Filmmaker Steve Lustgarten Proves He Can Come Home Again
The first film story I ever had published was about an Omaha native filmmaker not named Alexander Payne. That may come as a surprise to those of you familiar with this blog and my work as a film journalist who has long covered the Oscar-winning writer-director. No, the profile subject of that first film piece was Steve Lustgarten, who left here a number of times going back to the 1970s, searching for his creative mojo outlet and finally finding it after several fits and starts as a largely L.A,-based indie producer-writer-director. I wrote this piece more than 20 years ago on the occasion of his coming back to shoot an action feature in his home state that had the working title of Homefires Burning but that eventually got released as Power Slide. Lustgarten had previously generated some buzz with his Student Academy Award-winning feature American Taboo. His returning to make Homefires/Power Slide was a big deal in 1989 because of the paucity of films made here, especially by homegrown filmmakers. This was some years yet before Payne began making movies in Omaha (Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt). Interestingly, Lustgarten chose Plattsmouth, Neb., a small town in the far southeast corner of the state, to shoot in and that’s also where Sean Penn decided to film The Indian Runner just a couple years later. Lustgarten had a slate of films he wanted to make after Homefires/Power Slide but while he did direct again he largely transitioned into being a distributor of low budget films, ranging from festival art pics to exploitation genre pics, through his Leo Filns. It’s not surprising given the fact he came out of the Roger Corman school of filmmaking and never really worked in the mainstream Hollywood industry. My 1989 story made much of the fact that this wanderer and prodigal son had returned to film on his home turf and that the storyline of his picture centered on a protagonist who also returns home. In reality, as soon as the film was completed Lustgarten left Nebraska for L.A. again and pretty much stayed away until a few years ago, when he relocated Leo Films here. As soon as he moved here however the state of Iowa suspended the film incentives program that enticed him to relocate in the first place. He does corporate, commercial, and doumentary work while waiting for a feature project to materialize. He appears set to stay here this time and perhaps the Nebraska Legislature‘s recent passage of film incentives makes launching a film more practical than before.
You’ll find many more film stories on this blog.
In an interesting twist, Lustgarten’s running for the U.S. Democratic Senate seat that retiring Ben Nelson will be vacating and the political noivice is going up against contenders he surely has no chance against, including former Senator and Nebraska governor Bob Kerrey. Then again, Lustgarten’s been fighting the odds all along as a filmmaker and distributor and somehow making that work for him for the better part of 30 years.
Filmmaker Steve Lustgarten Proves He Can Come Home Again
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the Omaha Metro Update
It’s an apt description of Steve Lustgarten, an itinerant artist whose wanderlust has uprooted his native Omaha ties the past 20 years. While always returning here, Lustgarten invariably gravitates to the West Coast, where he makes films.
His most recent homecoming is causing quite a stir because this prodigal son has brought back a slice of Hollywood with him. The 38-year-old is the producer-writer-director of Homefires Burning, a feature-length dramatic film shot entirely in Nebraska this fall. Filming began October 13 and is wrapping up this week.
“I think this is one of the first indigenous movies to be made here,” he said. “We have all local actors and primarily a local crew.”
Besides keeping costs down by using local talent, he explained that filming in the state offered the scenic harvest landscapes the story required. “I think it’s a beautiful area in the fall and I always wanted to shoot here. I’m really into beautiful visuals.”
The principal filming location was in and and around Plattsmouth, Neb. “Plattsmouth is a truly old pace and that’s what drew me to it,” he said. “Everything we shot has a sense of time passing. The thematic part of the film is about history and time, and that area just resonates with it.”
Last week’s snow caused a delay in production, pushing the film over its six-week shooting schedule with three outdoor scenes left.
“We’ve been running around Plattsmouth trying to find one tree with leaves left on it because this is a fall picture.”
To avoid cost overruns on his less than $200,000 budget Lustgarten released most of the crew last week. He and a skeleton crew are filming what remains of the picture. Overall, he said he’s captured what he came here for. “We shot some great photography.”
Since any movie made in Nebraska is still a novelty Homefires and its native son creator have received much attention. For all the hoopla though Lustgarten seems unpretentious about the whole business. Perhaps he sees irony in coming home after a long absence to find himself lionized.
“It’s the first time I’ve been home for any length of time since 1978.”
Although he’s bounced up and down the West Coast he’s mostly lived and worked in Los Angeles the last five years. Since coming back last spring to raise money for Homefires he has lived with his parents at their northwest Omaha home.
His appropriately titled film concerns a man who after years away returns to his Nebraska roots only to find things changed – the past irretrievably lost. The protagonist is Kyle, a professonial race car driver who’s a celebrity in how small hometown for past exploits. He returns tired, down-and-out and no longer able to connect with old friends.
“Eighty percent of it’s about Kyle’s relationships with people he left behind, how they changed, and what it’s like to try and go back.”
Lustgarten said his own comings and goings from home have lent the film some autobiographical weight. “The most autobiographical element s the whole idea of my being away from Omaha and my home, coming back and seeing some of my old friends and not being able to fit in anymore. Because our relationships are based in the past, they aren’t the same anymore.”
He felt alienated after winning a 1983 Academy Award in the student film category for American Taboo. He produced, wrote and directed the feature-length film while at Portland State University in Oregon. His success came during a turbulent time in his personal life. Visitng Omaha some time later he noted an uneasy gap between his self-image and people’s inflated perceptions.
“People here might have thought it (the award) was a bigger deal than it really was. I ran into a certain, ‘Oh, yeah, we heard about you on ‘Entertainment Tonight,’ and, ‘Oh, it’s a success.’ That engendered an idea about this race car driver who had been on TV and was a small town hero to people back home but he knew his life was burned out.”
Lustgarten can relate to that. The Omaha Burke High School graduate has traveled a “circuitous” road to satisfy a restless creativity. In the early ’70s he attended Wayne State College (Wayne, Neb.) and the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where he studied English and journalism. He was a reporter for the Alliance (Neb.) Times-Herald, covering the Wounded Knee occupation. Then he sought adventure out West.
He learned how to use a motion picture camera doing commercial work for a local advertising agency. When the movie bug bit he said he itched to make his own films “but really wasn’t aware of how to do it myself,” adding, “So I just started making short, super 8 mm movies and pretty much picked it up on my own by reading a lot of books and going to a lot of cheap movies.”
He landed his first professional film job in 1976 with an L.A. production company. “I worked in Hollywood on a lot of little low budget movies,” he said. Eventually he became “burned out” in L.A. He came back to Omaha and then lived in Seattle and Portland. By the time he started at Portland State, which had a film program, he wanted to make a feature but lacked the necessary means. The opportunity arose through an unlikely chain of events worthy of any script.
“My grandfather died and left me about $10,000. I put $5,000 into a house. The $5,000 left over really wasn’t enough to do it, so I invested it in some highly specualtive stocks, which for some reason doubled over the course of a month. I was able to start the film and put it in the can with that money. Then I scrounged up some more to finish it.”
Perhaps it was poetic justice that his grandfather, Harry Lustgarten Sr., indirectly made the film possible. “He was a large booker of films in the Chicago area in the ’50s and early ’60s,” said Steve. “He gave a lot of the early Samuel Arkoff-American International pictures their break in that market. He was probably my first exposure to the movies as a kid.”
Made under Portland State’s auspices, Taboo is described by its creator as a “European-style art film.” He said, “It deals with a lonley photographer who’s hidden behind a camera lens all his life. He gets enamored with the girl next door, who confronts him with his sexual repression and brings him out of his shell. It creates some turbulence in his life that he isn’t prepared for.”
While the film “hasn’t seen much U.S. distribution,” he said, “it’s constantly marketed overseas.” He said Taboo’s limited theatrical release included showings in Minneapolis, Portland and L.A. despite good reviews Lustgarten said he “didn’t make any concerted effort to book it theatrically becauae it was just too difficult. I found a foreign distributor and it’s been shown all over Europe as well as in Asia, South America and Australia.”
He said low budget titles like Taboo and Homefires face steep odds breaking into the U.S. theatrical market. They must compete against studio-backed films that cost $15 million on average and that have robust multi-media marketing campaigns behind them. That’s why most films budgeted under $5 million, he said, are directly sold to the home video and cable television markets domestically and abroad, thus bypassing theatrical distribution altogether.
Before tackling Homefires Lustgarten worked as a production assistant at New Horizons, where the one-time King of Hollywood B movies, Roger Corman, reigns. Corman made his name producing, sometimes directing and releasing low budget exploitation genre movies that became popular fare at drive-ins and that today stock the shelves at video rental stores and fills late night cable TV schedules. Corman also gave many then obscure and now big name actors, writers, and directors their start in features.
A typical Lustgarten job under Corman was serving as production coordinator on Strip to Kill, a project the filmmaker sarcastically refers to as “a memorable experience.” When that schlock picture’s first-time director needed bailing out Lustgarten said he pitched in and “ended up doing the storyboards, shooting second-unit stuff and finding new locations. I was trying to stand-out and move up in the organization. But I never quite learned the just-do-your-job-and-shut-up routine. That is not my nature.”
However, he did learn some valuable lessons along the way, such as bringing productions in on budget and at a fraction of the major studios’ price, and weaving enough action into stories to make them marketable. He’s applied these lessons to Homefires, which is emphatically “not an art house film,” he said, but rather “commercially targeted for the home video and cable TV markets in the U.S. and theatrically overseas. It’s positioned as an action-oriented film. We’re going to market it in that fashion. There are car chases, explosions, gunfights, so it fits into that ilk. Hopefully, it also offers more of a story than the Ramboesque movies provide.”
The film’s action is triggered by a rural drug lord who bails out beleagurerd farmers with loans in exchange for harvesting marijuana on their land. His terror tactics keep the community silent until Kyle returns and discovers his brother has gotten in deep with the kingpin in an attempt to save the family farm. Kyle helps his brother do the right thing and smash the drug ring.
Before going independent Lustgarten tried to interest several producers in Homefires, one of six or seven screenplays he’s written and shopped around in Hollywood. In fact, deals for Homefires were struck, he said, but the financing always fell through.
“It was almost made once iin South Africa, once in Australia, once in Texas and somewhere else. It’s been around the block. At different times it was a $1 million to $6 million budget. It’s just a nightmare trying to raise major sums of money for movies.”
Lutsgarten began raising funds anew for Homefires in April. “I talked to bank presidents. lawyers, accountants, doctors, mechanics, anybody who had a glimmer of interest in film. It’s a lot of telephone calls and meetings. It’s really tough to try and sell a motion picture investment here because people don’t understand the movie business.”
The project remained on hold until “right down to the wire,” he said. “I pushed back shooting a month to raise money.” He ended up finding six Midwest investors, most from Nebraska. He’s put up a “big chunk” of the money himself. The film is a production of his own Lustgarten Entertainment Organization.
What pitch does he use to lure potential investors? “I tell them at this low of a budget you cannot lose money if you competently produce the picture because there is such a demand for the product. It’s very hard to make promises but I show comparative values of what other films have made overseas, which is the primary market for low budget films. About 70 percent of the money comes back from foreign distribution.” For example, he said a $100,000 sale to Japanese home video distributors is “not unusual.” He added, “I tell investors I would be surprised if we don’t break even. The top side becomes pie-in-the-sky. It could be three or 20 times your money.”
Homefires will come in under $200,000 – a budgeting feat considering its scope. “It’s a big, sprawling script with a lot of locations, actors and cars. There’s about 120 scenes,” he said. His decision to shoot in the less expensive 16 mm film stock, he said, was a cost conscious one as film and processing, each outsourced in L.A., are the two largest budget items. He also saved money by getting non-union actors to work on deferment, “meaning they’ll make money if the movie does.” And the only out-of-town crew ne brought in were the cinematographer and sound mixer, both imported from the coast. The entire cast and crew numbered about 50, well below industry standards.
The cast, which features about 30 speaking parts, is headed by Tim Vandeberghe as Kyle. Local community theater fans may be familiar with his stage work and that of such fellow cast members as Karen Kuger, Laura Marr, Earl Bates and John Durbin. For most, it was their first film role.
“I got real lucky,” said Lustgarten. “I found some really excellent actors. I think everybody was so excited about working on this that it overrode the inconveniences and lack of comforts.”
A major annoyance was the daily commute to Plattsmouth for Lustgarten and most of the Omaha-based cast and crew. The travel, on top of shooting schedules that lasted up to 18 hours a day, made for some very long days and nights. Low budget sets don’t have trailers where actors can escape the elements.
“We were out there on some pretty windy, cold days,” he said. Added to Lustgarten’s headaches were his multiple responsibilties. “The producing problems are so overwhelming that directing almost gets swamped by them.” Despite the distractions of wearing many hats he relishes the creative freedom each gives him. “I like to have control of my destiny rather than let someone else take over and not really know how to handle the material.”
He did seek help from Janet Traub of the Nebraska Film Office. She suggested film locations and arranged meetings with Plattsmouth officials to obtain permits and approvals.
What kind of reception did Lustgarten and his made-in-Nebraska film get from city fathers?
“Skepticism at first, but gradually they warmed to the idea that it was realistic and finally they gave us their full support.”
The shoot’s drawn its share of sight-seers. “People cruise up and down the main street,” said Lustgarten. “It all worked out real well. We got 100 percent cooperation.” He said the city definitely felt an economic impact from spending by cast and crew members. “They bought their everyday needs down here. They left a few bucks, which is always welcome.”
He noted the production also attracted the curious from nearby communities, further boosting the local coffers.
According to Traub the cast and crew many have “spent as much as $100,000 in the state.” She said the Department of Economic Development uses a multiplier of 2.7 to project the total trickle-down income generated from such activities as film productions. “Consequently it generated an estimated $270,000 of new money in the state.”
Lustgarten said it’s possible he’ll make future films in Nebraska but the site “depends on where the financing comes from” and what the story requires.
“The next project I’m looking at doing is a murder-mystery called Lady in the Dark, which I hope to start in late winter or early spring.”
Until then he’ll be busy editing Homefires, which he hopes to have ready by April for distributors. To finish his film the wanderer may be leaving home again. “It kind of depends on my personal life. Do I want to spend another two or three months here or go back to L.A., because when I do editing I also start the marketing-sales process that can only be done there.”
It sounds like the wayfarer is about to roam again. He did leave open the possibility of premiering the fim in Omaha and Plattsmouth next spring.
Until then, the home fires will be burning.
- Nebraska Legislature Once Again Wrestles with the Film Tax Incentives Question; Alexander Payne and John Beasley Press the Case Home (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- ‘Out of Omaha’ (‘California Dreaming’) Project Adds to Area’s Evolving Indie Filmmaking Scene (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Tempting Fate: Patrick Coyle Film ‘Into Temptation’ Delivers Gritty Tale of a Working Girl and an Idealistic Priest in Search of Redemption (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Omaha Film Festival Celebrates Seven Years of Growing the Local Film Culture (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Payne Delivers Another Screen Gem with ‘The Descendants’ and Further Enhances His Cinema Standing (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Joan Micklin Silver’s Classic ‘Hester Street’ Included in National Film Registry (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Alexander Payne Delivers Graceful Oscar Tributes – The Winner for Best Adapted Screenplay Recognizes Clooney, Hemmings and His Mom (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- My Forthcoming Book, ‘Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film,’ Due for a Fall 2012 Release (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)