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‘Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film’ author Leo Adam Biga doing book events Nov. 7 and Nov. 9

November 6, 2013 Leave a comment

‘Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film’ author Leo Adam Biga doing book events Nov. 7 and Nov. 9

 

 

AP COVER WITH BORDER_600 dpi

 

 

Omaha journalist and author Leo Adam Biga will sign his book Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film at a pair of events this week in the metro:

On Thursday, Nov. 7 stop in at Our Book Store, 1030 Howard St., in the Old Market Passageway, during his 6 to 8 p.m. signing.

On Saturday, Nov. 9 come hear Biga speak about his book at the Willa Cather Branch Library, 1905 S. 44th St., at 2 p.m.  A Q&A and signing will follow.

‘Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film’ Author Leo Adam Biga Gearing Up for Fall Book Talks-Signings as Release of ‘Nebraska’ Nears

October 26, 2013 3 comments

‘Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film’ Author Leo Adam Biga Gearing Up for Fall Book Talks-Signings as Release of ‘Nebraska’ Nears
I’m starting a new round of events promoting my book “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film” as the national release of the Oscar-winning filmmaker’s new picture “Nebraska” nears.  The book makes a great gift for the holidays.  You can purchase it right off my blog site, leoadambiga.wordpress.com or at alexanderpaynethebook,com.  It’s also available via Amazon and barnesandnoble.com and for Kindle and other e-reader devices.  Additionally, it’s carried by The Bookworm and Our Bookstore in Omaha.
Look for future posts about my upcoming book talks and signings around the metro.  I hope to see you.
And look for coming cover stories about “Nebraska” in The Reader and in the New Horizons.
Below, Sandy Sahlstein Lemke posted this pic of me signing copies of my Payne book at a wonderful Oct. 24 event hosted by Todd and Betiana Simon at their fabulous, art-infused home in Regency.  Sandy generously tagged me in the photo by writing:
“One of Omaha Magazine‘s most prolific and most insightful writers Leo Adam Biga had another book signing on Thursday night for “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter’s Perspective 1998-2012.” He gave an exciting talk about Payne’s film “Nebraska” which will premiere at Film Streams November 22. It was at Todd and Betiana Simon’s überfab home.— with Leo Adam Biga.”
Thanks, Sandy, you’re a gem.  And thanks, Todd and Betiana, for your warm hospitality.
Photo: One of Omaha Magazine's most prolific and most insightful writers Leo Adam Biga had another book signing on Thursday night for "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter’s Perspective 1998-2012." He gave an exciting talk about Payne's film "Nebraska" which will premiere at Film Streams November 22. It was at Todd and Betiana Simon's überfab home.

 

 

Omaha Lit Fest Offers a Written Word Feast

October 18, 2013 1 comment

It’s Omaha Lit Fest time again.  Chances are you didn’t even know Omaha had a literature festival but it does.  Nine years strong.  It’s all the brainchild of Omaha-based novelist Timothy Schaffert.  The 2013 edition brings authors together from near and far for panel discussions and shop talk.  There’s also a cool exhiibtion entiteld Carnival of Souls that has top local designers showing their takes on cult movie posters..  It happens Friday and Saturday, Oct. 18 and 19, at the W. Dale Clark Library downtown.  I’m serving as a panelist on one panel and as a moderator for another panel.  Visit omahalitfest.com for details.  My story about Lit Fest is now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com).

 

 

 

 

Omaha Lit Fest Offers a Written Word Feast

Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

Writer predilections take precedence at the October 18-19 (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest, an annual orgy of the written word organized by acclaimed resident author Timothy Schaffert (The Coffins of Little Hope).

Nine years running Schaffert’s partnered with the Omaha Public Library for the free event that calls the W. Dale Clark Library, 215 So. 15th St., home. As usual, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln assistant professor and Nebraska Writers Summer Conference director has gathered an eclectic roster of authors for quirky panel discussions. This year’s theme is Literary Obsessions and Cult Followings. Helping him explore these musings are authors from near and far and on different publishing paths. Ohio author Alissa Nutting‘s novel Tampa and its frank distillation of a sex deviant was published by Ecco/Harper Collins. Omaha author Thom Sibbitt self-published his Beat-inspired pseudo-memoir The Turnpike. Nebraska author Mary K. Stillwell’s dual biography-critical study of poet Ted Kooser was published by the University of Nebraska Press.

“I like inviting writers that I think are doing work that has a lot of edge and maybe not getting all the attention the other writers are getting and yet are worthy of that attention,” says Schaffert, who like any good host mixes and matches authors to enliven the conversation.

The intimate, idiosyncratic fest offers opportunities to talk-up authors, some of whom will be at Friday’s 6:30 to 9:30 opening night party and exhibition, Carnival of Souls. Creatives from the Nebraska chapter of AIGA, the professional association for design, will display their takes on classic movie posters from cult cinema. Beginning at 12:30 p.m. on Saturday a series of panels unfolds, including one billed Cinematic that considers movies as subject, inspiration and influence and another, Trigger Warnings, that promises a provocative spin on sex lit.

A 5:30 signing by Lit Fest authors concludes the festival.

As an academic and a former newspaper editor Schaffert tracks currents and poses questions. That’s how he arrived at the panel Obsessed and its topic of authors doggedly pursuing biographical subjects. Panelist Mary K. Stillwell’s book The Life and Poetry of Ted Kooser grew out of a dissertation she began years before. She says she discovered Kooser’s work when a poetry instructor “started bringing me in work by all the Nebraska poets and he kept saying, ‘You come from this fertile land of poetry, look what your people do.’ It really turned me on. Here were people from my own neighborhood talking about things I knew, so it was really a gift to me. We have this long history that goes all the way back to the Pawnee. It got me to thinking of the (Ogallala) Aquifer – there must be something poetic in that water.”

Her fascination resulted in the anthology Being(s) in Place(s): Poetry in and of Nebraska. She cultivated an association with Kooser, the 2004-2005 U.S. Poet Laureate. Then she decided to make him the subject of a book. Researching it meant visiting his childhood home of Ames, Iowa, interviewing his friends there and elsewhere, corresponding with Kooser and immersing herself in his poems

“Going back to his poems you can see the depth of his literary knowledge, you can see the influence of (John) Keats or Thomas Transformer or even (Robert) Frost. Some of his images just seem to be in brotherhood with Frost. So each time you go back you get another layer. It’s sort of an archaeological expedition when you study a Kooser poem over time.”

She says Kooser proved a “cooperative” and “generous” subject who was “patient” with her many questions.

Research comes in many forms. New York state-based author Owen King informed his new novel Double Feature about a famous B-movie director by watching unholy hours of old flicks.

“Taking a survey of the B-movies of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s was essential to the book,” says King, the son of authors Stephen and Tabitha King and the husband of fellow Lit Fest guest author Kelly Braffet. “I had seen quite a few before I started but I gained a newfound respect for them in the process of watching and rewatching so many in a relatively short period. There’s an earnestness at work in most of the films that I didn’t fully grasp beforehand. Which is why, although I have some fun with B-movies in Double Feature, I also hope aficionados feel like I did them justice.”

Portland, Oregon author Monica Drake partially drew on her own experiences as a clown for her novel Clown Girl. Her observations working at a zoo and her adventures in parenting helped inspire her novel The Stud Book.

Timothy Schaffert became a virtual 19th century explorer researching his new novel The Swan Gondola set at the 1898 Trans-Mississippi Exposition in Omaha. He enjoyed the immersion in all things Victorian for his novel due out in February.

“it was completely pleasurable. It was valuable to learn about the history of the world’s fair and also the general development of the city of Omaha. When I embarked on that research I knew nothing about how people lived day by day in the 1890s and so reading newspapers and books published at the time I did feel myself drawing closer and closer to that age,”

“It got to the point,” he says, “I would get up in the morning and read from the Library of Congress website that day’s news of 1898. You get sort of hypnotized by it so that you’re even imagining yourself living in that period, driving some place in a horse and buggy.

“The 1890s were kind of a terrible time for anyone who wasn’t a wealthy white man. Despite all the racism and ugliness I began to feel more comfortable there than in the 21st century.”

He says his investigation “did require a great deal of time and concentration,” adding, “I was kind of writing and researching at the same time, so I’d write a scene and then go back and figure out how close that scene could be to the reality of the culture of the time – to the social customs and habits and gestures. I wanted it to be an authentic representation of the day.”

Schaffert’s among a handful of Lit Fest authors with novels at some stage of development for the screen. Local crime and suspense fiction writer Sean Doolittle has The Cleanup in development with director Alex Turner (Dead Birds). Unlike Schaffert and author Monica Drake, whose Clown Girl was optioned by Kristin Wiig, Doolittle’s taken an active hand in the process.

Doolittle says Turner “wrote the initial draft of the screenplay, then asked me if I’d be interested in rewriting it. That was my introduction to screenwriting. I’ve been with the project through a number of additional rewrites, until the screen version evolved into both a faithful representation of, and a significant departure from, the original story.

On “the metamorphosis” from novel to script, he says, “I learned a lot about structure – looking at an existing story from different angles and moving as much weight as possible with each narrative decision.”

Most writing’s done in isolation and if you’re self-publishing it can be an especially lonely but rewarding journey. Thom Sibbitt will join fellow lone wolf authors on the panel Experiments: Writing Around the Mainstream that discusses risk, invention, small-press publishing, dangerous subjects and the literary underground. Given that his novel The Turnpike is “this not for everybody material” Sibbitt says he felt it best served by self-publishing. Despite the hard work the process entails he says “it’s been great – I actually feel super empowered to have been able to do it myself.”

Schaffert says today’s digital platforms and micro presses are viable options that allow authors to get their work out as never before. “This is a really exciting time for writers.”

In an era of shrinking attention spans and publications that values technology over literature, Lit Fest celebrates the enduring power of the written word.

Omaha Public Library marketing manager Emily Getzchman says the event aligns well with OPL’s mission. “This event inspires people to think critically and look beyond the words on the page. It provides a rare opportunity to combine authors, art and their works with the community who consumes it. Our hope is that the ideas and perspectives that emerge will inspire people to continue conversations about life and culture.”

For event details visit omahalitfest.com.

NOTE: Leo Adam Biga is the author of Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film. Read more of his work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.

 

 

 

Leo Adam Biga, Author of ‘Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film,’ to Serve as Panelist and Moderator at (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest

September 30, 2013 2 comments

Yours truly will be a panelist and a moderator at the 2013 Omaha Lit Fest, October 18-19, at the downtown W. Dale Clark Library.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Under the Skin:
Literary Obsessions & Cult Followings
Featured authors delve into their own preoccupations, nervous habits, bad influences and literary obsessions. Nationally acclaimed writers will discuss the appeal of dangerous characters, the danger of appealing characters, the experimental, the sentimental, the personal and the impersonal. Hosted by Omaha Public Library, the (downtown) omaha lit fest features author panel discussions, an art exhibit and an opening-night party.

FRIDAY, OCT 18, 6:30-9:30 pm
In a partnership with AIGA: Nebraska, (downtown) omaha lit fest kicks off on Friday night with A Carnival of Souls opening-night party & exhibit. Members of AIGA: Nebraska, a professional association of designers, will exhibit their own versions of classic movie posters from the golden age of low-budget horror and drive-in theater (think: Attack of the 50 Ft. WomanLittle Shop of HorrorsNight of the Living DeadMothra), in celebration of B-grade cult cinema, cheap thrills, exploitation and scary carnivals.  Among the authors in attendance is Owen King, whose debut novel Double Feature tells the story of fictional B-movie actor Booth Dolan.

SATURDAY, OCT 19 / 12:30 pm
Love/Hate: The villain as hero in contemporary fiction.
Moderator Annasue Wilson kicked off a national debate earlier with a 2013 controversial interview in Publishers Weekly on the topic of whether literary characters should be likable. Annasue will explore this topic with Lit Fest authors: Carolyn Turgeon, whose The Fairest of Them All tells the story of a fairy-tale heroine-turned-villain; Monica Drake, whose The Stud Book is “the freshest look at the tyranny of the baby bump since Rosemary got pregnant,” according to Chelsea Cain; Alissa Nutting, whose Tampa was declared the “sickest, most controversial book of the summer” by Cosmopolitan; and Kelly Braffet, whose Save Yourself is “an electrifying tomahawk missile of a thriller with honest-to-God people at its core,” according to Dennis Lehane.

SATURDAY, OCT 19 / 1:30
Obsessed: Research and biography.
Authors discuss the rigorous, obsessive (and sometimes unhealthy) pursuit of their subjects. Panelists: Author and journalist Leo Adam Biga (Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film), who’s long followed the career of the Oscar-winning filmmaker and visited the set of Nebraska; Mary K. Stillwell, whose The Life and Poetry of Ted Kooser is the first critical biography to consider the poet’s life and work together; Owen King, who researched Double Feature by watching hours and hours of horror films and is now furthering his obsession with baseball; and Timothy Schaffert, whose forthcoming novel The Swan Gondola involved full immersion into 1898 Omaha.

SATURDAY, OCT 19 / 2:30
Experiments: Writing around the mainstream.
Authors talk about risk, invention, small-press publishing, dangerous subjects and the literary underground. Panelists include: Elwin Cotman, author of Jack Daniels Sessions EP: A Collection of Fantasies; Brion Poloncic, author of Xanthous Mermaid Mechanics; and Thom Sibbitt, who explores sex, death and drugs in his novel The Turnpike.

SATURDAY, OCT 19 / 3:30
Cinematic: Movies as subject, inspiration, and influence.
Leo Adam Biga, whose extensive journalism about Alexander Payne is the basis of his book Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film, moderates a panel on how movies shape a novelist’s vision. Panelists: Owen King; Monica Drake, author of Clown Girl (optioned for film by Kristen Wiig); Carolyn Turgeon, whose novel Mermaid has been optioned for film; and Sean Doolittle, recently involved with the development of an adaptation of his thriller The Cleanup.

SATURDAY, OCT 19 / 4:30
Trigger Warnings:
Our semi-annual “writing about sex” panel. Panelists: Alissa Nutting, whose Tampa centers on a sexual deviant; Kelly Braffet, whose first novel was written with a “restraint” that “lends the novel a prim mystery, deepening its creepy intensity,” according to the New York Times; and Elwin Cotman, who is a “synthesizer… of lewd dialect and high lyricism,” according to Karen Russell.

SATURDAY, OCT 19 / 5:30
Book signings by lit fest authors.

For more details, visit http://omahalitfest.com.

Retired Warrior, Lifetime Scholar John Nagl Became U.S. Army Counterinsurgency Guru

September 30, 2013 Leave a comment

If war is hell, then where does heaven or spirituality come into the picture during armed conflict?  The question is apt when considering the career of retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel John Nagl, who squared his strong faith with his extensive combat and military strategy experience while becoming the U.S. Army’s counterinsurgency guru.  The Omaha native is a graduate of his hometown’s Creighton Prepatory School , where the Jesuit education he received gave him values and philosiphies that have guided him through war and peace.  Read my cover story profile of Nagl that will be appearing in the new issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com).  In it, he reflects on his roles as a man for others, a patriot, a military strategist, a combat leader, and a scholar and educator.

 

 

John Nagl

 

 

Retired Warrior, Lifetime Scholar John Nagl Became U.S. Army Counterinsurgency Guru 

by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in The Reader (www.the reader.com)

 

Two years since the U.S. pulled troops out of Iraq Americans still slog it out in Afghanistan — a full 12 years since its start. The dual wars for which so many paid a heavy price will forever be analyzed by the likes of Omaha native John Nagl, managing editor of the official U.S. Army-Marine Corps Counter insurgency Manual.

The retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel was not only a military wonk under General David Petraeus but a warrior for whom the wars the U.S., waged in the wake of 9/11 were both object lessons and hard realities.

Millions of people have been touched directly or indirectly by the conflicts. Thousands of combatants and hundreds of thousands of noncombatants have died, many more have suffered physical damage and emotional trauma. The material costs run into the trillions. The intangible costs are incalculable.

Nagl is well aware that America and the world is sharply divided on the question of whether the wars were just or unjust, necessary or unnecessary, moral or immoral. Weighing such questions is nothing new for Nagl, who is steeped in Jesuit values gleaned from his education at Omaha Creighton Prep. He was a Golden Boy who graduated West Point, became a Rhodes Scholar and studied at Oxford. He served in both the first Gulf War, where he led a tank platoon, and the Iraqi Freedom campaign, where he led armor regiments.

Like some Templar Knight on a crusade this warrior-scholar has been imbued with a sense of nationalistic duty to defend his country from all enemies and with a faithful devotion to do God’s will as he sees it.

Nagl found no contradiction serving his fellow man and doing combat. He’s comfortable too squaring his humanist ideals and Christian faith with having influenced the Army’s adoption of controversial counterinsurgency (COIN) techniques.

“The sense of being a man for others, your life being a gift and it being your responsibility to invest that gift wisely for the greater glory of God, for the furthermost of his purposes here on Earth, that’s part of what certainly drove me to West Point and to a career in the military,” says Nagl, who was near the top of his 1988 West Point class.

Long on a rising star track in the military industrial complex – he received the George C. Marshall Award as the top graduate of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College – he seemingly went “rogue” when he advanced the use of COIN strategies in his master’s dissertation. He borrowed his work’s title, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, from a T.S. Lawrence observation about the difficulties of responding to insurgencies.

“I read that and I thought, man, that captures it, I now understand how hard this kind of war is. And then I went to Al Anbar (Iraq) and tried it and it was a whole lot harder than I thought it was.”

 

 

 

 

 

The impetus for his infatuation with COIN was the U.S. military’s dominance of Iraqi forces in the Gulf War and his conviction that future enemies would avoid direct confrontations.

“I became convinced the military might of the United States which had cut through the Iraqi army, the fourth largest in the world, like a hot knife through butter, was so overwhelming that future enemies wouldn’t confront us conventionally in force on force, tank on tank battles, they’d fight us as irregular warriors, as insurgents and terrorists.”

Nagl was a voice in the wilderness, due in no small part to the fact that “after Vietnam,” he says, “we consciously turned away from counterinsurgency as a nation and as an army, and pretty much literally burned the books and decided we weren’t going to do that anymore.” Yet there was Nagl calling on the ghosts of wars’ past.

“I was very lonely in the mid-1990s doing that. Everybody else was studying the revolution in military affairs and Shock and Awe and the idea that the U.S. military would triumph rapidly using precision weaponry. I was convinced that wasn’t the case.

“It was a discouraging time. Nobody was interested in counterinsurgency until after the attacks of September 11th (2001), when suddenly everybody was interested in counterinsurgency.”

Nagl’s dissertation found a publisher and his advocacy of COIN that before fell on deaf ears got the attention of a well-placed general, David Petraeus, who embraced Nagl’s writings. Petraeus, who’d been a professor of Nagl’s at West Point, eventually became the lead commander prosecuting the war in Iraq, where he changed the rules of engagement, partly through the use of COIN tactics in the field.

“It was the first time I felt I’d found someone in a position of authority who really understood the need. He was the right guy in the right place at the right times,” Nagl says of Petraeus.

 

 

 

 

 

Nagl, who was twice posted to the 24th Infantry Division at Fort Riley, Kansas, contributed to a new counterinsurgency field manual and tested out his theories in combat.

“I was sent to Iraq to do the research and to conduct counterinsurgency in Al Anbar in 2003 and 2004. We were rediscovering lessons consigned to very dusty bookshelves and I was just the guy who’d blown the dust off of those books. And then having read the books I tried to implement it in a particularly challenging place and quite frankly failed pretty miserably, so that when I came back from Al Anbar I wrote a short piece about how I thought I’d done, calling it, Spilling Soup on Myself. That became the preface to the paperback version of my dissertation.

“One of the criticisms I make of myself in that preface is that there’s sort of a blithe sense in my book that once you understand the principles it’s comparatively easy to apply them and, boom, everything will work out. Yeah not so much, not so much…Conventional combat is hard enough but counterinsurgency is conventional combat cubed. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to do in my life.”

During Nagl’s 2003-2004 deployment he became an Army celebrity.

“A journalist named Peter Maas embedded with my unit wrote a very substantial New York Times Magazine piece called ‘Professor Nagl’s War’ that popularized some of my ideas to a pretty big audience.”

He says his profile was also enhanced “being at the center of the storm” as military assistant for then deputy secretary of defense Paul Wolfowitz in the Pentagon “as the Iraq war was going rapidly downhill in 2005 and 2006.”

 

 

 

 

 

As COIN became in vogue as a new approach his reputation as a counterinsurgency guru got him invited on the Charlie Rose Show and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Nagl’s a natural for the media to glom onto. He’s handsome, articulate, passionate. He can banter with the best. He cuts a dashing figure in or out of uniform and embodies the whole “be all you can be” slogan with aplomb and panache.

On Charlie Rose he took part in a roundtable discussion about Vietnam, Iraq and counterinsurgency that he says “was intellectually stimulating and engaging and I hope helpful to the American public.”

The Daily Show was a different experience entirely,” he notes. “The field manual had been published by the University of Chicago. I was back at Fort Riley, Kansas and was literally running a machine gun range when I got a phone call from someone purporting to be from the show asking if I could come on later that week. I didn’t believe it really was them. Well, it really was, and I said yes. Then I had to convince the Army to let me go. The Army actually cut orders, it was official business, so I wore my uniform.”

Nagl’s sure what proceeded was “the funniest discussion Jon Stewart has ever had on camera about an army field manual.” This hawk’s appearance on a show synonymous with cool, anti-establishment satire, he says, makes his “credibility go way up” when talking to student audiences. “They don’t care I’ve been shot at in a couple of wars, but trading words with Jon Stewart, that is an honor right there.”

COIN strategy came under sharp criticism within and outside senior military command beginning in 2008, He retired from the Army that same year.

In his immediate post-Army life he served as president of the Center for a New American Security from 2009 to 2012. This summer he assumed the headmaster role at the exclusive all-boys Haverford School in Penn., where his son Jack started the 6th grade.

After his Army retirement there was speculation he’d left because he found his path for advancement blocked due to his close association with counterinsurgency. He denies it.

“My retirement had nothing to do with having been passed over. I hadn’t been. If I had been, I wouldn’t have been positioned to continue rising up the ranks,” he says.

He adds that his retirement also had nothing to do “with counterinsurgency strategy falling out of favor,” adding, “It hadn’t when my retirement was announced in January 2008 or when I retired in October 2008.” In fact, he argues, counterinsurgency “was still ascendant in 2009 when the President twice increased force levels in Afghanistan to conduct COIN.”

No, it turns out Nagl walked away from the service he loves for, well, love. He and his wife Susi Varga, whom he met at Oxford, have a young son together and she wasn’t so keen on being an Army bride.

In an email, he wrote, “The decision was a personal one that was perhaps inevitable when I fell in love with a Hungarian Oxford student of literature and the arts and brought her on repeated tours to Kansas. The Army life had relatively little appeal for her and never really let her find her footing and spread her wings. I’m hoping that our new life together at the Haverford School will provide soil in which she flowers.”

 

 

 

 

 

That doesn’t mean he’s made a complete break with the military world, which after all was all he knew for more than two decades.

“I miss the Army every day. I loved being in the Army, being part of an organization that has global reach, that is composed of talented, dedicated young professionals, that boasts such a proud history, that makes history. I like to think that I’m still helping my army and my nation as a civilian – writing, educating, serving on the Defense Policy Board and the Reserve Forces Policy Board. But I still miss strapping on my tanker boots every morning.”

During his time in the military he did his best to both live the Jesuit motto “for the greater glory of God” and to train for and wage war. He says the two things never posed a moral conflict for him.

“I never saw any conflict between being a product of a Jesuit education and serving in the U.S. military. The Jesuits taught me the difference between jus ad bellum and jus in bello; the first, whether a war is fought for a just cause, is the business of politicians. How that war is fought, or jus in bello, is the business of soldiers. The first Gulf War, Operation Desert Storm, was clearly a just and necessary war, fought to free a conquered people and restore international order, and it was fought in a just manner.

“My second war, Iraqi Freedom, I did not then and do not now believe was necessary. However, it was fought according to the laws of war on our side, and we punished violations of those laws that did occur. I also worked to help the Army fight it more wisely and cause less harm to the Iraqi people through the writing of the U.S. Army-Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual.  The Jesuits must have thought that on balance, I worked Ad majorem Dei gloriam (For the greater glory of God) as they named me Alumnus of the Year for 2012 and included my rank on the award.”

Though the haze of war is full of tragedies and atrocities, Nagl holds to the classical warrior’s view that duty to country and God are the same. This fervent patriot and devout Christian swears allegiance to both.

“Military service is completely compatible with the values I learned at Prep. Some of the finest men for others I have ever known were those who laid down their lives for their friends that we could all live in peace and freedom. We must build a country that is worthy of their sacrifice.”

As a military academy product and teacher (he taught at West Point and the Strategic Studies Institute at the United States Army War College), Nagl knows Army history and thus takes a long view of things when it comes to COIN.

“Counterinsurgency is always going to be messy and slow, but if you’re trying to defeat an insurgency, it’s the least bad option. I’ve always said counterinsurgency is hard, that it’s not guaranteed to work by any means. What I always ask the skeptics is, ‘What do you recommend instead?’

“And the fact is with the American withdrawal from Iraq, the pending continuing drawdown in Afghanistan, the United States has decided not to engage itself in what we call big footprints –, tens or hundreds of thousands of American troops counterinsurgency-camping. But we’re still engaged in supporting insurgencies in places like Syria and supporting countries fighting against insurgencies not just in Afghanistan and Pakistan but also in the Philippines, Somalia, Yemen, the list goes on.

“So it isn’t that insurgency and counterinsurgency have gone away but America’s not convinced you get what you pay for, and that I think is a fair question.”

 

 

 

 

 

In many ways, the beat goes on in the places where Nagl and his fellow soldiers saw action.

“Big footprint counterinsurgency continues in Iraq but it’s Iraqi troops rather than American troops who are conducting that campaign. We were able to build up the Iraqi forces and tamp down the fires of sectarian conflict sufficiently to pass that one off to Iraq and say, ‘Good luck guys,. over to you.’

“The campaign in Afghanistan is more complicated. Afghanistan has never been as important a country for U.S. interests as Iraq was

and the real epicenter of this struggle is not Afghanistan at all, but Pakistan, which is the current home of Al Qaeda central, what remains of it, and I believe still today is the most dangerous country in the world for the United States. The biggest global threat we face comes from Pakistan.”

When it comes to military affairs these days Nagl is an interested and well-informed bystander. As closely as he still observes what’s happening in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, he’s more concerned today with leading a school and preparing its students than with war analysis and strategy. At Haverford he feels he’s found a real home.

“In a lot of ways it’s a secular version of Creighton Prep. It’s a K-12 with about a thousand boys, with a great history. It started in 1884, a hundred years before I graduated from Prep. When I visited the school there were two things engraved in the fabric of the school that really sang to me. One was over the gymnasium and it said a sound mind and a sound body in Latin and those are principles I believe in pretty strongly.”

He says engraved just over the entrance of the upper school building is Teddy Roosevelt’s Man in the Arena quotation, whose credo of service and action is one that Nagl’s lived by.

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. 

“To fight the world’s fight, I believe in that responsibility,” says Nagl. “The Jesuits taught me that, my mom and dad taught me that. So it really seemed like this was a place after my own heart.”

5 Questions with: Leo Adam Biga, Author of ‘Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film’

September 27, 2013 1 comment

The Omaha Public Library presents:

5 Questions with: Leo Adam Biga [journalist].

 

5 Questions with: Leo Adam Biga [journalist]

Leo Adam Biga at 2013 Friends of OPL annual meeting

Leo Adam Biga spekaing at an Omaha Public Library event in early 2013.

Omaha journalist and author Leo Adam Biga will make the Omaha Public Library rounds this November to discuss his new book, Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film. The 2013 release is based on Academy Award winning screenwriter and director Alexander Payne, also an Omaha native.

Biga, a writer for more than 25 years, writes about the people, businesses and history of Omaha. “I write stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions.” You can count Biga among Omaha’s biggest fans. He lists Lauritzen Gardens,Benson and Vinton Street business districts, and Love’s Jazz & Arts Center as local favorites.

Upon his return from Hollywood a few weeks ago, Biga took the time to answer some questions about Payne, writing as a profession, libraries and more. Enjoy!

1.)   How would you describe Omaha?

Omaha is an earnest place with strong urban and suburban environments and a growing arts, culture and creative scene. It’s a city rich in history but it doesn’t take its history or itself too seriously.

2.)    You’ve spent years chronicling Alexander Payne’s career and success. What ignited your interest in Mr. Payne?

My interest in him was a melding of my interest in film and my work as a journalist. I was a film buff and film exhibitor before I was a journalist. When I discovered that the young Payne had a student thesis film, The Passion of Martin, making waves on the festival circuit, I booked a screening of the film in Omaha at the New Cinema Cooperative. By the time he came back to his hometown to make his first feature in Omaha, Citizen Ruth, I was a journalist and within a couple years I began interviewing and profiling him.

3.)    What advice do you have for aspiring writers and journalists?

Simply: write and read and repeat more of the same. Today, of course, anyone can get their work seen because of social media platforms. Anyone can have a blog or website featuring their writing. Self-publishing is within everyone’s reach.

4.)    What five words describe Leo Adam Biga?

Passionate. Driven. Curious. Persistent. Eclectic.

5.)    You’ve visited OPL on numerous occasions for numerous events, and you have a handful of OPL visits scheduled this year. What keeps you coming back?

Libraries are built on words and language, and because I make my living with those tools I have an appreciation for any venue devoted to them. To be honest, as a kid and even as a young adult I never felt very comfortable in libraries or most any public place because of social anxiety, but I’ve largely grown out of that and now I find libraries very conducive places to my heart and soul.

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We thank Leo Adam Biga for answering our questions. Copies of the author’s latest book are available for check-out at OPL. In addition to his upcoming talks at OPL, he’ll be a guest at this year’s (Downtown) Omaha Lit Fest on October 19, 2013.

Nebraska Coast Connection Salon Q&A with Alexander Payne: The Filmmaker Speaks Candidly About ‘Nebraska,’ Casting, Screenwriting and Craft

September 24, 2013 5 comments

  1. Photo: Photo by Travis Beck
    Todd Nelson interviewing Alexander Payne at the Sept. 9 Nebraska Coast Connection                                                                                                                                          Hollywood  Salon I was at to promote my book, “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film.”
    ©Photo by Travis Beck
I was fortunate enough to be invited to the Sept. 9 monthly Hollywood Salon in Culver City, Calif. sponsored by the Nebraska Coast Connection, a networking group for Nebraskans working in the film and television industry.  I was there to promote my book, Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film, which you can order via thisblog site.  The salon’s special guest that night was Oscar-winning filmmaker Alexander Payne, who spoke candidly about his new film Nebraska, casting, screenwriting and craft in a Q&A moderated by NCC founder Todd Nelson.  The event was held at the classic Culver Hotel, where many film stars stayed back in the day.  This is an edited transcript of part of Payne’s remarks.
  1. Photo: Photo by Travis Beck
    Part of the audience at Payne’s NCC salon appearance, ©photo by Travis Beck

 

Nebraska Coast Connection Salon Q&A with Alexander Payne: The Filmmaker Speaks Candidly About ‘Nebraska,’ Casting, Screenwriting and Craft

©Compiled by Leo Adam Biga

Excerpt of Alexander Payne in conversation with Nebraska Coast Connection founder Todd Nelson

 

AP: “Hello, good evening, thank you for coming…”

TN: “You have a little movie coming out. A little black and white number you threw together over a weekend or two.”

AP: “No, longer than that. But it’s a small movie. That doesn’t mean it’s not dramatically resonant, but it’s a small movie.”

(Then Payne addressed how the project came to him and the background of how its screenwriter Robert Nelson came to write it.)

AP: “Nine years ago I got a script from Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa, the team that had produced Election. They came to me nine or 10 years ago with a script called Nebraska and it was written by a guy named Bob Nelson out of Snohomish, Wash. but his parents were from Hartington (Neb.). And it was based on his memory of his father’s and mother’s families. He used to spend his summers out there in Hartington in northeast Neb. and he wrote this script based on his memories of those summers and it really rang hilariously true. It was a very austere screenplay. Those producers said they suspected it was going to be small for me, too dinky a film.”

TN: “They thought you might know someone who…”

AP: “Yeah, ‘Do you know a young Neb. filmmaker who might want to do this?’ and I said, ‘No, I think I want to do it.’ They had wanted to make it for like $2 or $3 million, and I said, ‘How about like $10 or $12?’ I showed it not long afterwards to someone in attendance here tonight, John Jackson, my casting director, because I knew that this film would really live or die on his casting. I mean, all films do but even a couple percentage points more this one would because it’s as much anthropological as it is cinematic. And he liked it and thought he wanted to cast it. He said he felt a very personal connection to it through his family, whom he describes as dirt farmers from Iowa. That’s a bit of an exaggeration in a way with respect to the script but still it’s suggestive…

“A lot of the movie was a road trip and I was just finishing Sideways. I didn’t want to followup Sideways with another road trip film. It’s a real drag to shoot in cars and I just couldn’t do another car movie again after Sideways. Now The Descendants ended up having some stuff in cars too but anyway…the timing worked out and right after The Descendants I made it. They were nice enough to wait – the producers and the writer  – and so it happened.”

TN: “It has Bruce Dern and Will Forte. Tell us about bringing them on board.”

AP: “Bruce Dern had first leapt to mind  to play this part. All parts are tricky to cast in general but this one I think for John and me has been the trickiest. You know. I get praised sometimes for getting a certain controlled performance out of Jack Nicholson or that I get stars to create characters, that after 10 or 15 minutes of seeing a big star like George Clooney you can maybe, hopefully, of course it’s my aspiration, forget it’s a big star and just see the character…I  never tailor a screenplay to fit the actor. I always demand the actor come to the script – even if it’s Nicholson or Clooney, who have certain strengths that most directors and screenwriters would wish to exploit.

“Naw, this is a text and it’s a part and yes you’re a star but you’re also an actor, so come to this and make it your own that way. This though I think has been the most specific lead part we’ve ever had to cast. Not anyone could play this guy Woody Grant. I looked back in film history and said, ‘Well, Henry Fonda could have played it like the way he did On Golden Pond, or Walter Brennan, or for you film buffs out there Charley Grapewin,  or possibly John Carradine or possibly Warren Oates had he lived. But all those people are unavailable. After thinking about Bruce Dern, the only other guy who maybe could have done it, Gene Hackman, but I couldn’t get a meeting with Gene Hackman because he genuinely has retired. He won’t even return a phone call or a query. So it just came down to Bruce Dern.

“We did our due diligence and met 50 other guys and any one of them who could have done it would still be a stretch. Like this one could maybe do it but he has trouble learning lines or this one could maybe do it but you’d have to get him to not do this schtick or this one could maybe have done it but it would have taken more work on my part and every actor requires work anyway. Bruce required work but less work than any of those other guys would have required to get it right, so Bruce Dern’s the guy.”

TN: “Will Forte?”

AP: “Never would have thought about him in a billion years but he auditioned well. So I know often in these salons we get actors or casting people and I’m always happy to say that John and I rely on auditions, the old fashioned way. Even actors who are well known I still need them to come in and read the text, with all respect. I mean, even if it’s 10 words, say a few words, help me out, I have a pea brain, I don’t want to screw it up, and I don’t want to screw up and cast you in the wrong part and then it’s not right. We all benefit if we’re able to have a meeting. Well, what else are we going to talk about? Read the fucking script.

“And to good pros, the ones who won’t audition, but they will deign to have a meeting, the good ones will either consciously or unconsciously find the time in the meeting to say, ‘Oh, I loved the moment in your screenplay where he says…’ and he’ll do a little bit of it. That’s the courteous thing to do, that’s the polite thing to do because those actors who won’t even do that don’t get the job in my experience.

“Just about auditioning stuff I remember the actress Judy Greer, a super great old fashioned  in the best way actor. She’s in The Descendants. She plays the lover’s wife. She calls herself an audition-only actress. She won’t take an offer and if there’s a meeting she insists on reading the script because she says it’s only when I read the text in front of the director do I know if I’m right for the part. So the direct line of communication between actor and director is that text. That’s just smart. What the hell else are we doing?

“June Squibb, she played the part of Jack Nicholson’s wife in About Schmidt (and she plays Bruce Dern’s wife in Nebraska)…I didn’t offer her…She didn’t occur to me, she sent in an audition. Even she had to audition. I had no idea she was going to be right for this part. It’s the Geraldine Page part or the Marjorie Main part from Ma and Pa Kettle. Basically Nebraska’s a glorified Ma and Pa Kettle film,” he said, deadpanning and elicting laughs.

(Payne discussed some more actors he’s worked with, why’s he’s particularly proud of the casting he and John Jackson did on Nebraska and how he tried to avoid certain pitfalls that come with mixing professional and nonprofessional actors on screen.)

“Tim Driscoll from Omaha, who had a small part in Citizen Ruth, came back for this one.  And his sister (Delaney Driscoll) had a significant part in Election as Matthew Broderick’s lover.

“Whatever achievements this film Nebraska may or may not have for me it’s greatest achievement is its most significant marriage of professional and nonprofessional actors because to create that world it’s dependent equally on production design and casting. That’s what suggests that world is that flesh. We spent over a year doing it. The start date is here, the visual preproduction is here, the casting has to start here. You can’t fuck up casting, you’ve got to get the right people in every part and of course the leads and the secondary, tertiary parts have to be exactly right. It’s creating a world.

“I looked at a number of small town American films for this one. One of them in particular is an excellent film and it has professional actors but also people cast from that small town. But there’s a great chasm between the acting styles of the two. It’s like the faces of the real people lend what they’re supposed to lend which is authenticity, versmisilitude and all that but they’re not acting properly, even as versions of themselves. So I knew we had to spend time to get local people who could act as vividly as possible as versions of themselves but also to have the professional actors act flatter. They both had to meet in between. I like when professional actors act more flatly like people do in real life. People don’t gesticulate, go into histrionics in real life, not Midwesterners anyway.”

 

 

Me with Payne at NCC Hollywood Salon, ©photo by Travis Beck

 

 

(Nelson and Payne then made a few comments before screening the trailer for Nebraska.)

TN: “It premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May. A wild success I can witness – I was there. I saw a 15 minute standing ovation at the end of the film.”

AP: “Yeah, I’ve seen turkeys get a standing ovation at Cannes. It played better at Telluride.”

(Then, referring to the trailer, Payne said)-

AP: “This is a work in progress print.”

(After the screening someone in the audience commented about the Spanish sounding music, which prompted Payne to describe it as a)-

AP: “More Mexican sounding trumpet piece.”

 

YOU CAN READ THE REST OF THE Q&A IN THE SOON TO BE RELEASED NEW EDITION OF MY BOOK-

Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film, A Reporter’s Perspective

(The new edition encompasses the Oscar-winning filmmaker’s work from the mid-1990s through his new film Nebraska in 2013)

This compilation of my extensive coverage of Payne and his work will be available in February 2014.  

 

Related articles

‘Bless Me, Ultima': Chicano Identity at Core of Book, Movie, Movement

September 14, 2013 Leave a comment

For a writer, I don’t read as much as I should.   Most of my book reading these days is related to assignments.   I just finished reading the classic novel Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya to inform the following story riffing on themes in the story about what it means to be Chicano.  The 2012 film adaptation of the novel is showing Sept. 16 at Creighton University in Omaha.  After reading the book I very much look forward to the film directed by Carl Franklin.  For my story I sounded out three Omaha Chicanos who adore the book and were active in the Chicano movement and remain community acitivsts to this day.

 

 

 

 

 

Bless Me, Ultima‘: Chicano Identity at Core of Book, Movie, Movement

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico

 

 

Sometimes a work of art so well captures the spirit of a people and time that it becomes an enduring cultural talking point. Such is the case with Rudolfo Anaya‘s 1972 coming-of-age novel Bless Me, Ultima, widely considered a seminal piece of Chicano literature and an influential artifact of the Chicano movement.

Three Omaha Chicanos who are great fans of the book look forward to a Sept. 16 screening of its film adaptation. Written and directed by noted filmmaker Carl Franklin (One False Move, Devil in a Blue Dress) Bless Me, Ultima (2012) will show at 7 p.m. at the Hixson-Lied Auditorium in the Harper Center at Creighton University. The screening is free and open to the public. A pre-film social hour starts at 6 p.m.

For attorney Rita Melgares, a native of southwestern Colorado near where the author grew up and the story is set, the book’s depiction of a youth (Antonio) treading the worlds of indigenous tradition and mainstream convention with the guidance of an old woman, Ultima, as his curandero (healer), resonates with her own experience.

“I identified with the duality of the worlds he was living in. The duality of your Latino home bucking up against what you learn when you go away to school. It represented something I knew.”

Community activist Abelardo Hernandez grew up in El Paso, Texas, not far from Anaya’s New Mexican roots,. He says the book’s mystical visions and beliefs are “not so different than the stories our grandmothers used to tell us. At the time I didn’t identify with them as being from the indigenous culture but I suppose they were. People who cure with herbs and chants. They call it a cleansing. It’s a gift. They’re raised with it and they pass it on through generations of the family.”

Kansas City, Mo. native Jose Francisco Garcia says the book made him appreciate “medicine isn’t just MDs but a lot of wisdom and knowledge about herbs, folklore and hundreds of years of tradition.”

 

 

 

 

Hernandez says he most identified with “the family traditions, the respect for elders and the upbringing of kids” portrayed in the 1940s-set story. Like Melgares, he had the experience of straddling two worlds. “We were bi-cultural. We had to learn the American culture but the Mexican culture and traditions were raised with us at home, in church and at festivals, where everything was in Spanish. Because we lived mostly among Mexican people we didn’t learn the American ways until probably high school or even after.”

The book gave Hernandez, Melgares and Garcia a prism to appreciate their culture at a time when they asserted their identity. All were active in the Chicano movement and the book spurred their activism.

“It made me so proud to be a Chicana,” says Melgares. “Rudy Anaya was a man right out of our culture and he wrote about something he knew and it reflected much about what I felt. This was right during the surge of the Chicano movement and we considered it an important book for Chicanos. To me, Chicano is a political word we chose for ourselves in the movement for fairness, for justice, for equality. To me, Chicanismo or the sense of being Chincano, is what that embodies.”

Garcia says, “The number one principle of Chicanismo is to be self-determined and the second thing is to give back. It’s an intention. It’s almost like being converted. I started becoming influenced by the Chicano movement through books like Occupied America and Bless Me, Ultima. It gave me a way of life, it gave me a path to start following during a time when I really didn’t know who the hell I was. We had to search for our identity. We had to go out and almost reinvent not only who we were as Americans but who we were as a culture. The Chicano movement provided that.”

“People do have to have some kind of identity otherwise they get lost,” says Hernandez.

To be Chicano is a state of mind and being for Hernandez.

“People might change but the meaning doesn’t. I think Chicano is an experience you actually live through and that you identify with. It becomes a special feeling. A lot of people have educated themselves and attained nice careers but they still have that feeling of being Chicano because you’re background never goes away, at least it shouldn’t. A lot of people try to forget it, try to put it behind them, but it’s better to always know where you came from.”

In that spirit Hernandez helped form the Chicano Awareness Center, now known as the Latino Center of the Midlands.

“We were trying to get people to be aware of their culture,” he says. “We wanted to bring the language, the culture, the traditions back to the people because a lot of it was being lost. Once people learned English or maybe they never did know Spanish they didn’t want to have anything to do with learning anything Mexican.”

Garcia say the center, whose board he once led, advances “the precepts of Chicanismo of getting an education, having a cultural identity and expressing yourself in areas of self-improvement.”

Forty years have not dimmed the book’s impact. It remains widely used in classrooms and reading programs. Garcia says the film, which he’s seen, is a faithful adaptation. “It’s a great movie. It moved me. To a person like me of Spanish heritage that movie is very powerful.”

 

 

Rudolfo Anaya

Author Leo Adam Biga Joined Nebraska Coast Connection Salon Featuring Alexander Payne to Promote His Book About the Filmmaker, ‘Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film’

September 12, 2013 5 comments

 

Here’s a photo of me conversing with Alexander Payne at the Nebraska Coast Connection salon on Monday, Sept. 9 at the Culver Hotel in Culver City, Calif. I was there with my book about the writer-director, “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film.” Payne was the featured speaker that night and many of his comments had to do with his new film “Nebraska,” which has now garnered strong audience and critical praise at Cannes and Telluride. The New York Film Festival is next.

Click this link to read my latest story about “Nebraska” in The Reader (www.thereader.com)- http://www.thereader.com/comments/when_a_film_becomes_a_film_the_shaping_of_nebraska/

I will soon be posting that story on my blog.

I will be the NCC’s featured speaker at the March 2014 salon. NCC is a long-standing networking association of folks from Nebraska or with strong Nebraska ties who work in the film and television industry. Its founder and guru Todd Nelson was nice enough to invite me out. It was a good time.

 

 

Leo Adam Biga with Alexander Payne

WGN’s Nick Digilio chats with Leo Adam Biga, Author of Alexander Payne: His Journey In Film


Listen to the WGN Radio interview Nick Digilio recently did with me about my Alexander Payne book.

 

Blank white book w/path.

Click on http://wgnradio.com/2013/07/26/alexander-payne-his-journey-in-film/

 

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