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Jim Taylor, the Other Half of Hollywood’s Top Screenwriting Team, Talks About His Work with Alexander Payne


No matter how Alexander Payne’s in-progress film Downsizing is received when released next year, it will be remembered as his first foray into special effects, science fiction, big budget filmmaking and sprawling production extending across three nations. But the most important development it marks is the rejoining of Payne and his longtime screenwriting partner, Jim Taylor, whose contributions to the film’s they’ve collaborated on often get overlooked even though he’s shared an Oscar with Payne and has been nominated for others with him. In truth, Payne and Taylor never broke with each other. Payne did make both The Descendants and Nebraska without Taylor’s writing contribution, but following their last collaboration, Sideways, and during much of the period when Payne was producing other people’s films and then mounting and making the two films he directed following Sideways, these creative partners were busily at work on the Downsizing screenplay. It’s been awhile since I last interviewed Taylor. I am sharing the resulting 2005 story here, It is included in my book Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film. A new edition of the book releases Sept. 1.

As my story makes clear, Payne and Taylor go farther back then Citizen Ruth, the first feature they wrote together and the first feature that Payne directed. Their bond goes all the way back to college and to scuffling along to try to break into features. After Citizen Ruth, they really made waves with their scripts for Election and About Schmidt. And then Sideways confirmed them as perhaps Hollywood’s top screenwriting tandem. They also collaborated on for-hire rewrite jobs on scripts that others directed.

I will soon be doing a new interview with Taylor for my ongoing reporting about Payne and his work. Though Taylor is not a Nebraskan, his important collaboration with Payne makes him an exception to the rule of only focusing on natives for my in-development Nebraska Film Heritage Project. By the way, one of the films that Payne produced during his seven year hiatus from directing features was The Savages, whose writer-director, Tamara Jenkins, is Taylor’s wife. That Payne and Taylor have kept their personal friendship and creative professional relationship intact over 25-plus years, including a production company they shared together, is a remarkable feat in today’s ephemeral culture and society.

NOTE: For you film buffs out there, I will be interviewing Oscar-winning cinematographer Mauro Fiore and showing clips of his work at Kaneko in the Old Market, on Thursday, July 21. The event starts at 7 p.m. and will include a Q & A. For details and tickets, visit–

Mauro Fiore: Writing with Light

Link to my cover story about Mauro and more info about the event at–

https://leoadambiga.com/…/05/04/master-of-light-mauro-fiore/

 

 

<a gi-track='captionPersonalityLinkClicked' href=/galleries/search?phrase=Jim+Taylor&family=editorial&specificpeople=209181 ng-click='$event.stopPropagation()'>Jim Taylor</a> and <a gi-track='captionPersonalityLinkClicked' href=/galleries/search?phrase=Alexander+Payne&family=editorial&specificpeople=202578 ng-click='$event.stopPropagation()'>Alexander Payne</a>, winners Best Screenplay for “Sideways”

Jim Taylor and Alexander Payne, winners Best Screenplay for “Sideways”

 

Jim Taylor, the Other Half of Hollywood’s Top Screenwriting Team, Talks About His Work with Alexander Payne

Published in a fall 2005 issue of The Reader

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

There’s an alchemy to the virtuoso writing partnership of Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, Oscar winners for Sideways (2004) and previous nominees for Election (1999), that resists pat analysis. The artists themselves are unsure what makes their union work beyond compatibility, mutual regard and an abiding reverence for cinema art.

Together 15 years now, their professional marriage has been a steady ascent amid the starts and stops endemic to filmmaking. As their careers have evolved, they’ve emerged as perhaps the industry’s most respected screenwriting tandem, often drawing comparisons to great pairings of the past. As the director of their scripts, Payne grabs the lion’s share of attention, although their greatest triumph, Sideways, proved “a rite of passage” for each, Taylor said, by virtue of their Oscars.

Taylor doesn’t mind that Payne, the auteur, has more fame. ”He pays a price for that. I’m not envious of all the interviews he has to do and the fact his face is recognized more. Everywhere he goes people want something from him. That level of celebrity I’m not really interested in,” he said by phone from the New York home he shares with filmmaker wife Tamara Jenkins (The Slums of Beverly Hills).

With the craziness of Sideways now subsided and Payne due to return soon from a month-long sojourn in Paris, where he shot a vignette for the I Love Paris omnibus film, he and Taylor will once again engage their joint muse. So far, they’re being coy about what they’ve fixed as their next project. It may be the political, Altmanesque story they’ve hinted at. Or something entirely else. What is certain is that a much-anticipated new Payne-Taylor creation will be in genesis.

Taylor’s an enigma in the public eye, but he is irreducibly, inescapably one half of a premier writing team that shows no signs of running dry or splitting up. His insights into how they approach the work offer a vital glimpse into their process, which is a kind of literary jam session, game of charades and excuse for hanging out all in one. They say by the time a script’s finished, they’re not even sure who’s done what. That makes sense when you consider how they fashion a screenplay — throwing out ideas over days and weeks at a time in hours-long give-and-take riffs that sometimes have them sharing the same computer monitor hooked up to two keyboards.

Their usual M.O. finds them talking, on and on, about actions, conflicts, motivations and situations, acting out or channeling bits of dialogue and taking turns giving these elements form and life on paper.

”After we’ve talked about something, one of us will say, ‘Let me take a crack at this,’ and then he’ll write a few pages. Looking at it, the other might say, ‘Let me try this.’ Sometimes, the person on the keyboard is not doing the creative work. They’re almost inputting what the other person is saying. It’s probably a lot like the way Alexander works with his editor (Kevin Tent), except we’re switching back and forth being the editor.”

For each writer, the litmus test of any scene is its authenticity. They abhor anything that rings false. Their constant rewrites are all about getting to the truth of what a given character would do next. Avoiding cliches and formulas and feel-good plot points, they serve up multi-shaded figures as unpredictable as real people, which means they’re not always likable.

”I think it’s true of all the characters we write that there’s this mixture of things in people. Straight-ahead heroes are just really boring to us because they don’t really exist,” said Taylor, whose major influences include the humanist Czech films of the 1960s. “I think once we fall in love with the characters, then it’s really just about the characters for us. We have the best time writing when the characters are leading us somewhere and we’re not so much trying to write about some theme.”

Sideways’ uber scene, when Miles and Maya express their longing for each other via their passion for the grape, arose organically.

“We didn’t labor any longer over that scene than others,” he said. “What happened was, in our early drafts we had expanded on a speech Miles has in the book (Rex Pickett’s novel) and in later drafts we realized Maya should have her own speech. At the time we wrote those speeches we had no idea how important they would turn out to be. It was instinctive choice to include them, not something calculated to fill a gap in a schematic design.”

 

Writer/director Tamara Jenkins and writer/producer <a gi-track='captionPersonalityLinkClicked' href=/galleries/search?phrase=Jim+Taylor&family=editorial&specificpeople=209181 ng-click='$event.stopPropagation()'>Jim Taylor</a> attend 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' intro at MoMA on February 15, 2008 in New York City.

Writer/director Tamara Jenkins and writer/producer Jim Taylorattend ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ intro at MoMA on February 15, 2008 in New York City.

 

He said their scripts are in such “good shape” by the time cameras roll that little or no rewriting is done on set. “Usually we’ll make some minor changes after the table reading that happens right before shooting.” Taylor said Payne asks his advice on casting, locations, various cuts, music, et cetera.

Their process assumes new colors when hired for a script-doctor job (Meet the Parents, Jurassic Park III), the latest being I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry.

“With those projects we’re trying to accommodate the needs of a different director and we generally don’t have much time, so we don’t allow problems to linger as long as we would, which is good practice,” said Taylor. “It’s good for us to have to work fast. We’ll power through stuff, where we might let it sit longer and just let ourselves be stuck.”

Ego suppression explains in part how they avoid any big blow ups.

”I think it’s because both of us are interested in making a good movie more than having our own ideas validated,” Taylor said. “So we are able to, hopefully, set our egos aside when we’re working and say, ‘Oh, that’s a good idea,’ or, ‘That’s a better idea.’ I think a lot of writing teams split up because they’re too concerned about protecting what they did as opposed to remembering what’s good for the script. We can work out disagreements without having any fallout from it. It’s funny. I mean, sometimes we do act like a married couple. There’s negotiations to be made. But mostly we just get along and enjoy working together.”

As conjurers in the idiom of comedy, he said, “I think our shared sensibilities are similar enough that if I can make him laugh or he can make me laugh, then we feel like we’re on the right track.”

Collaboration is nothing new for Taylor, a Pomona College and New York University Tisch School of the Arts grad, who’s directed a short as well as second unit work on Payne shoots (most of the 16 millimeter footage in Election) and is developing feature scripts for himself to direct.

”For me, I didn’t set out to be a screenwriter, I set out to be a filmmaker,” said Taylor, a former Cannon Films grunt and assistant to director Ivan Passer (Cutter’s Way). So did Alexander. And we kind of think of it all as one process, along with editing…People say everything is writing. Editing is writing and in a strange way acting is writing, and all that. Filmmaking itself is a collaborative medium. People drawn to filmmaking are drawn to working with other people. Sure, a lot of screenwriters do hole up somewhere so they’re not disturbed, but I’m not like that and Alexander’s not like that. I don’t like working on my own. I like to bounce ideas off people. Filmmaking demands it, as opposed to being a novelist or a painter, who work in forms that aren’t necessarily collaborative.”

Simpatico as they are, there’s also a pragmatic reason for pairing up.

”We just don’t like doing it alone and it’s less productive, too. And we sort of have similar ideas, so why not do it together? Even beyond that, it’s like a quantum leap in creativity. You’re just sort of inspired more to come up with something than if you’re just sitting there and hating what you’re doing. At least there’s somebody there going, ‘Oh, that’s good,’ or, ‘How do we do this?’ And you sort of stick with the problem as opposed to going off and cleaning out a drawer or something.”

Payne says scripting with someone else makes the writing process “less hideous.” For Taylor, flying solo is something to be avoided at all costs.

”I hate it. I really hate it. I mean, I do it, but it’s very slow and I don’t think it’s as good,” he said. “I’m getting Alexander’s input on something I’ve been working on for a long, long time on my own, a screenplay called The Lost Cause about a Civil War reenactor, and I expect it to became 50 percent better just because of working with him. We’ll essentially do with it what we do on a production rewrite.”

Lost Cause was part of a “blind deal” Taylor had with Paramount’s Scott Rudin, now at Disney. The fate of Taylor’s deal is unclear.

Writing with his other half, Taylor said, opens a script to new possibilities. “I’ll see it through different eyes when I’m sitting next to Alexander and maybe have ideas I wouldn’t otherwise.”

 

Sideways Photo

 

The pair’s operated like this since their first gig, co-writing short films for cable’s Playboy Inside Out series. The friends and one time roommates have been linked ever since. ”It’s pretty hard to extract the friendship from the partnership or vice versa. It’s all kind of parts of the same thing. We don’t end up seeing each other that much because we live in separate cities, unless we’re working together,” Taylor said. “So our friendship is a little bit dependent on our work life at this point, which is too bad.” However, he added there’s an upside to not being together all the time in the intense way collaborators interact, “It’s important to not get too overdosed on who you’re working with.”

He can’t imagine them going their separate ways unless there’s a serious falling out. ”That would only happen of we had personal problems with each other. Sometimes, people naturally drift apart, and we’re both working against that. We’re trying to make sure that it doesn’t just drift away, because that would be sad.”

Keeping the alliance alive is complicated by living on opposite coasts and the demands of individual lives/careers. But when Taylor talks about going off one day to make his own movies, he means temporarily. He knows Payne has his back. “He’s supportive of my wanting to direct. But I’m so happy working with him that if that were all my career was, I’d be a very lucky person.”

READ ALL ABOUT IT EXCLUSIVE – Alexander Payne’s “Downsizing” starring Matt Damon and Reese Witherspoon

February 27, 2016 Leave a comment

Here is your first and only exclusive insider’s look at Oscar-winner Alexander Payne’s jusst under production new film, “Downsizing,” starring Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig, Christoph Waltz and other stars. From yours truly, Leo Adam Biga, the chronicler of this important writer-director since 1997 and the author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film” – soon to be re-released with a new design, plus updated and expanded content.

UPDATE In its original version this story reported that Reese Witherspoon would co-star alongside Matt Damon, but only days before the April 1 production start it was announced she was no longer attached to the project and that Kristin Wiig had replaced her.

Since this story was first published in early March, Oscar-winning actor Christoph Waltz, along with Udo Kier, Paul Mabon and Warren Belle were officially added to the cast.

 

Payne’s film about miniaturized human life tackles big themes

 

 

READ ALL ABOUT IT EXCLUSIVE – Alexander Payne’s “Downsizing” starring Matt Damon

Film about miniaturized human life tackles big themes

‘Downsizing’ finally going before the cameras April 1

©by Leo Adam Biga, Your A.P. Expert and Author of Soon to Reboot “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

Original story appeared in the March 2016 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

The high concept behind Alexander Payne’s soon to shoot new feature, Downsizing, unfolds in a near future world where humans can opt to be miniaturized. Everything about the story, from the title to the characters to the plot-lines, gives Payne and co-scriptwriter Jim Taylor ample metaphorical opportunities.

The big budgeted Paramount picture starring Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig, Christoph Waltz, Neil Patrick Harris, Jason Sudeikis, Alec Baldwin, Paul Wabon, Warren Belle and Hong Chau endured a long gestation. A different cast was attached in 2008-2009 before the road to financing collapsed with the economy. The pieces almost came together again in 2014. All the while, the script, begun in 2006, got reworked and pared down to meet the budget cap Hollywood placed on this risky project marking Payne’s first foray into science fiction and visual effects..

The production is based at Pinewood Studios in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, where Payne will work for the first time on sound stages and with green screens, CGI and motion capture. Little or no forced perspective will be used.

The sprawling, three-month shoot rolls out April 1 for a week in Los Angeles, then comes to Omaha for a few days. The whole works heads off to Norway for more shooting but the bulk will occur across the border in Canada, where post-production will also happen.

Arch satirists Payne and Taylor use the downsizing premise to skewer the small-mindedness of persons, policies. constructs. In this new work the veteran scenarists, whose previous credits together include the Payne-directed Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt and Sideways, suggest not only are Earth’s physical resources at risk but its intellectual-moral capital, too.

Downsizing’s all too real musings on diminishing returns and bankrupt values posits a redemptive protagonist in Paul, a South Omaha Everyman whom Matt Damon will play. Although the story has a fatalistic, end-of-world backdrop, it dangles hope that humankind, in whatever size survives, will muddle through somehow.

That Payne should use science fiction’s expansive prism to consider world crisis issues and explore the nature of humanity may seem at odds with his intimate dramedies about neurosis, infidelity, promiscuity, loneliness, yearning. Then again, all his work has churned the existential wheel with mundane characters bogged down by the weight of their own mess. Just think of the angst that Ruth (Citizen Ruth), Jim (Election), Warren (Schmidt), Miles and Jack (Sideways), Matt (The Descendants) and Woody (Nebraska) confront. For all its fantastic elements this new narrative is anchored in that same morass of folks dealing with adult dilemmas, conflicts and flaws. Problems dog them wherever they go, even the would-be miniature haven, Leisureland.

And why shouldn’t Payne dip his toes in the sci-fi pool when filmmakers equally identified with humanistic storytelling have done the same? John Sayles (The Brother from Another Planet) and Barry Levinson (Sphere) come to mind.

Besides, sci-fi is a liberating and therefore attractive gateway for artists to tackle large, serious subjects free of constraints. The genre invites storytellers to ponder endless what ifs. In that spirit Payne and Taylor lay out an imagined scenario and burrow down that rabbit hole of speculation to follow what they deem the inevitable consequences.

Downsizing hinges on a hero sensitively responding to a world around him transformed. The implications and stakes are deeply personal and global. At least on the page Payne and Taylor manage to make us care about the micro and macro. Paul’s journey pulls us along this upheaval of life as he knew it. Expectations, definitions and limitations are threatened or overturned. Ultimately, everything is on the line.

 

 

Matt Damon Picture  Kristen Wiig Picture  Christoph Waltz Picture

 

 

Unavoidably, the story echoes other speculative tales, including any dealing with miniature humans. It also resonates with themes from such disparate sources as Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Truman Show, Children of Men and The Hobbit. Payne and Taylor concoct a fable-like framework to hold the narrative together.

The most obvious if unintentional resonance – to The Incredible Shrinking Man – happens at the end, when our hero-pioneer once more enters the great unknown. As with Payne’s previous films, the story concludes with a feeling more than an event or a resolution.

Payne, now married to a native of Greece and coming off his stark tone poem Nebraska, recently spoke about Downsizing with The Reader.

“We always knew it would take a while, first to get the script right, then to secure the financing, and 10 years is a long time. Fortunately I was able to squeeze in two other features and a pilot during that time. But it feels right now. You know, it’s interesting that in life, not just film, you try to do something and you run into obstacles. You try again and you run into more obstacles, and you think, This is never going to happen. And then finally when it does it unfolds elegantly and without obstructions and you say, Wow, I guess this was the time it was supposed to happen. That has been my experience with Downsizing.”

As the 125-page script sits now, he says, “the story hums along with a good filmic rhythm.” Achieving that flow was challenging for the.”big idea” at its core. “So big,” he says, “it was difficult during our writing process to always discern where it breaks off because every idea you come up with for this idea has a very long series of chain reactions. So you just kind of drive yourself crazy with possibilities. The script goes in very unpredictable directions. I’m not saying they’re good because they’re unpredictable. They were unpredictable to us as we were writing. So to corral this story and to get it happening as efficiently and we hope elegantly from point to point to point took a while. Right now it looks good on paper. I hope it will lend itself to a good movie. I won’t know that until I’m in post-production.”

He says the big idea that propels the piece is rife with “social-political overtones” but that it’s the “human aspects of the story that most interest us.” Thus, he’s not getting hung up on its sci-fi pedigree. He just enjoys the unlimited canvas he has to work on.

Payne also isn’t stressing the visual effects world he’s entered though he acknowledges he’s a fish out of water.

“It’s a whole new focus for me and everything. I’m not worried but I’m curious to see how they’re going to work. There’ll be a certain amount of tedium involved because you have to shoot the same scene two, sometimes three times to get the different aspects and elements.

“I want to make sure the actors who are acting in a vacuum on a stage against green screen feel as comfortable and normal as possible.  That’s my job. The acting style should not suffer because of the means of production. But it’ll be fine. You know, who cares, it’s just a movie.”

One whose budget is reportedly double any of his previous pics.

“If they don’t spend it on that, they’re just going to spend it on something else.” he says by way of classic Hollywood reasoning.

 

 

Downsizing Neil Patrick Harris Alec Baldwin Jason Sudeikis

 

He feels in good hands with his visual effects supervisor, James Price, with whom he’s been in discussions since 2008-2009.

“He is my effects czar. He knows how to explain things to me to make things easy for me and how to teach me how these things are achieved – what I need to know, what I don’t need to know. It’s really exciting. The best thing those guys do is to free the director up to say, ‘I want a shot like this, can we do this?’ and they say, ‘Yeah, we can do that,’ and I say, ‘How?’ and they say, ‘Don’t worry about how, but we can do it.’ Between the visual effects supervisor, the DP, the production designer,  they have to trick the director as much as possible into thinking that he or she is just shooting a regular movie so that I don’t censor my imagination, or what I have left of it.”

Payne says Price is on the same page as he and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael in terms of the desired visual palette.

“James knows the aesthetic we want and he’s an avid film watcher and film guy and so that makes me feel good. What I aspire to from the visual effects for this movie is not how eye-popping they are but rather how banal they are. I don’t want the seams to show.”

Payne also hopes to keep the effects to a minimum and to “try to do things in camera as much as possible.”

In addition to Price and his visual effects team Payne is working with a new production designer, Stefania Cella. But he’s mainly surrounded by trusted old friends and collaborators in producer Jim Burke, casting director John Jackson, Papamichael and costume designer Wendy Chuck. His longtime editor, Kevin Tent, is on board as well.

After the seven year gulf between Sideways and Descendants, Payne’s happy to be making films in short order. His last, Nebraska, was received warmly in Greece, where he met his wife while vacationing with his mother (Payne’s father passed away in 2014.).

“I showed the film in Greece a couple times and people were only too quick to tell me they thought it was a Greek film, which surprised me. I said, ‘Why do you think it’s a Greek film?’ and they said, ‘Well. it has the elements of going back to the village where your people are from.’ ‘Okay,’ I said. And they connected with the part of dutifully ‘taking care of the parents who drive you crazy,’ and I said, ‘Well, I’m sure that’s not just Greek.’ I think that’s pretty universal.”

On the eve of finally making Downsizing after so long a wait and “jettisoning” subplots he admittedly “misses,” he’s content. “A movie is a movie is a movie and we have enough to make this movie, so it’ll be fine. And if the gods decree there might be a Downsizing 2, than we have other ideas that we’ve been collecting.”

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

 

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.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Desperate Lives Poster

 

Finding his niche as teacher and author

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

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

He says teaching screenwriting while penning scripts himself proved fruitful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Front Cover

 

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

“We have more professionals professing.”

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

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

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

This open house started small but grew like wildfire.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Hunter, Senstock B & W

Lew and Lonnie Senstock

 

 

Once in a Lew Moon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Talking Screenwriting with Hollywood Heavyweight Hawk Ostby, The Omaha Film Festival Panelist Counts ‘Children of Men’ and ‘Iron Man’ Among His Credits


Another indication the Omaha Film Festival has arrived as a major regional film event is the high caliber of special guests and panelists it continues to attract.   The 2012 version counts actress-writer-director Jaime King (see story on this blog) and screenwriter Hawk Ostby, the subject of this story, among its featured attractions alongside the films themselves.  My Q&A with Ostby, who with Mark Fergus has written Children of Men and Iron Man, finds him talking about craft, of course, but also about the persistence it takes to make it as a screenwriter.  Go to http://www.omahafilmfestival.org for details about the March 7-11 festival and the appearances by King, Ostby, and others.  This blog, by the way, is full of more film stories that might interest you.

Hawk Ostby

 

 

Talking Screenwriting with Hollywood Heavyweight Hawk Ostby, The Omaha Film Festival Panelist Counts ‘Children of Men’ and ‘Iron Man‘ Among His Credits

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Hawk Ostby, one half of the scriptwriting team of Children of Men and Iron Man, will provide an insider’s take on the screenwriting trade at the Omaha Film Festival’s Filmmaking Conference.

Speaking by phone from his Vermont home, Ostby says a big part of making it in the industry is “perseverance and discipline.”

“You really get tested when you start off,” says Ostby, whose writing partner is Mark Fergus. “I was fortunate in that I knew somebody who had a foot in the door, and he said, ‘Look, if you really concentrate for three to five years you’ll be doing what you want to do,’ and I sort of had that tattooed behind my eyelids.

“Three to five years can be a really long time when you’re watching your friends go on to their careers, doing really well, and you’re still tapping away in a sweaty little band box, but then one day it happens. It doesn’t seem so weird or outlandish when somebody calls and says, ‘Hey, we read something of yours and we really like it and we want to try and make it.’ I think in your own mind you fantasize about that moment so often and then when it finally happens it feels right because you’ve done the work.”

Mark Fergus

 

 

Knowing your craft is essential.

“I just was so enamored with the idea of trying to make a living by writing, and I realized I enjoyed it so that it was going to be with me for the rest of my life anyway, so why not knuckle down and really try to learn what it is, what is a story?”

Hollywood seems unattainable but he says he and Fergus prove it’s not.

“Look, I’m not a genius by any means. I just love stories and I stuck with it. It was more like play, and I think if it’s that for you then you’ve got a shot. If you’re trying to get rich or famous, you can do it a lot easier than trying to make it in this business. It’s not really what it’s about. To learn storytelling and all those things it’s a long apprenticeship, at least it was for me. I know there are people who are way more natural who write two scripts and they’re smash hits and they go on to have long careers, but that certainly wasn’t my story, and not Mark’s.”

Collaborators 15 years, Ostby and Fergus play to their respective strengths.

“Mark is very analytical. He can look at a script and say right away, ‘Ah, page 7 is where it goes wrong.’ He’s very clever at those things and I’m not. I’m more instinctual. I’m not sure what’s wrong. I have to take it home to the cave and sort of chew on it. We don’t sit in the same room and fire dialogue back and forth, it’s more of a two-headed thing. We discuss at length the story and how to lay it down, and then Mark will go in, write the outline, sculpt it down to its essence, and then I will take that and do the first draft, and use that as guide for where we want to go. That draft is often written very maniacally and quickly. I don’t stop to edit myself. We used to write and edit at the same time and what happened was we never got the flow of it.”

Children of Men 

 

 

After each makes another pass, he says, “usually we’re left with a couple things he’s holding onto and I’m holding onto and we just sort of argue those out and whoever has the best argument or is able to convince the other is what we go with. Sometimes we find a better solution spitballing things.”

The pair have adapted Philip K.Dick (A Scanner Darkly), a comic book (Iron Man) and an animated film (the forthcoming Akira) but their adaptation of the P.D. James novel Children of Men may have been most instructive.

“If there’s one thing we learned, especially on Children of Men, you can’t always follow the book. It’s just a totally different experience. But if you can capture the feeling of the book then that’s what you’re really aiming for. The book just wasn’t working as a film. What broke it for us is when we came up with this idea that it’s really Casablanca set in a dystopian future, complete with a spiritually bankrupt protagonist who has nothing to live for and then finds something and sacrifices    himself for something greater.”

The writers are trying to get a television series and two original feature scripts off the ground this year. One feature puts a twist on the heist genre and the other dramatizes a manhunt in the wilderness.

For details on Ostby’s OFF Filmmaking Conference panels, visit http://www.omahafilmfestival.org.

Iron Man 

Screenwriting Adventures of Nebraska Native Jon Bokenkamp, Author of the Scripts ‘Perfect Stranger’ and ‘Taking Lives’

November 28, 2011 7 comments

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

Jon Bokenkamp, ©photo Kearney Hub

 

 

Screenwriting Adventures of Nebraska Native Jon Bokenkamp , Author of the Scripts ‘Perfect Stranger’ and ‘Taking Lives’

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

Perfect Stranger

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Taking Lives

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

 Preston Tylk, aka Bad Seed

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jim Taylor, the Other Half of Hollywood’s Top Screenwriting Team, Talks About His Work with Alexander Payne

November 20, 2011 11 comments

Jim Taylor

 

 

Jim Taylor, the Other Half of Hollywood’s Top Screenwriting Team, Talks About His Work with Alexander Payne

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

There’s an alchemy to the virtuoso writing partnership of Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, Oscar winners for Sideways (2004) and previous nominees for Election (1999), that resists pat analysis. The artists themselves are unsure what makes their union work beyond compatibility, mutual regard and an abiding reverence for cinema art.

Together 15 years now, their professional marriage has been a steady ascent amid the starts and stops endemic to filmmaking. As their careers have evolved, they’ve emerged as perhaps the industry’s most respected screenwriting tandem, often drawing comparisons to great pairings of the past. As the director of their scripts, Payne grabs the lion’s share of attention, although their greatest triumph, Sideways, proved “a rite of passage” for each, Taylor said, by virtue of their Oscars.

Taylor doesn’t mind that Payne, the auteur, has more fame. ”He pays a price for that. I’m not envious of all the interviews he has to do and the fact his face is recognized more. Everywhere he goes people want something from him. That level of celebrity I’m not really interested in,” he said by phone from the New York home he shares with filmmaker wife Tamara Jenkins (The Slums of Beverly Hills).

With the craziness of Sideways now subsided and Payne due to return soon from a month-long sojourn in Paris, where he shot a vignette for the Paris, I Love You omnibus film, he and Taylor will once again engage their joint muse. So far, they’re being coy about what they’ve fixed as their next project. It may be the political, Altmanesque story they’ve hinted at. Or something entirely else. What is certain is that a much-anticipated new Payne-Taylor creation will be in genesis.

Taylor’s an enigma in the public eye, but he is irreducibly, inescapably one half of a premier writing team that shows no signs of running dry or splitting up. His insights into how they approach the work offer a vital glimpse into their process, which is a kind of literary jam session, game of charades and excuse for hanging out all in one. They say by the time a script’s finished, they’re not even sure who’s done what. That makes sense when you consider how they fashion a screenplay — throwing out ideas over days and weeks at a time in hours-long give-and-take riffs that sometimes have them sharing the same computer monitor hooked up to two keyboards.

Their usual M.O. finds them talking, on and on, about actions, conflicts, motivations and situations, acting out or channeling bits of dialogue and taking turns giving these elements form and life on paper.

”After we’ve talked about something, one of us will say, ‘Let me take a crack at this,’ and then he’ll write a few pages. Looking at it, the other might say, ‘Let me try this.’ Sometimes, the person on the keyboard is not doing the creative work. They’re almost inputting what the other person is saying. It’s probably a lot like the way Alexander works with his editor (Kevin Tent), except we’re switching back and forth being the editor.”

For each writer, the litmus test of any scene is its authenticity. They abhor anything that rings false. Their constant rewrites are all about getting to the truth of what a given character would do next. Avoiding cliches and formulas and feel-good plot points, they serve up multi-shaded figures as unpredictable as real people, which means they’re not always likable.

”I think it’s true of all the characters we write that there’s this mixture of things in people. Straight-ahead heroes are just really boring to us because they don’t really exist,” said Taylor, whose major influences include the humanist Czech films of the 1960s. “I think once we fall in love with the characters, then it’s really just about the characters for us. We have the best time writing when the characters are leading us somewhere and we’re not so much trying to write about some theme.”

Sideways’ uber scene, when Miles and Maya express their longing for each other via their passion for the grape, arose organically.

“We didn’t labor any longer over that scene than others,” he said. “What happened was, in our early drafts we had expanded on a speech Miles has in the book (Rex Pickett’s novel) and in later drafts we realized Maya should have her own speech. At the time we wrote those speeches we had no idea how important they would turn out to be. It was instinctive choice to include them, not something calculated to fill a gap in a schematic design.”

He said their scripts are in such “good shape” by the time cameras roll that little or no rewriting is done on set. “Usually we’ll make some minor changes after the table reading that happens right before shooting.” Taylor said Payne asks his advice on casting, locations, various cuts, music, et cetera.

Their process assumes new colors when hired for a script-doctor job (Meet the ParentsJurassic Park III), the latest being I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry.

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

Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film, A Reporter’s Perspective 1998-2012

A compilation of my articles about Payne and his work.  Available this fall as an ebook and in select bookstores.

Jim Taylor and Alexander Payne with their Sideways Oscars

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‘Lovely, Still,’ that Rare Film Depicting Seniors in All Their Humanity, Earns Writer-Director Nik Fackler an Independent Spirit Award Nomination for Best First Screenplay

December 3, 2010 2 comments

"Lovely, Still" reshoot

Image by 1031 via Flickr

I am reposting this article I wrote about Lovely, Still, the sweet and searing debut feature film by Nik Fackler, because he has been nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for Best First Screenplay. The film stars Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn in roles that allow them to showcase their full range humanity, a rare thing for senior actors in movies these days. If the movie is playing near you, take a chance on this low budget indie that actually has the look of a big budget pic.  If you didn’t have a chance to see it in a theater, you can look for it on DVD.  As deserving as the film is for Oscar consideration, particularly the performances by Landau and Burstyn, it’s unlikely to break through due to its limited release.  The following article I wrote for the New Horizons comes close to giving away the film’s hook, but even if you should hazard to guess it the film will still work for you and may in fact work on a deeper level.  That was my experience after knowing the hook and still being swept away by the story.  It happened both times I’ve seen it.  My other Lovely, Still and Nik Fackler stories can be found on this blog.

NOTE: The Independent Spirit Awards show is broadcast February 26 on cable’s Independent Film Channel (IFC).  That is the night before the Oscars, which is fitting because the Spirit Awards and IFC are a definite alternative to the high gloss, big budget Hollywood apparatus.  I will be watching and rooting for Nik.

‘Lovely, Still,’ that Rare Film Depicting Seniors in All Their Humanity, Earns Writer-Director Nik Fackler an Independent Spirit Award Nomination for Best First Screenplay

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in the New Horizons

Hollywood legends seldom come to Omaha. It’s even rarer when they arrive to work on a film. Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney did for the 1938 MGM classic Boys Town. Jack Nicholson and Kathy Bates crashed for Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt in 2001.

More recently, Oscar-winning actors Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn spent two months here, during late 2007, as the leads in the indie movie Lovely, Still, the debut feature of hometown boy Nik Fackler.

True, George Clooney shot some scenes for Up in the Air in town, but his stay here was so brief and the Omaha footage so minimal that it doesn’t really count.

Lovely, Still on the other hand was, like Boys and Schmidt before it, a prolonged and deep immersion experience for the actors and the crew in this community. Landau and Burstyn grew close to Fackler, who’s young enough to be their grandson, and they remain close to him three years later.

Since the production practically unfolded in Fackler’s backyard, the actors got to meet his family and friends, some of whom were on the set, and to visit his haunts, including the Millard eatery his family owns and operates, Shirley’s Diner. It’s where, until recently, Nick worked. It’s also where he carefully studied patrons, including an older man who became the model for Lovely protagonist Robert Malone (Landau).

Then there’s the fact the film drips Omaha with scenes in the Old Market, Gene Leahy Mall, Memorial Park and Country Club neighborhood. Omaha’s never looked this good on the big screen before.

After select showings in 2008 and 2009, including a one-week run in Omaha last year, Lovely is finally getting a general release this fall in dozens of theaters from coast to coast. It opened September 24 at the Midtown Cinema and Village Pointe Cinema in Omaha and other cities across the U.S..

For Fackler, 26, it’s the culmination of a long road that goes back to when he first wrote the script, at 17. Over time, the script evolved and once Landau and Burstyn came on board and provided their input, it changed some more. Finally seeing his “baby” reach this point means much to Fackler.

“I’ve been very emotional,” he said. “I didn’t think I was going to be emotional but I have been. It’s been nine years of persistence and positivity and not giving up. It’s always been this thing in my life, Lovely, Still, that’s never gone away, and now I’m going to let it go away, and it feels good because I’m ready to let it go…

“I wanted it to come out a couple years ago, and it was delayed. Now it’s finally coming out and I feel sort of a distance from it, but at the same time it’s good I feel that because there’s nothing a bad review can say that won’t make me proud of the accomplishment. It just feels good to know that it’s out there.”

 

 

Martin Landau and Nik Fackler

 

The film, which has received mixed critical notices, does well with audiences.

“People that pick up on the emotions and the feelings in the film seem to really be attached to it and love it,” Fackler said. “It’s either people really get it and get something emotional from it or people don’t get it.”

The PG movie’s slated to continue opening at different theaters throughout October before going to DVD November 9.

Lovely had its requisite one-week screenings in Los Angeles and New York to qualify for Academy Awards consideration. While many feel Landau and Burstyn deliver Oscar-caliber performances, the odds are stacked against them because of the film’s limited release and non-existent budget for waging an awards campaign.

Rare for features these days, the film focuses on two characters in their late 70s-early 80s. Rare for films of any era it stars two actors who are actually the advanced ages of the roles they essay. The film also approaches a sensitive topic in a way that perhaps has never been seen before.

Now for a spoiler alert. The film hinges on a plot twist that, once revealed, casts a different meaning on events. If you don’t want to know the back story, then stop reading here. If you don’t care, then continue.

Without getting specific, this story of two older people falling in love is about a family coping with Alzheimer’s Disease. Unlike perhaps a Lifetime or Hallmark Hall of Fame movie, Lovely never mentions the disease by name. Instead, its effects are presented through the prism of a fairy tale, complete with exhilarating and terrifying moments, before a dose of stark reality, and an ending that’s pure wistful nostalgia.

What makes the film stand out from most others with a senior storyline is that

Landau and Burstyn create multidimensional rather than one-note characters. The script requires they play a wide range of emotional and psychological colors and these two consummate actors are up to fully realizing these complex behaviors.

Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner for Ed Wood, Landau returned to Omaha last year to promote Lovely. He said he was drawn to the material by its depth and nuance and by the opportunity to play an authentic character his own age.

“I get a lot of scripts where the old guy is the crusty curmudgeon who sits at the table and grunts a lot, and that’s that, because we kind of dismiss (old) age. So, the chance of exploring this many sides of a man, and the love story aspect of the older couple, presented an interesting arc.”

The actor marvels at how someone as young as Fackler could tap so truthfully the fears and desires of characters much older than himself. During an interview at North Sea Films, the Omaha production company of co-producer Dana Altman, Landau spoke about the pic, playing opposite his friend Ellen Burstyn, and working with wunderkind writer-director Fackler, whom he affectionately calls “the kid.”

 

 

Ellen Burstyn and Martin Landau from Lovely, Still

 

Before there was even a chance of landing an actor of Landau’s stature producers had to get the script in his hands through the golden pipeline of movers and shakers who make feature film projects possible. Fackler’s script long ago earned him a William Morris agent — the gold standard for artists/entertainers.

Landau explained, “Nick sent it to William Morris, who has an independent feature division, who sent to my agent, who sent it to me. I liked it a lot, but I felt there were bumps in it at the time. Some scenes that shouldn’t be in the first act, some scenes that needed to be in the first act. What the second act was I had no idea.” Enough substance was there that Landau expressed interest. It was only then he learned the unlikely author was a not-long-out-of-high school 20-something whose directing experience consisted of low budget shorts and music videos.

“I said, “I want to meet with the writer, figuring somebody maybe close to my age. I said, ‘How old is he?, and they said 22 (at the time). A few minutes later my eyes were still crossed and I said, ‘Wow. I mean, how does a 22 year-old write an older couple love story with this texture?'”

The venerable, much honored actor took a lunch meeting with the Generation Y upstart at an L.A. cafe. Each was a bit wary whether he could work with the other. Landau recalled that initial meeting, which he used to gauge how open Fackler was to accepting notes to inform rewrites:

“I basically said, ‘This is a terrific script, but it’s bumpy. If you’re willing to do this with me, I’ll do the movie,’ and Nick said, ‘OK.’Well, he did a rewrite on the basis of what we talked about, For two months we talked on the phone, several times a week, five or six pages at a time” to smooth out those bumps.

Landau and Fackler devised a wish list of actresses to play Mary. Burstyn, the Best Actress Oscar-winner for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, was their first choice. On Landau’s advice Fackler waited until the rewrite was complete before sending the script to her. When she received it, she fell in love with the property, too.

Even as much as he and Burstyn loved the storyl, signing on with such an inexperienced director was a risk “It was a leap of faith working with a kid,” said Landau, “but he’s talented and adventurous and imaginative and willing to listen. He reminds me of Tim Burton. Less dark, maybe a little more buoyant.”

In the end, the material won over the veterans.

“Actors like me and Ellen are looking for scripts that have some literary value. Good dialogue today is rare. Dialogue is what a character is willing to reveal to another character. The 90 percent he isn’t is what I do for a living. It’s harder and harder to get a character-driven movie made by a studio or independents and it’s harder to get theaters to take them, so many go directly to DVD, if they’re lucky. Others fall through the cracks and are never seen, and that’s going to happen more.”

The suits calling the shots in Hollywood don’t impress Landau.

“Half the guys running the studios, some of them my ex-agents, haven’t read anything longer than a deal memorandum. And they’re deciding what literary piece should be made as a film?”

He likes that this movie is aimed for his own underserved demographic.

“A lot of older people are starved for movies,” he said. “They’re not interested in fireballs or car chases or guys climbing up the sides of buildings.”

He attended a Las Vegas screening of the pic before a huge AARP member crowd and, he said, spectators “were enwrapped with this movie. It talked to them. I mean, they not just liked it, it’s made for them. There’s a huge audience out there for it.”

Instead of an age gap they couldn’t overcome, Landau and Fackler discovered they were kindred spirits. Before he got into acting, Landau studied music and art, and worked as an editorial cartoonist. He draws and paints, as well as writes, to this day. Besides writing and directing films, Fackler is a musician and a visual artist.

“I feel that Martin and I are very similar and we get along really well,” said Fackler, who added the two of them still talk frequently. He described their relationship as a mutually “inspired” one in which each feeds the other creatively and spiritually. Fackler also feels a kinship with Burstyn. He said he gets away to a cabin she has in order to write.

 

 

Nicholas Fackler Director Nicholas Fackler arrives at the ""Lovely, Still" premiere during 2008 Toronto International Film Festival held at the The Empire Lounge on Septmeber 7, 2008 in Toronto, Canada.
Nik Fackler
On most any film there comes a time when the director must fight for his or her vision, and Fackler found an ally in Landau.

“One of the main things Martin repeated to me over and over again was, ‘This is your movie.’ He made sure that rang in my ears,” said Fackler, “just to make sure I stayed strong when I came up against fights and arguments with people that wanted the film to be something I didn’t want it to be, and much love to him for doing that. Those words continue to ring in my ear in his voice to this day, and I’m sure for the rest of my career.”

Landau and Burstyn brought their considerable experience to bear helping the first-time feature director figure out the ropes, but ultimately deferred to him.

“All good films are collaborations,” said Landau. “A good director, and I’ve worked with a lot of them (Hitchcock, Mankiewicz, Coppola, Allen), doesn’t direct, he creates a playground in which you play. Ninety percent of directing is casting the right people. If you cast the right people what happens in that playground is stuff you couldn’t conceive of beforehand.”

“It was collaborative,” said Fackler. “We were a team, it was artists working together the same way a group of musicians make a band. We became friends and then after we became friends we respected each other’s opinions.”

As for working with Burstyn, Landau said, “it’s a joy. She’s a terrific actress.” He compared doing a scene with her to having a good tennis partner. “If you’re playing pretty well and you’ve got a good partner you play better. You don’t know exactly where they’re going to place the ball, and it’s that element when Ellen and I work together we have. It’s never exactly the same. She’ll throw the ball and I’ll get to the ball, toss it back to her, so that it’s alive. I won’t call them accidents but they are sin a way, which is what living is, and that element of unpredictability and ultimately inevitability, is what good acting is about. That stuff is what I care about.”

Not every review of the film has been positive. Some critics seem uneasy with or dismissive of its emotionalism, complaining it’s too cloying or precious. That emotional journey of a man who believes he’s falling in love for the first time, only to find out the bitter truth of what he’s lost, is what appealed to Landau.

“The interesting thing about this movie is that if you took away the last act you could cast 15 year-olds in it and not change a lot,” said Landau. “Nick (first) wrote it when he was 17. It’s basically a teenage romance. There’s something simplistic and sweet about these two people who want to be together. Robert’s naive, he’s a kid on his first date. That’s why Nik was able to write it — because he was going through stuff, his first love. The primal feelings people have at 15 or 50 or 80 are pretty much the same.”

Landau is proud to be associated with the film for many reasons, among them its effective portrayal of memory loss.

“I absolutely believe in this film. When I did Ed Wood I felt that way. But this one because I know so many people who’ve had memory problems or are having memory problems. My brother-in-law had Alzheimer’s. A lot of close peers of mine. The Alzheimer’s Association is very behind this movie because it rings true…”

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