My Alexander Payne book has received a lovely new endorsement. It’s from James Marshall Crotty, an Omaha native who’s made quite a name for himself as a journalist and author. He’s a filmmaker as well. A new edition of my book is forthcoming. It will feature all my “Nebraska” coverage, plus a new cover and new inside graphics.
The new edition is soon to be available on this blog, at Amazon and BarnesandNoble.com, for Kindle and in select bookstores.
About “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film” Crotty says:
“Alex Payne is one of the few remaining auteurs in the Conglomerate Hollywood era. Leo Biga, a Nebraska native like his subject, deftly looks at how the ‘home place’ of Nebraska has shaped and nurtured Payne’s singular artistic vision.”
JAMES MARSHALL CROTTY
Columnist (Forbes, Huffington Post), Director/Producer (Crotty’s Kids)
His endorsement joins those from Kurt Andersen, Dick Cavett, Leonard Maltin, Joan Micklin Silver, and Ron Hull.
UNO professor emeritus of criminal justice Samuel Walker is one of those hard to sum up subjects because he’s a man of so many interests and passions and accomplishments, all of which is a good thing for me as a storyteller but it’s also a real challenge trying to convey the totality of someone with such a rich life and career in a single article. As a storyteller I must pick and choose what to include, what to emphasize, what to leave out. My choices may not be what another writer would choose. That’s the way it goes. What I did with Walker was to make his back story the front story, which is to say I took an experience from his past – his serving as a Freedom Summer volunteer to try and register black voters in Mississippi at the peak of the civil rights movement – as the key pivot point that informs his life’s work and that bridges his past and present. That experience is also juxtaposed with him growing up in a less then enlightened household that saw him in major conflict with his father. My cover profile of Walker is now appearing in the New Horizons newspaper.
Justice Champion Sam Walker Calls It as He Sees It
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in the New Horizons
And justice for all
You could do worse than label UNO professor emeritus of criminal justice Samuel Walker a dyed-in-the-wool progressive liberal. He certainly doesn’t conceal his humanist-libertarian leanings in authoring books, published articles and blog posts that reflect a deep regard for individual rights and sharp criticism for their abridgment.
He’s especially sensitive when government and police exceed their authority to infringe upon personal freedoms. He’s authored a history of the American Ciivil Liberties Union. His most recent book examines the checkered civil liberties track records of U.S. Presidents. He’s also written several books on policing. His main specialization is police accountability and best practices, which makes him much in demand as a public speaker, courtroom expert witness and media source. A Los Angeles Times reporter recently interviewed him for his take on the Albuquerque, NM police’s high incidence of officer-involved shootings, including a homeless man shot to death in March.
“I did a 1997 report on Albuquerque. They were shooting too many people. It has not changed. There’s a huge uproar over it,” he says. “In this latest case there’s video of their shooting a homeless guy (who reportedly threatened police with knives) in the park. Officers approached this thing like a military operation and they were too quick to pull the trigger.”
As an activist police watchdog he’s chided the Omaha Police Department for what he considers a pattern of excessive use of force. That’s made him persona non grata with his adopted hometown’s law enforcement community. He’s a vocal member of the Omaha Alliance for Justice, on whose behalf he drafted a letter to the U.S. Justice Department seeking a federal investigation of Omaha police. No Justice Department review has followed.
The alliance formed after then-Omaha Pubic Safety Auditor Tristan Bonn was fired following the release of her report critical of local police conduct. Walker had a hand in creating the auditor post.
“Our principal demand was for her to be reinstated or for someone else to be in that position. We lobbied a couple mayors. We had rallies and public forums,” he says.
All to no avail.
“The auditor ordinance is still on the books but the city just hasn’t funded it. It’s been a real political struggle which is why I put my hopes in the civic leaders.”
After earning his Ph.D. in American history from Ohio State University in 1973, the Ohio native came to work at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He met his life partner, Mary Ann Lamanna, a UNO professor emeritus of sociology, in a campus lunchroom. The couple, who’ve never married, have been together since 1981. They celebrated their 30th anniversary in Paris. They share a Dundee neighborhood home.
Though now officially retired, Walker still goes to his office every day and stays current with the latest criminal justice research, often updating his books for new editions. He’s often called away to consult cities and police departments.
He served as the “remedies expert” in a much publicized New York City civil trial last year centering around the police department’s controversial stop and frisk policy. Allegations of widespread abuse – of stops disproportionally targeting people of color – resulted in a lengthy courtroom case. Federal district judge Shira Scheindlin found NYPD engaged in unconstitutional actions in violation of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. In her decision, she quoted from Walker’s testimony about what went wrong and what reforms were needed.
Walker’s work is far more than an exercise in academic interest. It’s a deeply personal expression of beliefs and values formed by crucial events of the ’60s. The most momentous of these saw him serve as a Freedom Summer volunteer in the heart of the Jim Crow South at the height of the civil rights movement while a University of Michigan student. Spending time in Mississippi awakened him to an alternate world where an oppressive regime of apartheid ruled – one fully condoned by government and brutally enforced by police.
“There was a whole series of shocks – the kind of things that just turned your world upside down. The white community was the threat, the black community was your haven. I was taught differently. The police were not there to serve and protect you, they were a threat. There was also the shock of realizing our government was not there to protect people trying to exercise their right to vote.”
His decision to leave his comfortable middle class life to try and educate and register voters in a hostile environment ran true to his own belief of doing the right thing but ran afoul of his father’s bigotry. Raised in Cleveland Heights, Walker grew up in a conservative 1950s household that didn’t brook progressivism.
“Quite the reverse. My father was from Virginia. He graduated from Virginia Military Institute. He had all the worst of a Southern Presbyterian military education background. Deeply prejudiced. Made no bones about it. Hated everybody, Catholics especially. Very anti-Semitic. Later in life I’ve labeled him an equal opportunity bigot.
“My mother was from an old Philadelphia Quaker family. It was a mismatch, though they never divorced. She was very quiet. It was very much a ’50s marriage. You didn’t challenge the patriarch. I was the one in my family who did.”
Walker’s always indulged a natural curiosity, streak of rebelliousness and keen sense of social justice. Even as a boy he read a lot, asked questions and sought out what was on the other side of the fence.
As he likes to say, he not only delivered newspapers as a kid, “I read them.” Books, too.
“I was very knowledgeable about public affairs by high school, much more so than any of my friends. I could actually challenge my father at a dinner table discussion if he’d say something ridiculous. Well, he just couldn’t handle that, so we had conflict very much early on.”
He also went against his parents’ wishes by embracing rock and roll, whose name was coined by the legendary disc jockey, Alan Freed. The DJ first made a name for himself in Akron and then in Cleveland. In the late 1940s the owner of the Cleveland music store Record Rendezvous made Freed aware white kids were buying up records by black R&B artists. Walker became one of those kids himself as a result of Freed playing black records on the air and hosting concerts featuring these performers. Freed also appeared in several popular rock and roll movies and hosted his own national radio and television shows. His promotion contributed to rock’s explosion in the mainstream.
As soon as Walker got exposed to this cultural sea change, he was hooked.
“I’m very proud to have been there at the creation of rock and roll. My first album was Big Joe Turner on Atlantic Records. Of course, I just had to hear Little Richard. I loved it.”
Like all American cities, Cleveland was segregated when Walker came of age. In order to see the black music artists he lionized meant going to the other side of town.
“We were told by our parents you didn’t go down over the hill to 105th Street – the center of the black community – because it was dangerous. Well, we went anyway to hear Fats Domino at the 105th Street Theatre. We didn’t tell our parents.”
Then there was the 1958 Easter Sunday concert he caught featuring Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis headlining a Freed tour.
“My mother was horrified. I think my generation was the first for whom popular cultural idols – in music and baseball – were African- Americans.”
In addition to following black recording artists he cheered Cleveland Indians star outfielder Larry Doby (who broke the color barrier in the American League) and Cleveland Browns unning back Jim Brown.
More than anything, he was responding to a spirit of protest as black and white voices raised a clarion call for equal rights.
“Civil rights was in the air. It was what was happening certainly by 1960 when I went to college. The sit-ins and freedom rides. My big passion was for public interest. The institutionalized racism in the South struck us as being ludicrous. Now it involved a fair amount of conflict to go to Miss. in the summer of ’64 but what I learned early on at the most important point in my life is that you have to follow your instincts. If there is something you think is right or something you feel you should do and all sorts of people are telling you no then you have to do it.
“That has been very invaluable to me and I do not regret any of those choices. That’s what I learned and it guides me even today.”
Walker on far left of porch of a Freedom Summer headquarters shack in Gulfport, Miss.
He never planned being a Freedom Summer volunteer. He just happened to see an announcement in the student newspaper.
“It’s a fascinating story of how so much of our lives are matters of chance,” he says. “It was a Sunday evening and I didn’t want to study, I wanted to go to a movie. I was looking in the paper and there was no damn movie. Instead, I saw this notice that Bob Moses (Robert Parris Moses) was to speak on the Mississippi Summer Project. It sounded interesting. Moses was a legend in his own time. He really was the guiding spirit of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.”
Walker attended the March ’64 presentation and was spellbound by the charismatic and persuasive Moses, who also led the Council of Federated Organizations that organized the Freedom Summer effort.
“If you heard him speak for 10-15 minutes you were in, that was it, it was over. He was that eloquent. He was African-American, Northern, Harvard-educated, and he could speak in terms that white college students could relate to. It was just our language, our way of thinking.
So it was really just a matter of chance. If there had been a good movie that night my life would have been different.”
Walker applied to join the caravan of mostly white Northern college students enlisted to carry the torch of freedom in the South.
Applicants went to Oberlin (Ohio) College to be screened.
“They didn’t want any adventure seekers. We had to come up with $500 in reserve as bail money in case we got arrested. I had that, so I was accepted.”
He says his father “was absolutely furious” with his decision, adding, “We had fallen out the year before and so this was no surprise.” Meanwhile, he says his mother “was quietly supportive.”
Walker joined hundreds of other students for a one-week orientation at Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio.
“The training was very intense.”
He learned about the very real risks involved. As Northerners intruding into a situation white Mississippians considered a sovereign state rights issue, the students were considered troublemakers, even enemies. Most whites there held deep resentment and contempt for outsiders attempting to interfere with their way of life and order of things.
“Intellectually we knew the danger, that was explained to us, and we had ample opportunity to bail out. There were some people who were accepted who apparently did not show up. I’m not sure I could have lived with myself if I chickened out.”
In June Walker and three others set out in a station wagon belonging to one of his Eastern compatriots.
“It had New York plates and of course that was a red flag we were outside agitators. We went down through Ala. and then crossed over…I have a vivid recollection of crossing the line into Miss. that morning on this clear soon-to-be hot June day. I was assigned to Gulf Port, next door to Biloxi. Gulf Port was the ‘safest’ area in the state. Not far from New Orleans. Tourism. There’s an U.S. Air force Base down there. So they were accustomed to having outsiders.”
Nothing Walker witnessed surprised him but seeing the strict segregation and incredible poverty first-hand did take him aback.
Volunteers stayed with host black families in humble shanties.
The men in the family he boarded with worked as longshoremen. There were separate white and black locals of the International Longshoremen’s Association and having a union voice gave the black workers some protections many other blacks lacked.
Walker variously went out alone or paired up with another volunteer.
“We would go up these unpaved roads to these shacks and try to convince people they should register to vote. Only 7 percent of potentially eligible African Americans were registered. I was going door to door talking to people and looking them in the eye and seeing the fear. They would say, ‘Yes sir, yes ma’am,’ and it was plenty evident they weren’t going to make any effort. They knew we could leave and they knew they were going to be there stuck with the consequences.
“It gave me a sense more than anything else of the human price of segregation and all the terror that supported it.”
While the stated objective was not achieved the initiative helped break some of the isolation blacks experienced in that totalitarian state.
“The goal was voter registration and we registered almost no one. It wasn’t until the Voter Rights Act a year later any progress was made. But we had to do it. The major accomplishment was we established our right to be there. It changed the political-legal climate of Mississippi.”
Temporary Freedom Schools were formed, convened in black churches, homes, even outdoors, as resources to teach literacy, basic math, black history and constitutional rights to youths and adults alike.
Walker personally witnessed no violence and never encountered any direct threat.
“I don’t remember being scared at any point.”
The one glint of intimidation came while going door to door when a white man in a pickup began cruising up and down the road. On another occasion, he says, “we did get some people to go down to the courthouse and march and some people were arrested.”
The danger was real though. Within days of his arrival three young civil rights workers, Andrew Goodman James Chaney and Mickey Schwerner went missing. Goodman had been in one of Walker’s training sessions. The worst was feared and later confirmed: murder.
Walker says, “When we heard the news three people were missing it came as no surprise and we knew they were dead even though they didn’t find the bodies until 44 days later. We just knew.”
The terror campaign went far beyond The Mississippi Three to include beatings of residents and volunteers and the burnings of dozens of black homes, churches and businesses.
As disturbing as this was it didn’t give him any second thoughts.
“You couldn’t retreat in the face of death. They were not going to chase us out even at the cost of murder. We were there and we were going to stay and finish this.”
One of many public protests against NYPD’s stop and frisk policy
Walker was committed enough that he returned to Miss. early the next year and stayed through much of 1966. The experience was foundational to setting the course of his life’s work. “Absolutely, totally and completely. We began to see things through the prism of race.” It also made him aware of disparities in his own backyard. Even today, in the middle of a thriving Midwest economy, he says, “There are really two Omahas.” One of privilege and the other of poverty.
His activism resumed upon returning to Ann Arbor, where he participated in civil rights fundraisers and protests. He actively opposed the war in Vietnam. The military draft was in full swing to feed the war machine. He’d been classified 1-Y for medical reasons.
“On April 3, 1968 I turned in my draft card as part of a mass rally in Boston. Hundreds also did that day in Boston, and I think it was thousands across the country. The cards were all sent to the Justice Department. And that is how I acquired my FBI file.”
Like many activists, he accepts his FBI file as a badge of honor for fighting the good fight in the tumultuous ’60s.
By training he’s an expert in ethnic violence of the 19th century, and he thought he had an urban studies job lined up at UNO in the newly formed College of Public Affairs and Community Service only to discover the position disbanded. Then someone told him the university had received a big criminal justice grant. Walker talked with then criminal justice dean Vince Webb, who hired him.
“I got a job and the job became a career and I never looked back. Pure chance.”
Walker says his urban history expertise translated well to examining the urban racial violence of the 20th century.
“Once in policing my focus gravitated to police community relations.– this wasn’t too many years after the riots – and from there to citizen review of police and then to what I now define my field as – police accountability.
He says policing’s come a long way.
“The world of policing has changed. There’s been some genuine improvement. The composition of police forces is very different in terms of African-Americans, Latinos and women. Police thinking in the better departments is much more responsive to their local communities. The reform impulse has really come from the community, from the ground up, from people complaining about incidents, people lobbying city councils and mayors. Lawsuits, even if they don’t succeed, raise the issue and create a sense there’s a problem that needs correcting. At various points along the way the better police chiefs say, ‘Yeah, we have a problem here.'”
Walker says the control of deadly force is a good example.
“There were some police chiefs who said, ‘We can’t just send our people out there with guns and no instructions,’ which we used to do prior to ’72. They’d get hours and hours of training on how to clean the damn thing and no instructions on when you should shoot and when you should not shoot. It was, ‘Use good judgement.’ That was it. The fleeing felon rule was in effect, so if an officer saw someone he believed had committed a felony, a burglary let’s say, even though the person was unarmed, that officer could shoot to kill and could in fact kill that person within the law. There’s been a whole change there because of the community policing movement.”
In his work Walker says, “I’ve learned much more about how police departments work internally in terms of holding their officers accountable. That’s my expertise.”
In the case of the NYPD’s overly aggressive stop and frisk policy he says officers were required to have a reasonable suspicion someone had committed a crime or was about to. The overwhelming number of detentions were of people of color and Walker says “well over 80 percent of the time there was no arrest nor a ticket, so the officers guessed wrong. They had a heavy hand.” He says one of the main rationales officers put down in their reports was “high crime neighborhood,” which Walker found inexcusable. “A neighborhood is a place, not a behavior. It’s where you live, it’s not what you’re doing. They were making you a criminal suspect for living where you live.”
He says the most common reason given for stops was “furtive movement,” which he found far too ambiguous.
“It was a runaway profiling policy. This went on for 14 years and sparked several lawsuits. The police commissioner and the mayor did not listen to the complaints and protests. They dug their heels in and didn’t look at the evidence.”
He says his “fairly straight forward testimony” recommended a new policy on how to conduct stops. better training, a mid-management accountability system and a broader early intervention system with a computerized data base to track officer performance. He laid out remedies enacted in other police departments.
He believes the case could encourage legal challenges of profiling in other states but he cautions, “The difference is the NYPD turned it into a massive program, which is more easily challenged. In most departments, it is used, but not on a massive basis and a matter of official policy. This makes it far more difficult to challenge.”
(NOTE: Last fall a federal appeals court blocked the ruling that altered the NYPD astop and frisk policy and removed Judge Shira Scheindlin from the case.)
He says. “Theres a very real connection between Miss. in 1964 and being on the witness stand in New York in 2013 and race is the connection. It’s the lens through which I saw that and understood it.”
In this pervasive video and social media age police incidents are increasingly captured on camera and shared with the masses, as happened with some Omaha incidents. Walker says despite the prospect the whole world may be watching alleged police misconduct still occurs “because the habits are so deeply engrained that among some officers this is just second nature. Officers label someone a bad guy, so he’s not worthy of respect, and they do what they want.”
At its worst, he says, problematic attitudes and behaviors become systemic, accepted parts of police culture. The longer they go unchecked, without consequences, the more engrained they become.
“If it happens on the street, who’s to know,” he says. “Changing a large department after it has declined and certain habits have become engrained is a serious challenge. You need clear policies of all the critical incidents – deadly force, use of physical force, domestic violence, high speed pursuits. And then the training has to be very clear as to what those policies are. The supervision is really the critical thing. Everybody knows on the street supervision is where it’s at. A sergeant over 8 to 10 officers – that’s the heart and soul right there. When there’s some incident a sergeant has to say, ‘I don’t like the way you handled that, I don’t want to see it again.'”
He says no police department should feel itself immune from oversight.
“We know what the problems are, we know what to do. There are experts on particular subjects around the country and they can come in and help with things like use of force and domestic violence policies.”
He says police reform efforts should include public forums where all players can express their views. City governments, community groups and police departments can draw on best practices for policy guidance.
His work in words
The second edition of his book The New World of Police Accountability just came out in December. “I had to redo the whole thing, so much had changed in just a few years and my understanding of things had changed. It’s an exciting challenge to stay current.”
He says his his book The Police in America has been the best selling textbook on policing since it came in 1983. “I did a textbook on the police because there wasn’t a decent one.”
He did the book The Color of Justice with two colleagues. “It was really the first decent textbook on race, ethnicity and criminal justice. A lot of people wonder how is it there’s this huge racial disparity on who goes to prison. It’s a lot more complicated than people think. First, we’ve got some basic social inequalities. The short version of it is there’s a racial bias in policing. Then when you get to plea bargaining and sentencing and probation that’s accentuated a little further and so the end result is the accumulation of these incremental things .”
He says his book In Defense of American Civil Liberties is “probably the best thing I’ve done.” It took him five years. “I learned so much from it just about the history of this country. I knew some of the tent poles of major controversies – the Japanese American internment, the Pentagon Papers, Watergate – but it was a very rewarding experience and I still get inquiries from people based on it 24 years later.”
His new book Presidents and Civil Liberties reveals some surprises and contradictions in the records of Oval Officer holders.
With his national reputation Walker could have moved long ago to a bigger university but he says “being involved in the community is very much a part of my life and so that’s a reason for staying.” His involvement includes spending much of his free time seeing movies at the downtown art cinema Film Streams, where he annually curates a repertory series. Then there’s the extensive collection of vinyl records, album cover art, sheet music and political posters he’s accumulated. An exhibition of his jazz album covers by illustrator David Stone Martin showed at UNO, which also hosted a display of his political posters.
He’s a devoted fan of jazz, R&B and folk music Duke Ellington is a favorite. He and Mary Ann are also known to drop everything to go see Bruce Springsteen in concert.
Though the university and city he came to 40 years ago are “much transformed,” he’d like to its see leaders strive for higher standards.
As the events in Miss. 50 years ago are never far from his mind and inform so much of who he is and what he does, he’s proud to relive them. He attended a 30th anniversary of Freedom Summer in Jackson and a 40th anniversary of the orientation in Oxford, Ohio. In June he’ll return to Jackson for the 50th anniversary of when freedom rang.
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?
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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