Here is an excerpt from an essay I wrote to appear in an upcoming new edition of my book Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film. The essay sets up or introduces the multiple stories I wrote about his most recent film Nebraska. My extensive Nebraska coverage will add a major chunk of material to my Payne book and to our understanding of him and his work. The new edition will be out in June 2014.
Considering Alexander Payne’s ‘Nebraska’
©by Leo Adam Biga
Excerpt from an essay to appear in an upcoming new edition of my book Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film
Even though Alexander Payne demonstrates time and again that commercial considerations mean very little to him, following the breakaway success of The Descendants (2011) there was every reasonable expectation he might lean a bit more again in the direction of mainstream with his next film. I say again because I count The Descendants as a conventional, even mainstream work even though its protagonist rails against his comatose wife and sets out to wreck the life of the man she was cheating with, all the while trying not to lose it with his two grieving daughters in tow.
Payne soon quashed any notion of playing it safe when he announced the small, insular back roads comedy-drama Nebraska (2013) as his new feature project. It did not help its bottom line chances that the film is set in rural Nebraska, which for most filmgoers may as well be the dark side of the moon for its unfamiliarity, remoteness, and perceived barrenness. Indeed, if Nebraska conjures any image at all it is of endless cornfields, cows, and monotonously flat, uninspired scenery. When the story laid over such a setting features a confused, depressed old cuss alienated from family and friends and wandering around in a bleak wasteland made even bleaker by black and white photography and desolate late fall, post-harvest locations, it does not exactly engender excitement. The prospect of a dour, feel-bad experience devoid of life and color does not get tongues a-wagging to generate the all important buzz that sells tickets.
Of course, anyone who has seen Nebraska knows the film is not the downer it may appear to be from glimpsing a thirty-second trailer or hearing a fifteen-second sound bite, but that it is ultimately a sweet, deeply affecting film filled with familiar truths amid its very Nebraskaesque yet also quite universal archetypes.
Payne’s insistence on shooting in black and white was a completely legitimate aesthetic choice given the storyline and tone of this stark, autumnal mood piece about an old man having his last hurrah. But it also meant a definite disadvantage in appealing to average or general movie fans, many of whom automatically pass on any non-color film. Compounding the aversion that many moviegoers have with black and white is the fact that most studio executives, distributors, and theater bookers share this aversion, not on aesthetic grounds, but based on the long-held. much repeated argument that black and white films fare poorly at the box office. Of course, there is a self-fulfilling prophecy at work here that starts with studio resistance and reluctance to greenlight black and white features and even when a studio does approve the rare black and white entry executives seem to half-heartedly market and release these pics. It is almost as if the bean counters are out to perversely prove a point, even at the risk of injuring the chances of one of their own pictures at finding a sizable audience. Then when the picture lags, it gives the powerbrokers the platform to say, I told you so. No wonder then – and this is assuming the argument is true – most black and white flicks don’t perform well compared with their color counterparts. Except, how does one arrive at anything like a fair comparison of films based on color versus black and white? Even if the films under review are of the same genre and released in the same period, each is individually, intrinsically its own experience and any comparison inevitably ends up being a futile apples and oranges debate. Besides, there are exceptions to the supposed rule that all black and white films struggle. From the 1970s on The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon, Young Frankenstein, Manhattan, Raging Bull, Schindler’s List, Ed Wood and The Artist are among the black and white films to have found wide success. It is admittedly a short list but it does prove black and white need not be a death sentence.
To no one’s surprise Paramount did what practically any studio would have done in the same situation, which was to fight Payne on the black and white decision. In no uncertain terms Payne wanted to make Nebraska in black and white and just as adamantly the studio wanted no part of it. He pushed and they pushed back. He would not compromise his vision because from the moment he first read Bob Nelson’s screenplay he clearly saw in his mind’s eye the world of this story play out in in shades of black and white. It just fit. It fit the characters and the settings and the emotions and as far as he was concerned that was that. No questions asked. No concessions made.
I do not claim to know all the details of this protracted dispute or should I say discussion but I do know from what Payne and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael have told me that the issue became a point of some contention. I do not know if it ever reached an impasse where Payne more or less indicated by word or action he was prepared to walk and take the project with him (his own Ad Hominem production company brought the property to Paramount). It certainly wouldn’t surprise me that he let it be known, subtly or not, that he was willing to make the project with another studio if it came to that. It is a moot point now since Paramount eventually acceded to his wishes, though not insignificantly the studio did cut some of the picture’s already small budget as a kind of hedge I suppose against the small business they expected the film to do. The smaller the budget, and in this case it was $12 million, the smaller the risk of not recouping its cost.
Given Payne’s even temperament and gentility, I doubt if things reached the level of shouting or angry exchanges, though he undoubtedly expressed displeasure with their interference and pettiness. I have to think he wore the execs down with his patience and persistence to win the black and white battle but at the end of the day he was willing to give up a couple million dollars in exchange for realizing his vision. I know he says that losing a million dollars is a huge loss when it comes to small-budgeted films like this one and I understand that in order to get the film made within those constraints he and others worked for scale in return for some points on the back end, but I have to believe those “sacrifices” were completely worth it in the long run. I would even argue that having to work on a bare bones budget and a tight schedule worked in favor of getting this simple story right. It required cast and crew to live frugally like the characters and the frugal shoot placed a premium on efficiency, ingenuity, and everyone pulling together to make the most of what they had to work with. In truth this esprit de corps is evident on all of Payne’s projects anyway because of the tight, loyal stock company he works with from film to film to film. They are a family and a team dedicated to one purpose: getting the film made to his specifications.
I asked Payne if it ever seems like a studio plays this game in order to gauge just how strongly the filmmaker is invested in a choice or preference as well as to what extent the filmmaker can be manipulated. He seems to believe there is some truth in that. Perhaps it really is the studio’s way of testing how firm the filmmaker’s convictions are and how much the filmmaker is willing to give up or to stand fast in terms of creative control. As Paramount surely knew going in and if they somehow didn’t know they surely soon discovered in the process of setting up the film, Payne is no push over and he brooks no fools. That is true at every juncture in the process, from making the deal to pre-production to the shoot and on through post-production. It is his film and he will not be budged from any creative choices he feels are necessary, which is to say he will not be pressured into doing something for the sake of added commercial appeal.
Because Payne is not about burning bridges, except for his public displeasure over the way his first two films (Citizen Ruth and Election) were handled by the studios and releasing companies behind them, he is not saying on the record what he thinks about the way Paramount handled Nebraska. I have to think he is not pleased with the extremely limited release they gave it. At no time during its release did the film ever play more than 968 theaters according to the website Boxoffice Mojo. That is anywhere from two-thirds to a half to a third the number of theaters its main awards competitors played at during their runs. It is hard to understand why the film was not given more opportunities to find a wider audience given the outstanding reception it received from critics (making most Top Ten lists), the foreign press (five Golden Globe nominations) and the Academy (six nominations).
Hampered as it was by the limited release, Nebraska still pulled in more than $18 million domestically by this edition’s summer 2014 printing and I am sure when all the figures are added up from North America and overseas, where I predict the film will fare well, especially in Europe, its total gross will be in excess of $20 million. By the time all the home viewing rentals and purchases are taken into account a year from now, I wager the film will have done some $25 million in business, which would approximately double its production costs. That is quite a return on a small film that did not get much studio support beyond the bare basics.
Payne could have made things easier for himself and the studio by filming in color and securing a superstar. Nebraska marked quite a departure from the lush, color-filled canvas of Hawaii he captured in The Descendants and the equally verdant California wine country he committed to celluloid in Sideways. Never mind the fact the stories of those earlier films, despite the radical differences of their physical locations, actually share much in common tonally and thematically with Nebraska. The dark comic tone and theme of Payne’s films can threaten to be overshadowed when a star the magnitude of Jack Nicholson (About Schmidt) or George Clooney (The Descendants) attaches himself to one of his projects. But as anyone who is familiar with the subdued star turns of those two actors in those particular films will tell you, Nicholson departed far from his trademark insouciance and braggadocio to totally inhabit his repressed, depressive title character in Schmidt just as Clooney left behind much of his breezy, cocksure charm to essay his neurotic somewhat desperate character in Descendants. Each star was eager to shed his well-practiced, bigger-than-life persona in service of scripts and parts that called for them to play against type. Instead of their usual live-out-loud, testosterone-high roles, they play quiet, wounded, vulnerable men in trouble. For that matter, the men-children Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church play in Sideways are seemingly complete opposites but in actuality are emotionally-stunted, damaged souls using oblivion, alcohol, and sex to medicate their pain and avoid reality. The beauty of the California and Hawaii locales work as contrast and counterpoint to the chaotic lives of these lost figures careening toward catharsis. In Schmidt Omaha is the perfect washed-out backdrop for a man undergoing a full-scale identity and spiritual crisis once he retires and his domineering wife dies.
That brings us to Woody Grant, the crotchety so-and-so at the center of Nebraska. When we meet him he is near the end of a largely misspent life. Facing his inevitable and nearing mortality he doesn’t much like what he sees when he reviews his life and where he has landed. He is dealing with many deficits in his old age. His body is falling apart. He walks stiffly, haltingly. His alcoholism has been unaddressed and it contributes to his foggy mind, mood swings, propensity to fall and hurt himself, and to utter hurtful things. He seems to derive no joy or satisfaction from his wife of many years and his two adult sons. He almost regards them as inconvenient reminders of his own failings as a husband and father. On top of all this, he is poor and in no position to leave his family anything like a tangible legacy.
This miserable wretch has seized upon what he believes to be his last chance at assuaging a deep well of shame, guilt, bitterness, and resentment. His mistaken belief there is a sweepstakes prize for him to redeem becomes a search for his own personal redemption or salvation. He desperately wants something, namely a truck, to leave his boys. The true meaning of the road trip he embarks on with his son David is only revealed to us and to his boy along the way and that gradual discovery adds layers of poignancy to the story.
When Woody arrives back in his hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska word spreads he is on his way to collect a $i million sweepstakes prize. For a few moments he becomes a person of substance in the eyes of his extended family and the town’s other residents. Some family members and one old friend turn vultures and demand they get a share of his windfall as compensation for favors they did or loans they made that were never returned. But there is another side to that story. We find out Woody has a kind heart beneath his gruff exterior, so much so that he’s been known to do favors and to give money away without ever expecting repayment. That has led him to be taken advantage of over the years. Then when the truth gets out Woody has not won anything but has misinterpreted a marketing piece for a confirmation letter of his supposed million in winnings, he is publicly humiliated and made out to be a fool.
For Nebraska I Payne went one step further in distancing himself from commercial considerations by casting as his two leads Bruce Dern and Will Forte, who at first glance form an unlikely combination but in fact play wonderfully off each other. Dern’s acclaimed performance as Woody Grant earned him a Best Actor prize at Cannes and nominations from the Golden Globes and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Saturday Night Live alumnus Forte is triumphant in his first dramatic role as the sympathetic son David. The next largest part belongs to June Squibb, who until this film was a somewhat familiar face if not a household name (she played Nicholson’s wife in Schmidt). Her stellar work in a colorful role as Woody’s piss-and-vinegar wife Kate has brought her the most attention she’s received in a very long and productive career. Arguably, the biggest name in the picture belongs to Stacy Keach, a veteran of film, television, and stage who has little screen time in the picture but makes the most of it in a powerfully indelible turn as the story’s heavy, Ed Pegram. As strong as these performances are Payne did not do his film any box office favors by choosing actors so far off the radar of moviegoers. That is not a criticism, it is simply a fact. At least a dozen more speaking parts are filled by no-name actors, nonprofessional actors, and nonactors, all of whom add great authenticity to the film but whose obscurity hurts rather than helps the marketing cause.
As you will read in the articles that follow Payne is most proud of the casting and locations in Nebraska. These are elements he always takes great care with in any of his films but with this particular film he went the extra mile yet in order to realize the very specific world of the story. Many of the small speaking parts are filled by regular folks – retired farmers and such – who populate the very towns or ones just like them where he shot. He and casting director John Jackson searched long and hard for just the right faces and voices. Similarly, the weatherbeaten, seen-better-times found locations look and feel so right as the homes and pit-stops of the characters that these real locations rather than constructed sets add another layer of verisimilitude.
The choice to populate the film with zero star power ultimately is not the reason the film failed to pull in more of an audience because there are plenty of films that do well with little known, non A-list names, and nonactor finds. No, the real problem with how Nebraska fared had more to do with the perception the marketing campaign for the film imposed on it. The film’s trailers did not communicate the heart and soul of the picture. None of the warmth or depth or populist appeal at its core registered in those clips. Instead, the film was represented as a cold, mean, depressive, rather flimsy sketch concept blown up to fill two hours. Anyone who has seen and appreciated Nebraska will tell you it is far more than that. It is a work replete with deep currents of regret, disappointment, melancholia, rage, nostalgia. and love. Alongside that run streams of humor, sweetness, irony, and slapstick. Then there is the sheer poetic evocation of hauntingly beautiful visuals that turn the wide open flyover terrain, roadside stops, and played-out small towns of Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, and Nebraska into haunting fields of dreams and symbols of neglect. Not to mention centers of quirky, silly, sometimes surreal goings-on.
Plenty of small indie films about similarly unglamorous subject matter have struck a responsive chord with the masses. So what kept Nebraska from resonating the way, say, Juno did or Little Miss Sunshine? No one really knows. If the creatives who make the films and the suits who finance and sell them did, if there was some sure-fire magic formula at their disposal, then every film would be packaged into a box office winner. The truth is some films catch the wave and most don’t and there doesn’t seem to be any reliable rhyme or reason for why some hit and others miss that elusive, always moving wave everyone is after.
It may take a while, but I am quite confident Nebraska will eventually find the large audience it deserves. In my opinion it will be a much viewed and discussed stand-the-test of-time film for its many cinema art merits. As good as Payne’s earlier films have been I believe this to be his finest work to date because it is in my view the fullest expression of his filmmaking talents. Visually, it is a tone poem of the first order and on that basis alone it is a film to be reckoned with. Payne and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael have achieved an expressive black and white palette whose hues perfectly articulate the heavy heart of the story. But Payne also found unobtrusive ways to position the camera and, with editor Kevin Tent, to cut scenes so as to amplify its many moments of humor without ever detracting from its elegiac, soulful mood. Mark Orton’s original music, plus the incidental music used here and there, add more nuances of mood. Payne artfully composed images for the wide screen format he shot in to glean added depth and meaning from the action. Within the same frame he intentionally juxtaposed characters with the stark landscapes, townscapes, and homes they inhabit. Many of these scenes emphasize sadness, stillness and desolation. Irony infuses it all. The result is an ongoing dialogue between people and their environments. Each informs the other and by consequence us.
The filmmaker’s economy of style has never been more evident. He has reached the point of communicating so much with simple brush strokes. Take for instance the way Woody’s harsh childhood experience is encapsulated when the old man and his family visit the abandoned farm house he grew up in. Payne has the camera fluidly glide over the detritus of this once proud home turned wreck and to peak into rooms that carry so much psychic-emotional pain for Woody, who was beaten as a boy. Payne clearly indicates this is a private, anguished, cathartic return for Woody, who has avoided this place and its memories for years.
Or consider that gathering of taciturn men in Woody’s family at his brother’s home in town. Payne arranges the uncles, brothers, sons, nephews, cousins in an American Gothic pose around the TV set, where the men engage in the almost wordless ritualistic viewing of a football game. It is at once a funny and powerful expression of their tribal, tight-lipped bond. A bond more about association by blood than affinity.
Then there are the almost incidental shots of boarded up buildings in town that symbolize and speak to the economic hard times to have befallen so many small towns like the fictional Hawthorne. In a short scene Payne conveys an important way in which the times have changed there and in towns like it when he has Woody visit the auto service station he used to own and he finds the new owners are Spanish-speaking Hispanics. Woody thus personally encounters a demographic shift that has altered the face of his hometown and much of rural Nebraska. No more is made of it then that simple reality and the brief exchange between Woody and the “newcomers,” but it is enough to say that times have moved on and the Hawthorne he knew has evolved in some ways and remained unchanged in others.
Perhaps the best example of Payne distilling things down to their simplest, purest, most elemental form is the end sequence when David and Woody are in the truck David has purchased and registered in his father’s name. David, who is at the wheel with Woody beside him, stops the truck on the edge of town and invites Woody to take the wheel and drive down main street in his new rig. What follows is one of the most moving denouements in contemporary American cinema. Woody is granted a rare gift when he accepts the invitation to take a celebratory ride down main street. As the truck slowly passes through town he wins more than any prize money could provide when four people from his past catch sight of him and look at him with a combination of awe, admiration, and surprise. It is a perfect moment in the sun vindication for a beleaguered, bedraggled man who suddenly brims with a sense of confidence and purpose. Woody leaves town on his own terms, his dignity and pride intact, at least for this short interval of time.
What makes that valedictory ride so special is that his sympathetic son David is there to grant him it and to bask in it with him. These two who began the road trip not really knowing each other and often at odds with each other have traveled a journey together that has brought them a measure of acceptance, healing, and peace. David has finally come to understand why his father is the way he is. His fondest desire is realized when he gives Woody that movie-movie opportunity to prove he is not the loser or fool this day. As Woody sits high in the cab of the truck, with David lovingly looking on from the floor, and drives past the artifacts of his past and the denizens of that town, he may as well be a cowboy sitting tall in the saddle of his horse riding into the sunset. He graciously accepts the congratulations of town chatterbox Bernie Bowen. He stares down his former friend Ed Pegram, who now looks the shamed fool. Woody’s heart stirs again for old flame Peg Nagy, whose wistful expression wonders might have been. As he heads out of town Woody says a fond goodbye to Albert, the Grant brother whose favorite pastime is siting beside the road waving at the occupants of passing cars.
Outside of town the truck stops at the bottom of a hill and Woody and David once again exchange places. Doing this out of the view of onlookers preserves Woody’s glorious farewell and signals Woody now accepts his limitations and David’s love for him. With David back behind the wheel and Woody beside him father and son drive off to meet an uncertain future together. Consistent with the way Payne ends all his films, Woody’s last ride reverie does not promise any great turnaround in his life. His problems are still his problems. The fact that that sequence plays out wordlessly and still conveys so much meaning is a testament to the work of Payne and his collaborators in extracting the essence of these scenes through beautifully executed shots that give full weight to glances gestures, postures, and backdrops.
NOTE: To read the rest you’ll have to wait for my new edition to come out.
Omahans put their spin on Stephen King’s ‘The Shining’ – Jason Levering leads stage adaptation of horror classic to benefit Benson Theatre Project
Jason Levering and a group of fellow Omahans has proven just cheeky enough to adapt Stephen King’s The Shining to the stage. The world premiere of their efforts is March 21 and 22 at the Sokol Auditorium in three performances to benefit the Benson Theatre Project, a nonprofit is primed to purchase and restore a vintage vaudeville and movie house in Omaha’s Benson business district. Business Theatre Project executive director Amy Ryan says, “My confidence in Jason Levering and his ability to put on a quality production influenced my decision to sign off, along with the other project leaders.” I asked her if she has any trepidation in hanging a fundraiser on a premiere, never-before-staged work, even if it is adapted from a mega popular novel whose title everyone knows and whose author is a brand unto himself. “It’s a tall order, no doubt. Certainly there were many factors and risks to be considered, but in the end we decided that it was a unique and viable way to raise funds and showcase Omaha’s local talent.” Levering is also artistic director of the Benson Theatre Project. What follows is my upcoming story in The Reader (www.thereader.com) about the adaptation, which st least based on the legendary status of the source material and its author has given this production a very high curiosity factor. For my article I interviewed Levering about various aspects of the project.
Omahans put their spin on Stephen King’s ‘The Shining’
Jason Levering leads stage adaptation of horror classic to benefit Benson Theatre Project
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Credit Omaha writer-director Jason Levering for possessing the temerity to not only consider adapting Stephen King’s meta horror novel The Shining to the stage but to follow through and actually get the master’s approval. Now he’s only hours away from seeing the adaptation he and Aaron Sailors wrote make its world premiere.
The Shining, A Play, has a three-show run March 21 and 22 at Sokol Auditorium, 2234 South 13th St., the old-line South Omaha space known for live music concerts, not full-blown dramatic theatricals. Make no mistake, this will be a big, effects-laden production commensurate with the sprawling, supernatural-laced source material.
The show’s a fundraiser for the Benson Theatre Project. Levering is artistic director of the nonprofit, which needs $250,000 to purchase the former Benson vaudeville and movie house at 6054 Maple St. before renovation work can begin. It’s adjacent to the Pizza Shoppe and PS Collective, whose owner, Amy Ryan, is the project’s executive director. Ryan, a community advocate and arts supporter, goes way back with Levering, who’s also co-founder of the Omaha Film Festival.
An Aurora, Neb., native, Levering’s worked on short films. He and Sailors are collaborating on a feature film adaptation of short stories from author Dan Chaon’s Stay Awake collection. That project’s on hold while Chaon works on the Starz series Most Wanted. Levering’s s stage credits include acting in the Blue Barn Theatre’s Round Midnight series and adapting Oscar Wilde fairy tales at The Rose theater.
What made him think of reworking what many consider a horror masterpiece? It starts with him being “a huge Stephen King fan.” Then there’s the fact the claustrophobic story largely unfolds in one location, the Overlook Hotel, which lends itself well to stage presentation. Finally, there’s The Shining franchise of the popular novel as well as successful film and television treatments, not to mention the built-in brand that the title and King’s own name bring to any adaptation.
“The genesis started during the 2013 Omaha Gives campaign that raised some money for the theater,” Levering says. “Afterwards we talked about doing our own production as a fundraiser and how while we don’t have our own theater troupe we know enough people that we could try and put something together.
“We didn’t want it to be something that had already been done here. We wanted it to be something special, that is our own. But we also wanted it to be something recognizable. I suggested doing a stage adaptation of a popular book that hasn’t been adapted yet. I naturally fixed on The Shining. We all thought it was a great idea.”
That left the not so small matter of getting the famous author to bestow his blessing on the endeavor.
“You have to get permission from Mr. King for something like that,” says Levering, who made the overture to the agency, Paradigm, that represents the legend.
The go-ahead came easier and quicker than Levering imagined.
“Mr. King read our proposal and he was very interested in what we were doing with the Benson Theatre project and he gave us a limited option to adapt The Shining to stage.”
King also retained the right of approval over the script, the director (Levering) and the cast.
“In my research I found out Mr. King originally conceived it as a five-act play and then he eventually turned it into a novel.”
Levering’s careful study of the book reintroduced him to the story’s great set-up. Jack and Wendy Torrance and their boy Danny become stranded in a haunted mountain hotel in a winter storm. Danny’s extrasensory gift makes him the target of evil spirits who prey on him through his weak father, intent on forever imprisoning the family there.
“It kind of has everything. The other thing it has going for it is these fantastic characters, Jack especially. He’s written as a good man, a recovered alcoholic with some anger issues but doing his damnedest to pull his family back together. To go from that point where there’s all this hope when they first move into the Overlook to the end where he’s literally trying to kill his family it’s such an incredible journey.”
Distilling the heart of the story took Levering and Sailors some time.
“We went through the book together. Aaron broke it down into an outline so we could figure out the main beats of each scene – what we really needed to capture that was essential. We worked from that outline as we were writing the script. He took Act III, I took Act I, and we started working forward.”
They finished the remaining acts together.
“As we wrote we sent pages back and forth, editing and polishing each other’s work. We sent pages to another writer friend, Krissy Hamm, an associate producer on the show, and she gave us notes. It really helped to have that third person looking at it.”
Levering says he and Sailors abided by one operating principle.
“We both wanted to be very faithful to the book. A lot of the dialogue is pulled straight from the book. There’s only a few points where the dialogue was changed or something was added so that the scene would play well on stage. For the most part though the dialogue is pretty much Mr. King’s words.”
Other things are being done to make certain story elements live on stage. For example, newspaper accounts Jack reads silently to himself in the novel are projected on a screen. Flashbacks play out on the side while the main action occurs stage center. Creative ways were found to bring the Overlook’s topiary animals to life. Levering is intent on making the physical experience as visceral as possible for the audience and thus, William Castle-style, action and sound will happen throughout the auditorium, including the balcony.
Lighting and sound effects will cast a dark, malevolent mood.
Levering consulted Omaha theater veteran Kevin Lawler and brought in veteran scenic designer Kit Gough to help realize the horror.
“I want it to be immersive. I want to give the audience the feeling they really may not go home. I want them to feel they’re sitting in the middle of the Overlook Hotel as it comes to life. From the time you walk in the door it’ll be like you’ve entered the Overlook.”
Levering had his own scary encounter with the work.
“My hardest challenge was the moment the hotel takes over Jack. I was excited to write it but I was also terrified of it because that scene is where his character shifts and becomes the monster. He’s in the Colorado Room and basically the hotel has come to life. Lloyd the bartender manifests and pours him a martini. That scene was difficult for me to write because it’s at that point he turns on his family and I honest to God had nightmares of wanting to hurt my wife and kids, even though I never would.
“The idea someone could turn like that is frightening. It was actually the last scene I wrote. It was the worst for me. I’m also an actor and so method-style I poured myself a martini and drank it while writing. I wanted to feel what he was going through.”
Levering feels “honored” and “thankful” King approved “the direction we’re taking.” The cast is headed by Marc Erickson as Jack, Levering’s son Christopher as Danny and Christina Rohling as Wendy.
An invitation’s been extended King, so don’t be surprised if you spot the king of horror among the throng.
Performances are 7 p.m. Friday and 2 and 7 p.m. on Saturday.
For tickets, visit theshiningomaha.com. For more about the restoration project, visit bensontheatre.org.
Omaha author Timothy Schaffert delivers again with his new novel, ‘The Swan Gondola’
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in Edge Magazine (www.edgemagazine.com)
Nebraska has produced many literary heavyweights: Willa Cather, Mari Sandoz, Wright Morris, John Neihardt, Tillie Olsen, Loren Eiseley, Ron Hansen, Richard Dooling, Terese Svoboda, Kurt Andersen, Ted Kooser.
Add the name Timothy Schaffert to this roster of gifted homegrown wordsmiths.
Unlike most of that company, Schaffert has remained in state to write his acclaimed novels and short stories. The Aurora, Neb. native grew up on the Hamilton County farm that’s been in his German-American family for generations. He writes these days in the southwest Omaha home he shares with his life partner. It’s where Schaffert penned his latest novel, The Swan Gondola, (Riverhead Books, a division of Penguin). The historical work of fiction has received strong notices and celebrated a Feb. 6 release.
This is Schaffert’s fifth novel following his previous The Phantom Limbs of the Rollow Sisters, The Singing and Dancing Daughters of God, Devils in the Sugar Shop and The Coffins of Little Hope. Like the others, Gondola displays his wicked, yet sweet wit and penchant for depicting surreal events amid ordinary surroundings.
The tragic romance at the heart of Gondola unfolds around the 1898 Trans-Mississippi & International Exposition, a grand event that marked Omaha’s most ambitious attempt to garner world attention.
The protagonist-narrator is ventriloquist Ferret Skerritt, a character inspired by L. Frank Baum’s iconic The Wizard of Oz. Schaffert concocted a kind of prequel to the Oz myth that imagines what propelled this humbug artist to leave Omaha in a hot air balloon – Baum’s wizard commandeers a balloon emblazoned with Omaha State Fair – for the hinterland he comes to rule. Schaffert has Skerritt find true love in the ethereal Cecily, a fetching actress and single mother, until circumstances conspire to separate the lovers.
In a story replete with class distinctions, Skerritt comes up against the city’s most powerful man, William Wakefield, and his witch of a sister, who live in a forbidding castle, and the formidable Mrs. Margaret.
Skerritt cobbles together a supportive family that includes: August, a Native American dandy; Rosie, a good-natured anarchist; and mercurial Pearl, whose eerie intuition turns possession.
Then there’s Emmaline and Hester, the sisters who nurse him back to health after the balloon that carried him crashes into their farmhouse.
In addition to Skerritt being based on the wizard, several other characters have their parallels in Baum’s Oz, including stand-ins for the good and bad witches, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion.
As the man who fell from the sky and lived to tell about it, Skerritt is held up as a supernatural diviner. Schaffert says the fact crops and livestock can be lost to capricious nature makes some farmers susceptible to rainmakers and fortune tellers.
“It’s a part of the world where prophets are needed.”
Skerritt and Emmaline construct the Emerald Cathedral, a pillar of totems from neighbors and townsfolk desperate for deliverance.
The Omaha World’s Fair setting is the impetus for a new exhibition of photographs and artifacts from the expo. The novel’s launch and exhibit’s opening both happened Feb. 7 at the W. Dale Clark Library. Schaffert signed copies of his book.
The author is no stranger to the library, which hosts his annual (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest. The ninth edition last fall featured the usual eclectic lineup of guest authors. He’s now organizing the event’s 10th anniversary whose focus on historical fiction is apt given Gondola’s immersion in late 19th century Americana.
The choice of the fair as the milieu for his new novel is a function of his long-held fascination with both The Wizard of Oz and the Trans-Mississippi Expo. As a child reading the Baum story and watching the MGM movie, he was “taken” by the Kansas farm setting and the wizard’s Omaha origins. Later, while researching the expo, he found it a rich metaphorical landscape whose by-turns enchanted and crass goings-on made a perfect backdrop for a doomed love story.
“The Wizard of Oz was published in 1900. The Exposition was held in 1898. There was an interesting link there that had not yet been exploited but I was sort of daunted by the research I would have to do about 1898,” says Schaffert, who teaches English at his alma mater, the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. “When you’re writing about the past you have the added responsibility of learning about the past, and not just learning about it but communicating it to readers. You don’t want it to seem like an antique.”
To understand the “cultural consciousness” of the Victorian-era he steeped himself in the Omaha Bee and Omaha World-Herald archives. He discovered a society of haves and have-nots “leaning forward into the 20th century.” He adds, “Everything changed in the 20th century. The role of women. New kinds of entertainment. Sources for wealth. Opportunities for the middle class. Medical invention. Psychological development. Fashion. I mean, everything became modern. It’s like in the 1890s people almost made that happen by nature of anticipating that with the 20th century would come the future.”
Being a woman, racial minority or working stiff meant living on the margins, never far from the poor house. The gleaming fair rose up to offer hope but its temporary construction ended in ruins, symbolizing the tenuous nature of life and love.
Delving into the past for his fiction is nothing new for Schaffert, though untilGondola it’d been some time since he’d gone there.
“When I was much younger everything I wrote was set in the past, so strangely for me the books I’d written previously have not been set in the past. So I feel I’m finally writing what I intended to write all along.”
He’s swimming in the past again with an in-progress novel set in the 1920s.
Besides its historical roots, Gondola represents another departure for Schaffert.
“It’s definitely more sweeping than the other books I’ve written that focus on kind of small moments in characters’ lives and perhaps quiet, emotional developments and transitions. Whereas the characters of this book are entertainers and their lives are motivated by melodrama and they’re pushed to the point where there are extremely difficult, even life and death situations. So it’s a larger canvas than I’ve worked on before and I’d like to do more of that.”
As with some of his earlier novels, Schaffert draws on his rural background. Enamored by the allure of New York sophistication in movies, he didn’t always appreciate growing up on a farm.
“I remember regretting we didn’t live in a city and not only did I regret we didn’t live in a city, I regretted we didn’t live in New York City. I wanted to live in the Manhattan of Fred Astaire and Woody Allen. So I didn’t feel like I was necessarily in the right place when I was growing up. Since then I recognize what a rich experience it was and I love to return to the farm. I’m struck by its beauty and I feel fortunate to have had the experience I have.”
“And it is surprising how much I can keep drawing from it. You kind of feel perhaps the well has run dry but then you embark on some new book and some new characters and you find yourself discovering new things about your own past.”
For Gondola he says he tried to find new ways to describe the countryside. “The farm Ferret Skerritt ends up on, as is with every farm I’ve written about, is taken from the community I grew up in. Some of it’s the physical landscape and some of it’s the culture and how in this book this extraordinary thing happens – this man falls from the balloon in the sky and he’s purported to have kind of soothsaying qualities. My understanding of how the community would react to that is based on my own sense of the rural Midwest.”
Schaffert, who once edited and wrote for Omaha alternative newspapers, says early on his parents expressed concern about his making-a-go-of-it as a writer but have remained in his corner. “I don’t think they always understood what I was doing but I never really felt they were discouraging at all. I always felt they were very respectful of this mysterious thing I was pursuing. I don’t know that they thought anything would come of it necessarily but they were supportive and they remain supportive.”
Identified as he is with Omaha’s urban creative center, Schaffert might be expected to reside downtown rather than in suburbia. But he feels at home in wide open spaces.
“I grew up in the country and the house I live in today has a huge backyard. We’re literally half a block from the Chalco Hills Recreation Area. We can walk right there to Wehrspann Lake and be among deer and the woods. We walk there all the time. It’s quiet. I definitely like it.”
“I think you get more space, more bang for your buck basically the further west you go. We entertain, we have people stay over, we have family events. We do value being able to stretch out.”
He wrote his first three novels at his previous home in Millard. Coffins and Gondolawere written in his present space.
“I have a little library with a writing desk but most of the time I write in the kitchen, with my laptop on the kitchen counter, and I pace around, fix tea, attend to the dog.”
With his new book adding to his already stellar reputation, Schaffert feels his life and career are in a good place.
“I feel very fortunate I’ve had the opportunity to write what I want to write and to have the support I’ve got for it. My publisher (Riverhead) is bringing my new novel out in a big way. That’s completely unexpected.”
He’s especially glad Riverhead, an imprint of publishing giant Penguin, is behind him.
“Riverhead is very much committed to recognizing those they think of as underappreciated writers and getting behind their careers and committing long-term to the writer’s success.”
The editor who signed him to the Penguin family was taken by Janet Maslin’s enthusiastic New York Times review of his Coffins of Little Hope. Schaffert is humble and grateful about the kudos.
“A writer doesn’t always feel like there’s a ladder of success. You’re just kind of moving from one project to the next, uncertain what’s going to happen with it or what kind of support there’ll be for it. You feel you’re scrambling or scrapping or patching together this living. So, yeah, to have the opportunities I’ve had has been extremely rewarding.”
Follow Schaffert at http://www.timothyschaffert.com.
‘Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film’ Author Leo Adam Biga at Feb. 22 Author’s Fair
Show me and my fellow metro area authors some love at the Omaha Public Library’s annual Author’s Fair, this Saturday, Feb. 22, from 1 to 4 pm, at the downtown W. Dale Clark Library. I’ll be there with my Alexander Payne book and dozens more area authors will be there with their books. It all happens on the 4th floor. There’s a publishing panel from 2 to 3. Hope to see you there. My book sells for $20. Get yours at the Fair and I’ll sign it for you.
My book makes a great reference companion for watching the Academy Awards. Payne’s “Nebraska” is up for six Oscars and I’m betting it wins one or two, possibly three. But the book is an even greater additon to your permanent home library because Payne is only going to become a more significant filmmaker as time goes on. His work is only going to be more celebrated and studied. And my book gives you a comprehensive grounding in the journey he’s traveled to become the great cinema artist he is today.
If you can’t make it to the Fair, then be on the look out for coming announcements about a new edition of the book (March 2014 release) featuring my “Nebraska” coverage. I’ll be doing a whole new round of media interviews and signing-speaking events. Hope to see you sooner or later.
Hi Mr. Biga,
You don’t know me but I’m a young filmmaker in NYC and I purchased your book on Alexander Payne I think back in November of 2012. I was always a fan of Alexander Payne’s work, and was simply searching for anything I could find on him. I wanted to write and tell you that your book has helped me immeasurably as a filmmaker. I imagine now, being a bit older than I was while in film school (now 25), I have much more of an interest in the academia of filmmaking. Whereas in school, I was 18 and living in New York City. Come on, gimme a break.
Your articles and interviews became a critical (and previously absent) entry point to discover and dig deeper into learning more about directors, films, and film history. I came to not only respect and admire Payne as a filmmaker, but also as one of the best teachers I’ve ever had. And I can say that to date, starting with your book, what I’ve learned about the craft and history of cinema has been unparalleled and invaluable.
A few years after graduating film school (’09), I was fortunate enough to have my screenplay financed so that I could direct my first feature, BIG SIGNIFICANT THINGS, which I completed back in May of 2013.
And it was just announced that my film will have it’s World Premiere at the 2014 SXSW Film Festival. Mark Orton, who I’m sure you know did the score for NEBRASKA, is composing the score for my film.
I wouldn’t be here without Alexander Payne and your book. Well, maybe I’d be here, but I wouldn’t be nearly as (hopefully) knowledgeable and skilled as a filmmaker.
So I just wanted to extend my gratitude, and thank you from the bottom of my heart.
Big Significant Things
At 26 years old, Craig (Harry Lloyd) seems to be doing pretty well for himself. He has job stability, a supportive family, and is about to start a wonderful new chapter with his girlfriend. With big life changes on the horizon, what better time to lie to your girlfriend so you can go on a road trip by yourself to the south?
The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
The Louvre Museum has 8.5 million visitors per year. This blog was viewed about 88,000 times in 2013. If it were an exhibit at the Louvre Museum, it would take about 4 days for that many people to see it.
Thanks to everyone who stopped off to view the blog and special thanks to those who stayed and visited awhile and returned again.
As of this posting (Dec. 31, 2013), my blog has been viewed more than 316,000 times in its three-and-a-half year history. Not bad for a site that repurposes my previously published work as a journalist and author. I love sharing my work with others and I appreciate finding new audiences for what I write.
If you’re not already, please consider being a regular follower of my blog.
Until my next post, Happy New Year!
You are cordially invited to my next ‘Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film’ book talk and signing-
Wednesday Words Reading Series Featuring Leo Adam Biga
12:00pm until 1:00pm
KANEKO-UNO Library, 12th and Jones St.
I will talk about my book “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film,” describe my years writing about the filmmaker, and assess his new film “Nebraska.” A Q&A and signing follow. The book is only $20 and it makes a great Christmas gift.
Hope to see you there.HERE’S HOW THEY’RE PROMOTING MY APPEARANCE-
Our Featured Writer: Leo Adam BigaAward-winning Omaha journalist Leo Adam Biga has adapted his extensive body of work about acclaimed filmmaker Alexander Payne into a new book. “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film” is a compilation of Biga’s many articles about the writer-director over a 16-year period. The book places readers deep inside Payne’s creative process and follows the progress of the cinema artist’s Oscar-winning career. Biga will share insights gleaned from visits to Payne’s sets and from a recent glimpse at the final edit-mix process on the filmmaker’s new feature, “Nebraska.” Biga’s one of the few outside the filmmaker’s inner circle and select festival audiences to have seen the film in its entirety before the Nov. 15 national release. The book is a must read for Payne fans and film buffs. Book signing to follow presentation. Sample the author’s work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.
ABOUT WEDNESDAY WORDS
Wednesday Words originated in 2009 as a special reading series featuring award-winning writers from the Nebraska Arts Council’s Individual Artist Fellowship in Literature program, sponsored by the Nebraska Arts Council and Nebraska independent publisher, The Backwaters Press.
Spend your lunch hour at our final reading of 2013 with Leo Adam Biga. Treat yourself to a feast for your ears as you listen to some of the finest in Nebraska writing.
FREE and open to the public.
- ‘Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film’ author Leo Adam Biga doing book events Nov. 19, Nov. 23, Nov. 26, Dec. 3 and Dec. 11 (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Casting director John Jackson helps build Alexander Payne’s film worlds (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Alexander Payne’s New Film ‘Nebraska’ Features Senior Cast and Aging Themes in Story Sure to Resonate with Many Viewers (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Local Color: Alexander Payne and Co. Mine the Prairie Poetry of His Home State in the New American Gothic Film, ‘Nebraska’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
I was honored to recently author two iBooks for the Omaha Public Schools‘ Making Invisible Histories Visible project. Both have to do with civil rights. One is on the Great Migration as seen through the eyes of some Omaha women who migrated here from the Deep South. The other is about discrimination as seen through the eyes of Omahans who integrated Peony Park. Omaha artists made wonderful illustrations for the books and OPS teachers devised curriculum around the books’ themes for use in classrooms.
You can download these and other iBooks as part of the project at-
You can link to a PDF of the Great Migration iBook at-
You can link to a PDF of the Peony Park iBook at-
- ‘Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film’ author Leo Adam Biga doing book events Nov. 19, Nov. 23, Nov. 26, Dec. 3 and Dec. 11 (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Omaha Lit Fest Offers a Written Word Feast (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
‘Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film’ author Leo Adam Biga doing book events Nov. 19, Nov. 23, Nov. 26, Dec. 3 and Dec. 11
‘Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film’ author Leo Adam Biga doing book events Nov. 19, Nov. 23, Nov. 26, Dec. 3 and Dec. 11
Omaha journalist and author Leo Adam Biga will talk about his book Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film and sign copies at several new events this fall in the metro:
On Tuesday, Nov. 19 he’ll be at the Swanson Branch Library, 9101 West Dodge Road. Talk begins at 6 p.m. Q&A and signing to follow.
On Saturday, Nov. 23 he’s appearing at the Elkhorn Branch Library, 21oo Reading Plaza. Talk begins at 1 p.m. Q&A and signing to follow.
On Tuesday, Nov. 26 he’s at the Abrahams Branch Library, 5111 North 90th Street. Talk begins at 6:30 p.m. Q&A and signing to follow.
On Tuesday, Dec. 3 he’ll be at the Millard Branch Library, 13214 Westwood Lane. Talk begins at 6:30 p.m. Q&A and signing to follow.
On Wednesday, Dec. 11 he’s the featured speaker at the Wednesday Words Reading Series at Kaneko, 1111 Jones Street in the Kaneko-UNO Library. Talk begins at Noon. Q&A and signing to follow.
NOTE: For those of you attending the Omaha Press Club’s by-resevation-only Face on the Ballroom Floor event on Friday, Nov 22, when Alexander Payne will be honored, Buga will be signing copies of his book there as well.
Look for Biga and his book at other venues through the fall and winter. You can also expect to see him at the March 5-9 Omaha Film Festival. And, as always, his book is available at The Bookworm and Our Bookstore in Omaha, on Amazon and BarnesandNoble.com and for Kindle and other e-reader devices. You can also purchase the book on his blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com.
Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film makes a great gift for the film lover in your life.
And look for Biga’s continuing coverage of Payne and the filmmaker’s new movie Nebraska in local publications, including The Reader, New Horizons and Omaha Magazine.
- ‘Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film’ Author Leo Adam Biga Gearing Up for Fall Book Talks-Signings as Release of ‘Nebraska’ Nears (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Alexander Payne’s ‘Nebraska’ Averages $35K Per-Screen in Limited Box-Office Debut (thewrap.com)
- “Nebraska” Director Alexander Payne On Taste, Humor and Work Method (spinoff.comicbookresources.com)
- ‘Nebraska': Alexander Payne on Bruce Dern’s ‘perfect casting’ (latimes.com)
- Omaha Press Club to honor Alexander Payne (journalstar.com)
- Alexander Payne On Making ‘Nebraska’ (huffingtonpost.com)
- Alexander Payne on his life at the movies (dailyherald.com)
Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter's Perspective 1998-2012," a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker, and "Open Wide" a biograpy of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, is an online gallery of his work.
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