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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.

Omaha Film Festival Celebrates Seven Years of Growing the Local Film Culture

February 1, 2012 10 comments

Though I’ve written about the Omaha Film Festival since its inception in 2006 this is the first time I’ve posted a story about it because I was concerned readers might mistake an article about the 2011 or 2010 or whatever festival as being current.  The following piece for Metro Magazine is an overview of how and why the fest came to be and offers a general idea of what to expect at the 2012 event, which runs March 7-11.  As a film buff and former film programmer I’ve always been impressed by how well organized the festival is and by the range of films and programs it offers. The three founders who continue to make the fetival go –Jason Levering, Jeremy Decker, and Marc Longbrake – are quoted extensively in the piece.  They’re all filmmakers themselves and it’s a big reason the event has such a focus on craft through its filmmaking conference, which annually draws big industry names.

 

 

 

 

Omaha Film Festival Celebrates Seven Years of Growing the Local Film Culture

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in the February 2012 issue of Metro Magazine

The Omaha Film Festival has become a go-to staple on the local culture scene for its premiere screenings, top-notch panels and special events

In 2005 three filmmakers frustrated by the metro’s sparse independent cinema offerings took matters in their own hands to launch the Omaha Film Festival. As the March 7-11, 2012 event approached, the founders expressed satisfaction at having made it this far and growing the area’s film culture.

Filling a gap

It’s expected OFF will screen as many as 90 films from dozens of countries at the Great Escape Cinema 16. All the movies will make their Nebraska premiere. In its short history the event’s presented some 500 films from around the world and hosted award-winning filmmakers working in features, documentaries, shorts and animation. Upwards of 4,000 moviegoers attend each year.

Movie Maker Magazine named the OFF among the “top 25 film festivals worth the entry fee” – high praise for a still young event.

“I knew it was something we could do and do great,” says OFF director Jeremy Decker, an Omaha native now based in Austin, Texas.

The vital film scene Omaha enjoys today simply didn’t exist before. When OFF began, Film Streams was still two years from opening. When it came to indie art films, documentaries and shorts, cineastes had few options to feed their fix.

Executive director Jason Levering says, “The things that Film Streams and the festival offer are things that just weren’t readily available to the community before. Without those two entities I don’t think Omaha would have an outlet for it.”

Program director Marc Longbrake says the festival filled “a gap” no one else seemed willing or able to fill at the time. Decker says the prevailing thought behind the fest was, “Wouldn’t it be great if people here could get the same experience people get in many other cities across the country?” Besides, he says, everyone he and his comrades talked to agreed “it would be good for the city and for film lovers and for people who want to learn the craft.”

A festival is often the only theatrical screening filmmakers get for their work. Decker says there’s nothing like the thrill of seeing your baby on the big screen.

 

 

 

 

Craft

As the organizers are both film buffs and filmmakers, they designed a festival that not only screens pictures but presents film artists in Q&As and panel discussions. Its annual conference devoted to craft has featured many notables, including Oscar-winners Mike Hill (editor) and Mauro Fiore (cinematographer), screenwriter Shane Blake, producer-writer-director Daniel Petrie Jr. and script guru Lew Hunter.

Producer-director Dana Altman, whose midtown Image Arts Building is where the OFF offices and parties, has also been a panelist. Filmmaker Nik Fackler, too.

“The conference is a huge part of what we do and it’s got to be a special event every year,” says Levering. “So we do our best to fill those professional seats with people who really understand the business and who are exciting to hear.”

Putting established film pros in the same room with emerging or aspiring filmmakers sparks a certain creative synergy and fosters connections and collaborations. Establishing more of a film community or collective is just what Decker, Levering and Longbrake hungered for. They got a taste of it attending other festivals and decided to make it happen here, where filmmaking circles once isolated from each other have grown more inclusive.

“It’s a like-minded thing,” says Longbrake. “We all have this common thing centered around filmmaking. We all bring that passion. That was a big impetus to do this. We’ve seen people meet at our festival and then a screenwriting group springs out of that or you see five people who didn’t know each other last year working on a film together this year. It’s a point of pride for us to see that.

“The quality of locally made films has gone up significantly. If we’ve had a small hand in that with our conference then were proud of that and glad.”

 

 

 

 

Connections

In an industry all about relationships, every advantage helps. It’s about who you know and networking to get a foot inside the door for a pitch or meet.

“You get a chance to meet producers, directors, screenwriters. It’s an opportunity and a handshake that could lead to future business. We’re connecting those dots for the local film artists,” says Longbrake. “I’m always struck by a statement producer Howard Rosenman made here: He said, ‘You cannot make it in this business unless you know somebody and right now you know me. So, if something happens and you find yourself in L.A., you now have an in.'”

Longbrake says one such connection led to a Hollywood gig.

“We had a young filmmaker here in town who met Dan Petrie Jr. at the festival. They talked, shared a beer at one of our parties, and within six months he was out in L.A. working on a project with Dan Petrie Jr. We hear stories like that every year.”

This exclusive, in-the-know aspect of a festival is “a huge part” of the appeal, says Longbrake. People naturally like attending premieres and being privy to behind-the-scenes tidbits, not to mention rubbing shoulders with film veterans

“Screenwriter Ted Griffin last year talked about Tower Heist. He railed on how horrible this film he wrote was going to be. We got to interact with him, ask him questions, and then when it came out nine months later we knew some insider stuff about this movie,” says Longbrake.

“Three years ago we had Mauro Fiore talk about how this movie Avatar he worked on was going to be awesome. He went on about James Cameron creating a whole world with blue people…and then of course Avatar came out and smashed all the records,” says Decker.

Levering says, “I think one of the biggest highlights was when we had Shane Black come back last year for a second helping of the festival. Shane talked about an upcoming project, Iron Man III, that’s highly anticipated, and he actually shared some insight he hadn’t shared with anyone before. We got some notoriety because no one else had heard that yet. It was kind of a cool thing that he felt comfortable enough to tell the audience.”

Bigger than the sum of its parts

Guest appearances by select cast and crew from featured films are another festival tradition. As are opening and closing night parties. Indeed, there’s an official party every night. Pre-release and Oscar parties in February whet film buffs’ appetites for the March fest. Special preview screenings in the summer give the fest a year-round presence. It’s all part of adding cinema value and extending the OFF brand.

“We’re trying to create more memorable moviegoing experiences than just going to Twilight and going home and talking about it with your friends,” says Longbrake.

Then there are those films whose profile subjects attend: the parents of teens lost in the Iowa Boy Scout tornado tragedy; Madonna Rehabilitation patients who survived trauma; and a young woman abducted by North Korean agents and held in servitude before her release.

The months-long process of screening entries finds organizers and judges discovering their personal favorites and championing them for selection. A festival finally emerges from all the politicking and debating.

“You get excited about a particular film and you just want other people to see it,” says Longbrake, “and then months later there’s a crowd of people watching the film and having a shared experience.”

He says he and his co-directors go from theater to theater as movies play to gauge response. Nothing’s better than the thumbs-up or nods or approval appreciative audiences give as they file out.

To make all the moving parts work smoothly the OFF relies on volunteers. Sponsors help underwrite OFF and its prizes.

To inquire about volunteer-sponsor opportunities, call 402-203-8173. For details on the 2012 fest, including all-access pass info, visit http://www.omahafilmfestival.org.

Living the Dream: Cinema Maven Rachel Jacobson – the Woman Behind Film Streams

February 1, 2012 7 comments

 

 

Since its late 2007 start Film Streams has given Omaha a much-needed and celebrated infusion of art cinema.  This still young nonprofit theater already enjoys a strong following and a national reputation.  Film Streams is the vision of founder and director Rachel Jacobson, an Omaha native who left here only to come back with a mission of giving her hometown its first full-fledged art cinema.  Until she came back from New York City with her dream of forming a center devoted to film as art this metro area of more than 800,000 never had a theater dedicated to screening the best of old and new cinema and to presenting  educational programs around the films.  Thanks to her, Omaha finally has a film home befitting its large population.  She’s not only made her dream a reality but she’s made this Midwest theater nationally known thanks to first-rate screenings and programming and the involvement of board member Alexander Payne, whose clout has allowed Film Streams to nab some major guests, including Laura Dern, Debra Winger, and Steven Soderberg.  2012 will make the biggest splash yet when this year’s special guest is revealed.  A true film icon.  My short profile of Rachel is the cover story in the new issue of Metro Magazine.

 

 

 

 

Living the Dream: Cinema Maven Rachel Jacobson – the Woman Behind Film Streams 

©by Leo Adam Biga

The cover story in the February 2012 Metro Magazine (http://issuu.com/metmago/docs/metromagazine-february-2012)

 

Film Streams is coming off its fourth and most successful year yet, capped by the record-breaking, exclusive run of Alexander Payne‘s The Descendants. With the art cinema riding high, it’s easy overlooking the determination founder-director Rachel Jacobson, 33, showed in turning her dream into reality.

Film buff in the making

The success has made her a respected leader among the young creatives and professionals set that’s helping transform Omaha’s once amorphous culture into an identifiably cool scene.

The Omaha Central High graduate left here to attend the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and to get her professional start but her plan always included coming back to her hometown. When she returned in 2005 the then-20something set about selling philanthropists on the idea of a film center in the barrens of North Downtown.

Most embraced her vision. Some expressed reservations. But anyone who dealt with her soon fell under the sway of her informed passion to support the project.

Before coming back to pursue her dream, she laid the groundwork for it back East. She immersed herself in an intensive arts administration course at New York University and made a study of art cinemas, all to formulate the nonprofit public film model Film Streams follows. She strategically worked at a SoHo art gallery, Miramax Films and WNYC public radio to learn lessons for making her Omaha cinematheque sustainable.

“It was sort of grad school without having to pay for it,” she says.

She never intended going to New York City. Chicago was her choice out of college. But once there, she says, “I just fell in love with the city.”

She often describes an epiphany she had in college as the defining moment when she abandoned law school plans to pursue being a film curator-exhibitor. Her cinephile leanings began long before that, as a girl, when she accompanied her parents to see movies at the Indian Hills Theatre. “It was such a beautiful theater. It felt like this grand experience,” she says. The Dundee Theatre and then-AMC Westroads 8 became frequent haunts. As a college English and political science major she fell ever more under cinema’s spell via film studies courses and art movie house screenings.

 

 

 

 

A public film theater model

Her film education continued in New York, where she devised the core principals behind her Omaha cinema. True to her vision she’s made it “a mission-based” showcase for film as art. With support from memberships, grants, donations and other contributed revenue almost equal to box office-concession revenue, she’s freed Film Streams from commercial pressure and compromise.

“A big part of why I wanted to work in film is I wanted to figure out ways to get beyond the fact that film is seen as a product. Yyou need to have a way to fight against that commodity perspective,” she says.

Her serving on a National Endowment for the Arts grants panel has helped Film Streams win NEA and Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences funding.

Not having to turn a profit or pack the house means Jacobson can schedule the kind of limited appeal movies cineplexes rarely play: first-run American independent and foreign features, repertory classics, documentaries and shorts. Unlike mainstream theaters, Film Streams presents panel discussions, educational programs and extras, often in partnership with community organizations.

She strives for a schedule reflecting world cinema. “An important part of our mission is to be a platform for those under-heard voices,” she says.

Early 2012 season highlights reflect this diversity. There’s a 10-film repertory series of international masterworks on restored 35 millimeter prints. Partnership screenings-panels are scheduled around documentaries about urban planning, education, women’s self-image and developmental disabilities. First-run narrative features include Pariah and We Need to Talk About Kevin, both by women directors on tough subjects.

There’s also the annual Oscar-winning shorts series.

As for the remainder of the year, she’s working on bringing prominent filmmakers and eying a possible film noir series. Ingmar Bergman may be the focus of the next Great Directors series. The biennial Cinemateca of Spanish-language films is slated for September. The 2012 gala promises a film-pop culture icon in August. Past guests of honor have been Laura Dern, Debra Winger and Steven Soderbergh. Board member Alexander Payne gives Film Streams pull in attracting major names.

 

 

Film buff friends Alexander Payne and Rachel Jacobson

 

 

Growing a film community

Just as Jacobson’s cultivated a close relationship with Payne and other celebs, she’s nurtured a growing audience at Film Streams, where ticket sales climbed to 54,000 last year. Memberships have held steady at nearly 2,000.

“I feel really great about where we are as far as audience. Hopefully it indicates more people are seeing the kinds of films we’re showing than would have if we didn’t exist.

“The interesting thing about what we’ve become that I didn’t imagine is that I feel like people perceive us as not just a place for cinephiles but also as a community space because of the discussions and the partnerships we do. I feel like that’s what makes us distinctive because that helps us reach new, wider audiences that may not otherwise come. Those connections help us serve the entire community.”

She strikes a balance serving both hardcore film buffs and casual movie fans. Along the way, she hopes general audiences sample more challenging fare.

Film Streams has also expanded its administrative staff and budget. “It’s over a million dollars now,” she says. “We’ve just kind of grown incrementally every year.”

She’s perhaps most pleased by how Omaha has gotten behind Film Streams. There’s a sense of ownership in it, and that’s precisely what she wants.

“We’re all sort of stakeholders in it – Omaha, our members, the board.”

A creative life and career

The island that Film Streams, Slowdown and Saddle Creek Records anchors is gaining a foothold in North Downtown along with Creighton University, Tip Top, Hot Shops, the Mastercraft and TD Ameritrade Park. She sees development there as a mixed-bag but the entrepreneurial spirit and energy on display make her optimistic.

She feels young creative class professionals like herself and her friends are more and more being heard. She likes the vibrant Omaha that emerged while she was away and that continues spinning off creative new ventures. She’s a big advocate of Omaha’s indie music scene.

“There’s something distinctive about what people are creating and there’s a strong community around it,” she says.

Film Streams gives her a little slice of the Big Apple in Omaha, where her life and work revolve around art, beauty, creativity, rock music, friends, donors and social entrepreneurs. “This job is that,” she says. Best of all, she gets to share her film passion. “I love that experience so much. It’s a way to connect with people. It feels really great to show someone something they appreciate. Man, I love that.”

Visit http://www.filmstreams.org.

Oscar-Winner Alexander Payne and Kaui Hart Hemmings on the Symbiosis Behind His Film and Her Novel ‘The Descendants’ and Her Role in Helping Him Get Hawaii Right

January 23, 2012 11 comments

Oscar-winner Alexander Payne and Kaui Hart Hemmings on the Symbiosis Behind His Film and Her Novel ‘The Descendants‘ and Her Role in Helping Him Get Hawaii Right

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

When Alexander Payne‘s turn came to speak in the glow of The Descendants winning best motion picture drama at the Jan. 15 Golden Globes, he made sure to thank the people of Hawaii and author Kaui Hart Hemmings.

He did something few directors do by involving Hemmings, a Hawaii native and resident, in the adaptation, preproduction and production of the George Clooney-starring film. He’s widely credited her vital role in helping him get a fix on the island state’s particular culture, or as much as a mainlander like himself can attain. For all the time he spent researching, writing, prepping and shooting there, mainly in Honolulu, he never lost sight of being a visitor in need of expert advice.

Of course, the well-received 2007 Hemmings novel is the reason there’s a movie at all. He knows golden material when he sees it and he remained true to the book beyond her expectations.

“I’ve had the privilege of seeing Alexander making this film, from location scouting and casting to directing and filming. His attention to the minutiae of Hawaiian life, his humor and restraint, his casting decisions – I felt like I’d be surprised if it wasn’t a good film. Still, I couldn’t prepare myself for how good,” says Hemmings. “It’s a film that sticks with you, teaches you something without being at all didactical. It brings Hawaii to the big screen, something that’s never been done before, in an authentic way. I never insisted on him being faithful to my novel, but he did, and I’m pretty happy about that since it led to results like these.”

His respect for her work and inclusion in his process is why he told a world-wide Globes audience, with some prompting from his Ad Hominem Enterprises producing partner and former co-writer, Jim Taylor, “…thanks to Kaui Hart Hemmings – she gave us a beautiful gift.”

“I don’t need the public thank you but…it sure does please the locals. I spent a lot of time with Alexander, the crew and George, so it was just fun times,” says Hemmings. “I’m a big fan of this movie. I have the privilege of feeling like I contributed to it in some way and so it’s nice to be acknowledged.”

In adhering closely to her tale of a good man negotiating personal upheavals, the film’s struck a responsive chord with critics and audiences…

YOU CAN READ THE REST OF THE STORY IN MY NEW BOOK-

Alexander Payne: HIs Journey in Film – A Reporter’s Perspective  1998-2012

A compilation of my articles about Payne and his work.  Now available for pre-ordering.


Alexander Payne and Kaui Hart Hemmings

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The Cut Man: Oscar-Winning Film Editor Mike Hill

December 17, 2011 3 comments

The number of Nebraskans working in or on the fringes of the film industry is in the hundreds.  I know there’s nothing remarkable about that in and of itself, other than that this is a small population state far removed from either coast. Then again, the vast majority of Hollywood film professionals originated somewhere else besides Calif., including lots of places just like Nebraska. But what is unusual is the high number of folks from here who have made significant contributions to the film industry either by the imprint or quality or volume of their work .

Try this cursory list on for size:

Darryl Zanuck, Harold Lloyd, Hoot Gibson, Fred Astaire, Robert Taylor, Ward Bond, Ann Ronell, Henry Fonda, Dorothy McGuire,  Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, Lynn Stalmaster, Donald Thorin, James Coburn, David Janssen, Inga Swenson, Sandy Dennis, David Doyle, Lew Hunter, Irene Worth, Joan Micklin Silver, Nick Nolte, Swoosy Kurtz, Paul Williams, Marg Helgenberger, Lori Petty, Sandy Veneziano, Alexander Payne, John Jackson, Jon Bokenkamp, Jaime King, Dan Mirvish, Dana Altman, John Beasley, Kevin Kennedy, Patrick Coyle, Gabrielle Union, Yolonda Ross, Nicholas D’Agosto, Chris Klein, Nik Fackler, Tom Elkins.

Add in Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett for good measure.

The list includes mega-moguls, directors, producers, screenwriters, songwriters, actors, actresses, you name it, and their influence extends from the silent era through the Golden Age of Hollywood to the indie movement and right on up to today.  There are Oscar winners both behind and in front of the camera, industry stalwarts and mavericks, household names and lesser known but no less significant figures.

And then there’s the subject of this story, Mike Hill, an Oscar-winning editor who’s been attached to Ron Howard for decades and shared in the director’s many successes.  Hill is an Omaha native and resident known for his generosity with young, aspiring filmmakers and editors.  I did the following profile on him in 2002 and what most interested me about him then and still does now is the story of how he came to work in Hollywood in the first place and the classic journey he took as an apprentice learning his craft.  During that process he worked with some genuine legends and those experiences obviously added his professional development.

Mike Hill, ©photo ww2.ljworld.com

 

 

The Cut Man: Oscar-Winning Film Editor Mike Hill             

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Success for Mike Hill, Academy Award-winning film editor from Omaha, did not come overnight. His local-boy-made-good-in-Hollywood story ranges from lean years learning the craft to being mentored by old pros to turning lucky breaks to his advantage to reaching the pinnacle of his profession.

He and fellow editor Dan Hanley, who together cut all of Ron Howard’s films, shared the 1995 Oscar for Best Film Editing on Apollo 13 and are nominated again this year for the critically-praised A Beautiful Mind, which is up for a total of eight Oscars, including Best Picture. During an interview at the Pacific Street Spirit World, Hill, who lives in Omaha with his wife and their daughter, discussed his career and collaboration in cinema.

After graduating from Omaha Burke in the late 1960s Hill attended UNO, where he studied a little of everything before earning a criminal justice degree. To pay his way through school he worked nights as an assistant film editor at Channel 6 television, splicing 16 millimeter commercials together, a seemingly forgettable job that, however, would soon be his entree into movies.

He headed out to California in the early 1970s with the idea of working in penology. But after a few months as a Chino State Prison guard he realized he was in the wrong field and promptly quit. He took odd jobs to pay the rent and almost on a whim applied for work with the film editors guild.

“I wasn’t really counting on anything,” he said. “Then luckily one day I was home when a phone call came from the guild saying Paramount was hiring. I ended up getting hired as an apprentice, which consisted of working in film shipping and driving a golf cart delivering film to editing rooms and screening rooms and doing whatever they told you to do.”

Elia Kazan with Jeanne Moreau and Robert De Niro on the set of The Last Tycoon

 

 

As unglamorous as his work was, Hill landed in the movies at a propitious time and a prestigious place. It was 1973 and Paramount ruled Hollywood after scoring big the previous year with The Godfather. The studio was producing a whole new slate of soon-to-be classics.

“It was an amazing time,” he said. “The movie business was very busy. Paramount was making Godfather II and Chinatown at the time I was there. I would just marvel every day at who I saw on the lot — Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro. So, it was pretty heady stuff for a kid from Omaha.”

Once Hill understood the way out of the shipping room meant learning how to be an assistant film editor, he announced his ambition to do just that.

“I was fortunate to have a couple assistant editors I met who were willing to teach me how to synch-up dailies. When film comes from the previous day’s shoot you synch it up with picture and track (soundtrack) so it can run in a screening room. I learned how to do that and I slowly learned editing room tasks.” His first screening room duties were for then hit TV shows like The Brady Bunch. Learning the ropes the same time as Hill was Dan Hanley, with whom he would later team.

Among the old-line editors Hill and Hanley apprenticed under was Bob Kern. “Both Dan and I learned quite a bit from him. He would give us scenes to edit — to work on — and that’s the best way to learn. He and other editors encouraged us to pursue it and to move up.”

The ‘70s saw Hill work on many made-for-TV movie and film projects. Two master filmmakers he assisted around 1976 spurred his development: on The Last Tycoon he worked with Elia Kazan (On the Waterfront)  whose elegant if rather lifeless feature adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished last novel ended up being the director’s final film; and on Bound for Glory he worked with Hal Ashby (Coming Home), whose exquisite vision of folk singer Woody Guthrie’s life story secured critical plaudits but saw scant box office returns.

Hill said he went to the Tycoon set every day observing Kazan at work and ran dailies for him the entire shoot. Kazan may have noted his young charge’s intense interest in the process as, Hill said, “He took me under his wing and let me cut some scenes. One scene he was going to reshoot anyway, so he said. ‘Go ahead and cut this together and see what you can do with it.’ I was there all night messing around with it. It was a simple scene of two people talking. On every line I cut back and forth until it was like a ping pong match. I really didn’t know what I was doing. He looked at it with me in the screening room and told me, ‘You don’t need to cut so much. Pick your spots and sometimes let a scene play out awhile.’ I learned stuff like that from him that was invaluable. The same way with Hal Ashby.”

It was while working in a second editor’s position on TV movies that Hill “really started to learn how to edit.” He was prepared, therefore, when his big break came in 1982. He was set to join his old mentor, Kern, and his former shipping room mate, Hanley, as an assistant on Ron Howard’s first mid-major studio feature, Nightshift, when Kern suffered a stroke.

Instead of bringing in a veteran replacement Howard entrusted the lead editing to the green assistants.

Haskell Wexler and Hal Ashby on the set of Bound for Glory

 

 

“We had a lot of responsibility on our shoulders,” Hill said, “but we were too young and too stupid to be really that aware of it, and so we just did it. Bob was there to lend moral support and answer questions. The movie turned out to be a modest comedy hit, enough of a hit to get Ron Splash.”

Then came Cocoon. As Howard’s directorial career reached ever greater heights, Hill and Hanley went along for the ride every step of the way. Their nearly exclusive relationship with him is one of the closest collaborations between a director and an editor, or editors, in Hollywood. So, what makes it work?

“I think personality-wise we kind of meld,” Hill said. “We have the same interests. Our senses of humor mesh. There’s really no ego problems…and Ron is just the nicest guy in the world. We’re all really good friends. Plus, he likes our work and he likes having two film editors.”

During production Hill-Hanley cut on location and during post-production they work at a permanent editing suite Howard maintains in New York. The men work in separate rooms on separate scenes before assembling a first cut. In shaping the raw footage coming-in during the shoot, the pair enjoy great latitude.

Dan Hanley, Ron Howard, Mike Hill, ©photo editorsguild.com

 

 

“We have total freedom. Ron just lets us go. He’ll give us cryptic notes like, ‘I like that take’ or ‘Try to use this moment’ and that’s it. The structure and everything is up to us. He relies on us to come up with things he doesn’t expect to see. He likes to be surprised.”

Once shooting is complete Howard joins his editors and the three slowly prune the film-in-progress into a workable length.

“Ron’s kind of impatient about editing. He doesn’t like to sit around. He likes going back and forth from room to room,” Hill said, “so he’s always got something to look at. We’ll look at the movie reel by reel with him and get extensive notes from him about each scene and then we’ll go to work on them. We’ll do an entire pass and see how much time we’ve taken out and how it plays and then we’ll start again. We try to make every scene shorter without hurting it. Some of the toughest decisions are which scenes to drop. But some scenes have got to go, including some that would be very good and that I’ve grown attached to personally because I’ve worked so hard on them. It’s a slow process of whittling it down, sculpting it, refining it, honing it. We’ve got a good system worked out over 20 years now.”

The art in what Hill does comes in selecting from the myriad takes at his disposal to create a seamless film that appears to have sprung to life, organically, as “one piece,” he said, adding, “That’s what I admire about good editing.” Working for Howard means sifting through “a lot of angles and a lot of takes. He shoots a lot of film. He likes to have options. We’ve always found, especially when you need to trim a scene down, that the more coverage you have the more success you have in shortening a scene. You’re stuck if you just have one or two takes or one or two shots. Then, you have nothing to cut to. There’s no way to get out of the scene.”

Making Hill’s job easier is the fact Howard commands final cut. “Ron’s in a position where he has complete power. There’s nobody messing with him, which is great for us because there’s nothing worse than working on a film where the director loses control and the studio steps in.”

Hill lived that nightmare on one of the few Howard-less films he edited, Problem Child. He said each project has it’s own “unique problems.”

Of Howard’s films, he lists Willow and Apollo 13 as the toughest assignments because the former entailed so many special effects shots and the latter required flawlessly blending weightlessness footage shot in a plane with matching footage shot on a sound stage. The Grinch posed a new challenge when Howard broke precedent and allowed an actor, star Jim Carrey no less, free reign in the editing room to select his own takes. Hill said while the character-based A Beautiful Mind involved a lower degree of difficulty than those technically-oriented films it demanded greater finesse in shaping a cohesive performance from star Russell Crowe, whose takes ranged wildly from subdued to over-the-top, and in preserving the integrity of the narrative while shortening the piece.

 

 

Hill has been in the business long enough now that he has hands-on experience working with the full historical range of film editing equipment — from the old Movieola (“a horrible machine…a dinosaur”) through which film noisly clattered through a gate to the streamlined Kem (“much more civilized”) to today’s digital Avid system (“a huge leap forward”) that eliminates the need to ever handle film again and allows instant access to every shot.

“Now, we can finish a scene that used to take days in an hour.” The Movieola days were such drudgery, he said, “that I have to admit there were times I got so tired of editing a scene, I’d say, ‘That’s it — I don’t care anymore. Take it or leave it.’” It’s no coincidence his new confidence in his work has coincided with the labor-free new technology. “It gives us freedom to experiment” with pure editing because “you don’t have to worry about splicing, putting frames back, loading or unloading film. You can approach a scene totally without fear..do whatever you want and there’s no consequences.”

As for his and Hanley’s Oscar bid, he said, “I don’t really believe we’re going to win. Our picture isn’t showy or flashy enough. But I didn’t think so last time either.” Should he win, the statuette will likely join his Apollo 13 Oscar on a bookcase at home.

Meanwhile, he’s anxiously awaiting word on Howard’s next project and is getting antsy enough that he’s having his agent look for a temporary assignment he can fill until the call comes.

During lull periods he sometimes lends his expertise to small independent films, including the Omaha-made Shakespeare’s Coffee and The Full Ride. Even though he and Hanley have no formal agreement with Howard stipulating they will work on his films, neither has missed one in 20 years and Hill doesn’t intend missing one now that Howard is such a prominent Player in Hollywood.

From the Archives: About ‘About Schmidt’: The Shoot, Editing, Working with Jack and the Film After the Cutting Room Floor

December 6, 2011 14 comments

 

 

From the Archives: About ‘About Schmidt’: The Shoot, Editing, Working with Jack and the Film After the Cutting Room Floor

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Omaha Weekly

 

Ever since Omaha native Alexander Payne wrapped shooting on About Schmidt, the hometown movie whose star, Jack Nicholson, caused a summer sensation, the filmmaker has been editing the New Line Cinema pic in obscurity back in Los Angeles.

That’s the way Hollywood works. During production, a movie is a glitzy traveling circus causing heads to turn wherever its caravan of trailers and trucks go and its parade of headliners pitch their tents to perform their magic. It’s the Greatest Show on Earth. Then, once the show disbands, the performers pack up and the circus slips silently out of town. Meanwhile, the ringmaster, a.k.a. the director, holes himself up in an editing suite out of sight to begin the long, unglamorous process of piecing the film together from all the high wire moments captured on celluloid to try and create a dramatically coherent whole.

Whether Schmidt is the breakout film that elevates Payne into the upper echelon of American directors remains to be seen, but it is clearly a project with the requisite star power, studio backing and artistic pedigree to position him into the big time.

An indication of the prestige with which New Line execs regard the movie is their anticipated submission of it to the Cannes Film Festival. Coming fast-on-the-heels of Election, Payne’s critically acclaimed 1999 film that earned he and writing partner Jim Taylor Oscar nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay, Schmidt will be closely watched by Hollywood insiders to see how the director has fared with a bona fide superstar and a mid-major budget at his disposal.

Regardless of what happens, Payne’s unrepentant iconoclasm will probably keep him on the fringe of major studio moviemaking, where he feels more secure anyway. As editing continues on Schmidt, slated for a September 2002 release, Payne is nearing his final cut. The film has already been test previewed on the coast and now it’s just a matter of trimming for time and impact.

While in town over Thanksgiving Payne discussed what kind of film is emerging, his approach to cutting, the shooting process, working with Nicholson and other matters during a conversation at a mid-town coffeehouse, Caffeine Dreams. He arrived fashionably late, out of breath and damp after running eight blocks in a steady drizzle from the brownstone apartment he keeps year-round.

He and editor Kevin Tent, who has cut all of Payne’s features, have been editing since June. They and a small staff work out of a converted house in back of a dentist’s office on Larchmont Street in Los Angeles. Payne and Tent work 10 -hour days, six days a week.

“As with any good creative relationship we have a basic shared sensibility,” Payne said of the collaboration, “but we’re not afraid to disagree, and there’s no ego involved in a disagreement. We’re like partners in the editing phase. He’ll urge me to let go of stuff and to be disciplined.”

By now, Payne has gone over individual takes, scenes and sequences hundreds of times, making successive cuts along the way. What has emerged is essentially the film he set out to make, only with different tempos and tones than he first imagined.

“Rhythmically, it’s come out a little slower than I would have wanted it,” he said. “I think it’s been something hard for me and for those I work with to accept that because of it’s subject matter and for whatever ineffable reason this is a very different film in pacing and feel than the very kinetic and funny Election, which got so much praise. It has, I think, the same sensibility and humor as Election but it’s slower and it lets the drama and emotion play more often than going for the laugh. I think it just called for that. With this one, we don’t go for the snappy edit.”

Even before Schmidt, Payne eschewed the kind of MTV-style of extreme cutting that can detract from story, mood, performance.

“Things are over-covered and over-edited these days for my tastes. There’s many exceptions, of course, but the norm seems to be to cut even though you don’t need to. And, in fact, not only don’t filmmakers need to, their cuts are disruptive to watching performance and getting the story. I like watching performance. My stuff is about getting performance. I like holding within a take as long as possible until you have to cut.”

YOU CAN READ THE REST OF THE STORY IN MY FORTHCOMING BOOK-

Alexander Payne’s Journey in Film: A Reporter’s Perspective, 1998-2012

A compilation of my articles about Payne and his work.  Available this fall as an ebook and in select bookstores.

 

 

 

Alexander Payne, ©photo Jeff Beiermann, The World-Herald

 

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