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The Many Faces of Leo Adam Biga’s Blog

October 27, 2014 Leave a comment

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Struggles of single moms subject of film and discussion; Local women can relate to living paycheck to paycheck

October 24, 2014 1 comment

The set-up for the HBO documentary Paycheck to Paycheck: The Life and Times of Katrina Gilbert sounds like the kind of heartache country music sagas that Loretta Lynn or Dolly Parton or Tammy Wynette made famous with its single working mom protagonist living, as the title goes, paycheck to paycheck trying to make ends meet.  But Gilbert ‘s situation mirrors that of millions of American women facing real struggles.  This story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) riffs off the documentary, whose Oct. 28 Omaha Film Streams screening will be followed by a panel discussion, to look at what some local single mothers contend with in getting by.

 

 

 

Katrina Gilbert

 

 

Struggles of single moms subject of film and discussion; Local women can relate to living paycheck to paycheck

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

In the Gloria Gaynor anthem “I Will Survive” a woman declares her personal autonomy. Not needing to find validation in another is a liberating thing worth celebrating in song.

Life imitates art whenever a poor single mother breaks free of the shackles of fear, self-doubt and shame that hold her back, say women who’ve been there and now help others out of that trap.

Ericka Guinan was a single mom trapped in a cycle of despair before finding the courage to seek guidance from women who’d been in her shoes. Today, she’s the self-sufficiency programs facilitator at Heart Ministry Center, 2222 Binney St., where she helps women like Aja Alfaro, a young single mom of two, find the confidence to move toward their dreams.

Since graduating from the center’s Pathway program Aja’s turned her life around. She works as a SNAP outreach specialist at Heart Ministry, assisting women apply for food stamps she needs herself. Guinan’s been there, too. Each woman’s gone through the wringer of bad relationships, no work, low pay, food and housing insecurity, unpaid bills, creditors and feeling like there’s no getting out from under.

The stress facing many single moms is the subject of the HBO documentary Paycheck to Paycheck showing at Film Streams Oct. 28 at 7 p.m. The film, executive produced by Maria Shriver, follows a year in the life of Katrina Gilbert, a Chattanooga, Tenn. certified nursing assistant and mother of three. Gilbert’s trouble making ends meet and finding financial stability are emblematic of many women.

The free screening is a collaboration between Film Streams, the public advocacy group Coalition for a Strong Nebraska and Women’s Fund of Omaha, a nonprofit focused on improving the lives of local women.

Guinan will be part of a post-show panel discussing issues raised in the film. Joining her will be Women’s Fund executive director Michelle Zych, Coalition director Tiffany Seibert Joekel and Neb. State Sen. Tanya Cook. Alfaro will be there, too.

Joekel says barriers to single parents, especially women, include difficulties affording high-quality child care, unfriendly workplace policies, inability to access high-quality, affordable health care and limited educational opportunities.

Zych says Women’s Fund studies find stark economic disparities among Omaha women, particularly single mothers of color.

“Katrina Gilbert’s story is just one example of how women often live paycheck to paycheck. We expect the audience to learn more about poverty in Omaha and what efforts are being made community and statewide to ease this burden for families,” Zych says.

“It’s not easy living paycheck to paycheck,” says Alfaro, who knows from first-hand experience. “It’s hard, it’s a struggle.”

Alfaro’s made progress toward independence.

“It’s still hard but I’m getting there. Things started changing a lot just this year, when I finally got my own place for the very first time at the end of January.”

Alfaro’s steady income though sometimes makes her ineligible for certain benefits even though her earnings are barely above poverty level and she hasn’t reached self-sufficiency. It’s called the Cliff Effect and it plays havoc with the working poor. Tanya Cook introduced a bill in the Nebraska Legislature that would help some working parents continue qualifying for child care subsidies well beyond current limits.

Despite roadblocks to aid, Alfaro’s hopeful for the first time about the future. She plans resuming nursing studies.

“There is hope if people can get connected to the right resources. Once people have hope they can do things they never thought they could,” says Julie Kalkowski, co-director of the Financial Success Program through Creighton University’s Financial Hope Collaborative. The program works with single mothers for a year to undo old habits.. “We ask our clients to do small, actionable steps – little changes that add up to real money. Once people start to feel like they are moving forward they are willing to do things they have been too intimidated or overwhelmed to do, like calling creditors. We also offer debt consolidation loans.”

Guinan agrees hope is essential before women buy into changing their lives. At Heart Ministry she says “we let each women define her own pathway to success,” adding, “We ask what are your dreams, where do you want your life to be and then we try to figure out what we can do to help her get on the path to that. We have a therapist that meets with them once a week. We have a lot of resources and relationships within the community they can access. “

She says setting boundaries, getting an education, budgeting, building healthy relationships and having a positive support network is key.

It’s all about removing obstacles and Guinan says “a lot of the obstacles are in our head because we have a big fear of doing something new or of failure or of success. We a lot of times don’t believe in ourselves.”

She says overcoming negative self-talk and taking responsibility for one’s life is necessary for success. Guinan lived it all out herself – the self-pity, the denial, the hitting bottom before asking for help.

“I was lucky enough to meet several strong, healthy women just far enough ahead of me to relate to my struggles yet offer solid solutions and advice. I think I trusted them because they were sharing their own person struggles with me. I related and saw myself in their stories yet they obviously had overcome so much.”

Aja Alfaro’s found a similar sisterhood at Heart Ministry. Its self-sufficiency programs help women navigate out of tough situations by matching them with mentors, enrolling them in classes that address financial planning, parenting and life skills and plugging them into school or training programs.

Women who’ve gotten their lives together like Guinan share their own stories – struggles, successes and all – with young women like Aja, who says Guinan and a mentor, Nancy, have taken her under their wing. “I needed to learn how to get on my own two feet to take care of my family and they’ve helped me to come pretty far. They helped me start college and get this job. I think the biggest thing was learning how to care about myself. I’m more focused now on me and my kids.”

Empowerment helps but working a low wage job won’t cut it. It’s why Cook supports a minimum wage hike and advocates women explore training programs for well-paying nontraditional jobs in high demand like welding and traditional career-track jobs in health care fields.

“A disproportionate number of women work at a wage level that could not support a family without public assistance. Nebraska’s behind the power curve in terms of offering a fair, living wage or the kinds of opportunities that allow families to work themselves out of poverty.”

Cook says financial literacy “is very important” for women who don’t know how to manage money. “The way many families are compelled to live whatever money comes in goes right out to some emergent or past-due need, so they don’t learn to save.”

Ericka Guinan calls for more services: “I believe we need more job training, quality childcare, affordable and safe housing options, mental health and mentoring for single mothers.” She says women’s voices must not be lost in the process. “In the Pathway Program we strongly believe each woman has valuable experience and feedback to offer.” She says lawmakers need to hear from more mothers about the tough choices they must often make, such as buying food versus meds.

Creighton’s Kalkowski says, “One of the things that has always amazed me is how brave so many working parents are to keep getting up every morning even though their situation is bleak. Most of us have no idea how desperate so many families are.”

Guinan says no matter how hard it gets, single moms have a knack for making do. “We’re survivors.”

For advance tickets, email molly@filmstreams.org. For more on the doc, visit http://www.filmstreams.org.

Omaha native goes where his film passion leads him: James Duff and filmmaker wife Julia Morrison shot debut feature ‘Hank and Asha’ on two continents

October 18, 2014 Leave a comment

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in Metro Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine)

 

Couple’s film played to hometown crowd in Omaha                                                                                                                                                                                                             Omaha native James E. Duff goes to extreme lengths feeding his film passion. He once went across the country by scooter to make a documentary. He’s directed films and taught filmmaking in Africa and Europe. His latest travels resulted in his debut narrative feature, Hank and Asha, a micro indie flick he co-wrote with his wife, Julia Morrison.

He directed and she produced the picture shot in the Czech Republic and on the Lower East Side of New York City, where the couple reside.

The film’s been well received at art houses and festivals, winning audience favorite awards. It’s now available on DVD,

Duff’s cinema journey wend its way here in May when he and Julia presented their movie at Film Streams. The Omaha premiere played to a warm, enthusiastic crowd, including his folks. It marked a special homecoming for Duff, who’s followed a long road pursuing his art.

“It was fantastic. I have such a home team here. Omaha supports their own. It’s a really special feeling to see friends and family in the theater,” he says, adding the celebratory turnout “felt like a wedding.”

It was a full circle moment for the filmmaker, whose love of cinema was stoked watching classic movies with his father, Dr. Wally Duff, as a child and habituating the Dundee Theater as a teen.

The filmmaker joins a select group of Nebraskans (Joan Micklin Silver, Dan Mirvish, Alexander Payne) who’ve directed widely seen features.

 

 

Wanderlust
This prodigal son spent 20 years honing his craft in far-flung places: Indiana University; the USC School of Cinematic Arts (his thesis film Life is a Sweet played festivals worldwide); New York City, plus those directing and teaching adventures oceans away.

As a kid he collected stamps from foreign countries and now he’s made it to some of the same spots he imagined visiting.

“I’ve always kind of had a wanderlust. When I was 5 and I first knew what a globe was I looked at the Cape of Good Hope in Africa and declared, ‘I’m going to go there.’ At 19 I studied my junior year abroad and actually backpacked down into the Cape.”

Following his intrepid spirit he captured a 1994 coast-to-coast bicycle trek from the back of a scooter. Feeling his Generation X was unfairly stereotyped as slackers he joined fellow recent college graduates for the fundraising bike trip from California to North Carolina to document “people’s opinions about our generation.”

“We cut right across middle America, biking 80-90 miles a day, staying in these really small towns. We spent some nights at campsites. Churches and families put us up other nights.”

He did the 35-days on a Honda Elite. His roommate, who’d never operated a scooter, drove with Duff on the back holding the camera.

By journey’s end the scooter was beat up after several wipeouts. “When we’d go down it’d be like slow motion because all I was thinking about was the camera. I was 21 and I didn’t think I could get killed.” The fragile Ricoh Hi-8 camera was another matter. “A couple times it broke and I thought the trip was over, but I found this amazing repair shop in a little town that fixed it.”

The trek complete, Duff found himself in unfamiliar territory with no place to edit. Then he got a grant from a film support group and permission to use a corporate editing suite in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill Research Triangle Park.

“I had 75 hours (of footage) to get down to one.”

Working under severe time constraints he endured panic attacks and exhaustion, often laboring through the night.

“I’d go there and lock myself in with a peanut butter sandwich.”

When he previewed the film for backers, he says, “I couldn’t watch it, but they really liked it. They put on a big screening for the community.” Much to his surprise the film, The Cycle Also Rises, sold to PBS and aired nationwide on the POV series. It confirmed for the Westside High grad his boyhood fascination with film could become a career.

Africa
Though documentaries became his forte, he longed to make dramatic films. He tested the waters in L.A. “I wrote a couple scripts that were close to getting made but I got frustrated not working as a director.” He relocated to New York to direct theater. When an opportunity arose to go back to Africa, this time to make development documentaries in Senegal for nongovernmental organizations, he took it.

“The work was very West Africa. You’d show up on time and nobody else would come for another hour. Then the equipment wouldn’t work. Constant frustration. But when we’d show up to these little villages people would welcome us so warmly. They’re beautiful, kind people.”

His docs covered such topics as HIV prevention and circumcision. He independently made a film about Senegal’s lost 20-something generation. He cherishes his two years there.

“It was a really fantastic experience. The food and music is amazing. There’s a lot of artists with a lot to say. My memories are not so much of the work but of these most intense friendships.””

In 2007 he went back to another old stomping ground, Kenya, for a UNESCO project working with aspiring filmmakers.

“I’ve never taught students so passionate. They all wanted so badly to do this. I found it so inspiring to teach them just simple things. “

In 2010 he went to a refugee camp in the Sahara to teach filmmaking to the displaced and oppressed Saharawian people.

“The camp had no electricity or running water. They’d put up a screen in the bed of a truck and project movies. That was their film festival. They also had a ‘film school’ where I taught. We were training the people to make films so that the world could know their plight. Some students did make films but they’re not getting out.”

From Prague to New York with love
Duff then taught at the Prague Film School in the Czech Republic. Julia joined him on the faculty. Their students were an international lot. Just as in Africa, Duff learned how film cuts across all barriers.

“The gift of cinema is universal,” he says. “To put that tool in people’s hands is so empowering. Giving them a camera is such a potent thing.”

In 2011-12 the couple enlisted some of their students as crew for Hank and Asha, a story about two aspiring filmmakers, Hank in New York and Asha in Prague, whose relationship plays out entirely by video letters. Inspiration came from the disconnection Duff, Morrison and their students felt far from home and from a friend who courted his wife via video love letters. Watching the friend’s videos, Duff says, “felt like we were on the inside of this relationship watching it grow.” That intimate glimpse at budding romance and the anticipation that attends it, is what the filmmakers were after in their own project.

To their delight, Duff and Morrison found they make an effective team.

“It’s really worked out well in our partnership because we have two different skill sets,” Duff says. “Julia came from producing and is a killer producer and I come from a directing background and that’s kind of how we blended together. I think that helps in the partnership because we’re not looking over each other’s shoulder.”

“We’ve had a great experience doing this together as our first film collaboration as a couple,” says Morrison, who’s produced historical documentaries for the PBS series American Experience and current affairs docs for New York Time Television. “We’ve learned a lot and we’ve gone on this great adventure. We’ve traveled the country and the world with the film. All these things have been terrific. But it’s also really hard work to make a movie.”

And to get it seen. They feel fortunate the Hank and Asha found both theatrical and video distributors.

Film streams
For as low budget as the all-digital movie is, the filmmakers are proud of how good it looks. Duff credits cinematographer Bianca Butti for that. Because it’s a two-character piece, it needed actors who could carry the film and reviewers credit Andrew Pastides as Hank and Mahira Kakkar as Asha with engaging performances. His letters were shot in New York and hers in Prague. The actors never met. The filmmakers say for the storyline’s high concept conceit to work the videos had to be as natural as possible. Therefore, no rehearsals were held and the actors improvised from an outline highlighting the arc of each scene. Some found locations were utilized and some shots were stolen.

Duff and Morrison enjoyed great freedom on the project.

“We were blessed to have that. Nobody told us what to do,” he says.

“We’re looking forward to the next project having a larger budget but still retaining our autonomy,” says Morrison.

They hope a new script they’re developing attracts name actors.

The couple say whatever films they make will reflect their shared interest in humanist stories that move audiences.

Meanwhile, they’re always up for a new far-off adventure.

As Duff explains, “We’re on the lookout for opportunities like that because we want to continue to expand our world. It informs everything we do. We’ll go anywhere.”

Filmmaker explores a Latina whose story defies all conventions; Maria Agui Carter to speak after El Museo Latinoscreening of her film ‘Rebel’

September 19, 2014 Leave a comment

A hybrid documentary employing dramatic elements explores the fascinatiing story of Loreta Valezquez, a Cuban immigrant who posed as a man to fight and spy for both sides in the American Civil War.  Noted filmmaker Maria Agui Carter will discuss her film Rebel after a 7 p.m. screening at El Museo Latino in Omaha on Sept. 25.  This is my Reader (www.thereader.com) story about what drew Carter to the project and what she’s discoverd and surmised about Loreta, a woman she greatly admires.  The film has been airing on PBS.

NOTE: Filmmaker Maria Agui Carter is pictured in the second photogaph below.

 


 

 

 

Filmmaker explores a Latina whose story defies all conventions; Maria Agui Carter to speak after El Museo Latinoscreening of her film ‘Rebel’

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Award-winning filmmaker Maria Agui Carter has much to say about her new film Rebel, the story of a Latina who posed as a man to fight and spy in the American Civil War. Agui Carter will discuss the film, which recently aired as a PBS special, and its protagonist, Cuban immigrant Loreta Velazquez, following a 7 p.m. screening on September 25 at El Museo Latino, 4701 South 25th Street.

An immigrant herself, Agui Carter is an independent filmmaker based in Mass. and founder of Iguana Films, a film and new media company making Spanish and English language works. She’s a graduate of Harvard University, where she’s been a visiting artist-scholar.

In a director’s statement and answers provided via email, she details what led her to do the 12-years-in-the-making project.

“I’m a history buff, I look for interesting characters, especially women and Latinos, in American history,” she says. “I came across an original copy of Loreta’s 1876 memoir in Widener Library (Harvard).”

Agui Carter found powerful themes in those accounts that speak to her experience as a Latina storyteller, immigrant to the U.S. and feminist.

“I felt uniquely qualified to tell the story. I’m fascinated by the question of citizenship and national identity, having been brought here as a child undocumented and raised ‘underground’ by my mother. I felt growing up I was deeply American, but I did not have the citizenship status.”

Loreta’s story touches on issues of gender, race and self-determination Agui Carter identifies with.

“I identify with Loreta and sympathize with her painful struggle to find acceptance within her community. Loreta presents a Latina’s and a woman’s perspective on a time period and a war we usually think of as exclusively black and white. But this is less a story about the Civil War and more the story of a complex woman who reinvented herself to survive the impossible circumstances in which she found herself. And that reinvention of self is a quintessentially American experience that resonates with so many Americans – that idea we are not what we are born, but what we make of ourselves.”

Agui Carter’s fllm answers and asks questions prompted by the memoir. “My film is a detective story trying to understand the woman, the myth and the politics of how we understand our own past.”

From the time Loreta published her memoir until now, her story’s been marginalized and contested, even called a hoax.

“She was attacked as a liar and a fraud by an unreconstructed Ex-Confederate general. Jubal Early, who read her memoir and thought her story preposterous. He was quite powerful and publicly dismissed her story. Subsequent generations generally followed his lead.”

mariaaguifull

To unravel the mystery, Agui Carter consulted historians, who informed her some 1,000 women disguised as men fought in the Civil War. They confirm Loreta fought under the name Harry T. Buford at First Bull Run and was wounded at Shiloh. At some point Loreta became a spy, first for the Confederacy, then for the Union. She went by many aliases, including Laura Williams and Loretea DeCaulp. Agui Carter’s hybrid documentary uses actors to dramatize certain scenes.

“We don’t know all the exact details of her service, nor that of the other documented women who fought disguised as men because they were hiding their tracks and identities,” she says.

As for why Loreta did what she did, Agui Carter says, “She had just lost her family and as a young girl she had dreamed of being a hero. it’s a complicated and deliciously twisted plot. “

The filmmaker admires what Loreta did in carving out an unexpected, emancipated life and sharing her journey with the world.

“Her book popularized her story of a woman who broke the rules and social boundaries that, post-war, so many were trying to reconstruct. By writing her memoirs, she allowed others to imagine that they, too, might choose their own fates and go against the grain. This was considered dangerous at a time when men were returning from war and expecting the women to go back to their old roles.

“She refused to be bounded by the strictures of her time. She imagined a world for herself and went out and created it, regardless of what people told her she couldn’t do. She made the impossible possible for herself.”

Agui Carter has authored a new play, 14 Freight Trains, about the first American soldier to die in Iraq – an undocumented Latino. It has reverberations with Rebel and her own family’s experience.

“My mother married a Vietnam veteran who applied for citizenship for my mother and myself. War is a terrible, painful, transformative thing and yet people believe in this country enough to put their lives on the line for it, including generation after generation of immigrants. This is a profound experience and I am drawn to these stories of people who would believe in something so much they would risk their lives for it.”

She’s working on turning Loreta’s story into a narrative action feature..

See Rebel free with museum admission. Due to limited space, reservations are advised. Call 402-731-1137.

For more about the film and Loreta’s story, visit http://rebeldocumentary.com.

New endorsement for my Alexander Payne book from James Marshall Crotty

August 19, 2014 Leave a comment

 

Photobucket

My Alexander Payne book has received a lovely new endorsement.  It’s from James Marshall Crotty, an Omaha native who’s made quite a name for himself as a journalist and author.  He’s a filmmaker as well. A new edition of my book is forthcoming.  It will feature all my “Nebraska” coverage, plus a new cover and new inside graphics.

The new edition is soon to be available on this blog, at Amazon and BarnesandNoble.com, for Kindle and in select bookstores.

About “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film” Crotty says:

“Alex Payne is one of the few remaining auteurs in the Conglomerate Hollywood era. Leo Biga, a Nebraska native like his subject, deftly looks at how the ‘home place’ of Nebraska has shaped and nurtured Payne’s singular artistic vision.”

JAMES MARSHALL CROTTY

Columnist (Forbes, Huffington Post), Director/Producer (Crotty’s Kids)

 

His endorsement joins those from Kurt Andersen, Dick Cavett, Leonard Maltin, Joan Micklin Silver, and Ron Hull.

Considering Alexander Payne’s ‘Nebraska’

May 24, 2014 1 comment

Here is an excerpt from an essay I wrote to appear in an upcoming new edition of my book Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film.  The essay sets up or introduces the multiple stories I wrote about his most recent film Nebraska.  My extensive Nebraska coverage will add a major chunk of material to my Payne book and to our understanding of him and his work.  The new edition will be out in June 2014.

 

 

Considering Alexander Payne’s ‘Nebraska’

©by Leo Adam Biga

Excerpt from an essay to appear in an upcoming new edition of my book Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film

 

Even though Alexander Payne demonstrates time and again that commercial considerations mean very little to him, following the breakaway success of The Descendants (2011) there was every reasonable expectation he might lean a bit more again in the direction of mainstream with his next film. I say again because I count The Descendants as a conventional, even mainstream work even though its protagonist rails against his comatose wife and sets out to wreck the life of the man she was cheating with, all the while trying not to lose it with his two grieving daughters in tow.

Payne soon quashed any notion of playing it safe when he announced the small, insular back roads comedy-drama Nebraska (2013) as his new feature project. It did not help its bottom line chances that the film is set in rural Nebraska, which for most filmgoers may as well be the dark side of the moon for its unfamiliarity, remoteness, and perceived barrenness. Indeed, if Nebraska conjures any image at all it is of endless cornfields, cows, and monotonously flat, uninspired scenery. When the story laid over such a setting features a confused, depressed old cuss alienated from family and friends and wandering around in a bleak wasteland made even bleaker by black and white photography and desolate late fall, post-harvest locations, it does not exactly engender excitement. The prospect of a dour, feel-bad experience devoid of life and color does not get tongues a-wagging to generate the all important buzz that sells tickets.

Of course, anyone who has seen Nebraska knows the film is not the downer it may appear to be from glimpsing a thirty-second trailer or hearing a fifteen-second sound bite, but that it is ultimately a sweet, deeply affecting film filled with familiar truths amid its very Nebraskaesque yet also quite universal archetypes.

Payne’s insistence on shooting in black and white was a completely legitimate aesthetic choice given the storyline and tone of this stark, autumnal mood piece about an old man having his last hurrah. But it also meant a definite disadvantage in appealing to average or general movie fans, many of whom automatically pass on any non-color film. Compounding the aversion that many moviegoers have with black and white is the fact that most studio executives, distributors, and theater bookers share this aversion, not on aesthetic grounds, but based on the long-held. much repeated argument that black and white films fare poorly at the box office. Of course, there is a self-fulfilling prophecy at work here that starts with studio resistance and reluctance to greenlight black and white features and even when a studio does approve the rare black and white entry executives seem to half-heartedly market and release these pics. It is almost as if the bean counters are out to perversely prove a point, even at the risk of injuring the chances of one of their own pictures at finding a sizable audience. Then when the picture lags, it gives the powerbrokers the platform to say, I told you so. No wonder then – and this is assuming the argument is true – most black and white flicks don’t perform well compared with their color counterparts. Except, how does one arrive at anything like a fair comparison of films based on color versus black and white? Even if the films under review are of the same genre and released in the same period, each is individually, intrinsically its own experience and any comparison inevitably ends up being a futile apples and oranges debate. Besides, there are exceptions to the supposed rule that all black and white films struggle. From the 1970s on The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon, Young Frankenstein, Manhattan, Raging Bull, Schindler’s List, Ed Wood and The Artist are among the black and white films to have found wide success. It is admittedly a short list but it does prove black and white need not be a death sentence.

To no one’s surprise Paramount did what practically any studio would have done in the same situation, which was to fight Payne on the black and white decision. In no uncertain terms Payne wanted to make Nebraska in black and white and just as adamantly the studio wanted no part of it. He pushed and they pushed back. He would not compromise his vision because from the moment he first read Bob Nelson’s screenplay he clearly saw in his mind’s eye the world of this story play out in in shades of black and white. It just fit. It fit the characters and the settings and the emotions and as far as he was concerned that was that. No questions asked. No concessions made.

I do not claim to know all the details of this protracted dispute or should I say discussion but I do know from what Payne and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael have told me that the issue became a point of some contention. I do not know if it ever reached an impasse where Payne more or less indicated by word or action he was prepared to walk and take the project with him (his own Ad Hominem production company brought the property to Paramount). It certainly wouldn’t surprise me that he let it be known, subtly or not, that he was willing to make the project with another studio if it came to that. It is a moot point now since Paramount eventually acceded to his wishes, though not insignificantly the studio did cut some of the picture’s already small budget as a kind of hedge I suppose against the small business they expected the film to do. The smaller the budget, and in this case it was $12 million, the smaller the risk of not recouping its cost.

Given Payne’s even temperament and gentility, I doubt if things reached the level of shouting or angry exchanges, though he undoubtedly expressed displeasure with their interference and pettiness. I have to think he wore the execs down with his patience and persistence to win the black and white battle but at the end of the day he was willing to give up a couple million dollars in exchange for realizing his vision. I know he says that losing a million dollars is a huge loss when it comes to small-budgeted films like this one and I understand that in order to get the film made within those constraints he and others worked for scale in return for some points on the back end, but I have to believe those “sacrifices” were completely worth it in the long run. I would even argue that having to work on a bare bones budget and a tight schedule worked in favor of getting this simple story right. It required cast and crew to live frugally like the characters and the frugal shoot placed a premium on efficiency, ingenuity, and everyone pulling together to make the most of what they had to work with. In truth this esprit de corps is evident on all of Payne’s projects anyway because of the tight, loyal stock company he works with from film to film to film. They are a family and a team dedicated to one purpose: getting the film made to his specifications.

I asked Payne if it ever seems like a studio plays this game in order to gauge just how strongly the filmmaker is invested in a choice or preference as well as to what extent the filmmaker can be manipulated. He seems to believe there is some truth in that. Perhaps it really is the studio’s way of testing how firm the filmmaker’s convictions are and how much the filmmaker is willing to give up or to stand fast in terms of creative control. As Paramount surely knew going in and if they somehow didn’t know they surely soon discovered in the process of setting up the film, Payne is no push over and he brooks no fools. That is true at every juncture in the process, from making the deal to pre-production to the shoot and on through post-production. It is his film and he will not be budged from any creative choices he feels are necessary, which is to say he will not be pressured into doing something for the sake of added commercial appeal.

Because Payne is not about burning bridges, except for his public displeasure over the way his first two films (Citizen Ruth and Election) were handled by the studios and releasing companies behind them, he is not saying on the record what he thinks about the way Paramount handled Nebraska. I have to think he is not pleased with the extremely limited release they gave it. At no time during its release did the film ever play more than 968 theaters according to the website Boxoffice Mojo. That is anywhere from two-thirds to a half to a third the number of theaters its main awards competitors played at during their runs. It is hard to understand why the film was not given more opportunities to find a wider audience given the outstanding reception it received from critics (making most Top Ten lists), the foreign press (five Golden Globe nominations) and the Academy (six nominations).

Hampered as it was by the limited release, Nebraska still pulled in more than $18 million domestically by this edition’s summer 2014 printing and I am sure when all the figures are added up from North America and overseas, where I predict the film will fare well, especially in Europe, its total gross will be in excess of $20 million. By the time all the home viewing rentals and purchases are taken into account a year from now, I wager the film will have done some $25 million in business, which would approximately double its production costs. That is quite a return on a small film that did not get much studio support beyond the bare basics.

 

 

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Payne could have made things easier for himself and the studio by filming in color and securing a superstar. Nebraska marked quite a departure from the lush, color-filled canvas of Hawaii he captured in The Descendants and the equally verdant California wine country he committed to celluloid in Sideways. Never mind the fact the stories of those earlier films, despite the radical differences of their physical locations, actually share much in common tonally and thematically with Nebraska. The dark comic tone and theme of Payne’s films can threaten to be overshadowed when a star the magnitude of Jack Nicholson (About Schmidt) or George Clooney (The Descendants) attaches himself to one of his projects. But as anyone who is familiar with the subdued star turns of those two actors in those particular films will tell you, Nicholson departed far from his trademark insouciance and braggadocio to totally inhabit his repressed, depressive title character in Schmidt just as Clooney left behind much of his breezy, cocksure charm to essay his neurotic somewhat desperate character in Descendants. Each star was eager to shed his well-practiced, bigger-than-life persona in service of scripts and parts that called for them to play against type. Instead of their usual live-out-loud, testosterone-high roles, they play quiet, wounded, vulnerable men in trouble. For that matter, the men-children Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church play in Sideways are seemingly complete opposites but in actuality are emotionally-stunted, damaged souls using oblivion, alcohol, and sex to medicate their pain and avoid reality. The beauty of the California and Hawaii locales work as contrast and counterpoint to the chaotic lives of these lost figures careening toward catharsis. In Schmidt Omaha is the perfect washed-out backdrop for a man undergoing a full-scale identity and spiritual crisis once he retires and his domineering wife dies.

That brings us to Woody Grant, the crotchety so-and-so at the center of Nebraska. When we meet him he is near the end of a largely misspent life. Facing his inevitable and nearing mortality he doesn’t much like what he sees when he reviews his life and where he has landed. He is dealing with many deficits in his old age. His body is falling apart. He walks stiffly, haltingly. His alcoholism has been unaddressed and it contributes to his foggy mind, mood swings, propensity to fall and hurt himself, and to utter hurtful things. He seems to derive no joy or satisfaction from his wife of many years and his two adult sons. He almost regards them as inconvenient reminders of his own failings as a husband and father. On top of all this, he is poor and in no position to leave his family anything like a tangible legacy.

This miserable wretch has seized upon what he believes to be his last chance at assuaging a deep well of shame, guilt, bitterness, and resentment. His mistaken belief there is a sweepstakes prize for him to redeem becomes a search for his own personal redemption or salvation. He desperately wants something, namely a truck, to leave his boys. The true meaning of the road trip he embarks on with his son David is only revealed to us and to his boy along the way and that gradual discovery adds layers of poignancy to the story.

When Woody arrives back in his hometown of Hawthorne, Nebraska word spreads he is on his way to collect a $i million sweepstakes prize. For a few moments he becomes a person of substance in the eyes of his extended family and the town’s other residents. Some family members and one old friend turn vultures and demand they get a share of his windfall as compensation for favors they did or loans they made that were never returned. But there is another side to that story. We find out Woody has a kind heart beneath his gruff exterior, so much so that he’s been known to do favors and to give money away without ever expecting repayment. That has led him to be taken advantage of over the years. Then when the truth gets out Woody has not won anything but has misinterpreted a marketing piece for a confirmation letter of his supposed million in winnings, he is publicly humiliated and made out to be a fool.

For Nebraska I Payne went one step further in distancing himself from commercial considerations by casting as his two leads Bruce Dern and Will Forte, who at first glance form an unlikely combination but in fact play wonderfully off each other. Dern’s acclaimed performance as Woody Grant earned him a Best Actor prize at Cannes and nominations from the Golden Globes and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Saturday Night Live alumnus Forte is triumphant in his first dramatic role as the sympathetic son David. The next largest part belongs to June Squibb, who until this film was a somewhat familiar face if not a household name (she played Nicholson’s wife in Schmidt). Her stellar work in a colorful role as Woody’s piss-and-vinegar wife Kate has brought her the most attention she’s received in a very long and productive career. Arguably, the biggest name in the picture belongs to Stacy Keach, a veteran of film, television, and stage who has little screen time in the picture but makes the most of it in a powerfully indelible turn as the story’s heavy, Ed Pegram. As strong as these performances are Payne did not do his film any box office favors by choosing actors so far off the radar of moviegoers. That is not a criticism, it is simply a fact. At least a dozen more speaking parts are filled by no-name actors, nonprofessional actors, and nonactors, all of whom add great authenticity to the film but whose obscurity hurts rather than helps the marketing cause.

As you will read in the articles that follow Payne is most proud of the casting and locations in Nebraska. These are elements he always takes great care with in any of his films but with this particular film he went the extra mile yet in order to realize the very specific world of the story. Many of the small speaking parts are filled by regular folks – retired farmers and such – who populate the very towns or ones just like them where he shot. He and casting director John Jackson searched long and hard for just the right faces and voices. Similarly, the weatherbeaten, seen-better-times found locations look and feel so right as the homes and pit-stops of the characters that these real locations rather than constructed sets add another layer of verisimilitude.

The choice to populate the film with zero star power ultimately is not the reason the film failed to pull in more of an audience because there are plenty of films that do well with little known, non A-list names, and nonactor finds. No, the real problem with how Nebraska fared had more to do with the perception the marketing campaign for the film imposed on it. The film’s trailers did not communicate the heart and soul of the picture. None of the warmth or depth or populist appeal at its core registered in those clips. Instead, the film was represented as a cold, mean, depressive, rather flimsy sketch concept blown up to fill two hours. Anyone who has seen and appreciated Nebraska will tell you it is far more than that. It is a work replete with deep currents of regret, disappointment, melancholia, rage, nostalgia. and love. Alongside that run streams of humor, sweetness, irony, and slapstick. Then there is the sheer poetic evocation of hauntingly beautiful visuals that turn the wide open flyover terrain, roadside stops, and played-out small towns of Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, and Nebraska into haunting fields of dreams and symbols of neglect. Not to mention centers of quirky, silly, sometimes surreal goings-on.

Plenty of small indie films about similarly unglamorous subject matter have struck a responsive chord with the masses. So what kept Nebraska from resonating the way, say, Juno did or Little Miss Sunshine? No one really knows. If the creatives who make the films and the suits who finance and sell them did, if there was some sure-fire magic formula at their disposal, then every film would be packaged into a box office winner. The truth is some films catch the wave and most don’t and there doesn’t seem to be any reliable rhyme or reason for why some hit and others miss that elusive, always moving wave everyone is after.

It may take a while, but I am quite confident Nebraska will eventually find the large audience it deserves. In my opinion it will be a much viewed and discussed stand-the-test of-time film for its many cinema art merits. As good as Payne’s earlier films have been I believe this to be his finest work to date because it is in my view the fullest expression of his filmmaking talents. Visually, it is a tone poem of the first order and on that basis alone it is a film to be reckoned with. Payne and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael have achieved an expressive black and white palette whose hues perfectly articulate the heavy heart of the story. But Payne also found unobtrusive ways to position the camera and, with editor Kevin Tent, to cut scenes so as to amplify its many moments of humor without ever detracting from its elegiac, soulful mood. Mark Orton’s original music, plus the incidental music used here and there, add more nuances of mood. Payne artfully composed images for the wide screen format he shot in to glean added depth and meaning from the action. Within the same frame he intentionally juxtaposed characters with the stark landscapes, townscapes, and homes they inhabit. Many of these scenes emphasize sadness, stillness and desolation. Irony infuses it all. The result is an ongoing dialogue between people and their environments. Each informs the other and by consequence us.

The filmmaker’s economy of style has never been more evident. He has reached the point of communicating so much with simple brush strokes. Take for instance the way Woody’s harsh childhood experience is encapsulated when the old man and his family visit the abandoned farm house he grew up in. Payne has the camera fluidly glide over the detritus of this once proud home turned wreck and to peak into rooms that carry so much psychic-emotional pain for Woody, who was beaten as a boy. Payne clearly indicates this is a private, anguished, cathartic return for Woody, who has avoided this place and its memories for years.

Or consider that gathering of taciturn men in Woody’s family at his brother’s home in town. Payne arranges the uncles, brothers, sons, nephews, cousins in an American Gothic pose around the TV set, where the men engage in the almost wordless ritualistic viewing of a football game. It is at once a funny and powerful expression of their tribal, tight-lipped bond. A bond more about association by blood than affinity.

Then there are the almost incidental shots of boarded up buildings in town that symbolize and speak to the economic hard times to have befallen so many small towns like the fictional Hawthorne. In a short scene Payne conveys an important way in which the times have changed there and in towns like it when he has Woody visit the auto service station he used to own and he finds the new owners are Spanish-speaking Hispanics. Woody thus personally encounters a demographic shift that has altered the face of his hometown and much of rural Nebraska. No more is made of it then that simple reality and the brief exchange between Woody and the “newcomers,” but it is enough to say that times have moved on and the Hawthorne he knew has evolved in some ways and remained unchanged in others.

 

 

 

 

Perhaps the best example of Payne distilling things down to their simplest, purest, most elemental form is the end sequence when David and Woody are in the truck David has purchased and registered in his father’s name. David, who is at the wheel with Woody beside him, stops the truck on the edge of town and invites Woody to take the wheel and drive down main street in his new rig. What follows is one of the most moving denouements in contemporary American cinema. Woody is granted a rare gift when he accepts the invitation to take a celebratory ride down main street. As the truck slowly passes through town he wins more than any prize money could provide when four people from his past catch sight of him and look at him with a combination of awe, admiration, and surprise. It is a perfect moment in the sun vindication for a beleaguered, bedraggled man who suddenly brims with a sense of confidence and purpose. Woody leaves town on his own terms, his dignity and pride intact, at least for this short interval of time.

What makes that valedictory ride so special is that his sympathetic son David is there to grant him it and to bask in it with him. These two who began the road trip not really knowing each other and often at odds with each other have traveled a journey together that has brought them a measure of acceptance, healing, and peace. David has finally come to understand why his father is the way he is. His fondest desire is realized when he gives Woody that movie-movie opportunity to prove he is not the loser or fool this day. As Woody sits high in the cab of the truck, with David lovingly looking on from the floor, and drives past the artifacts of his past and the denizens of that town, he may as well be a cowboy sitting tall in the saddle of his horse riding into the sunset. He graciously accepts the congratulations of town chatterbox Bernie Bowen. He stares down his former friend Ed Pegram, who now looks the shamed fool. Woody’s heart stirs again for old flame Peg Nagy, whose wistful expression wonders might have been. As he heads out of town Woody says a fond goodbye to Albert, the Grant brother whose favorite pastime is siting beside the road waving at the occupants of passing cars.

Outside of town the truck stops at the bottom of a hill and Woody and David once again exchange places. Doing this out of the view of onlookers preserves Woody’s glorious farewell and signals Woody now accepts his limitations and David’s love for him. With David back behind the wheel and Woody beside him father and son drive off to meet an uncertain future together. Consistent with the way Payne ends all his films, Woody’s last ride reverie does not promise any great turnaround in his life. His problems are still his problems. The fact that that sequence plays out wordlessly and still conveys so much meaning is a testament to the work of Payne and his collaborators in extracting the essence of these scenes through beautifully executed shots that give full weight to glances gestures, postures, and backdrops.

NOTE: To read the rest you’ll have to wait for my new edition to come out.

Drive-By Delight: House forever tied to Alexander Payne’s ‘About Schmidt’ is just home to its residents


Alexander Payne’s cinematic imprint on his hometown and homestate is by now well documented.  With four of his six features made here he’s covered a wide swath of the city and the state.  When a few months ago I got the assignment to do a piece about the family that resides in a house that posed as the home to Jack Nicholson’s character of Warren Schmidt in the Payne film About Schmidt I have to admit I didn’t entirely understand the point, especially in a year dominated by the buzz around the writer-director’s latest film, Nebraska.  But then I got to thinking how Payne’s films have created these artifacts of where he’s filmed, many of which are actual locations that people do business in and live in and interact with every day.  Thus, the following story for Omaha Magazine about the family that lives in the Schmidt house.

 

 

 

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The About Schmidt house

 

Drive-By Delight
House forever tied to Alexander Payne’s ‘About Schmidt’ is just home to its residents

©by Leo Adam Biga
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Originally appeared in Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)

 

Alexander Payne’s new Oscar-nominated film Nebraska is stirring the pot in his home state the way his last film made here, About Schmidt, did in 2002.

That earlier project’s superstar lead, Jack Nicholson, naturally dominated media coverage. Nicholson’s character, the dour Warren Schmidt, lived in the Dundee home at 5402 Izard St. Bess Ogborn owned the house during filming, but the Jill and Mike Bydalek family moved into the home in mid-2003.

“Even years after the movie people would drive by really slow,” says Jill. “Tour buses would pull up. There were people getting out and taking pictures.”

“Every time Payne has a successful movie there’ll be people that show an interest in the house,” says Mike, who practices technology law for Kutak Rock. “The guy has a following. Random people visiting Omaha will, on their way to the airport, detour and drive by.”

The couple, whose children Grace and Jack grew up there, fully expects the same to happen should Nebraska fare well come Oscar time.

“And it’s not just here, it’s a half dozen other places around town,” Mike says, referring to the favorite Midtown spots the filmmaker made part of his Omaha trilogy (Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt).

In a city with few degrees of separation, the Bydaleks claim a connection to another Omaha Payne house. Grace attended a nearby home daycare that served as the residence of the family friend Matthew Broderick’s character hits on in Election.

But because it’s so closely associated with Nicholson’s potent cinema legacy, few other Omaha movie locations have the iconic pull as does the Izard Street house. To capitalize on this intrigue the Omaha YWCA (now the Women’s Center for Advancement) held a Home for the Holidays fundraiser at the three-story, red brick Colonial constructed in 1923.

A largely untouched interior made it the right fit when the filmmaker, location manager John Latenser V, and production designer Jane Stewart scouted it.”We’d searched for the ‘Schmidt House’ for quite some time,” says Latenser, who comes from a long line of architects that designed enduring Omaha public structures. “We knew we wanted Warren Schmidt to live in the Dundee neighborhood. We had scouted nearly 50 houses there, but nearly every one had updated-upgraded interiors. We were looking for a house that had not been updated.”

He says as soon as the team entered the home and saw its vintage wallpaper and original kitchen they knew they’d found the one.

“It was that perfect.”

 

 

 

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Jill and Mike Bydalek

 

 

Bess Ogborn’s daughter, Susan Ogborn, president and CEO of the Food Bank of the Heartland, was there for much of the shoot. She says her family “thoroughly enjoyed the experience” of their house becoming a movie artifact. Her folks moved there in 1964. After the death of her father in 1967, her widowed mother hung onto the place.

“Mother redecorated it in 1971, and other than basic maintenance, that was the way the filmmakers found it. But she would want you to know they moved her furniture out and used set furniture, and that her house was never that dirty or gloomy as it was in the movie. I don’t think she regretted letting them use her home at all. Seeing the house in the film didn’t seem strange, but walking through that set was very odd.”

The Bydaleks removed the wallpaper, redid the kitchen, and made many more renovations while retaining the five-bedroom home’s original integrity.

“It’s a great house,” says Mike. “It’s just as simple as can be, and that’s kind of nice.”

“They don’t make these houses anymore,” says Julie.

The Bydaleks know it will always link them to a slice of pop culture.

“It’s kind of fun to say we live in the About Schmidt house,” says Mike.

As things worked out, the Bydaleks’ daughter, Grace, 18, became the family’s own resident movie star. Acting on stage since childhood, she’s done voice-over work for animated television series, and she portrayed the title role in the Omaha-made film For Love of Amy (2009). During a Carnegie Mellon (Pittsburgh) theater camp, she says she used the Schmidt tie “as my fun fact during my dorm floor ice-breaker,” adding, “People were impressed a girl from Omaha would have a connection with the movies.”

As for Jack, 15, he says “it’s cool as a movie buff to live in a house made famous” by a popular film and its legendary star.

 

 

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