil rights,” Reicks says of the status quo that prevailed here.

Nebraska District Court Judge Joseph Battalion twice ruled the ban unconstitutional. A state appeal resulted in a stay that left gay couples in limbo until this summer’s milestone federal decision.

The couple’s friend, County Clerk Tom Cavanaugh, paid for their license. More friends witnessed the proceedings.

“We were just really honored so many people came through for us,” Pettersen says. “It was just really wonderful.”

“It was beyond what I ever imagined,” Reicks adds.

With the paperwork signed, Chief Deputy Clerk Kathleen Hall nudged the pair to give the media a marriage to cover. Pettersen and Reicks obliged. The lights, cameras and mics made for a surreal scene.

“I felt like I was in a whirlwind,” Pettersen recalls. “I felt like a celebrity,” Reicks says.

After basking in applause and cheers, the newlyweds answered reporters’ questions. Congrats continued outside. The couple celebrated with friends and family at La Buvette and Le Bouillon.

“It was an all-day, into-the-night celebration,” Pettersen says. “Lots of toasting.”

Reasons to celebrate extended to finally being accorded rights long enjoyed by opposite sex couples. Pettersen has an adopted daughter, Mia, and Reicks says, “Now she’s truly my step-daughter.” Recently filling out joint documents, Pettersen says, “I checked the married box for the first time without any hesitation or doubt. That was a very big deal to me. I couldn’t stop smiling it felt so good.”

Reicks reminds, “We owe a debt of gratitude to the plaintiffs who took these cases where they needed to go. They were brave enough to come forward and take up the challenge. We took advantage of the moment they created.”

“We reaped the benefits of their hard work,” Pettersen says. “I never thought I would see this in my lifetime. I do feel like we’re a part of history.”

Contrary to opponents’ fears, Reicks says, “The world did not come to an end because some gay and lesbian couples got married.”

Pettersen says It just all proves “love wins.”

l-r: Kathy "Scout" Petersen and Beverly Reicks


Sarpy County, Nebraska: Rewriting the playbook for economic development.

March 22, 2016 Leave a comment

The Sarpy County boom is the focus of this new piece I contributed to for B2B Omaha Magazine ((,

Once boasting only sleepy rural charms, quaint main streets and Offutt Air Force Base mystique, Sarpy County has awakened to a boom of residents, businesses and amenities. No longer a nondescript boondocks, this little county-that-could is now a magnet with on-the-map attractions. The state’s smallest county by land size claims the third largest population – 170,000, trailing only Douglas County on its northern border and Lancaster County to the west.  Sarpy’s seeing the most dramatic growth of any Nebraska county. The surge is not slowing either.Greater Metropolitan Omaha offerings are enhanced by Sarpy’s entertainment venues, shopping centers, historic sites, parks and trails, making Eastern Nebraska a tourist stop and stay-cation spot.

Sarpy County Tourism director Linda Revis isn’t surprised the area’s being discovered. “The more you have to offer, the more you have to see, the more you have to do, the better and more well known you become,” she says.  Sarpy’s five communities – Bellevue, Papillion, La Vista, Gretna and Springfield – benefit from the explosion, whether in houses built, businesses opening or tax revenues flowing into city coffers.  Revis says, “We’re in the best location. We’ve got Omaha and Lincoln as neighbors. We’re on Interstate 80 and Interstate 29. We’re an easy destination to get to. We can be the hub and they can be the spokes.”

In a if-you-build-it-they-will-come spurt, the city’s added many must-do attractions. Sumtur Amphitheater presents concerts, plays and movies. A downtown market for local artisans and boutique owners and the new Midlands Place shopping center add engaging sites to Shadow Lake Towne Center, Papio Bay Aquatic Center, Papio Fun Park and golf courses-driving ranges.  Fishing, boating, camping, hiking, biking enthusiasts flock to Walnut Creek Recreation Area. Prairie Queen Recreation Area is a popular new multi-use water-based outdoor retreat. The region’s only Triple A baseball club, the Omaha Storm Chasers, draws some 390,000 fans to Werner Park each spring-summer. The anticipated boom in housing-business development surrounding the park has not yet materialized but city-county officials expect it will soon. For history buffs, Sautter House is a 19th century farm dwelling and Portal School is a one-room schoolhouse. Papillion Days Festival is a weeklong celebration.  Belvedere Hall serves authentic Polish dinners, music and dance.

Sarpy’s dynamic rise as a place people want to invest and do business in is symbolized by the new $25 million SAC Federal Credit Union headquarters and $200 million Fidelity Investments data center. Yahoo and other name company data processing centers give Sarpy a Silicon Prairie signature. A site opening this spring west of Papillion, the VA’s 236-acre Omaha National Cemetery, is expected to draw visitors from all around.

Sarpy’s managed adding big-time features without sacrificing small town character. Balancing bucolic with bustle takes planning. Bellevue’s bursting at the seams with things to do and places to see. Old Towne features the Historic Log Cabin, Old Presbyterian Church, Fontenelle Bank and Omaha and Southern Railroad Depot. Bellevue Little Theatre has produced stage works since 1968. For natural splendor there’s 1,400-acre Fontenelle Forest. Also Gifford Farm and Bellevue Berry & Pumpkin Patch. Haworth Park has multiple recreation amenities. Hitting the links is easy with Willow Lakes and Tregaron Golf Course. Film buffs get their fix at Twin Creek Cinema. Moonstruck Meadery is a new addition to the robust artisan spirits scene. Offfutt’s value-added impact is large. “It’s amazing how many people who serve at Offutt choose to stay or come back,” Revis says. “People want to live in these great communities.”

Embassy Suites by Hilton Omaha La Vista Hotel & Conference Center is a crossroads for tourists and event attendees. Nearby attractions include Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, Lucky Bucket Brewing Company/Cut Spike Distillery, Patriarch Distillers, Nebraska Brewing Company Tap Room, La Vista Falls Golf Course, Defy Gravity trampoline park and Brentwood Square’s shops, services and eateries. Iconic outdoor outfitter Cabela’s superstore features Disney-quality dioramas, the two-story Conservation Mountain with running waterfalls and stream, trout pond and wild game displays and a 34,000-gallon, walk-through aquarium stocked with freshwater fish.

La Vista anticipates a spike once the Nebraska Multisport Complex is built on 184 acres to encompass a natatorium with Olympic regulation pools, an indoor-outdoor tennis center and soccer fields with field turf and lighting. The facilities will be available to local teams, clubs, schools and nonprofits. Hosting regional-national tournaments is possible. Projections estimate the complex generating $17.8 million in new economic impact and attracting 1.2 million visitors annually.

Gretna’s home to some of Sarpy’s biggest draws. No. 1 is Nebraska Crossing Outlets. The $112 million, 335,000-square-foot mall featuring buzz-worthy brand name stores unavailable elsewhere in the region, did $140 million in sales and 4 million shopper visits its first year of operation in 2013-14. Sales and visits trended up last year. A $15 million expansion adding more stores is to open by Christmas. Pumpkin patches are big business in ag tourism and Vala’s Pumpkin Patch has cornered the area market. The 55-acre site welcomes 200,000-plus visitors during its September-October run. A meditative getaway awaits at Holy Family Shrine atop a hill above the scenic Platte Valley. The 23-acre sanctuary features serene gardens, walking paths, visitor’s center and chapel.

Hidden treasures abound in Springfield. Indulge creative interests at Weiss Sculpture Garden and Studio and Springfield Artworks. Satisfy a sweet tooth at Springfield Drug’s vintage soda fountain. Commune with nature’s bounty at Soaring Wings Vineyard & Brewing. The great outdoors is on tap, too, at Mopac Trailhead and Nature Center. South Sarpy development is the county’s next horizon opportunity.

Tourism maven Linda Revis says the people make the difference. “You go to any of our attractions or venues and you will not find friendlier more welcoming people anywhere. We work at being welcoming and it pays off a hundred-fold.”



Sarpy County, Nebraska

Rewriting the playbook for economic development.

Originally appeared in the March/April 2016 issue of B2B Omaha Magazine (



In 1999, an online-banking company with a nonsensical name built a sprawling operation center next to the I-80 corridor on the edge of Papillion. Baffled passing commuters wondered how long a company named “PayPal” could possibly survive.

Six years later—to the delight of the region’s outdoor enthusiasts—Cabela’s opened a 128,000-square-foot sportsmen’s paradise that transformed the Cornhusker Street exit along I-80 into a bustling retail hotspot.

As the companies moved into the area, so did the employees, and the shoppers. Once boasting only sleepy rural charms, quaint main streets, and Offutt Air Force Base mystique, Nebraska’s smallest county by land mass is now also its fastest growing.

Indeed, while the rest of the state lost 3% of its population (or 55,000 people) between 2010 and 2014, Sarpy County added 13,000 people—an 8% increase.

How did it happen? Is there something to be learned by Nebraska’s other 92 counties?

Sarpy’s formula was a mix of nature and nurture: Aggressive leaders with vision and a willingness to deal. The good fortune of having open land next to a major metropolitan area and one of the nation’s major east-west corridors. Lots of nearby suburbanites with cash. Also, an educated work force within driving distance.


It was a perfect economic storm that even pulled off the outrageous and unthinkable: Dragging the Omaha Royals into the suburban Sarpy playground of the Omaha Stormchasers.

And now, in 2016, it’s all about synergy. Momentum. Winning begets more winning.

Ernie Goss, a Creighton University professor of economics, says that when county leaders are successful in building a concentration of development like the one in Sarpy County, it becomes a catalyst for more growth.

“There’s the impact of what we call clustering, Goss says.

The perpetual motion machine is paying off for the county and state. PayPal alone generated $736,930.00 in tax revenue in 2014, more than any other commercial business in the region.

Goss says the presence of PayPal and Cabela’s, among others, has undoubtedly propelled more development. After all, people want to be where the jobs and rooftops are.

There’s a lot to be said for clustering and that’s what we’re seeing out there,” he says.

Embassy Suites Conference Center in La Vista, developed in 2004, has brought in tourism dollars from conventions and weddings. Those tourism dollars also mean more people viewing the city, which builds awareness of the hotel and convention center, which, of course, increases chances that people will spread the word to other shoppers and convention organizers.

Goss says the boom will continue as long as the benefits of providing essential services—such as sewers and roads—in support of new development exceeds the marginal costs. Once those infrastructure elements are in place, he says, the marginal costs tend to decrease and that, in turn, spurs more development.

“It’s the initial development that’s very costly in providing things like fire and police services and other government services.”

Typically, he says, providing services becomes cheaper as the area grows more densely populated. That’s what’s happening in Sarpy County, where a growing resident and business tax base is helping make development cost effective.

The area also benefits from ready access to interstate highways that feed into the Omaha-Lincoln metroplex. Goss says Sarpy is situated just enough outside the urban congestion sprawl to give it a semi-country, away-from-it-all appeal while being near enough to still share in the big city orbit.


“It has a lot to do with interstate access,” he says.

And convenience.

“A lot of folks out west of Omaha find it easier driving to a conference at the Embassy Suites in La Vista than having to drive to the Embassy Suites in the Old Market,” Goss says. “That’s certainly part of it.”

All this growth, too, has come amid a national economy that has generally lagged. But, as the economy sputters, interest rates remain low. In the environment of the last decade, the cost and major development has remained lower as interest rates continue to hover around 4%.

The surge is not slowing.

La Vista anticipates yet another spike once the Nebraska Multisport Complex is built on 184 acres to encompass a natatorium with Olympic regulation pools, an indoor-outdoor tennis center, and soccer fields with field turf and lighting. The facilities will be available to local teams, clubs, schools, and nonprofits. Hosting regional-national tournaments is a massive money generator as families follow players for long weekends of play. Projections estimate the complex would generate $17.8 million in new economic impact and attracting 1.2 million visitors annually.

The win streak extended down the road to the edge of Gretna, where the massive Nebraska Crossing Outlets defied the doubters by doing $140 million in sales in its first year of operation. Within a year of its 2013 opening, the $112 million, 335,000-square-foot mall featuring buzz-worthy brand name stores was planning a major expansion. A new $15 million complex of stores is scheduled to open by Christmas.

Karen Gibler, president of the Sarpy County Chamber of Commerce, says there soon will be announcements about coming neighborhoods and businesses spurred by the new Highway 34 bridge, 84th Street developments, new I-80 exits, and planned sewer and transportation projects.

Gibler cites many reasons why investors and residents choose to work and live there:

“Quality of education and life keeps residents looking to move into our area,” she says. “This growth has opened the eyes of developers. Our leadership in the cities and county are a contributing factor. Land availability and easy access to good highways and the interstate make it easy to access from around the area.” Smart planning helps, as do plentiful jobs and affordable home prices. And people feel safe.”

That success has brought recognition. Papillion now ranks second on Money Magazine’s Best Places to Live for its high median income ($75,000), job growth (10%), thriving cultural life, and great access to the big-city amenities of Omaha.

National awards show up in national magazines and websites. People and companies looking for good homes read about this happenin’ place called Sarpy County in Nebraska.

And so, the wheels of progress keep on turning.

Once you can get it going, Goss says, “one activity draws another activity or one company draws another company.

“They have it all going in the right direction right now,” Goss says.



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

February 25, 2016 1 comment

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

Appearing 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.



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.


15 Lew Hunter 2

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



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