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Putting it on the Line: Omaha’s Amber Ruffin making a name for herself in late-night TV

December 8, 2018 Leave a comment

Omaha’s Amber Ruffin has so much to say and so much going on that I couldn’t fit it all into one story. That’s why in addition to the recent Omaha Star cover story I did on her, I wrote a Reader feature on this writer-actress best known for “Late Night With Seth Meyers.” While she came to national attention with her work on that show, she’s no overnight sensation. She put many years into an improvisational comedy career before network TV gave her a mass media platform for her talents. Her performing start goes clear back to Omaha Benson High School and local theaters.

But first, here are some thoughts about Amber and her being part of a long legacy of African-Americans with Nebraska ties making their marks in the entertainment industry.

Amber Ruffin: A consideration

For the second year in a row Ruffin came home to headline the Inclusive Communities FriendsGiving event.

There’s little doubt we will be hearing and seeing a lot more from this smart, engaging writer-performer who often skewers wrongdoers and haters with her subversive, silly, serious takes. Her humor, especially when it deals with race and other social justice issues, resonates strongly because it’s grounded in reality and truth, I wouldn’t be surprised if she proves herself a fine dramatic actress as well.

She’s part of an impressive contingent of black creatives from here to make their mark variously in music, theater, film, television, literature and media.

These talents include:
Noble and George Johnson
Lloyd Hunter
Preston Love Sr.
Wynonie Harris
Anna Mae Winburn
Mildred Brown
Helen Jones Woods
Ruth Norman
Buddy Miles
Arno Lucas
Calvin Keys
Victor Lewis
Cathy Hughes
Carol Rogers
Nole Jeanpierre
Lois “Lady Mac” McMorris
John Beasley
Monty Ross
Kevyn Morrow
Randy Goodwin
Camille Steed
Sandra Organ
Alfred Liggins Jr.
Jade Jenise Dixon
Gabrielle Union
Yolonda Ross
Q Smith
Carleen Brice
Kim Louise
Victoria Benning
Omowale Akintunde
Michael Beasley
Lafayette Reed Jr.
Tim Christian
Beaufield Berry
Symone Sanders
Chanelle Elaine

 

Putting it on the Line

Omaha’s Amber Ruffin making a name for herself in late-night TV

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the December 2018 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Since joining NBC’s “Late Night with Seth Meyers” in 2014 as a writer-performer, Omaha native Amber Ruffin has made a name for herself. The gig made her the first black female writer in U.S. late-night network television.

Her strong Afro-centric takes on social issues are part of a disarming package. She can be sweet, silly, manic comedian or edgy commentator and provocateur.

In the recurring “Late Night” segments “Amber Says What” and “Amber’s One-Minute of Fury,” she skewers newsmakers and outs injustice. Her subversive bits play like funny truth sessions by a righteous sister reporting from the trenches of Being Black in America.

“That’s my goal,” Ruffin said. “You’ll never be wrong when you say police should stop murdering children in the street. That (racism) being a lot of my subject matter just gives me tremendous confidence because it’s never been more right and it’s never been more important.”

This fresh TV face and voice is steeped in a long, deep improv background that started here and took her to comedy capitals. Last month she came home to display her authentic, unvarnished self during an Inclusive Communities event at Slowdown. The audience got a taste of her formidable improv skills.

Replicating improv on TV is elusive.

“Oh, how I wish the feeling of improv translated to television. A lot of people have tried to get that feeling in a show, but it’s pretty difficult.”

Playing off a live audience is crucial.

“You’re constantly adjusting your tone, cadence because you have instant feedback and that allows you to give the best performance.”

Working in a corporate culture is still an adjustment.

“It is crazy for comedy to exist in an office. I’d never seen it before I was a part of it. I still find it shocking that it works.”

She’s learned to work within network TV boundaries.

“You can’t be crazy politically incorrect. When you’re on stage doing improv it only exists in that moment, so you can say whatever comes to mind, but on this show whatever you say exists forever. So you have to get it right so that 20 years from now when someone plays it you’ll still stand by it.”

Going out on a limb is a Ruffin trait.

“We are a little adventurous,” Ruffin said of her family. “My mom graduated high school at 16. Every summer she went to New York to find out what the world was about. My oldest sister lived in Panama. Another sister lived in Namibia. It’s just in our bones to see what’s out there.”

Her retired military parents are from the South. They met at Offutt Air Force Base. They later ran their own daycare business. Amber’s the youngest of their five children. Her sisters are also published writers.

Growing up, Ruffin used humor as escape.

“Humor WAS my way to survive. When kids make fun of you, it’s nice to give them something else to laugh at.”

That experience still informs her.

“My day-to-day humor stems from a need to make everyone feel welcome and comfortable and happy, which stems from getting made fun of so badly. It’s assumed people use comedy to put up walls, but I think in many cases the opposite is true. I can say exactly how I feel no matter how uncomfortable it makes you – if there’s a joke attached.”

Musically and dramatically inclined (she plays piano and sings), she developed an early passion for theater.

“I just love musicals.”

The movie The Wiz made a big impression for more than the music.

“It was rare to see a show with an all-black cast that has nothing to do with being black,” she said. “Often times, black people have to talk about their experience being black to be valued. But these people didn’t. It was just a story of joy. The movie, the live musical, every performance of it leaves so much room for you to express yourself. It reminds us the world wants us at our weirdest. When you pretend to fit in, you fade away.”

She contributed to the book of a new stage version of The Wiz that premiered in June at The Muny amphitheater in St. Louis. She hopes a national tour comes here on what could be a Broadway-bound path.

“What distinguishes our version is its timelessness. I wanted it to never have to be rewritten again.”

The stage bug bit while playing Princess Winnifred in an Omaha Benson High production of Once Upon a Mattress. The Benson grad honed her craft via Stages of Omaha at the Millennium Theatre. She did improv at the Shelterbelt and Blue Barn.

Encouraged to try it in Chi-Town, she caught on with Boom Chicago – working with Jordan Peele, Matt Jones and Jessica Lowe – and then Second City. In between, she did a stint with Boom’s company in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

Within days of an unsuccessful “SNL” audition, she got hired by “SNL” and Boom alum Seth Meyers.

“I think it’s been a natural progression because I have always been writing my own black point of view. I haven’t found it (TV) to be too crazy because at Boom Chicago we would do short form, where the audience suggests the set-up and then you have to deliver punch lines. You have three or four seconds to come up with something. But on “Late Night” I have all day to come up with a punch line. It’s much more relaxed.”

She usually has a week to hone her “Late Night” routines.

“You write it up and you rewrite it a bunch and you show it to the audience and you get one last rewrite and then it has to go in the show.”

She believes she provides a good change-up.

“Because Seth is so grounded in his comedy there is room for an insane person like me.”

She doesn’t make a big deal about having been the first black female writer in the late-night lane.

“I am not sure if any of that matters. What matters is knowing that we exist and being able to see us. What matters is that everyone knows there’s room for them – because there is.”

She says she was long ready for the opportunity. “I could have done this job years ago, for sure.” But happening when it did kept her real. “Now that I’m in this environment, I’m still me. If I had got this job years ago, I would have bent to what the culture was, and it’s my not having done that has made my career what it is.”

Her go-to topic, racism. is informed by her travels.

“The racism in Omaha is different than anywhere else. We don’t have a huge history of lynchings, scary slavery and Confederate monuments, and so we feel we are above racism, which is what puts us so far beneath it. No one’s really angry because you’re a black woman. People don’t think of you as much as a threat. They just think you are kind of gross.

“Omaha’s pretty bad. It’s way less in Chicago. In Amsterdam, way less, but still there – just a different kind. In L.A., there’s less palpable racism. It’s all institutionalized instead of in your face. In New York, people say something the tiniest bit racist and everyone knows it and sees it. It has gone from me being gross to racism itself being the gross thing, which is a relief.

“Now racism is fixed and over, so we win. Just kidding.”

Coming of age here, she craved diversity.

“I remember being in Omaha and just wanting there to be more me and to have a place where you felt like you could belong, and there wasn’t. I still don’t have a lot of me. I just see how critically important it is, especially for young kids.”

Her diversity advocacy made her an apt choice as special guest for the Inclusive Communities FriendsGiving fundraiser.

Meanwhile, she has an NBC development deal for a show, “Village Gazette,” on which she has co-writing and executive producer credits. It’s set in fictional Benson, Nebraska. The name is inspired by her real-life alma mater, Benson High, and the neighborhood that school is in.

She’s also writing feature film scripts. And she can be seen on Comedy Central’s “The Detroiters” and “Drunk History.”

“I shouldn’t be doing this many things, but I figure you only have so much time. I want to give it a shot.”

Follow Amber on Facebook and Twitter.

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

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Funny, yet serious, to the core: The Amber Ruffin story

November 25, 2018 Leave a comment

Add Amber Ruffin to the roster of folks with Omaha roots to find success beyond here in stage-screen-media. The writer-performer got her start in theater and improvisation in her native Omaha. After years honing her craft with major improv troupes around he U.S. and abroad, she broke onto the national scene by joining the writing staff and cast of “Late Night with Seth Meyers” in 2014. She also has a presence on Comedy Central. She’s working on developing her own TV show and she recently co-wrote a new stage adaptation of “The Wiz.”

For the second year in a row Ruffin has come home to headline the Inclusive Communities FriendsGiving event (this year’s iteration is today from Noon to 2 p.m. at Slowdown).

There’s little doubt we will be hearing and seeing a lot more from this smart, engaging writer-performer who often skewers wrongdoers and haters with her subversive, silly, serious takes. Her humor, especially when it deals with race and other social justice issues, resonates strongly because it’s grounded in reality and truth, I wouldn’t be surprised if she proves herself a fine dramatic actress as well.

She’s part of an impressive contingent of black creatives from here to make their mark variously in music, theater, film, television, literature and media.

These talents include:

Noble and George Johnson

Lloyd Hunter

Preston Love Sr.

Wynonie Harris

Anna Mae Winburn

Mildred Brown

Helen Jones Woods

Ruth Norman

Buddy Miles

Arno Lucas

Calvin Keys

Victor Lewis

Cathy Hughes

Carol Rogers

Nole Jeanpierre

Lois “Lady Mac” McMorris

John Beasley

Monty Ross

Kevyn Morrow

Randy Goodwin

Camille Steed

Sandra Organ

Alfred Liggins Jr.

Jade Jenise Dixon

Gabrielle Union

Yolonda Ross

Q Smith

Carleen Brice

Kim Louise

Victoria Benning

Omowale Akintunde

Michael Beasley

Lafayette Reed Jr.

Tim Christian

Beaufield Berry

Symone Sanders

Chanelle Elaine

Funny, yet serious, to the core: 

The Amber Ruffin story

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the Nov. 16, 2018 issue of The Omaha Star (https://theomahastar.com)

NBC’s “Late Night with Seth Meyers” gives more than lip service to diversity thanks to Omaha native Amber Ruffin, a writer-performer on the New York-based show.

She’s a singular presence for her strong Afro-centric takes on social issues. She became the first black female writer in U.S. late night network television when she joined the staff in 2014. It marked her national debut. But she’s no newcomer. She comes from a deep improv background that started here and took her to comedy capitals.

In the recurring “Late Night” segments “Amber Says What” and “Amber’s One-Minute of Fury” she calls out newsmakers for everything from their stupid attire to their ugly rhetoric to their heinous acts. Her subversive bits play like funny truth sessions by a righteous sister reporting from the trenches of Being Black in America.

“That’s my goal,” Ruffin said. “You’ll never be wrong when you say police should stop murdering children in the street. That (hate) being a lot of my subject matter just gives me tremendous confidence because it’s never been more right and it’s never been more important.”

The writer-actress headlines the Sunday, November 25 Inclusive Communities (IC) FriendsGiving at Slowdown.

Her high-energy performances sometimes find her flitting across stage as cameras try tracking her. While she can be serious when making a point, her default personality is sweet, silly, manic. She was voted Class Clown at Omaha Benson High School,

It seems this dynamo hasn’t fallen far from the tree.

“You think I’m a happy person, whoo-whee, my parents are really happy,” said Amber, whose mother was voted Class Clown at her high school in Savannah, Georgia.

As a kid, Amber used humor to deflect the hurtful things classmates said about her then-homely looks. Nobody thinks the vivacious Ruffin is homely anymore.

“Humor WAS my way to survive. When kids make fun of you, it’s nice to give them something else to laugh at.”

That experience still informs her.

“My day to day humor stems from a need to make everyone feel welcome and comfortable and happy, which stems from getting made fun of so badly. It’s assumed people use comedy to put up walls, but I think in many cases the opposite is true. I can say exactly how I feel no matter how uncomfortable it makes you – if there’s a joke attached.”

Her folks, Theresa and James Ruffin, are both from the South, They met at Offutt Air Fore Base while serving in the military. They later ran their own business, T and J Daycare Centers. Amber’s the youngest of their five children. She’ll be with family over the holiday when she comes home for the IC event. It’s her second year in a row doing it.

IC Executive Director Maggie Wood said Ruffin’s humor is appreciated by the organization.

“We know how heavy this work can be and the levity of laughter makes us a little more resilient to confront prejudice, bigotry and discrimination.”

Instead of a stand-up set or a speech, Ruffin will engage in conversation with the IC team on stage in response to some loosely scripted questions.

“Our donors, volunteers and supporters all know we need to face this work head on. That’s exactly what Amber does in her commentary. We’re so excited to have her back,” Wood said.

Growing up, Ruffin acutely felt Omaha’s lack of diversity.

“I remember just wanting there to be more me, and there wasn’t. I still don’t have a lot of me. I’ve seen how important it is to have a place where you feel like you can belong and I’m also quite jealous of it because I’ve never had just a place like that where you can be as you as you want to be.”

Theresa Ruffin said dealing with Omaha’s lack of diversity “was challenging to say the least.” When she worked at Peter Kiewit Corp. for a year, she said, “I was the only black person in the building.”

Though Amber didn’t have any immediate show business role models, she gravitated to performing. She played piano at Omaha Trinity Hope Foursquare Church. She also developed an early love of theater.

“I just love musicals,” she said.

She got the bug playing Princess Winnifred in a Benson High production of Once Upon a Mattress.

“I just spent so much time watching theater and doing a lot of theater that everything I love is theater-based.”

Going out on a limb is a Ruffin trait.

“We are a little adventurous,” Amber said. “My mom graduated high school at 16. Every summer she went to New York to find out what the world was about. My oldest sister lived in Panama. Another sister lived in Namibia. It’s just in our bones to see what’s out there.”

Her sisters are also published writers.

The movie The Wiz made a big impression on Amber.

“Many people believe The Wiz has the best music of any musical. I am one of those people. It was also rare to see a show with an all black cast that has nothing to be with being black. Often times, black people have to talk about their experience with being black to be valued. But these people didn’t. It was just a story of joy.”

She’s contributed to the book of a new stage version of The Wiz that premiered in June at the 11,000-seat Muny amphitheater in St. Louis.

“I rewrote the words with the original writer (William F. Brown) who is 91 in April. I have written a few musicals and my love of The Wiz is no secret. We’re going to take it on tour and see how close to Broadway we can get.

“One of the things that stands out to me about our version is that it is timeless. The original Wiz is very much of that era, like many rewrites since. I wanted our Wiz to never have to be rewritten again. It could be from this year, or 20 years ago or 20 years from now.”

Writing musicals has become a new niche.

“I just always assumed because it’s the funnest thing to write, everybody was writing musicals. But it turns out not a lot of people are. So, yeah, I’ll do it.”

Performing in a musical may be another matter.

“I can sing just fine, but I don’t know that I’d ever be in a musical, unless I wrote one for myself.”

 

 

She honed her craft via Stages of Omaha at the Millennium Theatre. She did improv at the Shelterbelt and Blue Barn.

“We had the best time. It’s how I learned that I love improv. To be a good improviser, you just have to trust whoever you’re improvising with. If you treat them like a genius, you’ll both end up looking good.”

Encouraged to try it in Chi-Town, she caught on with Boom Chicago – where she worked with Jordan Peele, Matt Jones and Jessica Lowe – and then Second City. In between, she did a stint with Boom’s company in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

“Boom Chicago was terrifying and it was bad for awhile and there was nothing I could do. I just had to keep trying to survive. I didn’t have a college degree. I didn’t have a lot of money. So there were times when I wanted to go home so bad, But I just had to stay. Thank God I did because it turned out great.”

Her parents encouraged her through the tough times.

“Because they think I’m great because they’re my parents, they were like, ‘You’re excellent and soon        everyone will be able to see that.’ That was very sweet of them.”

Ironically, she met her Dutch husband, Jan, in America. The couple struggled in L.A. for a period. She feels it only made them stronger.

“I did a lot of my own projects. I wrote musicals, made a bunch of funny videos and really did what I wanted to do. Financially, I struggled, but I also had a great time.”

An unsuccessful “SNL” audition was soon followed by “SNL” and Boom alum Seth Meyers hiring her.

“Those two things happened within days of each other,” Theresa Ruffin recalled. “Amber was very down about ‘SNL’ and over the moon when Seth called.”

Going from improv to “Late Night” has been seamless for Amber. “I think it’s been a natural progression because I have always been writing my own black point of view. “I vastly prefer a live audience to just being in front of a camera alone. Improvisers make a thousand corrections a minute every performance until they figure out what the audience likes. You can do that with scripted material, too.”

Being the designated comic who outs racism, narcissism and mendacity, she said, is “this odd space to exist in.”

“I kind of feel like if I don’t say it people might feel desperate and insane. I have to be like, Okay, the president said that, and that’s cuckoo, and you do not have to accept it  It sounds silly but it feels so good to have an adult say you’re a human being and you shouldn’t be treated like this. Until you hear it from someone you do not know and have never met,

it doesn’t carry the same weight.”

Theresa Ruffin loves that her daughter echoes what many black Americans feel. “She says most of the things we are already thinking.”

Every time Amber outs someone’s misbehavior, her mother said it’s cause to shout, “THAT’S OUR GIRL.”

As brutally honest as Amber is on “Late Night,” she must deal with network censors, which is why she feels she was “rowdier and took more chances” doing improv.

On her way up, she met one of her biggest influences, Whoopi Goldberg. “She’s great,” Ruffin said.

Amber’s close friend since childhood, Kristina Haecke of Omaha, said watching her bestie’s breakthrough has been “awesome and great but mostly it has been completely expected..” Haecke insists fame hasn’t changed Ruffin, calling her “very down to earth” and “almost too calm about it.”

Grounded, too. “Her on-screen is her off-screen, just with a platform,” said Haecke.

Fame hasn’t changed Ruffin’s lifestyle. Yet. “Maybe someone recognizes me on the street once a week. No one cares. So when someone says, ‘Hey, Amber.’ I still think it’s pretty neat.”

Her celebrity may grow should a new TV show she’s trying to get off the ground escapes the development hell that befell her previous attempts as a producer.

“I’m not sure if I’m allowed to say it, but I’m going to because I don’t know what the rules are. I have a show called ‘Village Gazette,’ which is the third show I’ve sold to NBC. The premise of it is I am the editor of a small town newspaper in Benson, Nebraska. The owner’s nephew is a big shot reporter fallen from grace after making up a story that people find out is false. He gets fired and this is the only job he can get and he doesn’t want to be in this small town. But then he realizes we’re not so bad.”

Her “boatload of other projects” includes movie scripts she’s’ writing. She also pulls duty on Comedy Central’s “The Detroiters” and “Drunk History.”

By now, she’s mostly over having cracked the glass ceiling in late night, though she feels she did strike a blow for inclusion.

“What matters is knowing that we exist and being able to see us. What matters is that everyone knows there’s room for them because there is.”

Follow Amber on Facebook and Twitter.

Tickets to FriendsGiving with Amber Ruffin are $25 and include one drink and heavy hors d’oeuvres..The event is from Noon to 2 p.m.

Visit http://www.inclusive-communities.org for more details and to purchase tickets.

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

FREELANCE WRITING ACADEMY SEMINAR – Now Taking Bookings


FREELANCE WRITING ACADEMY SEMINAR – Now Taking Bookings
Presented by Leo Adam Biga

Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film,” “Crossing Bridges: A Priest’s Uplifting Life Among the Downtrodden,” “Nebraska Methodist College at 125: Scaling New Heights”

Contributing writer to The Reader, Omaha Magazine, Metro Magazine. New Horizons, Food & Spirits Magazine

Blogger at Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside Stories and My Inside Stories
“I write stories about people, their passions and their magnificent obsessions”

For all you emerging and aspiring writers out there, I offer a 3-hpur Freelance Writing Academy Seminar at a reasonable group rate.

Perhaps your rotary or sororiety or other community organization would like to have me present. Or perhaps your local public library branch, book store. school, church or book club would like to schedule me.

The seminar is based on what I have done and learned as a full-time author-journalist-blogger and how it might apply to your own writing goals.

Now taking bookings.

My presentation will cover:
•Preparing yourself to be a writer
•Finding your writer’s voice
•Cultivating story ideas
•Pitching and marketing your work
•Developing and maintaining a client base
•Getting published
•Supplementing your income and even making a living as a freelancer

I leave plenty of time for queations and discussion.

Together, let’s activate and maximize your writing life.

For details, price and bookings, Inbox me or email me at leo32158@cox.net or call me at 402-445-4666.

Kevin Simonson on Interviewing Hunter S. Thompson and Kurt Vonnegut

March 5, 2017 2 comments

Nebraska is full of folks with connections to cultural icons. Kevin Simonson of Omaha is such a person. At one time at least he boasted a mere single degree or less of separation from a pair of literary superstars – Hunter S. Thompson and Kurt Vonnegut. Now that those writers are gone, Simonson’s connnections to them are admittedly in the past tense but that doesn’t change the fact he personally knew the two men and he got some great stories out of the experiences. Thompson actually counted Simonson as a friend and that friendship earned the Omaha writer great access to the king of Gonzo journalism. Simonson’s interviews with Thompson informed several stories he wrote about him. Though Simonson only met Vonnegut once, it was a memorable encounter he also recorded for posterity. This is my Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com) profile of Kevin and his star literary relationships. 

 

Kevin Simonson

On Interviewing Hunter S. Thompson and Kurt Vonnegut

©Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Originally appeared in the March/April 2017 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com)

 

Kevin Simonson of Omaha realizes he occupies an unlikely position as a leading chronicler of that dark jester of American letters, the late Hunter S. Thompson.

Thompson, a New Journalism exponent, gained a Grateful Dead-like following for his irreverent, self-referential Gonzo-style reporting on America’s underbelly. During his lifetime, he was portrayed in film by Bill Murray (Where the Buffalo Roam) and Johnny Depp (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas). A Doonesbury character was based on him.

He was already a counterculture icon when Simonson, a Wahoo native, got turned onto his work while a Doane College student. The enterprising Simonson and his brother Mark published an underground newspaper, The Great Red Shark, which evolved into The Reader. They booked Thompson to speak at the University of Nebraska, but the author reneged owing to legal troubles with a porno producer (Thompson once managed an X-rated theater). Simonson’s taped interviews with the producer became evidence in legal proceedings that saw felony weapons charges against Thompson dismissed. Leveraging Thompson’s gratitude, Simonson gained access to interview him several times over the years for such national pubs as the Village Voice, Hustler, Penthouse, and Rolling Stone.

“The hardest thing was just getting him to commit. With him, it wasn’t a sit-down interview. It was like, click-on-the-recorder and he’d go crank up some music for a half-hour, to where you couldn’t hear anything. He couldn’t sit still very long. I’d get a few questions in here and there, then he’d take a phone call or go outside and shoot his guns off. It would stretch on for hours.”

Interviewing Thompson could be a real trip.

Deciphering his low, quiet, gravelly voice—near unintelligible when stoned—required asking Thompson to recreate what he said.

Simonson entered Thompson’s trusted inner circle. Several times he visited the author at his infamous Owl Creek Farm in Aspen, Colorado, a scene of odd characters and goings-on. He ascribes losing his former fiancee to getting her a job as Thompson’s assistant. The assorted weirdness freaked her out, and she and Simonson split.

He was so deeply immersed in Thompson lore, he says, “Anything he talked about, I could talk about. I sort of knew him inside-out. The first time I walked into his house, it was like walking into a museum. I looked around and recognized things from certain books or stories.”

Simonson finally did get Thompson to speak in Lincoln (in the spring of 1990, a month after the original booking date). Typical for Thompson, he ran hours late and took the stage, presumably under the influence. People were variously delighted or outraged.

“I grew up with Spy Magazine, National Lampoon, and Saturday Night Live, and I thought his writing was the funniest stuff ever done. You could turn to any page and there was something laugh-out-loud funny about it. That’s what attracted me to it,” Simonson says.

Thompson, too, represented a refreshing, unfiltered, unapologetic voice and uninhibited, nonconformist lifestyle. “It was his bad- boy attitude and the way he would do things in public and not be even remotely self-conscious about the repercussions,” he says.

Simonson’s widely published work includes authoring and co-editing Conversations with Hunter S. Thompson  He’s helped build the cult of personality around the writer. Even in death, Thompson’s mystique grows larger with every new book and film out on him.

“It’s kind of crazy,” says Simonson, who has also managed bars and done marketing and promotions work for Boston University (during a few years on the East Coast) and KFAB and Clear Channel Radio in Omaha. He was the original managing editor of The Reader, where some of his Thompson work has appeared.

As Thompson’s health declined, he talked suicide, but Simonson and others were surprised when he fatally shot himself in 2005. Simonson was among 250 invited guests at a surreal Owl Creek memorial celebration. In the shadow of a towering Gonzo statue, Thompson’s ashes were shot out of a cannon. Booze ran freely. A film crew captured it all.

When not chasing literary dreams, Simonson manages a golf course in Fremont, where he directs a 5K mud run. He possesses much Thompson memorabilia (taped interviews, faxes, photos, keepsakes). His “most prized possession” is a Fear and Loathing first edition inscribed with a personal note by Thompson and an original caricature by illustrator and frequent Thompson collaborator Ralph Steadman.

Simonson feels fortunate he got close to Thompson and rues his loss.

“I feel really lucky. There’s definitely a void in the literary and even entertainment community with him gone. He definitely made a huge mark on the whole pop culture scene. I miss talking to him. It was always an event when he had a new release out.”

Thompson was not the only late literary giant with whom Simonson was acquainted.

The Simonson brothers, Kevin and Mark, brought literary star Kurt Vonnegut to lecture at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 1991. To their surprise, he readily agreed to an interview in a local strip club.

“Compared with Hunter, he [Vonnegut] was like hanging out with Mark Twain. He was funny and so easy to talk to,” Simonson says. His Vonnegut interview ran in the December 2016 issue of Hustler.

Visit facebook.com/conversationswithhuntersthompson to learn more about Simonson’s book. Visit5kthehardway.com to learn about his (non-literary) work with Nebraska’s Mud Run.

This article was printed in the March/April 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

 

Lisa Haselton’s interview with writer Leo Adam Biga

January 27, 2017 Leave a comment

Thanks to author Lisa Haselton for featuring this interview with me on her popular blog Lisa Haselton’s Reviews and Interviews. Be sure to visit her site and support it. She has a wealth of rich content related to authors, books and other writing things.

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Interview with writer Leo Adam Biga

Writer Leo Adam Biga joins me to chat about his film book–

Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”:

 

 

Bio:

Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. His articles appear in various newspapers and magazines as well as on his popular blog, leoadambiga.com, and Facebook page, My Inside Stories. His work has been recognized by his peers at the local, regional and national levels. He was the 2015 recipient of the Andy Award for international journalism from his alma mater, the University of Nebraska at Omaha. That grant supported his reporting mission to Uganda and Rwanda, Africa in the company of professional world boxing Terence Crawford of Omaha and Pipeline Worldwide director Jamie Nollette.

Biga is the author of several books, including “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film” and “Crossing Bridges: A Priest’s Uplifting Life Among the Downtrodden”. Biga’s reporting and writing about Payne has made him a recognized expert on the Oscar-winning filmmaker (“Sideways“, “Nebraska”) from Omaha. His latest book is “Nebraska Methodist College at 125: Scaling New Heights” – a history of the Omaha-base college of nursing and allied health celebrating 125 years.

The writer is developing the Nebraska Screen Heritage Project as a multimedia celebration of native Nebraskans in the film and television industry. He is also developing a book about Omaha’s Black Sports Legends.

Welcome, Leo. Please tell us about your current release.

Articles and essays take you deep inside Alexander Payne’s creative process. This second edition includes significant new material related to his last film “Nebraska” and his highly anticipated new film “Downsizing,” It also features the addition of a Discussion Guide with Index.

Payne fans will appreciate the extensive interviews-stories that follow the arc of the writer-director’s career from brash upstart to consummate filmmaker at the head of the Indiewood movement.

Film historian Thomas Schatz (“The Genius of the System”):

“This is without question the single best study of Alexander Payne’s films, as well as the filmmaker himself and his filmmaking process. In charting the first two decades of Payne’s remarkable career, Leo Adam Biga pieces together an indelible portrait of an independent American artist, and one that’s conveyed largely in the filmmaker’s own words.”

Leonard Maltin:

“Alexander Payne is one of American cinema’s leading lights. How fortunate we are that Leo Biga has chronicled his rise to success so thoroughly.”

Alexander Payne:

“Throughout many years of being interviewed, I find Mr. Biga’s articles about me to be the most complete and perceptive of any journalist’s anywhere. They ring true to me, even in critique, in a way that reveals the depth of his talent in observation, understanding and expression.”

What inspired you to write this book?

In covering Alexander Payne more than a decade and a half I accumulated a large body of work about someone I saw go from a promising newcomer few heard of and whose first two films were not much seen to an accomplished filmmaker recognized around the world. The book collects my journalism about Payne and his journey in film, thereby preserving my work about him in an enduring, hard-bound fashion and thereby contributing my take on this important film artist.

Excerpt from “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”:

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

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

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

Payne’s insistence on shooting in black and white was a completely legitimate aesthetic choice given the storyline and tone of this stark, autumnal mood piece about an old man having his last hurrah. But it also meant a definite disadvantage in appealing to average or general movie fans, many of whom automatically pass on any non-color film.

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

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

What exciting story are you working on next?

At any given time there are interesting journalism and other narrative-based projects that arise. Much of my work as a journalist entails writing about various arts-culture subjects. I also write a fair amount on social justice issues. On occasion I travel for my work. I once went to North Dakota to research a set of stories about a campus serving developmentally disabled individuals. I participated in a baseball tour of the Midwest that resulted in a first-person story I wrote about the tour group’s visits to various baseball shrines and stadiums in a five-state region. I spent a week on the set of Alexander Payne’s Sideways in the Santa Barbara region and wrote a series of stories from that experience. I traveled with a group of folks from Omaha to the first Obama inauguration in D.C. and filed a story about that. I have been out to Los Angeles a number of times related to my reporting on Payne and his films. In 2015 I received a grant for international journalism that funded my reporting mission to Uganda and Rwanda, Africa with world boxing champion Terence Crawford. This past summer I made my first visits to the American South and I wrote a number of posts about the experiences on my blog and Facebook page.  In 2017 I hope to travel to New York or Toronto for the North American premiere of Payne’s new film Downsizing starring Matt Damon.

When did you first consider yourself a writer?

I suppose I began thinking that way in college, though I didn’t do all that much writing then. it really wasn’t until some years after college, having worked in public relations and then beginning to freelance as a journalist, that I identified as a writer. But it still took me a few years to say the words “I am a writer” without stumbling over them.

Do you write full-time? If so, what’s your work day like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find time to write?

Yes, I do write full-time. Like most writers, much of my time is not taken up with writing per  se, but rather with the different things that prepare me to write (interviews, research) and sustain my writing (pitching, marketing). There’s a fair amount of correspondence and phone conversation that takes place between myself and editors.

My writing schedule depends on what else I have going on in terms of interviews and such. It also depends on what kind of writing I’m doing . If it’s a book, I try to plan writing on certain days and even during certain times of the day when I know I’ll be able to devote some undivided attention to the project. If it’s an article, then it’s a bit more haphazard and directed in part by deadlines. If it’s a blog or Facebook post, then it’s much more in the moment and as the spirit moves me. With any of these forms of writing though, I might be at the keyboard in the morning, afternoon or evening.

What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?

As a nonfiction writer I depend on primary interviews for my source material and I am a stickler for recording all my interviews and transcribing them myself.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I don’t recall ever really thinking in those terms as a child. I am also sure I would never have considered being a writer if not for some teachers in elementary and high school who encouraged me. There were a couple professors in college who also influenced me to follow this path.

Anything additional you want to share with the readers?

Most of my original writing these days is actually done for my blog and Facebook page. But those sites also serve as an archive and new platform for my previously published work. If your readers want a real sense for who I am as a person and as a writer, I encourage them to visit those sites.

Links:

Blog | Facebook | Amazon

Thank you for being here today, Leo.

Posted by Lisa Haselton at 12:02 AM

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Labels: Alexander Payne: His Journey in FilmArtsauthor interview,EntertainmentFilmLeo Adam Biga

About Lisa

Lisa Haselton
I’m a NH native and love New England. I love writing about the region, exploring it on foot, on my bicycle, and in my car. There are so many small communities and fun and interesting people in this area, that I could be here a lifetime and not do all it is I want to do. 🙂

I’m a writer because I have a passion for words. I write YA and adult fiction, favoring all flavors of mysteries and I enjoy dark fiction. I belong to Sisters in Crime and Sisters in Crime – New England (SinCNE) and I’m a regular contributor to the SinCNE blog. My favorite mystery writing conference is the annual New England Crime Bakeheld each November in Boston.

I interview authors at Lisa Haselton’s Reviews and Interviews. All reviews are my own opinion. For interviews, you can contact me at ReviewsAndInterviews (at) gmail (dot) com.

I’m a moderator at The Writer’s Chatroom that hosts live chats with guest authors on Sunday nights 7-9PM EST. Join the e-mail list to get notifications of upcoming guests, then stop in and join the conversation!

View my complete profile

Links to check out

Passion Project – My new “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film” now available at KANEKO


 

FINAL FRONT COVER 6-28-16

 

My life’s work is writing stories about people, their passions and their magnificent obsessions. I do this as an author-journalist-blogger. The gallery of people and pursuits I write about is quite diverse.

See for yourself by reading and following my work at–
http://www.leaoadambiga.com and http://www.facebook.com/LeoAdamBiga.

Though I am a generalist who writes about anything and everything, there are a few subjects I keep returning to again and again. Some of these are societal and cultural in nature, others historical. But there is one particular individual who occupies special emphasis among all my writing and reporting: Alexander Payne. The Oscar-winning filmmaker, who has given us such works as Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants and Nebraska, is actually part of a larger interest in film I have cultivated for decades. I got hooked on movies as a teen. I did film programming for a decade-and-a-half. Since the mid-1990s I have written hundreds of stories as a film journalist. Many of my film interviews and profiles focus on Nebraskans in film. I am developing the Nebraska Film Heritage Project as a print, online, lecture and curriculum vehicle for documenting and celebrating the achievements of Nebraskans in film, past and present, both in front of the camera and behind the camera.

Payne is the epitome of the passionate creatives I interview and profile. His magnificent obsession with film ranges from an encyclopedic knowledge of world cinema to support of film preservation and education efforts to pursuit of great film projects. From his very first feature, Citizen Ruth, on through his last completed film, Nebraska, he has satirically, thoughtfully explored a wide expanse of the human heart and soul. He’s paid particular attention to relationships, but he’s also touched on abortion, politics, mid-life crisis, loneliness, identity issues, addiction, depression, love, romance, infidelity, death, family, alienation, old age. The film he’s making now, Downsizing, which releases in late 2017, will offer up his most expansive take yet on the world with the satire this time revolving around themes of depleted world resources, sustainability, technology, geo-political tensions, terrorism, corruption, exploitation, discrimination and civilization. He and co-writer Jim Taylor are exploring the very nature of what it means to be human and how we create society. Where his previous films have been more intimate in scale, he is working on an epic canvas here, though the ideas are distilled into the closely observed personal story of one character, Paul (played by Matt Damon), whose life is the prism through which all these intersecting storylines and themes are played out. In terms of ideas, it may be the most ambitious American film since Apocalypse Now or The Deer Hunter or at least since Avatar.

My extensive coverage of the acclaimed writer-director has resulted in a deep body of work about him and his films that I have collected into a book first published in 2012. I have a new edition out this summer featuring expanded and enhanced content that brings you right up to date with his latest project.

Introducing the new “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film” 

I am very pleased to announce the new edition Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film releases September 1. You have an early bird opportunity to buy the book at KANEKO, 1111 Jones Street, in Omaha’s Old Market. It will be available for purchase during the remainder of the Storytelling Series run (through August 27) at this venue that is “an open space for open minds…”

The book will be available at other venues, including bookstores and gift shops, during the course of the summer and fall. The book will also be available on Amazon and for Kindle.

Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film charts the filmmaker’s rise to the elite ranks of world cinema. Articles and essays take you deep inside the artist’s creative process. It is the most comprehensive look at Payne and his work to be found anywhere. This new edition features significant new content related to Nebraska and Downsizing. We have also added a Discussion Guide with Index for you film buffs and students. The book is also a great resource for more casual film fans who want a handy Payne primer and trivia goldmine. The book releases September 1 from River Junction Press and sales for $25.95.

For inquiries and pre-orders, contact: leo32158@cox.net.

 

FINAL BACK COVER 6-28-16

 

Strong praise for”Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”–

“This is without question the single best study of Alexander Payne’s films, as well as the filmmaker himself and his filmmaking process. In charting the first two decades of Payne’s remarkable career, Leo Adam Biga pieces together an indelible portrait of an independent American artist, and one that’s conveyed largely in the filmmaker’s own words. This is an invaluable contribution to film history and criticism – and a sheer pleasure to read as well.” –Thomas Schatz, Film scholar and author (The Genius of the System)

“Alexander is a master. Many say the art of filmmaking comes from experience and grows with age and wisdom but, in truth, he was a master on day one of his first feature. Leo Biga has beautifully captured Alexander’s incredible journey in film for us all to savor.” – Laura Dern, actress, star of Citizen Ruth

“Last night I finished your wonderful new book and I enjoyed it so much! Alexander Payne is such a terrific director and I loved reading about his films in detail. Congratulations.” – Joan Micklin Silver, filmmaker (Hester StreetCrossing Delancey)

“Alexander Payne is one of American cinema’s leading lights. How fortunate we are that Leo Biga has chronicled his rise to success so thoroughly.” – Leonard Maltin, film critic and best-selling author

“I’d be an Alexander Payne fan even if we didn’t share a Nebraska upbringing: he is a masterly, menschy, singular storyteller whose movies are both serious and unpretentious, delightfully funny and deeply moving. And he’s fortunate indeed to have such a thoughtful and insightful chronicler as Leo Biga.” – Kurt Andersen, novelist (True Believers) and Studio 360 host

“Alexander Payne richly deserves this astute book about his work by Leo Biga. I say this as a fan of both of theirs; and would be one even if I weren’t from Nebraska.” – Dick Cavett, TV legend

“Leo Biga brings us a fascinating, comprehensive, insightful portrait of the work and artistry of Alexander Payne. Mr. Biga’s collection of essays document the evolution and growth of this significant American filmmaker and he includes relevant historical context of the old Hollywood and the new. His keen reporter’s eye gives the reader an exciting journey into the art of telling stories on film.” – Ron Hull, Nebraska Educational Television legend, University of Nebraska emeritus professor of broadcasting, author ofBackstage

“Perhaps the most intriguing feature of the book is Biga’s success at getting Payne to speak candidly about every step in the filmmaking process. These detailed insights include the challenges of developing material from conception to script, finding financing, moderating the mayhem of shooting a movie, and undertaking the slow, monk-like work of editing.” – Brent Spencer, educator and author (The Lost Son)

“This book became a primer for me, and introduced me to filmmaking in a way that I had never experienced in my years at film school. The intimacy and honesty in Biga’s writing, reporting and interviewing– and Payne’s unparalleled knowledge of cinema introduced me to filmmaking and film history from someone I quickly came to respect: Mr. Payne.” – Bryan Reisberg, filmmaker (Big Significant Things)

Watch for announcements about book signings and how you can get your copy for yourself, a friend, a loved one. Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film makes a perfect gift for the film lover in your life.

Alex Kava: Bestselling mystery author still going strong

November 3, 2015 3 comments

OK, so I’m getting old and I can’t remember so well all the stories I have in the pipeline from even a few months ago.  This feature on best-selling mystery author Alex Kava is one of those I forgot to mention when I posted about stories of mine to look for the last part of 2015.  It’s odd I forgot this one though because I had long wanted to interview and profile Kava and I found her a delightful subject.  Anyway, here is that short feature about her for Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/).  She has a new book out titled Breaking Creed.

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Alex Kava: Bestselling mystery author still going strong

October 30, 2015 by 
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Appeared in the Nov.-Dec. 2015 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)

Sure, Alex Kava is a best-selling mystery author, but as an aspiring writer she faced insecurities. Even now, with a six-figure contract from Putnam, there are uncertainties in this brave new world of publishing.

Growing up in rural Silver Creek, Nebraska, her working-class parents considered writing frivolous. Word-struck Alex secretly spun stories from her imagination and committed them to the back pages of used grain co-op calendars, squirreling away the scrawled tales in a shoe box under her bed.

Convinced writing fiction couldn’t support her, she followed an advertising-marketing-public relations career path that, while successful, left her unfulfilled and burned-out. It didn’t help when her first novel-length manuscript received 116 rejection letters.

Kava may never have become the author of the long-running Maggie O’Dell and new Ryder Creed series had she not left her PR job to commit herself to writing at 38.

“There was too many hours, too many meetings. I really was at a crossroads in my life and I decided that while I’m figuring out what it is I want to do with the rest of my life, I’ll try writing. I told myself if I wasn’t published by 40 I would give it up.”

While completing the book, expenses for home and car repairs mounted. She went through her savings. She took a paper route to make ends meet.

She just squeaked under the self-imposed deadline when, three days before her 40th birthday, she signed advance reader copies of her debut novel, A Perfect Evil. Her 2000 portrait of a community traumatized by a serial killer was extrapolated from the actual terror that befell Bellevue and Papillion in the early 1980s when John Joubert murdered two boys there. Kava worked for the Papillion Times at the time.

“What surprised me,” she says in revisiting those events years later, “was that I could remember those feelings of panic that had taken over that community.”

Her stand-alone One False Move was another instance of real-life crime influencing her work. When the 2002 Norfolk, Nebraska, bank robbery gone fatally bad eerily followed a plot she was developing, she used evidence from the actual crimes to inform her novel.

Forensics expert and profiler Maggie O’Dell was among multiple characters on the case in A Perfect Evil, but Kava’s publisher pushed to make O’Dell the subject of a series. Kava resisted. A dozen O’Dell books later, she and Maggie are fixtures in the mystery-thriller genre.

Kava admits she didn’t like O’Dell at first. “We’re both very stubborn and slow to trust.” On the advice of a go-to expert, former Douglas County prosecutor and now district judge Leigh Ann Retelsdorf, Kava gave O’Dell shared interests in dogs and college football.

“Those two little things actually made it easier for me to relate to her,” Kava says. “The series grew, and I grew, and Maggie O’Dell grew. I love that character. She and I have been through so much together.”

Her new protagonist, Ryder Creed, is a K-9 search and rescue dog handler. He teams with investigators like O’Dell to help crack cases.

“I love Ryder Creed because he has this passion for dogs and I can really connect to that.”

Kava says it’s a relief after “so many years writing about something I don’t know—murder,” to write about her four-legged friends. She’s dedicated books to her pets, Molly and Scout, the latter named after Kava’s favorite literary character, Scout Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird.

Kava’s steeped herself in the CSI-law enforcement milieu, even presiding over her own “crime scene dinner club” of attorneys, detectives, and techs who voluntarily plied her with case file details.

“I really do love the research. I’ve never had any problem with people opening up. I’m not sure why they do.”

She admires her expert sources.

“I’ve always looked at law enforcement officers in awe. I could never do what they do and stay sane.”

She’s toured the FBI’s Quantico facility in Virginia, interviewing behavioral science wonks there. She’s turned down opportunities to visit crime scenes and view autopsies. “Some of those things it’s best for me to leave to my imagination.”

Kava, who did a spring book tour for her latest work, Breaking Creed, is grateful for her success. But in this new age of ebooks, publishing mergers, and tenuous contracts, nothing’s guaranteed.

“There’s so much more for readers to choose from, and I think that added choice is great. At the same time it makes it more of a challenge for us as authors to figure out how to get those readers and stay in front of them. I’m now writing two books a year so I can stay in front and say, ‘Here’s the next one, and I’ve got another one coming out, and another one after that.’ You don’t want them to
forget you.”

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