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Jane Fonda Takes Center Stage at Film Streams, Where Her Life in Film is Celebrated this Summer

June 19, 2012 6 comments

The Omaha art cinema Film Streams is making a habit of saluting prominent American screen actresses.  The way it works is a guest star comes for a special evening in which Film Streams board member and world acclaimed filmmaker Alexander Payne interviews her live on stage, ala Inside the Actors Studio.  A repertory series of her work is part of the deal.  Laura Dern got the treatment the first time.  Debra Winger came next.  Jane Fonda is this year’s feted subject. Depending on your age or aesthetic or political affiliation Fonda means different things to different people.  For some, she’s an enduring star.  For others, a faded one.  Depending on your tastes, she boasts an impressive body of stand-the-test-of-time work or else a decidedly uneven euvre outside a few notable exceptions.  Many still find unforgivable her anti-war protests and vilify her every move.  Many more feel affectionate and nostalgic about her as the daughter of Henry Fonda and as one of the 1960s and 1970s biggest stars.  She’s prettty much done it all as a cinema diva – from ingenue to sex symbol to serious Method actress, the star of box office hits and critically acclaimed prestige pics, gobs of Golden Globe and Oscar nominations, two Academy Award wins for Best Actress, an Emmy for Best Lead Actress.  Retiring from the screen at age 50 and making a comeback at nearly 70.  Now, of course, as a woman of a certain age (74) she’s a supporting player or character actress who brings a rich persona and background to any role she takes.  Part of the context of Jane Fonda today is that her adventurous personal life informs her work.  Her boarding school and debutant upbringing.  Her early modeling career.  Studying under Lee Strasberg.  Her marriages to Roger Vadim, Tom Hayden, and Ted Turner.  Her activist years.  Becoming a Hollywood Player as a producer.  Making herself a fitness guru.  Her forever strained relationship with her famous father.  And her identity today as a healthy aging advocate and author.  You’ll find plenty of film stories by me on this blog.  Many happy cinema returns.

Jane Fonda

Jane Fonda Takes Center Stage at Film Streams, Where Her Life in Film is Celebrated this Summer

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in the July issue of Metro Magazine

 

The Fonda Legacy

This summer Film Streams celebrates the many faces of actress Jane Fonda.

She and one of her biggest fans, Alexander Payne, converse live on stage July 22 at the Holland Performing Arts Center for Feature Event IV, the art cinema’s annual fundraiser. A Fonda repertory series runs through August 30.

The Fonda legacy in Nebraska looms large. Her late iconic father Henry Fonda was born here. He started acting at the Omaha Community Playhouse, where Jane and brother Peter trod the boards. Henry retained deep ties to the state and the Playhouse. He once brought the entire production of his Broadway triumph Mister Roberts to town. In 1955 he, fellow Playhouse alum Dorothy McGuire and 17-year-old Jane appeared in a benefit production of The Country Girl directed by Joshua Logan.

Peter, who attended the University of Omaha, occasionally visits the Playhouse.

When the only film pairing the famous father and daughter, On Golden Pond, made its Midwest premiere at the Orpheum she came.

Unlike her father’s beloved public persona, Jane’s is complex.

Incarnations

For much of the 1960s she was a spirited ingenue and sometime vixen plying her cover girl looks and wiles more than her acting chops in cinema trifles. Her comedic work in Cat Ballou and Barefoot in the Park hinted at star potential.

Film Streams founder-director Rachel Jacobson, an admirer, says Fonda “always had a deeper, more introspective quality even when playing the lighter roles.”

When Fonda’s French filmmaker husband Roger Vadim exploited her sex symbol status in Barbarella she could have been typecast. Instead, she did a makeover from vapid party girl and blonde bimbo to social activist and serious actress.

She earned acclaim for her dramatic turns in They Shoot Horses Don’t They? (1969) and Klute (1971), the latter earning her the Best Actress Oscar. That’s when “she came out from behind the shadow of both her father and brother” (Peter made it big with Easy Rider), says film historian Bruce Crawford of Omaha.

She also drew ire for her anti-war comments and protests. By the time she divorced Vadim and married activist Tom Hayden she was branded “political.” Fonda made socially conscious projects in Julia (1977), Coming Home (1978) (another Best Actress Oscar) and The China Syndrome (1979).

Her career peaked in the late ’70s-early ’80′s with Nine to Five, On Golden Pond and her Emmy-winning performance in TV’s The Dollmaker (1984). By then she’d morphed into a home workout video diva. After divorcing Hayden she surprised many by marrying media tycoon Ted Turner and promptly retiring from the screen at age 50. Her recent return to movies comes on the heels of her best-selling memoirs and healthy aging advocacy.

“She’s continually reinvented herself and her image,” says Jacobson. “She’s just very deliberate about how she thinks about herself and her own evolution. She’s a fascinating person.”

Payne curates the Feature Event and in Fonda, 74, he’s once more chosen a dynamic figure to talk cinema shop, following Steven Soderbergh, Debra Winger and Laura Dern. Jacobson says, “The people he’s interested in having conversations with are really strong artists with great careers.” She says Payne won Fonda over by saying her appearance would support the arts in Omaha. “That’s why she’s coming.”

 

 As the title character in Cat Ballou
As the title character in Barbarella
As Gloria in They Shoot Horses Don’t They? 
As Bree Daniels in Klute 
As Lillian Hellman in Julia 
As Sally Hyde in Coming Home 
As Kimberly Wells in The China Syndrome 
As Judy Bernly in Nine to Five 
As Chelsea Thayer Wayne in On Golden Pond 

 

 

The series:

Cat Ballou

She hits all the right notes as an aspiring schoolmarm turned outlaw seeking to avenge her father’s death. Lee Marvin steals the show in the dual roles of killer Tim Strawn and gunman Kid Shelleen.

Barbarella

She fearlessly plays an over-the-top sex object in highly suggestive scenes bordering on soft-core porn in this tripped-out fantasy directed by Vadim.

They Shoot Horses Don’t They?

Her transformation began with this unadorned portrayal of a desperate, ill-fated dance marathoner under the direction of Sydney Pollack.

Klute

As high end call girl Bree Daniels she’s a raw-nerved neurotic mixed up in a dangerous liaison with small town detective Donald Sutherland in the big city.

Julia 

Fonda plays the kind of strong woman, Lillian Hellman, she clearly emulates. Her playwright character embarks on a dangerous mission abroad for a friend, Julia (Vanessa Redgrave), opposing the Nazis.

Coming Home

She makes believable the evolution from naive war bride to anti-war sympathizer who falls for paraplegic activist vet Jon Voight. The fictional awakening reverberates with Fonda’s own coming-of-age.

The China Syndrome

Playing an ambitious TV reporter fighting to cover a nuclear reactor accident the authorities want suppressed Fonda is in her element. Her subdued conviction is a welcome contrast to high-strung Jack Lemmon and Michael Douglas.

Nine to Five

Sardonic Lily Tomlin and sassy Dolly Parton are long-suffering office workers harassed by womanizing boss Dabney Coleman. Pert Jane is the innocent newbie. The women execute a militant plan to turn the tables in this feminist farce.

On Golden Pond

Jane plays out real life issues with her dad in this tale of an estranged daughter starving for affection from a father who has trouble giving it. Katharine Hepburn co-stars in the poignant drama.

Tickets for the 6:30 p.m. Feature Event are $35. For pre and post-event party tickets and for series screening dates-times, visit www.filmstreams.org.

Film Connections: Coppola, Lucas, Butler, Knight, Caan, Duvall

June 3, 2012 4 comments

 

 

LATEST UPDATE: Interviewed the celebrated actress Shirley Knight, the star of The Rain People and one of the latest puzzle pieces I needed to get to for my Film Connections story-event project highlighted here.  This blog features my interviews with Knight and her Rain People co-stars James Caan and Robert Duvall.  Soon to be posted are interviews I did with that film’s cinematographer, Bill Butler, and  itswriter-director, Francis Ford Coppola.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Interviewed legendary director of photography Bill Butler. You may not know the name but you know his work.  He was the cinematographer for some of the best films of the 1970s, including Jaws and The Conversation.  He also shot key parts of The Godfather and took over One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest from Haskell Wexler.  He’s lensed some of the best made-for-TV movies (The Execution of Private Slovick) and mini-series (The Thorn Birds).  He’s a legend in the film industry, with an Oscar nomination and a lifetime achievement award from the the American Society of Cinematographers.  And he’s still working at 91!  He just completed work on a new feature.

My interview with him concerned the Film Connections story-event project I am developing in conjunction with The Reader and Film Streams (see below).  That project connects the dots of when Butler joined Francis Ford CoppolaGeorge Lucas, James Caan, Robert Duvall, and Shirley Knight in shooting part of The Rain People in Nebraska, which led Duvall to make the documentary We’re Not the Jet Set about a Nebraska ranch-rodeo family.

Bill gave me some great back story anecdotes about The Rain People shoot.  Pretty much all the dots are connected now concerning the story I want to tell with the exception of my interviewing George Lucas.  I’ve made the requests, but so far no go.  If anyone out there reading this can help me get to Lucas, I’d appreciate it.

UPDATE:  I scored my hoped-for “interview” with Francis Ford Coppola for this project, though he ended up responding by email rather than by phone to a long list of questions I posed.  But at least he took the time to answer my queries.  Look for my Q&A with him on this blog in the near future.

I was a burgeoning film buff in 1974 when the Omaha World-Herald‘s now defunct Magazine of the Midlands ran a piece on a documentary film that Robert Duvall, who had recently gained acclaim for his work in the first two Godfather films, was directiing in Ogallala, Neb. about a ranch-rodeo family there, the Petersons.  The film, entitled We’re Not the Jet Set (1977), sounded promising enough but what really got my attention was the fact that Duvall only came to meet the Petersons and to make his film about them as a result of coming to Nebraska a half-dozen years earlier for a few weeks wors on the art road movie, The Rain People (1969), a film written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola and assisted by George Lucas.  Rain People starred Shirley Knight and co-starred James Caan and Duvall.  The Petersons had a horse pen just across from the motel the cast and crew stayed at and Duvall and Caan got to know the family by riding some of their horses. Duvall became so intrigued with this colorful clan that he returned again and again to immerse himself in their life and to shoot the documentary.  It was the actor’s first directorial effort of what’s turned out to be a distinguished body of work as a director (Angelo My LoveThe ApostleAssassination Tango).

What most struck me then and now is how these figures, who at the time were obscure, except for Knight, would in a few years come to be major players in Hollywood.  I loved the fact that they converged in the middle of nowhere for a small film that led to another film.  And as I’ve come to find out, the experience of making these films in rural Nebraska led to enduring relationships and collaborations and the inspiration for yet another film. For example, Duvall and Caan have stayed in contact with the Petersons, several of whom have wound up in the film industry as wranglers, trainers, and stunt riders.  And it was through the Petersons that Caan and Duvall met a more prominent ranch family, the Haythorns, and the actors’ interactions with them led to Caan becoming a professional rodeo competitor and to informing Duvall’s later Western mini-series Broken Trail.

Jet Set was released in 1977 to mostly strong reviews from its featured screenings at film festivals, in select art house cinemas, and on public television.  Since then the film has pretty much been unseen.  There are reasons for that.  As I have come to find out, its virtual disappearance from the market is a real travesty because the work stands with the best docs from that era.  As it happened, I saw Rain People well before seeing Jet Set, a film that until two years ago only existed for me in terms of the few write-ups I’d found about it. When I finally decided in 2010 to develop a story about all of this, including the connections and relationships around the films, I contacted Duvall’s then-production company, Butcher’s Run, and they were nice enough to both send me a DVD of the pic and to arrange an interview with Duvall himself.  Jet Set was a real revelation for me.  It’s a superb example of cinema verite filmmaking and it comes as close to pure cinema as any film, dramatic or documentary, that I’ve seen from that era, and I’ve seen a lot.

Duvall led me to his good friend Caan, whom I also interviewed.  I also got in touch with several of the Petersons and interviewed them as well.  Since then I’ve interviewed some more of the principals behind Jet Set, notably cinematographer Joseph Friedman and editor Stephen Mack.  I am in the process of trying to get interviews with Knight and Rain People cinematographer Bill Butler.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  For years, decades really, that Herald story about the film I referred to earlier stuck in my mind.  It gnawed at me all the while I worked as a film programmer and publicist in Omaha and then when I transitioned into freelance journalism.  In the era before the Internet it was hard to find much reference to the film.  It certainly wasn’t available for rental through any distributor I ever came upon.  The last 15 years or so I’ve consistently looked for opportunities to write about film and this blog is a good showcase for the many film stories I’ve filed.  The story of Rain People and Jet Set is one I longed to tell.  Since leaving the film programming world in the early 1990s I also longed to organize some film event.  Now I am combining the two longings in one project.  My in-progress story is slated to be published in some Nebraska publications and I’m working with the publisher of The Reader (www.thereader.com) and the director of the Omaha art cinema Film Streams on possible screenings and other events related to my story.

Still,there’s much work to be done: I need to make Coppola and Lucas aware of this film story-event project in hopes of interviewing them and inviting them to attend whatever is planned.  If there’s anyone out there reading this who can get this in front of them or their associates, please do.  Or if you can provide me their contact info, please do.  They are an essential part of the story I’m telling and while I’m prepared to move forward without their participation I’d rather not if I don’t have to.

My main purpose with all this is to bring this story to light and to help revive interest in these films, particularly We’re Not the Jet Set.  Recently, Turner Classic Movies added The Rain People to its rotating gallery of films shown on the cable network.  But Jet Set remains inaccessible.  I would also like to see the Lucas documentary, The Making of the Rain People, revived since its a portrait of the early Coppola and his methods a full decade before his wife Eleanor shot the documentary Hearts of Darkness about the anguished making of Apocalypse Now.  The story I’m telling is also an interesting time capsule at a moment in film history when brash young figures like Coppola, Lucas, Duvall, and Caan were part of the vanguard for the New Hollywood and the creative freedom that artists sought and won.

You’ll note I have not posted any images from We’re Not the Jet Set, and that will soon be remedied thanks to Robert Duvall and Stephen Mack.

And while this is not a film blog per se, you’ll find hundreds of articles here I’ve written about films, film artists, and film lovers.

 

The entire cast and crew of “The Rain People”

The entire company of cast and crew on The Rain People

 

 

photo
B.A. Peterson, the late patriarch of the Peterson family that Robert Duvall profiled in We’re Not the Jet Set, ©photo courtesy Stephen Mack

 

 

Film Connections: Coppola, Lucas, Butler, Knight, Caan, Duvall

An In-Progress Story

How a 1968 Convergence of Future Cinema Greats in Ogallala, Neb. Resulted in Multiple Films and Enduring Relationships

From the Melting Pot of Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Shirley Knight, Robert Duvall, James Caan and Two Ranch-Rodeo Families Came ‘The Rain People,’ ‘We’re Not the Jet Set’ and More

©by Leo Adam Biga

The complete story will appear in the Keith County News, The Reader and other publications

 

An unlikely confluence of remarkable cinema talents descended on the dusty backroads of Ogallala, Neb. in the far southwest reaches of the state in the summer of 1968.

None other than future film legend Francis Ford Coppola led this Hollywood caravan. He came as the producer-writer-director of The Rain People, a small, low-budget drama about a disenchanted East Coast housewife who, upon discovering she’s pregnant, flees the conventional trappings of suburban homemaking by taking a solo car trip south, then north and finally west. With no particular destination in mind except escape she gets entangled with two men before returning home.

Coppola’s creative team for this road movie included another future film scion in George Lucas, his then-protege who served as production associate and also shot the documentary The Making of The Rain People. The two young men were obscure but promising figures in a changing industry. With their long hair and film school pedigree they were viewed as interlopers and rebels. Within a few years the filmmakers helped usher in the The New Hollywood through their own American Zoetrope studio and their work for established studios. Coppola ascended to the top with the success of The Godfather I and II. Lucas first made it big with the surprise hit American Graffiti, which touched off the ’50s nostalgia craze, before assuring his enduring place in the industry with the Star Wars franchise that made sci-fi big business.

 
photo
©poster art courtesy Stephen Mack

 

 

Rain People cinematographer Bill Butler, who went on to lens The Conversation for Coppola and such projects as One Few Over the Cuckoo’s NestJaws and The Thorn Birds, was the director of photography.

Heading the cast were Shirley Knight, James Caan and Robert Duvall. Though they enjoyed solid reputations, none were household names yet. Caan’s breakthrough role came two years later in the made-for-television sensation Brian’s Song (1970). The pair’s work in Coppola’s The Godfather elevated them to A-list status. Rain People was not the last time the two actors collaborated with the filmmakers. Duvall starred in the first feature Lucas made, the science fiction thriller THX-1138. The actor went on to appear in Coppola’s first two Godfather pictures as well as The Conversation and Apocalypse Now. After his star-making performance as Sonny Corleone in The Godfather Caan later teamed up with Coppola for the director’s Gardens of Stone.

Among Rain People’s principals, the most established by far then was Knight, already a two-time Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee (for The Dark at the Top of the Stairs and Sweet Bird of Youth).

The experience of working together on the early Coppola film forged relationships that extended well beyond that project and its small circle of cast and crew. Indeed, this is a story about those connections and their reverberations decades later.

Old friends Robert Duvall and James Caan
photo
At New Yorker premiere of We’re Not the Jet Set: DP Joseph Friedman, Robert Duvall, Barbara Duvall, editor Stephen Mack, ©photo courtesy Stephen Mack

 

 

For example, Duvall and Caan were already horse and Old West aficionados when they were befriended by a couple of Nebraska ranch-rodeo families, the Petersons and Haythorns. The interaction that followed only deepened the artists’ interest in riding and in Western lore. This convergence of New York actors and authentic Great Plains characters produced some unexpected spin-offs and helped cement enduring friendships. Duvall and Caan remain best buddies to this day.

Duvall became so enamored with the colorful, cantankerous Peterson clan, a large, boisterous family of trick riders led by their late patriarch, B.A. Peterson, that he made a documentary about them and their lifestyle called We’re Not the Jet Set. The actor returned to Nebraska several times to visit the family and to shoot the film with a skeleton crew. It was his first film as a director and it’s easy to find resonance in it with his future directorial work (Angelo My LoveThe ApostleAssassination Tango).

He and the Petersons became close enough that at his invitation some of them visited the The Godfather set. The family and the actor have kept in touch all these years and some have visited Duvall’s Virginia farm.

On one of Duvall’s visits to Nebraska the Petersons introduced him to the Haythorns and the true-life stories of that family’s early, epic cattle drives became the inspiration for Duvall’s mini-series Broken Trail.

Meanwhile, Caan sufficiently learned the ropes from working alongside the Haythorns and their hired hands to become a professional rodeo competitor, an activity the suits in Hollywood increasingly frowned on as his career exploded.

With their reputation as expert horsemen and women preceding them, several of the Petersons ended up in the film industry as wranglers, trainers and stunt people, boasting credits on many major Hollywood projects. One member of the family, K.C. Peterson, even ended up working on a film Duvall appeared in, Geronimo, An American Legend.

None of it may have happened if that band of filmmaking gypsies hadn’t come west. Their presence certainly got the attention of the locals while it lasted but no one could have predicted the Coppola production would lead, at least indirectly, to other films and deeper connections that played out over several years.

It’s hard to imagine how else Duvall would have happened upon the Petersons as the subjects for a film.

The man responsible for bringing Duvall to Nebraska, Coppola, was a fish-out-of-water here. His parents were musicians and he grew up in urban Detroit and Queens, New York, immersed in a life of art, literature, theater and the movies. The Hofstra theater arts grad entered UCLA’s fledgling film studies program, where his work soon attracted the attention of Hollywood.

At the time he made Rain People he was finding his way at Warner Brothers. Like all the major Hollywood studios then, Warners struggled adapting to changing audience tastes and escalating production costs and began entrusting young upstarts like Coppola with productions traditionally assigned old veterans.

While directing Finian’s Rainbow for Warners-Seven Arts Coppola met Lucas, a Modesto, Calif. native and USC film school product. Eager to break from studio constraints and make their own personal art films, the two were kindred spirits, When Coppola enlisted a small band of like-minded artists for Rain People, Lucas was a natural choice. The experience of making that film convinced them to launch American Zoetrope, a counter-culture answer to the old studio system that like United Artists decades before put the creatives in charge of production. The studio’s first two projects were the Lucas written and directed films THX-1138 and American Graffiti.

The producing partners parted ways in the mid-’70s.

But for a magical time the career arcs of these and other cinema stalwarts intersected to produce some of the most satisfying collaborations of the 1970s. As fate would have it a crucial part of that intersection unfolded in rural Nebraska among area denizens whose rough-and-tumble work-a-day lives were far removed from the distorted, make-believe reality of Hollywood. Lucas’ making-of doc about the experience records it for posterity.

Situated just below the southeast corner of the Nebraska Panhandle, Ogallala was about the last place you’d expect to find a gathering of the soon-to-be New Kings of Hollywood. But that’s exactly what transpired. This is the story of how those connections led Duvall to make We’re Not the Jet Set, an underseen film that may be getting new life courtesy of Nebraska art cinemas.

TO BE CONTINUED…

Editor’s Note: As I further develop the story, I’ll be making more posts.  And when screenings and other events are scheduled in conjunction with the story, I’ll be sure to post that info as well.   I’m posting my interviews with all the key figures in this story-event project.

Related articles

Talking Screenwriting with Hollywood Heavyweight Hawk Ostby, The Omaha Film Festival Panelist Counts ‘Children of Men’ and ‘Iron Man’ Among His Credits


Another indication the Omaha Film Festival has arrived as a major regional film event is the high caliber of special guests and panelists it continues to attract.   The 2012 version counts actress-writer-director Jaime King (see story on this blog) and screenwriter Hawk Ostby, the subject of this story, among its featured attractions alongside the films themselves.  My Q&A with Ostby, who with Mark Fergus has written Children of Men and Iron Man, finds him talking about craft, of course, but also about the persistence it takes to make it as a screenwriter.  Go to http://www.omahafilmfestival.org for details about the March 7-11 festival and the appearances by King, Ostby, and others.  This blog, by the way, is full of more film stories that might interest you.

Hawk Ostby

 

 

Talking Screenwriting with Hollywood Heavyweight Hawk Ostby, The Omaha Film Festival Panelist Counts ‘Children of Men’ and ‘Iron Man‘ Among His Credits

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Hawk Ostby, one half of the scriptwriting team of Children of Men and Iron Man, will provide an insider’s take on the screenwriting trade at the Omaha Film Festival’s Filmmaking Conference.

Speaking by phone from his Vermont home, Ostby says a big part of making it in the industry is “perseverance and discipline.”

“You really get tested when you start off,” says Ostby, whose writing partner is Mark Fergus. “I was fortunate in that I knew somebody who had a foot in the door, and he said, ‘Look, if you really concentrate for three to five years you’ll be doing what you want to do,’ and I sort of had that tattooed behind my eyelids.

“Three to five years can be a really long time when you’re watching your friends go on to their careers, doing really well, and you’re still tapping away in a sweaty little band box, but then one day it happens. It doesn’t seem so weird or outlandish when somebody calls and says, ‘Hey, we read something of yours and we really like it and we want to try and make it.’ I think in your own mind you fantasize about that moment so often and then when it finally happens it feels right because you’ve done the work.”

Mark Fergus

 

 

Knowing your craft is essential.

“I just was so enamored with the idea of trying to make a living by writing, and I realized I enjoyed it so that it was going to be with me for the rest of my life anyway, so why not knuckle down and really try to learn what it is, what is a story?”

Hollywood seems unattainable but he says he and Fergus prove it’s not.

“Look, I’m not a genius by any means. I just love stories and I stuck with it. It was more like play, and I think if it’s that for you then you’ve got a shot. If you’re trying to get rich or famous, you can do it a lot easier than trying to make it in this business. It’s not really what it’s about. To learn storytelling and all those things it’s a long apprenticeship, at least it was for me. I know there are people who are way more natural who write two scripts and they’re smash hits and they go on to have long careers, but that certainly wasn’t my story, and not Mark’s.”

Collaborators 15 years, Ostby and Fergus play to their respective strengths.

“Mark is very analytical. He can look at a script and say right away, ‘Ah, page 7 is where it goes wrong.’ He’s very clever at those things and I’m not. I’m more instinctual. I’m not sure what’s wrong. I have to take it home to the cave and sort of chew on it. We don’t sit in the same room and fire dialogue back and forth, it’s more of a two-headed thing. We discuss at length the story and how to lay it down, and then Mark will go in, write the outline, sculpt it down to its essence, and then I will take that and do the first draft, and use that as guide for where we want to go. That draft is often written very maniacally and quickly. I don’t stop to edit myself. We used to write and edit at the same time and what happened was we never got the flow of it.”

Children of Men 

 

 

After each makes another pass, he says, “usually we’re left with a couple things he’s holding onto and I’m holding onto and we just sort of argue those out and whoever has the best argument or is able to convince the other is what we go with. Sometimes we find a better solution spitballing things.”

The pair have adapted Philip K.Dick (A Scanner Darkly), a comic book (Iron Man) and an animated film (the forthcoming Akira) but their adaptation of the P.D. James novel Children of Men may have been most instructive.

“If there’s one thing we learned, especially on Children of Men, you can’t always follow the book. It’s just a totally different experience. But if you can capture the feeling of the book then that’s what you’re really aiming for. The book just wasn’t working as a film. What broke it for us is when we came up with this idea that it’s really Casablanca set in a dystopian future, complete with a spiritually bankrupt protagonist who has nothing to live for and then finds something and sacrifices    himself for something greater.”

The writers are trying to get a television series and two original feature scripts off the ground this year. One feature puts a twist on the heist genre and the other dramatizes a manhunt in the wilderness.

For details on Ostby’s OFF Filmmaking Conference panels, visit http://www.omahafilmfestival.org.

Iron Man 

Model-Turned-Actress Jaime King Comes Home for Screening of Film She Wrote and Directed, ‘Latch Key,’ at the Omaha Film Festival

March 1, 2012 1 comment

When Jaime King made the move from modeling to acting I tried getting an interview with her in early-mid 2000s but I never got a response from her handlers.  I guess I always figured I would catch up with one way or the other, and as fate would have it she’s coming to me in the sense that she’s coming back to our shared hometown of Omaha with a film she wrote and directed, Latch Key, which means she’s predisposed to promoting it.  Thus, I finally got my interview with her.  It was worth the wait.  She has a great story and it turns out she’s very serious about the writing-directing track she’s on.  It also turns out she gets back to Omaha, where all her family lives, with great frequency, which means she’s been closer than I thought all these years.  I should note by the way that the Omaha Film Festival is an ever-growing event that increasingly lands major industry figures.  In addition to King’s appearance, the fest is rightfully touting appearances by screenwriter Hawk Ostby (Children of Men, Iron Man), actress Famke Janssen, who’s apeparing with her directorial debut Bringing Up Bobby, and actor Chad Michael Murray (One Tree Hill).  This blog is full of my stories on film.  Look for my Q&A with Ostby in an upcoming post.

Jaime King
Model-Turned-Actress Jaime King Comes Home for Screening of  Film She Wrote and Directed, ‘Latch Key,’ at the Omaha Film Festival

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to be published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

In the 1990s Omaha native Jaime King‘s fresh face and lithe body graced the runway fantastic for the likes of Gucci and Alexander McQueen in New York and around the globe. She did provocative shoots for Vogue, Mademoiselle, Glamour, Cosmopolitan and other trendy mags. She appeared in music videos. She was a Revlon girl in the same media campaign as Halle Berry and Eva Mendes.

Heady stuff for a girl in her mid-teens who left Westside High School to pursue The Dream. She actually began modeling at Nancy Bounds Studios here. A New York agent discovered her at a fashion graduation show.

But when King comes for the Omaha Film Festival this weekend she’s arriving not as a model or actress – the career she’s known for today – but as a filmmaker. She’s appearing with a “deeply personal” dramatic short she wrote and directed titled Latch Key. She shot the movie in and around Omaha last winter, using local youth actors alongside industry veterans, including her husband, director Kyle Newman (Fanboys, The Crazies), who’s also one of the film’s producers.

Latch Key shows as part of a short film block on March 9 that starts at 6:15 p.m.

This writer-director thing is no passing fancy. The directing bug bit her in her teens and she angled for years to make her own films, debuting with the short The Break-In (2011). She now has several film projects in development, including a feature she co-wrote, Polar Seasons, that her good friend Selma Blair (who appears in Break-In) may co-star in. King’s interest in writing – she pens a style column for the Huffington Post – goes even further back, to her childhood in Omaha.

“Before I went to Westside it wasn’t that easy for me. I felt like I didn’t fit in. I wasn’t like a jock or a cheerleader or your typical type of kid in that way. I went through a lot of bullying in school. So I wrote a lot and that really helped me to get my feelings and emotions out. All I did was read and write, that was all I really cared about. I so immersed myself in all of these creative things.

“Writing for me has always been the most freeing part of my life.”

At 14 she turned to the pen when her boyfriend at the time died. That experience informs Latch Key, whose young protagonist, Emma, deals with a sudden loss.

“It comes from me having this experience of being young and losing someone very suddenly, and waking up not understanding how the world can continue when your whole world feels like its been shattered.”

Jaime King as Goldie in Sin City 

 

 

Having to grow up fast the way she did informs another script she’s looking to develop, Life Guard.

“I write a lot about coming-of-age and what it’s like to grow up very quickly and how to handle that type of thing. I guess I’m inspired by what we have to go through to become adults or to make our way in this world, but I guess all good stories are about figuring out who you really are.”

Once considered an infant terrible and party girl, she’s many years sober after battling a substance abuse problem. She long ago made the successful transition from modeling to screen acting (Happy Campers, Blow, Pearl Harbor, Slackers, Two for the Money, Sin City). She has major roles in a pair of films due for a 2012 release: Pardon and Mother’s Day. She also stars in the CW comedy Hart of Dixie.

Does she harbor regrets about having gotten swept up in the high-pressure model subculture, with its ultra-thin obsession, stealing away as it did part of her youth?

“Not at all. I feel very blessed, I feel everything that’s happened in my life has been perfectly on track for me, through the ups and the downs, through everything, and I feel so incredibly lucky that I was discovered and that my parents stuck with me and made a difficult decision to let their young daughter go off into a big world.

“Through modeling I got to travel all over the world and I got to meet some of the most amazing people, and I was smart, I saved my money and I knew I wanted to go into filmmaking.”

Besides, being a model was her idea from the start. Always interested in fashion, style, photography and film, she set out to get noticed, make it to New York and use this platform as a springboard to a film career.

“I wanted to live a very creative life and not necessarily taking the traditional route of going straight through high school and onto college. I just didn’t feel that was right for me. I needed to be doing something creative. It may seem odd for someone that age but I just knew that was my direction.

“As an adult now looking back I feel a lot compassion and gratitude towards my parents for letting me foliow my dreams.”

Poster for Jaime King’s film, Latch Key 

 

 

King’s made it all happen, too, though walking away from lucrative modeling gigs didn’t set well with her entourage.

“When I told them I was quitting modeling at the height of my career people weren’t happy about that because they were making a lot of money off of me, but I was lucky to have some people who were supportive.”

She still does fashion spreads.

Of the high profile film roles she landed right out of the gate, she says, “It was just one thing after another and I think it happened because I never doubted myself, I went into it thinking that’s what I was meant to do.”

Acting’s worked out better for her than it has for many former top models. And as much as she finds that career satisfying she needs more to feed her creativity.

“I don’t feel completely whole just doing that. I feel whole when I’m writing and directing and acting, when I’m creating material and stories that I feel should be told and will move and entertain people,” she says. “As a creative person you just want to create.”

She could have made Latch Key anywhere but she felt pulled to do it in her hometown, where her entire family still lives and where she gets back to visit a few times a year.

“I have a really romantic view of where I was born and raised,” she says. “I have these very distinctive memories of every single season in Omaha and what it felt like to grow up there and to have a space of your own where you could run along the train tracks and be out in a park or farm by yourself or yet be in the Old Market and go find a great record or comic book or see a great show or concert.

“So much of my creativity started there, and I feel like there’s a great creative community there. I just really want to honor that.”

Jaime King in Hart of Dixie 

 

 

Her sister, Sandi King Larson, put up Jaime, her husband and two fellow producers and let her home stand-in as Emma’s dwelling.

King says she received excellent cooperation from Young Filmmakers In Nebraska in filling out the crew and from Ralston Public Schools officials in letting her use Ralston High School as a location. King had an inside woman there in her sister, who works at the school. The head of Ralston’s drama department, Todd Uhrmacher, helped King cast via Skype auditions-interviews. Alexis Jegeris, who plays Emma, is among several Ralston students in the film.

King says she was impressed by how her young cast “were really willing to go there for a film that’s very honest and raw and real,” adding, “I cant’ wait to come back for the film festival to show the kids what a beautiful job they did.”

Alexander Payne Delivers Graceful Oscar Tributes – The Winner for Best Adapted Screenplay Recognizes Clooney, Hemmings and His Mom

February 29, 2012 3 comments

Alexander Payne‘s love affair with the movies began when he was a child in his hometown of Omaha.  The nascent cinephile’s frequent filmgoing companion then was his mother, Peggy Payne, who recognized her prodigy of a son expressed far more interest in grown-up films than children’s fare, and she indulged his serious passion by taking him to screenings of art movies.  Decades later the world-class filmmaker told the world how much he appreciates what she did for him when he dedicated his Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Descendants to her.  In doing so he said “I love you” in Greek, thus acknowledging his family’s heritage, which he’s extremely proud of.  He also singled out one of his producing partner’s, Jim Burke, star George Clooney, and author Kaui Hart Hemmings, whose novel he and fellow Oscar winners Nat Faxon and Jim Rash adapted.

Alexander Payne with his mother on the red carpet

 

 

Alexander Payne Delivers Graceful Oscar Tributes – The Winner for Best Adapted Screenplay Recognizes Clooney, Hemmings and His Mom

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

The obvious and not so obvious came into focus when native son Alexander Payne accepted his second Oscar in front of a live audience of his peers and a television viewing audience estimated at 1.2 billion during Sunday’s Academy Awards.

He shared Best Adapted Screenplay for The Descendants with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, whose mimicking of presenter Angelina Jolie‘s power pose seemingly distracted and peeved Payne as he tried beating the clock with his thank-yous. Always the pro though, he quickly collected himself and offered one of the evening’s best grace notes with this tribute:

“We share this with George Clooney and the rest of the cast for interpreting our screenplay so generously and we also share it in particular with Kaui Hart Hemmings, our beautiful Hawaiian flower, for her novel.”

A radiant Hemmings sat next to the debonair Payne and his date for the evening, his well-coiffed mother Peggy, and it was to her and their shared Greek heritage he made the most moving gesture.

“And on a brief personal note if I may, my mother is here with me from Omaha, hold the applause, and after watching the show a few years ago she made me promise that if I ever won another Oscar I had to dedicate it to her just like Javier Bardem did with his mother (eliciting laughter). So, Mom, this one’s for you. Se agapao poly. (Greek for “I love you very much.”). And thanks for letting me skip nursery school so we could go to the movies. Thanks a lot.”

Payne has sometimes mentioned his mother and father both indulged his early childhood fascination with film, but it was she who took him to see the cutting-edge grown-up movies he preferred over children’s fare.

He could have quipped about her insisting that only her Countryside Village hair stylist attend to her tresses, which meant he had to fly the hairdresser out to L.A.

He could have used the stage to poke Nebraska legislators, as he did six weeks ago in Lincoln, for leverage in trying to get film industry tax credits passed here, lest he have to take his planned Nebraska project to, say, Kansas. He could have tweaked the noses of Paramount suits who gave him a hard time about his insistence in wanting to shoot Nebraska in black-and-white.

That he didn’t show anyone up speaks to his respect for the industry and his desire to not burn bridges. Besides, as he recently told a reporter, “I like the Oscars.” It’s obvious the Oscars like him. The only question is when he when he will take home Best Picture and Best Director awards.

My Forthcoming Book, ‘Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film, A Reporter’s Perspective, 1998-2012,’ Due for a Fall 2012 Release

February 24, 2012 9 comments

My Forthcoming Book, ‘Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film, A Reporter’s Perspective, 1998-2012′ Due for a Fall 2012 Release

As of February 23, 2012, I have entered into a contract with Concierge Marketing of Omaha to help me realize my book, Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film, A Reporter’s Perspective, 1998-2012.  The book is a compilation of stories I have written about the celebrated winning writer-director of Citizen RuthElectionAbout SchmidtSideways, and The Descendants.  It hopefully bodes well for the book now that he is a two-time Oscar winner after sharing the 2012 Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award for The Descendants with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash.  Payne previously won in the same category for Sideways, sharing that award with Jim Taylor, one of his producing partners on The Descendants.

I have covered Payne for 15 years, doing dozens of interviews with him and his collaborators in that time, even watching him direct on set for a week’s time, thus making me something of an authority on his work.

Payne is the subject of much media coverage but a collection of stories about him has never been published.  That will change with my book.  This compilation of my articles about Payne charts the arc of the writer-director’s feature career.  For the first time, film fans and scholars can follow his cinematic journey from promising upstart to celebrated international artist and along the way learn in-depth his creative process.

The Oscar-winner long ago became the object of intense interest.  My rare access to Payne has put me in the unique position of sharing an entire body of work about the filmmaker in a single volume.  In story after story, I lay out the progression of the filmmaker’s journey, liberally quoting Payne talking about his own work and methodologies.  There are also ample insights by some of Payne’s closest collaborators.  Introducing each set of stories is my own cogent analysis and behind-the-scenes context.  I bring to the project not only a personal archive of Payne interviews, observations, and stories but a lifelong cinema passion. As a film buff I have not only seen lots of movies and read scores of film books, but for several years I served as a film programmer for various art cinema series.

Bringing this deep knowledge and long insider access to bear, I provide the most comprehensive look to date at Payne.  Readers will come away from the book with a fuller understanding of Payne and his movies.  Because I write for general audiences, my articles and analyses are eminently readable and free of any academic jargon that could otherwise stand in the way of appreciating the filmmaker and his films.  I explore Payne’s journey from cheeky provocateur to master cinema satirist, noting all the pertinent way-stops and detours along the way and speculating on where he might be headed next.

My blog will feature excerpts from my book in the coming months.  Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film, A Reporter’s Perspective will be available for purchase here, on Amazon, and in select bookstores in the fall of 2012.

Joan Micklin Silver’s Classic ‘Hester Street’ Included in National Film Registry

February 9, 2012 5 comments

 

Women feature filmmakers were fairly abundant at the start of motion pictures but by the time the sound era took off in the early 1930s they were pushed out of the male-centric industry’s directing ranks, save for Dorothy Arzner and Ida Lupino, and really didn’t return again, except for underground or art house filmmakers like Shirley Clark and Barbara Loden, until well into the 1970s.  Elaine May made a big dent in the boys only network with her early 1970s films The Heartbreak Kid and A New Leaf.  Joan Micklin Silver followed with her own breakthrough, courtesy her 1975 feature debut, Hester Street, whose unexpected success helped open doors to more women filmmakers the remainder of that decade and especially in the 1980s.  Silver and Hester Street are of particular interest to me because she is a fellow Omaha native and her film stands as a landmark screen portrayal of the immigrant experience in early 20th century America alongside Elia Kazan‘s America, America and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather II.  As the following story details, the film overcame all odds in just getting made and released and then defied all expectations by becoming a darling of critics and audiences, earning a then-astounding box office take for a small indie film – $5 million, plus a Best Actress Oscar nomination for star Carol Kane.

I have been following Silver for many years – you’ll find some of my other stories about her on this blog – and I recently had the pleasure of interviewing her again in the aftermath of Hester Street being included in the National Film Registry.  I also interviewed Hester Street star Carol Kane, though I won’t have a chance to post anything from my conversation with her until a later date.  Silver, by the way, is one of the most underrrated filmmakers of her or any time.  Her body of work in the 1970s and ’80s, though quite small, can stand with nearly any director’s.  I highly recommend Hester Street, the rarely screened Between the Lines and Chilly Scenes of Winter (also known as Head Over Heels), Loverboy, and Crossing Delancey, which for my tastes is one of the best romantic comedies ever made.

The grapevine tells me Silver may be coming back to Omaha (a rare occurrence) for a Film Streams program that Alexander Payne is arranging.  After years of interviewing her by phone and writing about her, I hope to finally meet her.  Stay tuned.

 

 

 

Joan Micklin Silver’s Classic ‘Hester Street’ Included in National Film Registry

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to be published in the Jewish Press

 

Long before Kathryn Bigelow struck a blow for women filmmakers by capturing the Best Director Oscar, Omaha native Joan Micklin Silver made her own Hollywood inroads as a feminist cinema pioneer.

With her 1975 directorial debut Hester Street  she joined a mere handful of women directors then. Just completing the film and getting it released was a major feat. The low budget, black-and-white independent told a period Jewish immigrant story partly in Yiddish with English subtitles.

“With great effort we made the film,” says Silver.

Her script adapted the Abraham Cahan novel Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto. As the eldest daughter of Russian Jewish immigrant parents, the story held deep reverberations for Silver, who says she gloried in her father’s tales “of what it was like in Russia and what it was like coming over and his first banana.” Hester Street allowed her to commemorate on screen the immigrant experience she sprang from. “I cared a lot about the ties I had to that world,” she once told a reporter.

That the film became a sensation was a small miracle.

“One thing I thought as I was making the movie, ‘Well, who knows if I’ll ever get to make another film,’ and I say that because things were pretty dire for women directors and I really wanted to make one that would count for my family. The immigrant experience was a very big part of my family’s experience.”

Silver feels the film strikes a chord with viewers because “it tells an immigrant story in an interesting, believable and honest way.”

Last November Hester Street’s impact was confirmed when the National Film Preservation Board included it among 25 new selections in the National Film Registry, a U.S. Library of Congress-curated archive of significant American movies. Its citation notes the film’s been “praised for its accuracy of detail and sensitivity to the challenges immigrants faced during their acculturation process.”

The honor took Silver by surprise.

“I was really pleased, I had no expectation, and I was delighted to be on the same list with a John Ford movie (The Iron Horse) and a Charlie Chaplain movie (The Kid). It’s pretty exciting,” the longtime Manhattan resident says.

 

 

 

 

The recognition is doubly satisfying given the difficulty of getting the movie made and released. She recalls one Hollywood executive who rejected the project suggested she change the story to Italians. When no studio would finance the story of early 20th century Eastern Jewish immigrants, her husband Ray Silver, who worked in real estate, raised the $350,000 to do it. He also produced the picture and made sure it got seen.

“Certainly he’s the hero of my story,” she says.

Much of the film was shot where the film is set on New York’s Lower East Side. The tight production schedule meant added pressure. “It was really scary” says Silver. “I remember one day when I went to shoot a scene and the location had not been secured and it took two hours to secure it, so I was two hours behind, and the whole time I was directing the scene I was thinking, How do I make up the two hours? It isn’t what you should be thinking about when you’re directing a scene.”

She’s forever grateful to her collaborators.

“I had a chance to work with such good people. I had a wonderful cameraman and production designing team and costumer, and that makes all the difference in the world to somebody just starting out. And I had such a good cast (Steven Keats, Paul Freedman, Doris Roberts, Mel Howard, Dorrie Kavanaugh) and I’m still really close and friendly with Carol (Kane).”

Silver first saw Kane in the Canadian drama Wedding in White and thought her perfect for Gitl, a naive new immigrant wife-mother whose painful assimilation leads to her emancipation. As Silver assumed Kane lived across the border she despaired her meager budget could not afford putting her up for the shoot until learning the actress resided in NYC.

The two felt a connection as Kane came from a Jewish immigrant family not unlike Silver’s and grew up in Cleveland, where Silver once lived. The filmmaker recalls Kane as “a very conscientious, serious, careful, lovely young woman” who went home to rehearse in the sheitel and period jewelry provided for the part.

After all the hard work to finance the film, meticulous research to ensure authenticity and stress to complete the project on time, no studio wanted to distribute it. Silver was heartbroken.

“I went through a bad period thinking, I’ve made this film nobody will distribute, what am I going to do? how are we going to pay the money back?”

On the advice of maverick filmmaker John Cassavetes, the couple distributed it themselves through their own Midwest Films company. And then a remarkable thing happened. Ray entered the film in the Cannes Film Festival and it was accepted. More prestigious festival showings followed. As the film proved a critical and popular darling more theaters screened it. Hester Street became a surprise hit, earning $5 million at the box office and gaining enough industry notice for Kane to be Oscar-nominated, both unheard of accomplishments for an indie pic then.

 

 

 

 

Silver had the thrill of informing the actress she’d been nominated.

The project established Silver’s reputation as a bankable director. Her subsequent theatrical films include Between the Lines and Chilly Scenes of Winter. Perhaps her crowning achievement was Crossing Delancey, when she revisited Lower East Side Jewish culture in a modern love story poised between Old and New World values. She later directed many made-for-television movies (Hunger Point).

The Central High graduate left Omaha in the early 1950s to pursue a love for writing, theater and film nurtured here. After graduating from Sarah Lawrence College she settled in Cleveland, where plays she wrote were performed. In New York she wrote and directed educational films

Her dream of a Hollywood breakthrough was partly realized when her story about the wives of American POWs, Limbo, was optioned and she worked under veteran studio director Mark Robson adapting it to the screen.

“In the end I was replaced as the writer (sharing screenplay credit with James Bridges) on the film. Not knowing very much, I disagreed with the director in meetings and he said, ‘Thank you very much,’ and replaced me, which is the privilege of the director.

“But he then invited me – because he knew what I really wanted to do was direct as well as write – to come to the shoot and stay as long as I wanted to avail myself of    anything I wanted to learn about. Of course, I felt very upset I had been let go but I got past it and I said, ‘OK, I’m coming,’ and that was a tremendous learning experience for me.”

Robson’s largess was rare in the misogynist, male-dominated movie field. Besides, Silver notes, “Who wants a disgruntled screenwriter around? So that was very generous of him. He let me look through the camera, he let me review the film’s budget, he let me talk with any of the actors, and I did. It was marvelous. I gained a real understanding of how one sets up a budget for a feature film.”

For Silver, who never formally studied filmmaking, it was her film school. Confident in her abilities, she vowed her work would never be compromised again.

“I think almost everybody who gets along in film seems to have experiences like that because it’s a pretty tough field and you need guidance and you need friendship and generosity, and I was very lucky to have it myself.”

In a sense Silver prepped all her life to make Hester Street. The stories she absorbed from her father previously led her to make The Immigrant Experience for the Learning Corporation of America. For her first feature she again fixed on subject matter close to her heart.

“My father was ill during my teenage years and he was home a great deal, so I spent a lot of time with him. He was looking for somebody to talk to and believe me I was there and I was really happy to talk to him. I’ve always thought immigrants fall into two experiences: those who don’t want to talk about it at all and those who want to talk about it all the time and that was my father – he loved reminiscing about it. As a very bright, questioning man, he was also interested in the world, politics, current events and books. I was so lucky to have talk after talk with such a wonderful father at a time when it was unusual for fathers to talk to their daughters.”

He father died before she became a filmmaker, but her mother lived to revel in her Hester Street triumph. “One of the first things she did when Hester Street came out was make the cover of what would be a scrapbook. Yeah, she loved it and she was thrilled for my success.”

Silver’s interest in immigrant tales continues with her in-progress documentary The Bagel: An Immigrant’s Story. She has a feature script in development. Meanwhile, she’s struck up a friendship with fellow Omaha native filmmaker Alexander Payne. The two are discussing a possible Film Streams program with her and her work.

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