I’ve always been fascinated by the many film artists who have come out of my home state Nebraska to forge significant careers in and out of Hollywood. Almost from the very start of the film industry Nebraskans have played major roles in every facet of production. I mean, just consider this partial list of Nebraskans in film from the silent era through the present day:
Harold Lloyd, Darryl Zanuck, Ann Ronnell, Fred Astaire, Robert Taylor, Ward Bond, Henry Fonda, Dorothy McGuire, Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, Lynn Stalmaster, David Jansen, James Coburn, Sandy Dennis, William Dozier, Lew Hunter, Joan Micklin Silver, Nick Nolte, Swoosie Kurtz, Marg Helgenberger, Mike Hill, Monty Ross, Alexander Payne, Gabrielle Union, Patrick Coyle, Jon Bokenkamp, Nik Fackler.
Oscar winning cinematographer Mauro Fiore (Avatar) has made Nebraska his adopted state. Leading editor Tom Elkins, who will be directing a big budget horror film this fall, has made Omaha his adopted hometown.
I’ve never thought the state has done a good job of celebrating its film heritage. For example, few Nebraskans know that one of the most important filmmakers from the 1970s and ’80s – Joan Micklin Silver – grew up in Omaha and still has family here. Micklin Silver may not be a household name today, but her films Hester Street, Between the Lines, Chilly Scenes of Winter, and Crossing Delancey were among the best of that era and were all the more significant because she was the rare woman making features films then. Her work in the industry helped open doors traditionally closed to women.
She fought many battles to get as far as she did and took a hard, lonely path to get there as an independent. When Kathryn Bigelow won for Best Director at this year’s Oscars the first person I thought of was Joan. I called her and she expressed great admiration for Bigelow’s film and described it as a great moment for women in film and perhaps making it more possible for women to be viewed on equal terms with men in such a male-dominated field.
The following story appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com) more than a decade ago and is my attempt at putting Joan’s career in proper perspective. This long piece appeared more or less as is in an era when newspapers and magazines were more prone to running stories of length like this. Today, it would be chopped by a third or in half. Look for more of my Joan Micklin Silver stories in future posts. My blog also includes a story on Peter Riegert and his fine feature directorial debut, King of the Corner, which he also stars in.
Joan Micklin Silver, Shattering Cinema’s Glass Ceiling
©by Leo Adam Biga
Appeared in a 1999 edition of The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Aside from a brief golden time early this century and then again only until quite recently, the mere suggestion a woman might direct a motion picture was met with outright scorn by movie moguls. While Hollywood rewarded screen sirens and goddesses with huge fees and royal perks, it was loathe to share with women the reins of power men wielded behind the scenes.
It is only in the last two decades chauvinism softened enough for women to reemerge as a viable force behind the camera. Nora Ephron, Jane Campion, Martha Coolidge, Penny Marshall, Barbra Streisand, Jodie Foster, Mira Nair and Joan Micklin Silver are just a few of the directors shattering the cinema’s glass ceiling.
From the start women challenging the unwritten rule that directing is a man’s job were branded troublemakers or worse. How bad did it get? Just listen to writer-director Joan Micklin Silver, an Omaha native whose 1975 debut feature Hester Street, along with her later work, helped open doors for women in film:
“When I started, there were no women directing at all in the so-called industry. There were no women cinematographers. There were very few women producers, and the ones there were were usually partnered with a man. I actually had an executive say to me, ‘Feature films are expensive to make and expensive to market, and women directors are one more problem we don’t need.’ So, yes, it was that blatant. Unless you’re of a certain age you can’t quite believe it was that awful, but it was. I couldn’t get a job directing at all. At that time the only job I was suitable for in the industry was writing,” she said in a phone interview from her New York home.
The film history traditionally taught in schools has made it appear women played no significant part in the medium’s formative years. Not true. Sure, the one-time street peddlers-turned-dream merchants who transformed the flickers from mere storefront curiosities into must-see movie palace phenomena were men. And, like other industries, the movies operated as an Old Boys Network relegating females and racial minorities to narrowly defined roles on-screen and off.
But, it turns out, more than a few pioneers bucked the system.
Recent books, videos and CD-ROMs point to the vital contributions of such silent era women directors as Alice Guy Blache´, Nell Shipman and Lois Weber. Hardly household names, sure, but the point is, other than D.W. Griffith, Cecil B. De Mille, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Erich von Stroheim what influential male silent Hollywood directors can you name?
The sound era introduced many lady trailblazers but perhaps none more potent than Mae West, who scripted wicked double-entendres and personified sexual liberation in pushing the boundaries of film content. In the 1920s and ‘30s, editor-turned-writer-turned-director Dorothy Arzner helmed a diverse mix of films (Working Girls) for major studios. In the 1950s, actress-turned-director Ida Lupino made several hard-edged independent films (The Hitchhiker) for her own company before settling in TV land. Despite this proven track record, the directing ranks soon became a men’s only club. What happened? Well, consider that Hollywood was a brash, anything-goes town and the medium itself a still developing mode of expression unrestricted by social convention. In such a climate, coinciding as it did with the Suffragist movement, women flourished behind the scenes.
But with the dawn of talkies the movies grew fatter and more conservative. By the advent of wide screen epics and blockbuster pics, the stakes got ever higher, and thus, the keys to the kingdom fell into fewer and fewer hands. What few women filmmakers there were were confined to directing underground, avant garde or experimental work.
Then, taking a cue from the cinema-verite, guerilla-style approach of John Cassavetes (Shadows, Faces) and the maverick model of Ida Lupino, women like Shirley Clarke (Jason’s Story), Barbara Loden (Wanda) and Elaine May (A New Leaf) made their voices heard. In classic independent fashion each worked outside the Hollywood mainstream to complete personal features that, if not commercial hits, proved once again women could persevere to get their vision on-screen despite filmmaking’s inherent obstacles, especially the low budget variety.
Another turning point came when Joan Micklin Silver’s Hester Street proved an unexpected but unqualified critical and commercial success. The film, scripted by Micklin Silver and produced by her husband Raphael (Ray) Silver, takes a gritty, witty look at the Jewish immigrant milieu of New York’s Lower East Side, circa 1896, and features a Best Actress Oscar-nominated performance by Carol Kane. Unlike some period pieces that content themselves with depicting history in dull, flat terms, Hester Street sharply evokes the lives of a transplanted people at a particular place in time. Fourteen years later the filmmaker revisited the Lower East Side for the winning Crossing Delancey, only this time focusing on contemporary Jewish life and its intersection with old world traditions.
Informed by a strong feminist sensibility, Hester Street is really about the awakening of a meek, innocent emigre named Gitl (Kane) who, upon arriving in America, finds her husband an unfaithful scoundrel with no respect for her or their shared past. Torn between cherished old values and strange new ones, Gitl finds emancipation while remaining true to herself.
The idea of transforming one’s self without losing one’s identity is something Micklin Silver, 64, could readily relate to. “I’ve always loved film very much, and I wanted to make it in that field. I wanted to direct, but I didn’t want to be a man. I wanted to be a woman. I wanted to be myself,” she said.
Her deep love for the movies was first nurtured in Omaha.
“I grew up in the days when you’d take the streetcar downtown and see double-features for 35 cents. Those were still the days of stage shows (preceding the main movie bill). It was just marvelous entertainment. It really was. I remember those theaters in Omaha very well. The Brandeis. The Orpheum. I think I was probably most influenced by the traditional Hollywood films I saw as a kid.”
Among her favorite early moviegoing experiences were film noirs. “I remember very specifically a movie I saw then called Shadow of a Doubt. It’s a great Hitchcock film, and I can remember how terrified I was. I’ve always loved film noirs.” A genuine cinephile, she started collecting movies on videocassette in the ‘80s. “I still have a fantastic collection of them. I would say the best course in feature filmmaking is just watching films.”
Besides the movies, reading and writing held her interest. She attended Central High School (graduating in 1952) and Temple Israel Synagogue, writing sketches for school plays. Her departure from Omaha, at age 17, occurred right around the time her father died. She attended Sarah Lawrence College in New York State, met Silver, married, and moved with him to Cleveland, where he worked in real estate. She bore three daughters and in between raising a family continued haunting cinemas and began writing for local theater.
Inspired by what was happening in film at the time, including the exciting work of independents like Cassavetes and Clarke, Micklin Silver yearned to be part of this vital scene. But Cleveland offered little hope for launching a project.
“You need other people to make films with, and in those years there wasn’t much of a film community yet in Cleveland.”
Then fate intervened. She explains: “I was at a party for Carl Stokes, who was then a mayoral candidate in Cleveland. At that party I met Joan Ganz Cooney (a founder of the Children’s Television Workshop), who was writing the grant proposal for Sesame Street, and I talked to her about what I was interested in doing. She gave me some names, and one of those names was Linda Gottlieb (who went on to produce Dirty Dancing), then an executive with an educational film company. I met Linda and we hit it off. She gave me some freelance (script writing) work. Then I went to the head of the company and I said, “I want to direct as well as write’. He said, ‘Why, so you can make your mistakes on me?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ He told me, ‘Go ahead,’ and thank goodness he did. I wrote and directed, and Linda produced, three short educational films. They were like little features.”
One short subject dealt with immigration, and in researching the piece Micklin Silver came across the novella, Yekl, she would later base Hester Street on.
“Later, Linda and I formed a production company of our own. The idea was that I would write and she would produce and I would eventually start directing.”
Meanwhile, the Silvers moved to New York. With Joan’s properties laying dormant and no directing jobs in the offing, she despaired. Then, one of her scripts, Limbo, an anti-war story about the oblivion wives of Vietnam POWs and MIAs faced, sold to Universal Pictures and the studio brought her out west.
“A director there by the name of Mark Robson (Champion) wanted to do the film but he had a very different take on it. He saw it as more of a women-without-men kind of thing when it was meant it be a gritty look at the difficulties these women faced and the fact they really couldn’t get a straight story from the military as to where their husbands were or when they were coming home. I went out there and I explained how I felt about the film, and when I got back to New York I was told I was going to be replaced,” she said.
Despite being taken off the picture, she found an unlikely ally in Robson.
“Although I didn’t like what he did with my script, he knew I wanted to be a director and he invited me to come and spend any amount of time I wanted on the set. I spent about 10 days there for my first exposure to the Hollywood moviemaking apparatus…with all the cranes and dolleys and budgets. It was very helpful.”
She said seeing the process up close “emboldened me to come back to New York and to make films right away. I said to my husband, ‘I don’t want anybody else to do that to a script of mine.’ And I always remember what he said: ‘Go ahead, jump in the water. If you can’t swim now, you won’t be able to swim 10 years from now. This is your chance to try and find out.’ If he had said, ‘Well, what do you know about it? Why don’t you apprentice at film school first?’ I would have probably said, ‘Oh, yeah, you’re right.’ But he didn’t. He gave me support and a sort of permission to try.”
The Silvers developed Hester Street under the banner of their Midwest Films. Besides the novella Yekl, the guts of the film grew out of Micklin Silver’s Omaha childhood and her beguilement with the tales her Russian-Jewish emigrant family told of their coming to America — their crossing, culture shock and assimilation. Joan and her older sister Renee (who still resides in Omaha) are the daughters of the late Maurice and Doris Micklin.
Their father founded Micklin Lumber Co. Joan said her father, who was 12 when he and his family arrived from Russia, “had very distinct memories of coming over and what it was like to be young, excited and terrified at having to learn a new language in a strange country…and he told those stories very vividly.” Her mother, only a toddler when she arrived, had no recall of the experience, but her older siblings did and Joan’s uncles and aunts shared their memories with her during visits to the family’s Yiddish-flavored home.
“So many families don’t want to talk about the experience of immigration,” Micklin Silver said. “It’s traumatic. They want to become Americans as soon as possible and they want to leave it all behind them. But my family was of the other variety — that loved to tell the tales. I was always fascinated by all the stories they told. Of the people that made it. The people that didn’t. The people that went crazy. The people that went back. I remember sitting around the dinner table and hearing stories that were very funny and enjoyable and strong and interesting and serious. So I was attracted to those stories in the first place.”
Her immersion in those tales not only gave her the subject matter for her first film, but later informed her direction of the acclaimed National Public Radio series Great Jewish Stories from Eastern Europe and Beyond. Although not a Jewish director per se, she has often explored her heritage on film, most recently in the 1997 Showtime movie, In the Presence of Mine Enemies. Based on a Rod Serling TV script originally produced live on Playhouse 90, the film stars Armin Mueller-Stahl as a rabbi trying to hold his community and family together in the Warsaw ghetto of World War II. Mine Enemies marked the first time she dealt overtly with the Holocaust in her work.
In 1995 the National Foundation for Jewish Culture (NFJC) honored Micklin Silver with a Jewish Cultural Achievement Award in the media arts category, which she accepted in memory of her parents. Her fellow honorees included Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Arthur Miller.
Referring to Micklin Silver’s work, NFJC executive director Richard Siegel said, “In Hester Street and Crossing Delancey in particular she does something that very few other filmmakers have done, which is to look at the American-Jewish experience in some depth and with considerable insight, from the inside, as it were.” In her acceptance speech she explained how someone from such a goy hometown “could become so addicted to Jewish stories and characters.” She referred, of course, to the stories her family told “…dotted with a pungent Yiddish and much laughter at the human comedy of it all. Such were my introductions to the magnificent and terrifying history of the Jews. When I began making movies I was inevitably drawn to stories which had so much emotional weight for me as I grew up,” she said.
When, despite great reviews at festivals, Hester Street failed attracting a distributor, Ray Silver called Cassavetes for advice and was told: “Distribute it yourself.” Ray, who has described it as the “most significant call I’ve made in the film business,” released the film with help from Jeff Lipsky. Made for $400,000, it grossed more than $5 million — then-record earnings for an indie feature.
She followed Hester Street with two decidedly non-ethnic features (Between the Lines and Chilly Scenes of Winter) that fared well with critics but less well with general audiences. In the past two decades she has directed numerous features as well as cable films for HBO, Showtime and Lifetime. She has worked inside and outside the Hollywood system. She’s also directed for the theater to great acclaim (A…My Name is Alice). Along the way, she’s become a leading figure in American indie circles and a guiding spirit for the vibrant new women’s cinema scene, serving on the advisory board of the New York Women’s Film Festival.
“I used to make it my business to go to every film directed by a woman, just as a kind of show of solidarity” she said, “but I could not possibly do that now because they’re all over the place. They’re making everything from music videos to television films to feature films.”
Often sought out for advice by new filmmakers — male and female alike — she’s gladly shares her wisdom. “Of course, I’m flattered by it. I enjoy meeting with filmmakers and talking to them and comparing notes. They’re looking for almost any kind of help they can get that might help them get projects off the ground.”
More than most, she appreciates the progress women have made in film. “Absolutely. It’s great. Women are definitely in a better place today. Talented women do get opportunities. It’s not nearly as bleak a picture as it was.”
She attributes this breakthrough as much to women pounding at the studio gates long and hard enough to finally gain entry as to any contribution she and peers like actress-director Lee Grant (Tell Me a Riddle) made. Whether due to inroads made by these modern pioneers or not, once closed doors have undeniably opened. To wit, her daughters, who grew up on their mother’s movie sets, boast film careers of their own. Marisa has directed features (License to Drive), although these days she’s raising a family. Dina is a producer. And Claudia is a director with an acclaimed new short film (Kalamazoo) out.
Of her daughters’ following her footsteps, Micklin Silver said: “I think they all felt at home with the process and I don’t think they had an unrealistically rosy view of it all. They’ve certainly been aware of the various things I’ve gone through, but they’ve seen for the most part that I’ve enjoyed it and am proud of what I’ve achieved and am still at and so on. So, I hope they’ve been encouraged by it.”
Ironically, it took the doggedness of Micklin Silver and others to finally position women back in film where they had been decades before. Yet, even after the success of Hester Street, she still could not get Hollywood backing for her next project, Between the Lines (1977), which examines an underground newspaper staff’s struggle to balance their revolutionary zeal with dollars-and-cents reality. With its large, talented ensemble cast (John Heard, Jeff Goldblum, Lindsey Crouse, Marilu Henner), gonzo sensibility and free-wheeling look at office and bedroom politics, the story accurately captures its time yet remains utterly fresh today.
John Heard and Mary Beth Hurt from Chilly Scenes of Winter
A major studio, United Artists, did attach itself to her third project, Chilly Scenes of Winter, a 1979 film that steers clear of cliches in charting the ups and downs of a romantic relationship (the lovers are brilliantly played by John Heard and Mary Beth Hurt). Micklin Silver’s association with UA turned sour when, after completing the picture, the studio ordered a new ending (to a less ambiguous one) and a changed title (to the frivolous Head Over Heels) against her wishes. Apparently, execs deemed her achingly honest, funny and painful modern romance too offbeat despite the fact UA fully embraced Woody Allen’s “relationship” comedies Annie Hall and Manhattanand took a hands-off policy concerning them. Her critically praised film was a box office bust, but she ultimately prevailed when she got the UA Classics division to release her director’s cut in 1982.
A decade removed from the UA debacle, she finally danced with the studios again when her Crossing Delancey (adapted from the Susan Sandler play) was picked-up by Warner Bros. and when she was brought in as a hired-gun to direct two screwball comedies, Loverboy (a 1989 Tri-Star release) and Big Girls Don’t Cry (a 1991 New Line release), which she did not originate. While she enjoyed doing the latter two projects, she far prefers generating her own material.
“In the end it’s more satisfying to me to be able to make films that I just feel more personally,” she said.
Her most recent work, Invisible Child, is a new original Lifetime movie drama starring Rita Wilson.
Along the way, there have been many unrealized projects. Not one to dwell much on what-might-have-beens, she feels an even playing field might have meant more chances but considers her career a validation of women’s gains, noting, “Well, you know, one always feels one could have done more. But I’ve managed to make films for many years now in a field that was extremely unfriendly to women and to make the films I wanted.” She is quick to add, however, filmmaking is a tough field “for everyone. It’s extraordinarily competitive. There are many, many, many more people who want to be in film than there are jobs.”
Besides her gender, she feels her own idiosyncratic vision has limited her options. “I think that my own bent has always been that I want to make certain kinds of films, and they aren’t necessarily the films that are seen as Hollywood-type films.” Long attracted to exploring the complex give-and-take of intimate male-female relationships, she has created a string of serio-comic pictures that compare favorably with the work of the best romantic comedy directors in history. The romantic partners in her films are far from perfectly happy and, indeed, often flounder in search of equilibrium if not bliss, as in her 1998 feature, A Fish in the Bathtub, starring Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara as a Queens couple, Sam and Molly, whose 40-year marriage finally goes on the fritz.
“It (A Fish) falls into a special category of film I like very much — human comedy,” Micklin Silver said. “It’s real, wrenching and strikes a chord.”
Unafraid to tackle the silly, messy, chaotic side of relationships, she probes issues like obsession, desire, infidelity, possessiveness, loneliness, rejection, regret. Like the smart repartee associated with Lubitsch, Wilder, Cukor or Hawks, she delights in verbal sparring matches that deflate gender myths and romantic idylls.
In Chilly Scenes the single Charles (Heard) is lovesick over the unhappily married Laura (Hurt), whom he can’t forget despite her breaking off their affair. While still attracted to Charles she feels guilty at having cheated as well as smothered by his aggressive wooing of her. She tells him, “You have this exalted view of me, and I hate it. I can’t live up to this thing you have about me.” He pleads, “Why would you choose someone who loves you too little over someone who loves you too much?” She replies, “Because it makes me feel less of a fraud.” Exasperated, he can only think to say what he feels, “Oh, I’m going to rape you.”
Micklin Silver’s men and women are equally strong-willed and neurotic. Despite their flaws, the men remain sympathetic figures for risking love in the first place and for staying true to themselves in the process. That is never more evident than in Crossing Delancey, where Sam (Peter Riegert), the pickle man, patiently waits for the upwardly mobile Izzy (Amy Irving) to come down off her high horse and finally see him for the decent if unflamboyant guy he really is. The story is also very much about the uneasy melding of old and new Jewish culture and the conflicting agendas of today’s sexual politics. Izzy is the career-minded modern woman. Sam is the tradition-mired male. Each pines for affection and attachment, but are unsure how to get it. In the end, a matchmaker and bubby bring them together.
Peter Riegert and Amy Irving in Crossing Delancey
About the male-female dynamic in her work, Micklin-Silver said, “That is something I’m quite interested in. Why? I have no idea, other than a life lived, I guess. In my own life experience I had a really wonderful father who was interested in me and paid attention to me and to my ideas, and all the rest of it. And God knows I have a wonderful, supportive husband whom I’ve had three great daughters with. I haven’t had the experience of abuse by men, so basically what I’ve done is more observe the differences (in the sexes) than the struggles.”
She and husband Ray (a producer and director in his own right) continue to partner on some projects and to pursue others separately. Their Silverfilm Production company is housed in offices on Park Avenue.
Although she rarely gets back to her home state anymore, she did come to accept the Mary Riepma Ross Award at the 1993 Great Plains Film Festival in Lincoln. On that visit, she drove across the state and was reminded just how “beautiful” the endless horizons of far western Nebraska are. “I Iove western Nebraska. It’s just so beautiful. I love a landscape that’s long and flat, and where there’s so little in the middle distance that your eye goes on and on.”
A landscape reminiscent of that is the backdrop for a project she’s developing called White Harvest, which is set on a sugarbeet farm in far northeastern Colorado. Based on a book called Second Hoeing, it is a period piece about a young girl wanting to escape her tyrannical immigrant father. “It has a great feeling for the place. It’s also a wonderful love story,” Micklin Silver said.
If the project ever flies, it would realize a long-held desire to capture the Midwest on film. “I’ve always wanted to shoot something in Nebraska. It still hasn’t happened but I want so much to come back to that world.” There’s also a film noir script she’s been honing and still hopes to make. Next spring she is slated to direct a film adaptation of the Paul Osborn play, Mornings at Seven, for Showtime.
Ideas are what feed her work and her passion. “I’m never without something I want to do. It’s your life. What you’re doing…what you’re thinking,” she said.
Meanwhile, she’s excited by the prospect of a more dynamic cinema emerging from the rich new talent pool of women and minority filmmakers.
“Yeah, it’s going to be a much richer stew, and something all of us can enjoy.”
- Paramount Projects Revealed: Kathryn Bigelow to Direct Will Smith?, Movement on Jason Reitman’s ‘Young Adult’, and More (slashfilm.com)
- All eyes on the prize (variety.com)
- John Farr: A Woman’s Touch: Ten Great Films From Female Directors (huffingtonpost.com)
- Actor Peter Riegert Makes Fine Feature Directorial Debut with ‘King of the Corner’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Why I love Joan Micklin Silver (bookpod.wordpress.com)
- Yolonda Ross Takes It to the Limit (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Altman on Altman: A Look at the Late American Auteur Robert Altman Through the Eyes of His Grandson, Indie Omaha Filmmaker Dana Altman, and Other Cinephiles
I first met and interviewed Omaha film producer-director Dana Altman some 15 or 20 years ago. I always knew he was related to the great American filmmaker Robert Altman but it was only a few years ago I decided to delve into his relationship with his grandfather, and then when that great lion of auteurs passed away, I wrote this piece based on what Dana and other Omaha cineastes had to say about the late great master. Of course, the story is mostly about a grandson who followed his grandfather in the business, growing up on and later apprenticing on some of Robert Altman’s pictures. It’s an offbeat story and another link in Nebraska’s rich film legacy.
The story appeared in a somewhat shortened version in The Reader (www.thereader.com). By the way, Dana Altman is a key figure in the indie film scene in Omaha, where his North Sea Films is based. As a producer and mentor, Altman was behind two seminal projects that energized the local indie film movement: the 1990s Omaha (the Movie) and 2010′s Lovely, Still; the former by writer-direcor Dan Mirvish proved that a no-budget feature made here could make a splash on the film festival and home video circuit; and the latter, starring Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn and written-directed by Nik Fackler, may just be the film that puts Omaha and its emergent filmmaking community on the map.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Since the November death of filmmaker Robert Altman, cinema’s mourned the loss of a model for buck-the-system nonconformity and get-your-film-made-no-matter-what resolve. For Omaha native Thomas Schatz, executive director of the University of Texas at Austin Film Institute, Altman’s the reason he got into film studies. “It was immediately after a screening of McCabe and Mrs. Miller (Altman’s ‘71 revisionist Western) in the Dundee Theater that I decided to go to ‘film school.’ True story.” For home grown filmmaker Dan Mirvish, the man behind Omaha (the movie) and the guru of Slamdance, the late director embodied the indie spirit.
In an IndieWire tribute, Mirvish wrote: “Robert Altman was a huge professional and personal inspiration to me. He really defined what it means to be an ‘independent’ filmmaker in the sense we know it today. No matter how much acclaim and experience he had, he always struggled to get financing and distribution, complained about his agents, loved to get a great cast, surrounded himself with his real and virtual family of crew, and had a hell of a lot of fun while making movies. And he just kept doing it.”
For Omaha filmmaker and Slamdance co-founder Dana Altman the appreciation runs deeper. The grandson of Robert Altman, he worked on three of his grandfather’s films - Popeye, Kansas City and Cookie’s Fortune – and saw the making of others. He shared privileged moments with him on set and at his Malibu, Calif. home. The experiences gave him an insider’s look at the process of a legendary artist whom Schatz said exerted “massive” influence on “generations of filmmakers.”
“He was the auteur’s auteur – an authentic original, a visionary filmmaker and an uncompromising individualist,” Schatz said in an e-mail. “Altman favored densely populated stories with multiple, interwoven plotlines. He worked with ensemble casts and relied heavily on his actors for improvisation and naturalistic performances. Visually, his restless, moving camera and tendency to compose ‘in depth’ kept his myriad plotlines constantly moving and made unprecedented demands on the viewer. The sound tracks in his films were equally complex and layered, with multi-track recording, overlapping dialogue, ambient sound and canny use of music providing a perfect complement to his visual and narrative design.”
Dana Altman viewed it all from a familial and film perspective. In addition to producing Mirvish’s Omaha (the movie), he’s crewed on such features as Alexander Payne’s Citizen Ruth, Election and About Schmidt. He’s the owner of his own local film production company, North Sea Films. He and his fellow Omahans admired how the elder Altman always marshaled on despite battles with studio executives and struggles to find financing. How his idiosyncratic vision never wavered, not after critical-commercial failures, not even after a heart transplant he kept secret from the public. Up till the end he was still scrapping, prepping a new film at age 81.
“It was always difficult for him to find financing. It was always difficult for him to make films. But he would make a film a year, sometimes two,” Altman said. “Certainly the maverick. the last thing he would do is compromise his take or his decision about what picture to make or how that picture was to be developed. He personally took them on. They were his pictures through and through. I mean, he developed the idea for Three Women from a dream that evoked the oddest visual palette for the film. It’s like one oil painting after another. Every frame of the film is just so obscure and unique and beautiful and disturbing at the same time.”
Schatz said the filmmaker was the “consummate independent, who always made films his own way and on his own terms – even if it meant making movies on 16mm or in Europe or doing cable TV series. And it was always about the art.”
The grandson echoes many others in saying that any appraisal of the late great artist must conclude that among American feature filmmakers “his struggle and fight” with the system set him apart. “Orson Welles may be the closest counterpart to that same path. But no one else,” Altman said.
Mirvish recalled an exchange with Robert Altman that taught him a lesson: “I once saw him and referred to myself as a director. He asked if I was directing anything now. ‘No,’ I sheepishly said. ‘Well, then you’re just a guy who HAS directed,’ or something to that effect. The point is, just make the next movie. It’s great advice to all of us. An Altman tactic was to set the start date, believe you’re making the movie and get the train rolling. And don’t stop…”
“It’s about doing it,” Dana Altman said.
Mirvish, also the director of Open House, considered Bob a generous mentor.
“I met him several times over the years through Dana. He was a big help on Omaha (the movie),” Mirvish described via e-mail. “The first place we screened it was in New York at what was then the Independent Feature Film Market. The night before our big screening, he (Robert Altman) asked if it would help or hurt us if he came to the screening. We’d already shown him a rough cut. We said definitely it would help. Back in those days filmmakers were lucky if they could get five people to their screening. But as soon as Bob walked into the complex, he was like the Pied Piper…everyone in the building just followed him…We wound up with a packed house. Dana and I sat right behind Bob and about two-thirds through, he got up and walked out. My heart sank. I was afraid all those people would walk out with him. Thankfully, he just had to go to the bathroom and came right back in. Even though we would go on to play in 35 festivals around the world…in terms of industry attention, that screening was really the high point for the film. We definitely became the buzz film of the market.
“His influence on me was very prevalent on Open House, too. There was one particular conversation we had with him in New York as we were finishing Omaha…that was all about how he would shoot musical scenes with the actors singing live on set. So when we decided to do Open House as a musical, we basically did it using the Altman method.”
Dana said his grandfather “very much enjoyed Dan’s work” and took a keen interest in his own work as well. “He was very proud of my accomplishments. He never would talk specifically about the work beyond, ‘That was good.’”
Mirvish recalled how Dana asked his famous grandfather for advice. “When we first came up with the notion of Slamdance back in the fall of ’94, Dana…called up Bob and asked if we should forge ahead at the risk of pissing off Sundance. ‘Sure. Fuck ‘em,’ he said. And with that, Slamdance was born.” It wasn’t the last time Altman asked Bob, which is what he called his grandfather, for advice.
Dana was born in Calif. and raised in Fremont, Neb. His mother is Christine Altman Westphal, whose mother Lavonne Cubbison grew up in Fremont. It was just him and his single mom for a while, living as hippy-gypsies until settling down to small town life. He caught the cinema bug as a 15-year old props assistant on Popeye (1980), By the time he was transportation coordinator on Kansas City (1996) and props assistant on Cookie’s Fortune (1999), he was making features, TV spots and corporate image campaigns.
He’s not the only Altman who proved his cinema chops on Bob’s sets. Dana’s uncles, Bobby, Stephen and Matthew, served key camera, production design and art department roles on many of their father’s films. Aside from a few forays in her father’s early films, including a bit part in his first feature, The Delinquents, Dana said his mother “was never really in the machine of film” like her brothers were.
Although he bears the weighty name now, Altman broke into the business on his own, under his birth surname of Johnson, not by any association with his grandpa. He apprenticed as an editor at Universal Pictures in ‘89-‘90, helping cut such series as Columbo. Then, against Bob’s advice, he left L.A. for Nebraska, just a week short of getting his Editor’s Guild card. Why? Ironically, Dana said he was disgruntled with the old boys network that determined who advanced and who didn’t in Hollywood. He only changed his name to Altman after moving back to Nebraska and starting a family. He and his wife Deanna Lee Altman are the parents of six children.
He said leaving L.A. for Nebraska is “the best decision I’ve ever made.” He did heed his grandfather’s advice when Bob urged him to change his name.
“Bob and Kathryn called and said, ‘You should give your family some heritage.’ I fought it because it’s the same thing I hated about L.A. I was incredibly frustrated watching people come into the system based on who they were, not what they could do,” Altman said. “It’s about who you know and what your last name is, not how skilled you are. It was hard for me out there seeing how it operated and now people got in the game. That’s always been the fight…that I want to be good regardless of what my last name is. That’s the most important thing.”
It’s not that he isn’t proud of the Altman tie. He just doesn’t want people to think it opened doors for him. “I mean, I enjoy it,” he said. “I don’t take anything away from it. But when people ask me — How’s your work influenced by Robert Altman? - I don’t know. I may be blood from my mother’s side, but does that make me a great artist? Does that make somebody talented? I don’t think so. I see kids that have no family heritage in the business, and they’re better than I am.”
In the end, Altman decided to claim the name, he said, “as a way of giving my kids some lineage, some heritage, some history.”
Besides Omaha (the movie), Altman’s produced the horror flick Kolobos and the comedy Out of Omaha. He’s directed one feature, The Private Public, and hopes to “get around” to another. One time he wished he’d followed Bob’s counsel was when he put his own money on the line for Private Public, something he was told never to do. The film failed to recoup his own and other investors’ capital.
In addition to doing work for clients like the Metropolitan Utilities District, he’s preparing to produce the much-anticipated feature debut of Omahan Nik Fackler, the wunderkind director of acclaimed dramatic shorts and music videos. Just as Bob took young filmmakers under his wing, Dana’s known to do the same. Altman’s uncles Bobby and Stephen may fill director of photography and production design roles, respectively, on Fackler’s film, entitled Lovely Still.
As a kid living in Fremont Altman never really harbored dreams of a life in cinema. It was all too far removed. Not that he hadn’t been exposed to that world. In the conference room of his spacious North Sea Films studios at 2626 Harney Street, Altman shows you a framed photograph taken on the set of M*A*S*H (1970), filmed in California. The outdoor image shows his grandfather, resplendent in big game hunter attire, signature beard and mustache intact, standing and holding him at age 3, his mother beside them and actor Michael Murphy, a regular Robert Altman stock player, beside her. A tent is visible in the background.
The first set he actually remembers being on is that of McCabe. The pervasive mud and miserable conditions of that Vancouver shoot are what he recalls, along with feeding goats and being repeatedly warned to stay off the rickety bridge where Keith Carradine meets his demise in the film.
But it wasn’t until a quirk of fate that Altman got his first real taste of film work. It was 1980 and his baby brother, Wesley Ivan Hurt, had been born with the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck, pinching a nerve that paralyzed the right side of his lip into a kind of whimsical scowl, making him the perfect choice to portray the infant Sweet Pea in Bob’s film version of the “Popeye” comic strip. That’s how it is Altman went with Wesley and Mom to Malta for the making of Popeye. Once there, Dana found himself enlisted in the ranks of crew supporting the sprawling shoot, “as there was always stuff to do. That’s how I got into props,” he said.
Admittedly, the Felliniesque Popeye marked “a weird one to step into” for a first film crew gig. “Yeah, a musical Popeye,” he said with a wry grin. For starters, “it was a really big, big shoot. It was really far away, in foreign territory, in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea,” he said. “Robin Williams, Shelley Duvall, Paul Dooley, Ray Walston and all these fantastic people. You were kind of transported to this weird little place isolated from the world. That’s all you’re exposed to the whole time. So for ten months, you know, you’re living the movie. We basically shot it all in this cove. Every single piece you see was constructed for the purpose of the movie. Not one item happened to be there. When we showed up it was a big rocky cove and when we left it was a city – a city of Popeye.”
He said he fell in love with the whole apparatus of filmmaking “once I was there and I saw the process…building the sets, sinking ships out in the cove, building ships that had boxing rings on the decks. I mean, it was just insane.”
Seeing it all come together under the attentive eye of Bob, the maestro and orchestrater of all this “controlled chaos,” captivated Altman.
“How his discussions – hands pointing in all directions – in one brief moment could address lighting, movement, emotion, color, timing and whatever else needed to be addressed and corrected…” he said. “He would finish the next shot, go into another extraordinary litany of problems to be attended to. Over and over again this process would occur until his hands would fly into the air and he would yell, ‘That’s great…couldn’t be better.’ Watching, listening and trying to comprehend how this was possible is what initially got me thinking about filmmaking as a career.”
Fast forward 15 years, to Altman in his late 20s-early 30s and already a film veteran. He then sought out the opportunity to work with his grandfather. “I knew I wanted to work with him and so I just threw my name in the hat and said, ‘If there’s any task you can’t find the person for, then let me take a shot at it.’” His chance came onKansas City, Bob’s Great Depression-era, jazz-themed crime riff shot in Kansas City, Mo., where the director grew up the son of an insurance tycoon and got his start in industrial films. “Bob put me in charge of coordinating a $300,000 budget to maneuver and find and build all of the picture’s vehicles. I think we ended up with 250 pre-1934 vehicles. Sedans, taxis, police cars, ice trucks, motorcycles.”
He was given the same freedom his grandfather was known to give all collaborators.
“It was hands off. I loved that because it was truly a responsibility that was tasked to me and it was pass or fail, and failure was not an option,” Altman said. “So it was my opportunity. I would get it done and get it done well.”
His passing grade led him to Cookie’s Fortune, shot in Holly Springs, Miss., where he handled all the “personal effects” for characters, including finding an assortment of pipes, 60 in all, for the eccentric matriarch of the title played by Patricia Neal.
“It was my opportunity to learn what kinds of things were important to Bob from a creative standpoint of the scene and the surroundings that make up the characters,” he said. “Every item we were tasked to find and provide and have on set and in position in the scene meant something.”
As Altman found, any prop, even if unseen on screen, adds nuance to a shot. Without such details, he said, “something’s missing, something’s not right.”
Working on Kansas City and Cookie’s Fortune he watched with a more discerning eye how Bob directed. How he was “kind and cool, relaxed and confident, prepared to – explore.” Bob’s mastery of the set, the shot, the scene, never ceased to amaze him. His letting actors play and be the authors of the scenes. There were rehearsals, Altman said, but once cameras rolled Bob didn’t intrude. He respected actors and gave them great freedom to create.
“He would allow things to develop. He had a huge amount of confidence,” said Altman, who recalled how “Bob once said as were sitting next to the video assist, ‘I just let them (actors) do this part. My job’s over. I put all the pieces together. Now I just get to watch it unfold.’ He’d say, ‘Don’t act. Just be real.’ It’s like, Man, he has all this opportunity to really define what it is and that’s when he stood back to watch it unfold,” Yet there’s a reality to what ended up on screen, with the interplay of dialogue and people’s reactions and movements. I think that’s what amazes people. What he did in that string with The Player and Short Cuts, it freaked the system out how real it could be.”
Bob used his camera as an extension of his or the viewer’s eye, subtly scanning the action, letting shots plays out in extended takes. Dana said it was up to the camera operator to capture it all. It makes for a fluid, intimate style that can be uneasy for how invasive this sense of peering-in at private moments gets. “It’s very voyeuristic, that’s what it is,” Altman said. “It’s kind of like he lulls you in and allows you inside. And I think that’s exactly how it was for him when he sat in front of a monitor.”
For Dana, like many others, watching a Robert Altman film is akin to watching a play. “You always feel like the whole scene is right there in front of you,” he said. “He almost takes the shot exactly where my brain would want to go.”
Within this richly textured mis en scene, there’s the sense, as in life, anything or nothing at all may transpire. “In almost everybody else’s work you can kind of feel this structure – that there’s a written page somewhere and it’s either going to go here or here,” Altman said. “But with Bob I’ve never been able to guess what’s next. What the next line of dialogue or the next plot line is. You never get bored. Your brain’s on fire being a voyeur in this world. It’s life unscripted.”
When crewing, there were no long talks about theory or technique. “When I was working with him, it was work,” Altman said. “I was there to facilitate what he needed. Certainly he would define reasons why. Like our discussions about what type of vehicles or how many vehicles outside Union Station during Kansas City. He showed me photographs. ‘Here, look at these pictures, this is what I want to see.’”
Away from the set, conversations rarely turned to film. “We skipped over all that stuff,” he said. At moments like these it was a grandson and a grandfather talking about life, “just hanging out,” Altman said. “It was more personal.” Always, he said, Bob was easy to be around. “No matter what, he was accessible. I never found him to be this unattainable, untouchable great artist. I always saw him, you know, as grandpa.” It was the same way with “the great talents” he got to know on Bob’s sets, including Glenn Close and Julianne Moore — “the neatest lady I’ve ever met.” He said they didn’t talk shop, but about family. Or, in the case of Chris O’Donnell, they talked golf while Altman fruitlessly tried beating the actor on the links.
His grandfather’s sets were warm and personable. “He always created that environment where he was good to be around and you sensed the people he gathered were all together…like a family. They were cool. I’ve sensed that on Alexander’s (Payne) films as well. On other films I’ve been on it’s more of a job.”
Altman realizes he “was in a position other people would love to be in.” A part of him rues not talking more film with Bob. “It’s kind of like I missed out,” he said. “He was such a fantastic, world renowned figure who it’s rare to be in the company of.” But always, he said, duty and family trumped career or professional conceit.
One of the last times he saw Bob was in 2005, as the director wrapped A Prairie Home Companion in Vancouver, where 35 years earlier little Dana was sloshing through mud in galoshes on the set of McCabe. Altman’s wife and kids made the trip up north to visit grandpa on Prairie Home. Once again, family came first.
He said his grandfather was touched by the lifetime Oscar he accepted at the 2006 Academy Awards: “He told me he was very excited about getting an Oscar for the volume of his work rather than just one (film).” Altman was delighted the Academy saw fit to honor his grandfather “before it was too late.”
When news of his death reached him, Altman said there was little time to react as “it all happened quickly. No time really for a service. I took my wife and five of our six kids and it was just us family getting together for Thanksgiving at his house in Malibu right over the ocean. Some of us stood to speak our peace and say goodbye. I miss him already.”
NOTE: Dana Altman attended a February 20 memorial service for his grandfather at New York’s Majestic Theater. He plans to attend a second tribute on March 4 at the DGA Theater in Los Angeles. Robert Altman will be posthumously accorded a lifetime achievement award at the Spirit Awards on Feb. 24; in addition, the awards committee has created the Robert Altman Award, to be given out beginning next year to a film’s director and ensemble cast.
- ALTMAN’S “McCABE & MRS. MILLER” | TSY REQUIRED VIEWING (theselvedgeyard.wordpress.com)
- ReFramed No. 4: Robert Altman’s ‘California Split’ (Short Ends and Leader) (popmatters.com)
- Check it Out: Cookie’s Fortune (lawlibraryblog.seattleu.edu)
My most recent article on emerging filmmaker Nik Fackler makes no bones about his establishing himself a major cinema figure on the strength of his first feature, Lovely, Still, an Omaha-shot indie feature starring Oscar winners Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn. The pic is finally getting a general national release after having picked up a slew of admirers and awards at select screenings, most recently at the California Independent Film Festival. Watch for this film when it comes to a theater near you or plays on cable or wherever else you can find it, because it’s the work of an artist who will make his presence felt. As he prepares to make his next projects, I feel the same way about Fackler that I did about Alexander Payne when I saw his debut feature Citizen Ruth – that this is an important artist we will all be hearing much more from in the future. I look forward to charting his journey wherever it takes him.
Don’t be surprised if Landau and/or Burstyn net Oscar nominations for their superb performances. This piece originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com). Omaha is home to some serious filmmaking talent. Payne and Fackler are at the leading edge of a homegrown cinema movement here, and more figures are sure to emerge.
Nik Fackler, the Film Dude Establishes Himself a Major New Cinema Figure with His ‘Lovely, Still’
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
After what must seem an eternity, Omaha’s resident Film Dude, writer-director Nik Fackler, finally has the satisfaction of his first feature being theatrically screened. An advance one-week Omaha engagement of his Lovely, Still opens the new Marcus Midtown Cinema, Nov. 6-12.
The film’s box office legs won’t be known until its 2010 national release. Screenings for New York, L.A. and foreign press will give Lovely the qualifying runs it needs for Academy Awards consideration next year. It’d be a stretch for such a small film to net any nominations but the lead performances by Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn are so full and finely honed they’re Oscar-worthy by any standard.
Both artists strip themselves emotionally bare in scenes utilizing all their Method gifts. Their work is: dynamic, never dull; natural, unforced. Their behaviors appropriate for the romantic, comedic, dramatic or just Being There moments.
Nods for writing, direction, cinematography, editing and music would be unlikely but not out-of-line for this gorgeous-looking, powerfully-rendered, well-modulated movie that hits few false notes. The film pops with energy and emotion despite a precious storyline of senior citizens rediscovering first love.
The local creative class is well represented by Tim Kasher’s “additional writing,” James Devney’s strong portrayal of Buck, a lush score by composers Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott and dreamy tunes by Conor Oberst and other Saddle Creek artists.
It’s at least as impressive a feature debut as Alexander Payne’s Citizen Ruth.
An indication of how much Landau believes in Lovely and how proud he is of his gutsy star-turn in what Fackler calls “a showcase role that’s very challenging” is the actor’s appearances at select screenings. That includes this Friday in Omaha, when he and Fackler do Q & As following the 6:15 and 9:15 p.m. shows at Midtown.
Fackler’s at ease with the film that’s emerged. “I am very content, although it has changed a lot,” he said, “but I welcome all changes. Film is an ever changing beast. You must embrace the artistic transformation. To not allow it, is to limit it.” Much hype attended the making of the 25-year-old’s debut feature, shot in his hometown in late 2007. It was the first movie-movie with a real budget and name stars made entirely in Nebraska since Payne’s About Schmidt in 2001.
Ellen Burstyn and Martin Landau
Circumstances caused the film that generated serious buzz a couple years ago and then again at the Toronto Film Festival’s Discovery Program in 2008 to fall off the radar. Lovely producers turned down a distribution offer. They continue negotiations seeking the right release strategy-deal. Self-release is an option.
It’s been a long wait for Fackler to see his vision on screen – six years since writing it, five years since almost first making it in 2005, two years since completing principal photography and one year since reshoots and reediting.
“This has been the longest I’ve like worked on a single project for forever,” he said. “It’s really been a marathon.”
Anticipation is great, not just among the Nebraska film community that worked the pic. Whenever stars the caliber of Landau and Burstyn throw their weight behind a project as they’ve done with Lovely the industry takes note. That a 20-something self-taught filmmaker with only micro-budget shorts and music videos to his name landed Oscar-winning icons certainly got people’s attention. As did hanging his script’s sentimental story about two old people falling in love at Christmas on a subversive hook that turns this idyll into something dark, real, sad and bittersweet. Throw in some magic realism and you have a Tim Burtonesque holiday fable.
The two stars would never have gotten involved with a newcomer on an obscure indie project unless they believed in the script and its author-director. At the time Fackler lacked a single credit on his IMDB page. Who was this kid? In separate meetings with the artists he realized he was being sized up.
“It was really intimidating,” Fackler said of meeting Landau in a Studio City, Calif. cafe. “I was just super freaked out. I don’t know why. I’m usually never that way. But it was like I was about to meet with this legend actor to talk about the script and for him to kind of like feel me out — to see it he can trust me as a director, because I’m a young guy. We’re from such different generations.”
The two hit it off. Lovely producer Lars Knudson of New York said Fackler “aced” a similar test with Burstyn in Manhattan: “It’s a lot of pressure for a (then) 23-year-old to meet with someone like Ellen, who’s worked with the biggest and best directors in the world, but Nik blew her away. I think she called him a Renaissance Man.” Knudson said “it’s really impressive” Fackler won over two artists known for being ultra-selective. “They’re very critical. They’ve done this for so many years that they will only do something if they really believe it’s going to be good.”
Lovely producer Dana Altman of Omaha said the respect Fackler gave the actors earned him theirs.
Anyone reading the screenplay could see its potential. Besides A-list stars other top-notch pros signed on: director of photography Sean Kirby (Police Beat), production designer Stephen Altman (Gosford Park Oscar nominee) and editor Douglas Crise (Babel Oscar nominee).
But the history of films long on promise and short on execution is long. As Dana Altman said, any film is the collective effort of a team and Lovely’s team melded. On location Fackler expressed pleasure with how the crew - a mix from L.A. and Omaha – meshed. “Everyone’s on the same wavelength,” he said. Still, it was his first feature. DP Sean Kirby said, “Anytime you do something for the first time, like direct a feature film, there’s a learning curve, but I think he’s learned very quickly.” Fackler admitted to making “a bunch of mistakes” he “won’t make again.”
The subject matter made the film rife with traps. Take its tone. Handled badly, it could play as treacle or maudlin. Instead, it reads poignant and tragic, and that’s to everyone’s credit who worked on the film.
Then there’s Fackler’s penchant for going on fantastical jags in his work, routine in videos but risky in features. His loose approach, such as ditching the shot list to improvise, combined with the total creative freedom producers granted, meant he could play to his heart’s content, within reason. That can lead to self-indulgent filmmaking. Indeed, he fought and won the right to shoot trippy dream sequences that ended up on the cutting room floor. But some experimental lighting techniques to express tangled memories do make an effective motif in the final cut.
Following the mostly positive Toronto showing, the team reassembled for Omaha reshoots and New York pick ups. His leads supported the fixes and coverage.
“Martin and Ellen were behind it, they weren’t annoyed by it, they thought all the reshoots were going to make the film better,” said Fackler. “It wasn’t something that felt forced or anything like that. Everyone was on the same page.”
The young artist and his venerable stars established an early rapport built on trust. “We became friends,” he said. He readily accepted ideas from them that helped ripen the script and gave its young creator deeper insights into their characters.
“What’s great about Nik, especially at his age, is he’s willing to collaborate with people. It’s still his vision, but if it makes it better he’ll change it, he’s not afraid,” said Knudson, who said the script owes much to the input of Landau and Burstyn. “He’s very sort of ego-less.”
It’s all in line with Fackler’s predilection for creating a relaxed set where spot-on discipline coexists amid a way-cool, laidback sensibility that invites suggestions. On location for Lovely he exhibited the same playful, informal vibe he does on his videos: whether going “yeah, yeah” to indicate he likes something or pulling on a can of Moen between takes or doing a private, Joe Cocker dance watching scenes or saying to his DP setting up a shot, “Feelin’ good then? Then let’s kick ass!”
Fackler’s totally of his Generation Y culture, just don’t mistake his nonchalance for slacker mentality. He’s all about the work. He carved a career out-of-thin-air directing videos for Saddle Creek recording artists. His shorts netted the attention and backing of Altman. He cobbled together casts, crews and sets, often doing every job himself, before Lovely. He hung in there six years waiting for this moment, working at his family’s business, Shirley’s Diner, to pay the bills.
“If there’s ever a roadblock you can always get around it. It’s just a matter of taking the time…and not giving up. I wanted the roadblocks. I was like, Bring ‘em on, because I had a lot of ambition and I still do. I guess it’s just something that I always thought anything is possible. It’s like the naive child in me never left me. I love it. I try to get everyone else around me to feel the same way.”
It was in an L.A. editing room where the jumble of material he shot for Lovely finally came into focus.
“The film from script to screen went through a lot,” he said. “I tried every possible edit. That’s why we ended up editing two months more than we thought we were. But luckily, you know, everyone — producers and investors – were supportive of that process, They didn’t put that much pressure on me because they saw that the film was pretty good, they liked it, and so they allowed us to do it. I ended up throwing the dreams out all together because they weren’t working, and using the experimental lighting scenes because they ended up looking so good.
“I have no regret cutting things I shot. I love the film I have. I love cutting stuff. My philosophy while editing was to not be attached to anything. Once I lived by that rule, everything came free. What matters is making the best film possible, always.”
That mature-beyond-his-years attitude drew Altman to be his mentor. Altman, whose North Sea Films produced Lovely with Knudson and Jay Van Hoy’s Parts and Labor, credits Fackler for hanging in there and doing what’s best for the project, saying: “it’s taken a great deal of patience. Poor Nik, he really does want to see this get released.” Whatever happens, Fackler’s satisfied with what he’s wrought.
“I like to take children’s themes that anyone from any age can understand and then put them in these like really harsh realities of what life can be like. Lovely, Still is very much written to evoke some kind of feeling. It takes place during Christmas time and it deals with family and love. It’s multi-layered. For some people that may be a happy feeling and for others it may be depressing. Art is trying to create a new feeling you’ve never felt before. You watch a film and you leave the film feeling a new way. You may not have a name for the feeling, but it’s new.
“That’s all I can hope for.”
He recently collaborated with cult comic strip-graphic novel artist Tony Millionaire on a script adaptation of Millionaire’s Uncle Gabby. “I can’t wait to bring existentialism and poetry to the children’s film genre,” said Fackler. ”I’m also excited to work with puppetry. It will be like playing with toys! ALL DAY LONG!”
Altman, Knudson and Co. have informal first-look rights on Fackler projects.The same producers who’ve had his back on Lovely look forward to a long association. “Like Dana (Altman), we want to continue working with Nik and we want to create a family sort of, so he feels protected, so he can make the movies he wants to make for the rest of his career,” said Knudson. Radical, man.
Meanwhile, the Film Dude returns from the Sao Palo (Brazil) Film Festival in time for this weekend’s Lovely events. Then it’s back to imagining and waiting tables. Tickets for Friday’s event are $10 and available at www.marcustheatres.com or the cinema’s box office, 3201 Farnam St.
- Landau and Burstyn in Lovely, Still Trailer (screenhead.com)
- Film Fall Preview: Money, horses and death (ctv.ca)
- Spirit Awards 2011 predictions and Joel McHale comments (hollywoodnews.com)
- Winners Announced for 2011 Film Independent Spirit Awards (prnewswire.com)
- Canceled FX Boxing Show, ‘Lights Out,’ May Still Springboard Omahan Holt McCallany’s Career (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Yolonda Ross Takes It to the Limit (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Yolonda Ross is a Talent to Watch (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
This is the second of three articles I’ve written thus far on rising young filmmaker Nik Fackler, whose first feature film, Lovely, Still marks him a serious talent to be watched. I expect to be writing about him for years to come. The piece that follows, which appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com), charts his film first making a bit of a splash at the Toronto Film Festival. New footage was actually shot after those screenings up north and the film reedited. It has since played a number of festivals in the U.S. and abroad, generally to quite warm reviews.
NOTE: Lovely, Still is having its national release in September and October. Look for it at a theater near you, and don’t be surprised if one or both of its stars, Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn, nab Oscar nominations for their superb performances.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Lovely, Still’s selection for the Toronto Film Festival’s Discovery Program confirms the promise of its writer-director, Nik Fackler, is being fulfilled.
His romantic, melancholic debut feature shot last fall in Omaha culminates the young visionary’s coming-of-age ascent; one that began with his arresting short films and transitioned to cinematic music videos for Saddle Creek Records’ artists.
All signs pointed to this moment. Getting the support of veteran producer Dana Altman. Landing a William Morris agent before age 20. Doing his wunderkind thing with those ambitious, artful shorts/videos. Attracting interest from Hollywood royalty in his Lovely script, whose first draft he wrote in his teens; then having two Oscar-winning legends, Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn, agree to play the leads.
It’s off-the-hook stuff for anyone, much less somebody launching a feature career out of Omaha. Then consider he’s 24, entirely self-taught and harbors dreamy, idealistic notions about making art and overturning a system he says is “dying.”
In truth, he’s now part of the movie apparatus. Oh, he’s an indie spirit alright, dancing to a downbeat all his own. He retained creative control of Lovely, whose editing he had a close hand in. But now that he’s in-play with a commercial feature boasting above-the-title stars making its world premiere at a prestige fest, where its likely to garner a theatrical distribution deal, he’s poised to be a hot property.
We’re not talking sell-out but getting drawn further into the Hollywood sphere. Offers for studio projects may come if the film finds an audience or not. Fackler may or may not follow up with “a winner.” He may choose to remain off-the-grid, continuing to make small indie films in his own backyard. You get the sense he doesn’t much care as long as he gets to keep making films. His way.
Ellen Burstyn with Nik Fackler on the set of Lovely, Still
Making Lovely confirmed that. He recently looked back on the experience -with a mixture of wonder, appreciation, chagrin and recognition, the way any young man would after the whirlwind of his first great love subsides.
After living with this project for years – writing, rewriting, shooting, editing, morphing, and now making its public debut – what does he think about it?
“I’m very happy with the film. It’s an odd little gem in my eyes. It really has evolved, like any good project will, into something completely different than I expected. It’s the most satisfying part of the whole process – trusting in the magic of creativity and the movement of energy,” he said.
A strong visualist, he’s pleased with Lovely’s look. “The colors in the film all turned out the way we wanted,” said Fackler. “Sean Kirby (director of photography) is brilliant.” For months Fackler worked with editor Doug Criser (Babel) in L.A. Only recently the film was locked in Seattle for color corrections, titles-effects. Then sound mixing, additional dialogue recording and mastering was done in New York.
“I got to do some last minute cleanups and retouches, a rare opportunity I quickly jumped on. Nothing better then sitting with a film for months, being bugged to hell by a few problems, then given the chance to go fix those problems,” Fackler said.
Fackler, also a musician, thinks and talks about film in terms of beats. For him, it’s all about flow and pacing, improvising as he sees fit, yet never losing track of the whole composition. Much changed on set during the seven-week shoot.
“I’m a big changer of things, which will drive people crazy, but it has to happen sometimes because that’s the way art is. It becomes it’s own monster and then you just kind of gotta ride it. And once you change one thing it dominoes and you’ve got to change the way other things are shot.”
As Fackler found his rhythms, he said he often threw away the shot list, riffing new ones on the spot – both as a creative stimulus for himself and the project and as a practical solution to making his days.
“The first week was really following the shot list, blah, blah, and I was getting really bored and the next couple weeks was going off the shot list, doing stuff on the fly,” he said. “I mean, obviously some stuff I had planned out and didn’t want to go from. But with some of the dialogue scenes I shot them very loosely.”
He also indulged what he calls “special shots.” Hours spent setting up and filming highly “orchestrated” dollies meant cutting into the meat of the day, which forced him to resort to off-the-cuff, hand-held shots for other scenes. “I wouldn’t have enough time for anything nice.” Even though “it was pissing everybody off,” he said, “I wanted to get these special shots – they’re important. They describe me as a filmmaker and they’re right for the movie.”
Straying too far from an already short-production schedule makes crews nervous and he soon found himself reined-in by producer Lars Knudson. “He was like, ‘You’ve got to get back on the shot list because people don’t know what you’re shooting.’” Fackler complied but there were still times, by choice or necessity, when a single shot made do in place of multiple ones. An Old Market sequence slated for three days was truncated into one night. He needed more time.
Some of the biggest changes involved scenes where protagonist Robert Malone (Landau) slips off into fantasy or memory jags. Effects that were to have been achieved on a green screen were instead captured in the camera through imaginative lighting, art direction, camera moves, lens work and double exposures. “Old school stuff,” said Fackler. “I loved it.”
He said he made the call to nix much of the green screen work out of concern the film’s small budget would compromise the integrity of the effects. “It was too risky in my mind to do a big green screen shot that could end up looking like shit.”
An example of Fackler being open to discovery occurred when collaborators brought to his attention his obsession with doorways. That led him to using a door – built by the crew — as a symbolic portal that pops up throughout the film, in all sorts of settings, from the middle of a field to a street. whenever Robert’s mind flits in and out of reality. Those scenes appear in varied hues that key off colors in the door’s stained-glass window.
Setting up a night shot on Lovely, Still
Perhaps the biggest change was to the ending. “The last shot of the film is completely different,” he said, than the American Beauty-like reverie -complete with rose petals falling over a prosaic street – he scripted and shot. He said that in capturing a separate, smaller shot for another scene, one with a more dour tone, inspiration struck that “this is the end of the film, not that other shot. I talked it through with the producers and the actors. I showed them how it was going to go. ‘Isn’t this a better ending shot for the film?’ Everyone agreed.”
It went from being grand to simple – like how the film begins. “Now it’s a really gray, stark, static, quiet moment,” he said. Fackler said he tends to write in a big melodramatic style and then strips away or pulls back to get at the heart of things.
Part of this approach is staying in touch with the film’s internal rhythms.
“That’s what’s so fun about it,” he said. “That’s the magic. There’s a way the film wants to be made and you’ve got to listen to it. You just gotta go with it. If it needs to go in a certain way that’s completely different, I won’t deny it that. If I stuck locked into any one idea, that wouldn’t be fair. I wouldn’t be following the energy that’s leading me. I’m basically directing that energy. I follow it and then everyone follows me with it, and luckily everyone trusted me enough to do it.”
The experience of his first feature, he said, “was just a big learning curve. I’ve learned a huge part of it is adaptation. Adapting to the situation you’re given. There’s so many people involved and so little time that things have to change from the way they’re in your head. We coined the term ‘adapt and improve.’”
It’s also about embracing imperfections. “I love mistakes. I love when someone says the wrong line or a strange noise is made in the background. It makes the film more real to me. I tend to choose the takes that have mistakes in them,” he said. “It makes the film seem more human and not staged.”
Some gaffes can’t be kept. “You cut together a scene and say, ‘Shit! Why didn’t I a get a close up of that clock?’ We had a two-day reshoot up in New York to pick up some shots. All part of the process I suppose. Kinda fun. Something I don’t get to do as much in music videos.”
Editor Doug Criser worked alone in L.A. compiling an assembly before Fackler joined him in February. Fackler copped to secretly editing back in Omaha, saying, “Ideas come when I edit and I didn’t want to lose those ideas.” Together, the pair worked “scene by scene” through the film, making corrections and then Fackler finally got to watch the first cut. “Watching an assembly is just to hard,” he said.
A typical edit session went from 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., with Criser at the Avid and Fackler on a couch. Reviewing scenes Fackler said, “I would kind of conduct. We have a language we use with each other. ‘Hey, could you take some heads off that shot?’ (remove a few frames from the beginning). Or, ‘move it to the right (forward) or left (backward).’ Or, ‘We need to finesse that sequence (it moves too slow).’ To more detailed things like, ’We need to add a beat there to build some tension.’ What’s so fascinating about cutting is you’re adding moments that weren’t there.”
He reports that a preview screening for the cast went well. “They really loved it.”
After working with Landau and Burstyn he has a deeper respect for the actor’s craft. He knows now he can work with old Hollywood pros. But he’s still not comfortable with the business-trumps-art L.A. scene.
“I don’t agree with how art is turned into a product so much out here. It’s depressing.”
Plans for an Omaha screening are pending.
- Landau and Burstyn in Lovely, Still Trailer (screenhead.com)
- Film Fall Preview: Money, horses and death (ctv.ca)
- Yolonda Ross is a Talent to Watch (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- The Film Dude, Nik Fackler, Goes His Own Way Again, this Time to Nepal and Gabon (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Omowale Akintunde’s In-Your-Face Race Film for the New Millennium, ‘Wigger,’ Introduces America to a New Cinema Voice (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
I remember reading something about this wunderkind filmmaker in Omaha whose short films and music videos were all the rage. I finally met him and I was impressed by his passion and ambition. Then I read the screenplay for his first feature, Lovely, Still which he was then prepping, and its depth and imagination blew me away. Finally, I saw some of his short films and music videos, and they were much more accomplished than you would expect from a kid barely out of his teens and working on micro budgets.
The following story is my attempt at portraying someone I am convinced will be one of the world’s leading film directors in a short time, if he isnt already. The story appeared in a truncated form in The Reader (www.thereader.com) as he was finishing production on Lovely, Still, his made in Omaha feature starring Oscar winners Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn. The film had limited theatrical distribution in 2008-2009, but is finally get a general national release this year. Everywhere it’s played it’s gotten good reviews and been well received by audiences. I believe Fackler is well on his way to fulfilling the promise of greatness his work has shown almost from the start. And don’t be surprised if Landau and/or Burstyn pick up Oscar nominations for their superb performances.
Promising Writer-Director Nik Fackler Embraces His First Feature Film Experience
©by Leo Adam Biga
A shorter version of this story appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
There’s something subversive about a 23-year-old coming out of the music video world to direct Oscar-winners Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn in a serious indie drama about the passion an elderly couple feel. A postmodern It’s a Wonderful Life. As sweet as it is dark, Nik Fackler calls it “a fairy-tale, but told in the real world.”
Fackler is the most promising homegrown film talent Omaha’s produced since Alexander Payne. That’s a heavy comparison, but Fackler’s work has been turning heads for a half-dozen years. Whether his first feature is a fully-realized work or an unfulfilled promise remains to be seen. Will he have staying power? Nobody knows.
On the surface Lovely’s about dull, lonely, isolated Robert (Landau) finding love, for the first time, with worldly, vivacious Mary (Burstyn). She seemingly comes into his life from left field.
The subtext of the original story contains funny, hard, ironic realities dramatized in stark relief and in dreamlike scenes that remind one, on the page at least, of Tim Burton-Terry Gilliam phantasms. These light-dark interludes play off the confused mind of Robert, whose grasp of reality is fragile. The mystical montages will be shot inside and outside North Sea Films, an Omaha film-video production house.
Lovely’s key crew – from director of photography Sean Kirby to production designer Stephen Altman – are Hollywood/indie veterans with the chops to pull off effects in-camera and on North Sea’s green screen.
The part of Robert demands Landau play a full gamut of emotions – love, desire, fear, anger, loneliness, confusion, joy, innocence, distrust, paranoia. Fackler said the “showcase role” is “very challenging.” Burstyn’s character must react to Robert’s wild swings; and her performance is tinged by the potent secret her character Mary keeps, and the delicate balance she maintains to preserve it.
Seldom have “seniors” been given such complex dimensions on film. Then there’s the much hushed-hushed hook or high concept the story turns on. This has to do with the secret, the well-intended ruse to preserve it, and ensuing fallout when the deception backfires with unforeseen consequences.
Now in its fourth week of production in and around his hometown, Lovely could be a coming out party for Fackler. He previously made waves only in indie music circles. This $1.2 million-budgeted project with high cachet actors in Oscar-friendly roles could put him on a fast track to a major filmmaking career.
“The great thing about Lovely, Still is that it is sort of under the radar,” Knudson said. “Because Nik is in Omaha, not in L.A. or New York, people don’t really know who he is yet and I think that’s going to be really good for this film. It’s going to come out and hopefully just blow people away.”
Even though Fackler’s barely in his 20s, Lovely’s a long time in the making. He first wrote it in his teens. It came close to shooting in 2005, but financing wasn’t secured until this past year through New York investors Knudson and Van Hoy have a history with. Fackler’s waited five years and there were, Altman said, “crying times.”
“A lot of independent films I’ve produced have taken four-five years and it’s frustrating, it’s difficult,” said Knudson, whose Old Joy did well on the indie circuit. “You just never give up and then one day you make it. But I think Nik’s glad he’s doing it now and not two years ago. I think he’s ready now. Going through all the bad times has actually made him that much stronger. The timing is right.”
On location in mid-November Fackler expressed satisfaction with how the crew - a mix from L.A. and Omaha – were meshing. “Everyone’s on the same wavelength – that’s why it’s turning out great,” he said. Still, it’s Fackler’s first feature. DP Sean Kirby said, “Anytime you do something for the first time, like direct a feature film, there’s a learning curve, but I think he’s learned very quickly…” Fackler said, “I made a bunch of mistakes the first day I won’t make again…”
Vision outweighs inexperience, Kirby said. “I think he’s a visualist,” said Kirby. “One of the great things about film is that it really is a kind of age-less art form. The vision is something that is outside of age, and he has a vision we’re all trying to support. That’s why we’re all here”
Fackler’s passion and vision sold Knudson and Van Hoy on him. It’s what sold Fackler to Saddle Creek Records artists, for whom he’s made music videos, and to the William Morris Agency, which represents him.
“Nik is one of those guys we fell in love with after seeing his stuff,” said Knudson, whose business partner, Van Hoy, is currently producing the feature Going Underground in New York. Altman, who long ago spotted Fackler’s talent, spent four years packaging Lovely before finding the right fit in Knudson and Van Hoy, who learned the business under Scott Rudin and now produce indie work by writer-directors with a strong personal vision. “Lars and Jay came at the perfect time. The film is set up now in the best possible scenario… because this is what independent film is,” Altman said. Fackler retains ultimate “creative control” on Lovely, said Knudson, adding, “that’s a rare thing.”
“The thing that’s cool about this is how much control I have over it and I think filmmaking should be that way,” Fackler said. “I think any artist should be in complete control of their project.”
Last winter Fackler expressed frustration when plans to shoot Lovely were again delayed. He even toyed with the idea of, in the interim, making a down-and-dirty thriller with a grindhouse gimmick, but then Lovely finally got the go-ahead. Even then, Lovely almost didn’t get made here. Nebraska’s lack of incentive earmarks for film production gave investors pause before they relented.
The fact it took some time before the film came together turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The script’s undergone many changes since Fackler first wrote it, reflecting his maturation from boy to man.
“I’ve been rewriting this script every year – driving people nuts with it – because I keep changing,” he said. ” I was a completely different person when I first wrote it at 18. I go back and read the first draft and I‚m like, ‘Oh, it’s sophomoric.’ You learn more, you experience more, you feel more – and you take advantage of that and then put that in your art. So it’s good it took five years to get this film made.”
Knudson said the script has been made stronger “with the help of a lot of different people.” Fackler said the final script does retain the fairy-tale quality he intended from the start: “I like to take children’s themes that anyone from any age can understand and then put them in these like really harsh realities of what life can be like.”
“It starts really dark, so it will be shot really dark,” Fackler said. “Lots of shadows and blues. And then as it gets happier I want to literally change the color of the film. Like even the same locations change brightness and color ˜ they become fairy-taley – just to set a different tone. Then it gets darker than it was before and then gets kind of happy again before it ends in the real world.”
As far back as the shorts Jack and Jill and Mynoot Loss he’s explored the dark side. “I don’t know why it is for me that it’s so much easier to be dark than it is to be happy,” he said. “I haven’t had any problems. I had a great childhood -that’s why I’m actually like stuck in it. It’s like I don’t want to be a dark person but it’s in there, so I have to get it out somehow, and it breaks out in my art. Maybe it’s because I had people kill themselves around me. That was part of growing up.”
He refers to his late friend Erin, to whom Jack and Jill is dedicated. “She took her own life and it kind of stuck with me. I was 17,” he said. He put down what he felt in words. “Whenever I’m feeling really angry I can write it out of me. I think it’s therapeutic. But also I use it as a creative tool. Like when I was writing Lovely, Still the emotions I was feeling in the relationship I was in I put into the characters.”
After years trying to get Lovely made, frustration nearly drove him to a big-budget studio deal to do a “creature feature” flick.
“I had the contract. I was seconds away from making money. Real money. Money I could buy a house with. But I had to follow my gut,” he said. “I had to stick to my guns. Just because I’m broke I can’t jeopardize the last four years. I owe it to myself.”
Another benefit of waiting was landing Burstyn and Landau. Burstyn, Best Actress Oscar-winner for Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, has six Academy nominations. She co-directs the Actors Studio in New York. Landau, who goes back to the Studio’s heyday in the ’50s, when he and fellow student James Dean were fast friends, has taught acting for decades and directs the Actors Studio West. He won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Ed Wood, one of his three Oscar nominations.
We’re talking actors old enough to be Fackler’s grandparents. Actors who’ve worked with icons — Hitchcock, Mankiewicz, Bogdanavich, Friedkin, Coppola, Scorsese, Allen – Fackler only knows via Net Flix or dusty film books. But directing these 70-somethings doesn’t seem to phase him. That’s in keeping with his free spirit, one that won’t be shackled or censored, even around film royalty.
A Monday morning shoot at the French Cafe finds Fackler in sneakers, jeans, sweatshirt and whimsical Dr. Seuss stocking cap. He variously: grooves to some internal beat between takes on set, swaying his tall, lithe body like a snake charmed into dance; hums-sings some song lick; skips between the open spaces in the dolly track on the floor; and affects a ridiculous Italian accent with Landau, who takes it up in kind, adding a mob edge to his mock dialect.
Martin Landau with Nik Fackler
Standing to watch a take unfold on a tiny monitor, Fackler rocks up and down, hands hung at his side, fingers twitching. As Landau-Burstyn complete the intimate dinner scene at the Cafe, a finely nuanced moment lit by candlelight and framed against a stained glass window, the filmmaker raises both arms overhead and, like a conductor, swoops his hands down with finality, declaring, “Cut!” He’s pleased.
The uninhibited, childlike quality of Fackler keeps his sets relatively loose.
“He’s very sort of ego-less,” Knudson said. “He’s just as excited talking to someone on the crew or to a random guy on the street as he is talking to Martin (Landau). He brings the same energy.”
There’s no mistaking how much is on the line with this project, however.
“Our budget is over a million dollars – that’s a lot of money to be giving a guy who just turned 23 and is directing his first feature,” Knudson said. “As a first-time director you have a lot against you already because you haven’t proven yourself at all. That’s a lot of pressure to put on him.”
Fackler doesn’t show it.
“If you’re going to be a good director you can’t ever be stressed out or ever be intimidated because you have like a whole crew and cast around you looking to you for what to do. You definitely can’t fold,” Fackler said.
That required exterior doesn’t rule out internal explosion, “which happens all the time,” he said.
He admits he was intimidated the first time he met Landau and Burstyn, who sized him up. When the actors first expressed interest in the script, each took a meeting with the artist without a single credit to his name on his IMDB page. Who is this guy?
“It was really intimidating,” Fackler said of his meeting with Landau in a Studio City, Calif. cafe. “I was just super freaked out. I don’t know why. I’m usually never that way. But it was like I was about to meet with this legend actor to talk about the script and for him to kind of like feel me out — to see if he can trust me as a director, because I’m a young guy. He’s got to respect me to do what I say and I’ve got to show him the respect he deserves. We’re from such different generations.”
The two hit it off. Knudson said Fackler “aced” a similar test with Burstyn in New York: “It’s a lot of pressure for a 23-year-old to meet with someone like Ellen, who’s worked with the biggest and best directors in the world, but Nik blew her away. I think she called him a Renaissance Man.” Knudson said “it’s really impressive” that Fackler won over two artists of such caliber. “They’re very critical. They’ve done this for so many years that they will only do something if they really believe it’s going to be good.”
The fact Fackler attracted these heavyweights is proof “the kid,” as Landau refers to him, has the right stuff. That two veterans liked the story and its young creator enough to entrust him with directing the piece and them in it tells you there’s substance behind his slacker’s facade. That Fackler has been, in Landau’s words, “amenable” to notes he and Burstyn feed him in order to smooth “the bumps” in the script, shows the kid is no fool.
“What’s great about Nik, especially at this age, is he’s willing to collaborate with people. It’s still his vision, but if it makes it better he’ll change it. He’s not afraid,” said Knudson, who confirmed the script owes much to the input of the lead actors.
Fackler said Landau made comments like, “‘I think this still sounds a little young in this area.’ And I was like, ‘Alright, let’s fix it.’ Definitely a collaborative effort. He was kind of a mentor for a month straight. He taught me stuff. I just took notes listening to him.”
The same with Burstyn, who honed in on “really simple, really small things,” Fackler said. “Like the opening line of the script got changed just a little bit because she thought it” contradicted the secret revealed near the end. “She wanted to make it even more obscure.”
With his long, cherubic face, piles of brown hair and pseudo-grunge wear, Fackler looks and sounds like the Generation Y child he is. One who became a filmmaker by just doing it. Gen Y is into affordable audio-video technologies that make music-film production accessible.
“Our generation is like the-do-it-yourself generation – you can do whatever you want,” he said. “Like, if you want to make a record, you can do that now where you couldn’t really do that years ago. The same with film. That’s the whole thing with digital, man. Anyone can make a film. Independent projects are so possible.”
Every project before Lovely was an exercise in stretching himself creatively.
“I kind of just kept setting goals. Each project had to be something completely different for me – a new experiment,” he said. “I get bored easily with stuff but filmmaking hasn’t got boring yet and that’s because there are infinite possibilities with what you can do. It’s an experimental art.
“There’s a solution to every problem that’s put in front of you, and if there’s ever a roadblock you can always get around it. It’s just a matter of taking the time…and not giving up. I wanted the roadblocks. I was like, Bring ‘em on, because I had a lot of ambition and I still do. I guess it’s just something that I always thought anything is possible. It’s like the naive child in me never left me. I love it. I try to get everyone else around me to feel the same way.”
His Lovely crew is comprised in part by friends who go back with him on his many shorts and videos. They’ve been through production wars together, meaning they’re comfortable solving problems.
Lovely came out of this desire to explore new ground.
“I did a lot of shorts about young people,” he said. “I didn’t want to get stuck being a young director doing films about young people.”
Enter Shirley’s Diner, a classic Millard eatery owned and operated by his artistically-inclined parents, Denise and Doug Fackler. It’s where Nik researched Lovely, hanging out with older patrons, getting a sense for “what it’s like to be a human at that age,” he said. “I talked with a lot of older people. That helped. I figured out a way he [Robert] words things. He’s based on a real person I talked to at the diner. He’s a bagger at a grocery store who doesn’t talk to anyone. Everyone kind of treats him like a kid. They all take care of him. That’s kind of Robert. He does’‚t have a lot of experience having feelings. He’s really awkward. He doesn’t like to talk to people. He’s scared of interaction. He’s not happy, he’s not sad – he’s kind of neutral.”
The diner Nik’s family owns and operates and that he often worked at and found inspiration at for his films
Creativity is a family thing with the Facklers. “Art was always just kind of around,” he said. “It was in front of me, it was normal, so I guess I just kind of fell into it that way.” When not immersed in video games, he wrote by himself or as part of a family activity. “That was just fun stuff we did. It would be like, ‘Let’s write a book tonight,’” he said. Acting, staging, later filming, his own scenarios became playtime.
Both his parents play music. Doug also makes photographs and Denise writes, including a book-in-progress that tells the stories of people who venture through the diner, where Nik worked as recently as last summer. “My mom’s under the firm belief, and I agree with her, that everyone has a story,” Nik said. “I mean, everyone’s interesting. That’s what’s cool about the diner – you have an unlimited amount of characters you can learn from.”
Fackler didn’t formally study cinema, or even attend college, although he landed admittance to the Los Angeles Film School at 16. He chose instead to forego commercial influences.
“That would have sucked, you know, directing Scary Movie V or something. Well, who knows what would have happened. All I know is I would have heard the same thing that a roomful of people would have learned. I don’t want to be taught an art. I want to like fall into an art and just let it happen. It’s an adventure, it’s an experience – each new thing.”
“I really want to try to be different. Every generation wants to do that and that’s why things change. So I just want to make sure I’m not rehashing the past.”
Fackler is intrigued with the idea of eliciting new emotions through his art. “Lovely, Still is very much written to evoke some kind of feeling. It takes place during Christmas time and it deals with family and love. It’s multi-layered. For some people that may be a happy feeling and for others it may be depressing. Art is trying to create a new feeling you’ve never felt before. You watch a film and you leave the film feeling a new way. You may not have a name for the feeling, but it’s new. That’s all I can hope for…”
Except for brief forays in L.A. Fackler developed his craft right here. He began making short films at Millard West, along the way finding a mentor in Altman. With Altman’s help, Fackler graduated from low-end to high-end film-video production and became a much-in-demand director for Saddle Creek artists, among them, Conor Oberst, who’s scoring Lovely.
About that comparison with Payne. They followed quite different paths to their first feature films. Payne graduated Stanford before going to film school at UCLA, where he directed a thesis project that got him a studio deal. Fackler’s thesis projects are the shorts/music videos he dreamed up and made.
Despite a development deal, nearly a decade passed before Payne put together his first feature, Citizen Ruth. In the interim he wrote and directed shorts for the Playboy Channel. By the time he made Ruth Payne was in his mid-30s. Fackler is that rare animal who’s gone right from homemade, no-budget work to a substantial indie feature with a dream cast. He’s arrived, by a self-made route, at the same point Payne reached with Ruth, only 12 years earlier.
As a filmmaker, Fackler emphasizes the influence of his background in music, as a writer and musician in Family Radio.
“Music creates images. It totally does. I’ve been at points where I made the characters argue just because a song I was playing started getting more intense,” Fackler said. “The music writes it for me. That’s the same with editing. When I’m editing I like to put a song down online and edit to it. Music is very, very important. Film has a rhythm it cuts to and falls to.”
Fackler wants to make more films in Omaha, and is avoiding the Hollywood glam machine. He wants to make his next film from a fantasy script he and Matt Brown co-wrote. ”It’s going to be a bigger budget” show, so if Lovely, Still does well I think I can get a studio to trust me – if I want to go with a studio. I don’t really care either way as long as they let me do what I want.”
“I’m not very snobby about film,” he said. “Like I know how it works. It’s a business just like anything else. The thing is just doing it, and if you can manipulate the business and still keep it art, then go for it.”
He and a friend are pitching an animated television series to studios. There is high interest.
Meanwhile, the producers who have his back on Lovely, Still look forward to a long association. “Like Dana (Altman), we want to continue working with Nik and we want to create a family sort of, so he feels protected, so he can make the movies he wants to make for the rest of his career,” Knudson said.
- Landau and Burstyn in Lovely, Still Trailer (screenhead.com)
- Spirit Awards 2011 predictions and Joel McHale comments (hollywoodnews.com)
- Winners Announced for 2011 Film Independent Spirit Awards (prnewswire.com)
- Director Sidney Lumet dies at 86 (jta.org)
- Yolonda Ross Takes It to the Limit (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Yolonda Ross is a Talent to Watch (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)