Here is a short profile piece about an Omaha couple whose lives revolve around film and family, Mauro and Christine Fiore. He’s an Oscar-winning cinematographer who works on A-list projects. She’s a costume designer and the producer of an in-development indie feature based on the best-selling novel The Persian Pickle Club. They met on the set of a film they both worked on. They have three children together. Whenever the film Christine is producing ends up shooting, Mauro will light it. That’s keeping it in the family. Mauro is a native of Italy who moved to the States with his family when he was young. Christine is a native Omahan. The couple have made their home in Omaha for the last several years even as Mauro’s career blew up. She and the kids often travel to his far-flung sets. They also travel as a family to his small hometown in Italy, where he has many relatives and where they regard him as a kind of hero and superstar. It may surprise some folks to know that Mauro is one of three Oscar winners living in Omaha. He won his for Avatar. Then there’s recently retired editor Mike Hill, an Omaha native who won his for Apollo 13. And then there’s Omaha native Alexander Payne, who won his writing Oscars for Sideaways and The Descendants. This article never made it into the local magazine it was written for, so I’m publishing it here for the first time.
Omaha couple Mauro and Christine Fiore forge a union based on film and family
©by Leo Adam Biga
The metro’s small but robust cinema community includes Film Streams and the Omaha Film Festival along with several working industry professionals, among them Oscar-winning cinematographer Mauro Fiore (Avatar). He’s among three Academy Award recipients residing here. The others are editor Mike Hill (Apollo 13) and filmmaker Alexander Payne (Sideways, The Descendants).
Fiore’s most recent director of photography feature work came on The Equalizer last summer in Boston, The projected 2015 release reunited him with Antoine Fuqua and Denzel Washington from Training Day.
But Fiore, originally from Italy, isn’t the only film pro in his own household. His wife Christine Vollmer Fiore, a native Nebraskan, is a costume designer and the producer of an in-development feature adaptation of the best seller, The Persian Pickle Club. Mauro’s slated to light it.
The couple actually met in 1997 on an independent picture largely shot in Neb., Love from Ground Zero. At the time each lived in L.A., traveling wherever projects called them. Christine finds it “ironic” the film that brought their itinerant lives together happened in her home state. They settled here after marrying. He regularly goes off to do commercials and features.
They are the parents of three children – Olivia, Tessa and Luca. The Fiores view Neb.’s as a healthy grounding from the hustle, bustle and hype of L.A., where they also have a home.
“We knew we didn’t want to raise kids in L.A.,” Christine says. “It’s kind of nice to be here and have blinders on and not be affected by what’s out there.”
It’s a stable sanctuary the can count on.
“It’s nice to have a firm place and not really worry about Christine when I’m gone because her family’s here,’ Mauro says. “I feel really safe there’s somebody here to support her. I’ve come to really appreciate it because when I’m here it’s all about the family and helping Christine any way I can.”
During his absences Christine runs a tight ship.
“I’m very schedule and routine-oriented,” she says.
She purposely doesn’t make a big deal of his departures.
“It’s kind of no-nonsense, no tear because it’d be too much tough emotionally. It’s like, ‘Dad’s leaving but he’s going to come back and now I need help around the house from all of you.’ Then when Mauro comes back home we still have the same routine. Dinner’s at 5:30. I think it makes it easy for Mauro to kind of slide back in.”
The family visits his far-flung movie locations, such as Puerto Rico.
His Hollywood colleagues are surprised he lives far afield from film industry centers.
“They find it very odd,” he says. “But with Alexander Payne Neb. sort of has a mystique. They appreciate it’s a different way of living, more old fashioned or traditional.”
That normal, laidback lifestyle is what appeals to the Fiores.
“Omaha is manageable,” Christine says. “It’s easy to go to the airport and to the zoo…”
“It’s easy, it’s familiar,” Mauro adds. “We’ve found several friends around the community of schools the kids attend.”
They enjoy, too, how much more house they can afford here. They lived in Hawaiian Village before moving into their present home last year. The ranch-style in Elkhorn sits on a 6-acre lot with a view.
“We really love the property,” Mauro says. “It has a piece of land that stretches out to the river. You don’t really find that too much anymore.”
They appreciate the open floor plan, banks of tall windows and homey features.
He says, “It’s just the uniqueness of the place and the fact we can really grow into this and make it our home.”
“It’s not like a builder’s model home,” Christine says. “It’s different, it has personality.”
They’re now updating the downstairs to accommodate a craft room for the sewing Christine and the kids do.
In her spare time she wears her producer hat trying to get Persian Pickle Club financed. Setting up a film is a new experience for them.
“It’s been a great learning process to see the inner workings because I never really knew what it took. I’m never on that side of it,” he says.
He admires how “Christine’s done it all from here – figuring out ways to push it along.”
They’re admittedly anxious to start production because making films is what they know best.
Mauro eagerly shares his expertise. He photographed an Omaha Film Festival promo. He’s served as a panelist-presenter at OFF and Film Streams. The couple support the opera, the symphony, Kaneko and other local arts-cultural offerings they find on par with anywhere.
Follow her project on Facebook or at http://www.thepersianpickleclub.com/.
Review his credits on the Internet Movie Data Base at http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0278475/.
Native Nebraskans’ own many Hollywood-made-good stories. One of the best belongs to Gabrielle Union, who sort of fell into acting by way of modeling and hasn’t looked back since in building a significant career in television and film that shows no signs of slowing down and that in fact appears to be getting richer and deeper with time. Here’s a preview of my new story about her for The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/). It will hit newsstands and the paper’s website Dec. 10-11. The Being Mary Jane star talks about her popular BET series, the hot new Chris Rock film Top Five she has a supporting role in, an upcoming Lifetime movie she produced, the impactful documentary series Half the Sky she participated in. Now married to longtime boyfriend NBA superstar Dwyane Wade, she is loving being a step-mother in addiiton to being a doting daughter and sister. You can find on my blog my earlier stories about Gabrielle, whom I’ve been covering since the early 2000s.
Gabrielle Union having it all between her own series, new film, producing, marriage and family
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/)
My, how time flies. It seems only yesterday Omaha’s own Gabrielle Monique Union first caught our attention on the big screen with her scene-stealing turn as the diva rival to Kirsten Dunst in the wickedly funny high school cheerleader comedy Bring It On.
Hard to believe that was 15 years ago.
Now 42 and firmly established as a Black Hollywood star, red carpet fashion plate and natural beauty spokesperson, Union’s at a career apex few native Nebraskans ever reach in the business. In 2014 alone she starred in her own hit BET series, Being Mary Jane, co-starred in the successful film Think Like a Man Too and produced a Lifetime movie. Oh, and on a personal note she married longtime boyfriend, NBA star baller Dwyane Wade in an American royals-style wedding.
A definite presence at her hubby’s Miami Heat games, she caused a buzz when she jokingly interrupted a recent live post-game interview Fox Sports did with him. He’d returned from the injury list to score 27.
“It was OK,” she deadpanned about his performance to the bemused sideline reporter and to viewers, while styling a black fedora over her long black locks to match her basic black dress. “I mean, a hamstring pull, wow, to come back with 27 points. We’re going to talk about the free throws (he was 5 for 9) later. But he did good for an old geezer.”
Wade appeared to take the upstaging and teasing in stride.
Gabrielle and her superstar husband Dwyane Wade
She’s lately been propping her new film, the acclaimed Top Five from Chris Rock. which has opened to strong box-office.
“I shot that movie last summer in New York right after we did Think Like a Man Too,” she says.
Originally titled Finally Famous, its story centers on Rock’s character Andre Allen, a standup comic-turned actor who, ala Joel McCrea’s idealistic director in the Preston Sturges classic Sullivan’s Travels comes unhinged after going all serious. With Allen’s pretentious new film a dud, he feels dislocated from his true identity. The recovering addict feels pressure, too, from a reality TV crew covering him and his celeb fiance Erica, played by Union, as their planned televised wedding draws near. Then there’s his instant relationship with a reporter, Chelsea (Rosario Dawson), with whom he finds In the space of a few hours more truth than the surreal media circus his life’s become.
“It’s really the story of the upside and the downside of fame and chasing fame,” says Union, who sports blonde hair, big glasses and gaudy bling in the role. “The story follows a day in the life of Chris’ character and it just happens to be when he’s got to kind of look at some hard truths and decide how does he really want to live and why that is and he kind of gets lost in himself.
“It sounds really deep and at times I think it very much is but it’s also really, really funny.”
Tracy Morgan and Cedric the Entertainer co-star and Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandler and Whoopie Goldberg make cameos.
Despite going way back Union and Rock never worked together before the project.
“I mean, Black Hollywood is pretty small, so we all kind of run into each other and know each other and definitely Chris and I do. With him being such a huge Knicks fan I’ve run into him many times over the years (at Heat games). We have a lot of mutual friends as well,” says Union, who among basketball wives is the queen bee now that Eva Longoria and San Antonio Spurs star Tony Parker have split.
Seeing Rock at work on the set gave Union a new appreciation for him.
“Chris was not only acting but he wrote it and directed it as well, so watching him put all those hats on was amazing and very inspiring. But honestly I felt bad for the man because it’s like he never got off work. But he handled it all very, very well.”
She says the the spirit of Rock’s free-wheeling, anything-goes standup act infuses the film, which has received glowing reviews since its September Toronto International Film Festival premiere.
“I think people are going to be surprised. It’s a different kind of role for him, even though it might seem playing a standup comedian would be easy for him. But I really watched him blossom as an actor and as a director as well on the set.”
She feels he brought out in her emotional notes and layers she hadn’t accessed before on screen.
“Sometimes when the leader’s been where you’ve been as an actor they know the right things to ask, they know how to finesse a situation, they know how to get the best out of you as an actor because they’ve been an actor. That’s really what Chris was able to bring to me that was unique from other directors. He had a different perspective of each scene I found very, very helpful. He also challenged me in a way other directors haven’t.”
Just as Rock didn’t need to research the capricious nature of fame, neither did Union. They both live it. The heat of celebrity for her is more intense than ever now that she and Wade are married. Just last summer, while the couple honeymooned, nude pictures of her and other female celebs were hacked and posted online. Where she’s taken a diplomatic stance about intrusions of privacy, she’s gone on the offensive this time. She penned a Cosmopolitan essay equating the pandering and profiteering of private nude images to sex crimes and called out feminist groups for not protesting their release. “The silence has been deafening,” she recently told Meredith Vieira, adding that celebs like her are subject to “victim-shaming,” something she can’t abide having survived rape as a college student.
Much like the characters she plays, Union can be bold in speaking her mind. Mary Jane Paul is very close to her in that way. In season one the trials and tribulations of her title character – a successful single black female struggling to balance work demands and romance issues – became the stuff of countless Tweets, chats, blog posts and Facebook shares. After a 5 million viewership pilot debut and consistently strong ratings over its 12-episode run, BET recently renewed the series. Season two premieres February 3.
“I couldn’t ask for a better reception to be honest,” Union says. “We knew we did great work but it doesn’t always translate and to have the audience respond so well and to basically blow up social media every week was awesome.”
Mary Jane’s the latest in a long line of strong, smart, confident characters played by Union, who is a women’s rights advocate.
University of Nebraska at Omaha dean and professor of communication Gail F. Baker says, “Gabrielle Union occupies a unique position among African-American women in media – one she has carved out for herself. She has ‘quietly’ established an exceptional career across myriad platforms – movies, television, advertising – while playing a smart and independent woman. Union brings a special blend of savvy and sophistication to each role. She¹s a trailblazer on many fronts.”
Those qualities are precisely the ones Union says her mother, Theresa Glass Union, instilled in her and her two sisters.
“Having three highly successful daughters is a testament to the job she did,” she says.
Union enjoys how Mary Jane’s story speaks to her own life and the lives of many women she knows. Just like her character, Union knows what it’s like dealing with family pressures and expectations, the ticking biological clock, the dating scene, romantic commitment and standing firm to do the work and to follow the path you want, not what others want. Making the show relevant means a lot to her.
“I’m proud of it,” she says. “It’s the most I’ve ever worked in my life being the star of the show and having lots of other responsibilities but I love it, and I love doing it. I love the writing, I love the direction, I love how it looks stylistically. I’m really pleased.
“For us being their (BET’s) first original dramatic series we’re all sort of learning together and it’s been a great partnership. It’s not my way or the highway, it’s very much a collaborative effort and BET’s been pretty patient in launching this as their first dramatic series. So I think we’ve all kind of handled it well.”
She’s glad to portray a character and front a series that transcend black women stereotypes, which she feels have limited opportunities for female artists of color on screen and behind the camera She acknowledges “we’ve seen improvements,” noting the breakout success of Shonda Rhimes, producer-creator-writer of mega-hits Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice and Scandal. But, she says, “it goes in waves,” adding, “Like right now we’ve got a lot of women heading up their own shows” – herself, Kerry Washington, Viola Davis, Jada Pinkett Smith, Taraji Henson – “so it’s improving, but if any of these shows fail then next year we’ll kind of be back at the drawing board.”
Mary Jane marks a major step for Union. For starters, its powerhouse creators Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil (The Game) developed it for her. Now that she and that husband-wife producing team have a popular series together they’re likely to collaborate again. Next, the show gives Union her first successful starring platform on TV after the misfire of her previous (ABC) series Night Stalker, in which she co-starred with Stuart Townsend, and her recurring roles in the equally short-lived Life and Flash Forward.
Then there’s the fact Union clearly carries this series. Its success rides almost entirely on her performance and on the writing.
“It’s tough to turn out 12 episodes of exciting, engaging material and we absolutely have done that. It’s been looking good and I’m pleased with the writing for sure.”
Mara Brock and Salim Akil with Gabrielle
The key to any episodic series enduring is developing different, deeper shades of its main characters. Union’s satisfied she’s getting to plumb the depths of one complex sister in Mary Jane, whose tough as nails exterior covers a fragile interior.
“The writers have been absolutely brilliant at pushing her buttons. They give me a lot of different places to go with the character. She’s definitely not Johnny-One-Note, which I’m excited about.”
Now that Union’s proven she can hold an audience week after week network and studio execs may be more willing to have her head-up a future series or movie. That’s important because until Mary Jane it’d been a while since she got top billing. She’s at an age, too, when actresses get passed over for younger women, though her youthful, glam looks – she’s fronted several beauty brands – are an asset.
It doesn’t hurt being part of a power black couple who by making it official in August consolidated their mad pop culture currency. During her series hiatus Union and Wade said their I-dos at a lush outdoor ceremony in Miami that saw John Legend perform. A much-seen photo released by the couple, who began seriously dating in 2009, pictured them with his two sons from his first marriage, Zaire and Zion, and a nephew, Dahveon, he’s been raising. They looked every bit a family.
Wade authored the 2012 book, A Father First: How My Life Became Bigger Than Basketball. He supports numerous programs for kids and families. Union wrote the foreword to Hill Harper’s 2008 book Letters to a Young Sister: Define Your Destiny. With both acutely conscious of their role model status, their party days may not be completely behind them but when not working these two are domestics focused on family.
Union, Wade and theri instant family at the couple’s wedding
After taking a time-out in their relationship a year ago or so, the couple worked it out and things culminated in the wedding Gabrielle’s mother describes as “wonderful, beautiful and poignant – full of both loving personalities,” adding, “I was happy that Gabrielle was happy.” Long before the marriage, Theresa saw her daughter’s maternal instincts kick-in:,
“Gabrielle has embraced the role of the adult female in Dwyane’s household to his two sons and to his nephew.” Now that Nicki, as her family calls her, is married, Theresa says, “I feel she has taken to parenting as the capable person I know her to be.”
Union had no children with her ex, former NFL player Chris Howard. Union’s hinted she and Wade plan having a child together.
Besides being a wife and mom, she’s branched out into producing. Her first project as an executive producer is the upcoming Lifetime movie With This Ring. Jill Scott, Eve and Regina Hall play three single friends who vow to get hitched after attending the wedding of a mutual friend. The movie’s adapted from the book The Vow, which Union optioned five years ago and sold to Sony Pictures Television for Lifetime.
After a long wait to get it made, she found the producing role fulfilling.
“I mean, to finally get things off the ground is very satisfying. Being able to be in a position where you can put talented people to work is incredibly satisfying. It’s just a different struggle as a producer than it is as an actor. It’s a different conversation. I’m still learning, I’m a novice, so I’m trying to say less and learn more.”
Union anticipates developing more projects, perhaps ones to star in. She’s only prepared to wear so many hats behind the camera though.
“I absolutely don’t want to direct. I want to produce though for sure. I’m definitely going to be up for opportunities that challenge me and inspire me and tickle my fancy. So maybe a year from now after we’re (Mary Jane) syndicated I can think about trying my hand at something else.”
Besides being well-liked in the industry, Union’s well-connected. In addition to her association with the Akils, she’s aligned herself with another major industry player, Tyler Perry, two of whose franchise films, Daddy’s Little Girls and Good Deeds, she’s appeared in. Her best friend in the business is actress Sanaa Lathan, Then there are all the ensemble pieces she’s been in with Morris Chestnut, Regina Hall, Taraji Henson and Kevin Hart from the Think Like a Man movies.
Union says it’s a bonus “anytime you can work with your friends and we’ve been friends, the vast majority of the cast, like for well over a decade. We just have a lot of fun. To get paid to do what we want and to hang together, well, it’s like stealing from the studio.”
In 2012 she stretched herself to serve as a celebrity advocate for the multi-platform PBS documentary series Half the Sky that examined the oppression of girls and women in developing nations.
The title came from the best selling book by New York Times journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sherly WuDunn.
Union in the documentary Half the Sky
Union spent two weeks with Kristof and executive producer and director Maro Chermayeff for a segment set in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. The actress got close with two girls there, Duyen and Nhi, both of whom contend with barriers to try and further their education.
“Their stories are amazing and their overcoming adversity kind of puts everything in perspective,” says Union.
The actress got especially close to Nhi, whose father forced her to sell lottery tickets, a time consuming job that interfered with her education. Union came away inspired by “the perseverance of these young girls, who move hell and high water to get an education. If that means paying for it themselves, they pay for it themselves, if that means living away from their families they do that.”
She’s discovered that her segment made an impression on people and she leaves no doubt the impact it made on her.
“When people come up to you you never know what part of your work kind of resonates with them or that they connect with. But I’m always pleasantly surprised when people ask me about Half the Sky. They’re usually interested in if I know whatever became of any of the subjects. Since I left Vietnam Dwyane and I have sponsored Nhi’s education. I know you’re not supposed to get personally involved with the subjects but we couldn’t help ourselves. There was no way I could leave Nhi there with her dad, so Dwyane and I pay for her schooling.
“She’s a bright girl and she’s doing well, she’s thriving. We’re happy about that.”
Union’s passion for children extends to the new siblings she gained a few years ago when her mother adopted three children a relative could not care for herself. Keira (8), Miyonna (6) and Amari (4) are being raised by Union’s mother, who recently moved with the kids from Omaha to Arizona, where one of Gabrielle’s sisters lives and where more Union family members have since moved. Gabrielle’s enjoying the new family dynamic.
“It’s like we’re starting over and I’ve kind of come back to be in big sister mode again, trying to get another set of young people and mold them and try to provide as much as we can. It’s kind of like we’re going back in time and we get to do it over and fix some of the mistakes we made in the past. My mom very much believes in we are our brother’s keeper and you’re only as strong as your weakest link, and she refuses to let our family down. Where other people might say that’s the next man’s responsibility my mom feels like our family is our responsibility and you try to do your best for your family.”
Gabrielle and her mother
Union admits she enjoys spoiling her little sisters and brother.
“The gifts arrive and then my mom kind of filters them out, not as they arrive but sort of as good behavior happens, so they’re not fully getting all of my spoiling. They’re great kids, I really love them.”
About her daughter’s generosity, Theresa says, “She does a lot for us as a family. She has smanaged to make the birthdays for each child special. My daughter gave me the Kentucky Derby one year as a birthday present. That is the most marvelous party in the world.”
Now that her mother’s no longer living in Omaha, it’s an open question when Gabrielle might next make it back for the biennial Native Omaha Days or the annual Bryant-Fisher family reunion and its Dozens of Cousins. Union’s ridden in the Omaha Days parade. Union and Wade showing up, as they’ve done, would cause a stir. She says no matter how famous they get though it doesn’t change how they roll.
“Not to us, maybe for other people who aren’t expecting to see us at a restaurant or something. I’m lucky that my family’s really down to earth. They know that when we come to Omaha we don’t want to be treated any differently than any of the other cousins. I think it’s more how other people perceive us. But for us it’s just nice to get out and see family and catch up. We’re definitely not trying to make spectacles of ourselves by any stretch.”
What do Oscar-winning filmmaker Alexander Payne and WBO world lightweight boxing champion Terence “Bud” Crawford have in common?
What do Oscar-winning filmmaker Alexander Payne and WBO world lightweight boxing champion Terence “Bud” Crawford have in common?
These newsmakers share the same hometown of Omaha, Neb. but more than that they share an unflinching loyalty to their roots. Payne could elect to or be swayed to make films anywhere but he repeatedly comes back to Omaha and greater Neb. to create his acclaimed works, often resisting studio efforts to have him shoot elsewhere. Crawford doesn’t get to call the shots about where he fights but for his first two title defenses he did convince Top Rank and HBO that Omaha could and would support a world title card. Besides, it’s tradition that a world champion gets to defend his title on his own home turf. And when there was talk his first title defense might move across the river to Council Bluffs, he wasn’t having it. Now that he’s been proven right that Omaha is a legitimate market for big-time fights and is a formidable hometown advantage for him, he will undoubtedly press to fight here over and over again and opponents will certainly resist coming into his own backyard. As he moves up a division and the stakes get higher, there may come a time when the CenturyLink and Omaha can’t provide the same pay-day that a Las Vegas and one of its mega venues can. Whether Omaha could ever become a main event host for fighters other than Crawford is an open question. The same holds true for whether Neb. could ever attract a major feature film to fix its entire shooting schedule here outside a Payne project. The only way that will happen, it appears, is if the state enacts far more liberal tax incentives for moviemakers than it currently offers. But that is neither here nor there, as Crawford’s done right by Omaha and his adoring fans have reciprocated, just as Payne has done right by his home state and his fellow Nebraskans have responded in kind.
The Crawford parallel to Payne goes even deeper. Just as Payne maintains a signifcant presence here, living part of the year in his downtown condo, serving on the board of Film Streams and bringing in world class film figures for special events, Crawford lives year-round in Omaha except when he goes off to train in Colorado and he owns and operates a boxing gym here, the B&B Boxing Academy, that’s open to anyone. Just as Payne looks to grow the film culture here Crawford hopes to grow the boxing scene and each has made major strides in those areas. A major Hollywood film besides one of his own still hasn’t come to shoot here, though he’s lobbied the state legislature to give studios and filmmakers the incentives they need. No world-class fighter has emerged here yer as a protege of Crawford’s or as someone showing promise to be “next Bud Crawford.” Similarly, “the next Alexander Payne” hasn’t announced him or herself yet here.
Another way in which these two Omaha figures – each so different on the surface, wth one the product of white privilege and the other the product of Omaha’s poor inner city – are similar is that each has been embraced and endorsed by the Omaha establishment. They’ve been honored with the keys to the city, feated at banquets and preened over by the media. When Mayor Stothert showed up for a photo op with Bud at his pre-Thanksgiving turkey giveaway and Warren Buffett appeared at his most recent title defense, you knew that Crawford had made it.
I don’t know if Payne and Crawford have met, but I would enjpy the intersection of two different yet not so different Omaha’s meeting. At the end of the day, after all, each is in a segment of show business or entertainment. Each is a professional who has reached world class stature in his profession. Each has worked and sacrificed for his craft and been rewarded for it.
I have been covering Payne for going on 20 years, I have been covering Crawford for two years. I admire both men for having come so far with their passion. I congratulated Payne on his latest achievement, the film Nebraska, one in a long line of filmic successes. And I now say congrats to Terence “Bud” Crawford on defending his WBO world lightweight boxing title in his hometown of Omaha for the second time in five months. The 11,000-plus fans on hand Saturday night at the CenturyLink arena were there to support their own and they roared and cheered and gave shout-outs to Bud, who’s become a much beloved folk hero here. Feeding off their energy he displayed a full boxing arsenal in thoroughly dominating a very tough challenger in Ray Beltran. Every time the pressing Beltran tried to trap Bud along the ropes or in the corners, the champ used his superior quikness and agility to turn the tables on Beltran with sharp counterpunching, By the last few rounds Bud was doing the attacking, thwarting the few rallies Beltran mounted and frustrating his foe at every turn. It was an impressive boxing display and further proof that the talk about Bud being pound for pound one of the best fighters in the world today is no hype. He’s the real deal and almost certainly the best prizefighter to ever come of Nebraska. As I articulated above, the fact that he remains rooted to his community and brings his success back home reminds me of what filmmaker Alexander Payne does in another arena, filmmaking.
The main event turned into a love-in and as much love as the crowd gave to one of their own Bud gave it right back. It’s a beautiful thing that’s happening in what can be a brutal sport and a heartless game.
Look for my new story about Bud in the Jan./Feb. 2015 issue of Omaha Magazine. I’ll have something in a upcoming issue of The Reader as well. Meanwhile, you can read my previous stories about Bud at these links:
You can find excerpts of my many stories about Alexander Payne on my blog. You can also buy my book, “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film,” which is a collection of my extensive journalism about the artist and his work. You can preview the book at, www.facebook.com/LeoAdamBiga,
Nebraska Film Currents
©by Leo Adam Biga
Monday night’s David O. Russell-Alexander Payne cinema summit got me to thinking about past film royalty visits to Nebraska. In the annals of Neb. film history, precious few notable Hollywood figures have come here to shoot or to make public appearances or for that matter to make private appearances. I don’t claim to have an exhaustive history of these cinema drop-ins, but the ones that come to mind, include:
Much of the MGM 1938 classic film Boys Town was shot in Boys Town and greater Omaha, which brought director Norman Taurog and stars Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney here, and all of them, along with studio czars, came for the world premiere here; Read about it at-
Cecil B. DeMille, Barbara Stanwyck, Joel McCrea and other principals from the 1939 film Union Pacifc came for the world premiere here.
Robert Taylor hunted at Ducklore Lodge and may have been a guest at the Storz Mansion on Farnam Street.
James Stewart was also a guest at Storz Mansion parties.
In the mid-1950s Henry Fonda and Dorothy McGuire, both at their peak fame, came to do performances of The Country Girl as a benefit to fund construction of the new Omaha Community Playhouse – each was an OCP alum – and Henry’s daughter Jane was part of the cast as well; Henry Fonda came back many times to support the Playhouse and the Stuhr Museum.
In 1965 Betty Grable starred in the national touring company production of Hello, Dolly at the Omaha Music Hall. Another national tour of Dolly starred Carol Channing at the Orpheum Theater.
In 1967 Otto Preminger was one of two guests of honor at a Creighton University film festival – the other was experimental filmmaker Stan Brackhage.
A year later Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Shirley Knight, James Caan and Robert Duvall came for the last few weeks shooting on the road movie, The Rain People, which Coppola wrote and directed; Lucas was along for the ride to document the making of the film; in the ensuing years Robert Duvall returned to Neb. several times to make the documentary We’re Not the Jet Set about the rambunctious Ogallala-area ranch-rodeo family, the Petersons; Read about all this at-
Jane Fonda, who did part of her growing up in Omaha, came for the regional premiere of On Golden Pond at the Orpheum Theater; some 30 years later she sat where David O. Russell did for an interview Alexander Payne did with her at the Holland.
Marlon Brando paid a visit to his birthplace and hometown in the 1980s and did an awkward but entertaining television interview with Peter Citron.
Joan Micklin Silver (Hester Street, Crossing Delancey) came back to her home state to accept a Sheldon Film Theater tribute in Lincoln; read one of my many pieces on Joan at-
Peter Fonda, who’s been known to pass through unannounced, picked up the same award from the Sheldon.
Jack Nicholson, Shirley MacLaine, Debra Winger and Jeff Daniels were in and around Lincoln making the James Brooks film Terms of Endearment; Winger and then Neb. Governor Bob Kerrey became romantically involved and were frequently seen together in Lincoln and Omaha.
Too Wong Foo filmed here with Wesley Snipes, Patrick Swayze, and John Leguizamo in and out of drag.
Sean Penn filmed The Indian Runner in and around Plattsmouth with principal cast members Viggo Mortensen, David Morse, Patricia Arquette, Charles Bronson, Sandy Dennis, Dennis Hopper and Co.; Penn returned as an actor for The Assassination of Richard Nixon written by Omaha native Kevin Kennedy.
Alexander Payne has directed four of his six features here and those projects have brought a gallery of notables to Omaha and thereabouts; Citizen Ruth (Laura Dern, Kurtwood Smith, Mary Kay Place, Kelly Preston, Swoosie Kurtz, Burt Reynolds, Tippie Hedren, Kenneth Mars); Election (Matthew Broderick, Reese Witherspoon); About Schmidt (Jack Nicholson, Kathy Bates); Nebraska (Bruce Dern, Will Forte, Stacy Keach); Buy my book about Payne and his work at-
Payne has brought Laura Dern, Debra Winger, Steven Soderbergh, Jane Fonda, the principal cast of Nebraska and most recently David O. Russell as the special guest for the Film Streams Feature event; Read my pieces about Payne’s latest Film Streams cinema conversations at-
Bruce Crawford has actually hosted more cinema legends in Omaha than Payne, having brought Ray Harryhausen, Janet Leigh, Patricia Neal, John Landis,Debbie Reynolds, Shirley Jones, Patty Duke and most recently Tippi Hedren; Read some of my interviews with these legends at-https://leoadambiga.wordpress.com/…/09/06/unforgettable-patricia-n…/ and https://leoadambiga.wordpress.com/…/hollywood-legend-debbi…/
Bruce Crawford with Debbie Reynolds
Gabrielle Union visits her hometown of Omaha now and again but never for any film function; Read two of my profiles of her at-
Yolonda Ross (Go for Sisters) has been getting back more frequently to her shared hometown of Omaha for film related events; Read my profiles of her at-
Nick Nolte made a surprise appearance at his Omaha Westside High School class reunion a few years ago.
Nick Fackler worked with Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn, among others, on his Lovely, Still made in his hometown of Omaha; Read two of my stories about Nick and Lovely, Still at-
EXTRAS: I have interviewed several more film notables who have passed through Nebraska, including Robert Duvall, James Caan, Shirley Knight, Laura Dern, Bruce Dern, Bill Cosby, Mickey Rooney, Danny Glover, Swoosie Kurtz, Marg Helgenberger, Dick Cavett and Jon Jost; my inteviews with them can all be found on my blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, with the exception of Rooney and Helgenberger.
And I have interviewed all three living Oscar winners who reside here: Mauro Fiore, Mike Hill and Alexander Payne, whom I’ve interviewed dozens of times. My pieces about these film figures are also on my blog.
Masters David O. Russell and Alexander Payne matched wits at Film Streams Feature VI event
©by Leo Adam Biga
NOTE: My story about the parralel careers of Payne and Russell that appeared in advance of Feature VI can be found on this blog.
The smart banter between David O. Russell and Alexander Payne at last night’s Film Streams Feature VI event in Omaha gave a glimpse into why these two cinema masters have enjoyed a long friendship. They are both brilliant in their own way. Highly educated and well-read, yet deeply in touch with gut instincts. They both come from ethnic American backgrounds. The both had lengthy experiences abroad. They’re both steeped in classic cinema. As good as they are at creating images, the written word is everything for them. They both extract great performances from their actors.
They are both urbane men with dry wits. But where Payne seems a bit more guarded or stiff, at least in public settings like these, Russell seems somewhat looser. Where Payne is a very well grounded and considered person, Russell comes off as more idiosyncratic and certainly more neurotic, almost as a virile variant of the middle-aged Woody Allen.
Their nearly parallel careers give them a certain relationship by proximity since each emerged in the mid-1990s as new filmmakers to be watched and each has experienced similar fast ascents, followed by uneasy hiatuses, giving way to recent strong runs that have cemented their places in the top ranks of writer-directors. As they discussed in their conversation last night and as is readily evident in their work, each is a humanistic storyteller. What wasn’t discussed and what is also clearly seen in their work is that time and time again each returns to themes of people in conflict with society or their family or the group. Their protagonists are all at war with someone or something and on a search for meaning or redemption or revenge or getting-what’s-mine. Even with their careers on a major roll, they seem to think they’ve just figured out who they are as filmmakers and to suggest that the best is yet to come, though they also acknowledge that nothing is guaranteed in the fickle business of making films.
Of all the Film Streams Feature events (I’ve seen five of the six), this was the most spontaneous of these annual gatherings when Payne or sometimes Kurt Andersen engages a special film guest in conversation before a live audience at the Holland Performing Arts Center. Much of the spontaneity this time had to do with the fact that Payne, as he indicated in his opening remarks, did no preparation for the event. That’s because he and Russell go back 15 years or so and they do know each other and their work well enough to just be real and go with the flow up on stage. Part of it was just two old friends ccomparing notes. Payne asked probing questions about Russell’s motivations, inspirations, methodologies, and the like. Sometimes Russell returned the favor to ask Payne questions. Before Payne could even get to any of his questions though Russell, as he did several times about various things on his mind, went off on a riff about Omaha and Payne’s “secret tunnel to Omaha,” where he said Payne is “like a super cinema hero.” Russell described how his appearance in Omaha came to be. It seems that Russell was being badgered by the organizer of the Capri Film Festival in Italy to appear there. He’d been a guest at Capri before but he neither had the time nor inclination to go again, and so he thought Payne might be a good fill-in for him. Russell said he broached the option with Payne but Payne said he was no more interested in Capri than Russell. Then Payne switched everything around by asking Russell to be the guest of honor at Feature VI. One favor had been replaced by another. Russell said upon arriving here he observed all “the levels of plaids and pastels” and “kind-faced Midwestern people,” prompting him to tell Payne, “I felt like I was in one of your movies.” In a short but intense series of stops around the city Russell got to see the home of Omaha Steaks, which it turns out was a kick for him because he said he’s been ordering steaks from there for years for his father and now that Russell has discovered the company’s products extend well beyond steaks he’s going to ply his old man with seafood and desserts. “I bet he won’t see that coming,” he deadpanned. Then he went off on a weird but hilarious description of visitng the offices of husband-and-wife architects Michael and Laura Alley, the co-chairs for the event, and how at one point the Alleys and the Simons from Omaha Steaks were sitting, posed-like, in a glass booth that reminded him of sculptures in an “art installation.”
Russell also referred to Payne’s apartment at the Paxton Manor as “your very flat, very spacious prairie home.”
Last but not least he opined about his instant romance with the Jackson St. Books store in the Old Market, where he said he knew upon entering the place “I’m going to do some damage in there.” He said he picked up several things for friends and then he turned to Payne to say, “And I got you something. I’m going to save it for the end, because that’s showmanship.”
There was an extended discussion about, as Payne put it, “How do we search for ourselves through the films we make?” Russell, who earlier said, “I have a very childlike nature,” answered that he’s come to realize, “I’m a romantic.” He said amidst the every day anguish and horror of life being lived he must find meaning in the journey and discover passion for the pleasures of life, whether true love or fine wine or good food or engaging conversation or interesting people. “Existential despair is a privilege. I’ve learned that lesson.” He asserted his interest in making movies, not films, that touch people’s hearts. “I’ll carry that Frank Capra banner all the way.”
He referred to the one misstep in his filmography, I Heart Huckabees, which has actually become a cult classic, as variously “my mid-life crisis movie” and “the train wreck movie.” He said he made it at a time when he was too analytical in his approach to his art. “You can overthink something. That’s not a good thing. I just think I overthought it.” He said now that he’s in his 50s he’s in a better place then he had been for a while. “I realized more who I was at 17 than when I was 40.” He said at age 40 he was in a kind of “captivity.” Now that he’s rediscovered himself in his 50s, he said, “I wouldn’t trade it for anything – the wisdom.”
Payne described how he was already an admirer of Russell’s work in Flirting with Disaster but then was astonished by what Russell achieved in Three Kings, when Russell moved from the intimate family comedy-dramas of his first two films to the large scale, epic masculine action of an adventure movie set amidst desert warfare. Russell said, “There’s kind of a beauty to making a movie on location.” Payne inquired if Russell was intimidated taking on such a big, sprawling project, and Russell replied, “I think all good endeavors are frightening.”
Payne said he was blown away again when Russell made the leap from I Heart Huckabees to The Fighter. Payne said that at the time of The Fighter’s release he actually ran into Russell and told him, “Since when did you become a master filmmaker?” Payne spoke with admiration for the “very aggressive and sophisticated” way Russell uses hand-held cameras in-tight to create intimacy and immediacy with his characters and for the way he captures the visceral sense of movement and action in his films. Russell said it took time for him to arrive at how he wanted to use Steadicam and to achieve great depth of focus. He acknowledged that much of his maturation as a filmmaker is because he never stops learning or striving to be better. “It’s a great thing to learn your craft,” he said.
Russell described what he’s after in making his storytelling urgent for audiences: “I want you to be propelled and grabbed by the throat.”
He referred to going through a “ponderous period” of filmmaking when his shooting schedules were longer and his decision-making process was more protracted. After gaining more clarity he said, “I became very lean. Thirty-three days on The Fighter.” The same for Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle. Payne expressed envy at how fast and effective Russell can work. Russell said he now has the mind set for his work as – “I approach it like a gun is at my head and that this is the last chance I have to get it right. We must feel grateful for the privilege of what we get to do.”
Russell also spoke candidly about the diffcult period he went through in that six-year hiatus between Huckabees and The Fighter. His personal life was full of challenges then and professionally he coulnd’t get a project off the ground. He sort of lost himself then and had to find himself again. His confidence, too. His ego took a hit as he went from the top of studios’ lists to mid-way down those same lists. “I was at my lowest time. I had been humbled. That can happen quickly in Hollywood. I don’t need to learn that lesson again.” He described how Mark Wahlberg, whom he helped make a star, returned the favor when he asked Russell to direct The Fighter after Darren Aronofsky left the project.
Payne observed how much Russell loves his characters and actors. He asked if Russell ever writes specificially for certain actors and Russell said he didn’t used to but that he increasingly does, especially as he’s come to work with a company of actors from film to film to film, acknowledging that Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale have become muses whose gifts he loves to explore and push to new levels. “I do feel a kinship and a connection to them.” He said the rich canvas of life these actors flesh out in his films is all around us in the people we encounter every day. “”Simply being in love with a character is almost enough reason to make a movie.” He said his own colorful Italian-Russian extended family of people who love each other and hate each other “is a gold mine I haven’t even begin to draw from” but that he clearly intends to mine.
Payne said, “Making a film is an extension of my life. Once we’re shooting our raw material is human behavior.” Truth in behavior and speech is what Payne and Russell go after and are very good at getting right.
Russell flipped it around and asked Payne, “What about you?” (meaning, does Payne write for certain actors) and Payne said, “Rarely, I write more literary characters,” adding though that he wrote with Jack Nicholson in mind for About Schmidt and George Clooney in mind for The Descendants.
In taking some questions audience members wrote out, Russell responded how he feels about remakes, saying, “I’m allergic to remakes.” As to whether there are any films he wished he had made, he promptly answered, “The Godfather,” adding, “The best pornography to me is to watch The Godfather and pretend that I made it.”
Nesr the end of the program Russell, clearly eager to unveil to us, the audience, and to Payne, his host and friend, the surprises he had in store, asked for stagehands to bring out a newly pressed album with music from American Hustle and a phonograph to play it on. “It’s a like the Letterman show now,” he cracked, as Payne undid the plastic sheathing around the album and placed the disc ona turntable and set the needle on the Duke Ellington and Electic Light Orchestra tracks, respectively. “Now it’s entertaining,” Russell observed. “Look how sexy it is,” he said, referring to the vinyl he and Payne help up at one point . Later, when the charactersitc scratches sounded, Russell said, “That’s psrt of the fun – that sound. That’s the fun of a record.”
Then Russell presented Payne with two books, one an early edition of the Sinclair Lewis satire, Babbit, and the other a Phelps County (Neb.) History in two volumes.
The evening wrapped by Payne asking Russell what we can expect next from him and the filmmaker mentioned the project Joy, a true story to star Jennifer Lawrence that is to get underway in late 2015 and a family story he’s developing as well. ” And for you Mr. Payne?” Russell asked. Payne confirmed what was recently reported in the media – that he is “an exploratory period for Downsizing, his big budget “science-fictiony” project with Matt Damon slated to be the lead, at least on a handshake deal, and with Alec Baldwin on board in a part as well. But as Payne cautioned, nothing is greenlit and there are dozens of more parts to cast and much more financing to secure. If it should come together, Payne would make Downsizing in late 2016, and the locations are yet to be finalized, too. You can bet that Payne will want to shoot at least part of it in Neb., but as he stated while he’s been ‘victorious so far” in getting the four films he wanted to make here made here “I may not be”in the future. Russell practically chided state legislators here for not offering tax credits to make it more attractive for Hollywood to make projects here . He said in no uncertain terms that film production “does create jobs for truck drivers and for carpenters and it does provide added business for restaurants and hotels.” It is a fight Payne has been waging for years in his home state.
Payne thanked Russell for being his guest and the gracious Russell offered, “It was a gift to me.”
New American Cinema auteurs, colleagues and friends David O. Russell and Alexander Payne to headline Feature VI
Omaha’s film culture is richer for having Alexander Payne as a native son who cares about growing the cinema landscape in his hometown. His commitment to this cultivation and nuturing is perhaps best evidenced by the active hand he takes with the annual Feature fundraiser for Film Streams, the Omaha art cinema he supports. Because he can, each year he asks another world-class film figure to join him on stage as his special guest for a cinema conversation. In the past, it’s been Laura Dern, Debra Winger, Steven Soderbergh, Jane Fonda, and the principal cast of Nebraska. This year it’s his fellow auteur David O. Russell (Three Kings, The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle). The Nov. 10 event at the Holland Performing Arts Center will add to the string of impressive film confabs he’s made happen. This is an especially appealing event because Payne and Russell, each of whom is a writer-directos, have enjoyed parallel careers as leaders of the New American Cinema and the Indiewood movement. Their respective bodies of work the last 15 years rank arguably as the best of any American filmmakers in that period. Given that they’re in their early 50s and given that both feel as though they’re only just now coming into their own as complete filmmakers, they could very well continue leading the vanguard of cinema in this country for another decade or two. My story for The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/) previewing the Film Streams event is largely drawn from an interview I did with Russell.
New American Cinema auteurs, colleagues and friends David O. Russell and Alexander Payne to headline Feature VI
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/)
Alexander Payne is in a position to ask any world class film figure to be his guest of honor at the Film Streams Feature event, the art cinema’s annual big fund raiser. Laura Dern, Debra Winger, Steven Soderbergh, Jane Fonda and the principal cast of Nebraska have all come at his invitation to appear on stage at the Holland Performing Arts Center.
For the Monday, Nov. 10 Feature VI Payne will engage writer-director David O. Russell in conversation. As fellow auteur leaders in the vanguard of New American Cinema they make a matched set. Since emerging in the mid-1990s their careers have followed similar paths. Each is on a roll with their last several pics, all critically acclaimed and awards-laden.
Both infuse an urgent humanity in their work that revolves around the various social units people aggregate in. Each delights in distilling the emotionally-charged, seriocomic conflicts that play out among groups – where the people driving you crazy are the same people you love.
Payne and Russell were right in the mix of edgy American indie filmmakers to arrive in the 1990s. Kathryn Bigelow, Steven Soderbergh, Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino led the way. Then a whole new wave followed in their wake, including Russell, Payne, Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson, Spike Jonze and Darren Aronofsky. Russell and Payne announced themselves as talents to be watched in close order. Russell broke first with the incest comedy Spanking the Monkey in 1994. In 1996 Russell caused a stir with Flirting with Disaster and Payne with his abortion comedy Citizen Ruth. In ’99, both garnered attention: Russell with Three Kings and Payne with Election.
The 2000s have seen each evolve into bankable independents whose work spans audiences and resists trends. Russell’s recent run of The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle parallels Payne’s own run of About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants and Nebraska.
A repertory series of Russell works continues at Film Streams through November.
Film Streams executive director Rachel Jacobson says the Feature event gives attendees “the amazing opportunity to listen in on a conversation between two of the world’s most celebrated contemporary directors.” She adds, “It’s interesting how David and Alexander’s careers have paralleled one another. Both started out with independent films on ridiculously taboo subjects. They both premiered their first features at the Sundance Film Festival during the renaissance of American independent film.” She says Russell’s recent films “show an artist at the peak of his form.” A major difference in approach, she notes, is that unlike Payne Russell works with a consistent ensemble of actors. “I love how that consistency creates a world unto itself.”
In the same way Payne feels he’s just now coming into his own as a filmmaker, Russell does, too. Both had long periods in between pics: six years passed from Payne’s Sideways to Descendants and from Russell’s I Heart Huckabees to The Fighter. Each went through a divorce in that period. But where Payne was busy producing and writing, Russell got out of his head and in touch with his heart.
“I’m grateful things have become clearer to me and in some ways I feel it’s springtime for me and that’s a very beautiful thing because you know that could easily not be the case,” Russell says. “I think it’s hard in any endeavor, especially in the art of storytelling, to stay fresh. You always have to find new wells of inspiration and I understand many of the greats who have not. We can look back and say, Well, they did their great works and then they kind of couldn’t find it again. So I feel like I’ve found renewed clarity and heart for certain kinds of stories.
“It’s still very hard to do them well. I still have to try every moment like it’s my last opportunity on Earth. The only way it can come out as well as I hope it will is to act like it could very easily not come out that way every step of the way, which makes for a lot work.”
Like the best of their New Wave contemporaries Russell and Payne didn’t just make a splash and then disappear. Rather, they reestablish themselves as relevant storytellers with something to say again and again. The way they’ve asserted their strong, singular visions and voices is reminiscent of what Hal Ashby, Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese did in the 1970s and 1980s.
Russell and Payne have mostly weathered the volatile film industry that eventually envelopes everyone. Russell’s one commercial flop, Huckabees, enjoys a cult following. The same for Payne’s Citizen Ruth and Election. Nebraska’s sure to find a growing audience as more people discover it via the home and digital markets.
All of which is to say these two filmmakers at the top of their game should have much to talk about. They’re each steeled in classic cinema from the 1970s and before. Given they are from the same generation of writer-directors and leaders of Indiewood, it’s no surprise they’ve found themselves in the same circles.
Russell says, “We’ve done Q-and-As and we’ve had a lot of fun with them,” including a CineFamily session available on Vimeo.
The two once chummed around. The new millennium had just dawned and they were identified as rising cinema stars and it only made sense they would fall in with each other.
“We started being on each other’s radars socially and professionally in 1999,” Payne says, “when he had Three Kings and I had Election. 1999 was like a debutante’s ball year of independent directors. Wes Anderson’s Rushmore had come out the end of ’98. I had Election, David had Three Kings. Kimberly Peirce had Boys Don’t Cry. It was a year when this younger crop of directors were having some degree of mainstream success. And I adored Three Kings. Wow. if he could make a jump from Flirting with Disaster, a madcap family comedy, to a very beautifully directed film like Three Kings that’s when I knew he had a depth of talent.
“I’m always in favor of someone who wants to do comic human films. His films are always intelligent, entertaining – a wonderful combination of humanity and comic showmanship. We became friends and I’ve always supported his work. I admire him and I’m just so proud and thrilled to be hosting him at Film Streams.”
And Russell’s returned the favor.
“Yes, and it’s been really been fun, I think we’ve both enjoyed that,” Russell says. “When Alexander had The Descendants come out I was really happy to sit by his side at a couple events, chat with him, have a glass of wine, cheer him on and tell him how much I love the picture. And he was very kind to me likewise about the last three pictures.”
But it was when the two men first came to the fore, they were particularly close.
“We sort of hung out a bit together in that time around 2000,” Russell confirms. “I remember the Museum of Modern Art began this series for filmmakers of our generation and I felt very squeamish about doing it. I said I’ll only do it if you name the series Works in Progress because I consider myself a work in progress and they said OK and they started this series where I talked about my films with my actors and stuff.”
That inaugural 2002 event was called Work in Progress: An Evening with David O. Russell.
“Alexander came, Wes Anderson came, Kimberly Peirce came, Sofia Coppola came. A lot of actors came. I’m probably forgetting some other filmmakers who were there. There we were all together and it was a great feeling of camaraderie.
“And then the next years I ended up helping tap them (other filmmakers) to do it, so the next year Alexander Payne did it (that 2003 event was called A Work in Progress; The Films of Alexander Payne). And then Sofia did it and it kind of went from there.”
Russell, who as a young man waited tables at MOMA events, grew up in Larchmont, New York in a Russian-Italian American household. His father worked for publishing giant Simon and Schuster. His mother was a homemaker and political activist.
Much like Payne he was steeped in movies and literature.
“I grew up watching movies. I would go to my local movie theater in the next town and I’d watch a movie with movie stars and so I am interested in movies and movie stars that kind of grab me and don’t let me go and leave me indelibly moved. It’s like a wonderful record I can go back and play again in part or in whole.”
Asked whose work principally influenced him then and he rattles off the names Frank Capra, Coppola and Scorsese, adding with a laugh, “There, I named every Italian-American.”
Like Payne he initially went to college not to study film but to broaden his mind, At Amherst College in Mass, he studied English under novelist Robert Stone and religion under professor Robert Thurman, father of actress Uma Thurman.
“I always wanted to be a writer – a novelist or a short fiction writer – since I was about 10 years old because my dad worked at Simon and Schuster. I actually kept doing it into my 20s, you know, and I found it very hard. Meanwhile, I would memorize sections of movies as sort of a way of learning narrative and telling stories.”
He committed to memory sections of It’s a Wonderful Life and Chinatown, for example.
Again, like Payne, he went abroad as a young man, in his case to teach English in Nicaragua. Once back in the States he moved to Boston, where he did social justice work.
“I worked in low income areas, working for tenants rights, also teaching English as a second language.”
Unlike Payne, Russell never went to film school. His film immersion came haunting video stores and revival houses and learning the rudiments of the medium as a production assistant on the PBS television series Smithsonian World in Washington, D.C. Ever more feeling the pull of film, he made a documentary short. Boston to Panama (1985), that examined the lives of immigrant workers.
“Then I started to crossover thinking maybe I wanted to become a (narrative) filmmaker, which seemed like kind of a nutty idea because I’d never thought of that before as much as I loved movies.”
His narrative debut, the comedy short Bingo Inferno (1987) showed at the Sundance Film Festival. His next, the short Hairway to the Stars (1991), played Sundance and festivals in Seattle and London.
His feature debut, Spanking the Monkey, was a micro-budget production financed with private funding and grants. The dark humored Oedipal story concerns a young man marooned at home with his convalescing mother and the awkward longings they express. So, from the start, the family dynamic, dysfunctional and all, took precedence.
“I very much find community or family to be sort of an engine, a rocket engine, that leads to all avenues of humanity. All I know is that I think it works and it gets really intense and personal and complicated and funny and heartbreaking very quickly, so I love all of that. You know, I also love romance as I’ve discovered in my last three films.”
Family though is where it’s at for him. It may be a mother and son breaking taboos (Monkey), an extended family letting it all hang out (Flirting), U.S, Army soldiers searching for a fortune (Three Kings), a boxing clan’s ups and downs (The Fighter), a mentally ill son reconnecting with his father (Silver Linings) or a motley crew pulling a sting operation (American Hustle).
“In terms of my interests I know that I’m interested in romance and I know it includes a great intensity of predicaments that carries from one moment of the film to the next, meaning that it has an intensity to it and a propulsiveness to it that feels enveloping. And you have to maybe go back and watch it again or parts of it again to regather, but there’s never a moment where we are intentionally crafting the story that way.
“I mean, it’s nice to know what kind of movies you want to make and what kind of characters you want to render and what kind of actors you want to work with. And then I have a great love of music, a great love of camera movement that’s become a particular way of doing things that I’m still trying to learn how to make better. But at least it’s very clear when you know what path your on.”
Payne admires that Russell has “kept his own voice throughout them all,” adding, “Some of the same elements you see in Flirting with Disaster you see also in The Fighter, Silver Linings and American Hustle. His sense of dialogue and how he gets the camera in very close so that you’re standing with those characters or talking with them somehow. None of that has changed.”
Payne also likes how Russell balances the “larger circumstances” his characters find themselves in yet remains focused on the “eccentric details” of those situations and the personalities involved.
Russell says his own family’s strong personalities and rich heritage form a great template for him to overlay on the stories he tells.
“There’s a whole human opera of mine that extends back to Italy and Russia, to the Bronx and Brooklyn. There’s this tapestry of people. It’s a goldmine to me of rhythm, of music, of life, of romance, of food, of terrible things happening, of wonderful things happening, of traditions being passed, traditions being broken. All the things I care very deeply about in telling stories and as a person.
“I think I learned a great deal from my family before I even realized it. It’s sort of a great gift that you don’t realize, that I didn’t realize I had until much later in my career. Although it was obvious right at the beginning because I wrote that claustrophobic kind of quasi-horror $80,000 dollar trapped-in-the-house-with-your-mother movie (Monkey), which is almost like a horror movie, but it’s also funny, and that was all based on personal experiences I embroidered in great detail. There was a summer where my mother had trouble with her health. She had a car crash, And so that gave birth to that story.”
Flirting is another film where his real life resonated with his invention.
“There were moments when I saw my family the way we see the family in it, going through those chapters.”
He says Three Kings was “a departure” from the biological family thread and instead subverts the band of brothers conceit. He says Huckabees was “an attempt to create a parallel society little family of people but I don’t think my focus was where it ought to be in there,” adding, “Yet I never cease to be surprised by the young people, including Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings, Hustle)), who name that among their favorites of mine, which is baffling to me.
“And then the last three (films) are very much family-centered.”
The most personal of these to him is Silver Linings. Adapted from a novel, Russell emotionally connected with the characters because like the protagonist his own son Matt has bipolar disorder. Matt, who’s also had learning issues, has attended the Devereux Glenholme School in Conn., which serves young adults with special needs. Russell has been “very involved” at the school,” serving on a board. “I’m very invested in helping that school, plus the next experience for those kids who need to find pathways into work or higher education.”
Another educational institution he’s involved with is Ghetto Film School, a New York City public high school whose curriculum is cinema-based.
“It’s a very strong school in the Bronx. It became a crown jewel of Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s public school system in New York, It’s exciting that people are learning how to tell narrative and to tell stories. I always like to go talk to the students and teachers about what they’re doing. I’ve been on the board for 12 years. I’ve helped bring a lot of filmmakers and actors to go talk to them: Spike Jonze, Catherine Hardwick, Amy Adams. We have to get Alexander to go see them.”
Russell says 20th Century Fox co-COO James Murdoch “was so smitten by the project” he helped open an L.A. branch this past summer. Russell was there for its launch.
The filmmaker would be happy if a future script he wants to direct comes from a graduate. The same would be true of Alexander Payne. But the fact is each director usually writes his own scripts. Payne often says writing is the most onerous part of his creative process. Russell agrees but like Payne he sees it as a necessary chore to produce raw material for his films.
“I’m just coming out of a very intense writing period where I’ve been writing 15 hours a day for the last six months. I literally become a shut in. I went to some event for my younger son’s school and I just really felt like a-fish-out-of-water. I’d almost forgotten how to be out and about because your world becomes very narrow. It’s a very strange way to live because you’re basically living 15 hours a day in this narrative. You’re living in a movie all day, and that’s the only way I can do it to get it done. I have to make myself sit there all that time.
“So like Alexander it’s also my least favorite part of the process but you have to do it. You know you can’t get the iron ore or the diamonds out of the ground unless you do the back breaking work of digging into the ground, which is really difficult.”
Both filmmakers are weighing what their next projects will be. While Payne is reportedly trying to revive Downsizing, the project he abandoned after the financial crisis hit in 2008, Russell says, “There’s two stories we may be going into preproduction on soon. Those are the two things I’ve been working feverishly on for the last eight nine months. One is a large original story I don’t want to get into too much detail about but it involves family.”
The other, titled Joy, is based on the true story of Joy Mangano. The storyline reads something like Erin Brockovich: a struggling single mother of three surprises everyone when she finds success as an inventor and entrepreneur. Jennifer Lawrence is tabbed to star.
Russell says he’s eager for his visit here. “I can’t wait to come to Omaha. I’ve been reading about all the famous cinema people who are from Nebraska.” He hopes to find sites commemorating Marlon Brando and Fred Astaire, for example, but outside a street sign named for the former and a ballroom named for the latter, he’ll be disappointed.
He’ll be searching, too, for a local fix to feed his passion for video stores, which he feels should be preserved as cultural “hubs and meccas.” He helped create a nonprofit foundation for Santa Monica’s iconic Vidiots. “I’m trying to get the studios – and I’ve reached out to Alexander as well – to turn it into a place where they can feature the libraries of each studio and people can learn about cinema.”
The Feature event with Russell and Payne is at 7 p.m. For tickets and rep series details, visit http://www.filmstreams.org.