If you follow my work via my blog or Facebook page then you may have noticed I like writing about fellow writers. I mean, beyond the natural affinity I feel for anyone who takes up the pen and sticks with it, there are myriad things about the writing life that are universal and singular to each writer I profile. There’s no single path to becoming a writer and every writer’s life around the work and separate from it looks a little different, sometimes a lot different. And then there’s the very different kinds of writing people do and the unique voices they express. The subject of this New Horizons cover story, Bud Shaw, is a medical doctor and writer who’s gained a measure of fame for training his inner eye and ear on his former life as a transplant surgeon through essays, several of them collected in his well-received book, Last Night in the OR. Though it took him until about a decade ago to finally write about his own personal experiences, he’s been writing since he was a child. It can take the better part of a lifetime to find one’s voice, especially that voice residing deep within the inner recesses and nooks and crannies of our subconscious. When Shaw finally did find his, he revealed himself to be a strong, spare writer in the style of his literary heroes. My profile of Shaw will appear in the May 2017 issue of the New Horizons, a free montly newspaper from the Eastern Nebraska Office on Aging. Beginning April 28, look for the new issue at area newsstands or, if you’re a subscriber, in your mailbox,. Order your free subscription by calling 402-444-6654.
Voyager Bud Shaw gives up scalpel for pen
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in the May 2017 issue of the New Horizons
Before Dr. Bud Shaw gained fame as a liver transplant surgeon, first in Pittsburgh, then at the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC), he was a writer. An adventurer, too. He’s a veteran small-engine pilot and hang gliding enthusiast and an avid bicycle trekker.
His wonderment with words goes back to childhood. It continued during his formal education – all the way through undergraduate and medical studies. Even during his surgical career he continued writing whenever he had down time. But since putting down the scalpel for the pen, his writing’s really taken off.
For decades he composed fiction but in recent years he’s turned to nonfiction. Some of his highly personal essays have won recognition. His 2015 book Last Night in the OR was a New York Times Bestseller.
His wife Rebecca Rotert is an award-winning poet, short story writer and essayist whose first novel Last Night at the Blue Angel was well-received.
Shaw leads writing clubs at the Med Center. He advocates students and professionals take writing courses to enrich their humanities education. He cites research showing the health benefits of writing.
“When you write something down as opposed to talking about it, it gets stored in long-term memory – with far fewer details but more indelibly – and it’s in an area where your brain keeps working on it. It’s like the thing where you write something and put it away and come back to it and you start editing it immediately when you couldn’t have done that the day before. But your brain’s been working on it.”
He said studies show that in “patients who wrote for three days in a row their brain did some processing that somehow also helped them deal with their illness.”
Reading and writing
Prose fed Shaw’s imaginative escapes as a youth.
“I read a lot. As a kid I got sick frequently and I’d end up having to stay home. We had bookshelves full of books. My mother bought a series of classics for kids: Black Beauty, Treasure Island, Bambi. I would pick them out and read them, and then I got into The Hardy Boys and when I read all that I even tried Nancy Drew.”
He became a familiar figure at the local library.
Family trips to Crystal River, Florida got him hooked on diving and his natural curiosity and affinity for reading found him hunting every book he could on the subject.
“My school projects were reports about the aqua lung and the difference between one and two stage regulators and how you could get the bends and prevent that. I knew the decompression tables when i was 12.”
Writing had already become an outlet.
“I began writing seriously in second grade, My mother helped me write a romantic adventure novel involving a boy and his pony. It filled 10 pages of Golden Rod tablet paper we bound with rubber cement and a cardboard cover. She died a few years later and I guess I’ve been looking for that kind of approval ever since.”
His passion for literature was stoked at Kenyon College a small liberal arts school near where he grew up in rural Ohio. There, he said, “reading and writing were paramount and literature became a limitless world for me – a world where anything could happen. I was a chemistry major, but I filled the other spaces with literature and creative writing courses. In the first two years of medical school, those intellectual pursuits were largely replaced with the drudgery of rote memorization. I found myself obsessively writing short stories and sending them off to Redbook, Playboy and Reader’s Digest. It was a useful diversion and the rejections hardly mattered.”
His literary favorites range from John Steibeck, Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner to Kurt Vonnegut, Gunter Grass and Cormac McCarthy.
Finding his niche as a transplant surgeon
Though his father was a surgeon, Bud at first resisted following in his footsteps. He said the fact he eventually did was “probably because he didn’t push it on me.” Shaw received his MD at Case Western Reserve University, did general surgery training in Utah and completed a transplant surgery fellowship in Pittsburgh,
There, he made a name for himself as a talented maverick working under the father of transplantation in America, the late Tom Strazl. The two men shared a complicated relationship.
“Most of the advances going on at that time in transplantation were happening in Pittsburgh. I was working with Starzl, who then was by far the most important pioneer in transplantation. I would have stayed there happily and worked with him but it just became more and more difficult.”
Shaw left because he disagreed with the way certain things were being done that he felt hampered surgeons’ learning and endangered patients’ lives.
“I wanted to change the way we did things and I realized I wasn’t going to be able to do that there as much as I wanted. I realized I didn’t want to be part of a program that was chaotic and dangerous for patients.”
Prestigious hospitals coveted having this hot shot young surgeon come start a transplant program in what was a sexy new medical horizon making headlines.
“It was a brand new field. I had probably done more liver transplants in the previous two years than anybody in the world .”
Coming to Omaha and building a world-class transplantation program
UNMC recruited him. It didn’t have the cachet of other courters but it proved the right fit. It helped that the man pursuing him. Layton “Bing” Rikkers, knew him when Shaw trained in general surgery at the University of Utah, where Rikkers had taught.
“Once I got trained in transplant I always intended to go back to the University of Utah but they just didn’t seem to want to do it (start a transplant program).”
When Rikkers took the UNMC job he asked Shaw to join him but Shaw wouldn’t be persuaded – at first.
“I told him I want to go someplace with a seacoast or mountains or preferably both.”
Rikkers wouldn’t take no for an answer. He strategically brought Shaw in as a consultant on the ABCs of starting a transplant program. Shaw met a Med Center contingent, including Mike Sorrell and Jim Armitage, who, he said, were “incredibly enthusiastic about doing liver transplants.” “There was a stark contrast between the attitude here, which was one of ‘We understand we don’t know anything about how to do this – we need you to be the expert,’ and what I found elsewhere.”
Shaw said. “I realized this was a rare opportunity because I’d interviewed at much more famous, high-powered places. I’d told them the same thing I told UNMC – I can’t come alone, I’m going to bring a junior surgeon with me and I need to have an anesthesia team go to Pittsburgh and learn how to do anesthesia and a pathologist go learn how to read the biopsies of the liver. And all these places said, ‘No, we have experts, we’re sure they can handle this, and we have very precious faculty positions to maintain.”
He said other centers didn’t appreciate just what a commitment they needed to make.
“They said, ‘We want you to come start this and we’ll see how it goes,’ and I said, ‘See how it goes? This is a high risk sort of thing.’ That’s when I realized they were mainly interested in doing this not because they were interested in treating liver disease but because it was a cool thing to start doing and they didn’t want to be left out. This place (UNMC) was clearly different. It was one of the only places in the country thinking about this as a long-term prospect they could succeed in, and that’s why I came here.”
One of Shaw’s biggest contentions with the way things were done in Pittsburgh that he changed in Omaha was transplant surgeons not having responsibility for post-op patient care. Some patients get profoundly sick after transplant surgery and lax care can exacerbate already dire situations.
“On a typical Sunday morning I’d find three transplant patients in the ICU and two of them would be bleeding still and I’d have to take them back and fix them in the operating room. I’d go talk to the family and they’d say, ‘Nobody’s talked to us.’ So I found myself cleaning up messes made by other surgeons who weren’t being supervised adequately and hadn’t had enough training.
“I talk about this in the book,” Shaw said. “Tom Starzl never wanted to have a routine, he wanted to change it every time, and you just can’t teach other people what works and what doesn’t work very well if you’re changing it constantly.”
After coming to Omaha in 1985 with his first wife and establishing a world-class solid organ (liver, kidney, pancreas, heart) transplant program here, the city became their home.
“I came here with the idea we’d spend five years and then move to one of those places with seacoast and mountains, but at the end of five years we had a really good program going. We were still growing, we were doing innovative things.
“I got recruited to go look at a couple of jobs right around that time. I just realized it was going to be like starting over and the politics would be worse. There’s no advantage of going to those places other than geography and I can buy a plane ticket.”
Diversions by ground and air
He’s bought plenty of tickets over the years to make bike tours with friends in scenic spots around the globe:
Then there’s his life as a pilot. He got his license at 19.
“I bought a 1939 J-3 Cub and flew it back to college. I had another airplane in Utah where I also took up hang gliding. I didn’t have any aircraft in 1981 when I arrived in Pittsburgh, but by 1984 I bought a used seaplane that I also took to Omaha in 1985. I eventually sold it and joined two other guys in a partnership in several airplanes.
“I plan on getting my glider rating this summer.”
Shaw’s logged enough hours behind the controls to have had some harrowing moments in the air.
“Every pilot with that many years experience has many stories to tell, as do I. I’ve been scared several times when weather closed in on me unexpectedly while flying cross-country. I flew aerobatics for half a dozen years in the ’90s. That was always exciting but I never had any close calls doing that. I had a couple of close calls hang gliding. I describe one in the book.”
More often than not, his time in the sky has afforded sublime glimpses of beauty. He recalled a Utah ridge that provided “wonderful soaring” and close encounters with Bald and Golden eagles living in the rocky cliffs.
“They often came out and flew along with us, sometimes showing off their aerobatic skills.”
Then there was the 1973 coming-of-age flight he made in his little Cub with an acquaintance of his from Ohio, Scottie Wilson.
“The summer of ’73 was between my first and second year of medical school, which I hated. I’d restored an airplane I kept out at the local airport. Scottie had just gotten his wings for the Air Force. That summer we flew in my little Cub a lot together. Toward the end of the summer he had to get to Tuscon, Arizona for combat training. He was going to drive and I said maybe we should fly my Cub out there.
“There were multiple times during that trip where I was going to quit medical school and become a jet jockey.
When the whole thing was done I had to turn around and fly back by myself, and this was like two weeks before I was getting married. I had sort of abandoned ship and ran away.”
The event proved a crucible for Shaw.
“Right after I crossed the Continental Divide there was a storm up ahead I realized iI couldn’t fly around or above so I just landed on a road. As I was sitting there watching this storm go by I started crying. I had this deep sense of loss.”
Broke and out of fuel, he siphoned gas from every small plane on the line at the airport. Back home. he married. started a family and completed his studies. That summer interlude never left him but it’s only recently he
tried writing about it.
“I told Rebecca about it and she said, ‘There’s a romance there of a kind,’ and there really was. A closeness developed in a short period of time that was very different than any experience I’ve had with another guy.”
Intent on catching up with his old pal, Shaw happened to open a magazine to a story about Wilson restoring a 1938 Bugatti airplane presumed lost during World War II. The plane was rediscovered and Wilson, a retired Air Force officer, was building a replica.
“I tracked him down through Facebook and we ended up spending hours on the phone three or four different times over the space of a couple months. My plan was to go see him. He was in the process of starting to test fly this plane. I talked to him in May 2016 and in December I got an email from his brother that said, ‘I’m sure by now you’ve heard about Scottie dying…’ He’d taken the plane up again and was barely off the ground when it happened.
“He’d sent me some sample writing. He wanted me to help him write the story of this airplane.”
Wilson’s passing marked the latest of four recent deaths of important people in Shaw’s life. He feels compelled to write about what they meant to him.
“I have lots of starts in different directions in talking about the way your relationship with your mentors is more like a love affair than it is like a parenting relationship. It’s like seeking their love and approval more-so than maybe with a parent.”
Merging his personal, medical and writing lives
When Shaw was still doing transplants he was barraged by life and death events but so cut-off from them emotionally he didn’t write about them.
“I was so busy and chronically sleep deprived I rarely had time or inclination to write. Except on vacation. Once I got away from work, I inevitably started writing. It was always fiction. By the mid-’90s I had the starts of five novels. I took a sabbatical in 1996 to write and came away with a 180,000-word novel that isn’t yet worthy of publication. Of course, family and friends all thought it was wonderful but nobody else did. I was afraid of getting it reviewed by anybody.
“None of my writing then had any direct relationship to my work. I think it was largely a way to escape the stress of that life.”
Shaw’s real growth as a writer began when he confronted his own life on the page at the 2007 Kenyon Review Workshop.
“It was very educational and inspirational to actually have to write something and then to have people critique it. It was the first time I had valuable critique of what I’d written. I began to understand what I needed to do to improve things was to keep writing, to keep having people critique and then keep changing and writing.”
His next evolution came as a participant in the Seven Doctors Project that puts doctors together with writers.
Shaw was in the project’s first group of doctors in 2008 and he participated in several other sessions the next few years. One session in particular proved fruitful.
“I did get some wonderful stuff from the review of what I wrote that year. The most telling thing was from another writer there, Rebecca Rotert” (whom he ended up marrying after he and his first wife split).
“When it was my turn to read, everybody complimented how they liked this or liked that and then all of a sudden Rebecca said, ‘Okay, here’s the deal: I don’t know what this person’s motivations are. We’re missing some of the basic things of a story and by now we should know this.’
I started to feel defensive and then I thought, ‘Oh my God, she’s absolutely right,’ and I can fix that because I know what the answers to those questions are.”
All of it spurred him to explore his own life in nonfiction writing. The more he drew from his personal experience, the more he liberated himself.
“I was finally able to think about some of the experiences I had and to step back from them far enough to actually write about them without having a strong emotional agenda that kept me from doing it before.”
With each story he takes from his own life, he’s puts himself on the line.
“I suppose writing highly personal nonfiction stories is risky for anyone. I felt I couldn’t do it unless I found a way to be more objective about the most difficult and emotional experiences. I had to resist the temptation to ‘set the record straight.’ I had to discover instead the other stories within those moments.”
His first published essay, My Night With Ellen Hutchinson, is about a devastating personal and professional episode early in his career.
“As I sat down to write about it, I discovered just how stubbornly I still held onto a version of that story that blamed others, that let me off the hook for the death of a patient during a liver transplant. I had to revisit that night over and over again for weeks to reconstruct a view that wasn’t about the cause of the failure so much as it was about the results of it. It wasn’t easy.
“That was a very straight forward operation. In my mind, I’d done everything right. I got the new liver sewn into place and blood flowing into it and everything was just great when her heart stopped. And yet, the technical details of why the woman’s heart stopped and how we should have handled it and how today, I know she would not have died because of what we later learned to prevent the problem, none of that was a story worth recounting. I needed a fresh and far more human perspective, and that required me to do a lot of processing I hadn’t done before.
“Now I don’t seem able to stop.”
For years Shaw erected shields warding off self-reflection when people’s lives were in his hands.
“The protective mechanisms were about dealing with failure, where failure could be somebody’s death. After failure I felt it absolutely necessary to approach the next case with supreme confidence that everything is going to go well. There’s a lot of ways of getting to that point. Maybe the quickest way is to simply say, ‘That last problem – that wasn’t my fault.’ But that’s not the only way. Another way, but it’s not the one I took, is to think about it more and to recognize we’re fallible and I did play a role in that, and what can I do next time to make sure that doesn’t happen again.
“It would have taken the ability of being more mindful as they call it now.”
In his book Shaw reveals his own and others’ frailties as counterpoint to the God-like status medical professionals are held in or hold themselves in. His essays chronicle how he didn’t let things touch him, not the lives he saved or lost, not even his own bout with cancer, What opened the flood gates of introspection was the disabling anxiety that overcame him in 2006.
“I didn’t have any problems with social anxiety at all
until one day I was sitting in my living room and suddenly had a panic attack that eventually caused me to crawl into bed and cover up. I had no idea what was causing it. It just came out of the blue.”
Some days at work he couldn’t leave his office. He finally sought help. Drugs help regulate the condition. Writing about it has been freeing.
“What the writing has done is help me understand and accept the fact that I have this problem. It’s also helped me recognize I did have these protective things and the question in my mind is – what if I had been as self-aware and self-reflective when I was in the midst of this incredibly intense surgical career with all this risk?
Would I have been able to continue? I think the answer to that question is probably yes.
“The process of writing about my own experiences really did open up my writing in a way. That, and there were about three books I read around that time that made me become much more spare, to work harder on eliminating stuff. The big problem I had was my need to make sure you understood everything, explaining
everything. Being freed up from the idea that you have to explain everything was like a miracle. You can actually let people figure out stuff on their own.”
He said a UNMC colleague objected to how much medical imperfection he revealed in his book.
“She said, ‘This is a huge mistake. Nobody should pull back the curtain and expose these sorts of things.’ I said, ‘Why, do you think people are going to come after us with torches?’ She said, ‘Well, they might,’ and I said, ‘Well, if they do, maybe we deserve it.’ I certainly got lots of positive feedback from surgeons outside of here. In fact, I’m still getting it.”
A notable exception was his old mentor Tom Starzl, who reacted strongly against the book. It strained the two men’s already tenuous relationship. As a show of respect and peace offering, Shaw attended Starzl’s 90th birthday celebration.
“I gave him a big hug and he started crying. It was very emotional.”
Starzl died a year later.
Before Shaw could get his book published, UNMC made him jump through hoops to change details so as to avoid privacy issues.
“A lot of the essays had been written with the names of the real people involved before I knew these stories were going to be part of a book,” Shaw said. “I had to start looking at how I could contact these people (for their permission). I knew I wasn’t allowed to look in the medical records for that purpose and I knew I couldn’t ask anybody else to do it for that purpose.
“I couldn’t remember some of their names. I was in the process of trying to sort out how to contact them when the privacy officer at the hospital called and said you can’t write about any of your experiences here.”
The decree made Shaw bristle. He resisted the blanket refusal, pointing out there was nothing in his contract or in UNMC’s HIPPA policy preventing him from doing it.
“Eventually I could not get them to allow me to contact the people. So I went in and changed enough of the details that there’s just no way anybody could recognize the real people.”
Doing what he has to do
Some of his writing does name names. His essay A Doctor at His Daughter’s Hospital Bed recounts the time he intervened in the care of his daughter Natalie, who was hospitalized with pneumonia and not getting the IV fluids he knew she needed.
“I know I shouldn’t be my daughter’s doctor. They taught us the problems with that during my first week in medical school. It’s a really bad idea, especially in high-risk situations. We doctors are also very superstitious that when dealing with family members … something is always going to go wrong. The more the Special Person hovers over the care of his or her loved one, the worse the complication will be. I’ve had conversations in which doctors feel they change their routine with V.I.P. patients, and it’s that disruption in routine that allows error to creep into their care.
“But right now, I don’t care about any of that. I’m the one with experience taking care of really sick patients, and if I know she needs more fluids, she’s going to get them.
I break into the crash cart … I pull out two liters of saline solution and run both into Natalie’s IV in less than 20 minutes. Natalie’s pulse slows and her blood pressure rises. An hour later, after the nursing supervisor and on-call resident finally arrive, I’ve finished infusing a third liter. Natalie finally looks better.
“This wasn’t the first time during Natalie’s illness … I broke my promise to just be her dad.”
It also wasn’t the first or last time he crossed the medical care barrier with a loved one.
My younger son, Joe, almost died … from septic shock. He became ill while I was out of town. I flew home and by the time I arrived at the hospital, he looked deathly ill to me. I told the nurse I thought he should be transferred to the intensive care unit, but she said the doctors thought he was improving. Joe stopped breathing during the night and I have blamed myself ever since for not insisting they move him.
“Over and over again during my dad’s last few years of life, I felt as if I should have just moved in with him so that I could prevent all the well-meaning doctors and nurses from killing him. Sometimes it was just because his doctors weren’t talking to one another and their conflicting prescriptions sent Dad to the hospital. In the end, he died about 10 minutes after receiving an injection I didn’t want him to receive.”
Shaw’s daughter did recover but, he writes. “I didn’t.” He explains in his essay:
“I stopped operating and taking care of really sick people two years later. I told myself I had become too distracted by my increasing administrative duties to be a safe doctor. I was glad to leave all that behind. Now I just want to sit on the sidelines and marvel as a new generation of doctors performs the miracles. I never again want to step in to rescue someone I love. But I will, if I have to.”
On a pedestal
He had occasion to operate on public figures or loved ones of celebrities. Such was the case in 1993 when he performed liver transplants on Hollywood icon Robert Reford’s son, Jamie Redford, in Omaha.
As is often the case, patients with good outcomes form an attachment with their surgeons that is one-part gratitude and one-part adulation. It was no different with Jamie Redford, who on Instagram recently posted a photo of himself and his life-saver with this caption: “My hero and good friend, Dr. Bud Shaw.”
Redford regained his health and produced a documentary, The Kindness of Strangers, raising awareness of the need for organ donation. Redford and Shaw saw each other just last year.
“Jamie and I did something at the Sundance Authors Series. I did a reading of my book and then Jamie came up and we sat on a couple stools and we did a kind of give-and-take with each other and people asked questions. Bob (Robert Redford) was there and Jamie’s sister was there. It was standing-room-only.”
But in his essay Real Surgeons Can’t Cry Shaw divulges how he didn’t cope well with the hero worship showed him. For him, surgery was a job to be gotten through, a task to be completed. The human dimensions of it sometimes escaped him or made him uncomfortable, and so he avoided those implications and interactions that required emotional investment.
Taxing times in the crowded OR give way to one-on-one writing-editing critiques
A transplant operation is always complex and requires a team of professionals/ But these were far riskier procedures in the 1980s and 1990s then they are today because there weren’t the techniques and drugs available then that there are now.
“The longest one in my experience was in Pittsburgh that was 27 hours,” Shaw recalled. “In that case it was a child. When we started out trying to open the abdomen it was like concrete. We had to go ahead and get the liver in there because its time out of the donor’s body was getting too high. We didn’t want it to die – the liver would be nonfunctional. So we put it in and then we had all this sorting out of stuff to do for hours and hours, trying to get the bleeding stopped.
“What would happen is the patient’s own body would start dissolving its clots. That was a pretty common feature of a liver transplant.”
The operating room is a collaborative, dynamic environment of high risk and high reward. Writing, by contrast, is a solitary experience whose rewards are more internal then external. Shaw values having a life partner in Rotert who is a fellow writer. They share everything they write with each other.
“We are our own best editors,” he said. “I think I take her criticism of what I write a lot better than she takes my criticism about what she writes, and I don’t know if that’s because her criticism is more gently delivered because she’s not very gentle with it. But for some reason whatever she tells me often rings so true.
“LIke with these initial essays I wrote, I wasn’t sure what they were really about and she helped me figure out what they were really about.”
He admires her craftsmanship.
“She really writes incredibly well. She writes some beautiful sentences. She also develops characters incredibly well, each with different voices. She’s really a master at that sort of thing.”
The couple live in a multi-story home on the edge of Neale Woods. Books, magazines, paintings (by her) and photographs (by him) adorn the rustic-chic living spaces whose large windows look out on the Missouri River basin and bluffs to the east and pristine forested land to the west.
Idyllic surroundings and professional accolades aren’t salves for the demons inside us as Shaw discovered. Even at the height of his career, politics and egos found him fighting external battles. He eventually became chairman of surgery at the Med Center and after 12 years in that post he headed-up a large point-of-care software development project that got canceled.
He’s felt a bit adrift since retiring from surgery and then having that software project killed.
“There’s almost nothing like having a really difficult job to do with a lot riding on it and you’re afraid going in about what might happen but you do it anyway and you succeed and everything’s okay. It just so happens that liver transplants is one of the best things like that. And so I lost that reward system. The other thing I lost was every day somebody telling me what to do. Even when i was chairman of the department. It’s not like I had to say what am i going to do today? There was always stuff to do and too much to do.
“Not having that and having so called free time to write and to do other stuff was initially fun and easy but the longer it’s lasted the more difficult it’s become
While a practicing surgeon he once thought of leaving that career to write full-time but he wasn’t crazy or brave enough to try it. “Doing liver transplants is easier.”
Ever the voyager, Shaw has worlds yet to explore in his travels and in his new vocation as author, Having finally given himself permission to write about his past, he’s embracing new adventures as source material for future tales. With so much to draw on, his creative well should never run dry.
Hot Movie Takes
By Leo Adam Biga, author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”
When I originally posted about the subject of this Hot Movie Take, the late John Huston, I forgot to note that his work, though very different in tone, shares a penchant for unvarnished truth with that of Alexander Payne. Huston was a writer-director just like Payne is and he was extremely well-read and well-versed in many art forms, again just as Payne is. The screenplays for Huston’s films were mostly adaptations of novels, short stories and plays, including some famous ones by iconic writers, and the scripts for Payne’s films are mostly adaptations as well. Huston also collaborated with a lot of famous writers on his films, including Truma Capote and Arthur Miller. The work of both filmmakers shares an affinity for ambiguous endings. I think at his best Huston was more of a classic storyteller than Payne and his films more literate. Where Huston mostly made straight dramas, he showed a real flair for comedy the few times he ventured that way (“The African Queen,” “Beat the Devil,” “The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean” and “Prizzi’s Honor”). Payne insists that he makes comedies, though most would say he makes dramedies, a terrible descriptor that’s gained currency. More accurately, Payne’s comedy-dramas are satires. I think he’s more than capable of making a straight drama if he chose to, but so far he’s stayed true to himself and his strengths. If Payne is the ultimate cinema satirist of our tme, and I think he is, then Huston stands as the great film ironist of all time. With one using satire and the other using irony to great effect, their films get right to the bone and marrow of characters without a lot of facade. Just as it was for Huston, story and character is everything for Payne. And their allegiance to story and character is always in service to revealing truth.
Of all the great film directors to some out of the old studio system, only one, that craggy, gangly, hard angle of a man, John Huston, continued to thrive in the New Hollywood and well beyond.
It’s important to note Huston was a writer-director who asserted great independence even under contract. He began as a screenwriter at Universal and learned his craft there before going to work at Warner Brothers. But Huston was an accomplished writer long before he ever got to Hollywood. As a young man he found success as a journalist and short story writer, getting published in some of the leading magazines and newspapers of the day. Indeed, he did a lot things before he landed in Tinsel Town. He boxed, he painted, he became a horseman and cavalry officer in the Mexican uprisings, he hunted big gamma he acted and he caroused. His father Walter Huston was an actor in vaudeville before making it on the legitimate stage and then in films.
What he most loved though was reading. His respect for great writing formed early and it never left him. Having grown up the son of a formidable actor, he also respected the acting craft and the power and magic of translating words on a page into dramatic characters and incidents that engage and move us.
He admired his father’s talent and got to study his process up close. Before ever working in Hollywood, John Huston also made it his business to observe how movies were made.
But like most of the great filmmakers of that era, Huston lived a very full life before he ever embarked on a screen career. It’s one of the reasons why I think the movies made by filmmakers like Huston and his contemporaries seem more informed by life than even the best movies today. There’s a well lived-in weight to them that comes from having seen and done some things rather than rehashing things from books or film classes or television viewings.
Because of his diverse passions, Huston films are an interesting mix of the masculinity and fatalistic of, say. a Hemingway, and the ambiguity and darkness of, say, an F. Scott Fitzgerald or Eugene O’Neill. I use literature references because Huston’s work is so steeped in those traditions and influences. In film terms, I suppose the closest artists his work shares some kinship with are Wyler and John Ford, though Huston’s films are freer in form than Wyler’s and devoid of the sentimentality of Ford. As brilliantly composed as Wyler’s films are, they’re rather stiff compared to Huston’s. As poetic as Ford’s films are, they are rather intellectually light compared to Huston’s.
At Warners Huston developed into one of the industry’s top screenwriters with an expressed interest in one day directing his own scripts. Of all the Hollywood writers that transitioned to directing, he arguably emerged as the most complete filmmaker. While he never developed a signature visual style, he brought a keen intelligence to his work that emphasized character development and relationship between character and place. He made his directing invisible so as to better serve the story. When I think of Huston, I think of lean and spare. He perfected the art of cutting in the camera. He was precise in what he wanted in the frame and he got as close to what he had on the page and in his head as perhaps anyone who’s made feature-length narrative films. He did it all very efficiently and professionally but aesthetic choices came before any commercial considerations. He was known to be open to actors and their needs and opinions, but he was not easily persuaded to change course because he was a strong-willed artist who knew exactly what he wanted, which is to say he knew exactly what the script demanded.
His films are among the most literate of their or any era, yet they rarely feel stagy or artificial. From the start, Huston revealed a gift for getting nitty gritty reality on screen. He was also very big on location shooting when that was still more a rarity than not and he sometimes went to extreme lengths to capture the real thing, such as encamping in the Congo for “The African Queen.” Look at his “The Man Who Would Be King” and you’ll find it’s one of the last great epic adventure stories and Huston and Co.really did go to harsh, remote places to get its settings right.
The realism of his work is often balanced by a lyrical romanticism. But there are some notable exceptions to this in films like “Fat City.”
He sometimes pushed technical conventions with color experiments in “Moulin Rouge,” “Moby Dick” and “Reflections in a Golden Eye.”
As a young man learning the ropes, he reportedly was influenced by William Wyler and other masters and clearly Huston was a good student because right out of the gate with his first film as director, “The Maltese Falcon,” his work was fully formed.
In his first two decades as a writer-director, Huston made at least a half dozen classics. His best work from this period includes:
The Maltese Falcon
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
The Asphalt Jungle
The Red Badge of Courage
Heaven Knows Mr. Allison
Beat the Devil
Huston remained a relevant director through the 1960s with such films as:
The List of Adrian Messenger
The Night of the Iguana
Reflections in a Golden Eye
But his greatest work was still ahead of him in the 1970s and 1980s when all but a handful of the old studio filmmakers were long since retired or dead or well past their prime. Huston’s later works are his most complex and refined:
The Man Who Would Be King
Under the Volcano
I have seen all these films, some of them numerous times, so I can personally vouch for them. There are a few others I’ve seen that might belong on his best efforts list, including “The Roots of Heaven.” Even a near miss like “The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean” is worth your time. And there are a handful of ’70s era Huston films with good to excellent reputations I’ve never gotten around to seeing, notably “The Kremlin Letter” and “The Mackintosh Man,” that I endeavor to see and judge for myself one day.
Three star-crossed iconic actors with Huston, Arthur Miller, Eli Wallach and Co. on the set of “The Misfits”
It would be easy for me to discuss any number of his films but I elect to explore his final and, to my tastes anyway, his very best film, “The Dead” (1987). For me, it is a masterpiece that distills everything Huston learned about literature, film, art, music, life, you name it, into an extraordinary mood piece that is profound in its subtleties and observations. For much of his career, Huston portrayed outward adventures of characters in search of some ill-fated quest. These adventures often played out against distinct, harsh urban or natural landscapes. By the end of his career, he turned more and more to exploring inward adventures. “The Dead” is an intimate examination of grief, love, longing and nostalgia. Based on a James Joyce short story, it takes place almost entirely within a private home during a Christmas gathering that on the surface is filled with merriment but lurking just below is bittersweet melancholia, particularly for a married couple stuck in the loss of their child. It is a tender tone poem whose powerful evocation of time, place and emotion is made all the more potent because it is so closely, carefully observed. Much of the inherent drama and feeling resides in the subtext behind the context. Discovering these hidden meaning sin measured parts is one of the many pleasures of this subdued film that has more feeling in one frame than any blockbuster does in its entirety. “The Dead” is as moving a meditation on the end of things, including human life, that I have ever seen.
Huston made the film while a very sick and physically feeble old man. He was in fact dying. But it might as well be the work of a young stallon because it’s that vital and rigorous. The fact that he was near death though gives his interpretation and expression of the story added depth and poignancy. He knew well the autumnal notes it was playing. The film starts his daughter Angelica Huston. It was their third and final collaboraton.
If you don’t know Huston the writer-director I urge you to seek out his work and even if you do you may discover he made films you didn’t associate with him. Just like we often don’t pay attention to the bylines of writers who author pieces we read and even enjoy, some of us don’t pay strict attention to who the directors of films are, even if we enjoy them. Some of you may even be more familiar with Huston’s acting than his directing. His turn in “Chinatown” is a superb example of character acting. My point is, whatever Huston means or doesn’t meant to you, seek out his work and put the pieces together of the many classics he made that you’ve seen and will make a point to see.
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”:
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.”
“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.”
“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.
Thank you for being here today, Leo.
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!
Links to check out
- Advice to Writers
- All Freelance Writing
- Chris Brogan – Learn How Human Business Works
- Dallas Woodburn’s Writing Life
- Damnation Books
- Funds for Writers
- Jungle Red Writers
- Lisa Jackson, writer and editor
- Live Fearless
- Live to Write, Write to Live
- Married with Luggage
- New England Crime Bake Conference
- Sisters in Crime – New England
- Susan Nye – Around the Table
- The Graveyard Shift
- The Renegade Writer
- The Writer’s Chatroom
- Wicked Cozy Authors
- Working Writers’ Coach
Tribute to educator who fired my passions for writing and film
©by Leo Adam Biga
Author of Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film
Most of us, I suspect, end up doing what we do and loving what we love in large part because someone showed us the way or encouraged us to step out on a certain path that ended up being our calling or passion. In my case, the same person is responsible for nurturing the two deep heart streams that run hard and fast in my life: my love for writing and for film. His name is Michael Krainak. The retired high school teacher now serves as the art editor for The Reader. If you follow my work, then you know that I have a long, strong relationship with The Reader as a contributing writer. Thus, Mike and I are colleagues today.
As most of you know by now, I make my living as an author-journalist-blogger. As a lifelong film buff I have never felt compelled to make a movie, though I would like to try my hand at a documentary one day. Instead, my cinema fix comes via watching movies and reading and writing about movies and the people who make them. While I am not a full-time film journalist, I write enough about the subject to qualify. My book “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film” is now in its second edition. Before I ever began writing on film for pay, I was a film exhibitor-programmer-publicist at three nonprofits: the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where I received my journalism degree; the Joslyn Art Museum; and the New Cinema Cooperative. The latter, which also went by New Cinema Coop, was sort of the precursor to Film Streams in Omaha.
I took English, journalism and film from Mike at Holy Name High School in North Omaha. The high school closed years ago but the elementary school, which I also attended, is going strong after some struggles. Some years after I graduated Hold Name, Mike went on to teach at North High and just as Holy Name’s journalism program and student newspaper fared well in statewide competitions under him so did the program and paper at North.
Mike taught my two older brothers before me at Holy Name. Greg and Dan had him strictly for English. I was the only writer in the family and it wasn’t until I came under Mike’s influence that I gave any thought to the idea of pursuing writing as a field of study, much less a career. While my brothers and I all enjoyed movies growing up, I pushed that interest in some unexpected ways as a result of Mike opening a world of cinema possibilities to me I never knew existed.
Mike came into my life at a critical juncture. As a kid I rarely went to see movies at theaters. Virtually all my cinephile stirrings happened at home watching whatever was available on the three commercial networks, the three local network affiliates as well as on PBS and NET. Even with those seemingly limited options, I availed myself of a pretty wide sample of old Hollywood and foreign films in addition to more contemporary pictures from the 1960s and 1970s.
I remember the strong feelings and awakenings that particular films evoked in me.
“On the Waterfront”
“It’s a Wonderful Life”
“The Manchurian Candidate”
“The Red Shoes”
“Odd Man Out”
“To Kill a Mockingbird”
“A Thousand Clowns”
“Bonnie and Clyde”
“The French Connection”
“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”
“The Quiet Man”
“Lonely are the Brave”
“Cape Fear” (the original)
And hundreds more.
At home, spellbound by the reverie of film’s magic, the intensity with which I felt movies often overwhelmed me. I didn’t yet possess the emotional maturity and the necessary vocabulary to articulate or even identify what I was feeling and thinking. I just sensed that these were important works of art that were somehow affecting and changing me. They were a huge part of my education about the world and about the human condition, though as I would come to find out no adequate replacement for actual lived human experience and interaction. I couldn’t really express to my parents, try as I might, the revelations and inspirations that films were feeding me. My brothers were both out of the house by the time I came of age through film and so I really couldn’t share these things with them either. Mike’s teaching affirmed for me that the very films I was reacting so strongly to were indeed essentials and that confirmation opened new horizons to my intellectual curiosity. He also challenged some of my assumptions and that process alone made me a more rigorous thinker and writer.
Mike’s film class was remarkable for any high school in America but especially for an inner city parochial school in Omaha, Nebraska. For starters, he screened an amazingly diverse mix of films that included pictures with very adult themes and R-rated content such as “Point Blank” and “Walkabout” and groundbreaking older Hollywood films only just being rediscovered then:
“Paths of Glory”
“Touch of Evil”
“Night of the Hunter”
It was important that I got exposed to these work when I did. It was equally important that Mike first introduced me to the vocabulary of film language in a focused way. I was so caught up in the whirl of cinema that within a couple years of starting at the University of Nebraska at Omaha I did something radical for someone as insular and insecure as I was by applying to be the chairperson of the Student Programming Organization film series. I ended up chairing or co-chairing that series for four years as a student and then continuing on as an unpaid graduate consultant for another eight or nine years. It meant programming, booking and publicizing the films as well as supervising their exhibition. In my 20s and despite my shyness I was appearing on radio and TV and giving print interviews to promote the series. It was a big program by the way. At its peak, we screened something like 75 to 100 films a year, showing a wide range of content from American and foreign classics to more contemporary pics. The reason I felt confident in doing it was the foundation that Mike laid for me in high school, which I made stronger by seeking out film books and magazines at the UNO Library and at the Omaha Public Library in order to advance my education about the art form. I once subscribed to three film magazines. I accumulated a fairly large private collection of film books. I also began paying close attention whenever a filmmaker or film actor was interviewed or profiled on television. All of it was an education for me, greatly informing my appreciation and understanding of cinema, past and present.
Mike ended up teaching film studies coursse at UNO. I took one of the courses and it was again a seminal experience, though not quite the revelatory rite of passage that his high school class had been. A fellow film buff friend and I would also sometimes attend private screenings Mike would hold at his home of some film he was passionate about us seeing. In that formative time in my young adulthood from ages 20 through 35 I more and more identified as a film buff and my circle of friends and I shared similar interests. In the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s I saw a whole lot of movies in theaters and on television – far more than I see today, though with Netflix I’m beginning to get back in the groove again.
I eventually evolved the SPO film series into a very different program that exclusively screened newer American and foreign films. many of them independent productions. We actually brought several films into town for their Omaha premiere screenings.
My efforts with the film series complemented and eventually supplanted my journalism studies at UNO. The assignments I wrote for class and for the UNO Gateway were not nearly as helpful to my development as a writer as were the many press releases and public service announcements I wrote and the brochure copy and film notes I wrote in support of the series.
Mike’s influence on me as a writer wasn’t as profound because that development came long after high school and even college. But thanks to Mike, I overcame my doubts and did follow his advice to study journalism. And if it wasn’t for that push, I would never have embreked on a career as a writer. My first real writing job was as head of public relations at the Joslyn Art Museum ,where fate reunited us because Mike ran a film series for the museum that I helped publicize. I also did some special film programming at the museum, including a Western film series in conjunction with River City Roundup. As my career transitioned into freelance writing, Mike continued to be an influence because I would attend some of the museum film screenings he presented and he attended some of the screenings I put on at the New Cinema Cooperative.
It was in the last year of the New Cinema Coop’s existence that we screened, on my recommendation, a student thesis film by a the unknown Omaha native and recent UCLA grad named Alexander Payne. His “The Passion of Martin” was showing at festivals around the nation and the world and getting high praise, not to mention getting him a deal with a major Hollywood studio. It was the first time I heard of him. We booked and exhibited his student film and five years later I did my first interview with him. Dozens of interviews have followed. 2017 will mark 21 years that I’ve written and reported about Payne and his work. During that time I’ve interviewed many other film artists from Nebraska and from well beyond Nebraska, including several legends and Oscar-winners.
Thanks to Mike, my cinephile leanings merged with my journalistic skills and I have since created a huge body of work that I have already turned into the book “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film” and that I intend to turn into another book about Nebraska’s Screen Heritage.
It took me a long time but I came to a point of ever more identifying as a writer and associating myself with fellow writers. I enjoy interviewing and profiling writers. Just as an exercise, I recently culled through my mental and digital files to chart the number of writers of all types I have interviewed and written about over the years. Though the list I came up was surely incomplete I was rather startled to find thatIi have made something like 75 or 80 writers the subjects of stories. Some of these writers I consider colleagues and friends and they include leading literary lights.
The blessing and curse that has been my life as a lover of films and words is something I attribute to Mike. I told him that myself just the other night at a book event I was a part of and he reminded me that we ultimately all choose our own path. Yes, but it does take someone to nudge or guide us onto or along the path. Thanks, Mike, for seeing something in me and giving me a direction to follow. I don’t know where I would be without these two constant passions coursing through my life. You helped me find dual magnificent obsessions that have enriched me and given me my livelihood.
Biga Signs “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film” at The Bookworm
From 1 to 2 pm on Saturday, Oct. 29 I am the featured author at The Bookworm’s Holiday Book Fair. I will sign copies of the new edition of my book “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film.” ($25.95)
Hope to see you at this great independent, family-owned bookstore in Omaha located at Loveland Centre, 90th & Center Streets
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”)
This labor of love project is the most comprehensive study of Payne and the culimination of 20 years covering the Oscar-winning filmmaker. Contains original articles and essays about Payne and his work, The book makes a great resource for film buffs, critics, filmmakers, educators and students as well as more casual film fans who want a handy Payne primer and trivia goldmine.
This second edition is from River Junction Press in Omaha and features new content current to Payne’s “Nebraska” and “Downsizing” projects and the addition of a discussion guide and index. Make sure to get yours in advance of Payne’s new film “Downsizing” promising to be the most talked-about movie of 2017.
Looking forward to signing your copy of the book on Oct. 29.
Let us know you’re coming by visiting the Facebook event page at–
Also available at Barnes & Noble, Our Bookstore, via Amazon and for Kindle.
Read more about the book and “Downsizing” at these links–
To all the writers I’ve loved before…
If you’re a longtime follower, then you know by now I like making lists. It’s not that I don’t have anything better to do, it’s just that it helps give my mind a focused distraction from whatever the real task at hand is, which is usually a writing project or two or three or four…Oh, well, you get the idea.
So, the other day I began listing out as many of the writers I’ve written about over the years that I could recall. I knew it would be a long list, but it turned out longer than I expected. I mean, it’s a very broad and impressive group of writers, some of whom don’t make their living as writers, But in any case they are variously journalists, essayists, poets, novelists, biographers, memoirists and in many instances combinations of these things. I interviewed them all and in most cases wrote profile of them as well. In some cases I quoted them as part of more general features related to their work or project or program. I enjoy speaking to and writing about fellow soldiers of the craft. Read their names below and see how many you recognize and if you’ve read anything by them. Most are Nebraska native or transplant authors but a fair number are not from here.
There are some Pulitzer, National Book Award, Oscar, Emmy, Tony, Poet Laureate and other writing prize nominees and winners among their ranks.
Before I release you to the list, please note that the names are not listed in any particular order – just when their occurred to me. And you can find what they spoke to me about and what I wrote about them and their work by visiting my blog, https://leoadambiga.com/:
Tekla Ali Johnson
Jo Ann Schmidman
Preston Love Sr.
Joan Micklin Silver
James Marshall Crotty
Betty Dineen Shrier
David O. Russell
Join yours truly and fellow area wordsmiths, along with keynote speaker Sam Ligon, for the MCC Creative Writing Forum on Friday, October 28 and Saturday, October 29 at Metropolitan Community College’s Fort Omaha campus. This all things considered writing forum is highly recommended for aspiring and emerging writers looking to navigate the process, publishing and business sides of the craft.It’s a chance to hear from and ask questions of veteran writers from different genres and mediums. Networking opportunities abound.
Hope to see you at the Writing for Local Markets panel I am a part of from 9 to 10:20 a.m. on Saturday.
Full event details, presenter bios and registration information can be found or linked to below.
|$45 Regular forum||Includes all sessions, hospitality and a copy of Sam Ligon’s book.|
|$25 Student forum||High school and college students. Includes all sessions, hospitality and a copy of Sam Ligon’s book.|
|$20 Friday only||Includes opening session, poetry slam and hospitality only.|
|$30 Saturday only||Includes Saturday sessions only and lunch buffet.|
More details and presenter bios can be found at here.
Online registration can be found at creativewriting.brownpapertickets.com.
Friday, Oct. 28
Mule Barn, Building 21
|6–7 p.m.||Opening reception: heavy hors d’oeuvres, cash bar, soda and water, networking.|
|7–8 p.m.||Reading and Q&A with Sam Ligon.|
|8:15–10 p.m.||Poetry Slam – coordinated by Matt Mason.|
Saturday, Oct. 29
Swanson Conference Center, Building 22
|8:30–9 a.m.||Check in, coffee, networking.|
|9–10:20 a.m.||Breakout session #1 (three sessions)
Young adult reading and Q&A
Lydia Kang, Tonya Kuper, Christie Rushenberg
Writing for local markets
Ryan Syrek, Kevin Coffey, Leo Adam Biga
Telling your (compelling) story
Liz Kay and Brett Mertins
|10:30–11:50 a.m.||Breakout session #2 (three sessions)
Tell me about your process
Stephen Coyne, Liz Kay, Tim Schaffert
Slam poetry, process and performance
Sara Lihz Staroska, Stacey Waite, Noni Williams
Writing to get paid
Lindsey Anne Baker, Danielle Herzog, Elizabeth Mack
|Noon–12:30 p.m||Lunch buffet and networking.|
|12:30–2 p.m.||General session
How to get published
Sam Ligon and Q&A.
Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film
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The work-in-progress page is devoted to my acclaimed book about the Oscar-winning filmmaker and his work.
“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)
The book sells for $25.95.
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Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Crossing Bridges: A Priest's Uplifting Life Among the Downtrodden," "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film" (a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker) "Open Wide" a biography of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, Leo Adam Biga's My Inside Stories at leoadambiga.com, is an online gallery of his work. The blog feeds into his Facebook page, My Inside Stories, as well as his Twitter, Google, LinkedIn, Tumblr, About.Me and other social media platform pages.
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